Monday, July 30, 2007

Yaar Enna Sonnalum

Hare Krishna!
This is a song that is very dear to me. I learnt it from a girl whom I have known since she was a little kid (and who is also responsible for this post). The song is sweet and I got to discuss its meaning with my mother and my soul's reflection. Corrections are welcome. Here is Maharajapuram Santhanam rendering it in his voice.

Raga: Manirangu
Tala: Aadi

Lyrics follow interspaced with an approximate translation. The usual way of employing "zh" while transliterating Tamil is dropped in favour of the "yy" which is closer to the actual way of pronouncing it. Stick your tongue-tip to the roof of your mouth and say "yuh".

Yaar enna sonnalum, anjaadhey nenjhamey
Aiyan karunaiyai paadu.
Raaga aalaapanamudanum paadu - mudinthaal
Adavodum jathiyodum aadu.
Arumai-ena vandha piraveegalo pala
Aayiram sonnalum varumo - aadhalin
Yaar enna sonnalum, anjaadhey nenjhamey
Aiyan karunaiyai paadu.

No matter what anyone says, fear not
And sing the praise of Lord Krishna.
Sing with (the right) raga and aalaapana - and if you can
Dance with suitable adavus and jathis.
Dear have been the myriad creations
But shall there ever be a creation like This - Hence,
No matter what anyone says, fear not
And sing the praise of Lord Krishna.

(I am not sure what Oothukkaadu Venkatasubba Iyer meant when he wrote "Dear have been the myriad creations/But shall there ever be a creation like This". There are two interpretations I can think of now. One, that amongst all the creations that this Earth has beheld, Lord Krishna is the most beautiful of all. Second, that there are many creations on this earth but we are fortunate to be created like this (and like none other) in order to sing the praise of Lord Krishna.)

Naarada naadhamum vedamum naana (some places naadhamum is replaced with gaanamum)
Gnaana kuyyal ondru oodhuvaan.
Neeradhar kayyalaada, gopiyarum paada.
Vegu naer naerena solli thaanaaduvaan - andha (naer is pronounced nearly as nay-r)
Aiyan karunaiyai paadu.

Narada's music and the vedas are debunked (when compared to)
(The beauty of) Narada's music and the Vedas shy (in comparison to)
The Divine music he plays on the flute.
His anklets would tinkle, the gopikas would sing
And he would unabashedly ask them to dance with him - Such
A Lord Krishna's praise you should sing.

(Again, the meaning of "Vegu naer naerena solliThiruttu paiyyan thaanaduvaan" is open to interpretation. Vegu means "very". Naer means straight, direct. "Solla" or the brahminical "cholla" means to speak/say. "Thaan" sorta means himself. "Aaduvaan" means would dance. It might seem silly to translate that as "Lord Krishna would say things to the gopikas directly and then dance away" although one could interpret that as "Lord Krishna would directly (free to) say anything to those (besotted) gopikas and (be casual enough to) dance away!" and indicate the freedom and impishness that he was allowed. I chose the meaning above, which might not necessarily be the one intended. Please refer to comments section for explanation. Naadhamum and gaanamum (in the 1st line) mean the same so I will wait for Oothukkaadu Venkata Subba Iyer to descend and clarify.)

Thoalai arindhu, kani doora erindhu (thoal rhymes with coal)
Verum thoalai thunindhu oruvan thandhaanallavo?
Melai pidi avalai, venumendrey therindhu
Virumbhi oruvan thandhaanallavo?
Kaalamellaam thavam irindhu kanintha kani
Kadiththu suvaithu oruval thandhaanallavo - indha
Gnaalamum aayiram sonnalum naam adhai
"Namarka edharkku" endru solli
Naamamum aayiram solli solli
Aiyan karunaiyai paadu.

Discarding the fruit, after peeling the rind
Didn't one (devotee) offer him just the rind?
A fistful of flattened rice, didn't the all-knowing one
Eagerly receive it from the one who offered it?
After bearing the penance of ripening didn't
(She) further test and taste them before offered it to him? - This
World might say a myriad thing but
We should respond with "Why should I care",
Recite his thousand names and
Sing the praise of Lord Krishna.

(This stanza makes reference to the stories of Vidura, Kutchela and Sabari, though the latter is to do with Lord Rama. I suppose Oothukkaadu Venkata Subba Iyer (OVSI) funnels all the gods and distills them into Lord Krishna, such was his devotion for Him. Vidura is fabled to have once received Lord Krishna in his humble abode. He was so moved and touched by the Lord's arrival that he pulls a bunch of bananas and proceeds to prepare them for the Lord. He peels them, discards the pith and offers the peels to Lord Krishna. The Lord smiles and eats every one of the peel. When Vidura's wife brings Vidura to his senses and Vidura realises his mistake, he offers the pith to Krishna to which the Lord replies: "But the fruit is not as sweet!"
Kutchela was Krishna's childhood friend who was very dear to Him. Kutchela was very poor and always remained so while Krishna went ahead to enter royal palaces and lived in opulence. Nevertheless, Krishna never lost his love for Kutchela. Once Kutchela decides to pay his childhood friend a visit and reaches the court of Krishna. Kutchela walked all the way and only managed a handful of flattened rice (go here and search for aval) as a gift for Krishna. Krishna, the all-knowing, rushed to greet him and washed Kutchela's feet and pampers him. Krishna grabs the rice that his friend has brought for him and relishes it as if enjoying a banquet for kings.
Sabari's story is part of the Ramayana. Sabari, an old lady, is overwhelmed to see Lord Rama arrive at her doorstep. She ambles away to collect some sweet berries but doesn't offer all of them to Lord Rama. She nibbles at each and offers only the sweet ones to him. Such was her devotion and love that she doesn't even consider it an offense to treat the Lord with partly consumed food.
What OVSI tries to bring to notice is that, Lord Krishna who has been so kind to such simple demonstrations of devotion should not be forgotten no matter anyone says. He strictly advises singing His praise as the only way to be close to Him.
It is not about whether one agrees with OVSI (or Thiagaraja, Bhakta Ramadas, et al) or not. His devotion is unquestionable and it brought him peace and Divine gifts which don't belong to us. Whether what he says will work or not is a question that arises in the minds of all but the devout. It doesn't matter whether it will work or not for he was able to leave us with this gem of a composition.)

Sarvam Sri Krishnaarpanamastu

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Lost Arts: Making Meaningful Movies

Tell me a tale...
I must confess to have played no role here. I assure you that I was not involved in any of the movies made in the Golden Age of Indian Cinema and I'd rather be dead than be involved in any movie made nowadays. But I miss those movies.
I wouldn't want to make it a Hollywood versus Bollywood (or any other {state-specific}-wood) issue. I see a fall in good the density of good movies being made both in the West as well as in India, though I believe that the fall is more sharp in the local market.
I wonder whether you have seen Do Bhiga Zameen or Do Aankhen Baarah Haat or Pathar Panchali or (down south) Paasa Malar. A movie is usually a rendition of a story and if that is done well, then I would be more than happy. There are those gems like Saaransh or Arth which (I think) also had an original storyline.
I used to have a rather clear sieve in my hands: if the movie is made by Mani Ratnam or has Kamal Hassan involved in it or is by Satyajit Ray or ... well, you get the picture. I think I have backed out of the 1st criteria now, to a great extent.

Movies in India have nearly always been musicals and still are so. I hope that never dies but with the lyrics of today, I'd rather they were sifted out of the movie and rendered as a separate album. The songs of yesteryears had soulful lyrics and a beautiful lilting score to them. Consider Aandhi or Abhimaan or Anand (I actually have all of them in the same cassette). For that matter, consider any movie from the 70s and 80s. I loved the lyrics of this song from Mere Apne. Simple and beautiful. The movie too was about two friends who go ahead and form different gangs with a common bonding with Meena Kumari (who acts as this really old lady). Compare that with the run-of-the-mill gangster movies nowadays. I think after Sathya and perhaps Company the rest of the movies are so tiring. With songs like "Crazy kiya re" which are good to hum for a month or so, I don't see the coming generation connecting to any song. For some reason "Mehbooba Mehbooba" in spite being a hip song of that generation (and I am amazed how Helen still maintained her respectability in spite of the typical cabaret songs she featured or acting the role of the vamp) is still a song people recollect and enjoy. Or do you remember "Laila o Laila"? We would try to recoginise the lyricist by just listening to a song. Now it doesn't seem to matter whose mind stirred while composing a lot of sounds strung together as a song. I am not able to put my finger on why songs of today fail to strike chord but I will put my money on the inherent acceptance that nothing is meant to be permanent (quite a New York attitude) and everything can only get a 15 minutes of fame. I think the creators of yesteryears strove to make their creation memorable for years to come. Like writers of that generation and this. The virtue of permanence is a discarded goal.

The dialogues of the earlier day movies were consciously written to be high impact and the kinds one would want to repeat in close friends circle. I still remember the dialogues of Pran and Raaj Kumar. The latter's baritone voice would make even simple dialogues seem dashing and sexy. I still remember the way he addressed Meena Kumari in Pakeezah: "Aapke paon dekhe. Bahut haseen hain. Inhe zameen pe mat utariyega. Maile ho jaayenge" Smooth. I used to love the way he used to pass his hand over his throat and lash out his lines. Very suave. Down south, Shivaji Ganesan was such a figure too. Why, even Sholay's "Kitne Aadmi the" is such a memorable line or the quirky "Poorey pachas hajaar! Aur yeh inaam isliye hai ke yahaan se pachas pachas kos door gaon me jab bachcha raat ko rota hai to maa kahti hai beta soja ..soja nahi to gabbar singh aa jaayega." :-) Nowadays, very few movies have noteworthy dialogues. Unfortunately, Rajnikanth movies down south have some silly line that people love repeating for long ("Inda Baadshah orr daravai sonnaal, noor daravai sonna maathiri"). And Ajit's dialogues (of the "Saara sheher mujhe loin ke naam se jaanta hai" and "Mona daaling" fame) are still twisted and turned into some very funny one liners. Here is a link and another. I know, I am drifting... :-)

In short, I really wonder why movies with some good and gripping storyline aren't produced more often. I really miss watching a movie with a plot that makes me nodding my head in approval. And of course I miss movies with songs with good lyrics and music which isn't too much of noise.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


It gives me immense pleasure to note that Google lists my earlier post titled The Folly of Motivation amongst the top 20 search results for "motivation therapy"!!! Now let me go read that post... ;-)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Dance of a whim

Give me but one life, filled to the brim
A mouthful of smiles, jouncing with vim.

Bend down and pat icing on snails' shells,
Grab striped sunlight midst leaping gazelles.

Pick her ribbons, have her chase me down
O'er streams of rain, and hills verdant-crowned.

And lie panting under clapping shades,Come let's dance
Our care hurtled onto green-dewed blades.

Splash loud songs to scented virga's tune,
Hand clasped faces as he busks a rune.

Give me a fence to heavenward heave -
Hair in the breeze, a memory to thieve.

Sit on the porch when supper's well done,
Smile at moths vexed in a firefly's fun.

Wish cold nights and thick blankets together,
Curl up tight and shield one from the other.

Thus I ask, not more than one filled life -
With Pleasure's joy and unrestraint, rife.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Lost Arts: Reading

I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer's ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.

Through the Magic Door, Arthur Conan Doyle - 1907

If I were to die now (how I wish!), and in morbid delusion were to believe that what one does in one’s last minute would continue into one’s sojourn in hell or heaven (or any other other-worldly resort), I would pack my deathbed with a few wonderful books and if there remains some space which, I sincerely doubt, going by my list of what I consider good reading, I would stack a couple of pizzas – probably edgewise. I wish God and/or the Devil enjoy reading too, for reading in company can be at least thrice as exciting as reading alone. I wish they have a reading club or a grand reading room with the view of the ocean (don’t care whether it is milk and honey or pure brine). I would die (I think, I was doing that anyway) at the thought of having someone come up to me and say, “E, drop that. Read this. Woolf just wrote it. Isn’t she amazing!? Look at the beauty of it.”
So I read it and say, “But R, isn’t it something like in her essay ‘On being ill’?”
“No way, the style is different.”
And then we go about reading both pieces and I love to imagine being the one coming out right at the end of the debate!

Before I forget, it might be worth your earthly-while to read ACD’s Through the Magic Door.

I am not sure what my first book was. Quite likely (if I wish to believe that I haven’t changed over the decades), there wasn’t just one of them, but a few strewn over the place so that I never have to travel more than two steps to reach for a book. Beyond the Noddys and Tinkles, I poured over scores of Amar Chitra Kathas, which my cousin loved collecting and binding into volumes of several issues. This was one of the reasons I liked him. And then there were Enid Blytons.

My sister and I competed with each other in finishing the most number of books in a day, much to my mother’s ire for she thought that too much money was being spent in paying the library. Dad was the more book-loving types, though mom was the one who was always with a magazine in her hand. I knew dad liked fine books, but never remember seeing him read one. Frankly, I am unable to figure out who is the greater bibliophile.

Reading is rarely an activity worth noting till the age of 12-16. Until that phase, reading is primarily for fun and the joy of seeing colourful pictures or, as is the trend in current market-driven days, to being part of some hype-cycle (to borrow a term from IT market analysis). Pottermania is not a reflection of an increasing interest in reading. It is but a need to be part of a community and the happening world. Given that most people rushed to read the end before they chewed through the meat of the book, I doubt whether reading the book is what drives people to stay overnight outside the closed doors of a bookstore. Hence, I would consider it criminal for children to pick a Midsummer’s Night Dream and appreciate the play of words in there. They should enjoy the colours and possibility of the impossible which their adult lives will mercilessly shear off them.

I will be conscious about not spending time in telling you what is a good read, for that is a matter of one’s tastes and refinement, but there will be a lot of telling regarding the dying habit of reading.

Reading , or the form I refer to, is a derived pleasure, like making love. Unlike a scoop of Tiramisu or a Chopin (and I shall explain how), reading has to be deliberate. One must ponder over each word employed, each sentence stretched across the page to realize the entire pleasure that the writer intended to provide. A Chopin can be soothing when played in the background while you do something as mundane as hanging your clothes out. One cannot read Nabokov or Plath in such a casual manner.

Does every written work deserve that attention? I would answer that in two ways (and at times adopting both of them together):
If you feel it doesn’t, what are you doing with it while there are so many other tomes crying out to transport you to a differently beautiful world?
If you do not give it that attention, how else will you know that it doesn’t call for such deliberate focus?

While reading a piece one should reflect on the trinity. They are:
1. What is the writer trying to say/depict?
2. How would one normally say it?
3. What is the beauty of the way in which the author has said it?

If the patterns of ink on the page match the answer in my head for each of the above, I would rarely derive any pleasure from reading that work. The deviation from each of these in a piece is what, to me, raises my spirits and makes me cling on to the book longer. I would dwell on a sentence, read it again, pace the room and return to it, call a friend and share this with her, read it again, think of a few dozen scenarios where I could employ this sentence and then read it again. Again, like making love (except maybe the part of calling a friend, unless we are in an orgy). It is the element of surprise between what we think and what the author thought that makes me pull my legs up and under me and hold the book with greater reverence.

I still remember reading short stories by renowned British authors and then P.G.Wodehouse and enjoying the world they created. I would then enact some of the scenes I read and drift away into a life of very real characters. As Stephen King says, writing is telepathy, though I would like to point out the reading is more so.

I would forget about food or my carnal need of sleep, while holding a good book in my hands. Forgetting about food is a big deal for me, but good books were a much greater deal. Those were days without the Internet and cable TV. During hot afternoons when we were forbidden to venture out, we found the finest entertainment in a shelf full of books from which we would pull one and slide into our bed. Then we never compared notes or discussed writings. We simply read and felt an invisible streak of gold line our cloud-like spirit. It was the glow of having been in another world that we would carry on our visage and recognize the same on another fellow conspirator’s face. It was a rather silent crime to have escaped to a different space while our parents we were obediently behind closed doors.

Amongst friends we would share the books that we borrowed from libraries and establish our own private circulation. We would read for hours on end and though they were mostly Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews or The Three Investigators, they revealed to us a world we had only known to exist. Most of our initial reading informed us about the ways of the Americas, and we knew what a jalopy was and what a hot-dog was. Later, I evolved into Max Brand and Saki.

Reading like most enriching but non-profitable activities calls for the luxury of time and energy, and surprisingly in an age with gadgets to automate most of our tasks, there is a paucity for them. Here I recall Flaubert’s wonderful observation, which I had quoted in an earlier post, about spending one’s life reading and re-reading just 6 wonderful books and thereby realising a more fulfilling life.

I do not recall when I became so involved in books, but it surely wasn’t during my school days. Even our English teachers in school taught us what was necessary to score at least 80% in exams (nowadays, I hear people get 98% which appears so absurd). I would have preferred if they had sat with us and encouraged us to enjoy the language employed and the imagery created. The trinity I mention above was something I created on the spur of the moment while trying to explain to a dear friend why a particular author was wonderful. That is when I realized that it is applicable to any sincere reading process.

I am overjoyed to find fellow lovers (readers) who appreciate the pleasures of reading. I enjoyed reading Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer. She enthralls the reader with the joy of reading and how she herself derives immense pleasure by going over each line in the passages she quotes. Please do find time to purchase this book and a few others by Michael Dirda on this subject.

What I seem to miss nowadays is the joy that one gains from patient reading and newer joy in re-reading. People want to either watch the television or listen to their iPods, get on Orkut and read scraps written in SMSese. My uncle would read every single line (except maybe the advertisements) of The Hindu. He used to say that there is a lot to learn from the fine writing that was contained therein. Reading has become a chore or a ceremonious vacation which needs to be announced and scheduled in one’s calendar. Young children seem to do very little of reading outside of their school syllabus, and even that is summarized in what they call “guides”. Reading literature and fine works of the masters is the only way civilization can be nurtured to productive evolution. The finesse that reading grants is not easily available through other modes of entertainment, and reading is not mere entertainment. I really wish there were more libraries than malls. I wish schools could encourage the habit of reading. I wish parents could sit with their wards and burst open the world of magic to them that comes from the simple turning of a page after thorough reading. Reading is the cheapest way to travel all across the universe and back and being rewarded with a richer mind than before embarking on that journey.

Please don't disturb

Found under the sole weight of his spectacles

Dear Vanita,
This is not cowardice. This is not even foolish. I assure you that I have thought through this and hence, you cannot term this hasty. Of course, it is not irresponsible. I consider it a very responsible and judicious decision. Since, you always rush into judging me, I want you to know that this time I am not giving you any opportunity for the same. In case my handwriting is not legible grant me an extra minute's ponderance over those portions that seem to evade your precise mind. It is but a dying (or rather, dead) man's request.

The mind is an amazing device of life's immense thaumaturgy. It reveals things unthought stemming from thoughts undesigned. It leads us through unknown labyrinths, circuitous while we stand rooted on white amorphous sands, now transformed into lapping waters, now into a seamless bed of memories holding each other's nebulous fingers while our mind leads us forth through this humming sinuous chasms out into what seems like sunlight emerging from a night's sky only to see ourselves as a stranger in our own eyes but a faintly familiar stranger like that baby I saw five cribs away in the maternity ward in which I was born. In such a mind I gathered the life we led together and wondered why I would be trapped in something made so discordant in spite of all the efforts that went into making it as sweet smelling as the first string of jasmine I bought for you, before you let me know that jasmine causes a headache in you. Such is the mind that has led me to what I shall soon explain to you. Such is your mind to have already anticipated the contents of this letter. Please do not brush aside what follows as being trite in repeating your knowledge. What I had to say arrived much before you could conceive it and we shant argue about that.

I am glad that the doctor diagnosed my sudden spasms (which were the genuine reason behind my spilling the coffee on your saree. I am sorry) as a result of Corticobasal degeneration. It feels special to be afflicted by something as complex sounding as that. No, it is not childishness to want that but the need to be special at least in ailment. I read up about it. Lalitha brought me some books from BCL about it. I wanted to discuss things with you, but you were busy taking second opinions from other doctors and arranging for the insurance company to pay for my treatment. Isn't it amazing how the brain slows down the entire world to eventual immobility?

What gladdens my heart more is that, what afflicts me is something to do with my brain. I was never able to impress your friends with bright thoughts or views. I always had to smile and shrug off the jokes that your friends and you cracked about me, giving me a semblance to an obedient Pomeranian. That is fine, but now it is my brain that is the cynosure of all that engages this family. My brain!

Come hastily, my redeemer Near the level crossing off Old Nagpur Road, there is a small undergrowth which leads into a path lined by violets and weeds. A lot of the local boys have often gotten themselves caught by cops out there for smoking and more often for not sharing their tobacco with the police officials. I had once walked along that path and it goes below the railway tracks, along the lake and back to the tracks. The view is wonderful from there. The shuffling of the lake's surface and the slight nudging of the reeds seems well choreographed with the clackety-clack of the 2860 Gitanjali Express which usually streaks past this point around 7:15 in the morning. Yes, I know that you know what I am about to say.

I once read that death by a lion's paw is quickest and least painful. There seems to be very little time for the pain to register before the cessation of the brain's activity and the heart's beating. Isn't it amazing? I believe that this is very difficult to imagine in the world where diseases kill men - at least the ones who haven't been killed by other men or sorrow arising from such association.

I realise that my condition would require your kindness and generosity. I have received that in excess already to demand any more from you. I cannot bear to wake to the day when you would, in frustration of having to wipe my stained bottom, throw the half soiled towel at my face. Why should you lead a life made miserable by my incapacity when you already consider yours a raw deal dealt out to you through the institution of an arranged marriage? I see myself becoming useless with each passing day and not by choice. I'd rather it didn't happen.

I have very little as my own property. My pension would anyway reach you. I wish to leave my pen and spectacles to Lalitha. She thought I wrote well; even the stuff you called mushy and stale. Please pass on my books in the black leather bag to Naveen. He will hand them over to the Mahatma Gandhi Library. My clothes can be given to Ramu. I wish you do not take down the clock from the wall in our room. Ibrahim told me that he can wrap gauze around the striker to muffle the hourly strokes and it will disturb you less.

I think that the best way to die is the one which is quickest and least expensive. The 2860 would be traveling at a speed of roughly 120 kmph. I placed Re. 1 coins on the track and found them flattened the most by the 2860, while the other trains don't do a very good job. I spent several evenings there trying to sing louder than the train's siren. I think every single compartment of the train bears some lines from the songs I have sung. The sheer iron of the engine, the calmness of the lake, the softness of the breeze against the reeds and gravel below my feet should hastily bring to me what I pined for every single day while I was with you.

I wish you happiness and whatever else you still wanted, in spite of all that I tried to get for you. If you can, please do write me a letter as to what it is that you despised in me and soak it in the lake's water, where my blood would have mingled.

Warm Regards
[Your husband]

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Lost Arts - Meeting People

How does it matter!!!?
The pani-puris were too large for her mouth and I saw the 6-something girl bite into them and have the pani run down the front of her frock. She was scared by the browning of her attire and I am sure she must have had images of her mother scolding her, run through her little head. I quickly pushed in one more before smiling at her (which to anyone attempting a smile with a pani puri in the mouth is the ugliest face to present to a scared child). She started crying (and I still believe it was the soiling of her garb that rendered her inconsolable). The boy who was busy dipping globes into the sea of flavoured water, turned to her and then to me before offering her a dry cloth to absorb the liquid. I went down on my haunches and smiled (a nice human one) at the cherub and offered her advise (and no, I am not ashamed of it): "Ruffle your hair and run back home. When your mom asks you what happened, tell her that a street dog chased you. She might be more relieved to see you in one piece than bother about the dress. Now finish off the remaining pani-puris. Bhaiyya, chotey puriyaan dena bachchi ko (Brother, give her small sized puris)." The darling was most happy to find the redeemer in me!
Once she left, the boy was happy to talk with me. He knew some words in English, but most of the conversation was in Hindi (he was from UP).
"You did her a good turn."
"Thanks, couldn't help seeing her cry."
"Poor thing."
"So do you work here? Are you from Bangalore?"
"Nope. Nope."
"Oh! Where do you work?"
I told him.
"Big place, huh?"
"In a manner, yes."
"So you must be earning a lot."
"Not quite."
"About 5 lakhs?"
I simply smiled at him.
"7 Lakhs?"
I smiled at him and said, "Don't bother. We aren't supposed to disclose our income."
"10 Lakhs, brother?"
I suppressed a smile and extended my plate for the next puri. We were good friends while I stayed in R.T.Nagar. We met often even though I might not have eaten there. We would simply talk about the world in general and how he missed his folks in the village. He would encourage me to bring my mother to his shop, too. He never got to know my salary, though!
While at Pune University we would meet at a canteen called Hostel Five Canteen or HFC (and you will find an interesting story set there, in this blog). Somehow food and travel bring out the gregariousness of men. I have rarely seen half a dozen people sit in close proximity, having food and not talking to each other. There were times when someone from a totally different department would sit next to me and have his/her cup of tea. If our eyes met, we would smile, then a "Hi" and then an exchange of department names, followed by where our respective hostels were located and then chat about just about anything. We often forgot to even exchange names.
Recently there was an accident at a crossroads and a few of us helped the injured guy and girl over to a hospital. 3 of us stayed long enough to ensure that everyone was fine and were in safe hands. While we were waiting for the doctors and friends of the injured to arrive, we chatted about every traffic phenomenon in Bangalore. After about 30-45 minutes together, we parted with a lot of smiles and byes but no names exchanged.
What is lost is not the ability to converse, but the pointless nature of some conversations (like the one here). So many people shun strangers who start a conversation for no reason and are just being pleasant because it is another day of the week. Most of my friends think it stupid on my part to encourage strangers in conversation. My lady friends find it highly unsafe to engage in any such frivolous encounters. Probably they have a grain of sense in what they believe in, but no grain ever made a monument.

Children are most friendly and would talk to just about anyone and mostly about anything. People from a rural setting seem more inclined to such rendezvous. People don't mind it if some celebrity or much spoken-about personality walked over to them and started a conversation. I think it is a matter of trusting people enough to share a few aimless words with them. If that be the case, then it is a matter of how vulnerable we consider ourselves in this world and its setting. But amateur psycho-analysis apart, it is such a simple matter to talk to people or just meet up with some unexpected nice person. India is far more friendly than most other Western countries (so I am told), but even here I see a dwindling interest in just talking. Lack of time and trust!?

Of late I find it difficult making a choice of whether to offer some help to that unknown guy or (and more so in the case of a) girl in the bookstore. At book exhibitions, I would have spent an hour scanning over books and trying to memorise the location of sets of authors. Someone would ask a rather clueless attendant about where s/he could find Trollope or Winterson and I would be dying to tell him/her the location but eventually let them be guided by the attendant's confidently brisk shake of the head: "No such author here." Sometimes, you just want to stop by someone reading a Calvino and want to ask him/her: "Is he good? Would you recommend that I buy him?" and then engage in another conversation just to gauge this person's taste (well, s/he was holding a Calvino, so they must have some taste!). What's there to lose?

I remember a rather middle aged lady walk up to me in a bookstore and tell me: "Excuse me. My daughter there", and she pointed to a rather slim girl, "is looking for some good books to buy. What would you recommend?" (this is a real incident!). I proceeded to understand the kind of subjects her daughter preferred as well as what subjects she was taking in school - oh! she doesn't look that old as to be in a college - so what subjects is she taking in college? Before the lady could tell me some more about her dear daughter, the young girl walked up rather quickly and apologised on behalf of her mother for bothering me. I assured her that it was a pleasure but to no avail. The lady was later found explaining to her daughter her certainty that the young man might have some interesting suggestions to make. Sigh!

On the local trains in Bombay, we would have all kinds of conversation with people who were getting off in 2-3 stations' time.
Which side would the platform be?
Oh! This side?
It's my first time to this station.
You've been here before?
You live in Dadar?
Oh! Lower Parel!
Lots of mills, naa? (then there were lots of mills; not anymore!)
Yeah, Siddhivinayak is close by.
and a lot more before the train arrived at his station. Sometimes there would be a "Bye"; often, not, but who cared!? I think faith in humanity is rather firmly established over such meetings. My nephew totally agrees with me as he goes about talking to any kid within 25 feet of him. He even hugs them and assures them that he is their friend!! No, he doesn't take off me! Oh! Come on!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Lost Arts - Games we played

Come let's play...
"Must be fun having them within calling distance, uncle."
"Not really, E. I get to spend more time with you than with them."
The "them" in this snippet of a conversation were a pair of siblings around 8-12 years old. The "I" happened to be an old gentleman in his mid-seventies. The "them" were "I"'s grandchildren. They seemed like well disciplined children and it made me wonder why would this kind gentleman find their presence not pleasing to the gentle paterfamilias' heart.
"They are too busy with the video games and computer games to have time for me. I am too boring for present-day children."
After assuring him that his grandchildren loved him but just preferred to find entertainment elsewhere, I walked down the narrow slums near that place (not really near, not really slums) and then walked into one of those palatial multi-storeyed complexes near my place. I had to contrast these settings before I realised what was missing. Children created their games on the streets and had them shrink-wrapped where streets were paved with polished granite. I don't think it is a matter of granite as much as the lack of motivation to take responsibility for one's own mirth.

Quick, what's common to hide-n-seek, gilli-danda, cricket, seven-stones and dodge-ball? Whatever other people say, I think the common element is interdependence. Were it not for that, none of these games would make sense (well, book-cricket might be an exception, and it was always fun to note Gavaskar get out for 0 due to a flip in my History book. For those who don't know what book-cricket is, it is a simple game waged between two countries - and at that time we knew the team and batting line-up by heart - and we use a book to generate runs. A person flips the pages of a book and the value in the units place of the page was the runs made for that delivery. If the page ends in a 0, the batsman returns to the pavilion!!). Togetherness was the single dearest sweetness that dripped from the games we played. We hated those who beat us at a game but called out their names on the following day.
"Kya hai!?" (What's it?)
"Chal aaja." (Come on over)
"Nahin to kya; gudia-ki-shaadi?" (What else, play with dolls?)
"Chal rukh. Abhi aaya." (Hold on. Will be there)
Then we would hear his mother shout and remind him that he had tonnes of homework to finish, interleaved with hopeless assurances that all homework will be completed.
"Oye! Ball leke aa." (Oye. Bring the ball when you come down)

We lived in places where there was a large spacious playground. Once we were done with our homework we would rush down and spend not more than one minute in deciding what we had to play. If the rains were generous, it would be football in the slush, else it would be decided on the grounds of a majority vote. No one ever voted against football in the rain. If there were floods, we would play a more vigorous game of football esp. near where the girls floated their paper boats. Tsunamis caused by a soccer ball left many pig-tailed girls weeping in the rain.

Gilli-danda was another sport which was noisy and full of fights and had every parent worried (it was a dangerous game, but we had wormed in some safety precautions). The sheer joy of daring a measurement of the danda back to the hole, flipping the gilli past all those who waited to catch it, tapping the gilli and smacking it across the ground and of course claiming a double score by tapping the gilli, hitting it once again before the smack - such well choreographed was our simple joy!

Seven stones was a game, along with the likes of "Chain" (a modified version of tag where the person who was caught joined in the chain of people who chased the others), lock-n-key and hide-n-seek which we had to play in order to pacify the group of girls which included our siblings and which had a rather shrill and whining representation in the midst of parents. We, of course, declined to have any participation in a game of dolls (I nevertheless used to overhear their conversation only to learn that the best stories were created in the midst of hairbrushes, doll-houses and small plates of "namkeen" that the main doll's husband brought home!). These were considered to be sissy games because we couldn't chase a girl simply because she might start crying about being the first one to be "out" or being hit too hard by the ball (in seven-stones). Sheesh!!

Now I step into an apartment complex's play area and find a great lack of any kind of activity. There are some rather tiny tots playing something sweet and cute under the eagle surveillance of their mothers (who can also be quite sweet and cute). Once a kid touches 8 or so, they are more than happy playing alongside a Playstation or some games on computer. The girls seem to be a little sweeter and hang on to their girlie games for a shade longer before the allure of the telephone/mobile takes over. I hope I am painting too gloomy a picture because it would be a great relief to know that I am wrong. Not really. Most kids out here do just that. I entered several apartment complexes to check this out, and the scenario is mostly the same. Where there are independent houses kids stay at home as there is lesser availability of open spaces for group-games. With the onset of onerous homework and project work and all other kinds of work, togetherness-games are less likely to take form. Nowadays, parents want their children to be a mashup of Da Vinci and Einstein with a dash of Tendulkar. After-school classes and courses keep the students packed through the best hours of the day. We would play into the night too (hide-n-seek is best played in the dark) and sometimes have rounds of carrom, playing-cards, UNO, Scotland Yard, daaya-kattai (or chausar) and other board-games.

The equipment required for realising these joys was minimal and whatever they were, were economically achieved. I think thrift matters, esp. in the early impressionable days of childhood where the value of each rupee spent should be clear to the child. Once, a child is born into a family of X-boxes and Nintendo, the power to find joy in any and every situation is automatically curbed. We used to invent games while in the train (and not complain about no video games or demand flying to our destination), while on the bus to school (and continue the game in the evening while riding back). We couldn't be rendered game-less and that invincibility brings a lot of character to a growing child.

My sister and I used to play a game (which I now realise brought her more glee than little ol' me). She called it Doggy Doggy (all girl games had the same word repeated twice for special effects). I was the dog and I had to do whatever she said. For some strange reason, I thought it a great honour to be the dog. Why? Because my sister had only the power to give orders and pat my head for being a good doggy, whereas I had the full spectrum of imagination to carry out her orders in pretty dog-like manners. Those days trained me a lot before my real theatre-days (it ran in our blood, anyway). Another game was of her being a teacher (either of her arcane subjects of history and geography which I hadn't yet encountered or Bharatanatyam, which I kinda liked except the head oscillating part) and I being a student. She particularly savoured the portions where I was forced to be wrong and she got a chance to walk up to me with a stern look, stick in hand! Poor me!

On sunny mornings, many of us would gather together and hire cycles (I think the charge was then Rs. 2 for half hour or something like that). We would all go racing around the campus and then find great thrills in streaking down a slope. Then came the pride of riding without holding onto the bars.

What do we gain in isolating ourselves and building electronic worlds of predictable companions (who spend most of their time shooting down the bad guys)? These games are what make us respect one another and provide for lasting memories. What will the 5 year old of today have as memories 20 years down the road: "Man, I really missed the 15,000 score on RoadRash. Damn I hate power cuts in Bangalore!" Speaking of power cuts, I still remember how we used to moan for a second before rejoicing a power cut. It was such a predictable recital coming out from every dark home in the locality. Ooh! ... Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Then all of us would rush down and play antakshari in the dark. Crazy teens would rush into the dark with their boy/girlfriends, just to hold hands (I am told). We would simply shake our heads and either continue our game or join in a game of rummy in candlelight.

Things were so manageable then. I still wonder whether a game of "thennai-marathilai yearaathai" (a small game of getting the child to stand on your feet and then using your legs like a see-saw and raising and lowering the child to the tune of the song) would ever entertain a child. What about Akkad-bakkad-bumbey-bo (where half a dozen of us would place all ten fingers on the ground and have one person hop their finger on each one while the song played and the finger on which the song ended would have to be folded within - the person who had at least one finger extended won)? What about the game where one person drops something behind another person and then gets chased (forgot the name)? What about dog-n-bone? Jesus!! DOG-N-BONE!!! I so miss that game! Damn, no one my size wants to play that! Nowadays, it is Age of Empires that grabs people in my group! :-(

I think the future lies in what children play today. If you care about the world and the days it has to see, you might want to gather a few children around your place and teach them the joy of lock-n-key.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Lost Arts - Letter Writing

Will you write to me?
Monsoon carries its mark on the soggy yellow envelope with my name - written in ink - resembling Rorschach pattern of love with faded blue hearts stretching darker blue hands around the waist of another, and a delicate finger extending down the pin-code in a desultory manner, lending the possibility of a hidden message to surface on some lonely wintry night when the crackling of flames and this lone finger, now dry, signifies that one single chance I had to keep the flame burning between the writer of the address and the one she loved to address in ink. What I did is distilled as the evening I spend by the only fire I can keep going.

Writing letters to people is, now, mostly a lost inclination and surely a lost art. I still remember how I would rush to my bed, lay the board (a compressed hardboard) on my lap and stack 10 sheets of paper on top of that. My pen (which was then either a Camlin fountain pen with a striped see-through kamarband - and many hours were spent in watching the ink roll down the side from one end to the other - or those Chinese Hero pens with a shy nib peeking out from the brown/black/green bakelite) was always on a full tank before such exercises (and exams, though we shall stick to pleasant memories here). It would be my pride to have to refill a pen in the course of writing a single letter to a single friend. I would make sure that my friend knew about that milestone event by trying to press out every bit of wetness from the pen, and s/he would get to see the fading letters across the length of a line, followed by some darker ones (which were granted a richer life by flicking my pen and dipping the nib in little micro-scale blue/black igloos and watching the mound climb back up the metal stairway of the nib) till the last couple of letters of a suitably (well-chosen) long word were mere impressions created on paper. A new paragraph helped accentuate this milestone.

Dictionaries were always placed near my right thigh with Fowler's books (King's English and Modern English Usage) along my left. Coming to think of it, it does go well with the modern neurologist's views of the functions of the hemispheres. It would frighten me no end to send out a letter with spelling mistakes or horrible grammar. Nevertheless, I did indulge in an occasional game of not confirming the spelling before penning it. It was a personal dare between myself and the brittle pages of my old dictionary (which, I believe, is older than I am). There are very few artifacts in my life which accompany me no matter where I go; this tome is one of them. I still have a Post-It in its confines which enumerates the number of words under each letter, and how long it would take me to memorise the whole thing. I have had a, shall I say different? childhood.

Nowadays, with all these spell checkers removing the need to be correct in the first place, the bonhomie of paper, pen and reference guides is mostly lost. You can't run a spell check on a sheet of paper (unless the paper is electronically special or scanned and run through an extraction software, whose reliability is just that much) and you don't use paper and ink when you prefer to use a spell checker.

Often the chore of an age becomes the romance of the ones that follow it. I would agree in most cases (using a wood-fuel stove, washing clothes in the ghats, etc.) but letter writing is essentially personal and not a mere moist-eyed romantic view of a task. Today, I could login to your account and send a mail to your mom and she wouldn't know it wasn't her son/daughter. How sure would you be of pulling that off with a letter? I care a tinker's damn about security, so this is not my prime reason for missing letters written to me.

Letters leant a personal touch to the communication. I could smell her hand on the sheets of paper. I could run my fingers over something which wasn't the same as holding hands, but the nearest I could get with 1000 Kms separating us. I knew her mood when she wrote in turquoise blue and not in the usual royal blue ink. I had different textures of paper (that was when I learnt about GSM and paper dimensions. I also learnt the words ream and gross (did you know that it has a less disgusting connotation?)). I would walk down Bombay's Mohammed Ali Road and the markets that bred a life of their own around there, and buy reams of paper and an occasional nib. I would run the inner pad of my forefinger diagonally down the sheet and then flick the ear of the sheet to judge texture. I am not sure whether that is how it should be done, but I preferred inventing my own techniques for nearly anything I did (I once tried listing out as many manners of congress before I checked my score with the KS. I lost by a huge margin! :-( But, I was a novice and an armchair congress-man then!! ;-). The shopkeepers were my friends soon (more about that in a following episode of "The Lost Arts") and would offer me a cup of tea which I would politely decline (I don't drink tea/coffee). My shopping for writing a letter usually overshadowed what I would do before a festival. I came to know of unknown and mysterious alleyways where one could find the finest paper and smoothest inks. I remember buying a large bottle (1 litre) of ink and then having to discard it as the sediments had gathered at the bottom and had hardened.

Shopping apart (and I cannot over-emphasise the joy of holding a flashy new pen or carefully pulling out a new sheet from the pile), the personal touch was leant in the manner in which one wrote. That "Dear" which started out the letter is very different (looks-wise too, but in other ways) when it came from different people. One reads a line and smiles at a pause and is aware of the exact thoughts that lead to the following line. Sudden patterns separating two paragraphs and set the mood for the ones to follow, scribbling along the margins, striking through words which plopped out but need to be banished with a few strokes "because that is not what I really wanted to say" and a dozen other personal words and symbols which cannot be rendered in an unsmiling mailing client or as an SMS. A personal language develops between the two people (which is not the exclusive award of writing letters) and it is not informing that takes precedence over relating. The letters have streaks of "btw, I attended a concert" or "my bike is with the mechanic" kind of nuggets, but they simply help in constructing the world at the other end in a clearer manner.

Writing letters is just about that: bringing one's world to the other. The delight of waiting 3-7 days before the postman can bring the distant world wrapped in a dark brown envelope which, is the stationary that makes you smile no matter what your grades were in that semester, is something that cannot be described. You start walking, then jogging, then walking because you think someone is watching, and then jogging again because you care a damn about the world, before you reach the mail box. Not today. Surely tomorrow, after all it is only 2 days since she would have written it.

Another beautiful thing is writing to people one doesn't know. People who inspire you, authors, thought leaders, people in the same domain (this I have never done. Which techie wants a hand-written letter!?) are some of those to whom one could write a letter. I have done this rarely but I know of a person (whom I met on this blog) who confesses to writing to anyone whom she finds impressive. She told me stories of writing to illustrators in magazines, writers, political leaders/activists and few others. I wanted to hug her just for that. I read this piece here:

Maybe it was the mountain atmosphere (no traffic lights, no TV screens in the entire country), maybe it was the absence of every other diversion, maybe it was the intensity of sitting in a bare room in a silent town full of candles (electricity had gone out, it seemed for ever), but Greene's impassioned and unsparing look at the value of commitment, the folly of remaining an ironist, standing on the sidelines, affected me so deeply that when I finished the book I pulled out a piece of worn hotel stationery, and wrote by hand a long, long letter to the poor author (then in his 80s, and surely not delighted to receive illegible scribbles from Bhutan).

It is such a delightful experience to receive mails from people whom you thought might not have the time to reply to you. A bookseller in Hyderabad beckoned me into the dusty recesses of his cramped bookshop and showed me letters he received from Hemingway. I remember an old lady friend of our family gushing with pride upon receiving a letter from Dr. Manmohan Singh on her 75th birthday - they had never met or worked in the same department. I have received letters from less impressive personalities which moved me immeasurably. I have always wanted the address of Pico Iyer, Nabokov (till I knew he was dead), Greene, Saki and many others. I wished to write to someone who knows them well enough. I wanted to write to chefs (esp. Sarjano. Does anyone know his mailing address? I think it is somewhere in Goa) and artists and philosophers. Reminds me of Bellow's Herzog or Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road!

It is undoubtedly more time consuming and the transit time could be a concern, but relating is not a matter of immediacy. Relating is not journalism. Writing letters has its own unmatched beauty like an old picture album with thin flimsy butter paper like sheets separating the thick cards that make up the pages of the album; Flickr cannot give me that feel. The gradualness of letters wafting through space between one trembling hand and another, allows a tangibility to take birth which a printout aborts. The space that these letters occupy in one's closet or trunk has its sacred conversations which smell of those days of which these letters are the essence. Envelopes breaking along their folds are carefully pressed together while replacing them between others with a similar fate.

I write journal entries nowadays to keep my hand from rusting and crumbling around the knuckles. I prefer writing my stories long hand with the hope that someone might find them and I get a chance to communicate with her (no harm in wishing for a woman finder) across time and age (I would prefer that she finds it when I am 72 and she 23). She would read some lines out to me and ask me: "So, Mr. E, why did you word this in this manner?" and I would smile at her blossom like unweathered visage and whisper "You need to be in love to understand that, sweetheart! And what is more impossible to achieve - you must understand the person to whom I wrote these."
"So is she around, Mr. E? Are you in touch with her?"
I would simply nod and smell the dust which her hands left around the curves of her signature.