Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Dark Kind of Art

"Luna mein hain no tension -trumpety music-
Chalane mein hain no tension -trumpety music-
Maintenance mein no more tension"
[Luna gives you no tension, in riding and in maintenance]

That's the one. Or something like it.

This was the first advertising jingle to find permanency in my head. A very humble two-wheeler, the 50 cc moped that was the Luna even gave its rider an option of pedalling to the next petrol station with its radical in-built cycle option. Back in its day, it wasn't without its quota of cool and the fact that my older brother, 11 years my senior, commanded one was no small matter of pride. This, I need not remind you, was in pre-liberalisation, single TV channel India.

To date, I am yet to ride the Luna except as a passenger (it was sold long before I reached riding age). I have had the unhappy and possibly unique experience of being dragged by one, knees scraping along the road, for a good 10-15 metres as a bump on the road dislodged me from the pillion seat and unlike Jack of Titanic fame, I refused to let go. I have also been sent flying by one, on a routine road crossing to catch the school bus, at a tender age (early primary school) when it was still physically feasible for a Luna to send me flying as it ran into me. The central message being that there is absolutely no reason for me to look upon it fondly but even then, that jingle... it never quite left me in the three decades since.

Advertising, at its dark core, is mass mind manipulation. It is designed to stamp an impression on impressionable minds and at its most nefarious, force us to buy things that we don't need at all. Want is created where there was none, greed where there was peace.

Be that as it may, advertising is also an outlet for storytelling which tries to tap into the moods of the time. The underlying wish to push their product notwithstanding, it is difficult not to appreciate the genuine effort put into channeling the right notes. 

The fruit drink company, Paper Boat, for example, seems to have mined that rich vein of nostalgia for those of us who remember a time when long railway journeys were a family institution, and a pocket-friendly adventure rolled into one (Read aforementioned 'Luna Days'). I wouldn't waste words on why these images work. They just do, and for that generation at which these ads are targeted, any explanation is superfluous.

I, for one, am yet to buy a Paper Boat product but I think the universe is a happier place if, after all the dust from the board-room meetings, sales targets and distribution networks has settled down, a creative managed to sneak out a story and a smile for someone who isn't even a customer.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Everyone's Favourite 2nd Favourite

By the time I was old enough to follow West Indies cricket, it had already passed its golden age. At that stage, though seriously competitive with Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Richie Richardson and Carl Hooper in their ranks, they did not seem worthy of the whispered reverence that our parents' generation treated them with. The Windies only waned further as I added to my cricket watching years. Simultaneously, via cricket writing celebrating the supreme sportsmen that had made up the West Indies cricket team in the 1970s and 80s and rivetting documentaries like Fire In Babylon, I couldn't fault the starry eyes that the name West Indies produced in the most casual of senior cricket fans. 

However the fact of *this* West Indies team being nothing compared to *those* West Indian teams hasn't stopped me from being a lifelong fan. This cricketing nation, which isn't actually a nation but a collection of separate countries united for the sport, still has way too much elan to let minor things like winning or losing come in the way of appreciation for what they are.

If individuality was the sole criteria for cricketing success, West Indies would be still be the undisputed kings. From the shabbily crabby Shivnarine Chanderpaul to the supremely elegant Brian Lara, the main attraction of watching the Windies play is their artistic interpretation of textbook techniques. The basics still adhered to - note how Lara's head stayed rock steady while batting, even as his feet distracted, dancing the bele around the best bowlers in the world - but with an effective panache that can only be classified as West Indian.

Cricket board politics and drastic inconsistency haven't helped their record in the past couple of decades but whenever snooty robot-promoting coaches are about to dismiss them as mere entertainers, they serve up a dose of their surprising brilliance. Having won the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy and the ICC World Twenty20 twice (2012, 2016), the West Indies make it clear that those who write them off, do so at their own peril. As the impotently angry Glenn McGrath of Steve Waugh's legendary 2003 side found out, on their day the Windies can chase down a unprecedented 418 in the 4th innings of a Test Match, no problem.

The West Indies bring that sparkle and joy to their game, which tells of cricket on the beach and the happiness of a life beyond the game. The reason why a quiet and polite middle class Bombay boy named Sachin Tendulkar can idolize, without contradiction, a bowler destroying force like Vivian Richards. Yes, there is the swagger on field but there is clearly a barbecue, a beer and a beaming smile behind it all. 

Former West Indies captain, Darren Sammy, once claimed that the West Indies were everyone's 2nd favourite cricket team, ranking only behind their home country's. Very few would disagree. In a game where national pride is often misdirected for ugly political purposes and aggression frequently turns into disrespectful bullying, a group of islands in the Caribbean united only by their flamboyant use of bat and ball represent the sunnier alternative.


Thursday, May 30, 2019

Recommended Reading

Many a time an acquaintance or friend looking to 'get into' reading has requested me to guide him on which book to begin with. One of the most fatal flaws in my claim to being a book-lover is that I invariably struggle to answer that question. 

It was only yesterday evening in a strolling discussion on my building's rooftop that my neighbour, an avid reader himself, had a ready answer. His choice was Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's "The Little Prince", an original multi-layered fable (a good 50-60 years before the Paulo Coelho factory cranked up production) which would appeal to a child for its elements of adventure and to a 60 year old for its depth of philosophy. The slimness of the volume would encourage the most effort-shy of new readers to sample it. Chances are, as a first time read, they'd love it too. Simple, convenient, elegant logic. 

I could only nod in agreement and wonder why I have struggled so fruitlessly with such a simple question. Spending hours and days and years cut off from social formalities should at the very least lead to preference and expertise.

It's not that I don't have my long list of books that changed my life. In addition, I have a fair idea of which ones would be difficult for a novice reader to appreciate. It's just that I have these peculiar notions of how a book should be chosen.

At some inexpressible level, it is not only a matter of you choosing the book, it is of the book choosing you. Strolling past the best-sellers and the classics, hidden away in a dusty corner of the library, a very specific resplendent red bound set of yellowed pages is waiting to be discovered, to spring a tale of history, tragedy or relevance right into your life. The creature of recommendation wants you to go straight to the right location where the most sought-after volumes are; the fritterer of efficiency wants you to get lost along the way.

To 'get into' reading, you don't need a 100 top novels of the century checklist. What you need is ample time and a vagabond mind which allows you the luxury of answering the call of curiosity. 

Because if you are inquisitive by nature, how could you not be thrilled to bits (and torn to pieces) when faced with themes and topics spanning time and space, thoughtfully curated down into a select few pages? Because if you really want to be impacted by those words that you will spend a sizable amount of your life with, why would you trust any instinct other than your own?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jay Cee Bee!

Admit it. 

You just pretend to be angry at the jobless youth for watching a JCB at work but deep down, you are not really surprised. It's a freakin' JCB after all!

Big and yellow, clunky and seemingly purposeful. Every movement it makes is worthy of attention, like that friend who robot-dances to techno music at every party (actually, it's his only move). It's a childhood fantasy, a Transformer at the cusp of transformation, a roaring metal mountain of intent - a uniter unlike any other. To top it off, your role in helping it take centre-stage in your life ended at clicking a button.

The people's mandate must be respected! #JCBKiKhudai


Monday, May 27, 2019


“Is anyone up?”, I query despite knowing full well the answer would be. There is WhatsApp silence and the doors of the other rooms in the guesthouse stay locked. I am relieved. Now, no one can denounce me, yet again, for wandering off on my own ‘without even asking’. A WhatsApp group message may not sound like an ideal way to get folks up and about but knowing my company well enough - years of 12-hour days cooped up together in office cubicles help you do that - I am sure that if they are not responding to my message, they are offline in the way only sleep can cause them to be.

As it happens, we are quite far away from our air-conditioned 9-to-9 jails in Calcutta. While they may want to enjoy their vacation by sleeping in, I have other plans. It’s not like that I frequently get a chance to observe the grey of a new day spread over the compound of a forest bungalow and hear the murmur of the Kameng river in the distance. It’s early May and this is still in the plains but hints of the hills beyond ride in on the breeze. I shiver just a little as I squeeze through the half-chained gate and set out for the riverbank.

This walk to the river is already 10 hours too late. Our group of seven had just stepped out for a night walk yesterday when the gatekeeper at the guesthouse played spoilsport, calling out from behind us to return – elephants were active in the area, he said. Yeah right, we thought. At the border of Assam and Arunachal, in the town of Bhalukpong where this PWD guesthouse was located, we had crossed a crush of humanity in its commercial area, only a few hundred metres before the guesthouse. The only elephants here, we assumed, were the ones that government staff made up to keep footloose city tourists indoors. Grudgingly, we had come back inside the compound and immersed ourselves in the quiet pleasures of a quiet evening in.

But that was yesterday… today is a new day. A couple of leaps take me off the concrete certainty of the PWD babu’s holiday home. The sun still appears to be a little indecisive about getting out of bed as I wind a couple of loops down to the level of the very first channel. Boulder size pebbles, smoothened by millions of years of action, help me hop, skip and jump over the consistent but low levels of water there. Here the first bits of riverine grasslands begin, with scrub and grass closing in on the sandy walking path with occasional tweets of unnamed, unseen birds floating through the soundscape. I feel terribly happy and could sing for joy but for my utter lack of skill in that department.

Basking in this mental sunshine, as its real counterpart slowly starts highlighting the silhouettes of distant hills, I come across another shallow channel of water. It is a sort of younger brother to the one I have crossed a minute ago and in my euphoric state, I stage to Carl Lewis across it. It is then that I spot something not insignificant plopped at the geometric centre of the path beyond.

Speculation is a tremendous waste of time but I like to imagine that the Asian elephant was named Elephas maximus as a bit of inside joke. Not that the animal’s size is insignificant, quite the opposite in fact, but what could have also been the origin of its name is what I see on the trail ahead - the unmistakable gooey bowling balls pinned with bits of turf that scream maximus! Nothing else can manufacture that amount of poop.

By its fresh moist gleam, it is easy to tell that being called off our night walk yesterday was one of the kinder interventions of destiny. It seems that there are indeed elephants here and only a few hours ago, one of them has ambled along the same route I am headed down, onward to the banks of the Kameng.

The scrub around me is now alive with possibilities. Emotions of decidedly opposite natures duke it out within me – the thrill of knowing that wild elephants ignore the ruckus of nearby Bhalukpong town to come here for a quick slurp of water and fearful visions of those very same elephants tip-toeing (as wildlife books describe their elephantine style of walking to be) into my present path. For once, curiosity trumps panic as I can now clearly hear the rush of the main body of water of the Kameng ahead of me. I proceed ahead but with more than a modicum of caution.

The sun reaches the Kameng at the same time as I. In the golden reflection of its clearly long jump proof expanse, it is evident that the elephant/elephants have long retreated into the night whose darkness affords them the cover they need to make forays as “intruders” into areas which were for long theirs. Being the species responsible for why elephants are no longer welcome to wander their own homes, I take off my mud caked footwear to sit and ponder - on a suitable rock, dangling my feet into the rippling river.

Soon I realize that I am not alone. Squinting into the sun and following the curve of the river eastwards, I find a silhouette making its meandering way towards me - fellow homo sapiens like me but of the child variant. As it comes closer, it resolves into a boy, all of 10. He appears to stepping in and out of the edge of the water with a sieve in his hand, as if panning the water for gold.

I go closer to examine what he is up to. It’s silver actually. Using balls of dough as bait, he is scooping up tiny fish from the river which he tosses into a water filled dalda container.
“What are you doing?”

“Can’t you see… catching fish”, is the no-nonsense reply complemented by a severe frown.

I want to let him be, this serious boy with serious responsibilities. Yet something makes me inadvertently ask another question - even more obvious and quite non-sequitur - which I regret even as it rolls off my tongue.

“That huge pile of tatti… near the naala before the river… whose is it?”

I brace myself for yet another withering reply from his severe tongue, but it never comes. Instead I see his eyes light up, his mask of duty fall off and a smile restore the 10 year old into him. With a quiver that seems to shake up his entire being and radiate through his voice with delight, he says “Haathi!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Fundamentally Strange

If you haven’t heard Snap Judgement yet, you probably should. 

This public radio show/podcast with all manner of interesting stories being narrated in the most addictive of fashions is great company, especially on days when you have to get down to boringly necessary tasks like cleaning up your room or re-organizing your book collection. Connect that Bluetooth speaker and listen on.

A particular story, A Wives’ Tale, left an impact stronger than most, even among those choice selections. An exploration of how strange and how strong the world of fundamentalist religion is, it offers up a new set of heroes for whom even a minor act of ‘dressing up’/’dolling up’, depending on which side of the fundamentalist divide you are on, becomes a major rebellion. At the centre of it is a man and his five wives, members of a polygamist religious organization in Utah, USA and their definition of when time honoured tradition transitions into rigid control.

The story seemed remarkable to me in two ways. One is the ‘normal’ that the five wives take for granted before remarkably tearing themselves out of that comfort of familiarity and family, the only things they had known in their lives thus far, to take a very minor but for them life-altering step. The second, much more morally ambiguous, is how to look at the male protagonist of the story – as a liberator to which he can make a partial claim or as a patriarchy perpetuator who, after all, is still a polygamist in 2019 overseeing his ‘flock’ of five wives and twenty-five children.

Like any good story, it left me thinking long after the credits music had faded away.