Saturday, November 8, 2014

Starry Starry nights

     “Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,

 Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.” 

                                                      ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Loneliness  brings back memory of good old days, amplify it manifolds and then make you crave for them. It is almost likere-living those times- good or bad.  I had one such moment the other night. For lack of anything better to do, I was gazing out of the window of my bedroom late in the night . The Arabian sea outside was pitch black and except for few pale streetlamps there was hardly any light. My eyes followed the tall towers nearby and then fell on the sky. Like other metros of India, Mumbai sky is usually full of smog and even in daytime you do not see that brilliant colour of blue in the sky  which one finds up in the hills or in some parts of Europe . Not many stars were visible but just one look at the star and a flood of memories broke loose in my mind .

Like many other traits (viz. Love for gardening, food, poetry, mathematics), I got interested in stars thanks to my father . My father, who was a student of mathematics himself, introduced me to both astronomy and astrology and taught me how to calculate planetary positions. In those  internet-less days, it was the monthly sky chart of the Hindu newspaper which generally guided my amateur spotting of constellations and stars. By no means I was a great shot in doing this but I can still recall the thrill. Some like Ursa Major and Orian were easy to spot but some others took me hours ...but when finally I was able to spot them , even the aching neck  and scolding of my mom for being in garden late in the night, looked trivial  against the excitement of the success.  During summer vacations , this used to be my favourite night activity. I even used to maintain a dairy of my finds and it was the topic of discussion on breakfast table next morning whether  I recognised the stars correctly or not . My access to books on astronomy and my knowledge about telescopes etc was abysmally low in those days. Yet even a minor news about a planetary event seemed so important to me. Because of my base in Sanskrit , I always used to note the Indian names of the constellations/ stars and was very keen to read how ancients looked at the stars. Varahmihir  and Aryabhatt etc   were great heroes in my eyes for they saw with naked eyes what later on took  centuries of work and powerful telescopes to re-discover.    And they did it not by some magic but by mathematics. Even more interesting was the fact that over the centuries, we even weaved fascinating tales about the nature of stars , their origin, characteristics and location in the sky. The ancients discussed about stars with such ease and familiarity asif they are friends and family.  The puranic stories were as fascinating as the modern day research on the stars  .

When I was in 12th standard, my father and a mathematics teacher  of mine,  had a common interest in Indian astrology . It was by sitting through those long discussions  on how mathematics and accurateness of the calculations is the crux of Indian astrology that I developed fascination for astrology as well. Initially, like most in my generation, I rejected astrology as mumbo jumbo of superstitious people. Dad took the challenge of converting me. He asked me to just learn the making of horoscope, divisional charts etc and argued that I should not have any objection as that part is pure mathematics. He further added that I should find it even more interesting as unlike most others I can read the basic books (available parts of  Bhrigu samhita  etc ) in original Sanskrit . And once I started , there was no looking back. As I look at it , Indian astrology has two parts – the calculation of chart and  the reading of the chart. While the latter is based on a not-so-great method of probability , the former is a combination of arithmetic, coordination theory and astronomy . I was never good in the second part as I totally lacked faith and found the things to obsolete  but I mastered the first part . I dare say my understanding of ephemerides and my calculation of birth charts were pretty good.  But since I never believed in the damn thing I never got into the details of reading the charts. My teenager mind was rebelling to the fact that why there is so little about the predictions for  women except the facts about children, husband and  the like. A number of concepts like that of “foreign land” or “foreigner” taken from ancient text were lost in translation when applied to modern context. Perhaps that is why I lost interest in astrology pretty soon.
 Now I look back, I think I understand the subject wee bit better. I think it is not all that “un-scientific” or superstitious as most people think of it . But of course it is the faith of millions of followers and mingling of all knowledge- belief streams that it has turned into a curious mix of superstition, false notions and feel good fads. Now when I find very oddly dressed astrologers on (surprisingly!) news channels, narrating the lucky color, lucky charm and fortunes for the day, I find it a pathetic image of what is far deeper and serious subject of study.  I feel sorry that the subject is maligned by its practitioners but then not everyone is fake or just-earning-my-bread kind of astrologer. I have seen it first hand how the royal physician of King of Banaras, used to practice medicine (ayurveda) through Jyotish ( astrology) with amazingly accurate results .  I know many young friends, interested in the subject seriously. Some even take courses in astrology and others learn by sincere reading and practice . Let me also confess, howevermuch I don’t believe in these daily predictions, on most days while reading newspapers, I do glance upon the predictions for my sign.
"Do not, under the stars, Complain about lack of bright spots in your life"
                                ---- Henrik Wergeland, Norway (19th century)
The other part of my star-fascination , i.e. in astronomy took longer to fade. I was hell bent on studying it as a subject in graduation but for various reasons ,  could not. Luckily for graduation I landed up at Allahabad got access to the Allahabad Planetarium library . There more than the star gazing, I learnt quite a bit about how at different times people looked and read stars . The book of fixed stars (Kitab suwar al Kawakib) written around 1st century by a Persian author in Arabic   and of course Ptolemy’s Almagest  were fascinating to read about. I never get down to read the original text and I doubt it was even available in that small library, but it was great to read about these texts . Even now when I hear about some planetary event I feel excited  about it.
But to a large extent, today stars do not evoke such adrenaline rush  in me as before. I still find them mysterious and believe that  there is so much more to know about them, but mostly they just  remind me of those crazy nights of star gazing .

 And of course , they carry a deep philosophical and spiritual meaning for me. I feel the presence of my lost loved ones in their shine .  I also  keep  reminding  myself on not so happy days that stars shine brightest on the darkest nights . 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

While lights were paling one by one...........

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
― Lemony Snicket

On this blog about 5 years back I shared my thoughts on the loss of loved ones in a post (here) and how it changes you for life . Death is a much talked about subject. There are theories, philosophies and sayings about it. Stories have been written on its cruel, impersonal and sudden nature. People  have illustrated it in art ,literature and music. But none of this world wisdom prepares you to embrace death ...specially if you are not the one who is dying.  Death is much more difficult for those who are left behind, alive – with memories, regrets, remains and legacy of the deceased.

 I, like most others,  want to avoid death of near dear ones indefinitely . While the rational mind reminds me of the impossibility of the thought, this is something where I want to remain stubbornly irrational. It is true that religion, rituals and philosophy provides temporary solace to the grieving, it is also equally true that nothing can take away the numbness ,the void  and the scar death of a loved one  can cause- more so if it is death of a parent  . After all , it takes away your childhood from you forever. It means end of being called by  some endearing nicknames, endless recounting of old childhood tales and an invisible cloak of protection above your head. 
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don't die……
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you're busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, "I'm sorry..." 

But this post is not about just death – it is also about the city . In a city where you know no one , where you don’t even remember the roads and names of places, death enters silently in your home and takes away a precious loved one. The grief and the suddenness hit you hard in any case  but what hits harder is the fact that you are surrounded by strangers . The life in big cities is so fast and stressful that no one bothers to pause  and participate in anybody else’s grief.  The city life goes on not noticing that you are standing right there - grief stricken. The things continue to  work with machinelike efficiency and while one would be appreciating such impersonal efficiency on other days ,it stirs you when you are looking for consolation, hand holding and a shoulder to cry on. Ever wonder why young people spend considerable time and effort to find place in the high pace life of metros and then at times like these long to be back in the familiar comfort of family and house.  

So last month, for many many days I  looked out of window  staring at the Arabian sea changing colors  , feeling lost and lonely...and thinking of the void my husband is going to have in his life after losing his father...hundreds of miles away from friends and family .  As they say grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. And then one day you  learn to swim.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Like a Boss

Factually, we spend more number of waking hours in office than at home.  Our comfort and convenience at workplace, is ,therefore, very important. If I ask you what is the biggest factor for making an office good or bad for you- you may say facilities, colleagues  or even the work. But for me the one factor which makes like hell or heaven at workplace is,  compatibility with Boss. If you dislike your spouse, you can stay away from home longer, "unfriend" your social media friends and even stop meeting relatives ...but bosses are unavoidable creatures  . They are there whether you like it or not. They come in many colours and sizes, are found in both genders and can have many varieties and variations. Some love to preach, others are DIY bosses, some are invisible at workplace and others love to hang around in office on weekends and holidays as well.

We all have heard about good bosses (yes they exist!)  , bad bosses, bosses  who made you quit a job, bosses who make you perform  better than your expectations, bosses you have crush on and bosses you won’t mind pushing from the rooftop .  And then, even before you realise it, you too turn into a boss for many. I am always intrigued by the influence and impact of this creature called boss on our life and career.

As I joined government service from the highest induction level of Civil Services, I become a boss of roughly 100 people the day I stepped in my first office. Looking back, I must have been a funny sight for all those people. Ignorant, inexperienced and too keen to change the world, I must have entertained the office veterans immensely.  Slowly some of them opened up, they started smiling at my follies, took time to teach me the tricks of work and helped me become what I am today. Many of my former subordinates with time turn into friends and they still  keep in touch over phone, email , social media etc.  It was only now that I realised that as a boss how I was judged back then.  One of the best farewell gifts I got on my recent transfer from Delhi was when an almost silent subordinate came to my room and gave me a card saying: “You are a terrific boss”. I was stunned.  A thought that whether he misspelt ''terrible'' with ''terrific'' also crossed my mind .I tried remembering hard my interactions with him but found nothing much of note.  Another one, a serious matter-of-fact guy, suddenly opened up to me after I shifted to Mumbai. While working with me, we talked only about work and work related stuff and now that I am no longer his boss, I realised that  he had a human side as well. We can now talk about books, music, food, life, families and even work. It is funny how work relationships bind you and mould your interaction. I must have been a fearsome boss to these guys that only after my presence from the work  scene was removed with certainty  that they started to talk.

Looking from the other side, I was fortunate to have mostly good bosses. Correction: Good yet eccentric bosses. Bosses who talked too fast to understand a word, bosses who talk so softly that you could barely hear and bosses who would not talk at all. To my credit, I picked some or the other trait from each one of them... I mimic all of them. Once my then-current boss asked me if I ever mimic him. I told him that since I mimic all important people in my life, he should take it as an insult if I don’t. Much like my relation with my subordinates, my relations with my bosses also changed color with time. One turned into advisor, someone else a good friend and well, some remain just a good subject to mimic before friends   . 
Since the government service is the only world I have seen, I fail to comprehend the situation at workplace where your boss is perhaps in some other continent and you get to interact with him/ her only over phone/ internet. I also do not realise the situation where you do not work in a hierarchy and have practically “no-boss”. If you ask me, however irritating be the bosses, it’s good to have them around. Even the bosses who think at the speed of light and those who behave like babies. They provide much required entertainment and order in the workplace. And at times, you do learn a lot even from the worst of the lot.

 In Kolkata, back when I had newly joined, I had a boss who used to roll his cigarettes in his chamber and his standard response to any file put up to him was: “Won’t you like to see it again carefully?” And once you assure him that you have already seen the file, he will set out in a task to find fault with what you have seen, or rather find what you have missed. He would then, gleefully point out what you have missed in a footnote on page 713 or how a document is not tagged correctly in file.  I probably selected maximum nicknames (some pretty nasty ones) for him. But his this irritating habit, made me careful for life in scrutinising the files .
Yet another boss was a born teacher. He will write all kind of nonsensical queries of file and when I will , in all sincerity, go to him explaining  the facts , he would patiently listen with a poker face and then say “ I know that ! I was just checking that you do too” and burst into his amusing signature laughter. Never realised it then, but it was because of these two bosses that I learnt the maximum tricks of the trade. This second boss, used to call me “the argumentative Indian”, for my habit of arguing with him on  every brainy idea he had . But the fact that he let me argue and put across my not-so-brainy counter arguments, made him my all time favourite boss.

 So after a boss who would test my knowledge on every issue, I landed up with a boss, who right from the beginning “knew that I know nothing”. A quintessential bureaucrat and therefore an ‘’I”-specialist, this one made me listen to his great feats in life for hours together. He showed me how in every way personal or professional I was a failure, while he at my level was God’s gift to the workplace and well...the world in general. Working with him greatly enhanced my capacity to tolerate nonsense, it also taught me the reason why Peter (who exactly was he!) coined his Peter Principle. Anger and frustration were his two staple emotions. He wanted to be looked as a benevolent monarch but behaved like an angry bird with most of us . Do whatever you like, put in as much effort as you please but all you receive is a little spittle when he was screaming down your face and  yes, a few insults to wipe your face with. Thankfully, in civil service you have a definite date of retirement finally, this know- all , flaming fury boss superannuated .  Then for a short duration, I got a boss who disliked face to face talking. On the very first day he asked me to create intra-office chat Ids and to be online for him to pass on instructions. If only he had stayed for long, my typing speed would have benefited a lot. He also had an annoying habit of crunching data on every damn thing. You make a casual remark about something you read in morning newspaper and voila, next you are collecting data on the subject from all national authorities and research bodies .
After a while, I happen to have a boss who spoke, looked like and behaved like Jesus Christ. Believe me when I say that I have never seen a more charismatic, charming and detached from work person. There were moments when my keen capricornian self disliked his cool behaviour , especially in the moments of acute work crises , but looking back, it was pure bliss to have someone, who had a smile on face even when the worst crisis  hit us in office  and who could be a gracious host to most hostile guests. The best part about this one was his cool demeanour. Nothing, just nothing, could make his attention go away from things that matter viz.  A good cup of coffee, a crisp cookie, clean environment, polite speaking and impeccable manners....Work?   Incidental, may be, but well that was never in the list. No shrieking bosses , no jittery subordinates  and no competing peers could make him lose his peace of mind. He probably was the most self actualised person I have seen.  With his impeccable taste, amazing wit, charm and style, this boss taught me to be human even when all around you are losing cool over mundane work issues.

In a work place, there are always jokes and sayings about bosses. One significant part of such work-wisdom deals with women bosses. They are supposed to be jittery, eccentric, crazy and workaholic.  Till very recently, I had never had a direct woman boss. But I had seen my own bosses fretting about their lady bosses and cursing their luck. I moved to Mumbai and found myself with a woman boss. Contrary to what people say (like to believe) about women bosses, this one is perhaps my most competent boss so far. Dedicated to work, detached to the power hang-ups of being the big boss(unlike male bosses), no insecurities of calling on holidays ... she is  perhaps  the most approachable and  understanding person I know among work colleagues  . The people who say women turn tyrant and idiotic, lose balance and temper when given charge of high posts should see her. A delight to work with, a pleasure to talk to, one feels blessed to find a boss like her. In fact at times I think that what am I missing ...I mean you are suppose to dislike you boss..right? So where is that key trait for me to dislike? So far all I see is admirable and inspiring.  But wait’s just been about  100 days in this office. Give me a year and I shall find one eccentricity, one comic angle or god willing, a vice as well.

While writing this post, I cannot help thinking that many of my present, ex subordinates would also have a caricature of me and my eccentricities. I can only imagine how many jokes and saying would be doing round about me and my work style . But then that is an occupational hazard of being a boss. You have to be half mad and half eccentric to  be a unforgettable boss. The legendary bosses are either the craziest ones or the most inspirational ones. No one likes to remember a boring boss. So if an essential purpose of being a boss is to provide some moments of entertainment and spice in the office lunch room chats, the boss should be suitably mad and eccentric. I know, I qualify with distinction.

NOTE: For all the colleagues reading this post, please ignore this as a work of fiction and pretend you don’t know who I am talking about. Do not recommend this post to any other colleague / ex-boss of mine. Please remember I might have much more to write about....the best ( and spiciest) may be yet to come  .  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Love and Longing in Bombay

In fact it happened in the reverse order . The longing came first. Longing for the familiar ways, weather , food and landscape . Everything in Mumbai looked and smelled  and sounded so different , so difficult and so unfamiliar . There was an urge to run back to the comfort zone  . Absence of home and  family made it worse . Even the hubbub of work could not calm me down. My usual fascination  for unknown and unfamiliar suddenly  sounded so foolish. But then I had to stay on. This bravado finally paid off. The love did come gradually.
When I first saw my would-be-house I was filled with so much of panic. How will I survive without a patch of  green, balcony, terrace , garage etc ? Despite all assurance that by Mumbai standards  it was sheer luxury to have a sea facing apartment in that area, I was upset.   On my way back,  I started observing the houses in Mumbai . Except for the filthy rich and the lucky old residents ,  almost everyone was living in a cramped space . In fact I should have felt better after comparing my lot with others…but I didn’t. It was always the sense of what I used to have in other places which coloured my perspective . With all reservations and weepy faces,  finally the house- to-be turned into home . Things changed overnight. Now the absence of all so familiar aspects do not bother any longer. It is difficult not to feel blessed when the sea breeze fills up my house or when I watch small boats sailing in not so gentle sea and the monsoon clouds gathering above. The love finally came.

The city traffic made me cry . Unexpected rains, unexpected jams and the must-to cross  narrow lanes just after the swanky expressways made me feel so homesick . There were lovely sights en-route, but I missed them. My mind was too set on the shortcomings . Surprisingly, now when I travel from one end of the city to another  bad traffic or narrow lanes do not  bother me that much as I am looking out for beautiful old buildings, waiting for the turn after which the sea front will appear again and marvel at the zest of the city. It is amazing how the city sustain this energy despite adverse weather, overpopulation and other related limitations. It is equally amazing how such creativity, such passion for life, such brilliance comes out of this cramped and congested city . How the city adjust itself for lack of personal space, privacy inside small apartments and need to be always on move for the work.

Deep below the  impersonal professionalism and fast pace of life , there were also wonderfully warm people . People who accept you with your differences , do not question your ways, do not encroach on your thoughts and let you be. And despite all odds, busy life schedules and maddening pace there is always a kind word , a helping hand and a silent understanding of adjusting you . It is so wonderful to find that people around me are patient enough to let me settle down at my speed. They do not force me to adopt their ways . They do not even preach . They just gesture you to come on board . How can one not fall for an offer given with such sincerity .

The city will grow on me eventually , I guess. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What the Nose knows..........

Last week I landed up in Kolkata for some medical emergency in the family. If you visit a city like Kolkata, there are some smells you just can’t avoid. Smell of a drain full of rotten garbage, smell of fish cooking in mustard oil, smell of old houses and many more smells of the old city. It was on my way back to the airport,  three days later that I started thinking about the defining smells of places I have been to . I am no olfactory expert nor do I have any particular interest in odours and scents  but unconsciously each one of us catches some smells and link  it to places, people and memories. To cite another example of my theory on smell of a city  – when I first visited Mumbai I stayed in a place at Navynagar, which is close to a dry fish factory. The smell in the air got so etched in my memory that even now I associate Mumbai sea with that smell. Believe it or not, all of us have our personal list of good and bad smells . Smell of freshly baked cake when you enter a bakery, smell of expensive perfumes in luxury hotels, smell of food in your favourite eatery and most important smell of your home are just some of the familiar ones. Then there are some peculiar smells  viz smell of  typical government offices( a curious mix of old papers, sweat and stinky toilets), smell of railway platform/trains, smell of old monuments  and smell of hospitals.

Some years back, quite accidentally, I happen to watch a movie called  ‘Perfume’. Later I read the German book titled ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’ (originally published in German as Das Parfum) by Patrick Süskindon which the movie was based. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. Set in 18th century France, the book tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw), a perfume apprentice in 18th-century France who, born with no body scent himself, begins to stalk and murder virgins in search of the "perfect scent". Interestingly the book talks about scent of a person, smell of a place and even scent of humanity (from which at some stage in the book Grenouille wants to run away). I was very moved by the book. The main plot apart, the concept of smells as an essential characteristic of a person fascinated me. I am still not sure that there can be a “perfect smell” so powerful that it can control everything and everyone ......but I do believe that smell of a place has a long-lasting memory.

                The latest research also confirms that smell have a remarkable persistence in our memories. Although people are more likely to recall exposure to a visual image than an odour when re-exposed after a short period of time, once in our memories, odours are effectively in there to stay, and are more likely than visual images to be recalled after a year. Indeed it is this factor, which is contributing towards an interest in the role that smell has to play with illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s in aiding access to long-stored memories. The funny part is that our mind is not objective when it links places and smells. Usually it associates emotions and circumstances with it

So however fresh smelling be a modern hospital, my mind will still associate it with disease, pain and fear of losing a loved one. Your mother’s kitchen may smell of damp walls and pungent spices, it is likely that you’d read (rather sniff ) it as memories of favourite comfort food of your childhood. To my mind freshly cut grass smell from a lawn is inevitably linked with parks and gardens, summer, picnics and childhood and I still can’t resist sniffing a new book for the lovely smell of paper and ink . In fact , Books/ papers have very distinctive smells and are strongly influenced by age. Newer books smell of fresh print and paper while older books provide a rich, vanilla and tobacco like odour that can be associated with old wooden libraries, leather chairs and well...warmth. 
It is believed that some smells are so familiar that one can dream of them.
It is not only places and things ,  smells can even remind you of specific people.  It may sound silly but whenever I think of my father, it is the fresh smell of detergent from his clothes that comes to my mind. Yet another smell I associate with him is the smell of havan – a mix of burning of wood, camphor and Havan samagri .  
Coming back to the issue of smells of the city, when I think of Shimla, I think of sweet smell of  pinewood floors and pristine hill air  and when I dream of Lucknow, I remember smells originating from my parents’ house. The scented shrubs and creepers of Juhi , bela, Malti and chameli gave the house a heady and yet heavenly fragrance of its own. Rome for me had a peculiar smell of Churches – difficult to define and describe, but it is something I could feel both times I happen to be in that eternal city.  Talk of Varanasi, our very own eternal city,  reminds me of  typical smell at the River ghats.

It is again difficult to describe the smell of Delhi, but for me it is predominately the smell of power. Mumbai unfortunately till now reminds me of the dead fish smell  and I sincerely hope that in days to come,  I will find some other, better smell to remember this city with .
I read a couple of weeks back in an article that in cities like London and New York, we have advocates against deodorisation of the urban smells. For a resident of a third world country, I find the idea appalling. I can’t imagine such a thing happening in our cities smelling of garbage and rot. I would in fact welcome some bit of “deodorisation” of places around me. Usually it is a pungent smell of spices and waste that dominates the air of our crowded cities and some amount of artificial deodorisation  e..g. in malls and restaurants , airports and showrooms , in fact has a smoothing effect.  
Well let me end by stating that I am not the first or the last person to link things, emotions and places with smells. Lyricists and writers have been doing it all the time . Remember the immortal lyrics of Gulzar : “ हमने देखी है उन आँखों की महकती ख़ुश्बू ” or Hasrat Jaipuri writing for Amrapalli  “ जब फूल कोई मुस्काता है प्रीतम की सुगंध आ जाती है” . I also remember reading in some novel recently that the “city smelled like sin” and that " he could smell war from his body for rest of his life" . Decide for yourself is it your nose or the mind that makes these associations and give a unique fragrance to your memories- good , bad or ugly.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mumbai Chronicles: Ek Akela iss Sheher mein.

I am a firm believer in first impressions. Not that I don’t change my opinions about people, places and  things , but more often than not, my first impressions are also my long lasting ones.  For most Indian cities however, I find my first impressions are the most confused ones as well.  It is difficult to like or dislike any major city in India ,in toto. While liking some essential aspects in each one of them ,I cannot help wishing they were better in the rest. Kolkata, Lucknow , Delhi and Allahabad , all fall in this category. Before landing up in Mumbai , I had equal number of people warning me and envying my luck to be here. I find that both sides were right in someway. Now that I am one week old in the maximum city – Mumbai, I think it is time for me to note down my own first impressions. However confusing, exaggerated and contradictory, they, I trust,  truly  represent the city .
So, it was me versus the city most of the week. Me trying to decipher the city, me horrified by the parts of the city, me charmed by the old city and me trying to avoid the real city. If I have to define this city in just one adjective I think that would be – Gogetter.  Amazingly efficient and professional in everything it does, the city seems to have no place for the slow, the disorganised and the shoddy. The city is often praised that it houses both the have-nots and have-yachts side by side. Every posh area has a slum of it's own. I wonder what is so great about it? But then the business capital of the country can actually sell anything to its visitors- even its ugliness and dangers. When I first saw a sign for “Slum Tour” at a travel agent near the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel building , I found it funny...even weird . Why on earth anyone would want to visit the slums ? I realised later on that it is one of the most popular tours of the city, second only to “Terror attack Tour” .One has to grudgingly admit that this killer attitudeof the city  is indeed impressive . 

 Another image of the city is of that of the sea front . Though there are a number of Indian cities with far superior beaches and coasts , somehow Mumbai sea is famed and is considered a great point of interest . My earlier memory of  the sea in Mumbai is that of a garbage filled black water body with hordes of people around . This time however , I landed in the city at the time of high tides and get to see some breathtakingly beautiful sights of the Mumbai sea . Make no mistake, the garbage filled water is also true, perhaps more true than the other ,   but when you travel by the sea-link, the sea looks amazing . 

I think this is a trait similar to Kolkata , the city reveals itself only to a visitor who is willing to commit time and effort to like it. Only the worthy shall find the grail.  There are surprises and beauties hidden behind the veil of  fast paced crowded groups of people  and their businesslike approach . There is leisure, warmth and even comfort as well . 
It is a rare feast for the eyes to pass through the beautiful British buildings near Churchgate and Colaba . It is fascinating to discover the amazing eateries and bakeries of the city . It is also impressive that unlike Kolkata and Delhi, people travelling from suburbs reach their destination in time  despite travelling in unimaginably crowded local trains .

Talking of trains , one of the most familiar images of this city for every Indian of my generation, comes from mainstream Bollywood movies .  An oft repeated scene in these old  movies of my childhood  was of a simpleton village boy/small town  girl landing at Mumbai  train station (usually Victoria Terminus) and getting robbed or cheated on the first day. Another familiar situation is of this simpleton looking at the tall buildings of Mumbai with wide eyes . Well, the country has changed much since those days . Now many other cities have equally impressive skylines and well, cheats outside the railway stations . So what is now most characteristic of this city. My first impression says it is the attitude of “ minding my own business” in the people around here. Confident ,ambitious , flamboyant and yet straight , it is the spirit of the common people of the city which make the city so different from Delhi or Kolkata .

As for me , so far, I am partly dreading and partly looking forward to be in the city .  But then I have yet to discover the city  .Looking at the facts , I have yet to set up my house, sample the vada pav and witness the famous Mumbai monsoon . I get a feeling , that eventually I might fall in love with the city  but till that happens I am keeping my fingers crossed . This song , very aptly sums up my confused first impressions about the city of Mumbai -

Monday, June 2, 2014

Goodbye Delhi ……….

The grandeur of Sarkari Delhi : View From Rajpath
I thought I was lucky to find a parking spot outside the small supermarket in my sector. Well, at least something was going right on that hot and humid Saturday morning. After about 30 minutes ,  I happily finished my shopping  and came out of the store only to find a  rather well-used car parked outside the parking slot ,  blocking my car . I was irritated but thought that may be the driver will be somewhere nearby. But no, the car was locked and there was no sign of the driver. I went inside the store and got the car number announced- several times. Finally after 15 long minutes, a 40 something gentleman wearing half pants and chappals ( Thinking he looks cool) emerged out of the store  . When he saw he has actually blocked car of a woman driver, he seemed rather pleased at his doing .( For those of you who don’t know, many such alpha males of Delhi  think that women drivers are some inferior species and can always be blamed for any mistake . These macho males kind of own the road, parking and well, the city)  In his Haryanvi accent English ( And yes, he has to converse in English) , he started yelling at me for making him hurry up with his shopping. When I pointed that his car was parked incorrectly, he shouted (again in English) “So what? I too have suffered many times and listen, if you start arguing , I will not take the car out.” At this stage a security guard  intervened and asked him to take his car out. Guess what ! Our hero shouted back at the guard (this time in Hindi ) “ Beech mein mat bol Saale . Mujhe pata hai kya karna hai.” Finally after creating a scene and telling all gathered  his tale of  parking woes , he removed his car and allowed me to take out my legally parked car . I won’t be surprised if he was expecting a “Thank you .So very kind of you” from me.  This, and many such incidents in last 6 years, make me feel happy that it is time to say goodbye to Delhi.

Six years is a long time to know a city …to fall in love with it …to start hating it…for getting used to it. I came to Delhi full of apprehensions. Most of which turn out to be true. My discomfort  with Delhi- way of living  never went away and despite its many comforts and advantages , Delhi remain an odd city for me. In fact after living here I realized that it is no more one city. It is a strange amalgamation of many  cities, kasbahs and villages  . Perfectly cosmopolitan in some parts and equally rural and crude in most others- sometimes it looks like a city full  of old-world character and at others totally bereft of it .  In fact there were times when I wondered where is the Delhi about which  Meer had  said –

कूचे न थे देहली के अवराक़े मुसव्विर थे
जो शक्ल नज़र आई तस्वीर नज़र आई।
( Delhi’s streets were not alleys but parchment of a painting, Every face that appeared seemed like a masterpiece).
All I found was people bloated with ego, intoxicated in money and muscle power and streets full of problems for common citizens. And yet, I survived. I think one big reason why I survived the city and its people,  is that I stayed outside its typical circles- stubbornly  unsocial and aloof . I interacted with people at work and outside only on need-to-interact basis and made very few friends here. In fact, now that I count, most of my friends, including those whom I met in Delhi were not Dilliwallahs,  at least not the typical ones.

However, I would be missing the purpose of this post, if I fail to recount that in last six year s, there were also many many moments when I was glad to be here.  I got some fantastic work assignments here, met some extraordinary people outside work and participated in some wonderful activities. I also saw some extraordinary things happening in front of my eyes- the civil protest at India Gate, the breaking of scams and its aftermath, the ugly scenes of unashamed arrogant power , wealth and corruption and the impressive struggle of  few people who wanted to change the system.
 But the thing about memories is that they never get the ‘big picture’ . They are very subjective, personal …almost irrational . They do not honour the perceived importance of events and people in any particular way.  I wonder what I will remember of this Delhi tenure 10 years from now ?  Here is the tentative list of memories I can think of right now:

·         I will think of Delhi trees of different seasons. I will miss gawking from the car window and admiring the trees, specially in Lutyens’ Delhi . How just before Diwali , Saptaparni blooms  with its exotic fragrance and how the spring is announced with numerous Semal trees lining the Delhi streets . Even in the summer months, the bright happy  yellow Amaltas and  red Gulmohar trees made my heart dance with joy.  Even  tedious office work was somewhat bearable after sighting these on my way .
·         I will remember my favorite hideouts – National Gallery of Modern Arts and  National Museum . They may not be in the best of conditions but still, they are an unparallel treasure trove.   I wish I get to see them many more times . The memory of plays watched at National School of Drama will stay with me for long . I was mesmerized to meet Banbhatta on NSD stage (in Banbhatta Ki AtmaKatha ) and learnt so much about theatre from Indian and foreign plays performed here .
·         I think I will think about the names of the streets and my (mostly failed) attempts to remember them. The strange landmarks of places which I built in my mind- the lone statue of Alexander Pushkin outside Sahitya Academy Building or the magnificent statue of Gandhiji outside  Parliament house  .
·         I will also miss my visits to well known, less known and not-known-at-all monuments of Delhi. I thank my stars that I got to see these fascinating places as part of my job. While it fills me with rage that Red fort is in such pathetic condition, thank God, we also have Humayun’s tomb – just restored to its glory. The turquoise blue glazed tiles of this Mughal tomb filled my heart with such bliss when I first saw them after restoration.


  I know it sounds lame, but I will definitely miss and remember my  Delhi office and my  NOIDA home . I still dream of all my previous homes and I know I lived a blessed life in my present one too. My office – the place where perhaps I spent most of my waking hours will remain etched in my memory for long. It was actually fun to work so close to the power centre of bureaucracy .
           Whatever reservations I have bout Dilliwalahs , the fact is that it was only with the kindness and generosity of many ordinary Dilliwallahs at my workplace that I survived. Ajay- my loyal man Friday,  who successfully found solutions to all my big-small problems with amazing efficiency; Ashish and Sanjeev, my drivers, who somehow found ways in the lanes of Delhi for their direction challenged madam going in search of one German Bakery and one unknown grave – God,  I am definitely going to miss  them . The colleagues I worked with and bosses who tolerated me, many of whom I hope to cross ways again, floored me with their kindness . 
There are still so many things, sights, places and people  to remember…….. driving  to Italian Embassy for  the Italian course relishing the sights of diplomatic Delhi , shopping in Connaught Place,  the India Gate circle  , the official meetings at numerous stately buildings of Government of India  and  yes, the white pigeon who regularly visited my office window ( mostly to eat the daana  left by Ajay) . Well, to quote Meer once again, I have to agree :   
दिल व दिल्ली दोनो अगर है खराब;
पा कुछ लुत्फ उस उजड़े घर में भी हैं!
(Both heart and Delhi may have been worn out, But some little pleasures still remain in this ruined house).

But in the end, I am glad it is time to say goodbye to this mad mad city . I know life might bring me back in these corridors, but as of now, I go out of Delhi with a relieved look of sanity on my face. Just can’t wait to find the new chapter of life unfolding at yet another fascinating and awe-inspiring city- Mumbai . The adventure of life , after all, exists in those spaces between the known and the expected- in the unexpected and the unknown. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Unwritten Rules for the Written Word

“Writers more interested in literature than the truth ensure that they never come out with either thingone reason that the word literature today sounds so fake, as if you were to insist on saying cuisine every time you meant food. Food, as in sustenance, is more like what we have in mind.” 
The editors n+1

A question has often crossed my mind that why these days we have so many Indians switching to writing in English and why there are so few books good books in Hindi and other Indian languages. My mother who is an avid reader of Hindi books often finds it difficult to find anything interesting in newly published books. Even when some new titles appear in library/ bookshops, they are difficult to read . Mostly due to their atrocious language which is a strange mix of English  words mixed with Hindi and often the slang of the two languages. The grammar is deliberately wrong and the themes are often repetitive. Even internet blogs are more lively and readable than the published books sometimes .

Today in a chance meeting with one Editor in Charge of Contemporary Indian Literature at India’s apex society of letters, I found answers to most of my doubts. My expectations from the person occupying such a respected post was of someone who’d love books and words making up those books. Someone who would be open to all expressions and styles and most of all someone who’d be learned enough to be open, unbiased and objective. What I found gave me ample proof of why even the most passionate Hindi lovers are today reading very few Hindi books. It also made to thank God that I am not a writer/ poet aspiring to be published or reviewed by these hollowed men.

I had always heard stories of writers who were rejected repeatedly by the publishers only to become world famous later on. One also hears of artists who were rated hopeless by critics  just before they shoot to fame and stardom.   Today I witnessed to my horror how a critic forces his own myopic view on a budding poet. Sitting in his cosy office , surrounded by the publications of his revered organisation, he vaguely looked at the crisp new  book and then shot a glance back to the newly published poet .  He read the biodata of the poet, determined within  seconds that she is in an outsider in the world of literature.( i.e.  not a full time writer cum academician  but  a successful professional  ) . He nodded his head disapprovingly and then the poet was told in harshest possible words that her choice of words, title of the book, themes of the poems and even the design of the cover is “incorrect”. The reason given was shocking – Today’s public does not want such words/ titles anymore. These were “in” some 40 years back. Who would read such (correct and pure) language anymore? These themes are also old. They do not sell anymore.

 Interesting part was that the learned man formed this opinion in just 4 minutes of looking at the book and without even reading one of the poems. When the poet protested that was this not suppose to be her expression....her words ....her language. She was told  that she has no chance of being established here if she thinks like this. Everything from the theme to the style should be carefully chosen based on the trend these days. He then arrogantly told the poor girl that she must read the journals and publications of his organisation to realise what kind of stuff is in demand these days and then try writing like that.  I was feeling bad for the poor writer till I found, to my horror , that the esteemed editor cum critic was criticising Tagore’s Geetanjali  as well on the same grounds saying that it won’t stand in today’s market . I was taken aback because this was not a profit minded publisher speaking but a critic associated with the society which is meant to “Promote and protect literature of Indian Languages”. Leave alone any encouragement to go different, there was a clear message- my way or highway.
When I asked this gentleman about writing for one’s own satisfaction ( Swantah Sukhaya)  without consideration of “market demand”; he almost got angry. “What a naive question? Who does that anyway? If anyone wants they can keep writing sitting quietly but our publications would never review such works. We have some standard to keep. People have expectations from us and we cannot publish about something which is not graded high on these established  benchmarks”.  So that is the new mantra- books as a consumer good. To be manufactured as per the demands of the customers . 

 Curious by his response, I decided to peep in the bookshop of this organisation, to browse through the latest trends in literature. I am now very certain to say that no Bacchchan or Ajneya , no Jaishakar Prasad or Sumitra Nandan Pant can today find place in these hallowed galleries of literature . They are now an exclusive domain of people who do not understand pure language, do not risk to go original in style or themes and worst of all, who are in the   ‘exclusive literature circuit’. The unwritten banner screams “Outsiders are not welcome” loud and clear. The experimentation with language is acceptable only if it is ‘approved kind of experimentation’ by the high priests of literature, all other variations are   ‘wrong’.  Good for these classic poets and writers that they become famous before such patrons of literature occupied these positions and framed their rules of good literature.

 Thankfully we are in an age where information seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire and it wafts across the electrified borders...thankfully it also goes beyond the domains of such Mullahs and Pundits of  literature. No wonder that many  young writers either move towards English as language of expression  , opt for more  entry barrier free mediums like internet publishing  or give up the hope of being read by people who’d have admired their words.