Friday, December 21, 2007

found in translation

Stuck in a single truck jam in a narrow lane, I spy, on the back of that truck, this:

"See, but love-ly"

Wunderbar, no?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A little bit of Allahabad

On the last night of being in Allahabad we go looking for a place to drink - three women. This turns out to be quite tough. N rings up P who says, Hotel Ashish (or some boys name like that) has a bar. I've seen it - it's fairly tall - although I am rooting for Yatrik, which is old and looks a bit like Claridges. We get in, it's fairly three starish, so we're hopeful. We sit down - but no, no booze. We ask them where. We feel our voices are too loud. He says Grand Continental. Par vaise khana yahan zyaada accha hai. We look down and say, er, we've eaten, we just want a drink. At Grand, the restaurant has none, but the bar does - it's called Patiala Peg, so we know we're covered. Inside, there is an ominous takht, indicating mellow music to come, and the musty smell of unease. We order our drinks. The man on the table next to us is young,drinking with a certain jauntiness, but jauntier than that is his ringtone, the angle of his head when he answers it. His jauntiness leans too casually on a doorframe of intense interest; that mien of one who is on the second page of a well written erotic story. What the heck, the controlled posture of one who takes small quiet breaths, the better to eavesdrop.

We are conscious of him, but also full of the desire to let our hair down after four days of formality and functions. After two sips, like all women of course we discuss politics. Sexual politics. After some time it's only sex. Someone says its over rated, the others say what the eff are you talking about?

Two more men have joined the jaunty boy and now all three are staring directly at us. I stare back coldly, but they don't blink or look away, the gaze is curiously blank and unbothered, as if we are only holograms. We ignore them and keep talking because we are drunk now on vodka and talking. I feel a bit angry, but I also know I am leaving, my train is in one hour. I think, oh the bungalows were great but I am so glad I don't live here.

How to write of, speak of, think of places different from ours? How to be an elite from the elite space of the city and speak of the small town - how not to essentialise, analyse, beat or treat or mistreat, simplify, classify, deny, defy or crucify? When you're not even sure you want to be friends?

I suppose you have to go back, again and again.

As someone who has lived mostly in big cities - Bombay or Delhi, with small forays in Poona, Hindon, Secunderabad - whose parents came from big cities - Delhi (from Lahore) and Bombay - my experience of small towns is limited.

Yet arriving at small town stations, fills me with a sense of familiarity, because they echo that well ordered cantoment feeling (thanks to the Brits); and the sense of a quiet time gone by. The quiet is only if you arrive at the crack of dawn as I did in Allahabad - once the sun rises, so do the decibel levels, the crazy traffic, the's nostalgia, not just for the past, but for the past you, for being a child again, because when you were a child, the world was not very big at all.

I was invited to Allahabad to show a few of my films at a girls college there - Jagat Taran Girls Degree College. I was excited to go because I've never been there and I have a few friends from there - Pramod, Abhay, Francesca too, in a manner of speaking and of course Mukul, whose film is partly shot there.

I went armed with a tour from Mukul and small additions from another friend Palash. I am pleased to report I completed all things on the list with a minimum of exertions.

Allahabad was smaller than I thought it was. Part of the reason I expected it to be bigger somehow, perhaps more like Secunderabad, was that in my mind it was the location of big things - the Allahabad university for one, and all the freedom struggle stuff for another. And I suppose what I understood was that once it was important as a place. People went from Delhi to study there. But no longer. Today it's not as high octane as Meerut seemed to be, nor as sprawling as Lucknow is becoming.

The college function was kind of heartening - it was very earnest, and we were treated like major celebs. There was an opening ceremony with hundred of speeches, a rangoli, a dance performance...

But most of all there were the students - maybe 200 girls, occasionally more, in the hall - watching, arguing, full of questions, angst and occasional bhashan baazi after each screening. I was quite stunned and impressed and realised that no matter what people say about the reach of the media, people still feel on the margins of change, far from the edge of possibility.

It was part of the 16 days of activism, so we also went for a candlelight vigil at a domestic violence shelter and there was a women's group meeting in which they felicitated some feminist stars and sang songs and called slogans. It felt like another time, in some ways a good one.

Of the big tourist things I did two. One was go on a boat to see the sangam. The man who lured me into his boat was like - come here, I will change my name if I don't show you the three colours - green, white and red for Yamuna, Ganga, Saraswati. When we got there I cleverly asked - so where's the third, you promised it. And he was like, how could I have? Saraswati ma tho lupt hain na. He pointed to the two waters - green and blue/white. If you look hard, you can see it.

I wanted him to be silent but he felt he had to talk to earn his money. And occasionally he would say things like - the water here is 40 feet deep. There's no dangerous animals. Only turtles and water snakes and we spend all our time swimming in it in the summer. And I'd ask - so, you don't feel scared of the depth? And he'd say, nahin, hum to apna ang ma ko arpan kar dete hain.

The boat guys would wave or call out to each other, the way autorickshaw drivers do when stuck at a traffic signal. Or they'd be hanging around chatting with each other mid-river..

Perhaps because it was early in the day so the crowds weren't intese, there was some quietness and beauty to it all, a certain seriousness and recognition of birth and death about the expanse of the river.

The town still has some lovely old colonial bungalows. And a few old, beautiful cinemas, like The Palace, with its balconies and bugle blowing cherubs.

And also an old Gaylords type place called El Chicos where there's tomato soup with a swirl of cream, warm dinner rolls and too many calories..

Best discovery though was that Allahabad is the location of the head office of A.H.Wheeler's! Yes, like the train newspaper stands! They have a really good bookstore there, full of the random old fashioned pleasures of odd books in back shelves. Lots of Indian poets.

Mukul had also told me not to return without eating chaat at Civil Lines - so we had it there, at Toofani Chaat Bhandar, something called dahi batashe ki chaat - which is basically a gol gappa with papdi ki chaat inside it.

Eat it, M had said - you will die happy. He was right..

The other tourist thing I did was go to Anand Bhawan, which was Nehru's home. It was, like many such spots in India, full of beautiful flowers, and kids on a school excursion.

It was really quite beautiful - I can't imagine what it must be like to live in such a house, man! But also, as it was the site of important Congress meetings and moments in the Independence struggle, there was something awe inspiring about it. There's also something tantalisingly voyeuristic about peeping into other people's bedrooms and kitchens. But beyond that, I don't know what it is that affects us so much, knowing that we stand in the same spot as those gone by. But there's something, and that's why this must have been my favourite thing in the house, making me imagine people finishing conversations over their shoulders after a big winter afternoon lunch of gosht and rice...

I fell in love with two things in Allahabad. First, were the rickshaws, painted over every inch with covers as rich and beribonned as babie's bonnets.

Naturally I became possessed of the desire to well, possess one of these and in this quest was taken by an old (and need I add confused) rickshaw walla to a street called Colonelganj, off the main market in Katra. Here I walked up and down trying to explain to the guys what I wanted - they were like - you want to buy a rickshaw? a seat? Finally I got not exactly one of these seat backs but something else quite lovely. But while sitting around I also quite fell in love with Colonelganj in the afternoon, it's old latticed buildings, with their religious tiles and art deco flourishes, it's literally sleepy air, and the familiar emblem of old cities in new times -the mess of wires in the sky, functioning as a veil for a girl on the roof.

(you need to click on this picture above to see literally how sleepy)

November travels...

Were in the US - in the cold midwest, in autumnal New York, staying with my friends Anu and Arvind and New Jersey, staying with my friend Maria who has moved from New York to live on the banks of a river (traitor!).

It was a swift trip, a screening tour. And once you've been in a place very often, you don't connect to your surroundings as much as before - the changing of planes, trains and buses, the blur of screenings and Q and A.. it's just to the people who are now the map of that place, old friends and new friends..(and the new shoes of course, not pictured here, because now it's getting embarrassing).

A new friend I made was Deepti - hats off to her (not literally, since I love mine - in fact I lost it while in Champaign and we went back to look for it 6 hours later and they'd kept it for us!) - for being the main driving force behind organising some of the screenings.

But also she and her friends entertained me in style, with a delicious dinner and the most perfectly made bed in a room with yellow walls.

We did have an unresolved argument though - what is the design on the cheese - a flower (their view)? Or a pair of eggplants (my view)?

By the way, eat your heart out girls.. this is the loo in Oberlin College - the girls' loo! Made me feel I was showing the wrong film there! Made me feel we should have been shooting a Marlene Dietrich style item number instead..

Also while I was there, I met my friend Sabrina's new baby Matteo Su. Matteo is one of those funky feminist kids who carries his mother's surnames. His parents read him a book, in which there is a rhyme that goes
"why oh why, my little suimai
do i love you so much?"

Isn't that cute?! And here are the little suimai and his not so little Indian masi, snuggling up in the New York cold, dancing cheek to cheek.

Meanwhile it was Divali when I got to Maria's. John, her son, goes to a Quaker school and they're rather multi culti there so he'd learned all about Diwali at school and was rather excited about it (especially the sweets). So there was a Divali party, although, as a first for me, it was celebrated with cake. And don't miss the eager little white fingers clutching the table in impatient wait on either side...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Secunderabad in Septmber


As a child I lived in Secunderabad - from the time I was 7 till I was 11 and perhaps for no other reason than that it is an impressionable age, it left an impression on me. In Secunderabad I made the big reading transitions: went from Enid Blyton to Nancy Drew, Amar Chitra Katha and Indrajal to Asterix and Tintin (although I still cannot resist acting like Ming the Merciless and saying out loud in my solitude: we'll met again Flash Gordon, ah hahahaha! Ok, maybe I shouldn't admit that but anyway no one reads this blog so it's alright) - and also, with needless and uncomprehending precocity, Of Mice and Men. And since I lived mostly in my head like most ill-adjusted kids, these were big signposts for me. I found a porn novel called The Barn with its reddish page edges, its busty 70s Bond girl cover and read it, also a bit uncomprehending but definitely, um, impressed, over there. Since then the musty smell of old library paperback stirs up a sexual sense of the forbidden for me. I had my first crush, on a boy who wore red socks and played cricket near the colony park in Secunderabad. It's true these experiences would have happened were I in Bhopal, Bhatinda, Agra or Nasik and would then have rendered those places special in my mind. But, it was in Secunderabad, and with its sleepy air, its small market lanes, its old bungalows owned by Parsis and anglo-Indians called Anne and Fiona; with our scrawny young custard apple tree and green paisley sofas and round shaped lawn and hot, quiet afternoons when parents slept and we prowled unserveilled, doing nothing much but feeling racy anyway.

And I guess it meant something that it was in Secunderabad and not its more famous twin Hyderabad, which was distant, across Tankbund and to which I went only three or four times in my entire time there.

Because one heard so little of Secunderabad in the public domain, it could remain forever private, my own place in my head. Also, Secunderabad, which was primarily a cantonment space did not change as fast and as drastically as Hyderabad. When I finally went back as an adult I was charmed to see that some bits, were still recognisable and discernible as part of my memory. And the truth is, there's also something comforting to me about cantonment spaces, edged with whitewash, stolid with grey stone, the neat brick borders of trimmed lawns a suggestion that there is a mai baap, a strong force that will take care of you (Sigh, patriarchy).

Yes of course the city center had changed - Nanking, once fashionable had become seedy, and the old colonial buildings were crumbling and shadowed by flyovers. But old things could still be suddenly seen, like Zam Zam bakery, which opened while I was there and it still had the same low rise small town feel.


Since then, I always take the chance to go back to Secunderabad when it's presented. It's another one of those places that feels to me like it is home, a place where a bit of my soul is stored, like a horcrux.

The first couple of times I went there I tried desperately then to re-get the feeling of the past. I went to Secunderabad club, found it so changed, no more cutlets and roast mutton sandwhich or trifle pudding and other colonial delights; the old children's library was completely gone, only two musty remainders of a book series I loved - Folk Tales from India (one for each state) sitting wanly in the corner of a shelf. Also I started to launch this hunt for Crazy David, this guy who would sing at the club do's, wearing an afro and a medallion - Una Paloma Blanca was his signature song. When I discovered that Crazy David was dead, I realised the pointlessness of nostalgia rather flatly. A place always moves on from the place in your head, as much as you have moved on from it - the relationship between places and belonging presents a riddle to me that I haven't resolved.

So on subsequent trips I was more relaxed I think. I enjoyed the dense greenery of the Hyderabad Central University where I had gone for a workshop more quietly as I waited for students to return with their exercises. It was often raining and the air was heavy with dragonflies.

I now have new routines. Going to eat an ice-cream sundae for instance. When I was a kid there were all sorts of ice cream parlours serving fantasies in metal ice-cream cups: Honeymoon Specials, Dreamboats and Midnight Beauty's, jaunty with angled wafers and cherry-on-the-top. I couldn't locate any but you can still get a great tutti frutti sundae at Nanking and a near-satisfying one in the middle of the night at Pickles.

There are other pickles too.
I go see my dad's old airforce friends, GR uncle and Chanchal aunty. This time they made me my favourite Punjabi lunch of rajma-chawal and bhindi and pressed all these great pickles on me. As I complimented aunty on them with my mouth full she said scornfully "arre yeh maine thodi banaye hain! Yeh sab shauk tho tumhare uncle ko hain, achar daalna, chatni banana."

And obligatory buying bangles bit - when have I been known to pass up the chance to gaze at shiny coloured glass objects? But not in Charminar. This time I bullied my cousin into taking me to a street we always passed while dropping my nephew Naman to school. It looked old, and apparently it was the Jain section of town at one point - it's called Subhash Road.

For me, what was interesting was that it was a big art deco stretch. And though noisy it didn't feel so hard to negotiate and we walked around till I'd had my fill of gazing and ambling and it had gotten too dark to see details.

And in the latest consumer news I am sorry to report that I went completely nuts and bought several dozens of bangles. I can't resist, because it's only in smaller places that you get those old bangles which are paani ke rang - watery, lighter than light green, pink, gold - that make you feel like a princess, whether they're on your wrist or simply hanging on your bangle rack in the morning sun.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Forty some years ago my mother went to study at LSR college. Then, like many, she lost touch with her friends as they married and moved.

Twenty years later she ran into one of those friends and came home and tolde me that this friend Rehana, had a son who was starting college just like me, studying Maths honours in St. Stephens. For a year I looked out for this boy and finally informed my mother this was all fictitious and the only boy on our U-Special from Stephens was in Philosophy Honours and anyway he was older than I.

Then twenty years ago, I got talking to a beautiful, slightly extra excited girl at the busstop and discovered she was the son, who was actually a daughter and actually studying History. We became friends really quickly, sharing books, music, running a contest between her and I for who could find the cheapest eating place - the prize goes to her because she found a Gujerati thali behind the university for 8 rupees, with a ghee ladoo in desert.

Too much has happened to write about - or perhaps it's too much a part of me to write about it.

Over the years I've come to realise that no matter what people says, the important markers for most (though not all) seem to exist only within the patterns of the conventional family and other things are often a sort of frill. So I've decided to mark some important anniversaries in my life: the anniversaries of my friendships, the anniversaries of things I did (my first film, my first house, not to mention the anniversary of my loving SRK - 20 years next year); to do so as an affirmation of ways of life that many of us have chosen because though we do not know where these roads take us, we've chosen them because we believe in them, because we hope they will make better, more honest people of us, and change the contours of the world maybe a centimeter at least.

So this year is the 20th anniversary of my friendship with Samina, who I met in 1987. An extraordinary person, her eyes and her soul as clear as those crystal pools in mythological films; a beautiful woman with the biggest heart in the world; the best mother I know, both passionate and principled; full of fun, full of courage, neurotic neat freak, not scared of technology, greedy for good food, and sometimes not so good food, great cook, terrible singer, buyer of the most appropriate gifts, still a little too excitable to comprehend and always a friend of friends.

Most fittingly we celebrated with a bottle of champagne given to us for the occasion by another special friend, Nandini Bedi.

May everyone have the plenitude of friendships like this.