27 December, 2009

Whats in a Name?

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – Juliet,

Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare

The bright light of the afternoon sun made me blink. The eyes screwed up and began adjusting the vision while the brain started to process the location of the nearest auto rickshaw stand. I had just spent the last 3 hours in a dark cinema hall being thoroughly entertained by a movie called “3 Idiots” and as I flagged and got into the 3 wheeler, the names of 3 film stars of Indian cinema flashed across triggering a train of thought. Comparing film icons or film stars is a national pastime & was not immune to it. Auto comparison is what this was ( Auto = Automatic and not because it was done while I was inside an Auto rickshaw). There is no other reasoning of the need to compare them at all, but for an idle mind that needed some fodder. The neuron of wackiness had raised its head in my head.

The names that immediately popped into my mind were Amitabh Bacchhan, Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan; 3 equally talented and successful superstars of Indian cinema. If ever one is to compare then the ground for comparison needs to be a fair ground. This very small sample set met all parameters required for popularity and talent in their field of choice. Their beginnings had been relatively similar too; they had taken nearly 20 odd films to get to their big breaks to get stably established. All came from non-acting backgrounds. Two are contemporaries while the third though active is a generation senior to the other two. These were the apples in my basket. We are not discussing favorites here as I have liked them all at different phases so what was my originally idiotic thought that began this train?

If one is to take a closer look at Billy the Bard’s line and turn it upside down, does it conversely hold true. Can anything that smells sweet be called a Rose? or if you call something a Rose will it begin to smell sweet? Is there a power or a character that emerges from taking on a name ? And what connects this thought to our 3 stars?

Examine this:

Amitabh Bacchhan made his debut in Saat Hindustani and after a few false starts was about to return back to where he came from. One can almost visualize the scene at the railway platform, as he is boarding the train. 3 people who were standing there one producer-director, Prakash Mehra and 2 writers ( Salim Khan & Javed Akhtar ) call out "Vijayyyyy" and Bacchhan turned to look back, "Come back don’t go" they say. He stays back and makes cinematic history as the angry young man. Amitabh on screen became synonymous with Vijay. This at the most changed to Jai or Jay. Whether he preferred to be called by that name or the directors/producers insisted he be called thus can remain a mystery. What is not a mystery is in almost all roles for close to 15 years that he did thereafter he was Vijay. This was till his fall from grace after some really crass movies like Lal Badhsah that he took a break, from these ashes to again be reborn like a phoenix on TV and rekindle a film career. The funny coincidence is that in all the movies where Amitabh has had the name Vijay despite roles being different; the displayed angst is identical whether he played a cop or a don. The variety of Vijay’s career graph has been in the different last names/ surnames, as he changed from a Vijay Khanna to a Vijay Dinanath Chauhan. You take one Vijay and you have seen them all which is a tragic waste of nearly fifteen productive years of a great talent.

Shahrukh Khan began his film career as an extra in the mercurial movie “In which Annie gives it to those ones” a movie that was written by the Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy. If you blink you would miss him. TV happened to him nearly the same time where he was noticed and his work appreciated. Shahrukh Khan's most exciting phase of work is in his early years but that did not make him King Khan till he donned the mantle of a lover boy “Raj” in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in the year 1995. Till date after this movie, saving two or three exceptions, SRK has been some version of Raj/Rahul. The journey of 14 years has been a repetition of playing himself where the character in the script could be anybody, but what would emerge is Raj/Rahul. Lately he even started appearing as SRK the superstar ( Billu, Luck By chance, Om Shanti Om). SRK/Raj is what you would get whether playing a suave Don or an ancient Indian emperor-Asoka. The day he actually chucked aside that tag to play Kabir Khan in Chak De and a Mohan Bhargava in Swades, a different character came through. But these were more exceptions than a rule. Here one could see flashes of his earlier brilliance, being shaken up awake from a long hibernation. Before one got used to this he returned back to playing Raj in his comfort zone. SRK and Raj have got so intermingled that the work has a sameness which does not befit his talent. It is the intoxication of perpetual perching on the imagined throne of Hindi cinema that requires King Khan to remain a "Raj".

Raj rules now as Vijay did earlier. There is a peculiar power in these names that have graced the characters played by these two stars.

Aamir Khan too has tasted immense success in Quayamat Se Quayamat Tak (his debut as a lead actor) as a Raj. He again saw big success when he had the name Raja for "Dil" and "Raja Hindustani", both spectacular hits. In these 3 movies Raj & Raja are similar romantic characters. Coincidence? But this actor has never been king nor seemingly aspired to be one as evident in his path to stardom. His has been the path of a daring knight of the Kings court who could do anything. A dashing reporter in " Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahi" who is hungry for a story, boarding an inter-city bus as Raghu Jetley kick-started this journey. The character Pooja played by Pooja Bhatt even asks the question at some point in the film “What kind of a name is Raghu Jetley?” His journey has had some interesting milestones; Sanjaylal Sharma the enfant terrible student who comes of age in "Jo Jeeta wohi Sikander". Siddhartha Marathe of "Ghulam", Amar Dhamjee in "Baazi", Munna of "Rangeela", DJ of "Rang De Basanti" all have had their time. Akash Malhotra of "Dil Chahta Hai" could not have been more different from a Bhuvan of "Lagaan" or a Ram Shankar Nikumbh of "Taare Zammen Par". With each name a different flavor has emerged to the character played by this actor. The movies may not have all succeeded phenomenally but the journey from Raghu Jetley to Rancho of 3 Idiots been rich varied and fulfilling. This then extends to the viewers who wait in anticipation for a new movie to release and a new character with a new name to emerge.

It is said that with “Six Degrees of Separation” one can connect anything or anyone. This was the muddled tattle about the nomenclatural title ruffling the cerebral neuron as I came out of the movie.

18 December, 2009

Money Talks

He stepped out into the balcony of his 18th storey apartment and saw the grey dawn about to break. The cobwebs began to clear off from his head. Not once had he missed this hour since the time he had reached awareness age. He had a firm belief that in the dawn was hidden the force of a day taking shape. He drew his strength from it. The sun rose amongst the largely decaying decrepit and the few sparkling structures of this wild part of city called Bombay, Mumbai now, when would he ever could get used to this change of name, he wondered. He was a couple of years past sixty but an onlooker would peg him to a decade younger at the very least. The apartment inside housed all the luxuries one only dreams of and he owned them all. This included the nubile form that lay sleeping exhausted with her mouth slightly open. She was as pretty as they came by and had lasted him all of three months, a tad longer than the others. He had craved all of this with a fierceness that had belied reason and had even spilled blood to possess some of them. Surprisingly none evoked any emotion in him now. Abdur Ramzan Shakeel Ahmed was his moniker but he popularly answered to Ramzan bhai.

The aroma of freshly brewed tea tickled his nostrils. It was followed by the sound of shuffling feet of his faithful man Friday -Quadir with Suleimani chai (Black tea with a squeeze of lemon) the way he liked it piping hot with just a hint of sugar served in a large enamel mug. He settled in the arm chair set on the wide balcony, took a sip and nodded his appreciation. Quadir beamed as he lit a small Gold Flake cigarette for Ramzan bhai and withdrew. He left behind the pack and the change from the Five Hundred rupee note taken for its purchase. He sat there on the balcony puffing away in between tiny sips of the chai.

The sparkling rays of the sun reflecting off the railway tracks caught his attention below. He saw the Shatabdi Express at Bombay Central station getting ready for departure to Ahmadabad. The platforms were buzzing with people. He had been one of them once and still felt a curious bond with the antlike forms rushing from one place to another. His gaze shifted to Maratha Mandir - the cinema hall opposite the station, which seemed to be lying benignly like a spent whore. Cinema’s and whores worked nearly the same hours and the mornings were for resting. It was ironic that in the arms of this very same whore he had found true love.

Fatima worked in a ladies beauty parlor and he had met her in the compound of Maratha Mandir. She had come to watch the new release “Raja Jani” and he was selling the tickets in black. He had seen that she was alone and having just two tickets left of his bunch he sold her the ticket at cost price. She smiled as she paid him the money and he was utterly lost. Using the last ticket for himself he entered the hall and sat next to her. She shyly batted her eyes and he quite like the hero had whispered in her ears that he would be by her side always. He had remained true to his word over the next 24 months when he married her and buried her. He who had conquered all could not win over Fatima’s tumour that grew in her brain. Her lovely form wasted before his eyes but he did all that was possible then and was with her till she breathed her last in his arms. She had smiled when she said hafiz khuda to him and in the greatest loss of his life was a numbing peace. His eyes pricked with the tears to an event that had happened 37 years ago. She was the only woman he had truly loved. He had not married after her.

After that life became a roller coaster ride. From black marketing tickets he had graduated to numbers in the gambling dens. He was a natural here and soon rose up to be Rasool Pathan’s right hand man in the gambling racket. Ramzan though did not see much future in activities illegal and bought a run down lodge with 18 rooms from his earnings and converted it into a hotel. It however became a target for the hourly custom for the local red light area. This circumstance nudged him to graduate into the protection rackets to keep away and manage the police. Rasool was into drugs and prostitution but Ramzan wanted no part of it and with the Pathan’s blessings went into construction and development. Legally he made more money than Pathan’s illegal trade and soon became an expert moneychanger for the underworld. He had long ago sold his interests in the hotel and seen the turf wars that killed the Pathan. By then Ramzan was almost completely legit and now he had hired top brains from good schools to manage the business while he spent a semi-retired life arbitrating problems and generally managing peacekeeping issues between the men in uniform and the men they shot at. He silently said a prayer to Allah for keeping him alive to enjoy all he did without fear of a bullet or the tension of a ballot. Long ago he had given up thinking as to the why and how of such a life coming to his lot.

He reached out for his second cigarette and gathered the notes to put them back in his wallet. While sliding the notes in, he closely looked at one of them & drew it out. It was a hundred rupee note of the old type, an impossibly soiled specimen that had the words R loves F written in the scrawl of an almost illiterate man, loves conveyed by a shady heart with a pierced arrow running through it . Fishing out his glasses from the pocket of his white kurta he examined it again, he was not mistaken. It was the first note that Fatima had given him when she paid for her movie ticket. He had written the words on it promising to himself never to spend this note, but somewhere in the travails of his life it had left his hand.

Smiling fondly he looked at the note again and said “Where were you, all this while? Glad to have you back”. “I have been around and am tired with my journey too. It’s good to be back. To help you make-good your promise?”The voice had a clear ironical tone full of mischief. Ramzan bhai almost fell off his chair and looked around to see who had spoken. The girl in his bed snored lightly and had not stirred a muscle since the time he had left the bed. Quadir was busy in the kitchen evident from the sounds of the clanging pots. A light wind blew the ash from the cigarette on his lips stoking the ember crimson and the note fluttered in his hand. “It is me Ramzan. You of all people should know that in the city of Bombay, Money Talks. See this and start believing it quickly as I too am very particular about who I want for a conversational companion. That’s the basic reason, second coming from the currency family it is our curse that we can never initiate a conversation even if we wanted to. Only a person who knows the ways of the world and who has the wisdom to understand us can speak to us.”

“You have been initiated Ramzan so feel good. I have some cousins in the USA who have had some interesting conversations with Warren. Ramzan looked blank. Warren Buffet, the note told him in an exasperated note. From the time we were conceptualized as money and created by men we have taken various forms. We have been cast in stone, wood, metal, paper and plastic. But yet in all our existence through time the number of people we have ever really talked to would be less than a thousand. In most hands we have just been momentary visitors, slipping in only to slip out even faster. Rolling and circulation is what your race called this, but did we really roll or circulate? Nope, most of the hands that held us didn’t have the wherewithal to keep us and make us grow. Ramzan was fascinated and asked so why me? The note said “Ramzan when you tattooed my body with your and Fatima’s name, our fates got interlinked. It was deemed that I should be back with you but only after you were capable of keeping me having understood us and our significance as a concept. What’s it now 37years, since we last met? I was young and crisp and both of us had far lesser creases than we have today. Ramzan laughed and said that’s true for sure. And both us had had interesting lives.

You bet said Ramzan but I can very safely tell you that my life has had more ups and downs than yours. Don’t bet on it Ramzan even though I know you were a betting man once. We are nearly the same age right? Ramzan said I don’t know your date of birth. The note winked at him and said that’s fine, it’s more important that you know yours. Do you? Ramzan felt sheepish and said actually he did not. He just remembered being told that he had been born in the year that the states of India were split according to linguistic basis. And he was four years old when the state of Bombay became Maharashtra, Gujarat and some portions went to Karnataka. Very good said the note that means you are born in 1956, same as me. Ramzan said with wonder “So if we have seen nearly similar days on this earth, how were you so crisp the first time I met you. It was 37 years ago when you would have been what, 28 years? My early years said the note were quite sheltered. I was part of a bundle that never got moved out of a vault for 26 years. The three lions on the note seemed to be chuckling. So technically I was just 3 years out when you marked me; tattooed forever. But after that did I move around or what? The note said with a curious pride and relish.

The note continued speaking “Okay so here we are both about 65 years old and destined to be together now. Let us not debate about who has had a more eventful life. We can compare our travels for just one day yesterday and settle it at the point where we met again. How is that? Sounds good, said Ramzan.

Ramzan bent and lit one more cigarette and started recounting. Yesterday at 11.00 am after my morning chai and nashta had to go to Agripada to look at the site where we are reconstructing an old chawl. The fifth floor slab work had begun. One fool of a worker who had not clipped his helmet while working on the floor dropped it. “Salaam alei kum Ramzan bhai” comes a shout and I turn to find my old friend Murad. The step forward to embrace him saved me as the helmet crashed behind. Murad in a flash removed his pistol and would have nailed the man but I stayed his hand. His swearing at the poor man was far worse than if he had just shot him quietly. Murad has a wonderful vocabulary of swear words and it is an education to hear him. The site was progressing well and around 1.30pm we walked over to my Western Union money transfer office. It is a new branch and had wanted to just look over. Not much business was being done in the afternoon and the staff was eating lunch so we left them to it decided to grab some ourselves.

We walked over to Nagpada and entered Hotel Saarvi. Gaffoor the waiter immediately cleared out a table for us and told us to just sit, he would bring us lunch. He brought us two steaming soup plates full of paya and bread and some kebabs fresh off the skewer. Kebabs at Saarvi are worth killing for, crisp on the outside and soft like butter inside. Break a piece with your fingers, wrap around it a sprig of mint, dip in the mint chutney and pop it in your mouth. This is one more road to jannat or heaven. Refusing the biryani we had two cups of tea and moved out. Murad had some work at Dongri so we hailed a cab and reached there. Here Murad went on to his office and I strolled over to Jaddanbi’s kothi. She is an old friend who runs an escort service. An escort herself once she unlike others put her money away and now owns the finest service in the business today. She is sharp of tongue and I love doing gup shup with her. Spent a couple of hours chatting with her as she whined about how narcotics and AIDS was the bane of her line of activity. But business was good she said and said as long as the plugs kept coming she would keep supplying the sockets and lighting up the world. She always had a wacky sense of humour that old mare. Then after loitering about my old haunts and catching up with Kamaal the matka king and Junaid the dock king; he controlled all movement of goods around the docks, came back to my pad and rested.Then Nafisa, Ramzan said pointing to the sleeping form came in and we ate. Then she wanted to show off her newest negligee that I was encouraged to rip off her and we played the exhausting game that uplifts all down trodden spirits to meet you now. Very good Ramzan so all in all a quiet day with friends except for one scare at the construction site said the note. Hmm nodded Ramzan as Quadir came quietly filled his mug with a second chai, kept a khari biscuit and left noticing nothing.

The note said I started my day at Pune in the pocket of an executive being driven in a car. He was traveling to Mumbai in his Skoda and I love air conditioning, but fate wasn’t kind to me. At Khopoli toll station I was taken out and handed over to the toll agent who pulled me roughly and dumped me into his till. I hate this type of people who have no respect for our race. I was barely finished nursing my bruises, stretching my body when I was whipped out again. Then in the company of three other Rs.100 notes of a newer vintage handed over to the driver of a Maruti car who immediately turned into the food court across the plaza. At the coupon counter he looked into his wallet and selected me, when we get older people don’t want us retained is my observation. It was a good thing too as unlike the skoda drivers wallet this man’s wallet had more coins than notes and they were hurting me. Oily fingers picked me up and I was held to light and reluctantly accepted. Then I was kept on top and not in the drawer, another reminder of my stage in transit. A young girl who smelled nice took possession of me along with the coupons and I travelled to the batata wada counter in her hip pocket. I felt nice with my back that was naturally massaged along firm curvy hips. We who are old love the firmness of the youth, I say. Ramzan chuckled in acceptance. Travelled on the girls hip to Dadar bus stand where she boarded a taxi to go to Shivaji park . I said goodbye to her lovely form reluctantly refusing to slide out of the pocket but her insistent fingers brought me out. The cabbie too refused to take me and I prepared myself to dive back in, but she screamed at him and he meekly took me and stuffed me in his shirt pocket. His next fare was to Bandra but all his fares refused me and I was crushed. It is so frustrating to be unwanted and age can make you feel useless though your value has not diminished one bit. From Bandra he got a fare to go to VT and I travelled there but yet again the passenger refused me. The cabbie in frustration stopped at a roadside joint ate a chai with a nan khatai and smoked an unfiltered cigarette and gave me to the fellow. Poor chap had to take me in and could see the sense of quiet relief in the cabbies eyes. I was glad to be away from him. I heard some words in Tamil and it was the owner of the tea stall talking to his assistant to wash up faster. I could rest for a couple of hours till I was handed over while I was sleeping and found myself stuffed into a cheaply scented brassiere. I almost choked and passed out and hoped my confinement would end soon. Ramzan was chuckling. The painted lady walked calling out to people on the street till she could fix one for a quick hand job in an alley. Thankfully after a heaving fifteen minutes later I was brought out into the evening air and I gulped it in. The hand that accepted me stowed me quickly into a wallet and I travelled till Dongri on a bike where the man stopped to buy a pan. This was at Biharilals pan shop below your place. I rested in Biharilals gulla (till) for a while till Quadir pocketed me as part of the change for your cigarettes and here I am.

Ramzan laughed and said that without a doubt your yesterday has been far more eventful than mine. But you are now not going anywhere and I shall show you to your place of rest till I frame you up. You are an integral piece of the best slice of life that signified youth & love. The note beamed and said now you know why we don’t engage people in conversations. An overwhelming majority of you only silently look at the numbers on our back and then pass us around, without seeing us and inside them to understand what meaning we brought to their lives. It is wonderful to be home finally, Ramzan. As he looked at his scrawl of years ago on its face, the note seemed to be happily smiling back at him.

29 November, 2009

I C a Case

His eyes wandered to the crack in the old solid wooden desk before him. The crack was filled up with dirt, grime, tea, food and ink falling into it over the years. It was a curious shade of ochre today and he was sure it would be richer a few years ahead with more of the same piling in it. The desk was not his or this office. The paint was peeling off the walls due to moisture seeping in from the heavy rains the city suffered. This was not monsoon hence the drying marks had created a pattern all their own. It may have been totally depressing had it not been for the photo frames hanging there as are typical in most sarkari (government owned) offices. Subhash Chandra Bose stared at him from one of them. He was glad to meet the eyes of a fellow Bengali, so what if he was long gone and was just a poor photograph.From behind Subhash Babus photograph a fat gecko (lizard) speedily slithered out and gobbled up the fly sitting on a wooden cabinet and made swallowing/chewing motions. He too felt the pangs of hunger as he looked at the watch. It was 1.20pm. He had been waiting his turn on the long wooden bench. It was a police station. ‘Next’ came a voice and a young boy sitting beside nudged him in the ribs with his elbow. Sir, it’s you.

“Name?” Satyesu Tathagat Basu, said he in a clear voice. Police Constable Vishwas Ghorpade looked him up and asked and what position do you work for in this firm? I am the Chief Accountant and Internal Auditor, sir. PC Ghorpade saw a nondescript man sitting wearing non-descript clothes and had he met him anywhere apart from across his desk, he would have missed him. The fact that he was sitting for nearly two and half hours in his office had not even registered. The rest of the questions were a blur…Noting the complaint PC Ghorpade tore off a copy and handed it over. Satyesu Babu rose and the PC looking at him again barely noticed him as he left.

Such was the magnificence of Satyesu Babu’s personality it was characterized by its absence. Even at home his wife and children barely noticed his presence till it was the first of every month, when he handed down a portion of his salary for household upkeep and paying the school fees and rent. But behind this freak of a nature of Satyesu Babu’s invisible personality resided a wishful pride. It was a pride at being not just good but truly great at his job. Not an adventurer escaped his eyes when it came to misappropriation of numbers and no sales fellows could fudge their vouchers in his domain. He lived by the book and smelled chicanery from a distance. Like his name which his maashi ma (mother’s sister) reminded him often, he was a seeker of the truth. His training in the craft of accounting made his approach precise and logical; but he had a very imaginative mind totally creative and free flowing. In its realms he fancied himself to be a detective. His idols were Byomkesh Bakshi and Feluda and he had read each and every one of their detective stories many times over. He didn’t fancy Poirot or Sherlock Holmes much not because they were foreigners and non-Indians but because they were not Bengali.

Now why was Satyesu Babu sitting in a police station in the first place?

It all began with somebody mentioning classified advertisements and it rang a bell. He remembered Feluda his investigator idol tell his cousin and assistant Topshe in Jai Baba Felunath “Read the classified advertisements. They are always more interesting than the news articles in the paper.” Satyesu Babu had done the same thing in his expense register and found out that over the last 6 months their company had released 48 classified advertisements. This was pretty interesting he thought and asked Vinayak his assistant to get the cash vouchers for all the expenses. This was not a mission that he wanted to tell anybody so he just collected the files and piled them on his desk for later. After office hours he sat and studied them to find that all advertisements released have been towards loss of C-forms. Expenses towards each advertisement averaged around Rs.1300 to Rs.2200. The total money spent by the company of recovery of C-forms had been about Rs.78000 and this over a six month period. The value on the C-forms had been in Millions of rupees hence this expense had been overlooked and attended to.

The procedure for obtaining a duplicate was to lodge a police complaint and then release an advertisement in a local newspaper. It is a simple procedure obtaining a duplicate however not doing it would put the company in trouble. One of the office boys would go and do it normally as a matter of course. But Satyesu Babu had smelt a rat and like a bull terrier on a chase he traced back the course with the next form loss. He had come to make the police complaint himself and the havaldar noting down his FIR said conversationally, I will now have to raise the charge to note down your complaint. How much you make me write in a month? This time I will take 100 and not my regular 50. Without saying a word Satyesu Babu paid up. Taking the complaint he went made a photocopy and took the same to the agency that released ads for them as per the bills. Oh you are from Agarwala & Co said the attendant, one more C-Form lost? We have your standard draft saved up. All we do is change the number and release your advertisement. How much Satyesu Babu asked? Rs.200 sir. Same as always why? Is Rameshwar Pandey on leave today? He is the one who normally comes for this. The clerk tore a receipt writing the figure Rs. 200 without writing it in words and gave it back.

Satyesu Babu preened to himself. Quite like his idols he had successfully identified the Modus Operandi. Now he also had the perpetrator; Pandey the peon. A clean Rs.1000- Rs.2000 per transaction made and an average of Rs. 10000/ month skimmed off over the last six months. He needed to know the reason as Pandey had been with the company for 22 years and never had a late mark or a misdemeanor to his name. Reaching back he had studied to see whether Pandey had made any requests to the company and found out that he had asked the company for a loan of Rs.50000/- and it had been turned down by his predecessor on flimsy grounds. Satyesu Babu called Pandey to his cabin. Asking him to sit he closed the door and laid the advertisement agency’s receipt in front of Pandey without saying a word. Pandey’s face paled and he started to cry. Sobbing he said I had not wanted to do this but I needed the money for my daughters marriage. She has good in-laws who did not ask for a dowry but the wedding expenses itself were beyond me. I borrowed from a lender then and paid him back this way. Please don’t report it to the management as I will lose my job, my respect, everything, I have done wrong and want to make amends.

Satyesu Babu told him that it will be done on one condition that he returns the money back to the company. On the accounting front, I will accept your request for a loan and sanction it as advanced to you. From your Salary a portion shall be deducted till you cover it.

I will still have to do some jugglery to take the money in but that will be my problem. We shall not speak of this matter again and this is given the fact of your earlier service that has been blemish free. No more C-forms should be lost. Pandey dumbly nodded and folded his hands and walked out.

Satyesu Babu felt good that the case of the C-form and classifieds had been solved and justice done. He reached for the tiffin box & to his delight found that his wife had packed rosgolla’s for him today. Smiling he picked one up, squeezed the syrup out and popped it whole into his mouth chewing contentedly with eyes closed. At this moment one seeing Satyesu Babu’s expression while chewing may be forgiven should they be reminded of the gecko from the police station.

14 October, 2009

Beautiful Creations - Forgotten Creators

The Song

I was returning to Aurangabad city from Verul in Maharashtra, India. It was a break from work at Mumbai and had decided to take a random trip this long weekend; random because the destination was not planned till we hit the road. The driver put on some music. An unfamiliar voice and song came about through the music system …Clear strident notes, wonderful voice quality and superlative music. It was Hindi film music but had never heard it earlier. In the close confines of the car with the twilight casting all objects outside in soft focus, the music enveloped me. “Bheegi Hui Koi Shaam Ho” simply pure, the music soared, the energy in the voice building up the song and I was lost in the wonderful composition. “Whose music is this?” I asked the driver, Sir its mine sir, he had misunderstood my question completely. “Arrey No, who has made it?” I repeated my question a bit differently. “Sunidhi Chauhan is the singer and the film Chameli” said he proud in his knowledge. It was a movie that had clearly not been a commercial success despite a great brouhaha about the top film star Kareena Kapoor doing a serious film. “Nahi…no no… What I meant was who is the music director; the composer?” “Pata nahi saab” said he…”but music solid hai and I play it often”. It was a truly glorious track. “Do you have the CD jacket?” I pressed on. He shook his head “No jacket sir, only have this common plastic box for all my CD’s here.” I had no chance then of knowing the name of the person who had created the soul stirring song that had me perking up.

The Movies

On Reaching the Hotel, I freshened up. Having nothing much to do outside I decided to have a relaxed evening by myself. Ordered an early dinner up and started flipping through the cable channels. The movie ‘Gumnaam’ was on. A body had been discovered and the background music conveyed the tense moment. This movie was adapted from Agatha Christie’s famous book “Ten Little Niggers”. The book later got rechristened, when saying niggers became politically incorrect, to “And then there were none“. I had seen this movie earlier but enjoyed it yet again. The room service waiter saw me engrossed in the film and remarked, ”Lovely movie, Mehmood has acted real well”. I nodded and asked him, “who has directed Gumnaam?”. “Who knows Sir?” he shrugged. Gumnaam has been a rock solid hit and a total entertainer right from the day it has been released. I flipped a channel and “Chalti ka naam gaadi” was playing; a comedy riot and again one of the most well known movies in the Indian cinema scene. I again asked the waiter, “How about this film, who has made this one?” This time he was more confident and said “Kishore Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Anup Kumar. The three brothers together have made this film.” “They are the lead actors certainly, but are you positive they directed this film?” By this time he looked at me queerly, as if I was from some distant planet. I did not look like a quiz show host but was shooting questions about in a similar fashion. He then retorted that next you would ask me ‘Who painted the wall frescoes of Ajanta? Or who built the Kailasa Temple at Verul? And you would even tell me that the Taj Mahal was not made by Shah Jahan, Right?” And I laughed out loud and said “Exactly right.” “Kya saab subah se koi milaa nahi kya?” I tipped him, enjoyed the movie and finished my meal. My post dinner Chai was served out in the verandah where I sat in the wicker sofa chair looking into the night and lit up a cigarette.

The moot point

The question that had been hazily forming in my mind was clear. Music, Film making, Wall fresco painting, Architectural construction are all intensely collaborative art forms. However for them to cohesively come together and create something that is magical it demanded one mind to be at the helm. The one person with the overview and knowledge of getting it done exactly the way it should be, the person who conceptualizes it first in the mind before she/he gathers all of the pieces and starts the physical process of creation. In all of the above instances that I had coincidently touched upon, in the talks with my driver and the room service staff, every one of them was familiar with the work. Not one of them knew the maker. The work shone bright, luminous and had achieved popularity to become immortal, but the actual creators had receded into the oblivion or remained in the background.

Who does one credit, the Patron or the Artist?

Art and Entertainment are curious forms of creation. There are also certain forms like Architecture and Building science which reach the level of the artistic. Some better, bigger or more prolific than the others, lasting centuries. But all of them take shape only in civilized societies. It is only a fully evolved society or civilization that produces and propagates fine art. Often though the work of art has been attributed to the patron. Case in point are Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal at Agra and Rajaraja Chola I and the Brihadeeswara Temple at Tanjore; The largest complete granite temple anywhere in the world. This was built in the 11th Century AD, nearly 600 years prior to the Taj Mahal. But neither of these kings actually drew a plan, mounted a stone or carved a design. Ustad Ahmad Lahuri, Makramat Khan and Abdul Karim Maumar Khan who were the conceivers of the Taj in the form that we see today are forgotten except by the chroniclers. Similar is the state of the Vishwakarma builders who made the Brihadeeswara temple possible. Time and history adds layers and layers of dust and the lore gathers force while the creator fades behind the curtain of time.

No one knows who actually built the Kailasa Temple. All we know is that it was built during the time of the Rashtrakutas in the 8th century AD 300 years before the Brihadeeswara Temple. This temple is unique because it is actually hewn out of a single basalt rock and has taken 120 years to build. That is nearly 10 generations of craftsmen would have worked on this one monument. Without going too deep into the historical significance, it is the creative scope that is awe inspiring. How can an idea of an architectural design survive for 120 years and whose was the mind that conceived it in the first place? But that’s a discussion for some other day. It is yet another immortal work whose actual creator is not known.

It is the patron who creates the environment that is amiable to the process of creation. The patron may fund it or commission it too and should they not do this the artist may not have a platform or an environment to achieve his creation; in the above cases such sublime ones too that have lasted centuries.The Patron and the Artist , two individuals who needed to collide in a window of time, for artistic magnificence to happen.

The Creators

What began with the music of Chameli and its music director Sandesh Shandilya who created this fresh sound, moved on to Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi the movie. Do take note that this the movie is nearly 60 years old and an absolute cult comedy yet equally fresh and fun when viewed even today. But ask the same people who is the director and erroneously one of the Ganguly brothers or all three who acted in it would be given credit. Nobody remembers the prolific film maker Satyen Bose who was its director. Satyen who? Now this phenomenal talent has made upwards of 34 films in as many years in Cinema. Some of his works like Dosti, Jagriti, Raat aur Din , Jeevan Mrityu were smash hits, but none like the one movie he made in 1958 “Chalti Ka Naam Gadi.” Same is the Case of "Gumnaam", one of the tautest thrillers ever made in Hindi Cinema. This movie is a perfect blend of being a complete entertainer yet a classy thriller for its amazing screenplay , story idea, the casting, the performances and the music. This movie is right on top of most watched movies ever in the video circuit but even today very few would be able to name Raja Navathe - the director. Nawathe was the assistant director to Raj Kapoor in making the RK Classics Aag, Awara and Barsaat. The seven films which he later directed were all popular films and commercial successes. Let me put them in perspective and you will know what I am talking about. Aah starring Raj Kapoor & Nargis, Basant Bahar & Sohni Mahiwal with Nimmi and Bharat Bhushan, Gumnaam and Patthar ke Sanam both starring Mehmood and Manoj Kumar, Bhai Bhai with Sunil Dutt and Manchali with Sanjeev Kumar. The work is famous its creator isn’t.

Schools of thought

In ancient eastern civilizations of India,China & Japan art and architecture flourished. Who doesn’t know about the ceramic pottery of the Han, Tan and the Ming dynasties? The metal working skills of the ancient Japanese are particularly well regarded in fashioning swords and blades; The Katana’s and the Samurai swords or the polished metal mirrors. The Buddhist and Hindu art forms have their roots in the Guru-Shishya tradition. The school of the master would be known and its style would have a demand. The maker was not important as long as he/she maintained the very high standards of the school. This was the ethos from which an Artiste from the east operated. Pride in the work but not in self. Those who practiced it achieved immortality through their work.The work spoke for itself and artistes were richly rewarded if their art found patronage or languished on the path to penury without it.

The western society which has its roots in the Greco Roman civilization took pride in the self. Not that the artists were any less talented but very few of them as persons remained hidden behind their work. A classical example is the Sistine chapel that had the greatest of the renaissance painters like Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and Bernini coming together. The patron Pope Julius II is comparatively much lesser known for the chapel than these masters. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile even now leads to speculation not so much about the muse as much as the multi talented painter who created it. The enigmatic sculpture “The Thinker” is not complete till we say “Rodin’s Thinker”. The name stamp of the artist is equally strong as his work is magnificent.

And then there is Fame for Fames sake

In the material world of today modesty has ceased to remain a virtue. It doesn’t ring the cash register. The speed at which the world moves today has everyone scrambling for their “fifteen minutes of spotlight” as Andy Warhol had very aptly said. This hurry, impatience and wantonness tends to sometimes divert the attention from the actual product delivery and its quality in the art that they practice. The work by these people may even achieve quick popularity but also is forgotten just as quickly.This is exemplified in a Marathi language music reality show that is extremely popular and aired on TV called Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. Season across Season the bulk of songs that have been sung by the contestants have all been from an era that is even early for their parents. How does this happen? These works are timeless because they were perfected. One hears of music directors of yore taking months to record a song. RD Burman gave 36 versions of the music to Nasir Husain before the director was satisfied for Teesri Manzil. With technology time has certainly been crunched but imagine the quality of the work if the same team records 40 songs in one day. Kumar Sanu is credited with this dubious record, am positive he himself would not be able to recall all the 40 songs that he sung on that fateful day. If he himself cant then how will I?

Then there are the cases of those individuals who are simply famous for being famous. No one really knows or worse cares what these people actually do. Leading this pack today is Rakhi Sawant, the current flavor of the season (ala Paris Hilton minus her billions and good looks).Open a page 3 of any newspaper and we see some faces there time and again, the usual suspects. Now reflect on the actual activities or work done by them, those that stare at us from these pages and go figure their reason for being famous.

Some stray thoughts as I sat out looking into the Aurangabad night. Rakhi Sawant or Sandesh Shandilya, Paris Hilton or Satyen Bose & Raja Nawathe…the two antipodes on the compass of the bitch goddess of fame.

02 October, 2009


It was the phone call that started it all. He was on his way to Harvard on a company sponsored Executive Management Program; a condensed rigorous schedule chalked out only for the very best senior executives of an organization being groomed for the top position. As he deplaned at JFK International airport, New York, the cell phone buzzed. It was Murali Kanetkar his personal assistant. The words still echoed in his ear even today “The Board has selected TSR “.

He had seen it coming for a while now but never imagined that it would be announced in his absence. It seemed as if they wanted him out of the country for an extended period when they did this. He went through the entire Business Management Program in a numb state of mind. It was a KO punch that would have downed any normal person in his position but he was made of sterner stuff. Yet it hurt and badly at that. For twenty five years he had given himself to the company growing its business, creating & grooming great teams and it had eluded him now; the top job. Playing the system had been sheer guts ball; his rise was meteoric in parts, steady in the others with a few setbacks too, quite normal to an executive’s career graph. Hit hard, he had decided then to roll with the punch and go with the flow. But things had only gone from bad to worse after that call. Individually he seemed secure but his position and the power with it had lost its sheen. It had coincided with the market downturn and opportunities outside petered out too. He had never once considered that as an option till then. But now with the situation coming to a head, completely against his grain, he had consciously broached out. It was eerie the manner in which every single moment of the last two years flashed across his mind in clear & distinct frames like an old choppy black and white film.

The light had turned red as his chauffeur halted the car. Aditya Buch, Sr. Executive Vice President of Energy Corp Limited just put his head back on the seat rest and stared out of the window, eyes unfocussed. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly what had triggered this memory.Today he had decided to wind up early at work and at 2.00pm started for home. The downturn affecting the company’s business and his vertical in particular was neither the first nor the severest one in his career & he was sure that ‘this too would pass’.

ECL was his first & only job from the time he was handpicked picked off the campus of IIT Bombay. He had opted to be in the sales function. Through sheer determination and hard work he had quickly scaled up the ranks. ECL was an off shoot of Cyrmed which had been a closely held company founded by a Parsee gentleman Kaizad Cyrusi. Cyrmed dealt with fabricated furniture used in medical facilities. The son in law of the founder- Farhan Engineer was instrumental in steering Cyrmed towards technology. Subsequently ECL was carved out as a separate company. ECL concentrated on being an equipment and solution provider to other Industries in the field of Energy. Ironically Engineer the first chairman was not an engineer by qualification at all but an economics graduate. But what he lacked for in technical knowledge he made it up with his quick-silver open minded approach, clear vision, superb business acumen and a unique ability to attract the best talent in the industry. He assembled together the finest young brains in technology and made them a part of his vision. It was an exciting place to work with precisely because of this very talent pool. Aditya had joined the company when its strength was some 350 people and a turnover of Rs.100 million.His only goal had been the top position for which he had chalked out a path and systematically gone about it; executing and achieving those periodic milestones in the climb upwards. The company too had grown in the interim period. ECL in the present day was a multi-divisional company with people strength of 2900 & a turnover of Rs. 19 billion. The vertical under Aditya alone had a top line of Rs.12 billion and 1500 people.

Where had the years gone by ? Why did he feel a faint sense of unease and distress today?

He sighed deeply and as his thoughts lost the intense concentration the world outside the car window swam back into focus. He found himself in the suburb of Bhuleshwar. He wondered why the chauffeur, Joseph, had chosen this path today. It didn’t bother him much though as Joseph knew they were going home. Home was Bandra, further north from Colaba where the office was located. It was not his style to interfere once he had spelt out his expectation. His team loved him precisely for this trait, never once would he vacillate over a decision and once conveyed would give the team total freedom of execution. Nearer the timeline would come a brief review check and unless asked for he would hold his opinion. His feedback was always fair, firm and encouraging even if things may not have been exactly in line with what he had earlier spelt. He allowed people to make their own mistakes and learn from them. He was a superlative man motivator & consistently got more delivered because of this ability; coupled with the fact that he took his people along with him as he rose had created a fair amount of bankable goodwill. Now if one has to achieve speedy progress then some toes are bound to be stepped upon, some games would be played. He had done them all. As he looked out he zoned in on the trigger of these thoughts.

In an open compound adjoining the spot where the car stood, were four children playing, three girls and a boy all between ten & twelve years of age. It was hopscotch. He smiled widely to himself and looked on. Hopscotch is a simple game yet absorbing in its execution. All one needs to play it are a piece of chalk and a small flat rock or tile. One draws the course of 9 squares in a cross formation, tosses the slate in one of the squares and hops into the squares. The square with the tile is avoided while the foot has to be clearly inside the square. When the foot falls on a line then the player is out and has to concede her/his turn to another player. The beginner is allowed to look below and jump but as one progresses in the skill she/he should not. There lay the skill and the precision of the hop. Each being a commitment to a path forward till the top of the course is reached. Then one hops around comes to the square holding the tile, bends while on one leg, picks it up and completes the return, hopping all the time.

He had played it as a boy in Junagadh district, Gujarat where he hailed from. They were Nagar Brahmins’ by caste and a very close knit family. He being the apple of his grandmother’s eye was encouraged the most. When he won at Hopscotch against his sisters, he would get a paisa coin from her as a reward. He was allowed to spend it on himself though he never did. Even later as his education and career took him away from Junagadh to Bombay, this practice never varied or stopped. She rewarded and celebrated each one of his successes. He too looked forward to visiting her year on year just to see the glow in her wrinkled cheeks and shiny eyes as she dipped her hand below the pillow and fished out her velvet pouch. The joy and anticipation had remained just the same between them. The paisa had grown to four annas over time and he treasured them as much as his promotions, increments or bonuses which would have boggled the mind of the lady had she known the values. He clutched each coin fiercely like a hard won medal and kept them in a walnut engraved box at home. They came from a person who encouraged him and believed in him much before anyone even knew of his existence let alone potential. She had passed away a decade back and the playing kids rekindled that memory. He missed her for her simple homilies, the sage advice and her innate native wisdom. She had been his first & original mentor. She had played a role in his understanding of people &motivation for performance.

All things being constant the more one plays a game the expertise goes up till there comes a time when one can even play blindfolded. He knew now that he had never actually stopped playing; only now which each step ahead the squares had progressively become smaller and one day it would be his foot on the line. It had fallen two years back. Outside the girls yelled with joy as the boy faulted the line. Disappointed the boy stepped back & awaited his turn to play again.

The Engineer family had encouraged Aditya’s progress in his early days and he had grown close to them. He was on a song then and his rise was spectacular. He rose to command the outpost in the Western region with a record performance at a very young age. His efforts going forward were now keenly watched by his rivals. They waited for him with an obstacle at every turn. Most he had nimbly jumped over, some he had anticipated and diffused but off late he had stumbled a few times. The next business he headed was a startup, a new thrust area for the group. Things had not worked out for the business, as well as he had envisaged, both in the receptiveness of the market or the team he had to settle for. Limited capital constrained him to look within the group for a team. Those he chose were senior experienced hands. Startups as a thumb rule though work best with young people. Youth is energy and this energy when channelized by one head on top works wonders. This precedent was overlooked by him. Startups also require a fair seeding time. While the business idea had merit and they did manage a few business orders they had faltered. He had begun operations in a comfort zone of his relationships; both with the choice of clients and his choice of the team. This became his undoing and he had vowed not to adopt the same kind of approach ever ahead. He wound up this division and then moved back to the group.

The CEO, Rajiv Deshpande was an old school, old economy veteran and an autocrat in his style of operations. He had replaced Aditya’s mentor who had to leave when the economy turned & the groups fortunes fluctuated. The bad weather CEO, RD tightened the reins, trimmed the costs, cut off fresh financing to all new ventures and denied extended timelines to new seeded ventures. One of the casualties had been Aditya’s new venture. But then as a loyal, skilled & market hardened resource, he was just too valuable to let go. He was weaned back and as compensation was given his old division to head. RD’s actions streamlined the company into fewer verticals and restored profitability. He had recalled another of his trusted people T S R Balakrishnan from a company in the Middle East back into ECL to head its parallel division that concentrated on Environment. TSR was impeded by no historical performance metric for his division and the growth he achieved was phenomenal. This starkly contrasted with the performance of Aditya’s old economy division that was hit by the downturn. RD favored TSR to head the company after him and made no secret of it to the board. The family members who favored Aditya were left mute when performance in the recent past was brought on to the table.

Every successive day became a struggle. His peers & board who had supported his candidature receded into their shells. Most straddled a fence and preferred to keep mum.

Outside the traffic had not yielded even one bit, the light was still red and Joseph was drumming his fingers on the steering. In the rearview he could see his boss calmly watching the kids play their game. Joseph was a Tamilian and he too knew the game if only by its Tamil name - Paandi. The world around them was still, only the kids seemed to be perpetually in motion.

As the girls played Aditya could see that two of them deliberately cheated, and the boy, despite noticing this was quiet about it. He felt a queer empathy with the boy. The girls had denied him his rightful turn for a couple of rounds yet the boys expression didn’t change.

The thoughts flew back to the manner in which TSR after having taken charge had systematically scuttled his responsibilities and eroded the power centers. Aditya was still perceived as a threat to his chair. The attacks were oblique and never direct and it was a confrontation waiting to happen. Aditya had read Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and was a follower. Without a fall back option he was not going to engage TSR. For this very reason he had activated his contacts outside. For over a couple of months now there had been an active discussion with a multinational giant. They were on the lookout for a person of his talents. They too had expressed interest and four rounds of informal meetings had happened. He had liked the people there, the role he was considered for and was awaiting their response. His team’s morale at ECL was at an all-time low, vitiated by the tension between him and TSR. Aditya’s still stance now worried his loyalists too. His patience had given way long back and with a startling clarity knew what TSR didn’t, that he “wanted it” no more. He would neither engage TSR in his futile attempts at one–upmanship nor retaliate in the same strain. His integrity would not be sacrificed at this stage of his career when their engagement would wreck the very business he had helped build over the past years.

The two girls finished their turn, the third one unfortunately stumbled and it was the boy’s turn to play again. Aditya could see the boy’s set jaw and the glint of steel his eye and knew this was it. The small kid’s determination brought about a surge of energy in Aditya too and he watched with fascination. With renewed vigor and grit the boy played. His movements were smooth and coordinated & he had wiped out the slate of his past error clean by opening up a new chapter in the play. The cars honking around them did not bother him. The girls were reduced to mere onlookers as the boy played with a calm competency. He actually felt sorry for the one who had stumbled. The cheats were only getting their just dues.

His cell buzzed. He was shaken up from his reverie. It was a similar ring that had him stare at a hellish two years, but the boys energy had suffused him with an optimism. “Hello, Aditya?” a faintly accented voice in English said, “Sven here, you are it, Congratulations, we shall talk later.” The blaring horns and vehicular sounds indicated the light had turned green. The choke in the road miraculously cleared. Aditya Buch, the new CEO of Bearings Inc felt the hum of the powerful engine as his car gathered traction. As it moved ahead he looked out & back, the boy was jumping in the air screaming "I won".

29 August, 2009

The Fine Art of the Non-Speak

I dropped Joanne at the Salon. She turned & very sweetly asked ‘Raghu, I hope you are not thinking of leaving me to get back all by myself, are you? The voice was dulcet but the eyes flashed a fire & "Yes" as an answer did not look like a wise option though the thought had crossed my mind. Guts-ball with a woman is not my idea of heroism. I merely shook my head and said "Never". This simple act fetched me a hug and a warm kiss, leading enough to promise more at an hour distant. My bachelor pad was where it could culminate. Hope too is a four letter word. The positive fact being that it was a "Ladies Only" salon and hence I was not expected to wait up inside. Whew, thank god for small mercies. Now to while away the time I started looking around. On the opposite side of the kerb we stood on was a street side bookstore and café and I made my way towards it. Browsing and Coffee sounded the perfect remedy for a long wait. I picked up a few magazines, ordered an espresso and settled in the bucket chair. My mind slowly drifted to the first time when I had gone shopping with Jo.

Let me bring you guys up to date. Joanne is my girlfriend of six months now and our lives are totally amorously entangled. It is a knotty situation but getting tied up and being unraveled is such a pleasure. Now this sojourn had begun on an academic platform at a conference in Goa. One thing led to another and what the grey cells started, the heart carried on and the hormones furthered the cause. It was Bio-Chemistry in its purest form and my faith in science strengthened. Now, we are together. But please let no one fool you that being the squire of a stunning and smart lady is a cakewalk. One periodically avails of rewarding moments that stretch long into the hours of the flying owls, however the days can be something else altogether. Here one has to develop common interests and learn to enjoy similar activities together like the most violent and avid of all feminine sports “SHOPPING”. Woe betides the man who displays impatience or too much mojo driven decisiveness. That may work splendidly in a boardroom but for a showroom these traits most certainly are a liability. One needs different skills here where one must communicate without actually committing; this is what I call "The Fine Art of the Non-Speak".

I recalled the instance of my first round as an inexperienced partner accompanying the lady on a Sari purchase expedition. This was for a formal occasion that she had to attend. Patience was then never my strongest point and when we entered the showroom it left me completely dazzled. The range and the depth of materials and types had me running scared. For someone whose apparel shopping was limited to Formal (solids, stripes, 42) or Informal (T-shirts with or without collar), Trousers (32’) or Denims (I only wear the conventional Levis blue) the whole exercise never lasts more than ten minutes. Eight of whom is taken up by the travel time between the rack and the billing counter. I doubled this factor and naively applied it with generous consideration to the lady sari shopper as I went along with Joanne.

Now let me describe Joanne to you. She is of the Christian faith ("And what do they know of Sari’s?" you could say. But she is also a Tamil and you can also say "what do they not know of Saris?"). She worked in the front office of a Luxury Hotel. Extremely presentable, this profession also made her a trained professional in the art of the drape; both as a buyer and as one who is adorning it. The first time my eyes fell on her packaged thus, I thought it was Christmas & Santa had come in early that year; So yummy did she look. I had felt like opening up my gift right then and there under the tree. What tree? Can’t you follow symbolisms? Ok that tall potted plant creating a muddy stain on the marble flooring in the reception corner, if you have to insist. Now what did you infer from the above rambling? One that Jo knew her sari, how to wear it well and look delicious in it. But the experienced readers would have read between the lines. They would have seen that this made the whole experience more complicated. In hunting analogy this made Jo a hungry predator; the kind who patiently sorts out the small game from the big game. Casing the prey and lying in wait endlessly to swoop in only when all specifications of taste are met or when competition lurks on the horizon. And I knew none of this then as I innocently went with her.

The showroom operatives welcomed madam and completely overlooked me. Then they offered us wide sofa chairs to sit, no one at the trouser counter has ever done this to me ever. Then they asked Jo what would she prefer "Teee, Kaaapi or Koaldreenks?" Jo disdainfully asked for two cold drinks. Boy this was looking good and I had not even shopped here. Isn’t this wonderful, thought I to walk into a new Showroom every evening and drinking cold drinks, sample the conditioned air make a show of buying a Sari and walking out. Then I noticed the burly guards at the corner and banished the idea far away. A cold drink was too steep a risk to get the feel of those paddle hands. Men can be very naïve and I was clearly out of my depth.

I sat in the chair sipping on the cold drink in the cool atmosphere. As the salesman displaying white teeth constantly (why did he have to smile so much? I felt like giving him one punch such that just the front incisor is knocked out) asked her the preference of a fabric. Silk said Jo and he exclaimed with undisguised enthusiasm “Now Madam NOSE eggjactlee what she wants”. It certainly made me feel good that it would mean, my girl Jo, who knows what she wants will make her choice quicker. But was I on the mark? Clearer need never mean quicker as i would realize. Now which Silk madam? Calcutta, Pochampalli, Orissa, Paithani, Kanjeevaram, Art Silk, and he rattled off a dozen more types that had me blown. Jo vaguely said show me some first and let me decide. I looked at the watch and noticed 30 minutes had elapsed and we had not even begun.

He turned to an assistant and whispered something to him, he jumped up on the shelf and picked some ten odd saris and handed them over. Our man with an elaborate care and precision opened up one. Plain Pochampally, Jo vigorously shook her head at the opened sample. He opened another and again Jo shakes her head then a third and a fourth and a fifth, I like them all. But Jo is a tough customer and the salesman a veteran. The only amateur at the show is yours truly. "Show me something bright and good not such cheap useless stuff” and I was aghast at Jo. But the salesman was not offended and called his assistant and screamed "take this lot away and don’t you understand, Madam has a very good taste, bring on the better weaves." The boy repeated his exercise at another shelf and was back with another lot...this time a Kanjeevaram traditional weave…Single border...And a brilliant flash happened before my eyes as the rich fabric opened out. Jo looked at it for a long time, fingered it and said the weave is thin. Double weave madam look at some more and he showed another ..."Double weave, double border traditional design…blouse material is in the weave". Jo seemed to have liked it and I heaved a sigh.

One hour had passed and the sofa chair was not feeling so comfortable any more. My posterior had identified where exactly the spring in the sofa cushion had bent. Realizing that I was fidgeting for the first time in an hour Jo looked at me and asked, "What do you think?" I picked up two and said "These are wonderful and you would look dishy in either of them. Select fast and let’s go, do I give you a coin to make the choice?" My smile froze in its place when I saw her expression. It was so cold that I felt like I was swimming in the tundra region in just my knickers. "You want me to buy this…this?"…she hissed. The salesman seeing a fight swept them all away and screamed at his assistant, "Ennada Swami…At once get the new lot which has come in yesterday. Not unpacked? Go unpack it for madam. She is distinctly unhappy with what you are showing her." Jo turned to the Sari's & I smiled gratefully at him; his eyes behind a fierce expression looked kindly. He had saved me from a calamity. "Don’t worry madam, best quality saris are coming now, even Saar will like it. Till then try this "patto" and see yourself in the mirror there." Jo draped one and he smiled again. Now I didn’t resent his smile anymore and reversed my decision on his front incisor.

"Thambi, get one more drink for 'Saar' and another cold orange drink materialized before me. After three hours Jo had shortlisted seven saris. All this while I had been looking around and saw a few fellows like me faking interest in the sari selection activity. With two drinks under my belt in the cold ambience, I felt it coming. Desperately tried controlling it a bit but then when the back teeth started floating had no choice and whispered in Jo's ear,"Please ask the man to show me the way to the washroom”. She giggled as I was shown the way. While washing my hands, happened to look up in the mirror above the basin, two red rimmed eyes stared back at me. They mocked me openly "Aren’t you the same dope who has spent 3 hours shopping for a sari that has not been selected yet?" I nodded and meekly retired back to my sofa chair. I had planned on dozing off and taking a cat nap but Jo had other ideas. With each Sari shortlisted, she would drape it around her loosely, pose before the mirror , then turn back and enquire "What do u think?" Time had me wiser. I too would squint and look it up completely. Then slowly move the head from right to left and look at her studiously, saying nothing, poker faced. This was what she expected and I had to do it seven times before she shortlisted three and discarded the rest. "Raghu tell me honestly do I look better in the bottle green silk with the gold border, the grey blue with the maroon border or the black with gold?"

This time words were expected but I yet refrained. This proved to be a master stroke. She managed to discard the blue and we were down to two. Do I give her the coin again; an impish impulse almost spoilt it all. But she now decides to drape them both together and did a few more twirls and again cocked an eyebrow at me. This time I got up, stood behind her & looked in the mirror. She was anxiously looking back at me. Boy, I was getting good at this. Slowly I fingered the black around her shoulder and felt her skin through the sari & then did the same to the green. The green and flaming gold was a terrific combination and I liked it but perversely told her that the black can be worn by her on many occasions than just this one function. It had a universal appeal. "Raghu, she said with an exasperated exclamation, "will you feel really bad if I take the green?" Indifferently I turned around. The salesman was now out of the picture and I found myself squarely in it. "Tell me na, please" and I turned back and critically looked at her and asked her to wear only the green. She happily did it and as I nodded, she squealed and told the man, "pack this up fast and do check that there are no loose threads or holes."

I looked at the clock; it was precisely 3 hours and 52 minutes since we had entered. As we walked out after having paid up at the counter she seemed happy. But I was totally drained. The strain was too much. Taking my arm she said "Raghu initially I thought you were very frivolous & I was mad at you, but then because you were here, we could take a decision on that green and so very quickly at that, no? You must accompany me every time I go shopping for a sari. It will save so much time". All I could do was wink as this shifted her attention away from my Adams apple that bobbed furiously; the only visible indication that I had completely choked.

The second cup of coffee was almost finished when I felt a tap on my shoulder that brought me back into the present. There she was before me now, styled, shampooed & looking very lovely. When she lifted one eyebrow in an enquiry; the art of the non-speak now came very naturally. Elaborately lifting the butter cookie accompanying the espresso, with one significant pointed look at Jo, chomped on it with eyes shut and said “Delicious”.