24 April, 2009

Elbows, Coffee & More

The elbow in the ribs really hurt. I turned on the perpetrator with a face that was a mixture of pain and rage; only to find a simple looking spectacled petite woman of middling twenties in a sari. She was struggling with a couple of parcels with elbows out. She had stopped and said “I am sorry, please excuse me” her eyes full of concern. The anger dissipated just as quickly on account of her state and apology but the ache remained. “Oh it’s nothing”, the manners coming to the forefront, “Can I help you with that?” Looking at her shiny face, beaded with sweat, which had a bright red sticker bindi flush in the centre of a wide forehead. The relief on her face was palpable, “Would you really? If it’s not too much out of the way, my car is parked there.” said she nodding towards the end of the by lane.

I eased the larger one of the two, out of her right hand, and gasped, oh boy!!! it was heavy. “What do you have in here stones?" She laughed and her otherwise plain even featured face split into a charming sight. Up close she seemed older than his immediate estimate, more early thirties than twenties. "Will you want this other one, its lighter?" Grudgingly had to refuse and huffed along with her. "Its only rice, the local mall had a sale and it is a Basmati Rice 15kg pack with some sundry sugar and grain all totaling about 20 odd kg’s". “Women and the Sale sign…what is the connection between them?" I wondered and did not realize had muttered it aloud. She laughed hard, "You have to be born one to know the attraction, its fatal" said she. “You must have an army to feed at home to need this. To which she said "Why? no I live by myself. We Bengalis favour rice quite a lot; don’t you South Indians like it too?” 

I looked at her again; Though I had suspected, was not sure hence searched for the specific Bengali signs on her. The slightly spread out face was there, The frame though petite had enhanced curves cleverly hidden in a cotton sari the kind Bengali women prefer (Calcutta cotton as they are called at least they had not gone renaming even their sari’s as Kolkata..thank god for that), the mouth was bow shaped and generous with the lower lip a bit fuller, I saw them now, else the signs were not overt. Her speech certainly did not carry a typical Bong accent. “Oh we coastal Maharashtrian’s love it too”, said I “at least the rest of the family back home in Pune do, but I like my roti’s and chapatti’s better”. “I never would have guessed you for a Marathi boy” she frankly said, “figured you out to be a South Indian. Guess I was wrong”.

Smilingly I said a lot others think so too. Am dark of complexion with wavy hair, sported a thick moustache & having lived amongst Tamilians all my life my speech was afflicted with a lot of Tamil residual words in the spoken language. “What da?”Would be the natural expression of choice;let alone the spicier swear words where instinctively instead of “Abbey Saaley or something even stronger” would scream “Mairaa *****”. We had reached her car and she kept the parcel on the bonnet and fished out her key and opened the door. I dropped the parcel inside.

She turned around and holding out her hand said “Thank you, very much, I am Devika Mukhopadhyay”. "Varun Kirloskar"said I taking her hand, “Painfully glad to have met you”, said I rubbing my ribs meaningfully. “Stop it you scamp, you already are making me feel bad about it without having to lay it on so thick. The way you exaggerate you should be in advertising”. I burst out laughing, “You are super, this one is bang on, and I am a content writer on the web in the agency I work with and you?” “I am a banker” and she named the French Bank where she was the Deputy GM.  If you are not getting late to wherever can I repay you by offering you a cup of Coffee? Hmmm…A Coffee would be nice, sure. She locked up the car and we started towards the cafe nearby. 

It was the festive season approaching and there was a sizable crowd around the market. I was walking behind her when she was jostled. This time being prepared I held up my arms and caught her by the shoulders as she bumped back into me, Her shoulder was square and the muscle beneath my palm was toned and warm, not so the mildly sweat soaked blouse which was cool. Something soft brushed against my front and felt the heat all the way to my ears. It was her well rounded posterior. Dropped my hand like a scalded cat before she realized the effect she had on me, I commented to hide my confusion “Whoa!!! A strong experienced shopper like you who can carry tons of grain and smartly elbow people out of the way is not allowed to stumble you know. She giggled “Varun, are you always like this, teasing anyone? & then again why should I now worry about the crowd when I have such a smart companion to take care of my occasional stumble” she said with a toss of her head.

I looked at her “Was she flirting with me?” Nahh, I was imagining things and let it slide as we came to the Coffee shop and slipped inside into the air conditioned section as the open air one was packed. We did make a curious pair, unmatched as we were in age, attire & even approach but we had an easy conversation flowing between us now as we continued fishing about each other. College kids were sitting about us sprinkled with a few mature faces. She was direct in her communication and straight away asked me how old are you Varun, 26 said I and the “foot in the mouth disease” that afflicts me didn’t even bother thinking “and you?” She just raised an eyebrow as I sheepishly realized my gaffe and waved my hand ‘delete the question” “39 running I shall be 40 next month” said she. “Wow” you certainly don’t look it, she smiled, and how old did you think I was? “I leaned forward and conspiratorially started as she too leaned forward across the small round plastic table; her starched sari had slipped giving the glimpse of a full cleavage. My pulse was racing, I thought you would be just about 53 years, 7 months and 21 days as i held back my smile. Her eyes flashed with temper when she realized that she had fallen for it. But it was gone in a second and pinching my nose hard she said ‘Idiot’. The waiter came across and we ordered a Huge Hot Java for her and a tall glass of Long Island Iced Tea for me.

It was a Friday evening and around seven or thereabouts. The café was filling up and the kids were raising a hullabaloo as only college kids can in large groups. Smilingly we looked at them, “oh for those carefree college days” said she and I nodded. You mustn’t be too far out of one though, said she. Had finished by BA Eng Litt major and had stopped as becoming a lecturer was not what I aimed for, I told her. The internet was where the action was, the demand for writers was there and with nothing better on hand, I tried my luck and became good at it. It has been a good 5 years now and am considered a veteran in my field. So what next then, Marriage? she probed. No re, not a chance, I like my independence too much right now to tamper with it. An apartment had been top on my agenda, which had just been acquired through a bank loan. A vehicle was the next milestone. Good, thats sensible, said she and i saw the banker in her nodding.

And why are you single yet? Before she could answer our order came to the table and she quietly looked at me and then she suddenly smiled. I aimed to be a career woman, got all my education in place and worked hard and never stopped running. Parents kept asking but the next promotion or project was always around the corner and before I realized it am a single old maid. Who would marry me now? “Bullshit” said I, what age-fage you talking…You are an attractive smart achiever and had I been in the market would have snapped you up like this , actioning the words with the fingers, provided of course you would have me. The women do have the right to veto, I said with a wink. She spluttered with laughter in her coffee cup. Then dabbing her lips with a tissue wiping off the coffee moustache she gave me a mock once over. Hmmm lets see, you may just make the mark and laughingly we settled back in our chairs looking at each other. Sparks were flying between us definitely as I felt the atmosphere carrying the peculiar zing when mating animals circle each other sniffing the air. I smiled to myself at the thought of me sniffing around her backside like a canine and she started speaking.

"Actually you know, men are scared of women achievers and on top of it when they don’t want the traditional things even their immediate family networks look at them suspiciously rather than support". I agreed with her and told her it is foolish but true. "I have a lady boss and an extremely capable one at that and she is my editor. At work we have no problems but some of my peers don’t like reporting to her simply on account of her gender and that in my opinion is abject silly. They are missing out on her experience and the learning she brings to the table. I am a better professional today on account of her", said I. "She is a professional for crissakes, when she doesn’t bring her home to office why should someone else?" This came out rather passionately because somewhere always lived by this credo. She said that’s good but unusual, the more normal scenario is seen in the matrimonial advertisements. Observe those and you shall get the drift, she should be qualified, smart, working but not earning more than the man and be returning home in time to make dinner. Subjugate her life and identity to the man and his family, become a child producing factory such that she is kept busy with his lineage. Is that all there is?

And I nodded as she had given voice to the same misgivings I had on typical expectations. "With very few men I would even be able to share this and even they would not agree. Possibly that’s why I am single yet", she said with a rueful smile. I quipped "maybe you were just waiting for me to be born. Till then you had to be by yourself and your parcels in this market elbowing people to check which of them was me all these years..huh?  "Wah wah" said she and we kept the conversation going with laughter and I was wishing the evening to stretch endlessly.

"Devika you are a find for me" spontaneously had taken up her right hand in mine lifted it and tapping her elbow, "whoever thought that this would put me in touch with a rare friend". She actually blushed but kept her hand in mine and asked "What are you doing later now, any engagement for dinner or do you have to go home to family?" "Hey its an empty apartment that awaits and nope if you are cooking, I am pretty handy in the kitchen". "Come on then" she said calling for the bill "And don’t go all macho on me now and offer to pay, it was my invite".

We got up and started walking back and when the crowded streets pushed us onto each other my hand had crept companionably around her shoulder. As we reached the car her elbow was digging into my ribs yet again, this time though the sensation was quite different.

17 April, 2009

Highway Nuggets - Bites & Bytes

It was a typical roadside eatery where the bus had halted. The signs hinted at a glory that had faded long into the past. The new expressway had spelt the death knell on these food joints where buses halted in droves and travelers would flock in numbers. The owners would have an arrangement with the bus drivers to halt there; they palmed off a halting fee to the driver while milking his passengers. Yet some of these halts were memorable as the food was invariably top class. With the expressway in place the car owners had shifted their preference to non-stop travel and slowly the buses followed suit. With little custom the eating joints went to seed. They now had to rely on the stray goods transport traffic that would halt. They did use the old highway saving a few bucks of the toll of the expressway. Nobody cribbed of delays in India as long as the goods reached safely. Those who saw it coming had shifted to the highway while the others closed shop. This one was heroically surviving, but barely.

It had been a long non-stop journey; close to 6 hours now. I had missed the luxury buses that traversed the expressway and had to settle for this rattletrap to reach my destination, the driver had come from the old highway. The passengers who had dozed off fuzzily got down and went in search of their gender specific desalinating booths. The driver in a shout announced the halt for half an hour. The sign said “meals ready” and there were straw strung cots laid across about 20 of them and on order the owner would either layout a woodenplank across your lap or a folding wooden table for those who could not sit cross legged on the charpoys. “Ki haal hai pappaji?” was the greeting which the driver threw at the owner a tall well built Sardar of advanced age. Ikjyot Singh, the owner smiled through his long bushy beard. A small dagger hung from a leather belt slung across his shoulder and a turban carelessly wrapped around his knotted hair “ Wahe Guru di kripa hai, sub changaa hai” ( God is kind and he has kept us well).  

Kya khilaoge aaj? (What shall u have us eat today?) The boys were kept busy on three open furnaces and the smell of Indian breads ( roti’s) came across,mingling with those of roasting meat on wood coals. Non-Vegetarian me aaj Baidaa (Egg) Curry , Tandoori Murga ( Roasted Chicken) aur Murg (Chicken) Masala hai aur Veg me Dal (Gram) hai, Palak (Spinach), Baingan Bhartha (Mashed Roasted Aubergine) aur Paneer (cottage cheese) hai. It was a sultry night and he asked us whether we would like Butter milk and without waiting for an answer yelled “Beta Chaach lao sub ke liye” and a Boy came stumbling with a tray that had huge tumblers filled with cool frothy butter milk spiced up with cumin powder and rock salt. Wow…taking the huge glass, boy was it heavy, made of shiny brass and beaten steel and holding up to half  a liter of the drink, it was truly refreshing. Ordered for a roast chicken leg, baingan bhartha and roti to be followed by a dal rice. I sat sipping my buttermilk gazing into the surrounding.

The buzz around the eatery increased and the man truly loved to serve, was evident in the manner he moved around speaking to everyone. Eat well he said and don’t hurry about it. I relaxed into the string cot placed the almost empty glass on the floor and stretched out with my arms crossed behind my head gazing upwards into the star filled sky. Ikjyotsingh came and smiled at me and sat on the edge of the charpoy. I got up and sat beside him and told him that this place was quaint and lovely. He gazed around and said, when I came here about forty years back from Pathankot even this old highway was not made. I am a mechanic he said and then used to repair cars and two wheelers and trucks. This place began as a garage he told. Then the truck drivers started stopping and the wife Kuljeet would serve them meals from our kitchen. The garage made enough money and we would not charge for meals. A roti shared (breaking bread)with your fellowman is his work, looking upwards. But the people started leaving money and Kuljit said why refuse, hotel hi shuru kartey hai. Eventually the Dhaaba became more popular than the garage and it has stayed so. Kuljit da Dhaaba is the name.

Wholesome food is our watchword and I started assisting Kuljit in her venture. Made the three furnaces you see by hand, he said pointing to his pride and joy. The Chicken comes from our own coop and the vegetables are grown on our own plot of farm behind the house. The grain and pulses and flour we get from the village. we mill it here though  again with pride showing off a traditional flour mill. I asked him pappaji why didn’t you go near the expressway and set up a place? He slowly shook his head and told me that this will not work near the Expressway. There, people are in too much of a hurry. Good food to be served and eaten fresh and natural is like a cow giving birth to a healthy calf. It needs that time to make and it needs time for it to be enjoyed. “Har nivaala jub aap sukoon se khaatey ho, poora majey leke, tub aap khudaa se baat kartey ho. Uski mulaakaat me to waqt lagna hi hai aur wohi to nahi hai aaj logon ke paas.”( Each morsel needs to be enjoyed and when eaten peacefully, with pleasure then it’s akin to attaining divinity, and that my son takes time, which is precisely what people today don’t have to spare) 

Simple though his words were they, left an impression on me perhaps because they made so much sense. It was so peaceful here that I wondered why people use the highways and expressways at all. In the mad rush of targets and goals the highways and expressways have just become symbolic conduits of life & modern day living itself where people don’t have to or can't stop. Nowhere is one seen taking a pause and savoring the moment. Ikjyotisingh’s boy had started the radio and the middle lines of a zippy song was playing from the film Munnabhai MBBS

seekh le

har pal main jeena yaar

soch le

jeevan ke pal hain char

yaad rakh

marna hai ek baar

marne se pahle jeena

seekh le” 

Listening to these words after the old man’s it was a double impact of providence. I sat smiling to myself as the waiter brought my order and I started digging in, chewing every morsel enjoying them with all my senses, leisurely.

14 April, 2009

The Great Indian Comedy Circus – Elections

It is upon us again, the jamboree that is the Great Indian Election.

India became independent in 1947 and a republic in 1950 post the British rule. When they left they planted a seed of communal disharmony which has flourished and become a full fledged tangle of poison ivy, rampantly growing strong. Their divide and rule policy has been honed to a fine art by the Neta’s (Leaders) of India. The stratagem of the British is classic in its universal applicability and its stretch over time. What worked then for “the RAJ” can and does today also work for “a RAJ”.

Every single party today has a manifesto which either talks of secularism or communal divisiveness in either instances mention of religion is a must. Case in point the three major ones; The BJP ( Bharatiya Janata Party & its allies who constitute the assorted Sena’s, Parishad’s and Dal’s ), The Congress (NCP and assorted parties with India and Nationalist in their names who call themselves Secular- read supporting the minorities) & The Communists (The rest of the world has forsaken this “ism” but we in West Bengal and Kerala keep it alive and kicking; all their factions may they be the Marxists, the Leninists or even the Maoist). Now these are just three major factions and within them they have multiple sub factions and each of their sub factions have sub- sub factions…Need we say more? The polarization is complete.

The sheer number of candidates in each constituency also makes the process of choice quite ridiculous. There is little to distinguish between any of the candidates save the name of the party and their election symbols. Over the last two elections a slight transparency has set in with the election comission wanting each candidate to declare her/his combined family assets. This act of the commission brought out some amazingly funny facts.Case in point, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi -The grand daughter-in-law of the first Prime minister of the country, the doyen of the party in power for ages does not even own a car & is just worth a paltry Rs.20-30 million. She in comparison to the rest of the lot is actually dirt poor. That’s what her declaration states. My heart almost did bleed for her with the hand moving towards the wallet to alleviate her from her poverty. When she screams in Italiano Hindi "Gareebi Hataaaaoo" we know whose now.

An almost quiet election.

Factually speaking this has also been one of the quietest elections in recent times. There are almost no rallies nor do you see candidates asking for votes. As a voter or the public, this is the absolute limit; I like to be wooed and liked to be made to feel special. Now, was talking to the political "expert" of my locality, Madhu Pandey and he told me that the candidates of this constituency may not even come here. Am I expected to vote for some person I may not even get to see? If they don’t come even during the election campaigning, where will they be when their term begins? Now if I don’t see a candidate how will I know about him? Madhubhai looked at me strangely, from which planet are you, Go online.

Go Online for more fun:

The Buzzword is online everywhere and that’s the place today I am expected to go to find out about my candidate. A slew of websites have sprung up with “Know your Candidate” kind of taglines. However progress oriented I am, if I still insist on wanting to see the person who would get my vote in the flesh once, is that too much? Madhubhai looked up at the blazing afternoon sun and remarked; "Do you actually expect the poor candidate with just a few paltry crores to his name to also woo you. Who do you think you are - Dhirubhai Ambani ?"

Well without further ado I go online. This information platform is certainly good, no taking away from its utility. Know your candidate is a link I select and when I click on the constituency, I am lost. Is this for real, has this site not been updated? Then I find that I have been de-limited and put into some other constituency in the redrawing. After a lot of struggle, I arrive at the correct place to be given a chart of the references of the candidates. 27 in all listed. First tab I select is for candidate elimination and click "criminal cases pending". 25 names pop upfrom the 27 candidates standing, those who have criminal cases pending on them. Whew, this makes my job easier I think, looking at the names & profiles of the candidates left. To my horror, first is a 87 year old Municipal school teacher - a Gandhian. One who can barely see or hear going by the shining hearing aid in his ear and his thick soda bottle glasses. Plus he is severely arthritic but in his public achievements is written he has had a sterling career in Municipal education and retired 29 years ago. The other is the local butcher by profession and thankfully all he has killed are animals. He is 4th standard pass and can barely sign his name. He promises uninterrupted power and water to his constituency. For crissakes, I am in Mumbai, the commercial hub of the country, not even in some boondocks rural hamlet and here is a candidate assuring me something that I take as a given. I have been taking too much for granted, is the message being sent out with this promise of his.

The Comedy of the Election Plank:

How can I blame the poor butcher whose symbol is also the meat cleaver to promise me something else? This whole election 2009 has no clear agenda to be tackled nationwide for any single party.

The BJP is fielding Mr. L.K.Advani – The Charioteer of Ayodhya as the head of their party for PM and he is in a quandary whether to support the vitriolic Varun Gandhi and his ranting or keep a tab on his marginal minority support. His rhetoric on Hindutva is sounding so very stale now. In times of recession his resorting to the development plank would be nothing short of committing political suicide. He like any other cheated old man is either rambling or yelling while frothing at the mouth.

Dr. Manmohan Singh is facing the biggest battle from his own allies. To whom then would he even go and talk about a national agenda, though he is the best qualified man for a financial crisis; Well, he goes overseas and captivates the G20.

The Left parties under Prakash Karat are still suffering from a severe hangover of the nuclear treatise signed despite their opposition and have gone ballistic in their ravings.

The real issues plaguing India are Recession, National Security, Infrastructure, Education & Healthcare,Climatic change, while even in the developed states we have farmers committing suicides and famine deaths. But is anyone mentioning these strongly? We even lack basic necessities like water and power in many places. So we are back to where we were in 1947 - on the "Bijli-Pani" agenda and attacking the opposition with slander. No wonder my butcher candidate is talking this line. He is more clued in than I am, by the looks of it.

The comedy has begun:

The leaders of respective parties in and around the capital of the country or their respective states are making the regular noises. Lalu is wanting to learn how to drive a road roller after trains now. Varun Gandhi on his part is also taking lessons from my candidate the Butcher to sever Muslim arms, and rather painfully at that. Mamta Bannerji for once has quit her Macro ranting and has gone into a Nano silence. Sharad Pawar has started the music for musical chairs even before the game has begun . The Karat’s of the world are meeting and shaking hands with the Patnaiks of Orissa. Chiranjeevi in his first electoral fray is ambitious enough to talk a fourth front with a disgruntled Amar Singh, who is not the darling in his party anymore, his plate of cream has been snatched away, and he can’t even run to the principal to complain. Mr. Mulayam Singh has just released a Talibanisque manifesto and the crème de le crème crowd of the Bacchans and the Rupee Billionaire candidate from south Mumbai Mr. Abu Azmi have egg on their faces. Jaya Bacchan is suddenly finding it more politically correct to sign films rather than being filmed in political rallies & explain her party manifesto in public. Sanjay Dutt decided to extend his Munnabhai comedy into a "stand up" act. He was adviced to legally "sit down". Do I laugh out loud? Here is a guy who is arrested under TADA for anti-national activities, served a prison term. He is so pure of heart that it is his fervent wish to do social service for his brethren, and that too in Lucknow, a place one doubts whether he had ever visited before this aborted candidature. But whatever role he may play in election 2009, you must go out and vote.

Dot Hai to Hot Hai : Please Vote

Everyone is expected to vote. You don’t have a voice or the right to protest if you don’t cast your vote. One can buy this logic but is that all there is to it?

How exactly should the voting happen? First people should turn up to vote and not go on summer vacations or extended weekend holidays. So we have an ad campaign called “Dot Hai to Hot Hai”. For a second when I heard it, I was under the impression it is a campaign for TB innoculation. Then I realize its intended thrust , that being for increasing voter attendance. This is by creating an aspiration amongst youth to be cool to show the blue ink dot on your finger, a visible sign that one has cast his vote. Wow, the ad guys are geniuses. Okay I listen to them and go to vote, Do I have my passport and visa to enter the booth, in other words my election card. How many people have one issued to them at all? Millions of voters who may not have one will have to have a valid government endorsed photo identity to carry to their booth to be allowed to cast their vote. This is only after their names feature in the voters list.We are not new to magical omissions. To be fair the websites online without exception are very informative on these guidelines.

Having gathered all the documentary support to being eligible to vote who do I go and vote for now?

Who am I ultimately voting for?

Selection when there are 20+ candidates in the fray is rarely a first choice situation. For thinking men it is more a process of "selection by elimination", and yet there shall be a mass that is seduced with money and promises which will result in one of the party representatives winning by a landslide. Look at the further comedy as to what can happen, should I just happen to vote for an independent candidate who goes on to win. I have voted for him because I did not want to vote for party A , party B, party C or party D. But the joke is on me.

Before I know it party B and D have joined hands and A is supporting C from the outside. The Independent I have voted for becomes a prize horse who has to be auctioned. He is the "object-d-art" and the "auctioneer" all rolled into one. He jumps in with the highest bid and joins the coalition of B & D.

Like a free market competitive economy that theoretically at its final stage evolves to the point of an absolute monopoly (the progress of the multiple to the singular) Indian Democracy too has evolved to a sublime level. Here the key is not "the/a" party anymore but the absolute independent candidate who has won his seat; the ultimate last common denominator in this plethora of confusion of hung elections; the traded horse and the horse trader.

The circus has certainly come to town. In the days to come we shall see various vaudeville acts on a mammoth scale. We are the worlds largest democracy after all.

11 April, 2009

Divine Lunch: Hotel Padma – Kolhapur

We were in Kolhapur – Maharashtra -India on a holiday. Our day had begun early as we had finished with the visit to the Mahalaxmi Temple (Ambabai) as she is more popularly known. The crowds in the temple necessitated a long wait for the darshan (sighting for blessings).

It is a very old temple about 700 AD and is attributed to the Chalukya Dynasty. She being ourfamily deity, at the break of dawn we were there all washed and clean. Love the Temple architecture, in Black stone and it's intricate carvings. The courtyard is huge and has a lot of other associate deities who have been added over from time to time in the precincts in separate shrines.

After being done with the puja it was time to visit the other shrine that is dedicated to the goddess of the stomach & fine palate, Padma. Hotel Padma is a five minute rickshaw drive from the Kolhapur temple. In our first visit we did not even know the directions to it. We were only told, get inside any autorickshaw and tell the driver “Hotel Padma” and unerringly you would be reached. It actually happened that way. Hotel Padma is the other pilgrimage site in Kolhapur but here the devotees take a different form. Those devoted to the pursuit of a qualitative satisfaction to hunger pangs.

This place is close to 80 years old and started out as a boarding house. Over the years the format has not changed; the manner in which meals are made and served is the same but now the boarding house has lodging facilities too. The menu has increased by leaps and bounds to include a-la-carte but no true connoisseur should have anything but the regular meals ( Thali ) here. It is available in 3 varieties Mutton ( Goat), Chicken and Vegetarian. No self respecting foodie should have anything but the mutton thaali.This is the signature item on the menu. It is something to die for. The fare is very basic and simple and costs about INR60- 75 per plate depending on the extras one orders.The line to get in is as long as at the temple but there are lots of tables and clearance is pretty fast. The dining hall is non-ac and huge fans whirr above you and the place was bright and airy in the afternoon. Kolhapur can get pretty hot in the summer afternoons but the double lined stone structure kept the interiors cool enough.

We did manage to get in and sat at the corner of a large steel table that would accommodate 12 covers. The others were too filled up immediately. We ordered one Mutton and one Veg Thali ( for the wife, she can be rather devout when she chooses to be ) . The buzz in that place is seen to be believed. At one glance around 200 odd people were stuffing themselves and the waiters were being kept busy. Within five minutes of sitting the glasses were arranged and the Thaali was on our table. We had also come here at peak meal times and it was a standard order to the kitchen.

The Veg Thaali had two vegetables one dal one paandhra rassa three chappaties and one portion of rice along with chopped onions and pickle. The simple mutton thaali that I ordered (They also have a special ) consisted of Mutton Masala cooked in traditional style, one bowl of white curry ( paandhra rassa), red curry ( taambda rassa), one bowl of kheema ( mince) and three chappaties which were piping hot and smeared with peanut oil. Freshly chopped onion rings was the garnish, rice would follow. Hailing the godess we dug in. The first portion of mutton that went in my mouth melted, so beautifully tender was it. The gravy is thick and medium spicy. The white curry made up of peanuts and poppy seeds and coconut is to offset the sharpness of the spice. Then I tried the mince. It was roughly grated mince, chunky, deliciously cooked and flavoured with garam masala. This is very unlike the kheema that one gets in the Muslim or Irani restaurants of Mumbai, Delhi , Lucknow or Hyderabad the only four cities that do justice to the mince in India. I added a fifth name to the city list today. How is it, the wife asked and I just nodded my approval with my mouth full, chomping and chewing incessantly. "Abso Brilliant" said I when finished chewing and promptly filled it up with another morsel. She didn’t seem mighty excited with the Veg thaali and was enviously peeping into my plate. Within ten minutes had finished my first thaali and ordered my second..This time a special. The wife stared at me aghast, while the waiter had a “this always happens here” look and promptly brought my repeat.The special had an egg curry additional with a sweet. It was a rice kheer. The total damage to our wallet INR 275 including tip

We polished off the great meal with two long glasses of buttermilk and slept like logs till seven in the evening at our hotel. It is my strong belief that proper respect and devotion to GREAT cuisine is best expressed after consumption, by being in a supine position, with blankets drawn , fan or ac on full blast . Snoring is optional.

Address :

Hotel Padma ,Sadar Bazaar Kolhapur, Kolhapur, MH 416003

10 April, 2009

Mumbai and the Logistics of Love

As he stretched his hand around Dottie and drew her closer and leant back against the broad trunk of the tree for a second he was in heaven. The spot was isolated in Borivali National Park and not invaded by the picnicking crowd yet. Not very far away they could hear kids yelling. This was not the best of background music for a romantic interlude to him, but it was ok. This moment though lasted just for a second as he felt something crawl up his arm followed by a sharp sting. The sting burned and with the increasing heat in the sting his ardor cooled completely. He jerked his arm back and looked to see an army of red ants crawling up the trunk of the tree. Dottie’s head was snapped forward as he sharply pulled back and began scratching. They sprang up and scratching away got out of there.Dottie was a sport and started laughing but he was irritated like hell. 

Just the last week as they had gone and sat on the rocks near Bandstand at Bandra. As he got around to holding her hand a freak wave had lashed against the rock they sat on wetting the fork of his denims completely. Dottie got away as she had just stood up. The ride back home with the salt water drying in his jeans and chaffing his legs on the inside threw romance into the sea. 

Then again two days prior to that it was the Girgaum chowpatty a sandy stretch, what could go wrong here when they were not even close to the sea? No sooner had he stretched himself on the sand he felt something soft yield under his palm and then the stink. Yikes, it was dog poo well hidden under the sand and he had stretched his hand in it. No amount of water from the sea or from the vendors stall could wash away the smell. He now did not believe in the romance of Mumbai city as there was not a single place they could sit comfortably or be by themselves. His belief in the theme of romantic Hindi films too was shaken to the core. Heroes romanced heroines around Gardens and Seashores, hadn’t he seen it in countless of them growing up? They sang songs too. Maybe it was okay for Raj Kapoor and Nargis in the fifties. Mumbai in the 21st century had become filthy. It was little wonder that Shahrukh needed to romance Kajol all over Europe or Akshay has to take Katrina first to London and then Egypt. Where could he take Dottie that wouldn’t blow a hole in his meager allowance as a student? No place at all in commercial Mumbai. 

Nothing seemed to work for Lancy and that began with his name. That pissed him off most of all. If only Dr. Eugene D’souza - The HOD English & Language studies, in Fr. Antonio College  at Vasai alias Dear Daddy, not been a fan of the legends of King Arthur. Who for crissakes names his son Lancelot and that too in 1989?  Hi, I am Lancelot and all those opposite would settle down into a paroxysm of giggles. He thought "I could at least have been called Arthur which could have been shortened to Art or Artie and that sounded cool" but no such luck. In the St. Mary and Jesus Church of Succor during the baptism, his loud wail of protest was not taken due cognizance of. It was just fortunate that swords were banned in Vasai & the Queen of England was not visiting there then. Else, he who had been carried in without a name may have emerged out with a full-fledged knighthood. Now you know how the-almost-Sir Lancelot became plain old Lancy. He had sworn to himself that when he became an earning member of the family, the first thing he would change was his name. Until then it remained a work in progress. 

Lancy was a bright kid; though he was determined never ever to have anything to do with the tales of Arthur. He knew every adventure in it by heart. Dr. Eugene had made that a given addition to his regular fix of cereal & milk. One tale everyday. When he enrolled in Ruia College in Dadar, he had met Dorothy Fonseca who stayed in the Pali village in Bandra. They became good friends and spent many an hour on the college campus or on the encampment around Matunga gymkhana called the “Katta” every day in a group. Both liked each other but whenever they made their plans to be alone disaster would strike on location. Unlike Lancelot and Guinevere the jungles around Mumbai had not proved either pristine or kind enough to their love. Was Jesus testing their faith in each other or was it a subtle pointer that the city was not for romantics anymore? How can location play a villain in love? Yet somehow it did.

Even the day they sat in the five gardens area near their college and had slid closer to each other; an elderly Parsee gentleman taking his daily constitutional, sneaked up on them and waving his walking stick said in a voice that needed no foghorn to amplify it further “ No Hanky Panky here Deekra, be decent” and then went away chuckling.  The gardens in Mumbai had almost become the sole preserve of senior citizens. The cops had begun to drive couples away from the beaches too. The only few hours they could snatch without being driven away were in packed cinema halls of multiplexes. This would set them back by at least Rs. 700-1000 for two and they didn’t have that kind of money all the time. He envied the rich kids who could have their bikes and cars and take off on long drives. 

Determined young love does find a way and so it did. Only for them the succour was in the age old transport system of Mumbai. Dottie and he would take a return ticket from Virar to Churchgate and travel endlessly till the hard wooden seats started hurting their posteriors or when the trains got too crowded to even sit in. On some days they would take a bus route, any double decker, and go from one suburb to another.The proximity and a cheap legitimate seat was enough. It was after looking around having stolen a quick kiss, hearing Dottie whisper “Isn’t this wonderful?" that his refrain about Mumbai and loves logistical impossibility faded away. Mumbai the metropolis that never slept had finally heard their clarion call & fixed them a place ; Next to each other while it remained on the move.

05 April, 2009

My Moonsong

It was a strange night; fulfilling , almost serene as I looked down the long and winding road. The project had been wrapped up and within me was the satisfaction of a job well done. The drive back to the hotel was long and was in no particular hurry to reach back either. It was still a few hours to dawn and I had my thermos flask filled with strong coffee from the client’s pantry in the car. It was a lovely drive and the night was breezy and cool. The road curved around a hillock overlooking a lake and here I saw the moon; a full moon and stopped the car on the dirt patch well away from the mainstay near the edge. There was a milestone that said 75 the painted name of the city completely worn off from years of rain and grime. Opened the car door and just sat there looking at the moon. It was that kind of a night. A mood rather soft and reflective settled around me, not a soul was in sight, no car was on the road and I was well away from the city dwellings here.

Leaving the door open, I sat on the bonnet. My back resting on the windshield, the flask by my side while the hand fumbled into all pockets for a smoke, found one and lit it. As the smoke tendrils curved and moved heavenwards through their wispy threads the moon looked at me. It was a communion, the kind no logic would possibly decipher. As I exhaled the blue smoke and took a sip of the coffee she talked to me and I listened. She (The Moon) had been the mute witness many a times when I held hands with the few who had walked into my life. Today she smiled that I had stopped only for her and not used her as a prop in the background. She reached out her silvery arms and held me companionably and kept talking. My heart swelled up and I thanked her for just being there; making the world a beautiful place to be. And then she asked, have you thanked those other hands too? The ones who at different walks of your life, were beautiful milestones like the one here. Mutely I shook my head as a lump came up the throat.

I had held a few hands but the heart had not missed a beat for all of them as much as for that one pair who had always held mine. I still remember the first time; a long time ago. I was too much on tenterhooks when I asked her out and she had accepted. Then in my nervousness had behaved like a stiff upper lipped gentleman from the Victorian era till she had very casually slipped in her hand into mine as we crossed the road. At that very moment would have been happy to be run over by the fast approaching truck had she not pulled me across. I need you for the whole evening, she had said fiercely and am not gonna lose you to a truck. I recalled all those times as we sat holding hands, just staring across the sea, not speaking till the moon rose.Our silences were companionable. Her paw was rough and dry and when I had raised my eyebrow in question she merrily laughed saying "Don’t you know dear ‘Rough paws mean warm hearts’. That was the one period when life fluttered & flew on gossamer wings. Our roads had parted and life went on but there was something special about that time when the world was lost to us and us to it. The only one who knew about us was the moon. Now,when asked me the question, I remembered our parting where she had insisted that I take care of myself. That I had done, but instinctively had known she was the one who possibly needed taking care of.

As if by magic, I heard the strings of a gently vibrant guitar and the curiously conversational voice of Mark Knopfler. It wafted across from the softly playing radio that was on in the car. With eyes closed I just listened and teleported those words to her with the moon

Baby... I see this world has made you sad
Some people can be bad
The things they do, the things they say
But baby I'll wipe away those bitter tears
I'll chase away those restless fears
That turn your blue skies into grey

Why worry, there should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now

Baby... when I get down I turn to you
And you make sense of what I do
I know it isn’t hard to say
But baby just when this world seems mean and cold
Our love comes shining red and gold
And all the rest is by the way

Why worry, there should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now

The strings at the end of the song kept strumming for a long time and had finished my coffee. My eyes blurred and as the moon cocked an eyebrow told her, it is just the smoke. Smiling benignly she said "Don't you think I know you better than that; will deliver the song to her". My vision cleared with happiness. Crushing the butt under my feet in the preparation to start back, I noticed it was getting lighter. My heart was full as I said my goodbye, the last fleeting ray of moonlight caressed my cheek. The feel was that of a warm and rough palm.

02 April, 2009

The Elections are Here

“What are your chances of going to South Africa?” I asked my new colleague Johnny Button. “But, Harry, said he to me are you referring to IPL, what shall I do for IPL when our work is in the Election Commission, jurisdiction?” “Arrey, as a support for the cricketers and the league members and owners who cannot vote now, what else”. “Not a chance now, said Johnny, the commission won’t go against the Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram. He has refused protection to the Indian Premier League Cricket tournament coinciding with the Lok Sabha Elections that were around the corner”. “Just imagine had the elections been transferred to South Africa, wouldn’t that have been great. Both of us could have toured a foreign country. The voter turnout too would not have deviated greatly from the average 50% that India has been clocking all these years since independence. Only had it been SA this time, the populace that could have come would have been the crème de la crème, the wine and cheese crowd of society, who think it is rather beneath them to vote in their own country”.

Johnny started laughing and in his curious accent said, Harry Pittie you are one piece of work.In this country anything was possible, even outsourcing elections and for once we could have been near the perfumed crowd. Normally to our lot was the one that smelt of sewers, slums and stale sweat and if lucky then some talcum powder. As government minions, no one could truly fault us for wishful thinking about South Africa, it is our national passtime to weave fantasies.

I pondered over the time when I had been born in Karnataka, Mangalore and was an agnostic. Though where I originally came from was christian dominated. I had been posted for service in Maharashtra from the day I was chosen & had seen numerous elections may they be for Lok Sabha, State assembly or even the Zilla Parishad. After 40 years of service in better locations I had been transferred for service in mofussil areas. The government had inducted the new batch amongst who was my friend Johnny. Sharing the same dim lit, not very spic and span yet very spacious rooms in the University’s department & being next to each other we had got talking and become friends. He asked me questions and like any senior colleague was eager to share experience that invariably began with “Those were the days”. The cities are always better to be deployed to as the security is better and even the schools where the elections are held are so much different. The worst are the interior villages of the state. Just the last elections, I had been posted to Gadhchiroli, a Naxalite infested area and had been held hostage. Luckily they only stuffed a lot of pre-stamped ballot papers and dumped us outside the counting booth. Johnny listening goggle eyed remarked “Wow, lucky they didn’t hurt you”. “Yeah, but the whole experience was terrible. They were pretty rough on us.Hence this year the commission is thinking about giving us additional security. You are lucky; you would be deputed to only cities or good towns because you are new, those that have almost uninterrupted power too.You would even have a fan above your head. He tried to pull a sad face for my benefit but did not succeed and sheepishly smiled.

That time, I continued, I was not happy as was delivering a deliberately manipulated result. But what can one do against the Naxalites especially in rigged elections? But even then I never lost faith in democracy. Aren’t we the living symbols of it by being a part of this department? Sagely he agreed with me. When voters voted it made me feel  proud of being a part of the largest democracy the world has seen, even though half of the voting populace never comes. Those lured by the attraction of money, food or blankets are the majority who take the effort. The only change that had happened over the years was the ballot papers had gone longer with the list of candidates increasing to some ridiculous levels. The voters are likely to see the names of many of the candidates for the first time when inside the booth. It was shameful this apathy and lack of awareness.Very little can be done too when the laws are in place but not implemented.It has led to a criminalization of politics and a lot of undesirable elements having their names in the candidature. I told Johnny that the one time I really felt privileged working was when T.N.Seshan was the election commissioner. Here was a man who truly made the corrupt politicos toe the line of the code.He was unafraid and showed everyone the book and the law. No one in the sensitive election times had the guts to oppose him. He was the most powerful person during his time. Unfortunately the public adulation went to his bald head and instead of retiring on his laurels he stepped into the murky waters of politics himself. Here he was well and truly trounced. Positional power unfortunately doesn’t translate into popular votes. Those were the days. The men who succeeded him to the EC post tried very hard to emulate Seshan but they were pale copies and did not have much impact or create respect for themselves.

I heard footsteps outside our room. They stopped just outside the door. Today was the day when we would be taken out and prepared. On cue the doors were thrown open and light rushed into the room, so also air that dispelled the dust long gathered on our bodies. I would now be cleaned, have the dent removed from my side where the Naxalites had hit me and get a fresh coat of green paint, some oil on my slider locks & hinges . They would be checked. My 20 gauge sides would be checked along with the 16 gauge face lid that housed my fittings.The slit would get filed smooth for rust. Raghu, the minder came in picked me up and said to his assistant "Chal pakad re ye Hari Peti (hold this green box) yeh repairing ke liye bhejni hai ( has to be sent for repair), these are going to Pandharpur. I was blessed; I would be in the divine lord’s town, during this election. "Aur woh button waaley lab me bhej de" Johnny was picked rather delicately in comparison to me, he was an EVM (Electronic Voting Machine) and he would be sent to the lab for checking dusting and programming. I breathed easier & better now, the elections are coming, this was certainly our time in the sun.