Monday, November 01, 2010

A season of autobiographies

It’s a season of autobiographies. Some weeks back – I had written about Fali Nariman’s memoirs (read here). If that was a gem - B G Verghese’ “First Draft” (Tranquebar) is a rare treat.

Reading the lives of the “good and the great” is always inspirational. But, I find the memoirs of contemporary stalwarts no less fascinating as long as they are not just exercises in self-glorification and intellectual narcissism.

Sure, their accounts are bound to be coloured by personal bias and they would no doubt apply their own filters (or else – why would they undertake the audacious journey of writing a book if they didn’t have something of their own to say). Yet, they offer the by-stander valuable insights and perspective on people and events that has shaped some of our contemporary reality.

Besides, there is always something instructive not only in the successes and achievements, but even in the failings of people, who have lived a full life in every sense – personally and professionally.

GnT loaded Voyeurism

It’s with similar expectations, I had picked up the much-hyped autobiography of Tony Blair– but couldn’t make much headway. May be I am not so interested in modern British political history, but more likely I didn’t take to his style of writing. Even the chapter on Lady Di made tedious reading and despite my self-professed inclination for vicarious voyeurism didn’t manage to reach the part where, I believe, he admits that he was quite “an animal in bed” after downing several GnTs.

Although there are no such salacious confessions in either Nariman’s or Verghese’ book, I like them because these 2 very distinguished gentleman - both doyens in their own field have recounted their experiences spanning over 5 or 6 decades – keeping themselves firmly on the backseat. Not an easy thing to do for people who have not only been there and seen that but done pretty much everything there was to do in their chosen arena.

the many genres of illiteracy

The sheer sweep of BGV’s book, the range of his interests, the span and depth of his knowledge across subjects is truly awesome. No wonder he is concerned that, ‘…many educated middle-aged Indians, including policy makers, are astonishingly ill-informed about the context and background of seminal topics such as Kashmir…, Siachen…’. He attributes this to the absence of books on the general history of post-independence India. A void he has tried to fill in some measure in his own way.

At another place – he laments how much of our high politics is conducted “in a state of cartographic illiteracy” with even elementary geography having been devalued educationally as a discipline. He dares to say, therefore, “few of our policy makers have ever looked at a map of India and its neighbours in 60 years”.

Reading his memoir, at one level, I feel how little we have moved on certain issues as a nation over the last 60 years – Kashmir for instance. Simply, “changing the names and dates… (would make) it appear totally contemporary” – as he writes in the foreword.

The irony though is, issues which agitated our public psyche in the 60s and 70s – such as corruption in public life, professional (and intellectual) integrity of the bureaucracy and attempts towards having a ‘committed’ judiciary – all seem so passé now.

the price of feudocracy

Today – the going ‘price’ of an MLA or MP is general knowledge; that bureaucrats will be hand-maidens of their political bosses is an accepted fact and there is not even a flutter when one of the senior most and highly respected lawyer of the country hands over in an open court sealed envelope to the Chief Justice of India containing names of previous CJIs who were ‘known’ to be corrupt. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that - the rot has also insidiously crept in to our armed forces - still one of the finest and most respected in the world.

The parts of the book (other than, of course, his account of the Emergency era) – which I found particularly riveting were the chapters on his tenure as the Press Officer of Indira Gandhi during her first term as PM and, thereafter, his stint as the Editor of the Hindustan Times.

a little left of self-interest

In the 2 Chapters “Enter Mrs. G: Madam Prime Minister, Sir” and “A Mandate for Change” he provides a invaluable peek into Indira Gandhi's formative years in office and early events that shaped her attitude - deeply suspicion of her advisors - trusting only her won instincts (like Joan of Arc listen to her ‘inner voice’, which – as they said – was only “a little left of self interest”) and her family. A trait that now appears to be deeply embedded in the genetic code of the dynasty.

‘The Editor’s Den’ read with what he has written in a later chapter (‘The professor will see you now’) as a footnote serves as a capsule commentary on the gradual ascent and the quick decline of the Indian media. (Journalists as activists and propagandists, editorializing in news columns, decline of editors lack of editorial control, deals struck with business houses and political interests, the spoils being shared all along the line). While, he admits, that “there are exceptions, of course, and some of the best writing and coverage is superior to what there was earlier….But the average is sorely disappointing.”

True the age of the 'larger-than-life' Editors has been long gone (and, not just in India) I can't help recalling here the quip of a proprietor-editor, one of the last of the Mohicans. Talking of a poster-boy of the current lot of celebrity-editors - he said in his inimitable style - "the chap may have gone to Oxford, but even his best friend would not accuse him of being educated".

But, the central story, of course, is that of his historic sacking from the position of the Editor of HT. He has reproduced the correspondence exchange preceding that between him and the owner of the paper (K K Birla) and the proceedings that followed in the Press Council and the High Court. This was– perhaps – the first big ‘acid test’ of Editorial independence in Indian media (barring, probably, the lesser known episode in The Statesman relating to Pran Chopra in the 60s).

Saints, SUVs and Sweat Equity

Though not comparable either in stature or circumstances - the recent tale of a young editor (co-incidentally a product of that very same stable on KG Marg) who suffered a similar fate at a fledgling TV news channel (To read click here: My Settlement with NewsX by Avirook Sen) will make the earlier generation of proprietors look like saints. (Avirook managed to get Rs 2 crores and keep his SUV by threatening to take them to court. Then he went on a sabbaticcal to write his just published travelogue "Looking for America", Harper Collins, India)

That brings me to another little anecdote. Post the Emergency, Verghese contested the election as an independent candidate from Kerala. Funding came from ‘friends, family and those who believed in press freedom’ (which was his electoral ‘platform’). He lost despite support of the CPIM.

Though he doesn’t talk about it himself, a professional compatriot of his has written about this in his review of the book for a magazine. It seems that, after the elections there was still some money left in the kitty. Verghese returned it to all the donors in proportion to their original contributions.

Contrast this with another illustrious Malayali - of his partner’s “sweat equity” fame - who fought and won in the last parliamentary elections from the same state and it would, more or less, complete the picture of our drifting value system.

Finally, Verghese’ prescription for staying young is to be ‘active and engaged’ (he says – he has been ever more active in retirement). He advises – “eat what you will in moderation and do not exercise too much - (as even) that too is an indulgence”. Wonder what does he say to his younger son Rahul who has taken to running Marathon for a living (Virtual Marathon - click here).

Monday, August 09, 2010

3 Wise Men......

A hospital – no matter how plush – is not the most exciting place to spend the better part of a week. Any amount of flirting with the docile “Mallu” nurses (no offence meant – some of my best women friends have been from that southern-most region of our land) or the pretty dietician can uplift the spirit.

But, it isn't so much the after-effects of my tryst with a female of the wrong species (‘Aedes’ as distinct from ‘Anopheles’ – yes, I am down with Dengue and not Malaria !!), what I am forced to watch on prime time television every single day that's making me depressed.

…. a virgin ??

There is an unkind joke about why Christmas is not such a popular festival in Delhi. That’s because, it is difficult to find 3 wise men and a virgin in the capital city. While I have no authority to comment on the latter (tho’ not too long ago Matrimonial Columns - of what was then proudly proclaimed as Delhi’s “Best Punjabi Newspaper in English” - used to be replete with ads of “5 figure earning businessman looking for a beautiful virgin”), watching the debates on TV I would tend to believe the former. It is always the same set of the – so called – commentators, party “spokespersons”, self-styled citizens champions and an ubiquitous ‘ad-man’ who hop from channel to channel holding forth on issues as diverse as Kashmir, corruption, Rail accident, the Maoist menace, cricket, floods, rail accidents and even gay rights. If that is an index of the collective intellectual capital of the country – then God save us all.

What’s irking me the most is, people who I would like to hear most on these subject – the Prime Minister being foremost among them - are maintaining a deafening silence. The Congress spokesperson tried to justify his reticence the other day saying – if he is not making statements in public doesn’t mean he is not talking through other channels. I cannot think of an Obama, Cameron or even the otherwise flippant Sarkozy keeping mum if a crisis like Kashmir or a CWG scam were to happen in their countries. While the latter would have certainly invited the proverbial ‘kick-ass’ response, they’d be taken to the cleaners by the media and the public - with their popularity ratings plummeting - if they didn’t voice their concerns, tried to reach out to the affected people and assure the country at large about effective steps being put in place to tackle the situation.

Karan Thapar has written a beautiful piece in last Sunday’s HT – Silent Shame in which he makes this point rather tellingly thru the voice of his pet dog Pertie (to read click here)

when silence tells a thousand words

This policy of studied silence reminds me of what used to be said about Narasimha Rao’s : “No decision is also a decision”. Tho' it's co-incidental that MMS was his Finance Minister - the similarities don’t end there. By all accounts, corruption has acquired epic proportions under the UPA as it had in the Narasimha Rao regime which was largely considered to be the first era of reforms. To me having a squeaky clean PM (who would make the legendary wife of Caesar blush by his high standards of integrity) is of little value if under his watch we have purveyors of large-scale corruption.

Political scientists teach us that, good governance and good politics are not necessarily peas of the same pod. It may be argued that, corruption is only a topic of cocktail conversation for the urban elite and the masses couldn’t care less about it. The same, I am afraid, can’t hold true for price rise and development. It’s all very well for the Finance Minister to justify Inflation on the back of Economic Growth in his Parliament speech and the same to be parroted ad-nauseam by his less fecund junior colleagues in the party seeking their 2 minutes of limelight on national television.

There is a rather cynical school of thought that, the government can afford to be blasé because there are no major elections in sight. If that were so, then it is indeed a sad commentary on our national leadership. But, somehow – in my layman’s view (literally, lying in the hospital bed), I don’t think this going to cut ice for much longer even with their “aam-admi” vote-bank. There may be a silent momentum gathering - that is not yet visible to the untrained commoners’ eye. It is only a matter of time before this seething anger boils over as a groundswell of public opinion. That’s when, they too will have to start seriously worrying about corruption and price rise.

If the glaring disparity between Hyderabad and the rest of Andhra could be the cause of undoing of the Chandrababu Naidu government – the sharp contrast of Delhi (both pre and post CWG) with the rest of the country ( including even the other metro-cities with their crumbling civic infra-structure ) could raise similar issues of lop-sided development at a national level with certain regions developing at the (perceived) expense of others.

the "Price" of National Pride

I am not a Leftist in either thought or temperament. But, I do feel that, had the money being spent on the Commonwealth Games (Rs 50,000 – 80,000 crores – USD 10-15 billion going by various estimates) in the name of buying “National Pride” been spent on development of regions like Dantewada and Bastar, we would have been closer to solving the Maoist problem and that would have contributed much more to reinforcing our ‘national pride’ than any number of CWGs and Asian Games can do.

Overall, we are in for tough times ahead – double-digit growth projections notwithstanding.

In my mind, I have no doubt that this government too wants to tackle price rise, corruption, insurgency and even Kashmir. But the question is do they know and, more importantly, have the will to do what it takes ?


1)The visuals coming in from Leh shows foreign tourists joining the armed forces in rescue operations. Wonder whether there were also some Indian tourists among them or were they all queuing up at airport for the first available flight.

2) A few days ago I surprised to see in front-page of The Economic Times photographs of the former MOS of External Affairs and his wife-in-waiting at a private dinner event and wondered about its relevance to the readers of a financial newspaper. For the last 2 days I find - all leading TV channels beaming footages of the same couple’s pre-nuptial visit to the Ajmer Sharif. Obviously, I have got my news-sense all screwed up.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Salt and Pepper

Took in 2 good movies last weekend – one a breathless entertainer and the other a mellow reflective romantic drama. The first was the over-hyped – Angelina Jolie’s thriller - S.A.L.T . It was so fast paced that it didn’t allow any time to think or question the sheer absurdity of the script. The original screenplay, I believe, was written for Tom Cruise and had to undergo a sex reversal of sorts when he turned it down and Jolie stepped into the role. I must admit it was much more fun watching Angelina perform the high voltage stunts and (even though the sex sequences - as shown on the TV clips - had been censored) her feminine vulnerability succeeds in arousing the audience's adrenalin (and related hormones) more than a cold-as-steel Cruise could possibly have.

And some pepper ......

(Penelope Cruz in a scene from the film)

old age is not for sissies

The second movie, which I downloaded from the net, was more up my street – Elegy starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz (click here for synopsis and previews). In a screen adaptation of the Phillip Roth novel – The Dying Animal, Kingsley plays David Kepesh a charismatic author and professor who serially bedded the best looking student of his class (taking care to skirt the sexual harassment code of the college by waiting till they get their grades). “When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life” says Kepesh. He finally meets his nemesis – when he gets into a erotic entanglement with the stunningly beautiful Cuban co-ed - 30 years his younger – Consuella Castilo

Not quite in the league of Brando’s – The Last Tango, Kingsley is brilliant as the ageing academic who is trying to come to terms with the existential enigma of growing old vs growing up – something I had touched upon in my earlier blog Midlife Delinquencies (click here to read). The subject of an older man having an affair with a woman much younger to him has been beaten to death in literature and the movies. But, this one treats a serious subject without making it heavy - made possible by a very intelligent screenplay and superbly calibrated acting by all the lead characters. The film is full of some profound dialogue - gain delivered very lightly. For eg - Kepesh says : "Beautiful women are invisible because we get so dazzled by the outside we fail to look inside."

Standing by the window watching the rain, he talks to himself - “Old age sneaks up on you, and the next thing you know you're asking yourself, I'm asking myself, why can't an old man act his real age? How is it possible for me to still be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy? Because, in my head, nothing has changed”

The sexual chemistry between Kingsley and Cruz palpably pierces through the screen. But, this PC (unlike another I was briefly obsessed with sometime ago !!) is something else. To call her ravishing or just hauntingly beautiful would be an understatement – sans her clothes she is like a Goddess – worthy of worship as her on-screen predator honestly admits (see clip).

After all, as Kepesh paraphrases Betty Davies, “old age is not for sissies”.

another kind of BIMARU

Reading the memoirs of Ashish Bose – Headcount. Bose is a pioneer of demographic studies in India and is credited with the coinage of the term – BIMARU states (referring to the population issues of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) and other theories such as “linguistic displacement” in states like Assam post-independence.

Though, by his own admission, Bose has at times got valuable insights from ordinary people such as his “maalishwala” – he is undoubtedly a man of great erudition, who has also led a full life beyond academia. But, the book is poorly written and badly edited (surprising for a Penguin title). Coming right after Fali Nariman’s autobiography it makes a disappointing read (especially his rather simplistic account of the Emergency and mild fawning of the Nehru-Gandhi clan).

Monday, July 26, 2010

A mentors' mentor

I didn’t know Tarun Sheth, former Head of Management Development of Hindustan Lever – later mentor at the HR Consulting and Search firm, Shilputsi – that his wife founded and run for the most part by his 2 very talented daughters – Shipa and, later – only, Purvi, too well. I was traveling in the hills of Kumaon last week and missed the news of his death in the papers. I came to learn about it from the email of an old colleague and at once knew that I wanted to attend his memorial service on my return to Mumbai.

the missing "merchants"

So, I went to the Indian Merchants’ Chamber Hall at Churchgate on Thursday evening. It wasn’t a very large gathering. I thought that most people who had come were there not merely to mark attendance. – but, because, they genuinely felt that Tarun had touched their lives meaningfully at some point in their careers. And, this was not limited just to the old Levers fraternity. Apart from family, friends and old neighbours there were few elder IIM – A alumni (he taught there before joining HLL) and some senior corporate professionals whom he would have befriended during his Shilputsi years. The current top-brass of “HUL” were conspicuous by their absence except for Harish Manwani and Shreejit Mishra whom I could spot. But, coming to think of it – Tarun had retired in 1987 and most of today’s stars weren’t – so to speak – even “born” then.

The function itself was understated and dignified in keeping with the personality of the man who was being remembered. A small bunch of people spoke – 6 to be precise including his daughter -Atsi and Ashok Vasudevan who sent a very touching voice-recorded tribute from the US.

the amraas guru

The remembrances marked the measure of the man that visibly resonated with the audience. As in modern high rises, low-ceilings being the order of the new corporate architecture - It’s not just they don’t have room in organizations for professionals as tall – but, as RG (an old friend and associate) wrote in his piece in ET (click here to read) he was a rare HR practitioner with a “humane” side (an oxymoron as it may sound to be).

I didn’t spend much time in Lever House between 1983 (when I joined HLL) and 1987 (when Tarun left) – so didn’t get the opportunity to know him very closely. I have a rather sepia tinted recollection of him in his corner room on 2nd Floor West Wing (which was later appropriated by Amy Kharas and successive Heads of Administration) – that was like an in-house shrink’s cabin of sorts before it was turned into a police station interrogation room in times to come.

{I didn't have the privilege of being invited for any of his fabled "Amraas" parties and, so, had no idea of his legendary capacity for mangoes (believe he could down 25 katoris in a single sitting !!). I do remember a funny incident though, when a new recruit – taking his offer to help him “settle in” too literally – went to him for getting a gas connection that rattled even his most unflappable self.}

I was there at the condolence meeting because, for me Tarun embodied much of the values that, the old HLL – that youngsters joined with stars in their eyes - stood for. If today, Lever can boast of the maximum number of CXOs to have come out of its stable spreading across industries in India and, now, even overseas– a large chunk of the credit must go to the likes of the Sheth - for laying the foundations of the HR system which withstood the ravages of time till the 'age of deconstruction' began.

In a way – therefore - I felt, I was representing in a small way many old compatriots - whose careers he had helped to shape - who wanted to be there but couldn't make it - either because of distance or some other reason.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Midlife Delinquency

As threads of gray begin to show on my pate, those who have always believed that I colour my hair think that I’m making an age appropriate – albeit long over-due - correction as I approach 50. Others who know that I have been genetically gifted in this respect (my father who’ll turn 80 this year – has never used hair-dye – still retains generous tracts of black hair) attribute it to the stresses and strains of the last few years.

Though medical evidence would indicate that, the biological clock keeps ticking away non-stop, I believe – mentally – we age at discrete intervals rather than in a continuum. These step changes occur with important turns and events in our lives. Till then we continue to ignore many telltale external signs even if they are staring us in the face. We take time to reset our internal 'stop watch' until something life-changing happen to us.

This timing gap is – I guess – what people refer to as growing old (ageing) and growing up. The first is physiological and the other psychological. The variance between the 2 often manifests in people stretching themselves beyond their physical or mental capacity – with not-so-happy consequences. Sometimes – the effect of such excesses are only evident with a time lag – but it takes its toll for sure on the mind and / or the body - whether in the short or the long run. What was ok in the 30s and early 40s may not be what we are capable of taking in our late 40s or 50s. Personally, I am skeptical of statements such as – “you are as old as you feel”. That, to me is very often a recipe - if not for disaster, certainly - for major missteps and faltering, arising out of what psychologists call “mid-life delinquency”.

Coloured Linen Bush-shirt Syndrome

Sometime psychological changes set in sub-consciously but we don’t realize it. I remember my mother making fun seeing me in a pastel peach linen bush-shirt – a few years back – saying “Sandip is now beginning to show his age” (she knew I didn’t like to wear bright colours in my younger days – and she herself thought older men wear shocking shades in a mode of self-denial of their age).

Therefore, attempts at altering appearance may not be so misplaced or ill advised after all. It could, in fact be a tacit but reassuring recognition of the inevitable. Though, personally, I will never be apologetic about wearing colourful shirts, at the same time I will not be converted to a customer of L’ Oreal (or for that matter – good ol’ Godrej) hair colour products.

So, have I changed standing at the threshold of 50? Surely, I must have with so much that has changed around me. Some changes are for others to see and there are parts that only I know of.

There is a saying among the Bengalis that, the “Goylas” (or “go-walas”, i.e. milkmen - as the Ghoses are jokingly referred to) attain wisdom only after 40. Staying true to this adage – I admit – I took my own time in growing up and needed a few hard knocks and rough brushes from life to get me going.

Turbulent thirties and flourishing forties

Though my thirties may have been a little turbulent, the forties were far from flourishing (check out Gail Sheehy's Men's Passages). Life didn’t go quite as per the script, I had chosen for myself. That has made me somewhat inward looking - which friends interpret as turning ‘anti-social’ and a sure prescription for depression. Another sign of age is, perhaps, a throwback to the past - memories that were long lost (“things that I had forgotten, I had forgotten”) – suddenly coming up to the surface. With the ‘mortality markers’ (BP, Cholesterol, Blood Sugar) moving up - and some friends prematurely dropping off the map - death seems to be at shake-hand length.

Keeping God at arm's length

Yet, in what might seem like an odd contradiction, I sense a slight distancing from the concept of “God”. Never overly or overtly religious – my visits to temples or places of worship have reduced significantly. It’s been a long time since I caught myself either praying or meditating (which could also be a function of my fragmented state of mind). Though I wouldn’t call it a loss of faith – I feel the relationship is becoming more collegial.

That’s why – I have always been attracted to someone like Sri Ramakrishna – with whom you could relate more as family rather than a guru (Vivekananda – is a bit a bit intimidating with his intellect and force of character and someone like Jiddu Krishnamurty and Aurobindo intellectually inaccessible) – and, of late, I have taken a liking for the Dalai Lama – who wears “His Holiness” so lightly.

Last week, I saw the Dalai Lama’s interview (click here to see video)by Barkha Dutt on the occasion of his 75th Birthday aired on NDTV. Don’t think there was anything new in her questions or his answers. But, with his infectious laughter and child-like simplicity - he created subtle waves of endearing energy that could be transmitted even across an electronic medium.

From the edge of a cliff

But, dammit – this was not meant to be a confessional piece. Perched on the edge of a cliff – as I look at the mist and low hanging clouds shrouding the view of the valley below, I have come to admire 2 kinds of people over the years. First are the ones who have learnt to re-invent themselves and re-channel their energies into creating something new. I have seen quite a few of them from close quarters. To do justice to them – would require more than a few lines. They each deserve at least a short blog of their own.

The second are people who have lived their life to the full – despite all their faults and frailties. That’s why I am enjoying so much reading the just published autobiography of Fali Nariman – Before Memory Fades (Hay House). It’s wonderful to know that, even at 81 – the prospects and thrills of winning a difficult case still turn on the wily old lawyer. ‘The race is over, but the work is never done while the power to work remains’ – he writes quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, JR.

( PS: I will come back to my take on the Maoists in a later post - hopefully soon)

Monday, May 31, 2010

Infantile Disorder

Growing up in Calcutta of the late 60s and early 70s we were taught ‘Naxalism’ is a bad word. In the early or middle years of school – we were in no position to comprehend the ideological import of the “movement”. As children all that we heard or saw were bombs, killings, curfews and ubiquitous armed CRPF jawans everywhere - including in temple precincts.

For the petty bourgeoisie (“bhadrolok”) Bengali – whose 3 basic pillars of life were – Mohun Bagan, Congress and Calcutta Club - anything “left” of center was politically incorrect.

I remember the mildly disparaging comments that people of my Dad’s generation would pass about the children of friends and relatives – studying at the Presidency College or doing their Masters at the Calcutta University – who displayed the slightest leftist streak – labeling them at once as “Naxals” (“Oor cheley /meye toh Naxal korey”).

A sinister tag was attached to the names of Naxal leaders like Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal - tho’ the same Bengal had produced many an armed revolutionary during the freedom struggle who are still deified by the people. When an ailing Charu Mazumdar was brought to the PG hospital for treatment under police custody – there was a quiet jubilation at the “people’s enemy” having finally been captured.

Kanu Sanyal (who recently committed suicide)’s sister – Sumita - used to play supporting roles in Bengali movies (she had also acted in a few Hindi movies like Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 'Anand' and 'Aashirwad'). Barely coming of age, we found it difficult to believe how could the brother of such a comely woman be a “criminal”.

There was another reason for us to think the way we did was probably because, there wasn’t a family in Calcutta who hadn’t lost someone to the “movement” in those years – whether as victims of the Naxals or at the other end of the gun to “police encounters”. (Tho’ I am told the original Naxals thought it infra-dig to use “bullets” against their enemies. Stabbing a victim apparently expresses class hatred better. My mother’s uncle was killed with a sickle – near their village home in Chinsurah on a fateful Saraswati Puja eve in 1971).

Movies like Tapan Sinha’s Apanjan tried to capture the mood of the times. But, perhaps the most authentic account of the period is contained in Sunil Ganguly’s modern day epic novel “Purbo-Paschim”.

Much later, I had a closer brush with the Maoists in Nepal. To me it was a natural progression of the many waves of back-lash against years of misrule by Royalty and their elite coterie in Kathmandu. But like all other ‘revolutions’ before it – notably the watershed of circa 1990-91, that established the Westminster form of “democracy” reducing the Monarchy to a “constitutional” form – this one, which was to make Nepal a “Republic”, fast lost its sheen of idealism the closer they came to power.

Around this time last year – the West Bengal State General Secretary of the CPIM – whom I had met in some other connection – taught me the term “Infantile Disorder” an expression coined by Lenin to explain left wing extremism that has now become common parlance in Debates on Maoist insurgency now heard ad nauseam on Television.

(Note: Just to make things abundantly clear, Biman Bose' reference was to the neo-Maoists and not their principal political opponent in the State)

to be continued…

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The 'GhoseSpot' turns 100

It’s the first ‘century’ of my life. This is the 100th post on “The GhoseSpot”. I never fail to mention to those who enquire – with a degree of immodesty that comes naturally to me – that, I have been blogging since 2001. Much before most people had heard of the term.

Bloggers' Block and Testosterone Bosses

100 posts in 9 years is not exactly a Tendulkar-esque feat, I admit. (actually, the count is 102; I took off 2 pieces I had written on Kashmir – at the prodding of the wife - because they were attracting too much attention from, shall we say, – slightly disconcerting quarters of the world ). But then, I had gone into a lengthy sabbatical in between. Co-incidentally – that was also the period when I was working with the media. I have often wondered what could have been the cause of my “bloggers’ block” during those years - but haven’t been able to arrive at a clear answer. Not sure – if I was overly self-conscious being surrounded by journalists and professional writers or was it simply a passing phase. Probably it had something to do – as is very often the case – with my underlying emotional state, arising from the deep professional discontent I was nurturing at that time in a highly politicized and toxic work place (presided over by a testosterone driven boss).

Why do I blog ?

At some point - every blogger comes face-to-face with the inevitable question - “Why do I blog ?” ( I think this comes more naturally than – what should have been asked in the first place – “Why should I blog ?” ). Exactly 2 years ago, I had put up a beautifully written piece from the New York Times: Exposed – Why People Blog ( Click here to read), which says it all and more.

I am reminded of an anecdote narrated by the celebrated Bengali author – Samaresh Basu once on TV. He was asked by Leela Roy ( the Indianised-American wife of Annada Shankar Roy) - “Samaresh, tumi keno lekho (why do you write) ?” He replied, “Ami likhi manush-ke jaanbar janye” (through my writings, I come to understand people)”. To which Leela Roy asked him in turn – “Keno, nijeke jaanbar janye noy” ( Why, don’t you write to know yourself ? ). This is a conversation that still resonates with me.

The Ghoses of Kats

What I started in 2001 as a somewhat light hearted social diary of our hugely memorable days in Kathmandu ( I called it “The Ghoses of Kats” then ) has over time – become more of a personal journal. The style and tone of the writings have also evolved with age - I guess. Though I don’t often go back to reading the old posts – I am sure if I did they would trace - my own inner journey through – what has certainly been for me - a mellowing 40s.

Many friends who chance upon the Blog or stray into The GhoseSpot while trawling the net have remarked that, the earlier posts were much more carefree and spontaneous – with a pace and cadence of their own. They say, in contrast the later writings appear somewhat stilted and guarded – holding back more than they reveal. They also disapprove of my self-deprecating tone and the strenuous attempts at being unnecessarily risque. They are probably too polite and gentle to use words like “fake” or "affected" - but what they probably mean - in short - is that the pieces lack intimacy and, therefore, fail to connect. But again, that too can just be a reflection of my current existence – when the best that I can possibly do is drift with the tide.

There is no denying that all writers – bloggers included - have a narcissist under their skin. Otherwise, how can they be presumptuous enough to put their work up in the public domain – no matter how mediocre – thinking that it would be of interest to others. I too will be less than honest – if I were to say that I don’t derive my own little highs counting the number of hits the site gets. And, it does feel good every time someone takes note of a posting or acknowledge that they have been reading the blog – even if occasionally.

It's my trash

Sometimes critiques and criticisms can also flatter the ego. One regular follower (whose comments I routinely expunge) keeps urging me to take on an editor - assiduously listing all the syntax and spelling errors on every post. Once at the IIC Bar, a journalist friend of mine charged me point blank on my face – in her lolly Mallu accent – "why do you inflict such terrible stuff on your unsuspecting friends ? Please kill it (the blog) immediately - as soon as you can get to a computer", she admonished. I retorted in the same vein (emboldened – no doubt - by the alcohol) – “I write not for others but more myself”. Later, after many days, I was mightily tickled – when she mentioned one of my posts in passing – revealing that she had not stopped reading the blog after all - despite the revulsion she felt towards my literary atrocities. That's what good friends are for !!

Others have complained that, my posts are too long and make tedious reading. I have thought of reducing the lengths –if only in the interest of my own time. Very often – I don’t get to write for days – when thoughts just come and go. Shorter pieces would allow me to post more regularly – but I am not sure if that would be more soul satisfying.

The Blog is not just a 'release' for me - as some friendly readers tend to think. It's become a little retreat where I can run to whenever I need a break. Not a room where I shut myself out from the world, but a room where I can sit and enjoy a drink with close friends or simply put my feet up and gaze at the sky. The Blog has helped me retain my sanity through some very trying periods of mid-life and mid-career crises - holding the body and soul together (in more senses than one !!).

At times, I do wish that I could get more deeply personal in the blog. But, there’s only thus far one can go in public view living within the confines of work and family. And, who knows – may be my story is buried under this heap of 100 – only to be unearthed at a moment when I am least expecting it to show up.

So till then, I shall continue to write for myself – in the hope that, I will find my own voice someday. So what if it’s trash. It is my trash.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Loss of Innocence

This afternoon, I finally ended my extended affair with Fusun. It was an all-consuming experience lasting over several weeks. At the end of it, I am left drained and exhausted with satiety.

For those of you – who haven’t yet read Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence” (click here to read excerpts)– she is the heroine of the book and the subject of a tragic and obsessive love of the narrator, Kemal Basmaci – a rich Istanbulli playboy.

I discovered Pamuk a few years back with his – “Snow” – another riveting and haunting novel - which, I think, has been his most powerful book before this. As I don’t much care for historical novels – therefore, “My Name is Red”, for which he got the Nobel, didn’t quite appeal to me – though by all accounts it’s a masterpiece.

I think it was Kingsley Amis who said, writing is the ultimate form of telepathy. Through books thoughts are transmitted over time and space – and the author enters the reader’s mind. The Museum of Innocence is that kind of a book. It is almost maddening in its minutiae. He does not just invade your head but possesses it. Time and again thru’ its 532 pages, I have wondered if he’ll be able to pull it off – only to be surprised at being drawn inexorably to the next chapter as if in an hypnotic trance.

It is tantalizing in its Hemingwayesque simplicity of narration. There is a hallucinatory quality about the love story of Fusun and Kemal, painted against a rich backdrop of upper-class Istanbul society in the cusp of modernity (".... poised uncomfortably between modern and traditional attitudes to love and sex, with eros half out of his cage, but honour and shame still coordinating the perception of private conduct" as one critic puts it so beautifully. Inncocence, obviously, refers to virginity: "Kemal is happily engaged to Sibel .......who as he puts it – 'given me her virginity',...... and before long Fusun too has 'deliberately elected to give her virginity'.... and she vows not to sleep with another man - the deflowering is ominously juxtaposed with images of the Feast of the Sacrifice, with lambs being butchered on every corner of Istanbul" - James Lasdun, in The Guardian)

For me, the description of Istanbul in 70s and early 80s is not very unlike the Calcutta we grew up in - give or take a few years either way. Fusun’s family gathered around the television is so reminiscent of the good ol’ Doordarshan days. The art film scene of Istanbul could easily be compared with vintage Tollygunj of the same period. At some point, Kemal makes a remark : I had forgotten what I had forgotten (or something close to that effect). I was overcome by a similar feeling a few months back, when – following my Mother’s death – I was in Calcutta for one of the longest period of time in recent years. Chatting with visitors – friends and relatives – who were dropping by brought back a stream of memories (of people, objects and places) that I thought had had long ago slipped away from my cumulative consciousness.

Great literature – they say – teach us something about ourselves. Reading ‘The Museum of Innocence’ we recognize the shades of Kemal (or for that matter Sibel or Fusun ) in us. And like him, we too have nuggets of trivia and trinkets stacked in the attics of our brain – our own little Museums of Innocence.

"I would hate for it to be called a love story," said Pamuk in an interview. "The book is an exploration of how life treats us, how people, circumstances and geography — the chemistry of streets in Istanbul, for instance — change, and we mortals are left helpless as things go beyond our control."

Going by the graphic story-telling, it would be natural to surmise that, at least in parts, it is an autobiographical novel. Answering this - by now what has become a routine question for him at all Book Reading Sessions, Pamuk teases : “ Kemal is not Orhan, but then I can’t convince you that Orhan is not Kemal... (tho') the only similarity between them is that both "were having a good life in a poor country"( so true for the India you and I live in too). The challenge for a writer, we know, is to keep the reader guessing as to what is fiction, what is reality. That is the master novelist for you.

I am sure that, thanks to the publicity he got for the new woman in his life, Kiran Desai - there age difference - 57 & 38 - almost the same as that of Kemal and Fusun (click here). ‘The Museum of Innocence’ will out-sell all his previous books in India. Probably realizing that (or the influence of his girl friend) , Pamuk throws a generous smattering of India in to his book – such as the Tagore Museum in Calcutta or the Halal restaurant in Delhi. But, one thing’s for sure – after this Turkey will feature high on my list of places I want to travel to (just as, I belive, Goa has suddenly become popular with Turkish tourists after Orhan and Kiran have dropped anchor there to work on their respective new projects). May be I’ll go there in time for the opening of the Pamuk Museum

Read my takes on Amitava Ghosh' - The Sea of Poppies at "In bed with Ghosh" and "Sailing with Priyanka on the Ibis". Also Kunal Basu's - The Japanese Wife at Lady Canning Lives in Japan

muk Museum.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Gastro-sexual Escapades

My mother wasn’t a great cook – but a competent one. Like other things in life her “practical” nature extended to the kitchen as well. On the other hand, her mother - my Didi-ma - was almost a gourmet chef. This was remarkable because, she became a widow in her early 30s and didn’t have meat, fish or any form of non-vegetarian food the rest of her life. Yet, she would churn out the most amazing specialty European and Bengali fare with effortless ease. (one of her best was Smoked Hilsa – deboned and cooked on a bed of ‘mudki’ spread over charcoal) But, this was true of many Bengali ladies of that era with a western upbringing and, in her case, she came from an hotelier family where she could hone her culinary skills under the tutelage of the ‘Khansamas’.

the simple and ( a wee-bit) sexy

Coming back to my mother, she never spent too much time in the kitchen. On most days – her cooking would be over by 9 in the morning at the latest. One of her favourite pastime – though - was watching cookery shows on TV. My father tells me she has left behind several note books full of recipes – which we would have to discover and explore someday. However, she did like to experiment in the kitchen. In trying out new recipes – she didn’t strive for perfection or go looking for exotic ingredients. She would improvise mostly with whatever was available at home – only sometimes getting some special condiments or fresh herbs from her occasional trips to Calcutta’s New Market. The results were often mixed – but interesting enough for friends and relatives, who – though not exactly connoisseurs - loved the “nouvelle” touch in the dishes that were rather low on spices and oil for the Bengali palate. It was the kind of cooking her favourite niece calls a "Flash in the Pan” in her recently published cookbook of the same name.

...and, meals of substance

Parties were not the order of the day then - but, we had a couple of large feasts in a year. One such ‘big do’ would be post Kali – Puja or Diwali – when she invited her large band of cousins for “Bhai-Phonta”. On these occasions, we called in a professional cook. There was a ‘Mogh’ colony next to Lotus Cinema on Surendra Nath Banerjee Road in Taltala. The Moghs were of Burmese-Buddhist origin from the Cox Bazar region of Bangladesh. They had the generic title of ‘Baruah’ and worked down generations as Bawarchis in the “Box Wallah” companies. There was a Mogh Chef in my Dad’s office. He would moonlight on his off days and come to our house. He was a mean cook. The menu would be simple but substantial. Roast of small spring chickens, mutton collar, fish kebabs or biriyani – rounded off with a mouth watering trifle or bread pudding.

the Sky(room) was the limit

Eating out was not so big with us, as - I guess – it wasn’t in most traditional families. We would look forward to a Chinese meal at “The Waldorf” on Park Street – every time my uncle from Allahabad visited (Crab-meat Asparagus Soup, Sweet and Sour Vegetables, Mandarin Fish and Soya Chilli Chicken) or North-Indian / Punjabi at Ambers or Kwality’s (Chicken Bharta and Mutton Burra kebabs) on someone’s Wedding Anniversary or Birthday. The high point, of course, was Sky Room ( Blue-Fox and Moulin Rouge was out of bounds for the children as those were Cabaret joints) with its Chicken Tetrazinni and Zuccotto cake for dessert. Other than that, it was mainly club food at the CSC – Chow mien, Thukpa or Momos after a swim and the odd Continental Dinner of Chicken Ala-Kiev or Fish Meuniere . Junk food was restricted to the rare binge on Phuckas at Dhakuria Lakes (Southern Avenue) – later Bhel-Puri or Pav Bhaji at Victoria before the ubiquitous Kathi Roll descended onto the streets of Calcutta from Nizam’s on Hogg Street (behind New Market – near Minerva Cinema and Kolkata Municipal Corporation Head-quarters) via Karco and Badshah in the same area.

the price of hunger

It’s no surprise therefore that my culinary sensibilities were honed from these early experiences and memories that still linger on my taste buds. A new journey began when I left home to start my work career. The first realization was – every time you felt hungry it cost you money. The days in “Hotel de Papa” – as the Bengalis would joke – were over for good. You had to pay for food. The second realization to follow soon was – the homely Daal tasted much better than the priciest item on the menu of the fanciest restaurant. Add to that the home-style Mutton or Chicken Curry and it was bliss. Even the humble fish that one had looked down upon all through childhood was like a piece of home.

gastro-sexual concepts

But, it was not every day, or every week for that matter, that one would find the kind Samaritan calling you over home for a meal with the family. That’s when my courtship with the pots and pans started. It was a pre-marital affair that turned out to be a bigamous relationship almost from the very start with the wife arriving on the scene in close succession. But, the good part was that - we were both equal novices in the kitchen. So, the conjugal arena soon shifted to the open kitchen in our 3rd floor terrace flat on Prabhat Road 5th Lane in Pune and we took to the pitch with shared enthusiasm - she armed with her mother’s copiously compiled recipes and me with the Leela Majumdar primer “Ranna’r Boi” - later graduating to the Calcutta Cookbook. That was before the advent of the internet.

Over the years , of course – as one would expect – Nina has overtaken me by miles, like so many other aspects of life, and I have turned into a consummate ‘concept cook’ – that is I provide the concept and someone else cooks. But, in this of age “gastro-sexual” males my repertoire remains functional rather than fancy, earthy not esoteric - refined even if they not very evolved, which I believe is just age-appropriate.

(amma's photo and food shots courtesy - Joyeeta Ghose)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

For a change

The Bengalis called it “change” for short – meaning a change of weather and place. They’d say - “change e jacchi” – literally, going for a change (sic) - “Ektu jal, hawaa badal korey aashi”. So, in winters they’d move base to what was colloquially referred to as the “West” (Paschim) – small towns of Bihar (now Jharkahnd) - Deoghar, Madhupur, Hazaribagh, Ranchi – sometime even as far as Banaras. In summers – it would be to the sea-side of Puri or Gopalpur (Ganjam, Orissa) or to the hills in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. It was bit like the old colonial concept of shifting capital for summers or winters – or the European custom of heading out to the Riviera or the Alps. The self styled “aristocrats” had their summer or winter homes at those places. Others would rent a house or have long-stay arrangements at hotels ( the more “well-to-do” in places like the BNR in Puri or The Windamere in Darjeeling). Though we were nowhere as privileged – going on long vacations was still very much the norm even in ordinary middle-class homes.

So, I don’t remember ever going on a holiday that was less than - at least - a fortnight (something we can't even imagine in today's work-life)। Usually – my father would take leave in the period intervening between Durga Puja and Kali-Puja (Diwali). Quite often, we would travel to Allahabad – where my mother’s younger sister and her favourite cousin lived – and from there head-out in a larger group in another direction. Thus, we toured the Kumaon Hill circuit of Nainital-Ranikhet-Almora, the golden triangle of Agra-Jaipur-Delhi and, on another occasion, parts of Madhya Pradesh covering Khajuraho-Jabalpore.

These were not very organized or planned trips। Travelling in 2 or 3 jalopie-loads (squeezing in 6, sometimes 7 or 8 including children into the old Ambassadors and land-masters), it was like picnic on the road with its fair share of misadventures. Practically every second night we would have to find a new place to camp or pitch a virtual tent at a Circuit Houses, Forest / Dak Bunglows, PWD Rest-houses or the Guest House of a Government Undertaking – greasing the palms of the chowkidar or seeking the benefaction of the junior local officials – or at times make way into the Holiday Home of a company. Sometimes, we were lucky to be able to make use the house of someone distantly known through a relative or friend.

Deem-er Dalna and Dak Banglow Chicken Curry

Rarely did we have a cook accompanying us – so it was usually the women who had to swing into action no sooner had the luggage been dumped into the rooms. While the rice and dal (part of the dry ration and provisions that were carried) was put to boil – couple of the men would scurry to the market for vegetables (and, on a good day, country chicken - otherwise it was mostly eggs for “deem-er dalna” click here for recipe) and their evening’s quota of whiskey (Aristocrat and Black Knight being the preferred brands of those days) . Breakfast would almost always be of bread, boiled eggs and the mandatory banana for the kids. Lunch on the road would naturally have to be in Dhabas – but in towns we would get to ‘splurge’ at a ‘family restaurant’ ( the high points being Kwality’s or Jone Hing in Lucknow, the Niros or LMB in Jaipur – even tho’ the last mentioned was purely vegetarian – and the likes of them) or in the cafeteria of a Tourist Lodge. (For recipe of Dak Bunglow Chicken Curry Click here)

the original 'time-share'

But, there was also a second format of holidays that we followed. Every other year, we would choose just a single destination to go and drop anchor for a month or so. The choice of place would, per necessity, depend on the availability of someone’s house who was willing to let it out to us (usually for free – the ‘token’ reciprocation would be in the form of a dinner invitation at home on our return) . Coming to think of it – this was, perhaps, the older form of ‘time-share’ holidays.

Normally – 2 families (presumably, like minded and compatible) would travel together (3 were a crowd and too many variables to accommodate), as apart from providing the ‘social’ critical mass not only did the holiday economics worked out better as the ‘overheads’ could be split – but also the logistics due to the comfort of numbers. Besides, traveling in a group broke the monotony of long train journeys– often extending beyond 2 nights (tho’ air-fares must have been a fraction of what the ‘low cost airlines’ of today charge, it was not an option even for the most affluent).

On reaching the final station of rest, we would go about setting up a temporary home almost like new immigrants. Life would quickly fall in to a routine – be it the long walks in the mornings to the market at other end of town or the gentle trudge in the evenings to the Military Farm Dairy to get cream for the strawberries. We would very soon be on familiar terms with not just the local grocer and baker – but, at times, even the best tailor of the place from whom – for some inexplicable reason – my uncle decided to order a suit and had to make umpteen rounds to get the fit exactly right. In the process, the rest of us too – including the ladies - had some piece of winter clothing stitched from him. On the weekly trips for encashing Travellers’ Cheques ( as there were no Credit Cards or ATMs then) – the Bank Manager – would not only give us sight-seeing tips but also, occasionally, share little nuggets of gossip about celebrities who would come for escapades to some tranquil hide-outs in the vicinity. . Before long, it would be time to leave and we would go about bidding farewell with a promise to come back soon – which, at least for then, were meant genuinely.

Charing Cross in T Nagar

One such holiday – we had enjoyed a lot was in Ooty circa 1973. Took my father there – at the end of our trip to Wellington, Coonoor, earlier this month - after a gap of nearly 37 years. It wasn’t such a good idea – because, within 3 months of my Mother’s passing away, it only brought back for him a flood of old memories. We drove down Havelock Road to see the house where we had stayed (that belonged to a leading stevedore of Madras). It was now in shambles and a slum had sprung up around it. Shinkows – which, I believe, is not a patch of its old self - was shut for renovation. Among the old shops only Chellaram’s had retained some of its old character – Mohan’s was now like any other touristy shop at a hill station. Charing Cross could easily pass off as a junction in T Nagar, Chennai. Everything else – not surprisingly – had changed beyond recognition with the exception of a few tucked away secrets like the King’s Cliff. What we could manage for him was a panoramic photograph of Ooty shot in the 70s from Elk Hill mounted on the wall of the reception at the Ooty Club – which itself had stood still in time.