April 28, 2011

Colour blind

To continue my fixation with the land of my birth, today may well mark a turning point in history. A time when legacy and history reduce to naught, and a time when we begin to dream bolder and bigger. Today is when Calcutta went to polls. Though loath I was to be absent from the proceedings, I have nevertheless been there in spirit. And I can't help but feel the silent rebellion.

To be honest, I never really thought such a day would be needed. Being brought up in a primarily Left-wing Calcutta, it is difficult to suppress the Comrade in me. I grew up in a time when micchils (rallies) and hartals (bandhs and strikes) were order of the day. Helpless and relentless, we learnt to take it as a part of life and even derived joy from it (the fun of playing cricket on a really wide road is something you can experience only in Calcutta).We never even complained when the Left shut down our factories, or when Skyroom on Park Street (arguably the best restaurants in town then) closed down due to "Union" problems, and remnants of which continue to adorn the legendary road to this day. We suffered and watched silently in an emotion that can only be described as akin to the Stockholm Syndrome. We thought all this would change when Jyoti-babu left, only to left equally surprised. Buddha-babu was no substantial improvement over his predecessor.

Thirty-four years. Thirty-four years is enough time to foment and execute revolutionary change, no matter how dire the circumstances. An entire generation has grown up listening to tales of how the Left will "soon" deliver. No more. We Bongs, to put it quite frankly, are at our wit's end. However this doesn't mean that we place our allegiances with Didi yet. Writers' is yours for the taking, dear Comrades. But, we do feel that five years of introspection would do you some real good- shake you up from your slumber and get you up and running again. As for Didi, we'll bear with her for five how we bore you for thirty-four! Although it pains my heart to say this, it may be best if you go.

No matter which way the vote swings, one thing is sure,, things will never be the same. The Left may scrape a narrow victory, or suffer bitter defeat. So, which way will it go? Only May the 13th will tell.

Till then,
Your loving Comrade
(Laal Salaam)

April 19, 2011

Curzon's enduring failure and Cricket diplomacy

Circa 1905 is usually marked as a watershed moment in the history of Bengal proper. Burdened with the task of propagation of what would eventually be called the Policy of Divide and Rule, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon summarily decided to slice Bengal down the center, creating the two new provinces of East and West Bengal. In his, and the Crown's, defense, there seemed to be a solid, grounded reason behind the Partition- that of religious uniformity. Each Bengal, with its own religious majority and thereby devoid of associated complexities, would self-propagate growth and improve administration, or so it was hoped. What followed suit is, as the saying goes, history. But, what history doesn't tell you is this: that you may divide lands and geographies as you like, but not its people.

I have slowly come to realise this fact over the past few days of my stay in Dhaka, the capital of the erstwhile East Bengal. And much to my surprise, the vehicle of this realisation has been something I least expected- The Gentleman's Game! Last night happened to be an IPL playoff between the Kolkata Knight Riders and Rajasthan Royals. And quite co-incidentally, I was dining out during the first half of the match: at a jam-packed restaurant with an LCD screen tuned to SET MAX. As the KKR bowling shred the Royals to pieces, I watched the atmosphere at the restaurant turn from mildly electric to raucously wild. Every time a wicket fell, the diners went up in a deafening roar. My Dad, who called in the midst of this euphoria, would've probably thought I was being lynched by a blood-thirsty mob, such was the sense of exhilaration. Interestingly, a few moments after the toss, just as we were waiting for the Royals' batsmen to take the field, the waiter standing next to me (unaware of the fact that I came from Calcutta), asked me rather pensively 'What do you think, Bhai-jaan, will the Knight Riders win tonight?'. My reassuring 'yes' came almost as breath of fresh air to him. I may have been gorging on Naan and Dal Makhni in downtown Dhaka, but that night, I could've just as well been sipping cold beer in Park Street without noticing an iota of difference.

At a time when Calcuttans back home are ready to publicly hang King Khan for axing their beloved Dada, it is surprising, nay, mind-boggling the amount of support KKR gets from people in this little-known, decrepit country. With an almost unfailing regularity, the mention of my Calcutta roots to any local brings up some talk or the other about KKR in the next few minutes (uninitiated by me, of course). Most regularly, it is a sort of cautious hope that KKR's new signings will bring them better fate than in the last three editions. One particular gentleman went as far to say that despite all of KKR's past performances, it is still his 'bestest' team in IPL. Looks like the news channels had got it all wrong, this is the real Cricket diplomacy.

When you see such a convergence of public sentiment, it is hard to refrain from putting a reason to it. My first guess of this inexplicable loyalty was the presence of a certain Shakib al-Hasan in the KKR squad (apparently, the only Bangladeshi player in IPL). But, I realised that it went much deeper than that, for people were still deeply mourning KKR's narrow two-run loss in the first match of IPL 4, a match in which al-Hasan was conspicuous by his absence. The only other possible reason that I could conjure was a deep-seated, inherent love for Bengal as a whole, one that is not limited by political boundaries. I was pleasantly surprised when the office errand-boy proudly proclaimed one day that 'your' superstar Mithun-da's hometown is actually in Bangladesh. Indeed, my 'Calcutta introduction' to the locals also often leads to a sort of veiled please-feel-at-home welcome that goes along the lines: 'Dhaka is pretty much like Calcutta- only more crowded and more poor. The language is (almost) the same, so is the weather'.

Clearly, Mr. Curzon, religion is an overrated divisor and language, an underrated unifier.

Epilogue: Sample this bit of cruel irony- Aamar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal), a poem that was written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1905 lamenting the Partition of Bengal is today the National Anthem of Bangladesh.

February 26, 2011

A mind of her own

You know that you are well and truly incorrigible when your closest sparring partner is somebody who feeds on 19 volts of Direct Current and is full of hot air at the sides. And to make matters worse, you find it perfectly acceptable- sans guilt and sans shame- to be beaten fairly regularly in a long-running game of one-upmanship with your cunning little friend. Every defeat of yours results in you gently patting your adversary in a sportsmanlike, well played sort of way. And in the rare moments that you end up victorious, you find yourself doing a flawless Sreesanth- by thumping your fists and thumbing a nose in the direction of the vanquished.

If you're thoroughly clueless by the time you read this sentence, don't worry, its only because you're sane. The quirky, you see, have pretty eclectic and esoteric tastes when it comes to matters of amusement and recreation. Some practice the ancient Chinese science of accupuncture on buff-naked Barbie dolls while others listen to Justin Bieber. Yours Truly, on the other hand, is more understated and classy, for he finds simple joys in dueling with his Lady Friday, namely, his Laptop.

Things were not always the way they are right now. We used to be a happy couple once, and I made one helluva Robinson Crusoe then. I showered all my love and affection on her, and she reciprocated by swiftly doing whatever I asked her to. No matter what I asked of her, she never complained. Life, it seemed, was perfect!

But, as the wise man once said, the good times never last. And true enough, they didn't. Age caught up with her and at some point in history, conscious of her failing faculties, she simply went bonkers. I would still have been lucky had it stopped at that, but it didn't. Like any woman in the state of rage, she went too far- far enough to 'cross over' into vengeance and retribution. Lady Friday had just been reborn as Frankenstein.

In all honesty, though, its a rather subdued Frankenstein that I have, for it still does most of the work the Lady could (albeit much much slower), but that it has one hell of a sleeping disorder. Anytime that I ask him to 'shut down' (sleep in Franken-speak) it promptly complies, only to wake up again when I'm not looking! (Frankensteins, by design, are supposed to be woken up only by their Masters). The first few times it occurred were bizarre-bordering-on-the-creepy. Imagine yourself clearly shutting down your computer in the night, only to wake up to a silently humming machine, replete with all the popped-up programs and applications that run only at start-up. You may dismiss it the first few times as oversight on your part, or having pressed the wrong key/clicked the wrong icon. But, when it becomes a penta-weekly occurrence, it surely can't be any of the above.

Well, what is it then? To be frank, I don't know. A misguided Santa Claus, a disappointed Tooth Fairy and a playful Casper have, at different points in time, all been worthy explanations, only to be debunked later for something new and equally ill-fitting. After much fruitless searching, I have finally accepted the occurrence as an inexplicable fact of life, much like Himesh Reshammiya's perseverance in the field of acting. So much so, that on one of the rare mornings that my Laptop doesn't mysteriously start-up hours after I have shut it down, I take it as an omen of good things to come-a chance victory of good versus evil, a triumph of man over machine.

February 23, 2011

Uneasy is the head

It is that time of the year that showbiz pundits call 'Road to the Oscars'. In a few weeks from now, what the Academy sees as 'cinematic excellence' shall be felicitated at its permanent resting place at the Kodak Theater. Being an annual fixture and being as I am self-proclaimed movie buff, I try my level best every year to acquaint myself with all the hype and hoopla that surrounds this extravaganza (even at the cost of coming across as the phoren-obsessed desi, but in my defense, I genuinely love the celluloid, ours or theirs). The process of my acquaintance is rather simple: take the most-talked about movies of the year and then make a judgement of my own. If the deserving ones end up winning, Uncle Oscar knows it all. If they don't, the Academy is a bunch of snooty, lobby and publicity driven bunch of fools. Simple, as I said.

Having the luxury and the liberty of the latest movies and TV shows at a few minutes' notice, courtesy the MDI LAN, I recently began my process of 'evaluation'. Up for screening today was a movie called The King's Speech. Without playing the role of spoiler, the movie is about 'Prince Albert (who goes on to become King George VI of England), his impromptu ascension to the throne and the speech therapist who helps the unsure monarch become worthy of it' (the sentence within quotes courtesy of IMDB). The movie is a moving portrayal of the trials and tribulations of a second-in-line and his consequent aversion to the throne, even when an ascendancy is promisingly imminent. The subtext of a Prince's growing acquaintance with a Commoner (and an Australian at that) and the apparent contradictions that it brings with it is peppered throughout the movie and beautifully captured.

The idea of royalty and nobility might appear somewhat dated and insignificant in today's world of the free market enterprise, but it still exists in most pockets of the world, and try as we may, the fact can't be easily dispensed with. But, what we often forget is that just as we feel 'deprived' when we compare ourselves with the Kings and Princes of the world, the same very Kings and Princes walk a thorny path to royal adulation. Anything and everything connected to their person has to answer one eternal question: 'How will this be viewed by the Commoner?'. Things that fail this litmus test must unfortunately be swept under the carpet and/or remedied, be it the childhood love with the Governess' daughter, the child born out of wedlock, the gambling addiction or the very fact that the Prince is left-handed (and therefore 'sinister'). The royal family must be everything that the Commoner can never be, even if it entails chasing perfection and failing miserably in the process. Letting down one's royal garb, even if for a fleeting moment, is akin to harakiri.

There is, of course, a larger issue at play here. In the post-colonial times that we live in, the blue blood and its relative importance may have considerably diminished. Yet, we intelligent, lesser humans have found a way to undo this royal decline- by coronating the celebrity. It satisfies our egalitarian ethics without sacrificing our fixation for the 'famous', since the ascent to celebrity is (somewhat) less hereditary than the ascent to royalty is (and therefore, only 'fair').

Make no mistake, its alright for us to idolize the rich and the famous, to take little snippets of their 'interesting' lives to spice up our own mundane ones. But, where do we draw the line, if at all? David Beckham, tired of his boxers and V-cuts, tries on his wifey's G-strings and it generates more news and commotion than the Pope's death. Sushmita Sen dons a huge solitaire ring and we all start wondering if she's getting any (and who from). When does harmless curiosity coupled with a dash of admiration turn into a dangerous obsession? The answer, unfortunately, is a curt but profound 'always'. Most of us spend far more time reading the Delhi/Mumbai/Calcutta Times supplement than we do reading the Business, International or even the Sports pages. And for a select few, these supplements are their only diet of daily 'news' and their only touch with 'reality'.

The recent past is agog with stories of the rising menace of the paparazzi (literally: the stinging mosquito in Italian). Freelance photographers in the west often complain of getting the rough end of the stick from the security guards of the celebrities. My question to them is: is it such a surprise? I can't imagine how differently we'd react, were we to be in their shoes. Nobody likes a camera shoved into their faces 24X7, not unless you're Kamaal R Khan from Bigg Boss. Thankfully, India's popular media isn't as intrusive as its American counterpart yet. But, what is alarming is that we're getting there, and blindingly fast at that.

I'm not justifying the excesses of the famous. If anything, these excesses are a direct result of attention and the importance we attach to them. I'm probably just as guilty as anyone else in the matter, but there needs to be a larger, collective awakening of the futility and the hazards of our trivial obsessions. True that a Manmohan Singh or a Hosni Mubarak doesn't have the zing and glamour that a Kareena Kapoor or a Kim Kardashian does, but when the time comes, who is it that will really matter?

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

It does feel awfully strange to start reconnecting on this platform after going incommunicado for nearly two months.Well, I'm ready with my set of excuses, so here I go. To make things palatable, I'll weave it in the form of a story:

It all began with the last week of what-is-remembered at the 2010th Year of the Lord. An impending visit to the haven called Calcutta, coupled with its overbearing Yuletide obsession and the general end-of-the-year Bacchanalia gave me an excuse to 'take a break' from the blogging scheme of things. And lazy as I am, I found enough credence in that line of reasoning. And so it went. The new year came and became commonplace, the winter in Gurgaon bid us an early good-bye, and as I watched January turn into February, I kept finding new excuses to sustain my abstinence: a new trimester at college, some amount of travelling, Final Placements at MDI, mid-term exams and the likes. Even questions like 'What happened dude, why did you stop posting?' did little to unsettle my sloth-like temperament. Though most of us might not attach much importance to it, the truth of the matter is that Procrastination is a cruel mistress- a modern-day Mata Hari. And to the hardcore procrastinator like Yours Truly, the sentiment of 'do it tomorrow' is much like a rapidly descending snowball- it keeps building on itself 'til it reaches catastrophic proportions.And in a world where mindless verbiage is supposed to garner fickle eyeballs, no news is some very bad news. Indeed, in giving in to my baser instincts, I have tripped over the most obvious and yet the most difficult hurdle that the blogger-sprinter can come across.

To anybody who was expecting and I left wanting, I owe the sincerest apologies, coupled with the baseless promise of 'never again'. Who wins in this constant duel of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, though, is something only time will tell.

Till then, wish me luck and Godspeed.

P.S: The flowchart above is worth a look.

December 18, 2010

Judgment Day

You may not know me personally, but you've seen enough like me to know what I'm like. They say the likes of me are now few and far between. Some even say that I'm as good as obsolete in most parts of the country. Does it bother me? Should it bother me? After all, I have everything that a man can possibly need to spend the rest of his life in luxury: a spacious leather couch, a remote-controlled LCD TV and cool air-conditioning. But then again, I am not really a man. So, what am I?

Cacophonous and lustrous, I am the coin. Yet, I'm no ordinary coin. I'm the fifty-paisa coin, the veritable atthanni. Like all others of my kind, I have no name. And like all others of my kind, I too have a story, only if you ever cared to listen.

I was born in the early months of 1992, in an India which was suddenly talking of change (no pun intended), liberalization and "opening up". I do not remember much of my stay at the Alipore Mint in Calcutta (where I was born) or at the RBI. But what I do remember is that those were very different times. There was this quiet sense of optimism that I could feel as soon as I smelled the fresh air, a feeling not very different from 'we can do it!'.

It took me a while to get used to the ways of the world. Back at the Mint, my brothers had told me that people outside are going to value me and keep me safely, for, I was something important. Yet, for all that importance, I failed to understand why these very humans would frequently launch me into the air with a flick of their thumb. The toss, as it was called. In those moments, time, space and gravity would all cease to exist for me. Spinning like a top on steroids, all I would be concerned about is how this was going to end. Sometimes it would be in the soft, warm cushion of a cupped palm, at other times, it would be cold, hard floor. So much for helping these gutless, indecisive humans choose.

Then there was that impish little kid (Ingit, I think the devil was called). Buoyed by the disappearing act the five and ten paise kind pulled off when they went swimming in acid, this kid drowned me in what seemed like an ocean of Industrial Muriatic Acid for one whole night, expecting to see me gone the next day. But, little did he know that I was made of sterner stuff. You should've seen his face when he dipped his fingers into the acid to pull me out next day- it was like reality came crashing down on him.

Of course, I could go on and on about human idiosyncrasies, but, given my audience, I get a feeling that it may not be well received. So, I'll move on. The next highlight in my history occurred sometime last year. I had been comfortably lounging around in somebody's shirt pocket when, in the middle of night, thanks to my bearer's constant moving, I was pushed hither-tither, as though in a stampede. And then, I fell. I fell for what seemed like eternity, in complete darkness, before I touched down with a soft belly-landing. Dazed, I looked all around me. It was pitch black, save for some light at a distance, almost like that at the end of a tunnel. Long years of eavesdropping on my human bearers had made me certain that I was definitely in Heaven.

But, as looked more closely into the brightness, I could make out a face, a familiar face! In an instant, it came to me, that was Rakhi Sawant! No sooner had I thought of her name that the absurdity of it all began to dawn on me- if this is Heaven, that can't be Rakhi Sawant and if that is Rakhi Sawant, this can't be Heaven. Besides, the idea of Heaven is preposterous, almost blasphemous! Coins don't go to Heaven, cons do, I thought. A persistent snore somewhere in the vicinity and a wafting melody of the Vodafone commercial made me realize that I had slid and fallen into the crevice between two adjoining couch 'seats'. And the light at the distance was not a God, but a million Liquid Crystal Displays.

To speak nothing about my new benefactors' sense of cleanliness, the couch is where I have been ever since that fateful night. It was difficult at first, what with all the loneliness, darkness and lack of action. But, I have grown to like it ever since. It affords me the comfort and (occasional) serenity that farts my age need. A good time for reflection, I think.

I have indeed thought a great deal over the past year. About my life and myself. How I was a shining young lad only eighteen years ago and how I am an old, dishevelled grouch now, one who has become rough at his edges and whose body has clearly lost its lustre. Maybe it is only fitting that everything connected to my (our) birth has to do with mint or its other variants. But forget my infirmities, even the world at large doesn't care for me. And for somebody whose world is limited by the nation's political boundaries, I'm not asking for too much. Over the years, I have seen lesser coins (the five, ten and twenty paise variety) succumb to an eventual death. I have been told that I am no longer welcome anywhere in the North, and I'm worth nothing save for my intrinsic metal. Why, only last month, CNBC was talking about how me and other fifty-paise coins may be pulled out of circulation soon. Obsolescence, they called it.

The news that the news broke to me completely broke me. What would become of me?, I thought. Melted out to make way for a new breed? Some new, snazzy design with a higher denomination and a higher fake shine? Two metals together, maybe? Nothing's impossible. If coins were to attributed anthropomorphic female characteristics, I would be the aging hooker- used and abused with nobody to care.

While I was burning in the slow fire within, upon tiptoes came the day of reckoning- today. Much of the day was no different from any other. Somewhere in the evening, somebody in the house tuned on to VH1. Almost to reinforce my hatred in them, the channel belted out 18 'Til I Die. Utterly ironical, I thought to myself. Any moment now, if I were to come tumbling out of the couch and onto the floor it won't be too long before I'd have a hit of my own- 18 When I Die! I let out a laugh, half-mocking and half in self-pity.

I must have had these thoughts for a couple of hours before my moment of Epiphany. And I wouldn't have had it if it weren't for Arnold Schwarzenegger. And James Cameron too. Being a mute observer in daily affairs, I had no say in matters of TV viewing. And tonight, it was Terminator 2: Judgment Day on the menu. To be very honest, I had been mostly consumed in my thoughts and watched the movie only superficially. But, when the climax arrived, I couldn't help but sit up and notice. The scene where Arnie tells the young John Connor that there is still one chip they need destroy- in his head, and he must do it, much to John's grief. Just as the Terminator is about to enter the molten steel, he utters the iconic, golden words: I'll be back!

Its a pity coins wear no clothes, for this was nothing less than my very own Eureka!. In Arnie I could see myself, slowly descending to the molten steel, to become one with the larger whole. In reality, Arnie was reciting the lines he had learnt the day before for a movie camera, but to me, it was as though he was talking to me and me only. Gauging the sentiment, Arnie said reassuringly: You'll be back too, just like how I was back for Part 3. Of course, I was imagining the last sentence, but it made sense. Humans go gung-ho about rebirth and reincarnation, trying to correct mistakes of a past life, and doing good deeds in this life, all in the hope that they may live again. Maybe this is what rebirth was to little pieces of metal. Maybe human beings and coins are not so different at all. I would have to die to live again.

As I watched Arnie disappear thumb-last in the smoky, orange liquid, a solitary thought crossed my mind: Hasta la vista, baby!

December 11, 2010


(Disclaimer: The latter part of this post is not for the weak of heart. It is a true account, therefore I may find it hard to sugar-coat words and feelings. I'm not entirely sure why I should post something like this, some may even view it as attention-mongering and an attempt to gain sympathy. It is what it is- a tale told straight from the heart)

The mood here at MDI Gurgaon is quite a festive one at present, with its annual cultural festival, Imperium, in full swing. A hundred bright lights dazzle the lush green campus on this cold winter night. There is a hint of joie de vivre in the air. As for me, courtesy my now-legendary virtue of inaction, I am a far-removed spectator in this celebration. Therefore, while some of my peers break cold sweat trying to ensure things moved in order, I find myself indulging in more frivolous interests.

Scene I

The highlight of my afternoon was the two hours spent watching a movie. The movie in question was Pineapple Express- a light-hearted tale of how one innocent little act sparks off a chain of situationally comic events. During the course of the movie, people get killed in an almost wanton fashion, like popping one bullet here and another one there.  But, I'm ok with that. What caught my attention, though, was how death was reduced to just another consequence- a recurrent by-product of everyday existence. The movie may have been in the lighter vein but it did raise some seemingly 'heavy' questions. I thought about it for a little while, and then sighed the thought away in a chalta hai sort of way.

Scene II

The night had well and truly set in. There was the sound of music in the air that was hard to miss. Energised by a three-hour evening siesta, I set out to give some meaning to a Friday night by doing something more active. After a small discussion on the matter with a friend and crossing out the things we did not want to do, we decided we'd go to a nearby Bar-and-Restaurant- an ironically named joint called Zaika. On our way out of the campus, just as I was haggling with the security guard for a hassle-free return, we heard a loud, silence-shattering thud. We instinctively turned our heads towards the direction of the offending sound. And what did I see? A large truck was stationary, not more than fifteen paces from where I was. Adjacent to truck's headlights was a bike tilted at roughly forty five degrees to the ground. At first sight, the bike seemed have no rider, but on squinting my eyes in the darkness I could make out a pair of legs on the gear and brake pedals of the bike and a body slumped across sideways, motionless.

It took me a moment or two for the situation to sink in to my faculties. And when it did, my heart skipped a beat. People, bystanders, fellow drivers all had converged to the site of the head-on collision, pulling the body up and arranging for medical attention. The 'wiser' of the lot stood at the periphery of the action, passing their judgement. Yeh toh gaya, they ruled.

I'll spare you the gruesome details of the account. My friend, who watched the sight more closely than I did, was visibly shaken. Not that I was left untouched either. My mind was racing with thoughts I did not want to have. Life, with all its intrinsic beauty and all its promises, is so inherently fragile, so momentary. We toil and toil away, each trying to fulfill a goal, and yet I can't say for sure whether I'll make it from one moment to the other. Every second on the graphical timeline has a mathematical discontinuity built into it, and we are just lucky that we weather discontinuity after discontinuity without dropping off the radar.

No, I'm not trying to scare anybody. I'm not spewing macabre nonsense to sound cool either. Tonight taught me a lesson: that of Carpe Diem- seize the day. It is bitterly ironic that in Black-and-White Chessboard of Life, it takes a chance encounter with death to understand how precious life is. I don't really believe in a Higher Being (my religious self being a non-practicing Hindu bordering on the Agnostic), but the events of the afternoon (where I almost questioned the gravity of death) unfolding into the events of the evening had a loud "Beware" written all over it- clearly too much to attribute to mere chance and co-incidence.

But, as is Human nature, things will move on. In a few moments from now, a new day shall break and the sun shall begin its daily ascent. The glass shards in front of the MDI gate will be swept away by some worker, remnants of the night decimated in one fell sweep. People will play Chinese Whisper about the events of the night before, with straight, sympathetic faces. The incident may find mention in a newspaper snippet or two, else it will be just another number to the Public Vehicles Department. Even I, so seemingly affected by the incident, may find something else to keep me occupied, matters more worldly, if you will want to call it that. And, Heavens forbid, when that happens, this post shall serve as a grim reminder that no matter how messed up life is, I'm still lucky to be living it.