Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Rajesh Khanna - the Dark Star. "Chingari Koyi Bhadke..."


When Rajesh Khanna died, I cried. Not only I, but many cried along with me. A man who generated so much controversy and hysteria is gone. Dead. My tears were not only for him. My tears were also shed for my childhood, youth, and adulthood. Here’s how and why.

Like many in those days I came of age seeing Rajesh Khanna’s films. He was for us the King of Hindi Cinema, its first superstar. In fact, the term was coined for him, because there is no such a term for Hollywood actors, where there are stars but no superstars. Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe were stars at best, but not superstars. Aradhana, Aap Ki Kasam, Kati Patang, Anand, were some of the iconic films of those years that defined our youthful aspirations. We were carried into an ersatz world by their sweet sentimentality. They were of a type that not even Hollywood with its mushy tearjerkers could match. What was a Roman Holiday, or, To Kill a Mockingbird compared to Anand and Aap Ki Kasam? We were high on Bollywood elixir in those times, we sang the songs, even imitated his mannerism as he crinkled his eyes and smiled, playfully lifting his hands to the skies. We spoke his dialogues imitating his unique delivery. Upcoming actors, would-be directors, anyone, would act like Rajesh Khanna. There was even a Rakesh Khanna, a one-film wonder, who flopped miserably. Nobody in Bollywood could match his ability to get his fans rooting for him in the confines of the dark theatre, he was such a phenomenon.

Many of us wanted to be nothing but Rajesh Khanna when we grew up. His dark personality and offline shenanigans be damned! So, we imitated his hairstyle, his mannerism and wore his guru shirt with some sort of pride combined with hero worship. Umakant, the neighbour, went on to neglect studies, went to theatres instead of school and ended up a duffer, and ruined his family because he was the elder son, and there was too much riding on his success. His son later became a gangster. Ravi another neighbour entered into an affair with a girl in our building which was doomed from the very beginning and spoilt his father’s aim of making him a doctor. So on and so forth.

It was nice to read about Khanna in some detail from Gautam Chintamani’s book Rajesh Khanna – The Dark Star. I finished reading the book, and thought of writing this, not as a review of the said tome, but as a review of the era.

We were so much in awe of him that we spoke of nothing else but his movies in those internet-less and mobile-less years. We would wait with bated breaths for his songs to play on Binaca Geet Mala, on Ceylon radio, on Wednesdays. Remember Binaca? Remember Ceylon? When we would hangout after the day’s cricket was played, we would discuss his latest film. We thought he would go on like that, for ever, and, quite vainly, believed we would never age and grow old. Time stood still for us in those days and we were repetitively assured of its stationary nature by his films in which there was love, heartbreak, and courage, from which we drew inspiration. Not only us, but even adults couldn’t talk of anything else in those days. He was for us, mentor, guardian, and teacher.

Yes, Khanna was dark, he was an enigma. I lapped up all stories that Devyani Chaubal wrote about him in Star and Style, a film magazine of those days. There was a magazine boom thence and every magazine wrote about his various exploits, with his women, with his friends. Devyani’s description of his wedding was detailed, and informed us that he fed all those who had come to ogle at him, and when the food wasn’t enough, he ordered more. He was known to enjoy his drink and his food, and made sure that all his friends also enjoyed their food and drink with him.

There are many stories and legends associated with him. Some are good, some are bad. It is said that he used to lock up his wife in their room preventing her from going anywhere, to stop her from seeing anyone. He was having affairs and he didn’t want his wife to have one. He was jealous and protective of his wife and children. We knew of his weaknesses, but we wanted him to continue, and go on giving us his fantastically idealistic films. Those films gave us fun, music, songs, romance, and our mistaken idealism. They were written and directed by left-leaning idealistic Bengali writers, and directed by intellectually-oriented Bengali directors, genius music directors and singers like RD Burman and Kishore Kumar, who were on steroids, or, so, we now suppose. They worked as a team to deliver a hit and their films never disappointed.

But the star’s shine waned in the dark world where new stars emerged in the galaxy. His rival Amitabh, his co-star in many movies took over the mantle from him. Talk was that he had invited Amitabh, out of kindness, to a party at Prakash Mehra’s house where the director gave him the offer for his first big hit Zanjeer. Khanna was offered Zanjeer, but it didn’t gel with him, maybe, his asking price was too high and, moreover, Mehra was new to the industry. Amitabh went on to do very well, challenging the superstardom of Khanna.

Khanna couldn’t make the transition Amitabh made from lead characters to just grown-up, but, still, strong characters. I read about how he was nearly beaten up for teasing a girl by a man who didn’t know who he was. His films began flopping with shocking regularity. His last years were spent in isolation gazing out of his balcony at his home Ashirwad, probably reminiscing his song in Anand, sung on a beach, “Zindagi Kaisi Yeh Paheli, Hai; Kabhi Yeh Hasaye, Kabhi Yeh Rulaye.” (Roughly: Life is so strange; one moment it makes you smile and then it makes you weep.) The industry that had idolised him, now shunned him. He was not given the recognition and awards he deserved, and had to sit in the second row of a Filmfare award function. Maybe, he made wrong choices, maybe, he was not as self-assured as he was when he did Aradhana.

And, that, dear readers, is why I wept for Rajesh Khanna when he died. The book is a good attempt at capturing the filmography of this super enigmatic actor, analysing his films in great detail, but, somehow, doesn’t shed light on the person who he really was, what turmoil he might have gone through in his declining years. That said, considering the lack of material in our hush-hush Hindi film industry, it’s a commendable work of writing.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Few Thoughts about Sandel and Why Aren't Political Discourse on Religion Being Done?

It happened a few days ago. I was riding a rickshaw to Bandra station after attending the Times Litfest, and as often happens, I talk to the rickshaw driver. I get my story and blog ideas from common people like him, so this time, though my mind was a bit fuzzy from all the talk at the festival, I started a conversation.

He was a young man of 28, though he didn’t look his age. First I ask him if traffic is this bad on Hill Road. He says because of the Sea-Link Road traffic in these parts has increased. Travelling on the Sea-Link is smooth but it causes jams at either ends of it, leading to further chaos in parts like Hill Road where Bollywood celebrities like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan live. (As you have guessed by now, I am a die-hard filmy person, though I don’t see Hindi films.) As far as asides go, here’s one: I pass the American Express Laundry, the alleged place where Salman’s car allegedly ran over and killed one person and injured a few others. (He was acquitted in the case today, Dec 10, 2015.)

The rickshawalla smiled often, turning his face to me as he spoke, honesty in his voice and in his eyes. The general view of Bombay’s rickshaw-drivers is of a rough individual who looks surly – sort of Gulshan Grover in a negative role – and doesn’t hesitate to fleece his customers. He broke that stereotype, in my mind, at least. His name is Shahid and he was from near Allahabad, 60 kilometres from where Amitabh lived, he said. In Bombay, he lived near the Bandra terminus and is married and had a child who died (Allah ko pyara ho gaya, he said.). Earning around 500-600 rupees a day, he is content with that income. He owns the vehicle and drives only for a limited period of time. Not particularly greedy, he doesn’t seek to earn more, or, for that matter, seems not ambitious at all. This is because most rickshaw drivers try to earn more by giving their vehicle to another driver in the night shift, so that he can earn more.

The economic theories I heard that day, the one expounded by Harvard professor of government theory Michael Sandel in particular, mentioned that inequalities are what drives people to extremism. Democracies should combat this trend by having a strong public discourse. I don’t know if people here know what discourse means. Have you watched those endless shouting matches on television and a bleary-eyed, bespectacled guy screaming “the Nation wants to know.” Then you get the drift. They – the majoritarians – would rather treat everything as their right, than engage in a public discourse. Well, something to that effect was said, considering my advancing age, and impaired hearing. (Sorry to mention, Times Litfest, the acoustics was abysmal, all I could hear were big booming echoes in the cavernous Mehboob Studios!) I wonder how a young man like Shahid could be so devoid of ambition. How could he not try to earn and give his wife a better life? Sandel said, because of inequalities, everyone should aspire for better incomes and better prospects in whatever they are doing. Agreeable, considering one per cent of Indians own fifty percent of the wealth of India. This man was not crazy for money and seemed very moral in his behaviour and dealing with customers. (When I flagged him, he willingly stopped, while most of his contemporaries just sped away.)

Sandel had also mentioned that money can’t buy morality and that people’s morals are what are being compromised. His topic was “What Money can’t buy.” This man, Shahid, one among the most moral men I have met, doesn’t want to compromise on his morality and is therefore content to lead his life without bitterness. Not for him the issue of religion, which is like a gorilla, sitting in our parliament, flinging everything – mikes, mike stands, speaker’s gavel, paper weights, etc. etc.

Today – that day, December 6 – being the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in the state from where he came from I asked him if there were riots and animosities in his village, where he grew up. He said there is no such thing. Riots are unknown in his village and people live in harmony. They go to Hindu weddings and invite Hindus to their weddings, and the atmosphere is not at all rancorous as I might have imagined. Or is he fibbing, or, has the situation changed after he left his village? I don’t know. That’s surprising because Allahabad is only 168 kilometres from Ayodhya where the Babri masjid was demolished.

I think the problem, as Sandel mentioned is the reluctance to have a public discourse about religion. As such political discourse in India mean a lot of shouting and accusations being flung at the others. “You are like that, so you must be hated,” is what we hear instead of a political or social discourse.

I also think a vast majority of people feel like Shahid. Then I think of the huge number of jobless youth being radicalised and deprived of a good future. Are these religious extremists doing the right thing? But why aren’t the voices of sanity being heard? Why aren’t they expressing their anguish? On this anniversary of the Babri masjid I have no answers. Those who seek to polarise religions without entering into a public discourse are doing the wrong thing, in my opinion.


And here’s a hat doff to Shahid, may his tribe increase and spread the message of amity and goodwill. I love that guy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tata Litlive 2015 - the Best of Its Kind, Well, So Far!

It was great connecting with writer friends at Litlive 2015 at the NCPA, which was sixth edition of this redoubtable literary meet. I have been a steady presence in their scheme of things right from the start. This edition was resplendent in that it has grown into a lot more than just literature: plays, performance poetry, literature about politics, mime-drama, etc. The range and variety was, what to say, mind numbing. I couldn’t attend all the events and had as companion my childhood-friend Gangadharan Menon, whom I had persuaded to attend, and who, later took a keen interest in all the programmes. Gangadharan is the author of Evergreen Leaves (published by Partridge Press) which is all about his escapades into Indian Nature Parks, which you may want to have a look in. He was nearly gored to death by an elephant in a jungle in Kerala. As events turned out, he developed into a festival junkie, showing more enthusiastic than me to attend all the good programmes. He has an advantage in that he lives in Chembur and by car it’s only twelve minutes from the centre of South Bombay, yes, we counted, twelve minutes.

That’s a great advantage. In my earlier days of working I used to commute from Chembur to VT, which took me an hour. Now it takes only twelve minutes by road. Isn’t that wonderful? How much time could I have saved if I had lived in the present and been able to take advantage of this new freeway? I could have written more poems and short stories, read more books, and met more friends. Now what’s the use of remembering all these things? A sense that things could have been better pervades. But, then I could also have been better.

A hello was said to the talented writer Annie Zaidi, maverick Dan Husain (redoubtable poet and writer, whose play “Ek Punjab Yeh Bhi” is being staged at the Prithvi. Dan recently returned his Sahitya Akademi award in protest against the climate of growing intolerance in the country. Writer Maya Sriram (who is working on her second novel after her first one “Bitch Goddess for Dummies”) was also there with her now grown up daughter, whom I had seen as a small girl. Well, there were writers who didn’t say hello, which doesn’t matter, to me, at least.

There were an aging population of Bombay, the NCPA types, present in strength. I meet Usha Sheth, daughter of K.D.Malaviya, one of the first ministers in Nehru’s cabinet. She asks me about Kamala Das, but I was not part of the literary scene in those days. Ganga was. So, I divert her to him. There was an artistic-looking person carrying a sketch book looking remarkably like cartoonist R.K.Laxman. He went around caricaturing people and then getting them signed by his subjects. Ganga said it had to be R.K.Laxman’s son: the looks, the conservative dress confirmed my feeling that it was him. “Laxman lived to be ninety-something and if he had a son at age 30, it has to be him.” That’s Ganga for you. I know that Laxman has a son, who is a journalist, and maybe, it’s him. I had met him some time ago when he was covering aviation-related subjects for the Times of India. But, then I lost track.

As usual with anything worth attending in India there were queues and skirmishes for tickets for the events. But Ganga ensured that he drove to NCPA in the morning on the Eastern Freeway to collect passes for me and him. So I got to see Astad Deboo’s pirouetting performance in Rivers Run Deep (he rotated Dervish-style for fifteen minutes), which made us wonder how he did it at his age. It was a beautifully choreographed performance, one that would be truly representative of the new India. The dance was well orchestrated, great music, and Tata Theatre is the best in terms of sound. The Manipuri dancers rhythmically jumped and danced while playing the drums on stage. Ganga said this is the only percussion instrument in the world playing which a drummer can also dance. I agree.

There was this performance poetry by Hannah Silva in which she tears the novel Fifty Shades of Grey with her mouth, as the preamble to the performance. She combined elements of poetry, deaf-mute-sign language, performance poetry so wonderfully that the audience was spell bound. I wonder why Brits are such good performers. They aren’t amateurish in the least and have a good command over their material.

Chacha Pe Charcha (Discussion on Chaha Nehru)

I sat through this discussion on Chacha Nehru, which had Vir Sanghvi (journalist), Nayantara Sehgal (Nehru’s niece), Anil Dharkar (Director, Litlive), and Arun Maira (former member of Planning Commission) holding forth.

Vir Sanghvi sand that Nehru downplayed the need for individual freedoms vis-a-vis freedoms of communities, e.g., in the first amendment.  True, in the first amendment (apart from the freedom of expression clause) clauses were introduced to prevent “misuse of freedom of expression”, which in later days was open to misuse. This, it seems, have curtailed freedom of expression even more. Do we, in this country, have something like “original intent” which the US has? If so, I feel all these clauses in the amendment would not have been required.

Moving on, Sehgal opined that secularism was (still is) the bedrock of the Indian freedom movement. The freedom movement cut across religions, caste, and ideology to create a new state based on freedom for all. So why are we discussing “secularism” as a concept so late in our democracy? It’s an integral part of our constitution. Moreover Nehru was an agnostic and didn’t believe in any religion in particular. He may have performed certain rituals, but he was a true-blue secularist.

Overall, it was agreed that India didn’t choose to be a Hindu nation. It has been seen as the only democracy in a sea of autocracies, dictatorships and, authoritarian regimes. Now, even that attribute seems to be besmirched by the Hindutvavadis, out to create a fanciful Hindu state.

The Play “Ila”

There was a huge crowd waiting patiently in queue for this play and I wanted to see what it was all about. Ganga had a pass which he misplaced. We decided to take a chance and queued up for half hour to get in. Luckily we managed to gain entry, into the sunken garden which chock-a-block full. Since Ganga has a back problem I gave him my seat – the only one available – and said I will sit on the mattress on the floor. I also have a back problem, but, I know Ganga’s problem is bigger than mine. But, no one, no one including the youngsters, would offer their seats to us, old beggars.

The story is by Devdutt Pattanaik and is about a king who wanders into a forest and is cursed to become a woman when the moon changes phases. To his own surprise, the king, in his female avatar, becomes pregnant. The story is told on the background of train journeys on Bombay’s western railway between Virar and Churchgate, and this being the best part, shows the little politics of the women in the ladies’ compartment. I love the part when all of them in a co-ordinated move mimic the violent swaying of a compartment. Delicious! Delectable! The play is produced by Patchwork Ensemble and in the cast I espy my friend Mukul Chedda, who is a model and competent actor. He plays the role of king Ila in his male form.


Anyway, a geat time was had, though the commute to the venue proved to be a bit hectic for me, what with my health issues. 

Friday, November 06, 2015

When racial discrimination is very subtle...


All of us have faced racial discrimination in India. This is one such. In fact, I would venture to say that India is the home of racial discrimination because our culture was based on the Varna system, which is nothing but racism. So, it is no wonder that we have faced discrimination of one type or the other in the journey of our lives.

This happened long ago. A friend invited me to dinner. We had a cosy dinner at his home, with his father and mother. The father was a man of the world, so he was okay with me and my colour. But the mother, I could see had reservations, based on, I think, my colour. My friend didn’t have any such feelings as we were friends, had worked together, and seen many movies together. He was modern and had a friendly outlook to life and I liked his company.

After dinner, since it was too late, he invited me to stay over. I was reluctant. However the prospect catching a train at 11.30 p.m. in the night from the western suburb of Bombay to Chembur, where I used to live, dissuaded me. So I decided to stay. He gave a spare pair of his pyjamas to wear and a kurta. We actually didn’t sleep much that night because we were awake, cracking jokes, destroying reputations, and talking about things. I must have dozed off towards morning.

I awoke quite early wanting to board a train before the rush started. As is usual, since I go early in the morning, I used the only toilet in the house. This is a practise I have, because elimination is the first thing I do, every morning, wherever I am. This time it was urgent, too. The house was silent when I used the toilet and after using it I was careful to clean it as best as I can with water and a brush. I didn’t find a chemical, or, I would have used it, as I don’t want anyone to find the toilet dirty after me. At home, I clean my own toilet, and, usually it is rather spic and span.

A little later, the lady of the house, my friend’s mother, woke up. And she began to let out a stream of unintelligible – to me – chatter about something. She went on cackling like a disturbed hen, and it upset me. I understood that she didn’t like it that I had used her toilet. She wouldn’t stop. I found it wise to dress and leave the place.


Now, thinking it over I feel the discrimination was subtle. Should she have thrown a tantrum, since I was still in the house? Shouldn’t she have been more discreet? Why did my friend invite me stay if his mother was so finicky? I was hurt that an individual who talked to me nicely would do such a thing. They were middle class people like me, migrants from Sindh in Pakistan. From that day I stopped going to my friend’s house.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Kidnap in Crete - Rick Stroud


I read this beautifully-written novel by Rick Stroud more as a historical fiction than as a novel. It’s so full of detailed descriptions of the World War II, from such close quarters, as to make it seem as if one is a participant in the war. Thus far, the books I have read have all been non-fiction and this book is an eye-opener as far as the realities on the ground in the warring country is concerned. All those people who died, all those brave soldiers who worked so tirelessly, everything seem so authentic that one doesn’t want such a tragedy to happen ever after in this world. One advantage it gives the reader is that one is close to the action from page one, along with tantalising descriptions of all the equipment in use, the guns, the explosives, the hard work. Remember, they were not living in the present when a phone call and a text message is a possibility. For a message to get across it had to be sent with a runner, to a radio ten kilometres away, that too, over hilly terrain.


I highly recommend that you read.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Vidyarambham - Initiation into Knowledge - Life's Intervention


Yesterday was Vijaya Dashami and therefore Vidyarambham, or initiation into knowledge. I am penning just a few thoughts on Vidyarambham, now that it’s the season for this de rigeur ritual. In Kerala it’s a big and ceremonious thing. I remember my Vidyarambham thusly. My elder sister was put in charge of my education and she was told by my mother to teach me to write. I started with Malayalam letters, writing on rice grains spread out on the floor of our house in Kerala. Every time my sister would ask me to write, my left finger would shoot out. She would say, “not left, right hand finger, this one.” But then, being left handed, my left hand finger would shoot out. She would shout again, and then, very unlike the disciplinarian she was (still is), she would give up. She found me incorrigible and would scold me and beat me. I remember crying when the stick would descend on me. In Kerala left-handed people are considered inauspicious and my mother and sisters - being superstitious - assumed I would not come to any good in life.


But then I discovered language through reading of the New Testament gifted to me in Sunday School. I loved the songs taught in the said School. I would have it written in a small notebook and would sing them when no one was watching. This habit continues even today. Thus a small spark was lit; which became an obsession later in life. At age eight, I learnt English from Joseph-saar, who, it was said, was my father’s classmate in the English-medium school in Kozhencherry. (My father had a privileged upbringing thanks to the affluence of my grandfather.) He was a teacher I admired. He made English very simple and learning it a pleasure. Soon I had all the lessons under my command and I got good marks, too. That’s when my father noticed my proficiency in English and brought me to Bombay to continue my education. That’s how I came to Bombay for the first time, at around age nine.

And then, as they say, life intervened.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

It’s the Season to Be Noisy!


The festival season is upon me. It’s the sounds that disturb, the high decibel level of its emanation. I live in a small valley set aside from the Sahyadri Hills, into a small knot of hills known as Parsik Hills. Here it’s dead calm most of the time till even a small sound is produced. Then it is amplified several times and echoes between the two hills facing each other over a pond and a wooded valley. From now on the assault on the senses has begun, there will be disturbed sleep, trauma, hearing loss, et al.

A neighbour’s son removes the silencer from his Royal Enfield motorcycle, and sets off a progression of high-decibel chain cracker explosions – the cheap Chinese sort – after him. The sound doesn’t cease for a long time till he disappears from the place in one of his nightly jaunts to meet with friends, perhaps, a girl friend whom he wants to impress. The sound he makes is about his identity and he tries to be as loud as possible, in dress, in behaviour, in being himself.

The garba dancers have high-decibel music going on in a nearby bus depot which has been commandeered for the purpose. They all are gaudily dressed in loud costumes and here they dance their loud dance. The band consists of several bass drums and the speakers are as tall as a floor of the building nearby. The emphasis is upon beats and rhythm.

“Rattta-tatta-ratta-tatta, tatta, thuooooom.” So on....

There are no wind instruments because they are considered feminine and not able to produce high-pitched sound. Nor, is there a guitar, fortunately, because the Death Metal sound would have screeched on their speakers and burst a few fragile hearts.

Soon Diwali will be here with another round of loud explosions and lighting of stringed high-decibel bombs that would easily imitate modern warfare. Then the skies would explode, too, with colour. The assault on the senses will continue.

Is it a Hindu thing, I wonder? But my friend who runs the local RSS Shakha, with whom I have a good discussion at times, is also against the sound. He is a scientist working in the atomic reactor at Trombay and says he knows of the bad effects of sound. He says it’s against his principles and is the first to complain about the sound. He also says it’s ignorance. Have we become schizophrenic in our quest for good health, peace, and calm?


Then is it any wonder that an Indian would be deaf by the age of sixty?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Some of the Stories Around Us Can Be More Interesting...




Sometimes the stories around you are more interesting than the ones you read. I didn’t mean to write this, sort of, filed this in the back of my mind, until this morning when I felt the urgent need to write it.

It’s about a youth whose enterprise really awed me. Let me call him Ajay. He delivers newspapers to my house, back-breaking and soul-destroying work, and one day he asks me if I have old newspapers to sell. I say yes, looking at the growing pile in the corner. He says he will come later to collect it, as a caution, he tells me not to sell it to anyone else. That day around afternoon he comes and collects the papers. I accept whatever he gives and don’t bother to question him about rates. I am glad to see his honest hard-working face, which has a trace of self-effacement about it.

That evening I go to the Croma Store nearby to look for some cellphone to replace my existing one. I can’t afford any of them, but I am window shopping in case son wants to gift me one. The salesman calls me “uncle” and he has a familiar look around him. I ask him if I have seen him somewhere, perhaps, during my morning peregrinations of my artistic village (This is what neighbours call Artist Village, which is also wrong. I tell them it should be Artists’ Village, not Artist Village). He says he is the same person who had come to buy my paper in the morning. I am taken aback. I am a sort of person who goes through life in a daze these days. I don’t know, life has become a drag after retirement. Sometimes, memories can f*****g freeze you in your tracks! The latest I hear is that writers are returning their awards, while I haven’t even earned one. A lifetime has gone past and I have nothing to show.

Sit licet ut fuerit![i]

He shows me the Microsoft phones, the Samsungs, the Sonys and all other gizmos that run the world today. He tells me, intelligently, about each phone and its advantages. I do a lot with my phone these days, like accessing Facebook, writing posts on Twitter, maintaining three forums started by me on Whatsapp, three or four forums on googlegroups, all of which get my phone so harried, it gives up in exasperation. I thank him and come away impressed.

This morning he again comes to take away my old newspapers. Wifey is at home and is a bit rude to him, being a Sunday, for disturbing her. It’s her only holiday, time away from teaching. Twin rivulets of sweat are flowing down his face in the heat of mid-morning and his shirt is wet. He isn’t very presentable. I intervene and invite him in. While collecting the newspapers I ask him about work. He says his employers are good and he gets a commission on sales, which assures a good monthly income, which could go up to 30 grand during festivals. The newspaper delivery job is because he only has to report at 12 noon and is free in the morning.

His replies are to the point and don’t show the insolence and ambition of the present generation. These days I am hesitant to ask young people questions. I know the answer would be a snarl and, “uncle, mind your business.” He is also very shy. I probe a bit further, being the writer sensing a story.

“Where do you live?”

“In sector two near the temple.”

“Oh! Near the Hanuman Temple?”

“Yes.”

“Who all are there in your family?” I ask this gently because I don’t want to upset him.

“I live with my elder sister, she is married.”

“What about father and mother?” I ask assuming they may be living in his native village. In which case, he may be working hard to send them money.

“Both died when I was a small boy. My sister brought me up.”

I am shocked. An orphan! I am contrite to think of the possibility, just a piddling possibility, of having hurt him.

“I have been working since childhood, doing odd jobs. Now I have to work for my future.”

That explains the hard work, the taking of two jobs, and the small business of dealing in old newspapers.

It also explains the shyness, the tentativeness, the feeling whether he will be accepted, and the lack of a father’s and mother’s love.

I am dumbstruck at the enterprise of this youth, hardly out of his teens. He has forgotten all that has happened and is bravely working to be an honest citizen of this country. Whence and whereupon, I wonder if this country has given him adequate protection to seek a future for himself. That’s all I have time to ask him. He has, by now, bundled the paper, weighed it, and dealt the cash.

Yes, some of the real stories around us can be really very sad and, not to forget, inspiring too.




[i] Be that as it may!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Pitfalls of Being a Writer


When I started writing, that was ages ago, I made no secret of my ambition to be a known, recognised writer. Perhaps this was considered as insolence on my part. Nobody said a kind word, in fact, I was sure they were laughing behind my back, “What he? Wants to become writer? Does he know the language? Does he know anything.” I regret having told them that I want to be a writer. Instead I should have said I want to be something else, poultry farmer, for instance.

There were some people who deliberately vilified my writing. It led to a lot of damage and self doubt. Writing as Stephen King described is like, “navigating the atlantic in a bath tub.” Yes, it is. It is the most hazardous profession there is. Even a comma, or an apostrophe can go against you.

It’s a universal thing. You may have experienced this impudence by friends and relatives. They said all they could to insult me and advised me to take up something else. There is no money in writing. How will you make ends meet? There’s money to be made in journalism if you are industrious enough, you know, make the right contacts. Journalists are rewarded for their coverage by industrialists and politicians. But when I entered journalism I realised that it was already full of bright guys who clung to their positions like leaches.

Then I worked as a content writer, a technical writer, and finally as a copywriter. I felt the pressure here, too. They think writers are slaves, who can be persuaded to turn in an entire website content in four days, yes, repeat, four days. That also includes, proof checking, and seeing if the fanciful designer hasn’t botched up the copy. Then the chairman decides to participate in an exhibition in a far-off city and all the flexes, display material, and brochures have to be written and printed and reached to a place called Kolhapur. You are told to go there by train to deliver the material. In Kolhapur you are told to share a guest house accommodation with a foul-smelling site manager who spends an hour in the toilet every morning. That, too, for four days.

Yeah, people don’t respect writers. There’s scant respect for the scribe these days. In olden times a “scribe” or “shastri” was respected and honoured. In Bible there is mention of “Pharisees” meaning priests and “scribes” meaning writers. In India Shastris were respected members of the community, accorded the greatest of honours.   


So where’s the respect for writers? Except for the ones who have earned millions. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Trip to Kochi


Have you heard of Santa Cruz? There’s a Santa Cruz in California, USA, and there is a Santa Cruz in Bombay. It means “holy cross,” and true to this statement the inhabitants of Santa Cruz, Bombay, are Catholics. It’s an important suburb because Bombay’s domestic airport is situated here. It’s a small place accessed by the Western Express Highway, fronted by the Hotel Centaur. I am travelling to Santa Cruz to board a flight to Kerala, my home state.

On the way I pass the area of my childhood, where I grew up, Chembur. Chembur is also a small suburb on the east side of Bombay, where pollution is high level because of the smoke-belching fertiliser and petrochemical factories. The place I lived in Chembur is called Tilak Nagar, and in those days, it was called Township Colony, which was built to house low-income group migrants who worked mainly in factories in shifts.

Chembur was a violent neighbourhood in those days and is even now. Boys here banded together into gangs for protection. The people who gained notoriety were a twinkle-eyed mischievous boy who grew up to be a super star of the Hindi screen. Another, disreputable boy, grew up to be called the “don” of the city, the underworld lord. He has converted the area into high rises that grow dizzyingly like medieval castles in the sky. It was about these people about whom my mind was occupied with when I rode the taxi to my destination, as our thoughts generally dwell on those people who become talked about, or written about.

Among the children of my generation six have died among which two were suicides. I can’t explain here why pleasant and fun-filled friends of my youth took their own lives. But, when life deals a blow, we can’t do anything about it. The less resourceful end their life, rather than face realities, and make adjustments. The more resourceful – like me – carry on regardless of all the hurts and humiliations. Sigh!

A profusion of highways, flyovers, special lanes, later I am at the airport. I say good morning to the hostess at the airline counter and she smiles back brightly. Done! My day is made! See, after all, I am a man of simple pleasures, and I have a soft spot for ground/air hostesses after seeing this video. (We all want something like that happen to us in real life, don’t we?) But there is need for caution. There are huge Punjabi hunks in lehenga-kurtas lumbering around the departure lounge sharpening their upward-pointed handlebar moustaches. What if they say, “whai didju flirtu with my Punjabi kudi?” Almost, as if expecting this, I twiddle with my own upward-pointed handlebar above my upper lip, though I don’t succeed in showing the malevolence (huh?) of their “Punjab da putr (son of Punjab)” appearance. Never mind.

At Santa Cruz, note: my downturned mustache!
I remember a time when there were no security checks at airports. Can’t believe it? Better believe it. You breezed in collected your boarding pass and passed straight to the aircraft. The terminals were big vacuous places where a few chairs were placed, not many, and after a flight departed there was a gap of a few hours for the next to take off. Nowadays an airport terminal is frenzied place, there are flights landing every few minutes, when the other is ready to take off. And there are people of all types milling around, and, like in a Bombay local train, you consider yourself lucky if you get a place to sit down.

And almost every second person in the flight to Chandigarh is a young luscious lass, in tottering high heels, a curvaceous delight to watch. I know I shouldn’t say this because of the lumbering Punjabis blocking the exits by their show of macho scratching of private areas. The girls are all clutching copies of Vogue and Elle which contain articles such as “20 way to ditch your boyfriend,” “50 ways to remove blackheads,” and nothing more profound, at the very best, than, “10 ways to cook tiramisu.” Which is profound indeed at their age. Oh the vanity of it all, the mundaneness of it all.

Flashy mobile phones, tabs, computers, are everywhere. One girl sitting opposite me, drop-dead gorgeous, is tapping into her Apple MacAir laptop and hardly gazing up from it, even to see if her flight has taken off. It makes me wonder if she likes sitting in airport waiting rooms, doing this all day. I can’t understand this obsession with being connected, and, communicating nothing. I maybe in her friend group on Facebook, who knows? I click a few selfies, though (the wordprocessor suggests “selfish,” which, incidentally, is what it is.)

At last, my flight arrives and a few shoulder pushes and elbowing later, I am safely into my seat, a window seat. You know, we southies are a conservative lot, so no babes holding Vogue and Elle in our plane, just plain Janes wearing saris and sandalwood paste on their foreheads. Hm. I watch as the plane taxies and takes off, one of the most pleasant experiences in my life. The roofs of Bombay are all blue from the plastic stretched on roofs for protection from rain. Then the clouds take over, their shapes like rising hills, valleys, umbrellas, sails, whorls, petals, ghost towns, and stalactites. A sense of déjà vu strikes only then and I lean back for a short nap till I reach Kochi, my destination.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

CORPORATE HORROR STORIES – THE Femme Fatale

 The shocking Sheena Bora murder case has familiarised us into the world of corporate femme fatales. You, of course, know who I am talking about. These are girls who come from less privileged homes, wanting to make it big in corporations, at whatever costs. I have had a few experiences about such types, meaning not personally, but to observe from close quarters what happens when sex enters plush corporate cabins, when power corrupts inhabitants of the rarefied realm. I won’t mention names here, for obvious reasons. But, believe me every organisation has a history of a string of dalliances, which have sometimes gone horribly wrong.

The protagonist in our case, an attractive young woman, comes to work in an organisation and soon the boss is besotted by her. She can’t do anything wrong, or, so the boss says. She slowly builds the relationship, goes out for lunches and dinners and attends corporate events with him. The boss maybe sexually frustrated in his marriage, which could be the golden opportunity the femme fatale knows and wants. She offers the clichéd shoulder to cry on and soon it’s the lap that is available. She thus blackmails her way up the hierarchical order, rather ruthlessly eliminating other contenders. Then it could be anything, a “girl friend” or a “wife” tag for her, even Chief Executive Officer (CEO). If she is very smart she becomes a wife, and if she is less talented she becomes a “girl friend,” of the top boss. This brings added power to her position. She becomes a femme fatale, ruthless with underlings, ruthless with the customers. Sometimes, in this way she crosses the line of propriety, but may be corrected by the boss at a high cost and loss of talent.

She takes advantage of the fact that her boss can’t reprimand her. She has manipulated him to such an extent. She can make all policies in the organisation, even if they are ill-advised. She can persuade people to do illegal acts which the employee does out of the need to keep the job. They would do anything to please her, even stand on their heads. She becomes a bit reckless seeing all the power that accrues to her with no great effort from her part. That’s when the downfall begins, the cookies start to crumble.

There is no way you can survive in an organisation if you are in her bad books. Sooner than later she will be at your throat and will see that you leave. It’s better to leave before she can hound you out. I myself was at the receiving side from such a femme fatale. She took huge amounts of the company’s money home, ill-treated her staff, fired many talented employees and made the boss (the managing director) into a puppet. Again no names.

When sex enters the boardroom, it’s a bad sign. My novel “Mr. Bandookwala, M.B.A., Harvard” deals with this aspect. The managing director of Pinnacle Constructions is in a relationship with the head of human resource, and, he can see no fault in what she does, which leads to disaster. Anyways can’t reveal much of the plot here, so have a look at the story outline here.



Thursday, September 03, 2015

Movie Review: Gour Hari Dastaan


Director: Ananth Narayan Mahadevan

I am writing this as a film aficionado, a lover of quality films. I haven’t written many film reviews, but am attempting this to bring here the experience of watching the movie, which, to my mind, was a significant experience. In my earlier days, I used to be a lover of good films and have seen the best film-makers from Fellini, Kurosawa, Ray, Irving Stone, Majid Majidi to Indian film-makers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Mrinal sen, Muzzafar Ali, and such like. As a person with literary aspirations these films and the subjects on which they were made triggered in me a hunger to know more about people, their lives. I used to go in search of good films when they were playing in the city. In those days there was the AIR auditorium which used to exhibit the best films culled from around the world and I used to be a constant presence in their shows.

But over the years I have become disillusioned by Hindi cinema and have stayed away completely from it. It’s loud, it’s badly sound engineered, the lighting is too harsh, the plots are hackneyed and the script lacks ingenuity. Even films that are hailed as art films haven’t risen above dramatic influences and never have scaled the rungs of cinematic medium.

Disclosure: Ananth Narayan Mahadeven and I have worked in the same organisation, but we have never met. Later, I met him online and we became virtual friends on Facebook. At that time I was recruited as his replacement in a publishing organisation and, sadly, I turned out to be a poor replacement. My boss would praise him too much, proving his talents in from those formative years.
So I am all excited as I sit in the hall waiting for the ads to finish and the film to begin. This is the first film of Mahadevan that I am watching I don’t know if he, the director, would live up to my expectations. It has a dark foreboding opening. The sub titles in English were an advantage in that I could understand the film better. What followed, I confess, wasn’t disappointment but one of my truly good cinematic experiences, excelling in all aspects of film making like acting, sound, music, lighting, et al.

It is to Mahadevan’s credit that he has put together such a talented team and inspired them to perform. Sometimes directors can be control freaks who would psyche even good actors to give their worst performances. Mahadevan’s control over the narrative was apparent from the opening shot. Slumdog Millionaire won Oscars but was a hotch potch of a film. This one is many times better in that it deals with an epoch and in a way that is both sensitive and nostalgic. Towards the end, I was moved to tears. I don’t know if this is because I am sentimental these days or because what I saw in the movie moved me to tears.

The film deals with Das in his entirety, his fight for recognition as a freedom fighter, his approaching Alzheimer, his disappointments dragging him into a secluded chasm of his mind. The very act of visiting several government offices with their petty politics can be nerve wracking to any ordinary citizen. Perhaps, this according to detractors of the director could be the film’s flaw, but in dealing with the whole personality of Gour Hari this is integral to the plot. Gour Hari emerges as a hero. He even clings to his post as secretary of the housing society – despite criticism - to prove a point. To make a film on a living person’s life and not to fall prey to clichés is a wonderful achievement. Credit should also go to novelist and poet CP Surendran’s scripting skills, realistic portrayal of characters, which makes a big difference to the authenticity of the film.

It’s a mark of Indian society that we do not allow talented people to rise above petty feuding. That’s why even a Night Shyamalan would have remained a maker of corporate films and ad films in our society. So the bad press the film has received from some quarters is demeaning and is a shame on us. Elsewhere Mahadevan would have been praised and given his due among the greats of cinema. I am going as far as to suggest that it be sent to the Oscars.

Vinay Phatak shines as Gour Hari. He gives that extra feeling to the character with some under-stated acting. It’s obvious that he is giving the role everything and his talent holds a candle to and exceeds that of many other character actors in Hindi films. Matching his elegance is Ranvir Shorey as the newspaper journalist who champions his cause. Ranvir, hair carelessly tousled, lives the part of a journalist. I don’t know the dusky girl who plays his side-kick but she also does a commendable job. 

Sen’s role is deglamourised but she compensates with talent and involvement. She doesn’t use make-up and it’s towards the end when she lets it fly at the housing society members that the full power of her acting unleashes and the shakti in her as a woman is palpable. She is a remarkable presence throughout the film, acting vulnerable and strong as the situation demands.

Resul Pookutty displays his excellent skills as sound designer. The film is a sound and music aficionado’s delight, even each guitar chord can be delineated from the sound track. When Gour Hari’s son strums his long-neglected guitar, the string breaks, and the sound reverberates in the silent movie theatre. I have had some experience in this aspect. One night a string on my guitar broke and I was aroused in shock from deep sleep by the echoing sound, a loud twang in the night’s silence. Just the act of thinking about a guitar and building it into the plot is an act of genius, according to me.
The film has its light moments, too, in the form of the official (Satish Kaushik) asking if Orissa is in Bengal. When Gour Hari goes to meet the MLA the security man played by Bharat Dhabolkar asks his name and he says he is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Dabolkar’s character may not even know who Gandhi is, so with a dead pan expression on his face he announces Gour Hari as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

I have heard it said in interviews with great icons of cinema that it is important to see that a “set should not look lit.” Hindi films just ignore this aspect of lighting sets. For them the set must dazzle with a hundred blazing lights with the result that the characters’ expressions are lost. In outdoor scenes there are a hundred reflectors and the eyes hurt to look at the screen. It’s a wonderful example of Mahadevan’s talent that he hasn’t resorted to over-lighting like other Hindi directors. I think other directors should learn from him.

All said and done, a finely crafted film, a beautifully construed and written film, a film that should go into the annals of Indian film making as another milestone. If I was a juror I would nominate it to go to the Oscars and would wish Vinay Phatak, or, Konkona Sen to win the award for best actor and Mahadevan for best director in the foreign films category.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

B Goes to a Party

 So, Biju (B) goes to this birthday party of his uncle who is 80 years old and still going strong. He is quite the “hahaha” type. Except that he is also a man of note in church, a respected campaigner for everything in the Syrian Christian calendar of events. He participates in annual general meetings with glee and robustness. B goes with some trepidation because this uncle can be sweet as well as nasty at times. Like the time he criticised B publicly for his ignorance of church matters. That’s another story, for another time.

When B enters expecting to be treated like a very important person, the hall is full of people. And all of them are singing hymns at the top of their voice, which is quite disharmonious. There is no place so B is given a chair by the toilet. Hm, B thinks so this is the special treatment to a nephew. So B sings some hymns. Then the preacher preaches something, which he forgets when the ordeal of the cake cutting starts. There’s the “Happy Birthday” song and then everybody takes out their mobile phones, and the show offs they are, go click, click, click.

That over, the loud blandishments start. Everybody is all praise for uncle. Uncle also praises everybody except B. So there goes B’s self confidence, for a toss. B knew uncle did never like him, so it’s not new. Uncle holds forth, “I was this, I was that, I was there, I travelled here, I went there,” till one of his daughters says, “sit there and keep quiet.”

Uncle’s daughters Siji, Sinu, and Sony don’t know B, or, remember him. It’s so long since they met. So it’s okay, B thinks. B is sure if uncle had a son he would name him Shiju. Not surprising since one worthy in God’s Own Country named his son Shit. What must have he said to his son, “Shit, poo, poo, no son?”

When party is over, the payasam has been drunk, the party-goers find that their footwear have been mixed up. There were a few of them milling around in the narrow foyer hopping around like penguins on hot rocks. Luckily B found his footwear intact, at the place he had kept it.

“That was one hell of a party” B said to his wife.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Corporate Horror Stories - Part 3

A person I have known for some time retired recently. With a good package, may I add? He was a loader in a public sector oil company. His job was to climb on oil tankers and fill them. He received three million as retirement benefits and has a pension for life. I was contemptuous of the job he did, “loader, loader, government free loader,” I used to think. Not anymore. The government has taken good care of him, he boasts. The government loved him even though the company he worked for was making losses in billions, even though the tax payers were being squeezed to run the oil company. He hasn’t passed SSC, can’t read or write, he has very basic skills. He is a happy man. I am retired, but from the private sector. What did I get? Zilch. Nada.

My blood boils; my judgement is hampered as I write this. My laughter curdles in my throat into a suppressed scream. I weep silent tears. So many years working in the private sector and nothing? The man mentioned above has exchanged his car for a high-end Scorpio, worth more than a million, he has bought gold, and, adding insult to injury, he goes on holiday. I am a bit jealous of him, not a bit, a lot. Now he will sit and enjoy his life, going for long holidays, unlike me, working at bits and odds.

I remember those years I slogged in low-paying jobs. Oh, how those days come back in rush, as if in a bad dream. He also had a low-paying job but he had security. He bargained and got a better deal; whereas I was a sucker for thinking the private sector had more opportunities for advancements. I should have known better, the banyans and the marsupials (no allusion to any caste here, hehe!) I worked for don’t care a zilch for talent. They paid their employees the absolute minimum and wanted world-standard work done.

A big hee... hee... to all that crap.

However, the danger for those like me is that in the hallowed private sector – where I assumed talent was appreciated – more and more smart operators who know a little bit of everything are taking over. I was replaced as copywriter of a construction company by a man who said he knew how to write and design also. I found that he was being paid more than twice what I was paid. Dank. I had to leave and find another job. The new guy took over. He had a few elementary skills which he lied about when hired, but when it came to designing an advertisement he was helpless, which was soon found out.  Did the company want experience or glamour? Was it going to sacrifice my experience for the misplaced promise shown by the new recruit? I resigned when I found another job, which paid me more. The company lost a skilled hard working guy (me) who handled their advertising and public relations and gained a worker who was, basically, incompetent. This is happening with disturbing regularity in the corporate world.

Thinking about it, it seems like a trap which I have fallen into, unwittingly. I was swept away by the feeling that all will be alright, good paying jobs would come. But today, in India, the private sector is squeezing every drop of blood from their employees while, at the same time, working them to death. My typical work-week consisted of 60 hours of work with only a day – Sunday – off. On the other hand the government is paying its employees and public sector workers much more than they deserve to be paid, plus, a pension. That’s what happened in Greece. The country’s pension liability billowed from paying government servants. Greece spends 17.5 per cent of its income on pensions, more than any EU country. India spends around 6 per cent but this is estimated to rise to 19 per cent in 2050. Where will this money come from?

Meanwhile the man is enjoying life. Now, he is laughing I me, I suspect. He goes for multiple vacations, flaunts his wealth, throws lavish parties, wants to get his sons married, and is having the good life. Let him enjoy. He has worked hard for it, climbing those trucks in rain and hail, and filling those umpteen tanks. Thinking back that would have been a better job by far.


Monday, July 06, 2015

CORPORATE HORROR STORIES – Part 2

 This is a corporate horror story right from the bottom of my basket of tales. You have heard about how software companies pay their employees so well and they have a gym and cafeteria – food for free - in their office itself. Well, I have never had any of those amenities in the companies I worked, hm, slaved rather. Hey, but the story here is different. You will see how these companies can afford the abovementioned gyms and cafeterias.

I was working then with the company sales of which was around 2000 crores. A real biggie. The company was listed on the stock exchange and had good projects in various parts of the country. Then the chairman decided that we must computerise the whole operations as accounting for all the projects was getting out of hand. So we had experts suggesting to us whether we needed SAP or Microsoft. Microsoft was favoured because it was cheap. The chairman agreed to give the contract to a company who would do the development of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system for the company. Meanwhile the chairman also became friendly with the boss of the company doing the ERP system. It was usual for the chairman to have breakfast and lunch with the owner of the ERP company at his home.

I was in the ERP department to implement their Sharepoint system, which is a software that linked all the knowledge resources of the company, so that information was available to all when needed. The ERP manager chosen was a retired army Colonel who knew next to nothing about ERP or computers. The Colonel spent time chatting with his girlfriends on the computer and we pretended to work.

So when the chairman was merrily having breakfast with the ERP company boss, he assumed the Colonel was doing his job. The chairman was also cheerfully signing the completion-related documents which entitled the ERP company to claim their payments. Meanwhile the Colonel who thought ERP was some sort of caper which they played in the united services club went about addressing his staff in stentorian voice about duty and responsibility. He didn’t know what was happening behind his back. He was having long meetings with the ERP company in which he didn’t understand much of what was said, but kept nodding his head.

The chairman signed the last of the phased out payment cheques, a large cheque this time. The entire contract was paid out without much being done. When it came to a demonstration, nothing worked, because the basics of an enterprise resource planning system were not in place. This made the chairman livid with rage. He raved and ranted at the Colonel, who raved at his staff. The staff went home and raved at their poor wives. Crores of rupees had gone down the drain already and then somebody in the staff pointed out that the ERP company had never done any projects whatsoever because it was recently set up by a disgruntled employee of another software company.

The ERP company got rich, Microsoft got rich but the company I worked for was poorer by a few crores. Then the decision was taken to implement SAP. I only know the story thus far because by that time I had left.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What's Happening in Greece?

 I like the Greeks. Yeah, I like them because of their attitude. That handsome dude Prime Minister Tsipras is always smiling as if nothing is wrong. He is even enjoying the publicity, not bothered that his country is a broke nation. His hair is neatly combed and not a strand of grey is visible anywhere. He is clean shaven all the time, no stubble like his Indian counterpart. The other dude is his finance minister Varoufakis, he is handsome and has a cool walk, too, shoulders squared, swaggering like a rock star. Adonis, sort of. He rides a bike as an austerity measure, but who knows where his stash is?

So what’s happening in Greece? They have brought a continent and the world on its knees and have the gumption to smile. “Now you take care of us, give us more money, or, you go down with us.” Isn’t that hilarious? Hahaha! Another global financial crisis will cripple us. Meanwhile let’s make the most of it, hahaha!

The 2004 Athens Olympics started the slide. The country spent $ 9 billion hoping that tourism will get a boost after that. But the tourists stayed away because of the high cost of everything. The real problem started in 2011 and nobody bothered to check it. Greece went on spending without care. They were part of Eurozone now so let Europe take care of them.

Sure Angela Merkel can do something? Can she? Surely Obama can help this country which is as old as civilisation itself? No? Then what really is wrong with the handsome Greeks? Oh I get it. It’s their inability to impress western women with their cool demeanour that’s bothering them. No longer are they being lionised as God’s gift to mankind.


Well who needs them when they have enough cool dudery in the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Last heard they were in negotiations for buying a Greek island on the Ionian Sea.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ajith Pillai's Book "Off the Record"


Right from the time I knew him when we worked together in Malayala Manorama, I knew Ajith Pillai would write a book and it would be something to look forward to. Ever since I purchased the book on Amazon I couldn’t put it down, his sparse – Hemingway-ian – narrative kept me going impatiently from page to page. He is witty, ironic, and cynical and often would make me laugh with the stories he had written and the experience he had had. He was friend and fellow conspirator who helped me when I was in a dark period in my life. If I was dark and moody he would crack a joke and my spirits would lift. When we were short of money he would say, “Let’s rob a bank.” Of course, he didn’t mean it. He was correspondent of The Week and I was Manorama’s marketing supervisor. Though we were in conflicting departments our friendship was devoid of any rivalry. Being a foodie, he led me on a discovery of the restaurants in the Fort area: City Kitchen, Gokul, Martin’s, Mahesh and many more. He loved his food as he did his drink. But most of all he loved his job, wherever he worked.

The book I am referring to is Off the Record by Ajith Pillai a collection of his stories – on record – most of which I have heard from him in person. A good raconteur, a good writer, a good human being is how I would describe him. He was incorruptible and told me of the blank cheque handed to him by a tycoon to write a story favourable to him. Of course, he didn’t accept it. These are stories which are not part of the present collection. Likewise, he had submitted a two-word resignation letter at Observer which consisted of only “I resign.” That points to the humour of the man.

He and the late Vinod Mehta had a good personal chemistry. Under Mehta his writing and career took off, first at Sunday Observer and then at Pioneer and Outlook. Mehta trusted him and knew of his inherent sincerity and dedication. The legendary editor passed away without handing his baton to someone worthy of the mantle of the leader of the fourth estate and I feel the worthy inheritor would have been Ajith Pillai. Well, it’s cruel fate that Ajith didn’t get what he was due. He should have been an editor now, motivating a younger crop of journalists cutting their teeth on the burning problems of the day.

Ajith Pillai's Off the Record
Particularly gripping is his account of the Kargil war which he covered for Outlook. His dad was a high-ranking army officer and, I guess, that gave him the insight to report on the war in depth. Speaking of which it reminds me that he studied at one of the premier institutions – La Martinere – in Lucknow where, I presume, Vinod Mehta also studied. Yes, he did. (This I find after a Wikipedia search.) What’s about that institution that inspires creativity and good moral standards in a morally corrupt world, I don’t know?

Off the Record is a must read for all journalism students. Not only read it, but keep it on your desk to refer to it, re-read it and digest what he has to say. Treat it as your Bible and Bhagwad Gita. Particularly because mostly Ajith worked in an era when laptop computers, cell phones, and social media didn’t exist. I have seen him sitting in his cabin writing his dispatches in long hand and having them sent by teleprinter to our head office. When I told him my work in marketing was not working out and that actually I wanted to be a journalist he arranged an appointment with an editor, but the job didn’t materialise. No worry. At least, he helped, that’s the kindness of man I am writing about. Now, on hindsight, I think I would have made a miserable reporter.

Here’s what I think journalism schools should do. They should buy the book in bulk and distribute it to their students. The indefatigability of the man who took his reporting seriously will come shining through. We will hopefully have a new crop of journalists as dedicated to their jobs as he was.

Do read Off the Record even if it deprives you of your last vada-pao in McDonald’s. You will hunger for more, which is actually the purpose of this book.

Monday, June 22, 2015

CORPORATE HORROR STORIES: Part I



Sometimes I wonder if the aggregate of the problems of this world is because of greed. This realisation has troubled me no end. Now greed pervades everything: sports, entertainment, publishing, broadcasting, software programming, etc. When I was starting in content writing for websites I was told by my manager that “everything is available on the net, you just have to copy and paste.” I followed his instructions and did likewise. Perversely it might seem, now, he is the manager of some company in the US and doing well. His instructions to his programmers were, “don’t try to invent the wheel, take the code from the source, paste it.” (Source code was available online from every website.) His motive was greed and how to make millions. He didn’t know then that his stilted philosophy would result in job loss for twenty people working under him. In those days from a poky little office in the Millennium Business Park our company made five million dollars a year by copying things from others san any fear of copyright infringement. Then, one fine day, the company shut down rendering us jobless. The reason was Google can easily detect copied content and can punish the site by giving low exposure and a low ranking in web searches. So greed didn’t pay and I had to find another job.

Earlier in my career I was general manager of a small publishing firm. I had risen from the ranks by sheer hard work. I had invested a lot of time and energy to build up that organisation: invented new systems, streamlined billing, dirty-ed my hands learning about how to run a publishing company. The company was doing well and there was considerable goodwill among the advertisers. The owner would greedily extend his deadline for ads that came in late so that he could earn a good profit for that month.  I became worried as the issues started coming late. The January issue would come in March and so on. The effect was that the magazine got so delayed that there came a day when we couldn’t catch up. I told the publisher to miss a few issues but he wouldn’t do that. Advertisers saw the foolishness of their ads appearing after a few months and stopped releasing ads. The magazine died a natural death and with it ended whatever small dreams I had nurtured.

That’s the predicament of most greedy organisations of today. They think their greed can substitute for enterprise and energy. They – like Gordon Gekko - think being greedy is good. But the thing about greed is that it gives rise to more greed. More greed then leads to confusion among the ranks, the foot soldiers get disoriented. Then the company, the enterprise starts dying and nobody can stop the decline in the company’s health because the top people are still thinking in terms of greed. Once the decline starts it is unstoppable, the end result is a lot of fights in the office, recriminations, finger pointing and death of a viable business.


Watch this space. More of this to come. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Vacation to Kerala

The vacation in Kerala was eventful, a revelation of sorts, as it always is. So, here I am with a bag of tales from God’s favourite country. I don’t know who all will read this and benefit, but here it is, my impressions.

Firstly, uneducated Malayali men are mostly wild and impulsive. They revel in being wild and uncontrollable, ingesting a bottle of whisky a day without any qualm and badmouthing everybody in the process. They destroy their own lives and that of their family members without thinking. All they can think about is liquor and sex. There is one such specimen in the house opposite my brother-in-law’s (BIL’s) house. He drinks, lazes around home, uses the worst profanities with his wife and children, and does no work. He is a pathetic sight, slouching his tall figure and walking on the street, trying to act dignified. He has had no education and was a waiter in a tea shop before he was kicked out. His wife is the breadwinner of the house. She tolerates him to some extent but loses her cool sometimes calling him the worst profanities when offended. She works as a domestic help and earns a good salary which can keep a family alive. But he goe s to her employer and borrows money, which is then deducted from her salary. These are people who get rice at Rs 2 and have health insurance and a pension when they are old. Yet, they can’t manage and depends on what is being doled out by the church and other charities.
River Periyar: though it starts in Tamil Nadu flows into the Arabian Sea close to Kochi

Leave this specimen of depredation and move along to the services. A malayali craves for a government job as a thirsty animal seeks water in the Sahara. Once inside the job, he knows he is lord and master over his domain. He behaves like a satrap newly appointed in his august post. I wanted the schedule of a new air-conditioned bus services from Tiruvalla to Kochi. On three occasions I was given three different timings. How could I know which one was true? I was disconnected after the most perfunctory information. “That’s all you get,” must have been the understanding among them.

Then I try the Tiruvalla railway station. Here the inquiry desk doesn’t bother to answer the phone. Dang! After ten tries, I give up, in frustration. Since I have a smartphone with internet I could get the train schedule online. Thank God!

The countryside is incredibly beautiful. There are lush palms and rubber trees waving in the somnolent air, punctured by the call of exotic birds. There are the backwaters which add to the mystique of a tropical paradise. Many times I have been tempted to get down from the car I was travelling to walk along the bunds that separate the fields and have a bath in crystal clear water. Kerala doesn’t have industries so the water is pure.

There are also unsightly sights along the way. This is to be expected in all towns in India. In Ernakulam where I stay with my brother there isn’t proper garbage disposal. They have to pay for garbage to be collected. So what happens if they don’t have money to pay? They dump the garbage on street corners. Stern warnings have been put at street corners, to no avail. People still dump. This is a problem with all towns in Kerala. Development has brought with it many problems, and the towns are struggling to adapt.

With talk of development, there isn’t licence enough to develop infrastructure. The Aranmula airport project is one such. After a series of see-saw tilts and nudging, the project seems finally to have met an ignoble end with the civil aviation ministry too having withdrawn its consent. It would have meant good development, jobs, visibility to a small village to which I belong, where I was born. Yes, I belong to Aranmula village. It’s sad that this dream didn’t materialise.

The Kochi Metro is another development project that is limping. Land acquisition along parts of its route has been held up due to court cases. The work is going on, but progress is slow. It will take more than a year to resolve all these and the project will go into further delay.


On the way back I take a flight, ticket for which has been booked six months in advance. At the check-in counter I insist on a window seat and am given an upgrade to a SpicejetMax seat. It gives me pleasure to see people who have paid tens of thousands in cramped seats when I enjoy complete legroom freedom in the Max seats. Hehe! Ask and ye shall receive what?

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Tabloidization of Indian Media

I read this speech Prannoy Roy gave when he accepted the award for lifetime achievement at the Bombay Press Club. Essentially what Roy bemoans is the tabloidization of Indian media which lowers journalistic standards across media platforms: print and electronic. And, I agree. Bravo Roy!

Last month I went to author CP Surendran’s book launch. The media was there in full force. I attended CP’s last book launch and the media was absent. Well, a few stragglers, not many. So I wondered if it was the booze, or, something else that made them come in such force. There were cameras of all types, jousting to get better positions, a general hullaballoo.

No, it wasn’t the booze but a chap named Anurag Kashyap that made them come. I don’t know the reason why Kashyap was invited. He confessed he rarely read Indian fiction, and was openly sarcastic about Indian Writing in English. But forget that, and forgive all that, he was asked to be a panel member in the discussion about the book. Holy of holies!

The media was there because Kashyap with a few hits to his credit is a celebrity and the next best thing that is happening to Bollywood. I haven’t seen any of his films so I can’t comment on its quality. But his disdain for Indian Writing in English was quite clear.

When the floor opened for questioning the media started questioning Kashyap about Bombay Velvet and other projects. Poor CP and his book were ignored, passed on, for the more saucy gossip of Bollywood. Tabloidization had begun. The scribes wanted some cheeky quote from Kashyap which they could print in the next day’s paper. They got them too. Kashyap is a hunk, a proper muscled Bollywood-type hunk, and was married to another starlet, now divorced.

Kashyap was dismissive and said Indian Writer’s in English wrote tripe and Indian filmmakers made crap. Both were lapped up and reported on. Roy said that tabloidization leads to lowering the standards of journalism and I agree, with all my heart and soul.

In another launch I attended, this time it was my own launch. Actually, my short story was featured in an anthology and the publisher called us authors to take the dais and talk about our stories. This is the only launch I have ever had, so far, at least. The media came. The publisher, I don’t know for what reason, had invited a Bollywood starlet to be present. She smiled a lot, a nervous, self-conscious smile. The media focussed on the starlet and ignored us authors. I was chagrined. The next day’s papers showed pictures of the starlet with the publisher and not a word, not a word – I emphasize – about us poor authors, who slinked to the far corners of the hall to weep bitter tears.


That’s tabloidization for you, and it’s a bad thing. The earlier our media gets out of it the better it would be for them.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Writing a Novel Is Like Putting a Universe Together

This appeared in my novel Mr. Bandookwala's dedicated blog yesterday. Reproducing it here for the benefit of readers of this blog:

Writing a novel is like putting a universe together: constructing its foundations first, living in it for days, acquainting with the people, and then letting it go. It’s a very slow process that requires immense patience. But once you are good at it, there’s a lot going for you. Recently I completed my novel and now, horrors, I am submitting to those whom I trust for a first look.

But then why do writers take this arduous journey to nowhere. Half the time – when you are writing - you are wondering what the critics will say. You are in turmoil, you don’t think straight, your narrative may falter, in which case – God forbid – you go back and rewrite. All along, you are not being compensated for your time. You are in constant dilemma: will my character say this; will he behave thus? Yes, in western countries you have grants, which you can avail while writing a novel. Yann Martel was on a grant when he wrote Life of Pi. But in India you have nothing. Zilch!

Yes, there is something. Aha! You get a lot of shit thrown at you if you read a chapter at a writer’s community. You sink into perdition once again. People in Indian write in their own language plus English (own language + English). I mean, Malayalis write in their English, Tamilians write in their English, you get the drift, right?

My effort has been to steer away from stereotype to portray a stereotype. In Mr. Bandookwala I have written about different communities and the different ways they talk English, without identifying the community. It becomes obvious which community I am talking about, and at the same time, a foreigner can laugh at the quaint way we talk. It was a tough task. But, now that it is done, I have the jitters again.