Sunday, December 06, 2009


My mother - Jharna - passed away early last Friday morning (4th Dec) after a brief 5 day illness. She was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) the previous Saturday - 28th Nov - which, incidentally, was their 50th Wedding Anniversary. She had no prior symptoms or indication. It would seem like, she was waiting for that day before declaring the close of her innings. I wouldn't know if it was out of sheer prescience that she had instructed us long ago not to plan any anniversary celebrations for them - saying that she'd rather use the money for some good cause later. She was all of 68.

By the grace of God, she didn't suffer too much and was lucid till the very end.Tho' in distress from a pulmonary infection that had set in, she was aware of every minute detail, talking (giving my father and Nina instructions on minor issues of the house-hold) and sometimes even joking with the doctors, monks (Swamis) and nuns (Mataji-s) of RKM who came to see her. She passed away in her sleep at 0100 AM. She had been admitted on Monday (30th) at the Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratisthan (Shishu Mangal) on Lansdowne Road, Calcutta - a place of her own choosing.

Those of you - whose lives she had touched, would know that she wouldn't have liked to be mourned in her death. But, remembered for the happy times she shared with all of us.

For us life has changed permanently. But, I hope and pray that, she enjoys the same sense of peace and tranquility that was so characteristic of her, wherever she may find her abode of rest.

More on her....some other day....

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Feather-weight erotica

I finally succumbed. Friends and family know that there are a few things in life that leave me helplessly weak-kneed. There are some temptations in life I can’t resist for too long. Buying books is just one of them. So ignoring the hype generated by the ‘inspired’ reviews in every magazine and newspaper (including – surprisingly – a high-brow business newspaper, which even carried an excerpt click here to read), I picked up from the new Delhi Airport Bookshop what’s been touted as the first ever anthology of Indian Erotic Writing - Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book Of Erotic Stories by Ruchir Joshi, Tranquebar Books. In the foreword ‘Indian’ has been qualified as “Indian (South Asian) authors writing in English”.

On the flight, a colleague traveling with me quickly flicked the copy but was equally prompt in returning it when we got off the plane – saying, he didn’t wish to take it home and get the wife all worked up (no pun intended). My lady at home was characteristically nonchalant. "Don't take it along on the long trip ahead", she counselled explaining that she thought it may not be very conducive to my current physical condition, following the minor surgical procedure I had undergone a few months ago.

So, I had to wait till my return last week before taking up the book. I liked Ruchir Joshi’s introduction. Though his justification for doing such an anthology was a trifle convoluted (and, unnecessary I thought), what I found interesting was his account of the reactions he evinced from different established authors whom he had approached for contributing to the collection. But, honestly I couldn’t proceed beyond the first 2 pages of any story that I tried. Each one was more juvenile and puerile than the other. To me they were the print equivalent of the crude desi-porn movies shot with hand held movie cameras that we saw in our college days – courtesy some adventurous classmates who dared to raid their parents’ closets (those were before the days of camcorders and video parlours).

Vernacular Treasures

In contrast, I remembered some of the lovely erotic passages one has read in modern Bengali literature – the writings of Samaresh Basu, Buddhadev Bose, Buddhadev Guha, Sunil Gangopadhyay and so many others. I am quite sure there are similar works in other Indian languages with strong literary traditions – Tamil, Kannada, Oriya, Assamese and, 'oh-how-can-I-forget' – Marathi, living in Mumbai, or even in Hindi, rising above the stereo type of the sleazy paperbacks one sees lined on pavement book shops.

Recently, I remember watching a TV documentary on a developing cult in Tamil literature of erotic poetry being written by a band of young women poets (SheWrite, A film by Anjali Monteiro & K P Jayasankar click here). I wonder, how much richer the collection could have been – if it included translations of real authors writing in real Indian languages. Perhaps, Mr Joshi – educated in one of Calcutta's so called "English Medium" Schools, may not have been exposed to these facets of modern Indian literature (Or else, he may have mildly moderated his assertions such as "we in the subcontinent still live trapped in a cat’s cradle of taboos and repressions").

More interesting than the book, I believe, was the launch event. Read about it here. But, for me the only silver lining is that, there could be life beyond blogging. One can always turn to writing facile erotica.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

One for the road...

There were some 30 of us from over 20 different countries spread widely across the 5 continents. The age group varied from early 30s to the late 50s – and I was clearly on the upper quartile. Almost a third of the group were women – though none of the kind to set my heart racing.

We were gathered at an ancient chateau (Bellinglise - it is said Joan of Arc was imprisoned here) converted to an inn – an hour’s drive north of Paris for a company training programme. Situated in the midst of thick woods - the setting was idyllic. The chateau lighted up in the evenings – with the moon reflecting on a lake – looked like an enchanted castle (read a poem of Alan Seeger dedicated to Bellinglise by clicking here).

Being a veteran of many such courses and conferences, I arrived with a small pouch of cynicism in my carry-on duffle bag. My misgivings didn’t turn out to be entirely unfounded – as the faculty came across as - at best - mediocre and the course contents also pretty elementary. But, I didn’t mind. The food was outstanding at every meal, the pace of the programme was relaxed and the schedule light – leaving enough free-time to do our own stuff be it going on long walks and cycling in the forest, soaking in the Japanese tub or simply hanging out at the open bar.

going 'solo'
By the end of the 3rd day a little boredom was beginning to set in. So, when we came to know that the penultimate afternoon has been set aside for ‘solo’ personal reflection by the participants – even the most laid-back amongst us thought it was becoming too much of a ‘time-pass’ and the facilitators were probably taking it a bit too easy.

There was no guideline or brief on what we were supposed to do in those 2 hours of solitary “retreat”. It was meant to be a period of free thinking on any subject – professional or personal – trying to cut off any extraneous thoughts or distractions. However, 3 conditions were stipulated. First, all of us had to leave our mobile phones and Blackberries behind. Second, we had to go it alone – unaccompanied by any of our course mates. And finally, we could chose any place inside or outside the chateau premises except that we were not allowed to go back to our own rooms – throwing cold water on what many of us were secretly contemplating.

breaking the mould

So we dispersed in different directions with our ‘Moleskin’ Notebooks in hand -somewhat skeptically. We saw Bob – from Edmonton, West Canada - heading out towards the Spa, Dimitri – the American-Greek - positioned himself beneath the large cypress tree and the 4 Koreans walked out in a group – chatting, blissfully ignoring the very specific instructions. Tony – our Chinese colleague – who was always half asleep with his persisting jet lag ambled across the drive way looking a bit disoriented and the Americans disappeared into the forest. I chose the lonely trail across the lake.

putting the pieces back together

We all strolled back in around teatime. The usual chatter that surrounds the mid-afternoon recess was missing. People weren’t pensive – but they were palpably quiet. Slowly we adjourned once more into our team rooms. There was a look of expectation on every face - about “what next?”, when Kris – our rakishly handsome and charming Flemish facilitator walked in. But, he was clearly far too seasoned to be drawn easily in to telling us where do we go from there. Wearing a beatific smile, he stared at us quizzically, waiting for one us to break the silence, which - by now – seemed almost ready to burst.

the melting moment
Burst it did and how. Don’t exactly remember who – it just could have been any one of us – suggested that, we could probably share our individual experiences with the group. This caused a virtual eruption around the room. It was as if our collective sensibilities had been assaulted, threatening to violate of our right to privacy. The individual reactions brought to the fore the cultural differences among us. Some were downright offended, others exuded a sense of outraged modesty. The French vehemently shook their heads in dissent; Tony asked “why ?” looking genuinely flummoxed; the girl from Romania got emotionally worked up; the Americans were more vocal – tho’ restrained - in their objections; the lone Korean in our team withdrew visibly further into a shell and the 2 of us South Asians didn’t seem to quite understand what the fuss was all about.

from stand-off to take-off
From the rumblings and murmurs it appeared that we were fast approaching a veritable 'stand-off' that was going to - almost ineveitably - end up in a churlish ‘walk-out’. But then, suddenly - came the moment of meltdown. I think it was Bob who took the lead and said that, he was comfortable about sharing his experience without revealing the details – as they were intimately personal. Soon the trickle became a flow and others followed – as if on cue.

Little wonder, each one’s journey was very different from the rest. But, there was no mistaking that - in our own way - each of us (the four-some Koreans included) had touched a deeper point of consciousness. The result may not have been 'life transforming' – but it had certainly brought home some significant realization – perhaps, disturbing for some – but nevertheless important. And, who knows – it could just be working away insidiously in the sub-conscious to bring about a change – hopefully positive, which we’ll only see much later in retrospect.

take home
In those 90 minutes or so, the atmosphere in the room changed as we discovered a new chemistry of trust and mutual respect between us. That evening the bar was less boisterous – but every one seemed to enjoy their drinks more and even the food at the dinner table tasted better, as did the wine. The women appeared much nicer too.

Looking back, even if this was just one thing we took back home, it made those 5 days very precious and memorable. For me the bigger lesson was, learning - be it in a course or in life - doesn’t always come from cramming but giving ourselves the time and space to reflect.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Anatomy of a gourmet

I think it was a character in John Le-Carre’s latest book – who calls herself a ‘water gourmet’. Can’t claim that ,despite my frequent attempts at alcohol sabbatical, I have reached that stage of ‘evolution’ yet - but, over the years I have come to appreciate more the virtues of aqua-pura.

good food and rude words

Till a few years back, I liked to believe that – I knew a little about food . But, now I am extremely careful and self-conscious while talking on food – even among friends - as practically every other person I meet considers himself or herself a ‘foodie’. Over the past few years, food columns have erupted all over in newspapers and magazines as, indeed, “Food Shows” are hogging prime time on TV. I don’t have the statistics, but I suspect that the maximum number of blogs are written on food. (There is a theory that, the less people cook at home – the more they like to read about food – explaining the booming sales of recipe books and the soaring popularity of TV Chefs like the late lamented Keith Floyd or our own desi-boy Sanjeev Kapur).

[You may call it synchronicity – but while I was writing this piece, I came across on a friend’s tweet the link to an essay written by Buddhadeb Bose on Bengali Cuisine and Food habits way back in the 70s. That’s what I call real food-writing (to read Bose’s full article click here).

One of the finest ‘food-writing’ by an Indian that I have come across is a series “Sukhadyo Subachan” by Pratap Kumar Roy that used to be carried many years ago in the Bengali newspaper AajKal – much before ‘foodies’ and ‘food columnists’ had become so ubiquitous. The pieces have later been compiled into a book called “Mahabhoj” – by Ananda publishers. Those amongst you who can read Bengali and are fans of the pretentious "Rude Food" writings of a celebrity editor, may like to browse thru the book if you can lay your hands on a copy somewhere].

Bruni or Belucci

When it comes to wines – I am quite an illiterate. My repertoire doesn’t go much beyond the Sula, Grover or Nasik Valley and I can hardly tell a Bourdeux from a Barolo - my preference for the latter has more to do with my fascination for Italian beauties like Monica Belucci ( not Carla Bruni tho’ – who to me is neither wholly Italian nor French ) than my love of Italian food. I fashionably dislike Californian wines (just as anything American) be it Napa or Sonoma and feign disdain for Australian Shiraz more as a mark of inverse racial snobbery, just as I praise Chilean vintages as an expression of ‘new world’ solidarity. But, in short – I know nothing about wines – except that the tannins in reds help me get rid of meat morsels from my cavities.

Till such time boot-legged JW Black Label reigned supreme at parties and Chivas was considered a rarity – reserved for special guests on occasions, I could hold forth with impunity on the merits of Islay Malts over their Spey-side brethrens. But not any more, since the Laphroigs and Lagavulins have invaded the living rooms of the yuppy set – who now look down upon the Glen sisters (..fiddich, …livet and …morangie) as passe and for whom the 'age' of Macallans' is only a number on the bottle. Belonging to a generation who grew up on ACP (Aristocrat Premium) and DSP (Directors’ Special) , when Peter Scot was the ultimate toast of social refinement – I, therefore, find ‘Single Origin’ Darjeeling Tea a much safer subject of party conversation. Tho’ hearing of the relative merits of a second - "flush" Makaibari over a Castleton many turn instinctively towards the mens’ room.

In Coffee – Coorg and Colombian were both ‘c’ words for me. Over time – I have learnt that there are a few more alphabets in between like B, J and K…. as in Brazil, Jamaica and Kenya . But, not much has ever happened to me over coffee.

As for Cheese, I don’t even wish to get started. Every time I have tried expound on the anthropology of Indian cheeses - and claim that, the Bandel Smoked Cheese and Kalimpong do indeed have indigenous roots - I have been snubbed short.

the last bastion of a retired parvenu

However, there is still one unclaimed territory remaining – over which I can claim some degree of proprietorship. I fancy myself as something of a massage (as distinct from ‘masseuse’) connoisseur.

I was probably initiated into the pleasures of a gentle oil rub soon after birth by the nurse, who used to subject me to a daily dose of olive oil treatment. But, my earliest memory of a wholesome massage go back to childhood – when we used to go for family weekend retreats to my maternal village home on the outskirts of Calcutta.

After breakfast – the men-folk (including the boys ) would line up in the courtyard with a thin and skimpy “gamccha” wrapped around their waists and would take turns to spread themselves on a mat – under the mellow winter sun. Sohan-lal – our good Chowkidar cum Care-taker of Bihari roots, who was a wrestler in his youth – would give each one of us a vigorous kneading with mustard oil – before pouring buckets of cold water over us straight from the deep-well (‘paat- kua) – while we rinsed ourselves with generous dollops of ‘khol’ (fresh mustard cake) brought from the nearby oil-mill for use as a natural body-scrub.

Though there are European forms of massage – such as the Swedish, I think massage is essentially an oriental art form. It is only in the East that we attach so much importance to the body in relation to the internal physical well-being of a person (referring to it as a ‘temple’ etc) given our more holistic approach to health (think of Aurveda, Yoga or Chinese Medicine with all its emphasis of Yin, Yang and ‘Qui’ - in the latter lies the origins of "cross-gender" massage). In the West, generally – the physique has more of an external connotation as a symbol of sexuality, as it were. Therefore – benefits of massage are not seen beyond ephedrine inducing muscle relaxation or, at best, sensual arousal.

of an ancient art and an ancient trade

In comparison, we give a greater stress on the therapeutic effects of massage. In the orient – I think there are essentially 2 broad systems of massage. The first based on acupressure along the meridians - such as Shiatsu- and the other that involves stretching of muscles and rotation of joints - as in Thai Massage – which, I consider to be something like, “passive yoga”. Variants such as the Balinese Massage combine a bit of both the systems – adding to it elements such as aroma-therapy, which appeals to the western tourist as well as help Spas charge an extra premium.

It took me a while to figure out – “Ancient Thai Massage” was not a reference to the “ancient” lady masseurs in Pat-pong Massage joints – but to the art form taught in Monasteries such as Wat-Po in Bangkok traditionally to blind people due to their heightened sense of touch.

Though Kerala Massage Parlors are sprouting like wild mushrooms everywhere – even up in the Himalayan Hill-stations – it’s not my kind of stuff. I don’t quite relish the veritable oil-bath with the masseurs’ hands running down in rapid motions along the slippery contours of the anatomy. Also, I am deeply skeptical of its much-professed medical benefits being really commensurate with the quantity of oil that is spent in the process.

But, at the end of the day – there is nothing like a good Hindustani Massage. Contrary to popular belief – a good North-Indian ‘maalish’ is not all about pounding, kneading and twisting. A well-trained masseur – usually from the barber (‘Nai’ or ‘Napit’) community – would know basic elements of osteopathy and physio-therapy and use it to r good effect for alleviating many minor ailments of the bones, muscles and, at times also, nerves.

My quest for a good massage has sometimes landed me into odd predicaments. No, not in the Sois of Sukhumvit – as you might jump to conclusion – but in strange places like the Circuit House in Bhedhaghat near Jabalpur, where we had gone to see the Marble Rocks and Duandhar Falls. Half-way through the session, the masseur ran away leaving me dripping in oil and shivering in the cold. I couldn’t even go for a bath as he hadn’t heated the oil on the wood-fired chullah. He returned only after an hour to say with a grin that he had gone off to watch the latest episode of the Ramayana, which ruled the air-waves on TV those days and brought the entire ‘cow-belt’ to a virtual stand-still every Sunday morning.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Confessions of a spiritual junkie

(Debra Winger and John Malkovich in a scene from Bertolucci's 'The Sheltering Sky' - photo courtesy: Imageshack)

My dear cousin and a close friend want me to go and see a shrink. It was sparked off by an innocuous admission on FaceBook about mid-week lows. But, little do they know that I love shrinks. Actually, I am an amateur one myself. I decided to try my luck at prurient psychology after my practice as a quack gynaecologist went bust – with most of my clients, both past and potential, fast hitting the median and preferring to opt for safer and surer surgical solutions.


But, jokes apart, I am a great believer of (psycho)therapy. I was introduced to “shrink-ism” by a Salesian priest from my alma-mater (Don Bosco)– who took a sabbatical to get a degree on applied psychology from the US. On his return he set up a counseling service for fellow priests of the order, who – not unlike lay parishioners – had their own share of mid-life blues that – in their case - usually manifested in a crisis of faith.

I found this interesting – as I didn’t know of any similar tradition amongst some of the Hindu religious orders that I am acquainted with. I remember having a very spirited discussion on the subject with some friendly monks of the RKM, who, of course, scoffed at the idea (somewhat complacently, I thought ). They felt, our Hindu philosophical traditions have in-built systems (or ‘release mechanisms’) for taking care of such phases of self-doubt and confusion, which are inevitable in the path of renunciation and were, in fact, essential experiences for attaining ultimate realization. Though no authority either in philosophy or psychology, I agreed to disagree.

struggling souls trapped inside cassocks

Meanwhile, the Salesian shrinks soon found out that, the need for such psychological intervention extended well beyond the struggling souls trapped inside a pastor’s cassock. They quickly expanded the network of the Bosco Psychological Services (Okhala, Delhi) across the country with centers such as Prafulta (in Mumbai) and Sumedha (in Jeolikote, near Nainital), that offered a full range of psychological services for treating conditions as diverse as marital disharmony, adolescent delinquency and learning disabilities to depression and manic disorders.

Contrary to popular belief, Mid-life Crisis (MLC) is not always about extramarital affairs and sex addiction. Those are the easier and perhaps the more enjoyable aspects of it. The best definition I have heard of is – MLC sets in with the first intimations of mortality. Till a point in life, we take tomorrow for granted. Then comes an event (usually in the later 30s or early 40s for an average male) – could be a minor ailment such as diabetes or high-cholesterol or the demise of a close relative - which suddenly brings home the point that life is finite, after all. Paul Bowles in his book The Sheltering Sky (rendered immortal by the Bernardo Bertolucci film starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich - click here to see Video clip) puts it beautifully: if asked “how many more full-moons will you see in this life ?” our instinctive response is “countless”. But, come to think of it – not too many, perhaps 4 or 5 or may be 20 at best. It's a disturbing sense of time running-out, literally and figuritively, in every aspect of life - physical, personal or professional.

of cloisters and closets

Mid-life is, therefore, essentially a time to take stock of life and re-examine your values and goals to re-set your sails and radar. But, I wonder if priests can come out of their cloisters (you might argue they have a long tradition of ‘confession’), why is it that we ordinary folks are so afraid of opening the closets of our mind to a neutral listener.

Thanks to Bro Jose and his spiritual mentor Pita (Fr) Lourdes (who I came to know later), I got a glimpse of different schools of therapy – from Jungian Analysis to CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and sampled some of them. Being an early adapter (for those of you – who haven’t noticed – yours truly as been blogging since 2001 – long before ‘blogs’ became a house-hold term) and an inveterate tourist of the psycho-spiritual circuit, I have met a few celebrity shrinks – seeking them out in the back-lanes of Bandra, in their high perches in Worli or or idyllic Goan hide-outs.

Blog Therapy

‘Talk therapy’ has helped me make major career change decisions and deal with toxic bosses. Everyone, to whom I have recommended therapy so far and have chosen to try it – especially those dealing with trauma and depression, has come out as neo-converts of its benefits.

We think either with our head or with our heart. While talking in a non-judgmental environment – suddenly there comes a point when the thoughts in the head coincide with those of the heart. That’s when realization dawns and the healing occurs.

This brings back to what the senior monk at RKM told me. It is after all a quest for finding out who you are and coming to terms with it. It doesn’t matter which route you take. And if you lose your way – you can always take to blogging , which, by the way, can be deeply therapeutic as well. Try it for yourself.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Celebrity chatter

I have never made a secret of my partiality towards pretty co-passengers on a flight. They are the ultimate objects of fantasy in mid-air and I find their company immensely energizing especially on a long-haul. I enjoy talking to interesting fellow travellers of either sex. I don’t mind even a crass politician next to me. But, somehow, I am not one of those who get starry eyed with a tinsel town celebrity on the plane. You may call it some kind of an inverse snobbery. But the truth is, I find most of them (and, I have met a few) – intellectually challenged, outright boring and suffocating. A majority can’t even make decent conversation and I am usually overcome by pity at their strained attempt to behave ‘normal’ in an acutely synthetic and self-conscious way. Only a few can really drop their airs. But, why should they? After all, they have worked hard to reach where they have and it all comes as a part of the accoutrement of stardom.

Part offended, part be-friended

So once – while flying back from Bangalore to Mumbai, I part surprised and part offended Sharmila Tagore by moving over to a free set across the aisle. She was flummoxed. I had to think of an excuse on the fly and told her, I didn’t wish to disturb her with my snoring, which she acknowledged with an understanding smile – looking somewhat re-assured. On another occasion – about which my boss can’t stop teasing me – I had a nubile Bollywood starlet seated next to me. Her Mom - a “has been” Bengali Bombshell (in more ways than one) and herself the daughter of a legendary Bengali actress was on the row behind us. When I gallantly offered her my seat (which I declared was an act of "supreme sacrifice" on my part only to allow mother daughter bonding in the skies) she looked at me with utter disbelief and said with a knowing smile – “you must be a married man and afraid of your wife – otherwise how could you give up such an opportunity ?”. "No !!", I retorted, " it's just that I am travelling with my Boss (who was a few seats away)".

Kafka on the plane

Occasionally one is surprised tho’ .. like on a recent trip to Calcutta on one of the budget airlines, I met this very sharp-looking young girl – reading Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. I initially mistook her as a college kid going home for her vacation and tried to strike a conversation about her taste in literature. But, she turned out to be one of the latest imports of “Tollywood”. Daughter of a Bihari IAS officer and a Punjabi mother – who’s acts in Hindi TV serials, she wants to take up acting as a career and was cutting her teeth in Bengali films.

But, most of them make a sad spectacle. For example, very often on the Saturday morning Kingfisher flight from Calcutta to Mumbai, I travel with a faded and aged matinee idol of the 70s and 80s. Though he has done some very meaningful roles lately (both in art films and main-stream cinema) – nowadays, he now appears frequently as judge on TV "reality shows". I am bemused to see him desperately seeking attention – in his black denim jacket and jeans with ankle high suede boots and Ray-ban shades. And, how his shriveled up skin picks up a faint glow of delight - every time someone walks up to him for an autograph or a request to pose before a mobile-phone camera for a photograph with their accompanying son or daughter.

Then there are the mousy looking "item girls" and emaciated models. But, the good part is – since they mostly lead nocturnal lives – on flights they immediately curl-up under blankets and go to sleep putting on their eye-pads.

Even they are barely tolerable… but now we have a new crop of celebrities taking over the front section of the aircraft. They are the TV anchors – who fancy themselves as being the ‘thinking men’s stars’. Instant recognition and intellectual pretensions make a heady combination – as one of them recently wrote in her own blog (Click here to read)

Testosterone Heroes

Cricketers are a different lot altogether. Frankly, even they leave me a trifle cold – not that I have met too many of them. Some come across as supremely arrogant – though I am told, the best of them are unmistakably cerebral and decidedly modest. I believe, Sourav Ganguly – who was labeled as Bengal’s only testosterone hero after Subhash Bose –falls somewhere in-between. But, last evening – on an official call of duty - I got to spend quite some time with Mahi ( M S Dhoni) and was completely bowled over by his disarming candour and genuine warmth. With his feet and head exactly where they ought to be (firmly on the ground and the shoulder - respectively), I feel confident that the Indian team is safe in his keeper’s hands – notwithstanding the controversies cooked up by the media and fuelled by the machiavellian shenanigans of the BCCI politicos.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Scribbles in-between flights

Managed to get out of Calcutta in the nick of time. Tired of early morning and late evening flights – had booked myself on the afternoon 3 O’ clock flight.. Couldn’t have timed it better, the city is now up in flames as a reaction against yesterday’s violence in Mangalkot (Burdawan) where some Congress leaders were assaulted by CPM cadres. Trust ABP and Star Ananda to come up with the news caption: "Mangal Kot e A-Mangal".

Nina wasn’t as lucky. She was planning on traveling tomorrow – but a 12-hour Bandh has been declared in the city. So, she can now get back only on Saturday - just in time for our trip to Pune.

The Speaker of the West Bengal Assembly - Hasim Abdul Halim – has gone on record today saying – “ the Police should be active - neither be ‘over-active’ or ‘in-active’. I have been at the receiving end of latter in the last few weeks – when despite instructions from the CM’s office the police has refused to move – ignoring orders of the District Administration.

Somehow – I get the feeling that Buddha will be Bengal’s Gorbachov. He will oversee the end of the Left Front rule in the state. As a friend remarked, unless Mamata works real hard at political suicide and self-destruction – there’s no stopping the Trinamool from coming to power in 2011........................

Landed in Mumbai to find the Meru cabs have been shunted out of the airport – under pressure from the Black and Yellow (Kali-peeli) and Blue (Cool) Cabs who were losing business to them. A new system of “pre-paid” cabs has been introduced from today – but being unhappy with the arrangement the Black and Yellow cabs went on a boycott. So …chaos !! After a long wait managed to get home in Blue Cab – finally !!........................

Went for the Bastille Day function in Calcutta on the 14th. A sedate affair (mercifully !!) in comparison to the massive gala in Mumbai – where, I believe, the crowd danced to “ Om Shanti Om” ( how typically French !! ...Carla would have loved it no doubt) till the wee hours ...…..

Till last year Calcutta didn’t have a full-fledged Consul. And, under the patronage of the “Hony Consul” - a prosperous city businessman - the celebrations were like a veritable “shaadi bari” – with long queues for dinner.

(Sunanda K Datta-Ray had written a piece some years back – about how Calcutta has been converted into a city of “Hony Consuls” – with more and more countries closing down their Consulates as cost-cutting measure. One, therefore, hardly saw the cars with “CC Number plates” anymore. They aree replaced by those marked “Hony Consuls”, which has become some kind of a status symbol in the business community)

But, the Sarkozy government isn’t so generous. Therefore, the consulate has to depend on ‘sponsors’ - usually French companies who have establishments in town or other businesses with some French connection – to pick up the bill for the wine and dinner. Since, Calcutta doesn’t have too many of these - the scale of the reception has to be necessarily modest.

The story isn’t very different for other countries – at least the European ones for sure – either. The Indian Embassies and Missions are among the few – who splurge on their National Day ( in fact – for us it’s 2 days – 26th January and Independence Day). Perhaps, an assertion of our new-found economic affluence........................

Atoned for the indulgences of the last few days – with a dinner of spinach, mushrooms and tofu blanched in sesame oil with some steamed broccoli on the side. Hope it is as healthy as it is made to sound.

Tho’, had a mean Khow-Suey with some lovely Riesling at the young Banerjees of Mandeville Gardens last evening.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Weekend Contemplations on Love and Beauty beyond 40...

This time in London, I had kept the weekend free to catch a show on the West end. People I asked for recommendations talked about the latest production at Wyndham’s – Madame de Sade – starring Judi Dench, tho’ they themselves hadn’t seen it yet. (Click here)

Heaving bosoms and washboard tummies`

The play is based on Yukio Mishima’s famous Japanese novel on the life of Marquis de Sade (a decadent aristocrat imprisoned in the Bastille for his lurid sexual escapades) as told from the perspective of the many women in his life. But, despite the salacious blurbs the lukewarm reviews on the free papers I picked up on the tube – left me cold. But then, I am also not a great fan of bosom heaving period and costume dramas in the first place.

So, I gave up the idea of a play and wandered around aimlessly in the Covent Garden – Leicester Square area on a pleasant 14 º C afternoon. After a satisfying pub lunch (pie and mash with a pint of good ale) at the Nags Head, I headed out towards the Odeon. But old age has an uncanny knack of sending untimely reminder slips . Earlier – I could have traversed Central London for hours occasionally hopping into a bus or a short ride on the tube. Wrapping up the day - quite literally - with a satisfying meal of crispy aromatic duck pancakes in Soho China Town. Before long I felt totally drained and even a shot of double espresso at the new Costa’s round the corner couldn’t pick me up. Exhausted, I found myself taking the escalator up the Trocadero Cinemas near Picadilly Circus, buying a ticket for the new Julia Roberts flick – Duplicity, which was showing next.

Due to the effect of the beer or the walk, I am not sure which – I shamelessly dozed off even before the trailers had begun to roll. I don’t know if I was snoring too, since in a near empty theatre there was no one on the next seat to poke me. When I woke up a good 30 minutes into the film, Owen was dropping his signature pick-up line "I excel at remembering people I have slept with; that's been a traditional area of strength for me". The film is at best a slick entertainer about 2 con artists – Roberts and Owen – trying to outsmart each other in their own game of gypping a major drug company with the fake formula of an over-the-counter cure for baldness. Smart cinematography and sharp dialogues are the mainstay of the movie banking heavily on the glamour quotient of the 2 lead actors (tho’ Owen struts around with his bare torso, Julia barely shows any skin at all – but more on that later).

Adolescent fantasies

Duplicity reminded me of another film in the same genre from the 70s – Thief who came to Dinner, Ryan O’Neil played a high-society jewel thief and Jaqueline Bisset was his partner in crime. It’s easy to understand why Bisset, more than the film, had made a deep impression on a teenage mind, which was further indelibly re-engraved in movies like the ‘Deep’ that followed with its stunning opening sequence of Bisset scuba-diving in a wet T-Shirt. That brings me to the all important question – is Julia Roberts really HOT or simply 'pretty'?

I personally think that her looks have been grossly over-rated. She definitely isn’t beautiful in a classical sense – like say Audrey Hepburn of yore, Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman or a Keira Knightly of more recent vintage. She doesn’t have the heady blend of understated sensuality and over-pouring oomph of an Angelina Jolie. In Pretty Woman, it was her freshness rather than her sexiness and unaffected charm that made her so appealing and caught people’s fancy, than probably the more natural consummate tartalinas such as a Katherine Zeta Jones, Penelope Cruz or a Cameron Diaz would have.

But, then what is it about her that I liked in this movie ? It couldn’t have been her acting – for which she had little scope to display her prowess. Yet, had it not been for her I would have happily slept thru the movie (and still felt that I have got my money’s worth for the £7 I spent on the ticket ) and, most certainly, the images wouldn't have been lingering in my mind even after a month. There was something mesmerising about her character -for which, I savoured spending those 2 hours with her in air-conditioned comfort that was beyond giving my tired feet some well deserved rest.

Magical Menopause or Mid-life fixations

I finally chanced upon the answer in the recent issue of TIME – in which Mary Pols analyses her …… (Read Full Article by clicking here)

“Claire would like Owen to love her, but it’s clear she’d survive without him. Their relationship is not a road to an altar; it’s about being with someone who gets you. It’s mature love in short.

What about being mature in years ? Forty or thereabouts is often the most attractive age for women, when you are old to really appreciate, understand and know how to flatter yourself. But in Hollywood it mostly leads to unintentional vanishing acts or inspires unfortunate experiments with surgery.

Motherhood, by the way, looks good on her. Onscreen – she’s lush and full: any woman who has breast-fed will recognize the source of her Duplicity cleavage. Her Claire makes Owen’s Ray even more swoon-worthy, we know he appreciates a real woman.

If you are nostalgic for the pretty woman in pink-and-black spandex, too bad. Robert’s isn’t shoe horning herself back into a prostitute’s work outfit. She’s too sensible to even try.”

In real-life I know some women above 40 – who fit Mol’s description of Roberts almost to a tee (and, I'm not talking of cleavage here). They carry age, marriage and motherhood on an even keel with a great deal of panache and elan. But, I can’t think of any examples in Bollywood of actresses who have been able to make such seamless transition with age. But we are an evolving lot and I would still place my bet on Priyanka – tho’ I wish she wouldn’t succumb to peer pressure and try getting to size-zero. Well, I may not be a Marquis or an Owen - but at way past 40, I am beginning to understand a thing or two about women, love and beauty.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bouillabaisse on the Corniche and 'Hindi Food' in the skies

Often the image of a place is romantically etched on the mind from something one has read or seen. And, very often it leads to disappointment when reality confronts imagination. This has happened many times over in my life.

The picture of Marseilles for me was encapsulated in the reproduction of a Paul Cezzane masterpiece, I had come across in a magazine long ago. So, on this trip when I decided to venture out of Paris over a free weekend – I took a TGV ride down south to Marseilles. I would have been disappointed had it not been for a kind colleague at the company HQ, who recommended a small inn away from the bustle of the port town – yet not too far from the heart of action – on Corniche John F Kennedy.

The corniche, which is really a split level stairway extending over 2 kms is sometimes referred to as the longest bench in the world, opens out to a magnificent view of the Mediterranean. The small ships ferrying passengers to Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia going past against the backdrop of the Frioul islands make a beautiful mental snapshot.


The Bouillabaisse (pronounce buwee-a-bas) - once a poor fisherman’s stew made of discarded fish, has now been elevated to the ranks of fine food - is the signature dish of Marseilles. True to French tradition for exacting culinary standards, only restaurants that have signed the “Bouillabaisse Charter” are accredited as serving the authentic stuff . But, at a price tag of Euro 60 per serving – Chez Fon-Fon or Le Ruhl (of Jacques Chirac fame) it was well beyond the shoe-string budget of the humble keeper of this blog – who chose to settle for the more affordable fare at a mid-town café, leaving him appropriately under-whelmed.

'Paise Hotel' in Paris

Brought up on a staple of clichés and stereotypes, one always associated French Cuisine with Fine dining and Parisian Cafes – until I discovered this little hidden treasure in the by-lanes of the St Germaine area called Polidor (Cremerie Restaurant Polidor at 41 Rue Monsieur-le-Prince – near Theatre d l’Odeon). Near rustic in ambience, it can be described roughly as a French equivalent of a “paise hotel” in Calcutta – with no exclusive seating, sharing long tables with other guests who are accommodated as they come, waitresses almost throwing the plates at you while placing the bread-basket and pitchers of vin-de-table from casks.

Being an incorrigible creature of habit, it has become my regular haunt ever since I was introduced to it by a friend – so much so this time around I chose a hotel next to it to stay in. But, serving traditional fare it is a place for serious diners – typified by two old asterix look-alike Frenchmen seating next to me, who went through all the courses from the Fish Terrine to the Beef-tongue Piquante wrapped up with a rich Crème Brulee and Espresso. When I am not in a mood for the pickled duck roast or veal in lemon sauce – I fall for a little taste of home in the Pork Madras Curry, obviously transported from the Pondicherry connection. (and, btw - they don't accept credit cards)

Gender Matrix on Air

Airline food is generally bad and some are ‘more bad’. But occasionally one is pleasantly surprised. One meal I look forward to is the Indian selection on the Jet Airways London – Mumbai / Delhi sector. Catered from the Bombay Brassiere – it is one of the best ‘Hindi food’ ( as a friend’s young son, quite appropriately – I think, calls North Indian cuisine) I ever had – be it up in the air 35k feet asl or with feet firmly on terra firma. It could well be that, after days of Continental food the taste buds crave for some spicy titillation. But, by the same token, how come I don’t find the ‘desi khana’ on other international airlines as appetizing ?

Somehow, on Jet I always prefer the vegetarian option – which is usually more innovative in comparison to the “chicken tikka masala” variant in the non-vegetarian menu. This time I really relished the ‘Lauki ka Kofta’ with real home-style Arhar ki Dal. The desserts are a treat – tho’ I usually pass the Rabdi or the Firni for the irresistible Haagen Dazs Belgian Chocolate Ice-cream.

Moving on to another 'in-flight' experience - tho' not of the culinary kind, on this trip – I came across a lady in a business suit moving around the cabin, who distinctly looked like a staff in mufti. Upon enquiring, I learnt that she was an ‘in-flight auditor checking on the quality of service. A short conversation later, she told me that recently the airline had a high turnover of staff – and they found such on-the-job training really useful for the new recruits. She taught me another new term “gender matrix” , that is apparently skewed a wee bit in favour of the male crews on international sectors and which they were trying to correct by inducting more women on board.

It is for these continuous innvovations and attention to details of customer service, Jet gets my vote for sheer professionalism – on ground or high in the skies.