Sunday, December 21, 2008

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

We've all known for a few years now that the Man Booker prize is no longer what it used to be - in fact, it's a given that the book actually winning the award will be less deserving than the other four shortlisted works of fiction put together. That's certainly been the case with the ones I've read - the last Booker winner I picked up, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, was a predictable and too-long ramble, made readable - memorable, even - only by the sheer beauty of Hollinghurst's prose, and the subtlety with which he evoked the atmosphere of 1980s Britain. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that redeems this year's winner, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.

Allegedly 'blazingly savage and brilliant', and a work that exposes 'India's rotting heart' (much to the chagrin of jingoistic Indians, who spent the better part of newsprint condemning Adiga for having pandered to 'Western' conceptions of a backward and corrupt India while not uttering a word about the literary merit - or otherwise - of the book), the book tells the story of Balram Halwai, a man from one of the innumerable poverty-stricken villages dotting India's rural landscape, this one in the heart of UP, who lands a job as chauffer to one of the local landlords' sons, and with him arrives in New Delhi where he learns of the darkness that lies beneath the sophisticated, glamourous cityscape, as well as that which lies within his own heart. Balram's story - and his life - appears to be a allegory for an India that is furiously developing and growing at the expense of the greater number of its citizens, and those Indians who, seduced by the consumerism that this 'development' brings in its wake, give in to the soulless hedonism
that money can buy. In itself a great concept, in the hands of an experienced - and good - writer, this could have been the masterpiece it's masquerading as. In Adiga's, on the other hand, it turns into a shallow, confused, unbelievable ramble along paths that Adiga has certainly never trodden.

There's no denying that the 'seamy underbelly' of India that Adiga wishes to expose does exist. What is in dispute, however, is his knowledge of it. His description of Balram's village, Laxmangarh, for instance - the river, the sewage, the tea shop with its huddle of young men, the main road down which the bus arrives, passengers greeted by emaciated rickshaw-pullers, the Hanuman temple, the pigs, the buffaloes - is that of a generic Indian village, a description culled from books and films focusing on the same sights. How many Laxmangarhs, one would like to know, has Adiga visited, or even lived in? How many Balram Halwais has he interacted with? Adiga's Delhi, too, is the Delhi experienced by an NRI, who flies in for short visits, and hangs out at the places most frequented by those of his ilk - the Gurgaon malls, Connaught Place, and - no, that's it. Just how limited his knowledge of Delhi's geography and even the lifestyles favoured by rich yuppies, among whom Balram's master, Ashok, and
Pinky, Ashok's wife, feature, is revealed when one considers two instances: in The White Tiger, all Ashok and Pinky do on their days out is spend an inordinate amount of time at the mall; and on Pinky's birthday, they decide to go all the way from Gurgaon to a TGIF outlet located in CP. Anyone who's spent even a year in the city knows that CP's dead by 11 PM, and that TGIF, Vasant Vihar, is way more happening than a lot of Delhi pubs. And which politician, pray, lives on Ashok Road, that beautiful avenue given over to headquarters of political parties and a few colonial bungalows that serve as residences of high-profile judges?

Adiga's corrupt politicians are larger-than-life, his evil landlords straight out of a 1970s Bollywood movie. One is only too aware of the fate that befalls the bulk of the country's poor - but Adiga's descriptions are strangely devoid of emotion, or empathy. While devoting large sections to rigged elections in rural areas, he misses out one crucial reality in rural India of present times - the panchayati raj. One could be forgiven for suspecting that Adiga's knowledge of India is gleaned from Bollywood, news footage of elections held about 10 years ago, preferably somewhere in Bihar, a few months spent in Delhi, and a few conversations held with bored chauffers and south Delhi residents. No wonder, then, that the book fails to connect with anything remotely real, including the imagination of discerning readers. I mean - where in India could you begin a brand new life, complete with a new identity and a whole new business enterprise on a mere sum of seven lakh rupees, a sum that Balram ends up selling his soul for? And going by Adiga's own reckoning, wouldn't the rich and the powerful have spent every resource they owned to make sure that he paid for that most heinous crime of all - dared to think for himself, stand up to, and hurt a member of, the upper class?

The disconnect reveals itself in Adiga's style of writing - as a first-person narrative, the book veers widly between two extremes - exaggerated 'Indian English' (
'See, when you come to Bangalore, and stop at a traffic light, some boy will run up to your car and knock on your window ...'), and youthful, urban American colloquialisms ('Don't waste your money on those books. They're so yesterday.), strangely out of place on the lips of a supposedly semi-literate man. Until you remember that Adiga has spent a large chunk of his life abroad - clearly, this is an author who cannot quite distance his character's voice from his own. The language is banal, the syntax barely there, and punctuations virtually absent - or is a semi-literate chauffer, though well-versed in yuppie lingo, not supposed to know his commas from his semi-colons? Editorial slips-up rule - why, for instance, does Balram encounter his fellow-chauffer 'Vitiligo Lips' everywhere he goes, even when Ashok demands to be driven to TGIF on a sudden whim late at night? Perhaps Vitiligo Lips' master is stalking Ashok? Perhaps Adiga - and certainly his editor - should have paid a wee bit more attention to the details?

Adiga's complete ignorance of north Indian cultural norms comes through in his treatment of north-eastern women - defined as 'slant-eyed Nepalis', they apear to be the stuff that most north Indian men's fantasies are made of. And why is that so? Because of their eyes, of course - their beautiful eyes that drive men wild. Again, one doesn't need to have lived in Delhi for a decade to know that most 'slant eyed women' - derogatorily called 'Chinks' or Chinkies' - hail from the north-east of India, in Delhi either for higher education, or for jobs; and one knows all too well why these women are viewed with either suspicion or naked lust - no, it's not their eyes, but the commen stereotype of them as 'cheap, loose, fast and easy', all because the matriarchal societies and culture from which a lot of them come ensures that they're comfortable with their bodies and with men, dress in 'Western' clothes, and do not consider themselves inferior to men, least of all those from north India. For Adiga to to lump them all under the category 'Nepali' and romanticise the sexual aggression they encounter on a daily basis is offensive, and his ignorance of cultural codes, especially coming from a writer who claims to know every bit of India, down to its murkiest depths, laughable.

As a first novel, and left to itself, the book would have gone relatively unnoticed, a mediocre effort on the part of a first-time novelist. But awarding it the Booker, and hailing it as one of the greatest things Indian writing in English had to offer in recent years, was ridiculous (on a recent visit to Crossword, one of the young boys at the counter asked us if we'd read the book - 'I read about 150 pages, and it was nothing special! Why would this win such a big award?' he asked in bewilderment. Our feelings exactly.). Adiga's second novel was given a quiter launch - the first chapter, printed in the Sunday Brunch a month and a half ago, read better than The White Tiger. But was it tempting enough for me to pick up yet another Aravind Adiga and spend four more hours of my life reading through it? I don't think so.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mumbai – the aftermath

Three days ago, K and I went to pick up my aunts, who were arriving at Kolkata on an evening flight for a visit, at the airport. Having reached early for a flight that was to eventually land late, we ensconced ourselves on the battered seats outside with cups of that peculiarly plasticky coffee that one usually finds at kiosks at airports and railway stations to warm ourselves up on a (finally!) chilly evening. While sipping at the coffee, talking, and watching people, I became aware of a niggling feeling, which eventually grew strong enough to encroach on the conscious, thinking part of my brain – a feeling that can only be described as jittery. Or nervousness, perhaps. A couple of minutes' reflection led me to the surprising conclusion that I was nervous at being in an exposed, public space, surrounded by innumerable strangers, any of whom could, at any given moment, transform himself/herself into either an exploding device or – that loaded word – a terrorist. The fact that security – or what passed for it – was virtually absent at the airport didn’t help.

I soon made K get up and we made our way inside the terminal, to the arrival lounge – I had this irrational feeling that I would feel ‘safer’ inside. Stupid idea, really, because one is more trapped indoors in the event of an attack than one is in the great big outdoors; and strange, considering that agoraphobia isn’t something I’ve ever encountered. Once inside, though, sanity returned – to an extent – and my feeling of astonishment. I’ve been in Delhi when blasts took place, most notably at Sarojini Nagar, where I was often to be found – and I was never nervous on any of the subsequent occasions that I shopped there. Nor have I ever been jittery or fearful in any well-lit public place with lots of people before – before the Mumbai attacks, I guess. What surprised me was that I should be feeling this way – I mean, I was far removed from the Mumbai attacks, both in terms of geographical distance, and the fact that no one I knew was directly affected by them – so why should I, a reasonably rational, intelligent person living in an entirely different city altogether, suddenly look at perfectly harmless (in a manner of speaking) strangers askance, while nervous thoughts like – ‘Does that young man have weapons in that huge rucksack?’ ‘Why did that man refuse to move one seat away and allow those women to sit together? Is there any reason why he needs that seat?’ – flitted though my head? Is this merely another manifestation of the mass hysteria, mostly orchestrated by certain sections of the media, which continues relentlessly, and to which I have unwittingly been exposed; or is this because in a world where terrorist attacks have become commonplace, security of our own being, taken so blithely for granted, have become yet another casualty? Is fear now to be part of us?

I am against witch hunts, draconian laws made in the name of national security, and the targeting of certain members of society just because they have been born into a particular religion. I can explain my fears, deal with them. But what will happen when very many others, believing in the constantly hammered message that ‘we are not safe’, demand ‘action’ (as very many already have) to quell those fears?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Mumbai - some reflections

Mumbai, and the recent terrorist attack it had to withstand - yet again; as I asked a friend whose safety I was anxiously querying, 'how many times I have asked you this same question in the last two years'? - has taken over my thoughts, and much of my conversation, as it must have with every Indian over the last few days. The attack is over - for now - and now we wait for the repercussions, for the inevitable promises on the part of the government in words that mean as little as the actions accompanying them. I doubt that we'll ever know all that transpired, and why - and just how many unfortunate people lost their lives because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

A couple of thoughts are uppermost in my mind - the first concerns the media coverage. We tuned in to NDTV and, predictably, found the news channel concerned with sensationalising the issue - as if it wasn't sensational enough already. Hysterical anchors screamed into their microphones, telling us there's been an attack, here's where it happened, look you can see it right behind me, oh, there's smoke billowing, oh god, I can hear gunshots, and look, here are the NSG commandos; the execrable Barkha Dutt moaned on about how there was a distraught man looking for his sister, how she had received word that there was some foreign woman inside the Taj with her baby, 'with no idea how to get milk for the baby' (as it turned out, there was a baby, but with his father, and miraculously untouched by it all); in the studio, indignant newscasters asked us when it would end, how much more of this are we supposed to take; but in the melee, what was missing was what we had tuned in for - news. Calm reporting of facts, that could tell us what was going on, what we could expect, when we could expect it. We had to turn to the BBC for that.

The BBC gave me the facts I wanted; correspondents in Islamabad told us what was going on at that end and whether it boded well for future India-Pakistan relations; there was incisive analysis and all the while, viewers were kept abreast of events as they unfolded. They interviewed survivors too, but allowed them to tell their stories without butting in with questions about blood and dead bodies, and while NDTV was busy covering every funeral around and exhorting us to invade the privacy of the grieving families and stare at the dead men's wives and children, here's what the BBC did - followed the of a young Muslim man who had been killed, and who was being taken to his village to be buried. There were no intrusive questions, just the picture of yet another grieving family. The only difference - was not someone from the armed forces (and I couldn't be prouder of Karkare's family for refusing Modi's compensation, or Unnikrishnan's father for standing up to the Kerala CM), or someone with Bollywood connections, but an unknown person, and a Muslim. The message couldn't have been clearer. Terrorists, as everyone keeps saying, have no religion. This tragedy has affected people from all religions, from all rungs of the socio-economic hierarchy.

'The media made things worse,' one of friends told me while we were talking about the tragedy. When will the news channels learn that we need facts, not emotionalism or fear-mongering in times of crisis? People watching the news need to know what's going on, and why, and not be told how to feel - not being emotional cretins, we can feel devastated, stunned, worried, and unhappy on our own without being asked to do so by a bunch of so-called journalists yelling into the cameras. And the last thing that people who actually had friends and relatives in the thick of it needed was to be told that there was 'blood everywhere and bodies strewn all over' time and time again.

Here's something that did make me stop and think, though - a ticker on the NDTV channel ran a stream of what seemed like opinions, presumably sent in by viewers. One of them said, 'So far the blasts that have taken place have affected ordinary people. Now that the rich and powerful have been affected, maybe the government will make some stronger policies.' This is a truth that we know all too well - but at times like this, when we're called upon to come together as a nation, it has a greater impact - that we really are a nation where we cannot expect protection, or justice, unless we come from the upper echelons of society. Looking at the NDTV catchline, 'Enough is enough', I couldn't help thinking - have we had enough because this is one attack too many, or is this blast the last straw because it has invaded the sanctum sanctorum, the lives of the rich, the famous, and the powerful? My heart goes out to the people who have lost loved ones, to lives that were snuffed out becaues of motives that I certainly cannot comprehend, and I cannot begin to imagine the terror of those stuck inside the Taj and the Oberoi for three days - and I felt as deeply for those killed in Assam, in Bangalore, in Delhi. But why has there never been a process of identification such as the one that has been taking place with the Times of India journalist ('this one has hit hardest because she was one of us') with victims of the previous blasts? Perhaps because they, for the most part, came from the lower socio-economic rungs and therefore were most emphatically not 'one of us'. Every Indian life is precious - it's sad, then, that the government gets hauled up and the people responsible unceremoniously removed when it's the lives of certain 'important' Indians that have come into the line of fire.

And I do hope there will no retaliatory action taken against Muslim members of Indian society. The last thing we need is more violence, more innocent lives lost, more families shattered.

Postscript - And here's a quote from half-in-half-out-of-the-closet filmmaker Karan Johar, published in today's newspapers: 'We now feel unsafe in our cars with tinted windows and our buildings with multiple watchmen. We now feel what a section of the city's lower-middle class felt on July 11, 2006, when their security was threatened (in the commuter train blasts)'. Clearly, there are two kinds of Othering going on here - one Other is obviously the terrorists, who invariably subscribe to a distorted vision of Islam, and the other Other, much closer home happens to be the 'middle classes' regular, ordinary, unwashed masses, whose insecurity and vulnerability the upper classes have so far exploited in films, novels and art, but have never in the wildest dreams contemplated identifying with. Which, I can't help thinking, has hit them hardest - having the us/them divide breached, or having to contend with terrorist attacks right in their own seemingly secure, luxury backyards?

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Jethro Tull concert

Yesterday, all excited, and broken toe notwithstanding, I trooped off with K for what for me was certainly an experience of a lifetime - the Jethro Tull concert, where a part of their performance was to have been with Anoushka Shankar, at the Science City auditorium. We wisely left early and got there at 6 - the show was to begin at 7.30 - only to find ourselves stuck behind a long line of cars that moved so excrutiatingly slowly that one felt like screaming in frustration - seriously, does it take that long to park cars? As it turned out, it doesn't - the slowness was due to confused-looking security people who were checking cars, taking money and then passing them through - our tiny, battered car obviously didn't look very threatening, because we were waved through rather soon. We queued up before what seemed like hundreds of people - most of them older, clearly Jethro Tull fans, and those quintessential Bong aantel types who are so unmistakable to any true-blue Calcuttan. And, of course, the young college-goers. We shamelessly eavesdropped on conversations around while the queue inched forward and then, once inside the auditorium, were confronted with young ushers who had absolutely no idea about where to seat everyone - they were earnestly squinting at seating plans which clearly made little sense. We made our way through four people before getting our seats - which turned out to be the wrong seats, and we - and the people seated next to us - had to shift later, after the concert had begun, much to our annoyance.

The concert, though, was worth it all. Anoushka Shankar kicked it off with two extended raags, which found little favour with most of the audience, myself included - don't get me wrong, I think she's very good, and certainly her two pieces (especially the second one; but I know next to nothing of Indian classical music, so can't tell you which raags she played) were excellent - but when one has gone to see Ian Anderson and listen to Tull, one does tend to get restive after an hour of sitar. 'We want Ian Anderson!' yelled someone from the audience towards the end of the first - and longer - piece, to rumbles of agreement from the rest of the crowd. Tull finally took the stage at 9 - the show having begun around 8 - and if the yells from the crowd were any indication, the wait was jugded to have been worth it.

I haven't really heard too much of Tull, though I have of course heard their better-known numbers, and who doesn't know that legendary silhouette of that most famous piper of all, Ian Anderson? They played some of their earlier numbers, and then some of their later ones - classics like 'Too Old to Rock'n'Roll, too Young to Die' (dedicated to Mick Jagger - 'pop singers are growing younger every year, sitar players are growing younger, it just seems us rock stars who're growing older with each year!'), 'Thick as a Brick', 'Heavy Horses', 'That Sunday Feeling' - and throughout it all one had Ian Anderson prancing around impishly all over the stage, for all the world like an Irish leprechaun complete with the music; his flute entranced, his vocals had people clapping and roaring in appreciation, that dry British humour interspersing each number had us laughing - and never mind that his lines were, for the most part, so obviously scripted - and his phenomenal lead guitarist, Martin Barre's, riffs were mind-blowing, to say the least. I found it hard to sit still - couldn't understand why people unhampered by hurt toes weren't standing, or prancing around themselves. Last night was all about Ian Anderson the performer, the showman, the man who had a sizeable chunk of Calcutta eating out of his hands.

The third part of the show was the 'fusion' part, with Anoushka playing with Tull - and that was a bit of a washout. Tull's sound doesn't lend itself too readily to fusion of any sort, being largely unstructured and and the rhythm not following any linear pattern - Anderson had composed two pieces especially for the India tour, which the band and Anoushka could play together - the first, 'Tea with Anoushka', didn't, after the arenalin-pumping excitement of one hour with Tull, really take off. The second, 'Celtic Cradle' (meant to bring together the music of the East and the West), was much better, but again, the good parts were Tull's magic flute, and the guitarists' riffs. The sitar somehow did not sit very well through it all - if anything, it sounded forced, interventionist. They moved on later to the signature 'Bouree' ('a piece written quite a long time ago - about 300 years ... I think Bach would have liked what we're about to do with it') where, mercifully, the sitar was given a minimal role to play. That was to be the final piece, but predictably, the audience howled for an encore, and they returned, willingly enough, for a spectacular rendition of yet another Tull classic, 'Locomotive Breath'. Ian Anderson was at his faun-like best during this recital - he made every bit of that stage his own, and at times, it was hard to tell whether it was he playing the flute, or the flute playing him. Some of the best parts were when he jammed with Anoushka's flautist, who ably held his own alongside Anderson, and the guitar solos. The crowd suddenly seemed to wake up to the fact that the show was nearing its end and clapped, yelled, stamped, and sang along for all they were worth, much to Anderson's obvious delight. And then it was over. The lights came up, they took a final bow, Anderson ran off the stage, while his band members began packing up, and hugging the tabla player (the well-known Tanmoy Bose) and the flautist at having pulled off a very successful show.

As for us, we walked out into the chilly night in a happy daze with memories that we'll be reliving for quite some time to come. Had Ian Anderson suddenly metamorphosed into a Pied Piper of sorts - albeit a merrier and more energetic one - we'd have danced along behind him without a second's hesitation, following wherever he chose to lead.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Delhi at the receiving end

Those Indians - especially Delhiites - infuriated at Aravind Adiga's heinous crime, that of painting a less than laudatory picture of India in general and Delhi in particular (a crime for which he has received so many threats that he has purpotedly placed himself under voluntary house arrest), should have watched the last couple of episodes of The Amazing Race, currently being aired on AXN Monday nights. Not because it would have cooled their righteous anger, but because it would inflamed them to the extent that Adiga, whose only crime as I see it is to have written an unreadable book, could have basked in the glory of the Booker prize money, even as the rest of us 'celebrated the death of the Booker', as K put it.

The Amazing Race, for people not in the know, is this very exciting programme where 10 couples (they don't have to going around or married; children and parents, friends, colleagues, etc., can all participate, as long as they're a twosome) set off for a race around the world - they fly to different countries, are given various tasks to perform, and the last team to come in every week gets eliminated. Three teams make to the finale, where the winning team receives a million dollars in prize money. This hugely successful show started an Asian franchise, The Amazing Race Asia, where participants come from Asian countries, and are on the whole far more intelligent, polite and charismatic than their American counterparts. They get only 100,000 USD, though, and they're pretty much confined to Asia and the UAE. So anyway, in the current season of The Amazing Race, six teams were asked to fly to India from Cambodia, where they had successfully completed the last leg of the race. They had to go to Delhi.

Now, the countries hosting the participants understandably look upon this opportunity as a tourism venture - the lovely parts of the city the teams are in are highlighted, so-called 'cultural' tasks set them - but not so in Delhi. The country's capital, which is a beautiful city for the most part, and boasts of historical ruins and momuments by the dozen, to say nothing of the lovely expanse of Lutyens' Delhi, unearthed the shadiest, dingiest parts of itself to send the AR teams to. And what did they do there? Paint autos the CNG green, go to the dhobi ghat and iron clothes, go to a gurudwara and give out water in dirty glasses, run through a field where people were playing mock Holi to retrieve their next clue, and in the quest get drenched in colour and mauled by grinning Kalkaji ruffians, try and spot little tags on electric lines in Nai Sarak, Daryaganj - all accompanied by random shots of monkeys, stray dogs, cows, and shanties (the last had divorcees Kelly and Christie holding their noses), and commentary that went like - 'Teams must now make their way through Delhi's crowded streets'; 'confusing roads'; 'dingy neighbourhoods', and so on. The Indian stereotype of dirt, crowds, ogling men, cows, snake charmers, poverty, beggars were held up for Western consumption, particularly for an audience that didn't have much knowledge of ... er... anything at all! For example, here's how conversations between frat boys Dan and Andy usually go - 'Where's Cambodia, man'? 'Man, India's big!'

The funny thing is, The Amazing Race Asia teams came to India too, to Cochin and Pune, where things were handled much better. They went to temples, did a rangoli, washed elephants, and went to the fishing bay in Cochin; went to Buddhist caves, the beautiful Shanivar Vada in Pune, and wandered around Pune's posh, glitzy neighbourhoods, finishing up at the pottery bazaar and crushing sugarcane to make juice that they subsequently sold. So why were the Indian crew, who were obviously part of deciding the tasks and arranging the practicalities, so singularly malicious when it came to Delhi? Clueboxes could have been set up in Janpath, or Connaught Circus, tasks devised in Hauz Khas Village, for example, but no. Don't get me wrong - I haven't suddenly discovered a love for the city after a year of being away. But I do hate that whole Indian stereotype of dirt and poverty and spirituality - and let's face it, there's far more to the country and it's people than that. So when TV programmes can get away with glorifying India's crowds and slums and poverty, why blame Aravind Adiga?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The reunion

Like most people on this planet, I belong to the social networking site, Orkut (and Facebook, but as I find it way too complicated and yet absurdly juvenile, I tend to mostly give it a miss). I joined back in 2006, on an invitation sent me by one of my colleagues, and since then have taken part in various communities, and found ‘friends’ from all over the world. But the best part of my Orkut foray was getting back in touch with several of my school friends and classmates, people whom I hadn’t seen – and sometimes hadn’t even thought of – for over 15 years, but people who, now I find, are as inextricably part of my life and memories as anyone can hope to be.

It began with delighted messages passed back and forth among a couple of us – that number soon grew, and now there are many of my classmates and friends among my list of ‘friends’ – some I was friends with in school and subsequently lost touch with; some with whom I stayed in touch with till a few years’ back, and am now thrilled to have found again; some I don’t remember, but our shared school bond makes that fact somehow irrelevant; some girls I wasn’t friends with in school, though I remember them clearly, but now, after a space of a decade and a half, find I have a lot in common with – and we catch up, talk about what we’re up to, talk about family, work, look through photographs and exclaim over how much someone has changed and how little someone else has.

Since my return to Kolkata, there have been talk of the few of us left in our city meeting up – those abroad have promised reunions when they come down, as they invariably will, families all having been left behind – but it took one of my friends who’s now settled in the US, and who seems to have the memory of an elephant where classmates are concerned, 15 years notwithstanding, to make it happen on her recent trip. Just five of us could make it, though – but since none of us had ever thought we’d see each other again, much less spend an evening together, we weren’t complaining! We met one wet, balmy evening last week at City Centre, the friendliest and nicest mall you ever could imagine – and it truly was an evening to remember. Apart from one of them, Trisita, the one who made it all happen, I wasn’t really friends with any of the others – but that somehow did not matter in the midst of the talk, the laughter, the ribbing, the joking, and endless – mone aches (do you remembers), the bizarre details that one remembered of old classmates who now hold solemn and responsible positions; and endless memories of our beloved school. We talked of other classmates that we were, collectively and singly, in touch with – and received news, some good and some not so good, of where life had taken them. What stood out, though, was how easy and comfortable we instantly were in each other’s company – and never mind that the last time we’d met we were in school uniforms, gawky, innocent teenagers all, at a time when life stretched out before us and the choices were endless and the possibilities boundless.

Photographs of our ‘reunion’ have become huge hits on Orkut, with all our other classmates professing themselves envious of us, and longing for a similar get-together. Those settled abroad but planning to come down in the near future have promised to meet up with the few of us here in Kolkata – and the ones in Kolkata who couldn’t be a part of the meeting are now clamouring for another. While I’m not really one of those tech-savvy, living-on-the-Internet kinds, I cannot but applaud Orkut for bringing us all together – schoolmates, I have come to realise, people you grew up with, people who were part of your most embarrassing, happiest, confusing moments, are probably among the few people in world ready to accept you as you really are.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Taki Diary II

We were woken at 5.30 AM – an unearthly hour as far as we’re usually concerned – by my mom banging on the door and yelling at us to wake up and come outside and see what a beautiful world we were in. So we did. And it was.

Early mornings in villages have a peculiarly fresh quality – it’s as if the world’s been freshly laundered. The breeze is soft, cool; people’s voices are muted, almost as if to not disturb the beauty of the dawn; the grass seems greener, the sky bluer; and that gentle, friendly river rippling and shining under the new sun made for a breathtaking sight. We stood on the balcony of my parents’ room drinking it all in – along with tiny cups of tea that materialised out of nowhere. My parents had already been out for a walk – my dad was still out, and could be seen in the distance, talking to a close friend of his who’d been out on his morning run. We decided to go for one too – I wanted to take K all over Taki before it got too hot to do any exploring.

Taki is bounded on all four sides by zamindar houses, all owned by the Roy Chowdhury family, most of which are crumbling now. Named after the four directions, they’re known as Puber bari (East House), Paschim bari (West House), Uttor bari (North House) and Dokkhhin bari (South House). Situated almost opposite our house in Taki is yet another, Ghosh bari; Puber bari has been claimed by the river; Dokkhhin bari was actually built on the embankment bordering the Ichamati. When it was built, a couple of centuries ago, the river wasn’t this close – climatic changes have led to this proximity, till the waves began lashing the great old house during high tide, and during the monsoons. Unable to withstand that onslaught, and the erosion of its foundations as the river came nearer, part of the house broke, and toppled into the river. Ten to 15 years ago the house was a dangerous, shaky affair – my eldest cousin was married into that family, and I remember visiting her once; most of what remained of the house was locked up, and they never ventured into the part that lay closest to the river. I remember peering down dungeons and being told to not even think of going down – most of the passages had caved in anyway, and there was constant danger of roof-falls. We have to pass this zamindar bari on our way into Taki, and I saw to my dismay that nothing remained any longer, except a boundary wall on the Taki side. The river had claimed most of it, and the family did not have the resources to restore or renovate the other half.

My grandfather was the village doctor. He belonged to that generation of educated Bengali intellectuals for whom participating in the nationalist movement and practising a Gandhian way of life came as naturally as breathing. I have never seen him wear anything but a cotton dhoti and kurta; he followed a rigid everyday routine and for the people of Taki and adjoining villages, he was nothing less than an incarnation of god. I remember him sitting on the verandah every single day from 9 in the morning till 1 PM, seeing one patient after another, and never charging anyone more than two rupees – most, stricken by chronic poverty, didn’t have to pay even that. They paid him in kind, though, when they could – mangoes or woodapples from their trees, fresh fish caught in their nets, a chicken. Daktarbabu was ‘bhogoban’, and daktarbabu’s family was equally loved and respected simply because we had his blood running through our veins. ‘We’re Taki’s first family,’ my mom says, laughing, and she isn’t exaggerating. Not much, anyway.

Ghosh bari
was where we spent most of our time during pujo. Each zamindar bari had its own pujo, and every morning we’d wake up to the wonderful sound of the dhaak – excited, we children would run out as soon as we could, and rush into the huge dalan through the enormous studded main door that was kept open constantly during pujo. The dalan was fronted by a big, grassy lawn, one corner of which was a depression meant for the kumro boli (pumpkin sacrifice) on Nabami – it is said that a zamindar once vowed some 170 years ago to not let a single drop of innocent blood be spilled within his premises, and so the ritual of animal sacrifice came to an end, in that household at least. It was replaced by a symbolic sacrifice, with the pumpkin standing in for the sacrificial vessel. That was probably one of the reasons I loved that pujo so much – Durga pujo is not usually a time for blood sacrifices, but some of these old zamindar baris and rajbaris still go in for it – being an animal lover, I hated the thought of innocent animals being killed for no fathomable reason. The dalan, built of circular red brick was at the other end; the pujo was a magnificent affair, and the entire dalan would have been cleaned till it gleamed. We’d run around the courtyard playing, or sit in the dalan watching the arati or the women cutting mounds of fresh fruit for prasad during the day. There wasn’t much left of Ghosh bari even then – just a few rooms at the side where the surviving descendants, poor as the proverbial church mice, still lived and scratched out a meagre living. There were apparently rooms underground too, but we never did find the entrance. And trust me, we looked hard.

As K and I walked down the lane that led in front of our house to the dalan, I was telling him all of this, and much more. Just before reaching the house we met one of the Taki women, who I call pishi, who said she’d show us around. I saw to my shock that there was almost nothing left of the zamindar bari – the great door was shut, and still there, but barely; the rooms at the sides were no longer there; the boundary wall had met with a similar fate; the courtyard was all scruffy; and the dalan was dark and dank, and wore a forlorn and desolate look. It had lost its roof, and the floor was dull and dirty. Imagining the place as it used to be, I was almost in tears – a few years later there will be nothing left of the once beautiful and imposing palace. There must be countless heritage sites falling into ruin all over the country – and with every house that falls, a part of our history dies. The pujo still continues, though, and so does the kumro boli – that charred depression is still intact.

In a sombre mood, we walked down the road that swung to the left a little way ahead, and turned into a narrow lane that led to the cremation ground. The river embankment was to our left, and as kids we’d clamber up its rough sides and down the other to the shores, where we’d play or watch the fishermen ready their boats and nets for a day’s fishing. At high tide those shores became dangerous, and the boats were pulled up high to escape the enormous waves – but we knew just when the tides came in and kept out of its way. The Taki cremation ground is very old, and has an ancient banyan tree at its centre – that tree must be at least 300 years old. We gazed at it in awe, while K took several pictures. In my childhood, the shashan had a spooky feel to it – we’d saunter nonchalantly as close as we could get to the smouldering pyres – if there were any – in an attempt to prove our courage to the others. There’s a silly, modern plaque in the middle of the shashan now, which quite spoils the atmosphere – any self-respecting ghost would have retired in disgust at the sight of that eyesore. (There’s one that’s still supposed to live there, though, in the banyan tree – he’s called Kelo bhoot. If I was him, I’d take serious umbrage at that ridiculous name.)

Flanking the shashan is Didi’s house – we met one of her brothers there. The highlight of our pujo holidays was Dashami, when we’d all go out in boats for the bhashan (immersion ceremony). Didi’s father would take us out in his big boat – I still remember him standing pulling the oars at one end, while I sat between my parents, chattering away with my cousins, occasionally leaning out to trail my hand in the cool waters. When we returned home, we’d change into fresh clothes – we wore old ones for the boat ride, as the shores were often muddy – and tuck into the goodies that Amma would have got ready for us. There was this Dashami ritual that my grandparents had instituted – big bowls of fruits, sweets, and corn sweetened with jaggery would be prepared by my mother, aunts and Amma, and soon after sunset, scores of the poverty-stricken people from Taki and beyond would start making their way into the house for their share of the food. And it was our responsibility to make sure they got enough food. We enjoyed that – at least I know I did – and we’d seat ourselves importantly on the wooden benches in the verandah, waiting impatiently for the first people to walk in. My grandparents wanted the children to do this because it would teach us the importance of giving, my mom told me. And to teach us how lucky we were to have a home and regular meals, and to always try and do our bit for those not as privileged as us.

K and I climbed on to the embankment – there’s a narrow path along the top and earlier, you could make your way down it from the shashan all the way to the guest house, beyond the Puber bari. But since most of that house fell down the sides and into the river, that way has become impassable – you can only walk into Taki along that road now. Steps have been cut on the sides, and little shaded enclosures built for the convenience of trippers – Taki is a favourite picnic spot, and the scenic river has made it the preferred haunt of various commercial film-makers. We walked along the path in single file – there was a scary bit where the path became crumbly and narrow, and the tiled roof of a mud hut built into the embankment took over most of the space; holding on to the bamboo beams of the roof, we gingerly edged past, hardly daring to breathe lest we topple down the other side. We clambered down at a point where the embankment led into a lane that opened out just in front of our house – it’s a pretty lane, lined with trees on both sides, and houses behind them; there was the ubiquitous pukur (lake), where we saw an elderly man and a women standing in waist-deep water, scooping something up in nets from the bed of the lake. K asked me what they were doing and I told him they were digging up snails – the poor people in the neighbourhood often dig up snails and molluscs to eat – they’re free, and plentiful. Isn’t it ironic, K said, that snails should be a delicacy abroad and cost the earth, while it’s the only food that doesn’t cost these people anything here? A little further down we heard someone calling out to us – to our left, I saw a man and a woman standing by a tubewell outside a house – I didn’t recognise them, but their voices were familiar, and a childish memory of being carried around in someone’s arms rose to the surface. These were clearly more people who’d seen me grow up – addressing me in the familiar ‘tui’ form, they demanded to know why we weren’t staying longer. Unconditional affection such as theirs still makes me marvel – they might be ordinary, unremarkable village people, but I’m glad I know them, and am part of their lives.

My parents were at the house with Chotoma when we arrived, talking to various people who’d gathered around. K took the opportunity to see all around the place – the back yard with it’s huge tree where a brahmadotti (some sort of nasty tree goblin with big feet) was said to live, according to Gita pishi, who used to cook for us when we were children – an attempt at climbing the tree to see if he really lived there got two of my cousins and me roundly scolded – and the front garden, all dilapidated now, but which once used to be my Dadu’s pride and joy, where the cousin nearest my age, and the one I was closest to, and I had once found a baby frog that we decided to adopt. (That frog grew into an enormous creature and was quite happy in its enclosure.)

We left for Sodepur soon after, and departed for Kolkata later that evening. We promised to be back soon, a promise we intend to keep at the earliest.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Taki Diary – I

My father hails from a picturesque little village bang on the Bangladesh border on the banks of the beautiful river Ichamati in the South 24 Parganas region of West Bengal, named Taki. For the first 16 years of my life, Taki, for my cousins and I, remained the symbol of happiness – the spot where the entire extended family would congregate to celebrate that most special festival for Bengalis the world over, Durga Pujo. My grandparents’ big rambling house became the backdrop of our various adventures and misadventures; and the gardens and roads that we’d run wild on during the daytime would become dark, creepy (there were no streetlights) and forbidding come evening, and the only sounds to be heard were the fireflies buzzing, the crickets chirping, and my grandmother’s gentle voice telling us ghost stories while we snuggled as close as we could get to her and listened wide-eyed.

My grandparents died within three months of each other when I was 16, and those happy, carefree holidays came to an end. I, too, was going through the typical self-centred, adolescent phase, and apart from the sadness at my grandparents’ deaths, I don’t think I missed the childhood I’d left behind in Taki very much. A couple of months ago, after exactly 16 years, I returned to Taki, along with my parents, my aunt, and a very excited K, to meet a cousin of mine (my dad’s eldest brother’s son), who’d built himself a house in Sodepur, a hamlet situated about 10 minutes from Taki, and was now about to open up a small shib mandir (temple dedicated to the worship of Shiva) within the compound. We were to stay at my cousin’s place for a couple of days. On the day of our departure, after kissing the cats and Didi (who’s been with our family forever, and pretty much brought me up – she’s from Taki too, and told me to show K their house) goodbye, we piled into a rattling old Tata Sumo driven by a skinny, friendly young man with a singularly dreadful mullet (seriously, what is it with Bongs and mullets? Clearly Mithunda still reigns supreme) – my dad glowing with happiness at the prospect of going back home, my aunt (who’s usually great fun to travel with, as she can leave you in splits of laughter with her crazy sense of humour) and mom chattering and laughing like magpies and talking about the last time they’d been there, the various people they’d met, who they were likely to meet this time, etc., K., crouched uncomfortably at the back with the luggage, but still very excited at finally going to a place he’d heard so much of, and I, happy, yet somewhat nervous – things would have changed, and one never does like one’s sacred childhood memories desecrated.

The drive there took about a couple of hours and was, for the most part, beautiful – along a new road built off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, which led through little rural hamlets and the bustling marketplaces of various suburban small towns. We passed through fields of that wonderful verdant green that you only see in Bengal, sparkling lakes given over to fish farming; and best of all were the glimpses we caught of houses and everyday life through the hanging fronds of trees that lined both sides of the roads. Every now and then the trees would thin out and we would be given a view of a tiny hamlet – small part brick, part mud houses clustered together, little children running around, playing, women washing clothes or dishes in the ubiquitous ponds – the men were presumably at work at one or the other of the various brick kilns that we could see in the distance – tall structures emitting smoke that hung forbiddingly over the sky, they were quite an eyesore, and reminded me for some disturbingly unfathomable reason of the chimney stacks at Auschwitz. I caught myself thinking, not for the first time, what the lives of these people – part of India’s teeming multitudes yet, for the most part, invisible, uncared for - must be like. This thought was to recur forcefully during my stay at Taki/Sodepur.

As we neared Taki I discovered, to my delight, familiar landmarks that were still around – my dad pointed them out to K, along with little histories of each old building we passed. And then we were there, except, instead of turning right into the lane that led to our house, we turned left, on the road to Sodepur. Our driver (incidentally, he, too, was called Mithun!) was asked to drive along the narrow path that curved dangerously beside the Ichamati river so that K could catch his first glimpse of it – and it was a sight to behold, really, that broad expanse of sparkling silver river, glittering in the sunshine, looking deceptively gentle. My cousin’s place was built along traditional lines – it was long, low, open on all sides, surrounded by land enclosed by a low wall, and, best of all, had a huge pond with stone benches beside it to the right. K and I, delighted at the sight of it, sat ourselves down on the benches for a while – despite being a hot day, a cool breeze blowing towards us meant we were eminently comfortable even out in the open. The day was spent mostly eating – the traditional Bengali breakfast of luchi-tarkari followed by a lunch for which all of Taki and Sodepur had been invited; meeting people – my dad, surrounded by people from his childhood days, had disappeared in the throng, and my mom and aunt, having launched themselves with shrieks of delight at various people (all of whom, incidentally, had known me since I was a baby, and continued to treat me as such; K, as jamai, was given more respect), were now talking nineteen to the dozen; and the puja happened at some point too, but we weren’t a part of that.

Come evening, and K and I decided to go over to Taki, to spend a couple of hours at home. My uncle lives there now, dad’s youngest brother, and his wife, who I call Chotoma – so along with her and several other Taki women, we clambered on to the primary form of transport – the van, which is nothing more than those cycles with wooden carts on wheels attached behind them that you use to transport goods in cities. I enjoyed my first van ride immensely, though I did find myself clutching the sides nervously now and then – and it was so beautiful, that quiet, balmy evening, trundling down a narrow, winding track with the river flowing softly beside us, the breeze wafting off it cooling the temperature, catching a sight of houses – mostly mud, or wattle and daub; Sodepur is a decidedly poor hamlet – people on the roads calling out to those on the vans (Kothai giyechile? Tomader gache aam hoyeche ebaar?) – and I felt all the tension, the stress that’s so much a part of our everyday lives, so much so that we aren’t even aware of it anymore, draining away, leaving me lighter, calmer, and happy, being here with people who were simpler, unencumbered with the stifling social expectations and etiquette that plague us every step of the way, people who were happy to see me simply because I was me.

After a couple of hours spent at home, where I rushed around nostalgically though K could see very little, there being a power cut, one of the major problems affecting Taki and adjoining areas, we returned on yet another van, this time in the pitch darkness so peculiar to villages – Ichamati gleaming silver on our left while lanterns glimmering through trees in the houses to our right and the occasional voice carried on the breeze provided the only signs of human habitation. Now and then we’d pass a surly BSF guy – because Taki is bang on the Bangladesh border, there’s a sizeable Border Security Force camp there, and sullen guys in the uniforms and high boots, with their rifles slung menacingly across their shoulders is a common sight. ‘They harass the local people a lot,’ my youngest cousin’s wife, herself from Sodepur, had told us. ‘We can’t be out on the road after 8.30 pm.’ Later, we were driven to the Taki guest house, where we were to spend the night, and I promised K that the first thing we’d do in the morning was walk across to Taki, and explore every inch of it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Size zero and all that jazz

Am I the only one deeply uncomfortable with the current glorification of Kareena Kapoor’s starving body? Not a day goes by without our being confronted with yet another picture of Kareena in itsy-bitsy shorts and skimpy top or a swimsuit, ribs protruding on her painfully thin body, her skinny legs jutting out at decidedly odd angles, lips puckered in what is clearly meant to be a sexy pout. It is ironic that at a time when the international look is veering away from the skinny, unreal, androgynous female figure towards real women, India should have embraced the waif-thin look. But then, that’s hardly surprising – its aspirations to the status of world leader notwithstanding, India has always lagged at least a decade behind the West, particularly in matters relating to culture and fashion.

Kareena has supposedly looked to the likes of Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss for her ‘look’ in Tashan. Again, ironic, considering that Kate Moss has left her waif-thin days behind, and Victoria Beckham was recently in the news, protesting that it was her natural body structure, and not anorexia, that kept her thin, after she was accused of being a bad role model for young girls. It’s another matter that Kareena Kapoor, a strapping Punjabi girl, lacks the delicate frame and petite structure of either a Kate Moss or a Victoria Beckham to pull off the waif look – what is more distressing is that her attempts at coming down to a size zero are being lauded and held up as the greatest achievement ever. Kareena supposedly combined a yoga regimen with a special diet to bring her weight down from 60 to 49 kilos – which basically means that at this moment, her BMI (body mass index) is way lower than is supposed to be for someone of her height, and that clinically, she would be termed underweight. In a country – in a world, rather – where girls and young women are being constantly bombarded with messages from every possible medium telling them they are overweight and ugly, that dissatisfaction with their bodies and aspirations towards an unreal, socially constructed, deeply sexist body form is desirable, do we need our already flawed self-images reinforced by gushing reports of how good Kareena looks now that her clavicles and rib cage stick out a mile? For most women who do not have access to fancy diets or expensive yoga trainers, what choice do they have except starve themselves or join gyms, where they exercise till they drop and then starve themselves in between workouts so they, too, can get boyfriends who will tell them they ‘have never looked so good’?

We live in a rather peculiar country, I think. We have no dearth of teachers, academics, social workers, intellectuals, musicians, writers – and yet, when we look for role models, we invariably end up choosing people from either of two categories – cricketers, or people from the glamour industry, most notably film stars. The latter, inhabitants of Bollywood, the Hindi film fraternity, are made up almost exclusively of ex-beauty queens who don’t quite know what to do with themselves, or sons and daughters of former stars, for none of whom an actual ability to act appears to be a criterion to qualify as an actor/actress. It’s sad, then, that these people, while lapping up the adulation, should have absolutely no social responsibility, no awareness that their every action is being followed and emulated by impressionable young Indians. And what of the media? We get to read plenty of articles about eating disorders in all our leading dailies, so why is it that no one has seen fit to point out that Kareena’s actions, far from being laudable, are highly irresponsible, and detrimental not just to her health and well-being, but to countless others who will now look upon her as their ideal? Come to think of it, what of those poor young men who are, even as I type, killing themselves in gyms trying to get the washboard abs that Shah Rukh Khan immortalised in Om Shanti Om? K, himself health conscious and a regular gym goer, tells me that he and his gym buddies are rather bemused at this current craze for a six-pack – you can get them in three months, yes, but short of killing yourself with regular doses of fat-burners and steroids, it’s virtually impossible to sustain it. Tell that to the media, which is hailing Shah Rukh as the new Adonis, or the men who think getting a six-pack is probably more important than a college degree.

Having been through the fat, insecure teenage phase myself, the after-effects of which continue to haunt me, my heart goes out to all the girls – and boys – who are probably staring at themselves unhappily in the mirror, hating the way they look and, by extension, everything about themselves. Meanwhile, Kareena Kapoor continues to preen and pout from every newspaper and magazine cover – Tashan's dismal failure at the box office notwithstanding.

PS – And just a couple of weeks ago I read a report in the newspapers that said that the French government is all set to put a law in place that will make pushing anorexia, size zero, etc., as a lifestyle choice a criminal offence. This law will be primarily geared towards the fashion and glamour industry, which is seriously jeopardising the health of countless young French girls with its emphasis on being – and staying - thin. Go figure.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

When the lights go out

Kolkata has recently been hit by a spate of power cuts, some of them pretty massive. The papers are busy reporting on shortfalls and how many hours a day we can expect to be without electricity; the West Bengal Power Department even issued a huge notice in one of the leading dailies about the unfortunate power cuts, and how the inconvenience is deeply regretted – and what they are doing (or not) to rectify the situation. It’s true the these power cuts are annoying, to say the least – our increasing dependence on electricity means that even five minutes without power can throw our entire schedule out of gear. This is more so for families without an inverter, like mine. But here’s the weird thing – despite all this, I don’t mind the power cuts. In fact, in the evenings, I rather enjoy them.

K and I returned to Kolkata for keeps late last year. This is the first time he’s been here to stay on a long-term basis, and as for me, I’ve come home after 10 years. We’ve been at out parents’ place while we look for one of our own – and the crazy experiences we’ve had house-hunting in north Kolkata will form the subject of a later blog – and I must say it’s been rather nice being home again after so long, back with, as Gerald Durrell would say, ‘my family and other animals’. So what do power cuts have to do with it? Simply this – in the evenings, when there’s no electricity, and therefore no way for our laptops to function or the television switched on or any reading to be done, we all perforce get together in one room lit by a flickering candle, and talk.

We do talk a lot with each other in my family, share everyday events, jokes, problems – but it’s mostly in a scattered fashion. In the normal course of things the days are taken up by work, looking after all the various dogs and cats, watching TV – but when you cannot do any of that because the lights are out, you have no choice but to sit around talking to each other – and that’s the part I enjoy most about the enforced inactivity that these power cuts have been putting us through. There’s something cosy about it too, sitting grouped on one bed, the candle flame dancing eerily in the background, the cats all cuddled up on the bed, too, filling the room with the sound of their companionable purring – and talking, laughing, discussing issues, problems, work. Sometimes we can prevail upon my dad to tell us a few ghost stories from his endless repertoire, stories he always claims are real and experienced personally either by him, or someone he knows, with my mom’s disbelieving cackles of laughter puncturing what were to be the creepiest moments. Holiday plans have been made, health issues discussed, jokes exchanged, the greater family talked about endlessly, work stories swapped, kittens played with, legs pulled – all till the lights come back on. Then everyone disappears to do their own thing, the television is switched back on – and I for one feel a little disappointed. I know things won’t be quite so comfortable during power cuts in summer, but for now, I’m not complaining about the power department. It’s providing the family with a good opportunity to come together and enjoy being together every now and then.
Two Obits

Are there really such things as omens, disturbing signs that all is not quite right with the world at large? Not that, in this day and age, in the midst of political and social upheaval the world over, we need the presence of a few extra signs to warn us of bad times to come; however, I have, since end-2004, had a somewhat fanciful feeling that there’s been a dark cloud of sorts hanging over the world at large, and over a lot of people I know since the new millennium began. On a global scale, it started with the events of September 11, the results of which have been nothing short of catastrophic, continued with the tsunami, and the end of 2007 saw Benazir Bhutto being assassinated. My sentiments with regard to the hype surrounding the beginning of each new year have already been documented in an earlier blog – but that’s not what I wanted to rehash here. I want this blog to be about two people who never did get to usher in yet another year – two people with whom I’ve had a fairly long association, and whose untimely deaths added considerably to my pall of gloom.

In November 2007, I received the news that Dr Jayoti Gupta, sociologist and on the faculty of the Delhi School of Economics, Department of Sociology, had passed away. She had contracted a rare blood infection that is more common in European countries and, while curable, went undiagnosed here. She had been in and out of hospitals for three months, had even had a surgery – but it wasn’t until it was too late that the real problem was diagnosed. I had known Jayoti for the last 10 years – she had been a very close friend of one of my aunt’s as well as living right next door to my grandmother and aunts’ place, where I lived once I moved to Delhi after my graduation. Everything about her spelt vitality, and the joy of living – she was big, tall and plump, with a shock of frizzy hair, a booming voice and throaty chuckle, and perpetually twinkling eyes. As K said, the one word that could describe her perfectly would be ‘jolly’. I cannot bring her to mind without recalling her smile, and her gusts of laughter – it’s hard to believe someone so full of life is suddenly no longer around.

I cannot call myself a friend – having met me when I was barely out of college, I guess Jayoti tended to look upon me as something akin to a niece. But with my aunts, I got to spend a lot of time with her – at her cosy little barsati that she’d livened up with plenty of the potted plants and herbs that she obviously adored, at our place where she’d drop in every now and then, at D’School, and at various seminars. I soon grew very fond of her – it was difficult not to – and I look upon the little dinners she’d call us to (she was a fantastic cook – I don’t know anyone who can whip up such brilliant Thai curries so effortlessly), where she’d generously share her cigarettes with me after trying – and failing – to deliver a stern admonishment, as being among the truly happy times I spent in Delhi. The last time I met Jayoti was a good two years ago, at my wedding – there’s a picture of her with Tripti, her close friend and companion, and I, all of us smiling happily for the camera, with absolutely no idea of what the future held. No, she wasn’t a friend, or someone I kept regularly in touch with, but for all that, I miss her. It’s unbelievable, and painful, to think that I won’t see her any more, that Jayoti’s friendliness, her intelligence, warmth and laughter, are just not there any more. One doesn’t know what happens after death, if there is a ‘better place’ that she’s gone to – what I do know is that the world is a tad colder because she’s no longer in it. It is said, though, that we are never truly gone as long as there are people to remember us – so going by the number of people who mourned Jayoti, I’d say she’s going to be around for a pretty long time.

Publishing legend Tejeshwar Singh passed away in December 2007. I had known him since 2001, which was when I joined Sage Publications as Editor. Again, it was sudden, a massive heart attack that took him away one night in Mussoorie. I remember debating the wisdom of his chain smoking and drinking endless cups of black coffee, not to mention his workaholism, when he already had a heart condition with my colleagues at Sage – but nobody expected his death, not this soon, certainly not this suddenly. As I said to a couple of ex-colleagues, it’s hard to think of someone as large (pun not intended) as life as TS (as he was known at Sage) not being around any more. Most people remember him from his Doordarshan days – strangely enough, I seem to have missed all the bulletins he read, so for me, he will always remain inextricably tied to the memories of my days at Sage.

I doubt even the most loyal employee at Sage could have called him a good boss. Alternating between demanding, infuriating, unreasonable, high-handed and bad-tempered, TS nonetheless managed to bring out the best that was in us, and instilled in us a quest for perfection and a regard for quality in whatever we did that I am sure will stay with us for the rest of our lives. He could be singularly charming when he wanted, and much as I hate to admit it, I have to say that for most of us, myself included, there was very little that was more gratifying than appreciation, or a simple word of praise from him. The story of how Sarah and George McCune picked him out of countless others to begin the South Asia division of Sage became the stuff of legend. ‘I started Sage from my own house in Defence Colony,’ TS loved to tell us, ‘there were just the two of us then; and now we grown to the extent that Sage Publications supports 107 [give or take a few] families.’ He was proud of his empire, of the ‘Sage family’, as well he ought, having built it up from scratch with a devotion that was inspiring, to say the least. Not for him the easy route of handing the day-to-day functioning of Sage to any of his all-too-willing subordinates – TS probably worked harder than any of us; he knew, at any given point in time, exactly how many books were in production and the details for each; and he knew just what was going on in every department of the organisation. His knowledge was phenomenal – learning from him was one of the greatest pleasures of being at Sage.

My parting with Sage, and with TS, was unfortunately rather bitter. I did meet him once after my departure, several months later, and thankfully that last memory is of a convivial nature. Despite my anger and bitterness at events preceding my resignation, I could not but feel sad at the news of his having to relinquish his command, and the changes, not all for the better, that inevitably followed. And now looking back, all I can think of are the good times, the way TS would laugh when something amused him; his patience and encouragement when he discerned genuine interest in us; the respect he managed to inspire in all of us regardless of his various frailties; the deep affection with which his daughters always spoke of him; of the way he managed to run his business ethically at a time when publishers all around were busy selling out; of the democratic way in which he always ran the organisation; of his various ‘pds’ – the ominous ‘please discuss’ notes that he would mark for one or the other of us, notes that always got our knees trembling; the memories, good, bad, funny, are endless. A publishing era has ended with TS, and he will undoubtedly be missed by everyone who ever came in contact with him.