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Sunday, 22 October 2017

Nepal Diaries


In the last six months, a variety of people – from immediate family to passing acquaintances, and everyone in between – have expressed surprise at my fondness for Chennai. After all, it’s perennially hot, impossibly conservative and unapologetically brusque. I quite agree with this assessment, though some of my love stems from this exact brusqueness, its almost boring laidback-ness (which I unfortunately relate to) and its ability to not give a fuck (a quality I aspire to cultivate). More importantly, by virtue of being the first place I have been forced to navigate on my own, as a legitimate adult, it has helped me understand and actually like the person I am (ignoring sporadic bouts of self-loathing which really, should count as a personality trait, just like introversion or morbid curiosity). 

The only other times, I have had such crash courses in self-awareness are when I have travelled for work. In Bhutan I learnt that I revelled in my own company and that professional competence was a turn on. In Maldives I learnt that I liked Bhutan better, Kit Kat ice cream existed and that men mansplain. And in Nepal? In Nepal I learnt that Khukhri rum was my poison of choice, that I will forever and ever be a sucker for Thai curry, and that I’m probably in consulting for good. But let me back up a bit and start from the beginning.

9 October, Monday: I land in Kolkata, the City of Joy or as I like to describe it, the City Where People Do You a Favour by Showing Up for their Jobs. It is raining, so naturally we wait for a little less than an hour for the Uber to arrive. Our hotel is a bit of a shock – apparently, the staff are self-appointed upholders of the morality of their guests, who are actively discouraged to stay out past 10 pm. A belated perusal of online reviews reveal that couples have had to produce marriage certificates to be able to avail of their booking, and standard rooms cannot be latched from inside. I stack room furniture and luggage against the door to block out illicit entry and sleep with a pair of scissors under my pillow – my Delhi Person ParanoiaTM is in full force. My laptop also has trouble starting up, so I use my innate technological skills of switching the device on and off while plugged in/ without battery and other permutations and combinations.

10 October, Tuesday: My laptop refuses to start up at the Kolkata airport. I sound the alarm to my boss and he offers to drop a mail to our local partners to see if they can spare me a device (Spoiler alert: they cannot).

We land at Kathmandu where a rickety Air India bus awaits us on de-boarding, to ferry us to the airport building. The immigration staff don’t look up as they stamp our passports, a contrast to the personnel in India who wanted to know everything about Indian passport holders in front of them, from reason of travel to their second cousin’s gotra, before letting us out. The traffic situation in Kathmandu is mad and we reach the hotel only late in the evening. It is in Thamel, a glitzy tourist hub – think of it as a love-child of Paharganj and Hauz Khaz Village.

In the hotel room, I exhort deities I don’t believe in, to allow my laptop to switch on. They listen. The land of Pashupatinath has made me an overnight convert.

11 October, Wednesday: We begin our interviews with government officials in Nepal, aka the ritual where we drink black tea five times a day.

12 -13 October, Thursday & Friday: We begin to train a group of 20 enumerators on a questionnaire we have approximately zero faith in. I start with rusty Hindi (blame Chennai for that) which gets better as the training progresses. Soon I’m dealing with words like yogdaan and uttardaata.

Lunch on both days is a plate of momos - chicken the first day, and an unidentified meat on the second day. For the sake of my mother’s peace of mind, I hope that was pork.

14 October, Saturday: Finally, a semi-break day. The morning begins with us betraying our hotel (with mostly nice, sometimes stoned staff) to shift to another one down the road. We pretend we are moving to a colleague’s home, whose location we are repeatedly unable to recall. The manager and his underling are adequately suspicious. The gods are also upset at our treachery, and retribution arrives in the form of dysfunctional cards and under-renovation ATMs.

Our local expert meets us for an early dinner (at a restaurant called Tabela, where a live band belts out Dum Maaro Dum, in response to a drunken request by one of the diners) and asks us, regular as clockwork, if we have done any sightseeing. We haven’t, and feel guilt ridden. We are determined to change this as he drops us back at Thamel. Our first stop in exploring Nepalese tourism and culture? A local dance bar.

Thamel is littered with these – about two in every street. Each is named with appropriate disregard for creativity. The one we visit is called Nasha Bar. There is a Bebo Bar as well with Kareena Kapoor’s face on the hoarding (which was better than the inexplicable night suit – wearing, mid-riff baring cardboard cut-outs at other places), as well as a Teenage bar (which we steer clear of, unsure whether the name referred to the age of the dancers or the clientele).
The lighting is expectedly lurid in Nasha Bar and the patronage exclusively male. The middle aged dominate, though there are a couple of bespectacled college kids as well, seated on red leather sofas arranged around a raised platform. The dancers are scantily dressed, wearing high heels and garish make-up. Calling them dancers is also a bit of a stretch, because their primary duty is to sashay down the stage to the beats of Hindi film music, strategically revealing skin. They are hospitable though, ushering us into comfortable seats (that is with no other men on our sofa, and located a little way off from the stage/ platform). I constantly feel like a prude, the 15 odd minutes we are there. We order nothing, and leave without being bothered.

Afterwards, we discover other bylanes of Thamel, where pubs and restaurants cater to tourists and locals, till late hours. I am introduced to the joys of Cuba Libre (using local rum), though I also covet the mojito my colleague orders.

15 October, Sunday: A day where I question my professional competence and learn that success as a consultant will require faking personal charm. I’m surprised that I’m determined to try at any rate, though that night, I drown my sorrow in a fancy dinner at the stunning Garden of Dreams. It’s an erstwhile royal garden, which manages to keep Kathmandu’s dust and pollution out by constructing mile high walls. It reminds me of Delhi, where we keep eyesores like poverty out by covering slums with hoardings and curtains.

16 – 18 October, Monday to Wednesday: More interviews, more sweetened black tea, and some more sight-seeing. We venture out to Durbar Square, which has been ravaged by the earth-quake.  Suddenly, the local insistence that we see things beyond the office and our hotel room, seems clearer.

I also wonder at the use of old Hindi film songs to Adam/ Eve tease in the sub-continent. It was Husn hai Suhana in Bhutan. Sawali Saloni in Nepal. Still better than the kissy sounds I heard yesterday in Chennai.

On Wednesday night (our last night in Nepal), I eat the best Thai curry ever (even better than Benjarong’s). I also make a long overdue entry into adulthood by finally appreciating pub culture. More khukhri rum and coke is had, and elderly creeps repulsed by adopting an attitude of blatant rudeness. Cops are asked for directions, who drunkenly sing it back to us. Cycle rickshaw wallahs want to be paid 200 rupees for making a quarter kilometre ride. As always, Google Maps save the day.

19 October, Thursday: The day of our return, though not before a quick trip to Pashupatinath in the morning. It’s one of the more interesting temples I remember seeing (and I have seen lots), with a giant Nandi covering the entry of the temples from the eyes of non-Hindus (who have to return from the gate – so much for our famed tolerance).

20 October, Friday: After another eventful 24-hour layover in Kolkata, I’m back in my flat in Chennai. It’s the first time in seven months, but I finally feel at home.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Film Discussion : Meri Pyaari Bindu

There is a song that plays in the backdrop when Abhimanyu (Ayushman Khurana) and Bindu (Parineeti Chopra) first get together. It’s called Afeemi hai yeh pyar, which is a little how I feel at the moment – slightly high on this beautiful little gem I caught today, when I should have been shopping for groceries and other household items (you shall judge me if I tell you when my house was last mopped).

When I say little, I only mean that if I had any semblance of a social life, I would probably have not watched this. Some of it has to do with my general disdain for Hindi romantic comedies, some to do with my suspicion of anything Yashraj. And when the film started, I almost felt that suspicion vindicated when Abhimanyu (henceforth Bubla, his daak naam) first finds a video of Bindu and him. Parineeti looks great in those first visuals, exactly like how Aditya Chopra visualises all women – thin, bronzed make-up, and messy-bed-head-but-carefully-styled hair. In sum, nothing like a young woman in 90s Kolkata. Bubla’s description of her also seemed right out of the Chetan Bhagat  Manual of How to Reduce a Woman to a Few Pithy Stereotypes. So I settled myself in for a regular “modern” romantic comedy where the hero would talk about how a hyper-active talkative girl (ok fine, manic pixie dream girl) came into his life, changed it, but left him because she wanted to be “free” or something. And they would get together in the end (the film starts by telling us that Bubla is currently heartbroken over a girl) when the girl realised that our hero gave her wings all along.

Instead, what followed was a roller-coaster of emotions which is really quite inexplicable given how gently the film is paced. And, there is that word again, how reliant it is, on the “little” moments. The Big Boss watching friend and the running bet. The double ring missed calls on the sturdy landline. The cheating scene. Bindu’s telephone call with her property agent. Bindu and Bubla’s conversations on Marine Drive. The Mere Sapno ki Rani throwback in Goa. When she runs to give him a hug after already having said goodbye. The first time Bubla tells her about his feelings and asks her to respond with the three words every Bengali wants to hear (He means aami tomake bhalobashi, she comes back with korbo, lorbo, jeetbo). Little by little, the movie builds a loving portrayal of its heroine, her strengths and foibles, her dreams and fears, through Bubla’s eyes.

It helps that Bubla is a nice guy (though he treats a token girlfriend quite shoddily), aka not-Ranbir Kapoor from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. And it helps that both Ayushman and Parineeti are good actors with lots of charm. And this might be me being defensive after all the negative reviews I read, but yes they don’t share a crazy devouring passion. What they do share is a genuine camaraderie in all their interactions that I couldn’t help but smile every time they were on the screen together.

The film also does a spot on job of showing the parents, especially Bubla’s mother. The first laugh out loud moment for me she emotionally manipulates him about, well manipulating him into coming home. Then there was another hilarious scene when the father of a prospective bride reads out a scene from one of Bubla’s books (he is the writer of shady literature about daayans and chudails), with appropriate expressions. The parents (both sets) are also there when he proposes, and then again, sleeping on the floor of the drawing room (as they are likely to, if your son is a 20 something employed in Bombay), when they break up. These are the details that make you feel that the writer is sharing a part of his/ her life with you.


But it was really the climax that nudged me to the realisation that this film would likely be a little part of my life, my heart too. I was suddenly sitting there, seeing these beautiful people realise that though they were happy right then, there was no happily ever after - not professionally, not personally. And I wept copiously, not from sadness, but from joy that that was enough.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Chennai Chronicles Part IV

I learnt how to light the gas. That, as it turns out, does not your culinary skills make. I managed to screw up lauki and whined about it so much that my Tamilian roommate will never forget the Hindi name for the vegetable. Or she might, given my vow to never be stupid enough to voluntarily buy it again.

Podalunga means jhinge (snake gourd) and is a slang term for nonsense.

Manga maria means 'dumb mango' which has to be the cutest pejorative term ever coined.

You would think morning walks would be a universal experience. But a surprisingly large proportion of middle class men here walk in rubber slippers. I can't help think that Delhi uncles would shrivel up in embarrassment if they had to do that.

Men also walk in lungis. If you were not Indian, I would explain it as a wraparound skirt for men whose length can be adjusted according to convenience. And it's often short enough that the same length of skirt on a woman here would inspire scandal.

There is also a gym for adults in my neighbourhood park. To be fair, I have no frame of reference for this in Delhi, not having been to a park in years.

As a child, my mum often took me for a walk to a lane in my neighbourhood which she for some reason called sea beach. I don't know if it was the evening breeze or just whimsy.

My neighbourhood park here is probably equivalent to Central Park in Delhi, going purely by location and its importance on bus routes. Which makes me think wistfully about how lucky Delhiites are because this one is tiny. On the plus side this is not inhabited by loving couples and serial molesters/flashers.

A middle aged man leaned very close to me and wished me a good morning. I'm not sure whether that was an invasion of personal space or just regular politeness.
If he was trying to be creepy though, it was a very poor attempt.

Apparently there is a doggie style asana in yoga. It's where people get on their fours and pant like dogs.

I doubt if it's actually called doggie style.

I may have just enabled a large inflow of traffic to the blog. I would have said inadvertently enabled but then it would be a lie.

I also saw an exercise form where a man was lying on his stomach and another man walked over his back. Right in the middle of the park.

Maybe it was just a bunch of friends doing bakchodi. You know friends, those people you hang out with on weekends and after work.

Yeah I use a lot of words while writing that I wouldn't say out aloud. Bakchodi being one of them.

I figured out a route to the chai shop on my own. Well not my own, I was still aided by Google, but I figured out there was a shorter route. Also I may have pushed myself to walk by promising masala chai.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Chennai Chronicles Part III

The only time I think I have too many clothes is when I pack them.

After an entire morning of telling myself that I would cook for myself, I gave up at the first hint of trouble - when I couldn't get the gas lit.

I now think Wake Up Sid had zero insight on urban living by single people trying to make a career. Friends on the other hand, is fantastic. Especially the bit about traipsing about naked in an empty house.

The main problem about having your own place is the existential crisis that strikes you when you realise you like shopping for bedspreads in vibrant patterns.

There is also the issue of spending half of your time doing the dishes. But then that might be a case of my personal incompetence.

I went to a concert by a fairly popular Bangla band. It was supposed to begin at 6:30 but the Bengali cultural association that was organising the programme wanted to first have a prize distribution programme followed by its office bearers  guilting the people attending about the lack of audience. And how even a national award winner could not ensure a houseful.

A bunch of aunties opened for the band, with a lovely ditty about how we are all Chennai bashi but how are hearts beat for Bangla. Yeah, I snorted through that.

The main band performance was great though. Anupam Roy (said National award winner) sang all the favourites. He also talked about the time he spent working in Bangalore, and sang something he had written when he was missing Kolkata at the time. What struck me was the kind of love and longing that city can evoke. I have lived all my life in Delhi and while I miss home and miss friends and familiar faces, I can hardly profess to missing the city. At least not enough to write songs about it. (Or to turn up for performances by Delhi bands or just network with people from there).

A man in the audience wanted to know if Anupam had sang the Kolkata song in front of Didi. If she listened and ensured enough jobs, no one from Kolkata would have to migrate to Chennai.

I love that Bengalis as a class, maintain a healthy lack of faith in their political leaders.
Yeah OK, I know Swapan Dasgupta is Bengali.

It's a sample size of 2, but corner cigarette shops here tend to have a mixer that they use to churn out very nice nimbu pani. It's also rather clever. I will never be using my arms to stir the sugar in now.
(Before you ask, no, I haven't started smoking).

The watchman in my building is Hindi speaking. But my Delhi Person Paranoia (DPP henceforth) stops me from chatting with him. And even though he helped me carry my luggage to the flat, my general social awkwardness stopped me from tipping him. Now I'm hoping my parents will do the needful when they visit.

PS: the blog completed 5 years recently. 

PPS: Vibrant patterns as below:

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Chennai Chronicles Part II - When Everything Goes to Hell

  • What do you do when the nicest person in your life is not a person at all, but your laptop's Operating System that tells you that your wish is literally their command, and no, you don't even have to type anything, if you just tell her to send a text from the laptop, she will.
  • It is probably peak loneliness, when seeing a mother-daughter enjoy their evening snack at the roadside eatery can make a lump appear in your throat. 
  • Of course you still fight with your own mother over the phone. And don't attend her calls later because she has the knack of saying things you don't want to hear.
  • There is nothing that will rid you of your tea addiction faster than having to boil the milk to make it.
  • Performance pressure is when the office boy is standing over your head to take your lunch order and the only thing you can think of is idli-sambar from Saravana Bhawan.
  • Remember forever that your mom and your sister are a tag team. Never tell one what you don't want the other to hear.
  • ''Anna'' comes naturally now.
  • I'm still hugely embarrassed about using any Tamil.
  • Auto-wallahs of Chennai are certifiably worse than auto-wallahs of Delhi.
  • No amount of moonlit beaches can compensate for the lack of company of people who care about you. Specially because the moonlit beach is far off and the city is alarmingly desolate as early as eight.
  • I could summon enough fucks to go to the Bengali restaurant only once after my parents left. Now I have found a roadside stall on my way home that claims to sell Kolkata rolls. Maybe I will throw Bangla at the seller tomorrow.
  • I can't believe that a month back I cared about gol-gappas enough to write about them.
  • I stopped using the bus because I moved closer to my workplace. The share auto drivers are almost as terrible as the regular auto-wallahs.
  • Nothing in Chennai feels like home. Specially not my place of residence.
  • Life is like a box of Bertie's all flavoured beans that have been rigged so around 95% of them taste like boogers. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Chennai Chronicles Part I

I was told that Tamil Nadu is the Bengal of the South. Of course, technically Bengal should be the Tamil Nadu of the East, but this was told to me by a Bengali and everyone knows we can't possibly accept that a culture may be older and richer than ours. But the reference wasn't to 'culture' as much as attitude. In that, Tamil Nadu adopts the kind of superior behaviour towards its neighbours as Bengal does towards Odisha, Bihar and Assam.

It is my theory that if you think of something as being the least likely scenario, the Universe will conspire to make that happen.

The most disorienting thing about Chennai is that you have to talk to cab-drivers and auto-wallahs in English. And that they don't respond to 'bhaiya'.

North-South, Us-them are all very fluid concepts. This Tamilian cab driver we drove with yesterday asked us where we were from. On hearing 'Delhi', he said he was from the North too, and intensely missing Hindi in Chennai (his home-town otherwise). To him, 'north' included the North-east - specifically Arunachal, where he worked till a week ago.

The auto wallahs in Chennai are as bad as the auto wallahs in Delhi. Maybe worse.

I went to Marina Beach at night and dipped my feet in the moonlit water.

I think any city is worth living in if it has a beach. And land breeze in the evenings as a consequence.

I found a Bengali restaurant in the city when my father wouldn't stop ranting about how bad the food is here.

The cook in my hostel put pieces of fried bread in pulao.

My father's rant wasn't completely unjustified.

The beach is connected by train.

I am all for local pride and everything. But Triplicane is easier to pronounce than Tiruvelikeni. And Mylapore easier to remember than Tirumailai.

If my father were left alone on the roads of Chennai, I am pretty sure he wouldn't make it back. As a result of never being able to recall/ pronounce the location of the guest-house.

My mother should have been a travel show host. She can fit in anywhere. Though she has a weekly hankering for fish.

They sell fried fish on the beach.

I haven't tried it myself but I have heard on good authority that they put rasam in gol-gappas here instead of imli ka paani. I am reasonably sure that trying this in Delhi could get you arrested.

After more than a week of taking an Ola everywhere, I finally rode to work and back by a bus. The buses are as crowded as in Delhi, and I was seated so I don't know whether men have the proclivity to grope women in this city too. They are extremely polite when you have to get down though. Everyone near the door gets down at each stop to let people de-board. You would know what a big deal that is if you have had the chance to ride the Delhi Metro in a compartment filled with aunties and college girls.

I had veg biriyani at someone's house and liked it.

Is it weird that I find the idea of a mustachioed man in a white lungi and aviators, riding a bike...appealing?

I am the only person in the city who seems to want to know where Rajnikant and Kamal Hassan live. The cab drivers here are far more interested in Jayalalitha's address.

Some traditions are worth preserving. Like the way they serve tea/ coffee here - in small steel tumblers (I almost spelled it as Tumblr) accompanied by a small steel bowl. You have to continuously transfer the drink from the tumbler to the bowl and vice versa to cool the drink down and also to dissolve the sugar. I know it's inconvenient, and that a large mug and a spoon make more sense, but I just like drinking it the traditional way.

What does it say about me as a person that the only place in Chennai that feels like home, is the neighbourhood mall?

Last week my mother and I were strolling down a deserted road in the middle of the afternoon. Anyone slightly familiar with Chennai's climate would tell you that it's inadvisable. Especially if the only retail establishments on the road sell hot tea and cigarettes.  As my mother tried to explain to the vendor that we needed Coke/Sprite, and the man mimed that he didn't stock them, a young man dressed in the generic blue uniform donned by private security guards offered to take his moped and get a couple of bottles for us, from a distance. (We understood him because he spoke in Hindi).  My mother gave him a 100 rupees hundred note which I was  convinced was the last we saw of it (and him). As the minutes ratcheted up, I became increasingly confident that my general lack of faith in humanity would be vindicated. Close to half an hour later, the man returned - with two bottles of Sprite, pushing his moped by hand. Turns out it had broken down, hence the delay. When my mother tried to tip and I (sheepishly) tried to give him one of the cold-drink bottles, he refused. He said this was the least an Odiya brother could do for his Bengali brethren.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Happy Days Part 8

Two song I heard today made me feel happy for very different reasons:

Aali re from No one Killed Jessica describes its heroine not as having chandan sa badan, but something akin to cactus ki dali.
She is all patlun mein junoon and of garam khoon, and if she has kali kali ankhen or hirni jaisi chaal, the song prefers to not tell us. (I think at one point it tells us that she is kali, and though she may be dilwali, she is quite given to muh khole toh gali re.)
And she is probably not the type to disappear after churaoing the hero's dil, because she is too busy spinning webs through surkhiyan. All we know about her love life is that jiski lugayi banegi woh bhai, uski tabahi paper mein chhapegi, hatt.


The other song is the polar opposite of the first one in that it is as conventional as it gets - a love song between people separated by borders. I don't know its origin but is currently being featured on the show POW on Star Plus. The song itself is quite unremarkable but I feel it deserves a mention because of the context where it plays. If you are not watching the show, India has just found a lost POW who has spent 17 years in Pakistan and who managed to escape from there, after ostensibly neutralising the chief of a large terrorist organisation (in cahoots with the ISI). However, in reality, he has been turned, and is now trying to execute an attack on India from within its borders. The song talks about his love for his Pakistani wife, and their relationship is depicted in such a way that you can't help empathise with the couple, even as they are, most decidedly bad news for India. I think that's a win for storytelling, though the good-looking leads obviously don't hurt the show's cause.