Art of the Matter

Reflections of an Author at Work

Category: City Soul

Essence of a city and the life it creates for you.

Delhi’s Belly

India-Gate-DelhiThere’s something about New Delhi.

Besides the India Gate and the Red Fort, the greedy shopping experiences and gastronomic delights, there is something else: Prized Arrogance (PA). So, what is it about the capital city of India with its PA that awes and repels us in equal measure? For some, it is the lewd Punjabi aggression. For others, it is the scary tales of abusing women. For me, it is the fascinating greenery amidst which No.10 Racecourse Road turns its nose at the ghettos of Purani Dilli (Old Delhi).

For many of my southern friends, Delhi is about the so-called Prima Donnas of South-Ex, who may very well become totally irrelevant once they open their mouths to speak. Evidence of over-confidence without substance, perhaps – or simply, PA at its best!

Yet, PA or not, in winter, if you happen to be in Delhi, you are likely to be charmed. The crisp cold air is complemented by smartly dressed Delhites in their leather jackets, knee high boots and woolen berets. Very European! While you are dwelling on that pretty picture, throw in a driver who doubles up as a tour guide, giving a running commentary in Hindi. But, despite everything, the PA never really leaves the scene – and you can’t really ignore it.

Imagine this: We are returning to the hotel after a long day of meetings. The luxurious homeliness of The Lalit at Connaught Place beckons. All we’d like to do is really eat and sleep – and prepare for another long day of more meetings. Wazir Singh, our reluctant driver, is quiet, in keeping with our low energy levels. As we halt a few meters short of one of the traffic junctions, one of the many cars itching to get going, a white Maruti Swift on our left side wakes up. The car door opens, and a tall, fair, handsome man with spiky hair decides to step out. No harm done really, except his car’s door blatantly bangs against ours. As if for effect, he tests how far the door can open again, banging our car again, before he steps out.

Outraged, my colleague demands to know why the man was behaving this way. Wazir Singh gives the door-banger an equally outraged look, but remains mute. I chip in softly, saying the man was indeed shameless and must be told to behave, and also possibly taught not to step out between traffic lanes. Wazir Singh still remains silent. The door-banger lights a cigarette which he takes out of the boot of the Swift, and then he readies to hop back again into his car. While getting in, he opens his car door again, wide and hard, banging again against our car. Wazir Singh apparently has had enough this time, so he rolls down the window pane and says to the man: “Please watch out for the door.”

The man hurls the choicest of abuses and then, for effect, again bangs the car door against our Innova. The traffic lights turn to green and he speeds away. Wazir Singh sighs and says, “People are like this only in Delhi.”

Kolkata, Kolkata!

Coffee House KolkataWhen you first breathed the Communist air of hope and brotherhood, you were in your mother’s womb. You made a pledge unto me then…that you would never forget my ideals nor stop trying to make them your own.  You would enjoy the revelries of Durga Puja and Diwali with equal fervor. You would continue to cherish the old world charms, including the fatherly Ambassador taxis. I am Kolkata.

Through the gullies of Burrabazaar and the posh lanes of Ballygunge Phari, my soul found its multitudinous Avatars just like you did during your childhood years, mingling with neighbors of various castes and communities from all over India.

Sometimes you played in the well-manicured parks of Auckland Square and Minto Park with children you didn’t know, sometimes you admired the sunset at Outram Ghat with friends. Every time your cousins visited from other countries, you brought them to see the Victoria Memorial or the Indian Museum – as if their tribute would have to be still paid to Her Majesty of England for 300 years of British Rule. I am Kolkata.

Sometimes the lethargy of the city got into your bones also, and you preferred to spend hours at the college canteen just like your uncles did at the Coffee House on College Street. At other times, you were content roaming in New Market with your mother, bargaining hard for great deals. Not a single day went by during your college days at St. Xavier’s without a visit to Park Street, dotted and knotted with bars and restaurants, now a bit tired and rusty. But your favorite stop was always Flury’s with its fifth generation of Butter Cream Pastries and Chicken Patties. I am Kolkata.

You loved me and I loved you – without any conditions or notions. But then you had to grow up, leaving your teens behind and eager to explore the other worlds. Even the candlelight dinners at Peter Cat or the charm of the Academy of Fine Arts hosting art exhibitions or the spicy Jhalmuri and pungent Phuchkas at Victoria Maidan couldn’t lure you back. Marxism, which was your favorite subject at the college canteen debates, took a backseat. You no longer understood the philosophy of the Naxalites and wondered why there wasn’t ever going to be any new jobs or industries here. I am Kolkata.

Our love affair ended on a bitter note. I didn’t want you to leave,  but you did anyway, and chose not to return for many years. My streets didn’t want to change nor the colors of my springs or winters. I still felt proud of the aged Bihari rickshaw puller, who earned hardly a couple of hundreds of rupees every day.

I still loved the dancing fountains with their newly installed colored halogen lights at t the Victoria Memorial. I still embraced the beautiful sunrise over the Howrah Bridge. I still liked that tiny earthen tumbler of chai being offered for just a rupee. True, now there are some new shopping malls and fancy public transportation, but I still wake up more relaxed than other cities. I am in no hurry. I am Kolkata.

Your return was a surprise to me – and how do you think I felt? With your fancy clothes, your foreign accent and new money, all of which is against the ideology of our combined destiny, you came to see me again, but no humility. Am I not your favorite love story then? Could there be another one like me?

Now you love New York City I hear, but does it have a rich heritage like mine or the precious memories of your childhood? Have you forgotten the best of the Raj that I shared with you and still hold dear…including the innumerable Clubs and horse-drawn carriages? I am Kolkata.

Where have you been all these years, my beloved? The soul which you have today belongs to me, you know, full of all the poetry and romance, love and passion, which people want from you today.  Your education went beyond Shelley and Keats, and your social acclimatization wasn’t all about Deen Mistry and Lillete Dubey’s famous English plays at Kala Mandir. You have as much of Tagore in your blood as I have a loving tendency to give sanctuary to Bangladeshis. I am Kolkata. Accept it. Your love affair with me can never end. Because I am YOU.

Of Bengalis And Brotherhood

Goddess DurgaIt is hard to be a Bengali during Durga Puja if like me one has left the warm cockles of Bengal’s heart 18 years ago.  Come Durga Puja, and one is forced to reincarnate one’s universally appealing persona into native Bengali’s.  Like Tenualosa Ilisha (Elish Fish), the stalwarts of Bengal expect the natives to abandon the sea of anonymity (meaning other States of residence), swim upstream to spawn the eggs of Bengali Brotherhood in Kolkata, and partake of the ‘real’ thing…resplendent pandals, goddesses, gluttony, and including strangers.

Outside Bengal, it is a Herculean task.  If you must imprint these un-replicable experiences, then start early.  Seek out all the Bengalis in your neighborhood; count the number of Chatterjees, Deys and Gangulis in your office; and, if you are the sort to take it a bit far, reconnect with estranged friends (non-Bengalis) who have friends (Bengalis) affiliated to one of the few Bengali clubs or committees in the city.  However, your diverse attempts to swim upstream and regain your ‘Bengaliness’ could leave you exhausted.

To retain visibility like a fish out of water, float between Indira Park, Keyes High School, Banjara Hills and Kalibari in your finery at Hyderabad. Make a fat donation to the biggest samiti. Use colloquial phrases – “Dada, ektoo jaagaa deben?”  meaning “Sir, could you give me some space?” Greet grim Bengali brothers and sisters. You want to be ‘one’ with the community. Still, you go unnoticed, unappreciated and unanswered.  Self-doubts…Is this a Chinese New Year celebration and am I deciphering the riddles on lanterns in Beijing?

Suddenly, after hours in the cue for a splattering of afternoon bhog, an epiphany occurs.  Surprise, surprise! Every Bengali becomes an ‘outsider’ in local Bengali communities when out of Bengal. It is Bijoya Dashami.  Good triumphs over evil?  Involuntarily, you peer into the mirror.  At least, you still resemble an arty Bengali.

Grass Is Greener On The Other Side

grass-is-greenerHave you ever gone on a wild goose chase? No, I am not talking of chasing a man for the upcoming New Year Eve’s bash. I mean, really chasing something while believing it to be something else? I had that experience one time when I decided to move from Bengaluru to Chennai. I was sold on a small little boutique agency run by a deceptively hip husband-wife couple who called themselves ‘reputation managers’. When I joined the little outfit in a run-down-apartment-office in RA Puram on my first day there, I was ready to flee — even at the risk of losing the doubled salary. Frankly, I was stumped.

Here I had nurtured my grand vision of learning everything there was to learn about managing reputation and moving out of a deadly paralyzing corporate communication job into something new and contemporary…but all I had ended up doing was writing emails on an age-old desktop, watching a bunch of foolish young people pitching stories to the media, and dealing with verbal abuse from the CEO.

The wild goose, after all, wasn’t so wild. It was a PR Agency in Reputation Management’s clothing, where the CEO didn’t quite care to manage his own reputation. What a traumatic experience to eat such humble pie! – tripled by leaving behind idyllic Bengaluru after a decade of living there, and landing in gritty Chennai to realize that life was not at all a beach.

Whether you like it or not, at some point in your life, you will be drawn to the ‘greener grass’ on the other side. You will imagine you are destined for a ‘different’ profession where you will shine like a beacon if only you could get a chance. Some not-so-well-wishers will encourage you to turn your Class V hobby into a money-churning machine (when they are actually, secretly, tickled by your lack of genius).

Words of empirical caution here: There is nothing known as ‘greener grass’. There is no reputation to manage without PR. And, there is no point chasing anything or anyone that you do not have an aptitude for in this life. Sometimes, going with the tested could be slow and tiring… but it could open new doors. Remember the tortoise, though. Don’t take a nap along the way. Keep moving.

Tech Block

Tech BlockAccept it. We have ignored the signs. A month ago, celebrated writer Paulo Coelho tweeted: Life is like Twitter. Follow. Unfollow. Block.  True! People ARE “blocking” officially nowadays – thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and even Blackberry Messenger. I knew a woman who had changed her Facebook profile seven times in the past two years. I asked her if she had gone mad. She replied, “I hate blocking people. I would rather pretend I deleted my profile.” After representing herself by different names and images (flower, cartoon, Ferrari, feather, cat, tee shirt slogan), funnily enough, her last avatar was that of a telescope which would supposedly discourage people from finding her due to its un-attractiveness.

In case of badgering mothers-in-law, unfaithful boyfriends, boorish bosses and unwelcome guests, go right ahead and click on that block tab because Life is too short. Don’t waste it on mending fences with people who don’t care even if you agree to turn cartwheels in their birthday parties as part of the act. For free. In that case, the block option of Life could be fantastic just like Twitter. Just don’t post messages like these in your environment: “Wife blew up precious money on a bunch of hobbies that didn’t make her look or feel any better”, or “I am happiest when my boyfriend’s wife is out of town”, or “The best part of my life only includes beer, sex and X-Box” (the last one, especially if your girlfriend is expecting you to propose next week.)

Make the most of what matters today…even if it’s a girlfriend who wants you to call everyday (at least she cares!). Retain your right to choose – people or experiences. But, be careful. On Twitter, you can add people back to your preferred list and follow them again. In real Life, you may not get another chance to “unblock” people you need again. And, the last thing you want to do is spend the rest of your life justifying that on Twitter.

To Be Or Not To Be

Tree on Ellis IslandEver since Shakespeare penned the fatal words, “To be, or not to be…” the majority of Earth’s citizens have been haunted by them. Life is no longer an experience to be lived — it is a potpourri of questions that need to be answered now. Will Obama win the elections? Will I lose weight before my next birthday? Will my ex call me? Will Oprah visit the Bachchans next year? Will my next book merit a fatwa? Do these questions form the basis of our moral and intellectual stimulation and growth today other than books, films, people, sex and religion? Now that is another darned question.

Do we really need to know everything about everything, all the time? Even our good old Earth, which breathes the uncertain air of its own polluted existence doesn’t know if we are going to continue loading it with more chaos or love. And, much as we would like to believe, the Universe for sure doesn’t have definitive plans to keep all the planets in the same line-up as we discovered decades ago from the awesome picture of the Solar System in our science books.

Do we have to be certain about things or people, else die? Naively, we actually believe we can find bliss if we get answers to every single thing that bothers us. This whole need of wanting to find life-settling answers began before we discovered the steam engine, computer, World Wide Web, and iCloud. Our forefathers began to equate answers with IQ. Over time, IQ got replaced by a hunger for information which could wield great power aka Julian Assange.

In this glorious tech age, our pathological need for answers is confused with our love for Google. We all love Google because we would certainly die without having the option of randomly typing words into the search box to find out about stuff – more answers!

But, mostly, the stuff is just stuff, and of no further value than the random reference material from our college days. We can’t even accept our normal human train of thoughts, unsteady emotions, natural reactions, actions and stimuli without analyzing them to death with our buddy, Google. Everything we do — believing, thinking, cheating, working, feeling, eating, loving, hating, avoiding, building, hyperventilating or even writing — seems to be subject to what Google’s content managers have to create about our unique lives’ unique experiences.

By now, the myriad follies of our yesteryear should have already taught us that uncertainty is the only certainty and, answers aren’t ‘people’. It is okay to accept, that we DON’T know. We can all take a deep breath and shift the focus from our current national tragedy, starring Salman Rushdie and the-book-that-shall-not-be-named, to our inner selves. We can even group-hug for unconsciously embracing uncertainty every morning when we step out of our homes in a blissful state of mind. Then, we can blow a kiss to our illogically ‘certain’ instinct, which keeps us alive through the day, so that we can watch our favorite TV show.

And when it boils down to the status of our current love affair, giving rise to the question, “To be or not to be,” I would say, just let it be.

Uncle Sam’s Tongue

Statue-of-LibertyEnglish language, from England, is embarrassed to death in India. What’s official now is a hotchpotch of English, and what I call, “Americanese”. In 1994, the Indian telecom policy launched the ‘American Corn’ era. A slew of BPOs and KPOs started to cash in on fine English accents of educated Indians like you and me. And, lo and behold, Amerlish got conceived.

My tryst with pure Americanese began in 2004 at an American KPO called OfficeTiger. Until then, my world had been simple. I wrote perfectly crafted, grammatically correct, complete sentences in English. During childhood, I had even excelled in elocution contests at school (testimony to my penchant for perfect English diction). Americanese altered that – and even tampered with my value systems. Instead of saying, “I am fine”, I responded, “I am good” – whether I had been morally good or not that week.

As English speaking natives, we have become inarticulate in our efforts to adopt the fashionable Americanese twang, while preserving our English education. Star World soaps can’t help us get it right like Active English on Tata Sky can for British English. Now, Americans comment on our “interesting” accent, when actually they might be doubling up with laughter. Our expressions are bedazzled with American idioms, which our childhood friends (now settled in America) don’t approve. But, who are we to debate whether Amerlish is to be our new Indian-International standard of communication or not?

When I visited Kolkata last year, I half expected the Howrah Bridge to metamorphose right before my eyes into the Golden Gate Bridge that spans the San Francisco Bay. Having visited San Francisco a couple of times, I meekly acknowledge how ridiculous that expectation is. Now, if only all of us could also Americanize our skin-tones with fairness creams to match our accents. But we aren’t too far behind. The whole of India is keener to adopt fairness than a new accent.


Age-aging agonyLet’s face it. No one can stay young and sprightly forever. No, not even Madonna, though the rumored 100 laps-a-day in the pool must help. My mother’s uneducated aunt had found an authentic way to stay younger almost 25 years ago. She simply got herself a fake birth certificate after her husband’s death that allowed her to work in his place at a lucrative Government job until the ripe old age of 72.

So, at 40, when you are single, attractive and intelligent; you are still skiing elegantly through the lighter side of the moon. You live your life on your own terms (which is a good thing!), and you still continue to raise ire and praise in the same breath. In short, you are a force to reckon with.

Then, one fine day, you get stumped. A bunch of pacifying articles and self-actualizing stories jettison to your mailbox – “40’s are the new 30’s. Make up now for lost time. Wear a backless dress. Find a boyfriend. Climb mountains. Start modelling. Take art classes. Learn to taste wine. Find your inner self.” Eh, you ask?

Age was just a number to me. Only my uglier women friends in their 30’s now preach fashion to me; peers talk more about kids’ college funds instead of a visit to the spa; and, the weighing scales have become somewhat uncooperative. But, who needs Oprah or Chopra to convince naysayers that knowing how to surf the Net isn’t really about finding one’s inner self? Age – aging – agony… gag words that should be laid to rest. Rise, gorgeous women in your 40’s! Sprightly or not, what is perennially yours is the wisdom to know that you don’t need to climb mountains or join a wine tasting club to prove that you still rock.