Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A Visit to the Fish Market

A simple, square room, open at one end. Two sides have raised platforms. Fish scales scrunch underfoot. A couple of dim bulbs hang from the ceiling and invest the room with a surreal, golden glow. Sharp knives, shaped like inverted ships' prows, stick out of the platforms at intervals. Skin and scales and blood and bone fragments and pieces of flesh form a pyramid near each. An aluminum vessel filled with bloody water, a swing-weight (with blood-stained weights) and blood-stained money complete the picture. There are two men to each shop. One deals with the customers, one prepares the fish. Which one has the easier job, I wonder. 

The fish lie in parallel rows on newspaper sheets on the platform. Their sightless eyes touch the paper. They are beautiful: their silvery scales glint mysteriously in the dim yellow light. Ice surrounds them. Their tails drip water onto the narrow drain lining the platforms. There are all kinds of them: big, small; long, wide, narrow; silvery, pink, blue. Unnamed and unknowable, yet they attract some deep sympathy in me. They will soon be fed to those sharp knives: their skin will be ripped off, scale by glinting scale; their blood will anoint the paper underneath; their flesh will be cut into minute, carefully proportioned pieces. 

"Ayla! Matthi! Choora! Nemmeen! Karimeen! Chemmeen!" the man yells on seeing us. What good does it do him, I wonder, to know the Malayalam words for the fish? Are his customers mostly Malalyalees? Do many people know of this remote corner of Sarojini Nagar - this place that makes me feel as if I've stepped back in time, that makes me start in amazement when I look down and see my Levi's jeans and my New Balance shoes, because, surely, I should be bare-foot and clad in the black and white clothes of yesteryear movies? 

As the man prepares the large fish that we have ordered, a small boy - no more than six or seven - comes in out of the dark. He is wearing nothing more than a pair of trousers and a cotton shirt. He slips off his sandals, climbs on the platform, washes his hands in the aluminum vessel filled with blood-stained water and sits down next to (apparently) his father. The regular customers, waiting for their fish, exchange banter with him. He responds expertly, keeping up his side of the teasing while deftly handling the weighing of the fish and the exchange of money. He is quick and nimble with the blood-stained weights: he obviously has a lot of practice. 

Suddenly, everyone is disturbed by the arrival of a Mercedes. A pair of high heels, topped by a lady in black, steps out. The lady proprietedly holds the hand of a four-year-old boy. The boy is well-protected from the cold: his leather jacket shines in the golden light, he holds up his jeans carefully to avoid the dirty floor. The couple walks up to one of the shops. The lady indicates the fish she wants. How many do you want, she asks her son fondly. FOUR!, the boy replies, showing four fingers to the shopkeeper. He smilingly takes four of the fish and gives them to the other man for preparation. 

I notice that the other boy is now a bit distracted. The weights slip out of his now-bloody fingers. He makes a mistake with the calculations. His father scolds him. 

The boy in the leather jacket stares wide-eyed at the other boy. His mother calls him. He trots off, with one last look back. 

The Mercedes drives off into the night. The boy continues his work, albeit silently now.
• • •

Sunday, December 19, 2004

An Accident and a Kidnap Attempt

Time: About ten past eight, the seventeenth of December, 2004. 
Scene: University Special Bus. 


A babble of voices jolts me out of my reverie. 

"Why's the bus stopping?" 
"What's up?" 
"Have we reached already?" 

"Hey, I think we've had an accident!" 
"COOL, yaar!" 
"There goes my nine o'clock class!" 

Heads are craning to see through the grimy back-window of the bus. They swivel around to follow a white Maruti car as it glides past the bus to stop in front. The car's hood is oddly bent and rises up in two corners. 

Our Sardarji driver ducks under the bar separating the driver's seat from the rest of the bus. He steps out of the bus in a slow, deliberate way. We watch as a uniformed driver - the sole occupant of the Maruti - steps out and surveys his master's newly mangled car. Then, he steals a glance at our Sardarji. 

The scene has an odd quality to it. About fifty students watch, breathless and strangely silent, heads craning out of the windows and doors of the bus, as the two seasoned gladiators square up for the fight. 

They clash. Their querulous voices rise up into the misty morning air. Their arms wave about, pointing, in turn, at the bus, the car, the hood, the road, each other. The Sardarji points to the driver's head in the well-known symbol for madness. The driver responds in kind. All the time, their voices, like those of two quarrelling crows, shatter the air repeatedly. 

By this time, they have an audience. The bus-conductor stands behind the Sardarji as his self-styled second-in-command. Most of the male students have trooped out of the bus and form a silent, supportive, half-circle behind them. A few homeless people, previously huddled into blankets in front of a small fire, have roused themselves and now cluster around in speculative interest. 

Still, they fight on. Their training and the long years they've spent driving on Delhi roads have made them seasoned fighters. They thrust and parry, move forward and backward. At times, they circle each other warily; at other times, they get at it like two cocks in a cockfight. 

But the students are getting restless. Being no connoisseurs of this noble art, and goaded by the fact that each passing minute makes them more late for their classes, they interrupt the two. 

"Police ko bulate hain, chalo.
"Bhaiya, hume classes hain.
"Police ko bulake ise under daal dete hain.

The Sardarji knows what they don't know: that the police will side with the driver of the smaller vehicle. He tries to dissuade them. 

But no. With all the rashness of youth, one of them has already dialled 100. 

Hearing this, the two lead actors in the drama retire from the stage in order to create their own versions of the accident. The magic word 'police' makes the homeless people vanish in an instant. The students troop back into the bus, satisfied with themselves, sure that the Maruti driver will get his comeuppance and that they will be able to get to their respective colleges on time. The stage lies empty, waiting for the actors to come back. 


The wail of the police siren gets the buzzing students on their feet again. Once again, shoulders crane out of windows and heads swivel to watch the white Gypsy pass the bus and stop diagonally in front of the Maruti. But this time, wild applause, wolf whistles and cheering accompany the swivelling heads. For most of the students, this is the first encounter with the police and they cheer wildly for the knights in shining armour. 

Two khaki figures step out of the vehicle. Their faces are adorned by sheepish grins: they are conscious of their dramatic entrance. One totes a long gun chained to his body, the other a notepad and a pen. 

The two drivers step up, the one with his sidekick, the other with an injured expression. One of the policemen takes notes. By this time, the bus is almost empty, the students having stepped out to view the proceedings and take a closer look at the artefacts on display - the gun, the car's hood, the policeman's notepad. 

Soon, the new filters through to the outer edges: the bus isn't about to go anywhere. Find your own way to college. Rumours fly: the Sardarji's licence has been revoked! The U-Special won't be coming on Monday! The Sardarji has to pay for the car's hood! And so on. 

Everybody rushes inside for their bags and books. They cluster around in groups. 

"Auto or bus?" 
"How much money will it take?" 
Even a "Where are we, exactly?" 

"Does any Univerity-bound bus go through this place?" 
"Yes. The 100 number." 
"Look, here comes a bus." 
"What number is it?" 
"The 100! Look, people, the 100!" 

The driver and the conductor of this bus peer out of the windows at the milling crowd. One can see the greed in their eyes. About fifty odd students. Fifty multiplied by seven - their brains sizzle at the product. 

The bus stops. "Chalo, chalo. Jaldi chad lo," the conductor encourages us. We climb in. About half the students have got on when a cry goes up. "DTC! DTC! DTC 100!" 

[Now, here I must insert a small note about the buses that run in Delhi. There are two kinds - the privately run ones and the government run Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) ones. There are huge differances between the two. DTC buses are faster, larger and therefore less crowded, cleaner and - and this is the crucial differance for us students - they are free for DTC pass-holders. These passes usually cost about Rs. 450 a month, but students (and other disadvantaged species such as journalists) get them for fifteen rupees a month. (The rate is so low because it hasn't been changed in something like fifty years.)] 

Now, in this case, the first bus is a private bus. And the second bus, a DTC one. Hearing the cry, the driver of the bus we are on immediately starts the bus. The guys who had managed to get on jump off, leaving about fifteen girls in the bus. Four of us - me, M, K and J - yell to the driver to stop. 

"Bhaiya! Roko!
"Rok lo, Bhaiya!
"Hame utharna hain!

"Madam, mein rok nahi saktha," the driver replies belligerantly. 
The conductor, too, tries to get us to sit calmly in our seats. The DTC bus, meanwhile, has stopped to let the students get on. Our bus is careening away as fast as it can go. Apart from us, none of the girls are even standing up. They show no signs of even wanting to get off. They would rather pay seven rupees than actually get on another bus. 

"Bhaiya, rok lo. Nahi tho hum police se complaint karenge.
The driver and the conductor snort. 
M, incensed, says, "Bhaiya! This is not done!" 
Yes, M, brilliant idea. Appeal to the driver's nonexistent sense of morality in a language he doesn't understand. 

But now, the bus has turned off its route. It takes a U-turn so that we watch helplessly from the other side of the road as the DTC trundles off happily with its new load. We are in a bit of a panic. We don't know what the driver plans to do now. He has abandoned his usual route. Suppose he tries to kidnap us? 

But no sooner has this thought passed through our minds than the bus takes another U-turn. We are back where we started. Except there is no DTC. It has left us behind. 

"Abhi aap ko is bus mein jaana hi padega," the conductor grins evilly at us. 
"Nahi, bhaiya. Aapke gande bus mein hame nahin jaana.

Well, we would have said that (and a good deal more), if any of us had been fluent enough in Hindi. We would have cursed them well. Unfortunately, we are two mallus, a tamilian and a marathi. So, we content ourselves with glaring at the two morons and walking off the bus. The other girls, too, get off. I don't know why, since they never bothered to protest when the buswallah 'kidnapped' us. The conductor glares resentfully at the four of us for having lost him a lot of money.  

We stand for ten minutes at the bus stop and laugh hysterically over our kidnapping and M's "Bhaiya, this is not done!" Then we catch the next DTC and reach college. We agree that it was a whole lot of fun. And that we should do it again.
• • •

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Do NOT watch this movie. No, not even if the alternative is taking a bullet to the head. Because quick death is much better than the slow, agonizing death that will face you in the theatre. 

And die you shall. If not out of boredom, then out of sheer misery. For three hours, you will have to sit in a rustling theatre full of whispering people and watch open-mouthed as Bollywood takes flying leaps over the boundaries of torture that the human mind can suffer. 

The plot? You mean, the sorry excuse for one. Here it is, for what it's worth: An Indian has been lying imprisoned in a Pakistani jail for the past twenty-two years. Finally, a beautiful Pakistani lawyer tries to rescue him. After much cajoling, he deigns to tell her his story: 

Zaara Something Khan, a Pakistani politician's daughter played by the bubbly Preity Zinta, visits India to fulfill the last wish of her late grandmother. On the way, her bus has an accident and who should rescue her but Knight in Shining Armour Squadron Leader Veer Pratap Singh, essayed by the supposedly evergreen Shah Rukh Khan. He, instead of displaying Typical Indian Male Behaviour (TIMB) and molesting her, helps her fulfill grannyji's wish. After that, Zaara asks him what she can give him in return for his timely help. SRK, again eschewing all TIMB, asks for a day. 

Yes, you heard that right, folks. He asks for a day from her precious life so that he can show her his village in the heart of Punjab. On the way, of course, there has to be another song, as our couple prance among sunflower fields and Punjabi kudis

Finally, they reach Veeru darling's village. Here, Veeru's Bauji and Mati (I am as clueless as you are as to what that means), played by the genuinely evergreen Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini, welcome them. Needless to say, the whole village falls in love with Zaara, as, of course, does Veeru. Tauji, in fact, inspired by Zaara, starts the village's first girls' school. 

Sadly, they only have a day and Veer-Zaara (yes, now you know what the title means) have to return - Zaara to her palatial Pakistani home and Veer to his duties as Squadron Leader. Veer is about to express his love for her and hence stop her from boarding the train to Pakistan, when, lo and behold, who should arrive but Zaara's fiance. This character, who Zaara has conveniently forgotten to mention to Veer, is played by the amazingly versatile Manoj Bajpai. 

From there, the movie takes the predictable Bollywood movie route - sundered love; the girl has to marry the villain because of family pressure; the boy arrives to rescue her, summoned by the girl's best friend. 

And then comes the *hold your breath* twist: he DOES not carry her off home!! No, respecting the fact that her dear old Daddyji has had a heart attack, he proclaims that he will suffer heart break so that his love's father may live. 

But then, how does he land up in jail? The fiance has him arrested as a spy and tells him, in true Bollywood style, that he will have to sacrifice his life for his lover's. In short, if Zaara is to remain happy in her married life, Veer will have to languish in prison. His very name must be extinguished, so that Zaara doesn't think of him. 

What is the point? I don't know. Do the lovers finally unite? Does Veer get his freedom after all the tense courtroom exchanges? Well, this IS a Bollywood movie, after all. 

Do you need OTHER reasons not watch this movie? Here they are: 

The length: It is about three hours long. I was pretty peeved that I had lost three precious hours of my life to this movie. 

The songs: The characters break into songs every five minutes: they prancer around trees, they hug each other tight, they wave their arms, they emote, they lip-synch. The songs are the worst I've ever heard. I don't know whose they are, but they sound like Anu Malik's. And that's the worst insult I can think of right now. 

The cameos: Every few minutes, another "delightful cameo" steps on the screen. The list is long: Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Manoj Bajpai, Anupam Kher, that dreadful Punjabi singer. How many can you tolerate? Trust me, there will be one more than that number. 

The languages: Half the time, they are speaking in Punjabi. And the rest of the time, they are speaking in Urdu. Being Mallu, I wouldn't have understood a damn thing if I hadn't had trusty Sahaj at my side to translate. Thank God I was with three Punjabis. Or not. They kept laughing at jokes that I didn't get. Though they DID say SRK's Punjabi sucked. 
• • •

Saturday, November 20, 2004


I'm sitting in Delhi and pining for Kerala. For my grandmother's house in Kollam, to be precise.

Waking up to the sound of the courtyard being swept; lying in bed listening to Ammoomma chatting with the maid; reading Mathrubhoomi while drinking a cup of hot milk; being nagged by Ammoomma to have an early bath; eating food cooked by the best chef I know; sitting in the shade of the guava tree in the sunny central courtyard - sometimes reading a book, but mostly staring up at the oh-so-blue sky, the sunlight filled leaves, the nodding banana trees and the waving coconut trees and daydreaming; sitting cross-legged on the ground while Ammomma combs and ties my newly-oiled hair; having an afternoon nap like Ammoomma; having an afternoon snack after the afternoon nap; 'helping' Ammoomma water the plants just before dusk; sitting with her by the gate, swatting at pesky mosquitoes and watching the world pass by; listening to the prayer-call from the nearby mosque; watching the red sun sinking behind the white school building in the distance; smiling dutifully at the people who greet Ammoomma; watching Malayalm soap operas at night; sitting on the veranda during the daily power-cut in the light of the ubiquitous candle or a solar powered lamp and listening to Ammoomma swapping the day's gossip with the maid; turning in early so that I can have my quota of daydreams before sleeping; falling asleep to the sound of tears and drama and emotion - the malayalam serials. 

Now you know what I'm pining for. And I haven't even described the rain yet. I haven't described the stillness of noon and the liveliness of dusk. Nor have I talked about the way the crimson sun winks at one from behind tall coconut trees. And how can I describe the sound rain drops make when falling on banana leaves? Or the scent of freshly-bloomed jasmine? Or the smell the earth gives off when water falls on it? Or the joy of climbing up a guava tree at dusk and trying to make out the horizon in the distance, behind the emerald coconut trees and the golden clouds and the copper sun? 

I can't. But I CAN pine for it.
• • •

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Delhi was like a warzone on Diwali night. Explosions rocked the horizon. Rockets flew about, carefree. Comets blazed their way into the night sky, only to end in a colourful bang. Multicoloured flowers bloomed against a night sky filled with smoke and vapours. Golden showers of sparks came down out of the cloudy sky. Strings of light twinkled invitingly at me from behind the mist. Trees were bleached silver by occasional blazing white flames. Below me, my landlord's white balcony gleamed golden from numberless oil-filled diyas. 
• • •

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Leh - Golden Roof

From the top of a monastery. The picture hasn't come out right at all. I wanted to capture how the roof shone golden in the sun; how the Indus river glistened, basking contentedly in the heat; how the trees meshed to form an orange and yellow backdrop. The picture doesn't tell you any of this. I've manipulated it a bit. Tried to make the roof a bit more like it actually was. But still... *sigh*

• • •

Friday, October 22, 2004


There is a chill in the air. The trees have lost their colour. Hastily dug out jackets abound. People hug themselves in vain. Fans shall not turn for the next six months. Airconditioners, unused, are about to gather dust. Blankets and rajais are being brought out from hibernation. Sunlight is sought, not earnestly avoided. A breeze bring shivers, not delightful coolness. 

Winter has arrived. 

Time for change: from 40 degree C to 05 degree C; from cotton to wool; from skirts and tops and capris and hats to sweaters and mufflers and jackets and gloves; from glare to gloom; from cursing the heat to eagerly welcoming it; from cotton sheets torajais; from airconditioners to heaters; from mangoes and musumbi to mushrooms and litchi; from sunscreen lotions and cleansers to moisturizers and lip balm; from cold water to hot.

From Summer to Winter.
• • •

Thursday, October 21, 2004


Brown sere hills, deadened by the onset of winter. White mountains, becoming whiter by the day. A hardy, uncomplaining people. Little plump-faced fairskinned children, their cheeks red with the cold, smiling unselfconsciously at me. Monastries with friendly, brown-clad monks; golden Buddhas behind gilded glass doors. Clumps of orange and yellow hued trees dotting an otherwise barren landscape. Olive green army uniforms and army trucks and army jeeps and army barracks. Me puking onto snow at 17,800 feet, sickened by the altitude change. Curvy mountain roads. Looking down from the jeep window at the precariously close edge of the road and REALLY fearing for my life. Yellow signposts like "Overtaker, beware of undertaker" and "Honey, I like you; but not so fast" and "This is a highway, not a runway; don't fly". 

Places I visited: The Shanthi Stupa, a couple of monastries, the Leh palace, a lake that lies both in India and China, the Magnet Hill, a gurudwara, 17,800 feet. 
• • •

Friday, October 08, 2004


I often think that Central Delhi is the most beautiful part of Delhi. Especially in the early mornings and the late afternoons, when the sunlight slants onto the trees and casts long shadows on the red walls. 

The other parts of Delhi are much too dirty to be really pretty. North Delhi is quite divine, except for the dirt and the people and the rikshas and the squalor. I suppose that some people find it pictaresque, like the descriptions I have read of Egyptian markets or the bylanes of Baghdad. But, for me, coming as it does after the cleanliness and the greenness and the orderliness of Lutyen's Delhi, it's a hot, sordid Hell. 
• • •

Monday, October 04, 2004

I Want

I want a life with lots of travel, so that I don't feel that I'm stuck in a rut. And I want a lot of money so that I don't need to be anxious. I want a simple, red-tiled, white-washed house on a tiny, green island, with golden sand and frothy waves and grey rocks. I want rain. I want lots and lots and lots of books. I want a room filled with books - floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books. I want a job in which, as the cliche goes, change is the only constant. I don't want to be bogged down by routine. I want to be able to go where ever in the world I want to go, whenever I want to go. I want to be able to help other people without having to worry about whether they'll take it the right way or whether I have enough money. 
• • •

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Of Human Bondage - William Somerset Maugham

Warning: The following pseudo-review could contain spoilers. Read at your own risk.

I have just finished reading Of Human Bondage by W.S Maugham.

I am speechless. There is nothing to say about the book that hasn't already been said a million times before. But, I must say something. I must express how the book fairly exploded into my consciousness and left me gasping at times, indescribably bored at times, and sometimes feeling like I had the meaning of life within my reach.

First of all, I must admit that I identified completely with Philip Carey. His shyness, his reluctance at intruding in other people's lives, his pride, his reserved nature that is usually taken for superciliousness - while reading the book, I was taken aback quite a few times by how alike Carey and I are. The way we think are practically the same, except that I would never have his unthinking generosity. 

However, a few things about the book irritated me. His masochistic affair with Mildred, for example. Surely, he couldn't possibly behave like that? It's not in his character at all. Another peeve is the climax. One gets the feeling that the author was getting tired of the book and, wanting to finish it off, had taken the first possible ending he thought of. There is no way that Philip, exposed as he was to greatness - through books, paintings, sculpture and his own reflections on life - would have settled down to a normal life, with its drudgery and its anxieties. He would have wanted to make his life count, somehow or the other. That is why he took up art. And that is why he dropped it too, knowing that he would be no better than second-rate, no matter how hard he tried.

There are several poignant moments in the book - for example, Philip's fellow art student who commited suicide because of poverty. What is poignant is not the suicide itself, but the fact that she had been a worse than mediocre artist, with no skill in sketching, no eye for colours, no vision. Another example is one of the women Philip comes upon on his rounds as a doctor on call - she dies at eighteen, leaving a new-born child and her husband of few months behind her.

Such poignancy is scattered throughout the book. But what catches one's attention are not these moments, but Philip's reflections on life. These are myriad. Of a naturally introspective nature, Philip feels that he will be able to grasp the meaning of life if he thinks enough about it. His habit leads to a hunger for books on philosophy and theology, his loss of religion, the birth of cynicism in his nature, and, finally and irrevocably, his understanding of what his friend Cronshaw calls "the meaning of life". This last event does not change his life; it merely changes his outlook. It enables him to survive a period of poverty and face the bitterness of life with equanimity.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the ending leaves one cold. I actually threw the book away in disgust, because the climax did not suit the rest of the book at all. The book is supposed to be semi-autobiographical and perhaps I was looking forward to relishing Philip's growth into a writer and, perhaps, it was the realization that Maugham intended him to be a normal, staid country doctor that disgusted me. I like to think that that was not what Maugham intended. Perhaps, realizing that if he continued moulding Philip along his own lines, the book would grow too long to be fashionable, Maugham decided to end things differently. After all, it's undeniable that the book ends quite abruptly. The reader is left wanting more of Philip. At least, I was.

Of Human Bondage is considered one of Maugham's masterpieces. I don't know if I quite agree. Bits of the book are quite preachy and, therefore, quite boring. And yet, some of the reflective bits, especially the ones on posterity and the futility of life, got me thinking quite deeply. They made me yearn to do something that would make my name live on through the ages, like Maugham or Dickens or Shakespeare or all the thousands of writers of eras past whose names and thoughts and ideas live on through their writings.
• • •

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Peculiar Romance of Sodium Lamps

I was thinking of the peculiar romance of sodium lamps the other night, sitting in an auto under the Lajpat Nagar flyover, waiting for the traffic lights to change.

A line of orange lights was my first view of Dubai from the aeroplane, when I went there a few months ago. I was sitting in the window seat and, taking a break from the book I was reading, was staring down from the window at the inky blackness that I presumed to be the sea. Suddenly, I saw a meandering string of orange lights in the distance. Exhausted as I was from the flight, the glittering thread of orange assumed a magical quality and I could only stare as it rushed towards me. Soon, other pieces of orange string started appearing, forming a crisscross pattern below. By this time, our plane had started descending. I could make out the lights of vehicles travelling along the strings and I realized that the orange lines were roads, lined by orange sodium lamps. But, I will never forget that first sight of land - that orange necklace separating civilization from the empty wilderness of the sea.

I am quite sure that, looking back on my Delhi life, the predominant memories will be of speeding in my Dad's car along nearly-empty, sodium-orange Delhi roads at night. Delhi doesn't have a night life and, by eleven, the roads are quite empty, except for a stray gang of youth in a flashy car here or a stray beggar wandering dazedly there. The flyovers form unofficial night-shelters for the homeless of Delhi - the poor labourers who pour in from the surrounding countryside in search of a better life and get trapped in the glamourous web that Delhi weaves. The orange glow of the road lights gives them comfort at night, bathing the atmosphere in a surreal, fantasy-land glow.
• • •