Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tony of Bandra

“Tony has been a refreshing cool drink this summer” – commented a Spanish nun after reading an article on “self-liberation” by Tony De Mello – the avant-garde Jesuit priest from Bandra. Why wouldn’t she – here’s a sample of a Tony gem : A parish priest was seen often talking to a comely woman, to the great scandal of his congregation who decided to report the matter to the Bishop. After a dressing down by his superior the priest said “ Your Excellency – I have always held that it’s better to talk to a pretty woman with one’s thoughts set on God than to pray to God with one’s thoughts fixed on a pretty woman“. The priest could well have been Tony himself !!

But, Joseph Ratzinger, then the Cardinal of Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (later ordained as Pope Benedict XV) was not amused. He wrote “ in certain passages… one notices a progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian Faith” and decreed that, the passages “were incompatible with the Catholic faith and could cause great harm”.

Luckily this edict came much after his demise in 1987, otherwise he stood the grave risk of being de-frocked and expelled from the order. So, many of his books are still available today with the “statutory warning” – (these books) “were written in a multi-religious context to help the followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists”. But Tony himself had always prefaced his books with the cautionary advice, “even if you read the stories in this book for entertainment there is no guarantee that an occasional story will not slip through your defenses and explode when you least expect it”

I am not sure, which of the 3 above-mentioned categories – religious, agnostic or atheist, your tiresome blogger belongs (probably a bit of all three, you might say) but being an inveterate spiritual junkie, he was introduced to Tony’s writings some years back by a Japanese monk of the Ramakrishna order – a long time acolyte of Swami Ranganathanda.

In his later years, perhaps finding Bombay too constraining for his liberal disposition, Tony had moved to Lonavala where he used to hold lectures and workshops at the Stanis Laus compound in Khandala. Here, he built the Sadhana Institute but died within 6 months of its inauguration.

Spending the long weekend of Holi & Easter in quiet retreat with the parents, at Amitabh’s house in Khandala, I decided to visit the Institute – something I had been meaning to do ever since I started coming to Khandala with the Guptas. We were received by an ancient looking Italian Father – dark circles under his eyes, dressed in a shirt and pajama, an old associate of Tony. “There is nothing much to show-around” he lamented, “a personality like Tony happens only once in many years, you cannot recreate his presence”. The place is now used as a training center and hold courses on various psycho-spiritual subjects – including Vipassana, Group Therapy & Counseling Workshops. The brochure states “ our programmes are personally demanding and challenging – yet greatly transforming. They are not meant for those who are seeking rest and relaxation”. That clearly disqualifies yours truly for admission.

Though my primary allegiance lies with the Salesians – being a Don Bosco alumnus – I have always admired the Jesuits for the room they allow to members of the order for pursuing their own academic or spiritual calling – often living outside the physical boundaries of an institution. It is not surprising, therefore, that they have produced many extra-ordinary scholars and educationists who have shaped the minds of some of the best thought leaders of our time. In my limited interactions, I saw Fr Goreaux at St Xavier’s Calcutta, a direct pupil of Einstein, Fr Daitien – a Sanskrit and Bengali scholar who wrote regularly in ‘Desh’ and the Rosario brothers (Horace & Gerry ) – who were pioneers of Mass Comm education in the country. Many of them, like Fr Horace – whom I knew well, occasionally incurred the reprimand of the Congregation but that didn’t curb their free spirit. As Fr Joe Saldanha – uncle of my friend Ajit, another libertine Jesuit – had once told me, this strong mooring may be ascribed to their practice of compulsory annual retreats. So, like Tony, after their little wanderings, they all return to their 'spiritual home' – the church.

Tony believed that – there is a hunger for the spiritual is spreading across the world. But, it is a hunger with very special characteristics – which cannot be satisfied by preaching from the pulpits. It has to come from plumbing the depths of the human spirit – which often came from cultivating an ability to laugh at ourselves. He was like a modern-day Mullah Nasiruddin. No wonder, he draws liberally from the Mullah in all his writings. His phenomenally popular book “The Prayer of the Frog” is essentially exercises in enlightenment through self-mockery.

One of my all time favourite, is the story of an ascetic who after years of sadhana finally obtained his ticket to heaven. On entering through the Pearly Gates, he saw this beautiful bombshell and thought that after a lifetime of abstinence he certainly deserved her as a reward. He went straight to St Peter demanding his prize, who retorted laughing - “ you stupid chap, even assuming that you deserve her as your reward, what makes you think she deserves you as her punishment”.

Tony advised, to ensure proper spiritual digestion one should avoid an overdose of these stories and take them only one or two at a time ( unless you are reading them simply for entertainment). That way some of them may just worm their way into your consciousness.

Being a slow learner myself, I can at best try to follow his teachings half way – by devoting as much time as possible to beautiful women. And, the latter half - re: setting one's thoughts etc - I am sure it will follow in due course - hopefully, not too fast.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lady Canning lives in Japan

Last week on my way to KL again, I picked up Kunal Basu's - "The Japanese Wife" at the Mumbai Airport Crossword. Had read about the book earlier - but didn't know that Aparna Sen was making a movie out of it. The Indian edition is clearly timed for the release of the film. The jacket - well designed in matt yellow and orange with muted Japanese floral prints and tinted silhouettes of the actors (Rahul Bose and the shaven-headed Japanese woman ) has an understated western touch, which I fell for despite the old adage about not judging a book by its cover. It's a collection of short stories or short-fictions as the publishers prefers to call them.

The blurb bills it as a "surreal love story" and I felt that "surrealistic" quality in the first page itself. Starting to read it on the plane - I was at once overcome by a sense of deja-vu !! The story was set in a village - Shonai - on the periphery of the Sunderbans ,across Canning, by the bank of the Matla river - a part of Bengal to which many Calcutta bred Bongs like this one, I have no qualms in admitting, came to be introduced only recently by Amitava Ghosh's - The Hungry Tide. And, it seemed a little uncanny that, I had also bought a copy of the latter at the airport for a friend in KL, who wanted it after reading Ghosh's - Glass Palace (set partly in Malayasia ) which she liked.

It's a story of a school teacher in Shonai, who has been in a long-distance marriage for over 20 years with a pen-friend in Japan, without ever having met her in person. On first reading it appeared bizarre . The plot lacked credibility on several counts - not the least of which, even at the risk of sounding disgustingly class prejudiced like Aveek Sarkar, I would say, was the choice of the locale. 'Bhadraloks' of South Calcutta generally associate Canning with fish-sellers in Gariahat market and house-hold helps (mostly Bangladeshi migrants ) who come from that area. Even Ghosh's Hungry Tide didn't do much to redeem that image of this economically deprived and depressed part of West Bengal known as South 24 Parganas . So, it's difficult to imagine an "anker - mastermoshai" ( mathematics school teacher) from Shonai (granted, he went to college in Calcutta - that's when he developed a pen-friendship with this Japanese girl whom he discovering in a magazine, exchanged vows and consummated a 'mail-order' marriage in no time ) could maintain this strange telescopic marital relationship in full view of his villager community - both young and old - and with the explicit indulgence of his widowed aunt, who affectionately calls her "Bou-Ma". His rather urbane sounding name - Snehamoy Chakrabarti - doesn't help matters either.

And a lay reader like your lonely blogger, who has very stereotypical ideas of Japanese society and culture - from books and films not having ever visited that country - is left totally flummoxed by the character of Miyaja - the Japanese wife. We are told very little about her except that, she lives in a city on the banks of the Nakanokuchi river , writes letters in different coloured inks reflecting her changing moods and state of mind, sends him exotic gifts like kites, Hokusai prints and mountain cherries ( don't know if they arrived in refrigerated containers !!) and posts her "will" in a sealed envelope to be opened only after her death. There isn't as much of a hint about her personal situation or background - all of which are left to challenge our underdeveloped imagination.

May be it was the setting that introduced a bias in my mind. Sub-consciously, perhaps, I was expecting to see traces of The Hungry Tide, like the similarities one would have inevitably found in, say a Ray and Ritwik's treatment of comparable locational situations in rural Bengal ( I wonder how a Subodh or Santosh Ghosh would have handled such a subject). But, he is no Ghosh or a Jhumpa either. Shonai is just the name of a village in his story - it could well have been Siliguri, Sitamari or Saharanpur. I thought his style lacked polish ( considering he is an Oxford Don ), the cadence uneven, the characters sketchy and the development of the plot half-baked and disjointed.

I liked the opening tho' - including the soon-going-to be famous line : "She sent him kites", which opened up a whole world of possibilities. The description of how the box of kites was carried on various modes of transport from Canning to Shonai across the Matla made amusing reading. And, the story did come alive for once in the sequence of the 'kite - fight' in the village. But after soaring to great heights, like the giant Nagasaki kite, it too went "Bhookata" in mid-air. The parallel plot of the young widow and the child moving into the house had tremendous dramatic potential - which wasn't allowed to climax. The ending - with its deliberate twist - was the best part. And, probably there begins his story.

It is only after you put down the book - does it really begin to work on you.- almost subliminally. Gradually the pencil strokes become visible, the outlines emerge , the images get form and the pictures are filled with colour. And, you are suddenly able to read - what a reviewer called - "the sub-texts of yearnings, separations, loss and secret lives" that lie somewhere deep within all of us. That's where it begins to strike a chord. Someone once described writing as nothing but an exercise in telepathy. Is this also a telepathy of sorts ?

Is Basu going to be the next Indian writing wonder ? I'm not so sure about that. But, he definitely leaves you longing for something more. Let's see how Aparna creates magic with her Miyaja.
( PS: As those who have read Ghosh's Hungry Tide would know - the port of Canning was named after Lady Canning, as was the popular Bengali Sweet - "Lady-kini" )

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

She loves me, she loves me not.....

Bombay doesn't love me, but do I love Bombay ? This is the classic conundrum generations of adoptive 'Mumbaikars' like me - who have tried to make Bombay their home ( despite the periodic protestations of the 'uncle' or his cub turned fledgling tiger 'nephew' ) - struggle with. Bombay is like the quintessential femme fatale - from Cleopatra to Carla, Angelina to Ash, Marylin to Madhuri - who have through the ages made millions drop on their knees by simply refusing to be conquered. Bombay doesn't believe in slow seduction like Calcutta, nor does it have the brash, on your face, 'come hither' attitude of Delhi. It simply shocks you to submission and ( very often) total surrender.

I was ruminating these thoughts on my way back home from Geoffrey's, where I had tried - with limited success - to ply a young colleague with drinks on a potential career move to Mumbai from the comfortable confines of Calcutta. He parried every single argument I proffered with a stolid, one point counter - "but why ?" - throwing the ball determinedly back on my court.

It is this "but why ?" factor which baffles everyone visiting Mumbai from other cities small, large or another megalopolis ( like Delhi would like to believe it is ) . They fail to figure out what's the fix that hook people so hopelessly and irreparably to this 'packed and pestilential' city - which Kipling , if he were to live today, would have described in the self-same words he used for Charnock's Calcutta ( still holds true , by the way ) - "As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed, So it spread–chance-directed, chance-erected ....." except perhaps, he would have modified it a little to read - "builders selected, builders created.....where penthouses, hovel-poverty and pride (exist ) - side-by side " and it would have fitted Mumbai beautifully.

A couple of weeks ago, the chief of a well-known PR Agency told me, how she was appalled at visiting the new apartment of a just retired senior civil servant, to find it was smaller than the size of her living room and cost almost as much as her bungalow by the golf-greens of Gurgaon. And yet, she is surprised, even corporates who constantly complain about the soaring real-estate prices, unaffordable rents, high wages and crumbling infrastructure - threatening to shift base to Gurgaon and Bangalore - stop short at Andheri, which keeps bringing back the likes of her to Mumbai in search of new business. The critiques on Mumbai (lack of space, crowded trains, snarling traffic, poor quality of life, etc etc.... ) are as cliched as the the praises that are heaped upon her ( city of opportunity, professional work-culture, efficiency and so on... ) none of which can bear repetition here. But both these constituencies, I think, miss the essence of Mumbai or , as the Americans say, ' don't get it'.

I don't love Bombay - either for her glitz and glamour or for her grossly romanticised under-belly made pruriently fashionable by the new genre of "realist" Bollywood movies or the likes of Shantaram ( foreigners make a cool business of this as Morehouse, Lapierre and Grass did for Calcutta or, more recently, Dalrymple for his City of Djinns ).

I love Bombay for the energy she exudes, her pace, her indefatigable spirit - her infectious positivism. I love Bombay because she lives in the 'present' - neither harking back to an over glorified past nor the dreams of future transformation to a "world city from a walled city", whatever that might mean ( Bombay needn't ever be another Shanghai or a Singapore for that matter !!). I love Bombay for the personal space she gives her people. So what if they live in pigeon-hole apartments or travel in sardine-packed trains - no other city is as "non-judgemental" as Bombay. Yet she's not amoral, somewhere deep within, she is moored in strong, middle-class Indian values. I love Bombay because she respects anonymity - she allows you to exist without wearing a name tag on your chest or dangling a calling card on your sleeves. Here, I can take the train to work or enjoy my Sunday afternoon beer with mandali fries at my favourite JBs ( Janta Bar - for the uninitiated readers of this blog ) without anybody sparing me as much as a second glance - let alone waste their energy in lifting an eye-brow. And yet, she breeds just that right amount of insecurity, like the dynamic sexual tension generated by a consummate lover, never letting you take her for granted - only to bring out the best in you, keeping you always longing for more.... That's what makes it a truly 'international' city unlike her northern pretenders;

Bombay doesn't need to ooze her sensuality or titillate your senses - to cast her spell on you and make you her slave for life. She only has to look at you with a side-glance. That's why - I am amused to think, how in 6 months time or even less the same young man who was greeting my spiel about Bombay with scornful skepticism would become a irreversible convert. And more than him - his wife, who he was convinced would never be able to adjust to the tough life here, having been used to a cozy pampered existence since childhood, would get so irredeemably addicted to the charms and spoils of Mumbai, that she'd rather dump him than desert the city.

Once a friend asked me about Delhi - is there nothing you like about this city ? I told her, of course, I do love your winters. She probed why ? - and I answered, because the weather makes the people a wee bit tolerable. A truism which, as a 3rd generation Delhi-ite, even she couldn't refute. Mumbai, thankfully, has no seasons - but only the monsoons. And, who cannot but fall in love with the sight of the torrid rain beating down on a raging sea - merging in a deep blissful union of the elements.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

In Cloud 9 or close to it...

87th floor of Jinmao towers isn't exactly the top of the world, but after 3 martinis it begins to feel like it. Perched on the window-sill of 'Cloud 9' - the bar at the top of the Grand Hyatt, touted as the highest 'bar' in the world - this 'no-JamesBond-me' kept ordering the Martini's as I waited for the Oriental Pearl Tower ( the Chinese answer to the Eiffel Tower ) in front to be lit up, while watching the illuminated tourist barges lazily sail past on the Huangpo with the lights in the restaurants on the bund and glowing neon-signs above them providing a distant back-drop. The young waitress ( Chinese, of course ) kept assuring, the lights would come on "anytime now", until I began to suspect that it was just a ploy to make gullible guests order more drinks. So, 250 RMBs down I began my descent on the 9.1 m/second elevator - rewinding my steps back to the river-front - only to be told later that after the terrible power crisis earlier in the month the government has put restriction on illumination .

So once more fishing out the 'LPG' from inside the over-coat, one sets out for another culinary conquest. If Sichuan is like fiery Chettinad - then "Shanghai-nese" is close to Gujrati - both sweet and savoury. But, the real gun-powder stuff is Hunan - hot and explosive, like an Andhra 'bombshell' (And, we are talking only of Food here - not any other drivers of culture and evolution as expounded at the Pudong Museum). The real find of the trip was the unpretentious 'Di Shui Dong' tucked away on the second-floor of a small shopping Centre on the junction of South Maoming Rd and Changie Road - diagonally across the Lyceum Theatre. The guide book says it's named after a cave in Mao's home village of Shaoshan. Like all such places which manage to worm their way into the LPG it's always packed to the gills ( except at lunch time - as I found on my second trip in 2 days ) with chattering firungs guzzling Tsing Tao to wash down the chillies. Ordering the food was easy since the menu is pictorial with Enghlish "sub-titles" ( the Mao's Quick Fried Chilli Crab, Duck in a Chilli-pot are to die for - or to die of, depending on the severity of your IBS, as were the pickled spicy pork ribs. Didn't try the broiled Bull-frogs or baby Turtles, 2 other specialities of the house. And, no they don't serve snake heads or monkey brains. But they had fried Donkey Meat on the menu !!). But ordering Soya sauce for the steamed rice was bit of a struggle. First, I got an extra plate, then extra chop-sticks and finally an extra wet-paper towell, when I finally decided to call it a day. Perhaps, they don't need any sauces to add on as the food is so good, anyway.

By the time I leave - I am actually walking on "Cloud 9" - what the Martinis couldn't do for me. And, I take a minor detour to the hotel via Lulu's massage parlour for a severe kneading of the body at the hands of her expert blind masseurs. By the time I hit bed - dreadfully anticipating the morning after in the loo - one defining image from the Pudong Sex Museum remains indelibly imprinted on the mind: that of the giant laughing Buddha tied up in chains except for one part sticking out into the skies and the caption reads - " some things can never be locked".

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Sex in Shanghai

As I looked out of the window of my Room at the Xing Guo Radisson Plaza in Shanghai, for a few moments - I thought I was hallucinating. Where did the surreal sci-fi skyline of Pudong I saw the night before disappear ? Instead, there was now a view of the Tripureshwor junction in Kathmandu, complete with the stream of old reconditioned cabs, swarm of bi-cycles and two-wheelers. Rubbing my eyes and senses regained, it wasn't that hard to explain. After all, the affinity of the little kingdom towards its northern neighbours is well known and in anycase half of Kats has been re-built with Chinese aid - hence the red Chinese-brick and white awnings construction of the new government buildings. But, another cultural similarity - to be discovered a little later - was the Chinese proclivity to use their roads as public spitoons. How customs travel in the direction of the wind !!

The walk along the famous "bund" was another experience of deja-vu. This time tho' not of Kats but that of our very own Calcutta of yore ( except that, in Shanghai they've lifted the dusty tarpaulins put on during the Mao era to hide - what they still consider as - an embarassing past , restoring the pristine sheen with a new coat of paint; while in Calcutta our Bengali Marxists still find romance - if that were indeed allowed in Communism, sex certainly was, as we shall see in a bit - amidst squalid decay and dilapidation ) . A visit to the Shanghai History Museum across the river with life-size replicas and wax models would easily transport you back in time to vignettes of Calcutta in the early 1900s. The Huangpu river could well have been our old Hooghly, the bund - Outram Ghat or "Gangar Dhar" , and Wai-tan - the Strand Road with its string of old British Merchant Houses and Banks like Lloyds & Grindlays or StanChart in place of HSBC (which too was there within a stone's throw at Dalhousie ). And East Nanjing Road - without a doubt a sister of our very own Chowringhee with The Grand ( and the Great Eastern - not too far away ) in place of Shanghai's Astor House - which boasts a guest-list of Russel, Einstein and Chaplin.

Desperate to find a differentiator, I took a dive into the stairways of the tunnel and was instantly transported on a space-ship-like gondola through a psychedelic passage to Pudong - where a sign beckoned me to the "China Sex Cultural Museum". And ahoy, here was suddenly something unlike anything one can ever find either in Kats or Kol ( I believe that's the 'hip' new abbreviation for Kolkata - I presume, with no pun intended on the Bengali meaning of 'kol', with the loads of lascivious images it conjures up).

Targetted obviously at the tourists like yours truly who have a vulnerability for the vicarious - it tries to thinly disguise the erotica with a shred of historical and philosophical pretensions. So before leading onto exhibits of copulating tortoises or fornicating snakes - there is a short thesis " for sex of human beings there are 2 characters , one is natural and animal and the other cultural.....the (balanced ) combination of these inclinations lead to the development of civilised society". Sure Vatsayana would agree. But there are other gems and jewels - both literal and literary. To get a peek into all that and more keep logging onto this space....( which, I admit has become notoriously erratic. And, that's not a typo please...even tho' it's close to midnight ).