Friday, August 4, 2017

My ‘High, Me, Mine’ moments with Leonard Cohen

Disruptive thinkers like me have a lot to hide from the world. This is because I court failures with a fatal fury. I reach out to people who are bound to use me as a ladder to climb up their ‘social store(y)s’. The fact that the ladder stays grounded while kissing the sky is hardly noticed, if not totally ignored. It is in this backdrop that I wish to make a confession.  Why are there so many ‘high, me, mine’ moments with songwriter, singer, mystic poets Leonard Cohen that I am too embarrassed to share with the world?
My mystic muse Leonard Cohen 
I have finally mustered up the courage to share a few dark secrets about how Cohen impacted my life. I felt that they should escape my lips before I finish my wine glass of mortality. Questions keep propping up in my mind but I refuse to accept the fact that I longed to write a tribute to my poet-friend-singer Leonard Cohen who left this world on November 7, 2016.  But I did not. Was I too conscious of the fact that I should not share my western jeans (read western genes) in this era of the saffron Kurtas.
Cohen had walked me through life whenever the going was tough, whenever life dealt me a hard blow. His songs passed through me like a ‘droning’ balm (if there could be such a term) to my weary soul and his words sent goosebumps up my spine. This is because even as I was battling failures I always saw myself as “the bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight quiet, who tried in his way, to be free…Like a beast with his horn, I have torn everyone who reached out to me.”

After listening to such a song mired in self-pity I would often bounce back with his” sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone…They brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.”.
Right through my youth, right through my days of yore, when they dug up the gold, I was held in thrall by Cohen and in his absence, by that irreverent and lonesome hobo, Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Dylan’s nasal twang, his guitar and harmonica were part of my daily dalliances with reality. He appealed to my ‘subterranean’ senses and songs like “It’s alright ma, I am only bleeding,” kept me up past many dawns.

At that point in time, in those heady Nizamuddin days, nobody believed that I could deal with life with a poker face. And while most of my friends preferred to lead a ‘settled’ life, I hurtled down the road hardly travelled. If Cohen appealed to my senses Dylan stimulated my mind. Yes, oftentimes, I was chided and berated for looking up to western icons, but how could I explain that the heart heeds no cultural boundaries. The fact that I turned to being a lowly paid journalist kept me economically unsettled, socially outlawed but aesthetically alive. 

Cohen continued to be my partner in crime; he egged me on to keep alive the vagabond lover-boy within. As a young man, I used to forever feel the Prufrockian dilemma while talking to pretty women, women who fired my imaginations, women who made me stand on end, but I would turn to the musical outpourings of Cohen’s Suzanne to see me through the night.
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
…Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you've always been her lover…

Now, why this fascination for my nocturnal bard? Well, for the uninitiated, this is what the New Yorker had to say about my musical genius: “When Leonard Cohen was twenty-five, he was living in London, sitting in cold rooms writing sad poems. This was 1960, long before he played the festival at the Isle of Wight in front of six hundred thousand people. In those days, he was a Jamesian Jew, the provincial abroad, a refugee from the Montreal literary scene. In a letter to his publisher, he said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

As he matured like vintage wine, he held me in wraps with his album titled ‘Various Positions. ‘His baritone voice, his mystical drones, whether from his ‘New Skin for the old ceremony’, or in his final hurrah titled ‘You want it darker’, he convinced me that my failures curled up like smoke above my shoulders. Listening to his worldview over endless cups of tea and coffee, I got this rare insight that not successes, but failures maketh the man. Success is ephemeral but my failures tempered the steel into my soul. Cohen made me feel comfortable with my idiosyncrasies. He gave me the strength to wear my inadequacies and my frailties with the ease of a troubadour

His musings were my true identity, my true calling; for they brought me his comfort, and later, they brought me his songs!

No wonder he has had me hooked for life. Even when I wanted to express my feelings to my lady love, I gave her a recorded cassette of Leonard Cohen. The songs worked like magic. The fact that she is married to me and is still by my side, is my living tribute to the man with the golden voice. He is not dead; he is only passing through.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

If you have an opinion, who needs the media

Image Courtesy: Google Images
Chander Mahadev
Free Media is dead, shouted the secularists, with a sense of finality. The NDTV (I prefer to call it  UndieTV) brouhaha and the subsequent 24-hour news blackout have evoked  ‘shrieking hysteria’ on Indian social media that is most embarrassing to us old-school media hands.  And  even as internet-driven youth held protest marches across cities and waxed eloquent about how press freedom was in peril, the stink of their garrulous opinions  sullied the air. Words like “I hate”, ‘shameful,’ ‘despicable’ only queered the narrative. As the day progressed, Modi-baiters happily jumped on to the ‘damn-the-man’ bandwagon and the stage was set. The leftists who never see anything ‘right’ these days,  were quick to pump their fists and declare that there are only 25 genuine journalists left in the country and warned that we were veering towards undeclared emergency. (Ravish Kumar) 
Someone asked me what I thought of the matter and I went into a tizzy. All I could utter was that wearing the Indian flag on my chest, and donning the badge of nationalism on my journalistic sleeves was not the way reporting was done in the BG (Before Google) era. Ground Reporting  on what could be seen as a serious security lapse in Pathankot was just  the media’s way of telling a nation that it needs to tighten its security net.  It was not a case of selling the nation. After all, asking questions was not a sin, argued the journalist in me. However, the over-opinionated youngsters who argued that mine were the views of a journalist who belonged to the seventies drowned my views out.
However, I thought it was time to go back to the  seventies. As young cubs we were always told that one country’s journalist could be another country’s hero. The journalist should not be biased and prejudiced. He or she belonged to the news fraternity, and that the nation’s frontiers may be his journalistic prison.  
We worked in the anonymity of crowded newsrooms and the reporter was a star with a name, but no visibility. The journalist did his job of passing on a lot of news and some views, on a daily basis. The fact that technology too played  truant often killed the ‘breaking news’  since radio bulletins were government controlled and daily newspapers were the fastest way to stay updated.
Snail mails and telegrams were the fastest information disseminators and a telephonic trunk call was a lucky dip that worked maybe once a day. The journalist was the true-blue whistleblower who nursed no opinions.  Being objective was the name of the game.
We were the Indian version of Superman and Superwoman and wore our transparency like underwears over our second-hand Levi’s jeans. Our second-hand symbol of protest was procured from a seedy shop in Delhi’s Mohan Singh market and  they more often smelt of junkie-must since  some fixer must have sold it to a Sardar shopkeeper for a song. We were the Delhi journalists who were ushering in a revolution soon after Emergency was clamped in Indira’s Delhi. We were the children of a God who had died young like Sashti Brata would tell us in his insidious book ‘My God died young’.

 The cliché empty vessels make the most noise could have best  described us retro-jurnos of the seventies. We were information-starved, empty of opinions;  we encoded messages from news agency tickers, edited them, formatted them and then laid them out in sloppy, black and white newspaper pages without inserting our own opinions. Our lofty editors and well-endowed editors in the newsroom always advised us to cut out the clutter and noise. ‘Separate the chaff from the grain, that is what great journalism is all about’, was the slogan we were told to live by and die by. “Don’t pepper news report with your personal insights and thoughts, cautioned the hard-nosed Chief of Bureau. The point was that we could easily follow orders since we were solely dependent on news agencies, reporters and a motley string of district correspondents who were as miserly with the news as the meager stipend we received in those days of yore, when we dug up the gold (read news), in the days of forty-nine. These lines of Bob Dylan would spring to life as we would spill out of the newsroom. Once we were back in the confines of our beds in south Delhi, well past 3 a.m. we would turn on the nasal screams of Bob Dylan who hollered that the times-are-a-changing.
Today, when the air is punctuated with vile opinions and hate messages on how NDTV let the country down, I can see how biases, technology and digital media has made us journalistic ‘presstitutes’, devoid of the ‘imbibed’ values we once cherished. Today’s journalist has to weave out like a butterfly even as he is knocked around by powerful media barons, fly-by-night politicians and is slammed by the nasty messages on  social media. I am reminded of our iconic sporting icon Cassius Clay, nee Mohammad Ali  who battled all socio-cultural odds to show us then that he was the greatest sportsman the world had ever seen.  However, in the present Indian journalistic context, the Cassius in him is dying a daily  moral death even as the Clay in him battles to bring us the truth.

Is that why in that given backdrop ,  the seventies brand of journalism was a mere compulsion of the times, and not the standard-bearer of top-notch journalism? I leave that to you to decide.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Coffee, Tea & We!

Prof Chander Mahadev
Photo courtesy Stuart Freedman
The first time that I went to the Indian Coffee House at Connaught Place  was with my father late Mr. A.V. Mahadev, a WHO official who wanted me to taste as cup of Kerala decocted coffee after watching a Bharatnatyam recital rendered by the famous danseuse Yamini Krishnamurti in 1965. I was barely 11 years old. I was fascinated by the heady and easy ambience and loved the liveried staff who spoke in a lazy, laidback monotone. However, being a kid I loved the experience and also remembered the plate of vada which was served with an apology of a  chutney along with a liberal smattering of red pumpkin sauce. 
The next time I went to the Coffee House at CP, was when I was through with schooling in 1971. By then, the Indo-Pakistan war was on and daily blackouts, air raid signals and trenches were a common but fearful sight. Nizamuddin West where we lived had by then started witnessing the first footfalls of the hippies who drove down from Europe and UK. They also came in droves from US of A which was in the throes of the Draft Resistance movement (the anti-Vietnam war movement) and protest pop singers like Bob Dylan, Donovan, Joan Baez, James Taylor, Rolling Stones, Doors & Richie Havens became major icons for us youngsters living in Nizamuddin. 
The reason why we were initiated into such music was because the hippies. They were converging in Nizamuddin because the government had thrown open the first tourist camping site beside Hamuyan Tomb where the scout camp was originally situated. The hippies brought in excellent music, the latest stereo music systems, Fender and Gibson guitars and they also bought in top quality hashish from Afghanistan and Pakistan. More importantly they brought in sexual permissiveness that struck the Indian middle-class with the ferocity of a cultural sledge-hammer. They were on a pacifist trip to "make love not war. By then Indian spirituality in the form of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, sitar in the form of Pt Ravi Shankar and their brush with the iconic band Beatles had became international talking points. 
The Hippies who came in their beautifully decked caravans rubbed shoulders with the residents of Nizamuddin who were a motley lot. We youngsters had been raised on a daily dose of Sufism at the Nizamuddin Aulia’s Dargah and the colony Nizamuddin, at that point housed some of the greatest coffee house celebrities like the doyen of the theatre movement in India, Abraham Alkazi, Painters MF Hussain, Jatin Das and Eruch Hakim. Other greats who resided in Nizamuddin included landscape painter B C  Sanyal, the all-time great painter Tayeb Mehta, and not to forget Nand Katyal --- all of whom were regular coffee house visitors. 
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia
It was this western influence coupled with the artistic inhabitants that fuelled the concept of hitching a ride ('lift') from CP to Nizamuddin. Moreover the Cellar crowd that dotted Maharani Bagh and Friends Colony also hot-footed to Nizamuddin to feel hep and happening. Terms like ‘hazaar good’, G-jams for Gulaab Jamuns and K-nags for Kamla Nagar possibly were coined by the folks who haunted Nizamuddin. It was either my house in Nizamuddin West or Biraj Khosla’s in exotic Jaipur Estate, in Nizamuddin East that became the hangout haunts. Soon enough it became evident that Nizamuddin was the most hip and happening place. More importantly, the international flavour of Nizamuddin became a huge attraction and Nizamuddin slowly turned into Niza Town. 
Niza Town’s lifeline included Cellar discotheque in Regal Building, barely 100 yards from the coffee house situated (not in Central park)  at the place where Palika Bazar now stands. Besides the coffee house stood Ramble Drive-in Restaurant and these three eating joints became the haunt of the hippies, the artistes and the deviants. Among the Niza town youngsters who impacted the art life as youngsters were people like Gautam Varma, Kevin Sethi, Nitin Sethi, Sanjay Acharya, Pablo Bartholomew, Roop Chadha, Manmohan Singh (Mohni) and Biraj Khosla to name a few. 
Coming back to the coffee house culture, 
I distinctly recall that at the entrance to the coffee house stood a small kiosk which was the office of the first issue-based tabloid daily called Dateline Delhi. Here, young aspiring journalists and die-hard leftists launched as a movement to provide sound shoe-leather based journalistic stories. I remember the names of C.Y Gopinath and Kamal Mitra Chenoy being associated with  Dateline Delhi. If memory serves me right both well known TV journalist Vinod Dua and Hindustan Times Bureau chief Vinod Sharma were also  part of the coffee house culture. 
When Sanjay Gandhi was firmly ensconced as the ‘terror’ of Delhi in 1975, I did remember that on a visit to the Indian coffe house in CP, the buzz went around that a young woman journalist named Uma Vasudev was looking for journalists to launch her pet magazine project, based on the lines of US Today. It was in the coffee house that India Today took shape. 
Finally,  when Emergency was clamped on India on June 25, 1975, the thriving art and coffee house  culture came crashing down. For the next two years, journalists like Kuldip Nayar, politicians like L K Advani, George Fernandez, Ravindra Varma, HN Bahuguna, rallied to restore democracy in the country. It was at this point in time that the office of the then breakaway Congress O , led by the Kamraj faction of the Congress was banned. Their office  on 7 Jantar Mantar Road,  was banned and sealed  at Indira Gandhi’s behest. Soon stories started doing the rounds of the excesses committed by the then state Home Minister Om Mehta and the then I&B minister Vidya Charan Shukla. 
This seal was broken by the resistance leaders and it became the center for the anti-emergency  resistance movement. With regard to other triggers for the opposition to pro-actively confront Indira Gandhi  were a complexity of issues. Jaiprakash Narain's Sampoorna Kranti movement had galvanised students and with the fall of the Chimanbhai Patel government (who represented the kulak or the landed lobby) and the abortive (if somewhat short-lived) take-over by the Gujarat Navnirman Samiti  proved a shot in the arm for the mainstream opposition. Socialist leaders like George Fernandes, Surendra Mohan, Madhu Dandavate Promila Dandavate and others were the people behind this struggle. 
The Charan Singh led Bharitya Lok Dal was always considered the opportunist farmers' lobby during the Emergency struggle and his SVD was known for its political flip-flops. It is his ambition to capture UP that propelled him to be a part of the movement for the restoration of democracy.  This is what The Hindu said about Surendra Mohan on his death in its newspaper dated December 18, 2010.
"Mr. Mohan, a veteran socialist leader, was a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1978 to 1984. He was also the former chairman of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission. And, even though he played a key role in the country's politics in 1977 when the Janata Party coalition government was formed at the Centre, and in 1989, when the Janata Dal was born, he always remained a behind-the-scenes party ideologue. As a colleague said: “In this day and age of scams, he stood out like a shining beacon. Another key leader during the emergency days was the great socialist doyen Mohan Dharia who fearlessly quit the Congress once emergency was imposed. When he passed away the Hindu in its report dated October 15, 2013 stated:
"Mr. Dharia was born on February 14, 1925 in Maharashtra’s Raigad district. A lawyer by profession, he was a part of the Praja Socialist Party during the Freedom struggle. He was a Minister of State in the Indira Gandhi government and fiercely opposed the Emergency. This earned him the title of ‘Young Turk.’
The other young turks included Chandrshekhar, Krishna Kant (later vice-president of India) and of course Ravindra Varma. It later transpired that both Jagjivan Ram and HN Bahuguna revolted from within the Indira-led Congress and joined hands with the Janata Party by merging their party which they had called Congress For Democracy. Other stalwarts who were at the vanguard of the movement for the restoration of democracy was the redoubtable Piloo Mody of the Swatantra Party and his wit, intellect and his skills as an orator were legendary.
As for the underground movement and the locations, I would say that multiple locations were part of the opposition strategy. Since the place was teeming with informers, we the Niza Town boys were the last people that the cops would look for. We were dope-smoking deviants and that is why both Gautam and I were part of the youth editorial team. People like Kuldip Nayar and his son among other journalist did play a huge role.
Since Gautam Varma was the youth team's point person, it was he and I who coordinated with leaders like Ravindra Varma, Subramaniam Swamy, Kedar Nath Sahni, George Fernandes. these were some of the  leaders who decided on the  content that would go into the underground newspaper Subtarranean Sun. It was Gautam who would be given part of a rupee note from these leaders (since he reported to the think-tank) and we would be told that a man in say a green kurta and wearing dark glasses would meet us to provide information and then set up meetings with the underground leaders.
Another question that needed to be addressed was since the erstwhile Congress leaders were part of this struggle institutions like the Khadi Village and Industries Commission leaders, the Nehru Yuva Kendra activists were all covertly part of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti. I also recall that the Gandhi Vichar Manch too was in the forefront. It was important to understand why the 50 MPs from the House of Lords donated 50 pounds each on a monthly basis to start an underground newspaper Subterranean Sun, a monthly resistance newspaper. The money used to reach the then Palam Airport where it was surreptitiously sneaked in through a blind spot in the CCTV camera placed at the Duty-free shop.  Since senior non-Congress politicians were thrown into prison  at the behest of Sanjay Gandhi and then PM Indira Gandhi  the Lok Sangharsh Samiti (LSS) took upon itself to disseminate information on Emergency excesses. 
This information used to be gathered from 22 centres in the  states and the LSS used to decode telegram messages based on the Greetings and message codes that were in vogue with the Post and Telegraph department. For instance, message code 16, could stand for Mother not well which could be then decoded as opposition leader serious after being beaten up and arrested, and so on and so forth. The LSS was an RSS-cadre driven committee and it excelled in the art of subterfuge and deception. 
It was in this backdrop that resistance leaders like George Fernandes, Ravindra Varma, Brij Lal Verma, Kedar Nath Sahni, Nanaji Deshmukh would turn up at the coffee house in disguise to get a firsthand account of the activities of the restoration for democracy movement. It was here that we would get hand-written and signed messages which were open letters of defiance addressed to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. These letters were cyclostyled and made Page 1 stories of the Subterranean Sun which was in any case  brought out on a Duplicating machine. The idea was that a clear message should go out that opposition leaders were still not broken by the highhanded arrests and tortures  that had become the order of the day. So, when in 1976, the coffee house was closed down at the direct intervention of Sanjay Gandhi and his henchman Jagmohan, top leaders like Ravindra Varma, Atal Behari Vajpayee, L K Advani, and many senior political stalwarts were languishing in jail. The Congress dispensation was convinced that the coffee house had become a centre for democratic resistance. 
Because of popular demand, the coffee house has shifted to Mohan Singh Place, better known as Mohan Singh Palace and it soon lost relevance. However, Mohan Singh Palace was a hub for buying second hand foreign goods that was sold at throwaway price by Hippies and junkies. It was here that second hand Levis jeans entered middle-class homes. 

As for left politics vis-a-vis the cooperative coffee house culture that took on the shape of a people's movement, the concept of left politics was making its presence felt both in Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. Leaders like A K Gopalan and Jyotirmoy Basu were highly revered  since Che Guevera had become the romantic guerilla who had taken on the establishment to launch a bloody revolution in North America. His exploits became inspiring legends for us youngsters from Delhi University and JNU. The young middle-class Indian was fired by Che. While the majority leftist groups  did not do the country proud by supporting the Emergency, the young generation was attracted like fireflies to the Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal brand of ultra-left Maoist brand of  violent politics. Rajeshwar Rao was a much despised figure but the CPM which supported the resistance movement  was highly appreciated. The fact that the coffee house culture was saved by the leftists was another reason why the concept of communism had a romantic ring to it. 

 The CPI(M) leaders led by Jyotirmoy and Namboodripad did oppose the Emergency, covertly but not overtly. They did not support her draconian measures and also did not put up candidates during the elections when the Janta Party was swept to power. Hoewever once the Janta Party goverment was in power, I often heard of the positive role played by Chitta Basu and Sugato Roy of the Forward Bloc during floor coordination and parliamentary debates since my minister Ravindra Varma had the dual charge of Labour and Parliamentary Affairs. Moreover, Varma was Morarji Desai's blue-eyed boy and since both of them were originally from the Congress Indira Gandhi dreaded them the most.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Daal Mein Kala--A Divine Culinary Conspiracy

Photo courtesy: Manan Singh Mahadev
Daal Mein Kala…sounds like a divine culinary conspiracy, right? Situated at the fag end of the road that houses many eateries in front of the Press Club at Lalbagh, when my wife recommended me to go to Daal Mein Kala to pick up some Afghani Chicken and Kadhai Mutton, I wondered why I had not smelt out  this quirky but exotic eatery before? I guess it was because of my poor sensory perceptions or my lack of a sense of adventure when I hit the Lalbagh Lakhnavi bistros. When I jogged my mind to find out if my memory held the key it said no, it was not that. 

 I guess it was my pronounced Dastarkhwan fixation for Shami Kababs and Butter chicken that made me forget to follow my nose. For, if I had truly done so I would have discovered the place much earlier. However, it is not that the restaurant had great ambience or boasted of a well-laid seating plan, to speak of.  However, the shocking tagline only added to the somewhat arrogant mystique of the 8 ft. by 4 ft. hole-in-the-wall joint. There were barely eight chairs and two ramshackle tables if you decided to have a sit-down meal.  As for the tagline, it grandiosely stated: “if you don’t eat we will both starve.”

The sprightly owner Arif Kamaal Khan
I turned to the counter salesman to find out as to who ran the show. He pointed to his right and I could discern a wiry and sprightly ‘young man’ perched on a bar stool sitting in front of his cash box, which looked more like a rundown musical keyboard. The ‘foodie’ orchestra conductor Arif Kamal Khan who peered through his heavy rimmed glass put out his hand with great warmth and with an impish smile playing on his lip remarked: “I have named it DMK and used the catchy tagline based on the years of marketing skills I developed in my three-decade-long foray into the hospitality industry.” A Pusa Institute Catering and hospitality graduate, he did his post-graduate studies in hoteliering and hospitality from Vienna in the early eighties. He then joined the Oberoi Flight kitchen. He also did successful stints in other Oberoi properties and The Imperial Hotel among other upmarket Delhi hotels. He then decided to call it a day and headed to the cosier confines of Lucknow, his hometown.

He started DMK in 2001, on his return and his let his culinary skills do the talking for him. His menu card hanging above the sales counter is a creative delight. Terms like Chor Bazar, Gadbad Ghotala, Ghar ki Kheti, beckon you to try out his plethora of dishes.
Arif bhai, why do you call your cuisine authentic Mughlai, rather than call it Avadhi fare as is the style in Lucknow?. He is quick to retort with a wink of his eye, “believe you me, all cuisine that you find in Lucknow is a cocktail. Authentic Avadhi is just a selling point.”  When I went on to ask him if Avadhi cuisine was losing its zing with the launch of such Mughlai joints, considering Pind Balluchi and Moti Mahal Deluxe have both come in, in a big way in Lucknow, he says, “the food culture in Lucknow is in a happy space. There is scope for more.”

By now, Arif had let loose nuggets of precious information. He shared that his son was studying in the London School of catering and was presently interning in a hotel in Kolkata.” Once he graduates, he will add his bit to Daal Mein Kala”.  As a parting shot he told me that one his specialties besides non-veg food is his Saag paneer which is an authentic herbs-based delight and was much in demand.  “I use spices which cost me Rs 3200 a kilogram, so that I could give you the best at reasonable prices. So I don’t prefer to spend on ambience and décor.”

I promised him that if I liked the take-away parcel once I reached home, I would surely write about it in my blog to pay him his due. The Afghani chicken was cooked in a tandoor and not in an  open bar-be-cue and the red onion curry base of the Kadhai mutton was lip-smackingly good. The mutton pieces were succulent and juicy and certainly not over-cooked which is the standard in most Lakhnavi eating joints these days.

In short, the food was a delight and there was no Daal mein kala, either in the quality or in the preparation. I must say kudos to Arif bhai for dishing out such a wonderful fare, day in and day out. I guess his tagline is the best negative advertisement I have come across after the legendary Onida tagline: Owner’s envy, neighbour’s pride. Now, that is saying a lot in Arif’s favour. Thank you wifey and thank you Deep Saxena, for this delicious discovery

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My Daily Concluding Ceremony

When I was going through Seema Goswami’s brilliant column titled “So sorry for your loss” in HT Brunch last Sunday, I was struck by her opening remark.  “There is something about death that makes us exceedingly uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine a time when our parents will no longer be around. We don’t want to dwell on the prospect of our own deaths.”

My mind started racing down memory lane, two days after the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal, (April 25, 2015) and shook the very foundations of the Himalayan kingdom.  The huge loss of human lives sent shock waves across the world. The whole of Northern India was in a state of shock. Since Lucknow too was shaken to the core, the aftershocks that followed led to panic all around. So when a severe jolt rocked Lucknow at around 11 a.m. on April 27, 2015, to be precise, I saw two of my colleagues hurrying out of our university building, with their backpacks, camera et al. 

I watched in bemused silence and at that point in time, I was sitting in my Director’s cabin when we heard the rumbling and saw the tables shake. When my boss expressed thoughts about moving out of the building, I comforted him saying that by the time we would walk down our first floor office, the tremors would have ended. That was that.

After an hour, when I saw my young colleagues trundle back to the faculty room, I asked them in a concerned tone  as to why they had rushed out despite being aware of the fact that Lucknow did not fall under a high seismic zone. One of the colleagues turned to me nonchalantly and what he said made my hair stand on end: “Arre sir, you have already lived 80 per cent of your life. Now, let us live out our young lives.” The sentence had a life-changing impact on my life.  I then began to wonder what exactly life –or for that matter- death meant to me. I immediately recalled my younger days  where I used to be constantly haunted by the fear of death.

I recall when I was 16 years old, one day my father fell down in the bathroom and injured his head. The house was thrown in disarray and when the doctor who was rushed in, diagnosed it to be a severe case of hyper-acidity, I somewhere felt I was responsible for it.  When my father came around later at night, he turned to the assembled family members   quite dramatically and in a severe tone declared: All the stress I am going through these days, is because of Chander’s wild and wicked ways”.  I was dumbfounded.

To put things in perspective, my joint-smoking experiments had got my family in a flap. Ever since that day, the fear of my father’s death started haunting my psyche. Many nights I would lie in bed wondering when the bathroom door would swing open and I would hear my father screaming as he crashed to imminent death. I then started penning down poems on death, devastation and tragedy. I wrote about how the three are the handmaidens to success, as a journalist, for that is what I had become. For over two decades, I sharpened my pen doing stories on death and tragedies and it became my calling card.
On the positive side, my fear of death made me hungry for knowledge, so that I could dispel the notions of darkness that seemed to permeate my soul.  I dabbled in the secret orders of the day and became a part-time occultist. That soon lead me to flirt with Indology and mythology and I became a die-hard fan of the ghoulish misguided genius and necromancer Alistair Crowley. His Book of Thoth became my guiding light in my ‘dead and decaying’ profession of journalism. I soon felt it was fashionable to flaunt my deviant thoughts to stave off my fear of my death.
Coming back to the present, now in the 20 per cent of my remaining life, I needed to come to terms with life on life’s terms and did not want death to come in the way of my happiness.  I decided to catch ‘death’ by the horns and fling it out of the recesses of my mind. Just at that point in time, the university was conducting the final year students’ concluding ceremony. The term concluding ceremony triggered a thousand thoughts in me. I wondered what if I could watch my own concluding ceremony.  I fancied my chances of watching my own death as an out-of-the-world experience and then return the next day to haunt my own body. When I shared these blissfully ‘wicked’ thoughts with my colleagues they laughed me away and forbade me to think in such morbid terms.

That night I wondered if I was just being grandiose in entertaining the idea of death or was it to shock myself from the stupor of being ‘living dead’. I honestly admitted to myself that the idea of a personal concluding ceremony was fine as a dramatic thought but in real life was I ready to face my own separation from this world? Did I need to hoodwink myself to think the world is an illusion and it is time to call it a day? I full well realized that if I had to opt for death voluntarily, then the pain and suffering could well be hard to endure, but endure it I must. As a family man, who had miles to go and family promises to keep, was I trying to escape responsibilities? No, not really. I then pontificated on why thoughts of death are taboo in society and why is it such a dreaded subject. Or it could well be that I was trying to play out a romantic abstract notion of death that would bring me sympathy and affection by the troves.
Questions apart, I came to the conclusion that by being merely told that I had lived out 80 per cent of my life, I had begun to stop chaining my thoughts. I realized I needed to unchain my present thoughts from the past and from the future. It was a moment of great emotional insight. A Zen Buddhism moment of self-awakening! That very moment, I truly turned into a proverbial new leaf. My work skills and productivity increased by leaps and bounds as I realized that I didn’t have time on my side, since it is set to conquer me, sooner than later. I had now become a man in a hurry. There was so much to be done and so much to be lived in one single day. Philosophically, I had long understood the concept of death being rebirth, of death being the beginning of a better life. But today, I ‘kill’ my daily sinful thoughts at the altar of truth and embrace my fellow-beings, like there is no tomorrow. This is how I live my own concluding ceremony, every moment of the day. I will conclude by sharing Seema Goswami’s wonderful thoughts on grieving:  “Sometimes it is okay to not say anything at all: If you can’t think of anything appropriate to say, stay silent. It is for times like this that hugs were invented.”

PS: Today, as life turns the bend, I look at the long and straight road ahead!


Monday, May 2, 2016

In the ‘Dopehri’ of life, with Pankaj Kapur

Photo credit: The Hindustan Times

Dopehri is a huge visual feast, with no actors. There couldn’t be a better compliment that one could pay Pankaj Kapur and his return to theatre. Every character has been  beautifully fleshed out without any physical presence on stage.  Pankaj  Kapur’s novella by the same name came alive at the Sangeet Natak Akademi auditorium on Sunday night. All we saw on the dim but surrealistically lit stage was a diminutive thespian who was slowly transporting his audience to a willing state of disbelief, nay I would say belief. Here was this theatre artist and passionate narrator, who languidly used minimalist theatrical props to cast a spell on us. Even as the soft strains of music raised the narrative tension, we sat, riveted for over one hour and twenty minutes, eating out of his hands. By then I had developed a special affinity towards this colossus called   Pankaj Kapur. It then struck me that whenever he delivers, he delivers a hit.
His distinctly Lakhnavi Amma Bi, all of 65, came alive brilliantly. Through outstanding visual imagery, I could see how he used the power of words to build his protagonist. She came across as fragile, tough yet insecure, not willing to come to terms with neither her loneliness nor her growing irrelevance in the canvas of urban life. In the late afternoon of her life, (Dopehri) she was the quintessential modern city women, for whom time and children had become ghostly apparitions.  With her husband having passed away years ago, her son Javed lives in the USA with his family and he sends her a princely retainer that probably offsets his guilt  in not being with his mother at this station in life. Still rooted to her Nawabi past, she is fiercely proud of her royal lineage and yet yearns for the company of Jhumman, her hair-brained domestic help to see her through her daily bouts of loneliness. Jhumman’s character comes alive as he saunters through Amma Bi’s Lal Kothi with the irreverence of a Shakespearean Falstaff.
By now Pankaj’s stage presence starts looming across the length and breadth of the stage, as he walks around and climbs up the strategically placed Munder (barricade or railing) to deliver brilliant knockout narrative punches. It reminds me of the looming visage of the diminutive Dusty Fog in J.T Edson’s western novels.
Pankaj goes on to introduce whimsical yet powerful characters like Dr Saxena, whose retired life revolved around round sugar-coated pills that formed the basis of his homeopathic medicinal cures.  He also brings  in a degenerate Nathu, the idiosyncratic teacher who convinces Jhumman to try and get Amma Bi to go stay in an old age home. The scene at the old age home is terrifyingly portrayed by Pankaj. He brings out the lack of compassion among Indian urban families in treating their ageing family members. His narrative etchings come across as a stark reminder of  the lack of empathy that dominates our daily lives.
Pankaj Kapur the master narrator, then introduces a twist in the tale by bringing in Sabiha the tenant who comes in to change Ammi Bi’s life forever. She comes in like a whiff of fresh air. She is  young, single beautiful and strong and one who never hesitates to speak her mind. Kapur also brings out the rich regional cultural imagery by helping Bi identify with Sabiha since she too comes from her home town of Jaunpur.  The Jaunpur connect lights up Ammi’s life and in Sabiha she sees her daughter. We then witness a mysterious element in Sabiha’s life as she agrees to spend the Dopehri with Amma Bi but under the condition that the latter will not enter her room in the afternoons she spends at home. Amma Bi has no idea as to what she does for a living and now comes the piece de resistance. When Sahiba praises Jhumman for the wonderful cup of tea he has made for her, Jhumman is in raptures.  Pankaj Kapur shows how the irascible domestic help tries to transform himself into a smart and eligible lover, by wearing flashy western clothes. The delicate twists and the deft touches of Jhumman’s romantic inclinations have the audience in splits. Meanwhile, we are told that a man is willing to give his daughter’s hand to Jhumman in marriage. Amma Bi plays the reluctant mediator and agree to pay Rs 500 as Meher so that she can safeguard the help’s presence in her lonely life.  The girl who is willing to come into the whimsical and idiotic Jhumman’s life is called Sharbati.
One day, Sabiha goes missing from Amma’s homes and she receives a call from a man saying that she will not return for a couple of days. Amma is mortified and her make-believe  world comes crashing down. The demons in her mind began to gnaw at her lonely suspicious demeanour once again,  and in a fit of pique she tells Jhumman to break open the door to Sabhiba’s room. She enters, only to be  shocked by what she sees. The colourful stuffed toys that she sets her eyes about surprises her no end. She wonders why Sabiha had never told her what she did and in one touching moment she picks up an unfinished ‘squirrel’ and completes stitching it to ‘life’. 
This is the brilliant turning point in the narrative. Sabiha returns and is stunned by the fact that her room was broken into, when she had left her room keys under Ammi’s pillow. The sense of fear is palpable. And the audience is doused in emotions. Amma Bi is at a loss of words. It is then that Sabiha notices the well-stuffed  squirrel and then reveals to Amma as to why she had gone out looking for a party to complete her order for 500 pieces of stuffed toys to meet her contractual obligations.
Amma Bi suddenly finds a new purpose in life. With renewed zeal and channelizing all the positive energies she has at her command, (considering she was the Bibi of Lal Kothi) she helps Sahiba complete her contractual obligations within time. When Sahiba hands her over a cheque for her share of the work, Amma Bi is caught in a spiritual bind. At this point, Pankaj subtly introduces a mythical and mystical element by saying that the stuffed toys had gotten a life of their own, much like the animal characters of Sher Khan in The Jungle Book. He also manages to invoke a chord as in Oscar Wilde’s story of the selfish giant wherein the snow-clad garden springs to life the moment the giant allows children to come into his garden.
More importantly, his comic mastery comes to the fore when he declares how Jhumman is now married to Sharbati, and is now off his romantic rocker. He tells us with his comically convoluted logic as to how Sharbati is able to control the wayward Jhumman because she is cock-eyed. He goes on to explain how she sees here, but looks there. Because of her squint she is able to see Jhumman straight (pun intended). The audience is heaving with laughter.
There is now a final shift in the scene.   By now, Amma Bi realizes what she has achieved and we see her celebrate life in a triumphant note of self-empowerment when  she declares that she is Mumtaz Siddiqui and  has an identity all of her own. By now, the audience is wiping away tears, tears of joy or tears of pain, one can’t say. Even as Pankaj Kapur receded into the background, the characters continue to breath and the stage continued to crackle  with his punctuated dialogues.

 As I stepped out of the auditorium, I was reminded  as to how one of my senior aunts would implore me after having lost her husband.  She had said: “you are a communication professional, do something for us to live a life of dignity. We have the money and wherewithal to live a comfortable life. But of what use is a life of ignominy and anonymity when we cannot productively contribute to society and have our own distinct identify”. Whether this is a matter of old age or perception, Pankaj gave me the answer, in the way, only he can.