Sunday, December 23, 2007


To make love to a stranger is the best.

There is no riddle and there is no test -

To lie and love, not aching to make sense

Of this night in the mesh of reference.

To touch, unclaimed by fear of imminent day,

And understand, as only strangers may.

To feel the beat of foreign heart to heart

Preferring neither to prolong nor part.

To rest within the unknown arms and know

That this is all there is; that this is so.

Not mine. Vikram Seth's. Exquisite.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Denver Paaji !

I walked into Music Station, a place selling music and film CD’s and DVD’s. I was there to return the Bhool Bhulaiyya CD I had rented the day before. There were two people already at the counter, and I waited for my turn, looking at the various shelves having a host of movie discs on show.

On the other side of the shop, standing aside the pair of headphones and the couple of music CD’s you can listen to for trial, were two typical Haryanvi Jats – tall, burly and with an air of unmistakable menace around them. One of them had the headphones to his ears, while the other was going through the adjoining shelf.

“Paaji! Aap yeh gaana suno….paagal ho jayoge aap!”, cried the first one, suddenly.

“Achha ji? Lao!”, replied the other, and took over the headphones.

A few moments later, he handed them back.

“Denver hai na yeh?”

“Haan ji…aapne suna hoga yeh gaana pehle…”

“Haan suna hai….teri gaadi mein hi kaafi baar”

“Magical voice hai ji, is bande ki….”


The man on the headphones now went on to listen to the song with sheer delight on his face, almost dancing along with the tune. He was singing as well, and his voice was as horrible as horrible could be, but I got enough words from them to recognise the song –

“Country roaaaaaaaaaaaadddds, take me hommmmmmmmmme
To the plaaaaaaaaace, I beloooooooooooong
West virginiaaaaaaaaaa, mountain mommmmmmmaaaaaaaa
Take me hommmmmmmmmme, country roaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadddds !”

“What a voice, yaar, what a voice!”, he finally concluded, putting the headphones down.

It was amazing, to see two of these so-typical desi Haryanvis, whom I had seen previously only as local kirana shop owners, traffic policeman or bus drivers (and found it hard to associate them with anything else), to be discussing John Denver at a posh music store.

And then when I thought about it, I discovered that this is exactly what Gurgaon has to offer, which is different from all other places in India.

Here, you have desi Jats enjoying Denver and other western artists, big, over-sized aunties going about in fashionable, obscene-looking, designer trousers, and teenagers, ‘cool dudes and dudettes’, all dressed to kill, enjoying their evening out at expensive coffee parlours.

It is fascinating, when not slightly irritating.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Stream Kya Hai ?

He was a heavily moustached, heavily built man of medium height. We shared the same coupe on the Ashram Express from Ahmedabad to Delhi. It was seven in the morning, there were at least three hours before the train reached its destination, and it was out of boredom, and boredom alone, that this man had started asking me questions of no or little significance to him.

I had been sitting on the lower berth since 4 A.M., numbly looking at passing stations, unable to withstand the blast of the air-conditioner while trying to sleep on the top berth. The cooling system had been strengthened especially after Jaipur, to leave the coach feeling like Simla, and even three blankets, one stacked over the other, weren’t enough to help me forget that fact.

The man had joined me at around six thirty, and sat down, looking out with a stoned expression on his face. Then, after some time, getting out of his trance, he took out two packets of manufactured bhujia from his handbag. He offered them to me, and when I refused (because I wasn’t keen on taking my hands out from my jacket pocket, more than any other reason), he insisted, and did so repeatedly, until a vocal, assertive “No, no” from me silenced him finally.

After about two minutes of silence, he then asked me if I was a student. When I said I was, he stared casually at me for a while, munching away, as if trying to decipher the meaning of the encrypted piece of information I had just communicated to him.

“Ahmedabad mein?”


“Kaun sa college?”

“DA-IICT. Dhirubhai Ambani……”


“Haan. Engineering”

“ Wo to Reliance ka hai na? Aapki naukri to wahi lagti hogi?”

And for the 572nd time since I’d been an engineering student at DA-IICT, I explained that there were other companies that came for placements, that the people absorbed by Reliance formed a very small percentage.

He seemed slow at taking in this answer as well, and there was another pause of about two minutes.

“Stream kya hai?”

And as on countless train journeys and family meetings before, I had to explain to him that I was doing a B.Tech. in ICT, what it meant and what exactly the course structure was like.

He listened attentively, nodding quite vigorously in between, trying to show that he understood. After having taken the almost mandatory few minutes’ silence again, he began to speak, now about his family. His way of pausing between questions had an unsettling effect on me – every time he became quiet, I felt glad at being left alone finally, only to have him start another line of conversation a few moments later.

“Mera bhatija…wo bhi engineering kar raha hai…wo jo college hai na…err…err…Nirma.”

“Oh Nirma…”


(A shorter spell of silence this time, of about 20 seconds)

“Uske board mein achhe number aaye the….”


“Mera bhatija…10th mein 90-95 percent laaya tha….12th mein 80-82 aaye the…”

I nodded. Solemnly.

He went on to tell me about his entire range of bhatijas and bhatijis then, how much they had scored in the various examinations they had given, how talented they were, and what they were doing with their lives as of now.

After a little time, about half an hour, I realised that seeing me listening to him attentively, he felt encouraged to tell me more, to carry on with his discourse on where his family stood professionally.

It was rather weird; to see this man whom I’d known for just a couple of hours, when we hadn’t even exchanged names, to talk to me about his entire family, about their goals and aspirations, about what he thought about them, it confused me, it made me feel uncomfortable, and I wanted to end it. Yet courtesy allowed nothing else.

But with conscious effort, I tried to look less attentive - nodded less, looked out of the window more, fiddled around with my handbag. He was initially slow at taking in this clue as well, but he finally did, and then gradually assumed silence. I was relieved; the rest of the trip passed without any further dialogue.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Modern Mela

Mr. Seth adjusted his tie, pushing the knot to the right just that little bit. As had always been his habit, he wanted everything absolutely perfect before he left the house. The coat was spot clean, the trousers as well pressed as they could possibly be and the black shoes shone gloriously. The shirt, however, did have a light yellow spot on the left arm, but that also would be hidden away with the coat. Anyway, there was no other option, the rest of the shirts were either dirty or in the laundry.

She would have hated this! “Sit at home if you don’t have a clean pair”, she would have said. But who’s watching now?

It had been nine days since Mr. Seth had arrived in Delhi at his son’s place. The inertia with which he had spent all the years following his wife’s death at their Kanpur residence had finally been broken by his son’s repeated insistence to give him a visit. Realising that he could not put off the trip any longer, he had agreed on a two-week stay.

He was more than half way into it now and the big city hadn’t made much sense to him. It was a circus existence, too busy with itself, without any time for an old, simple, retired bank manager like himself. Kanpur was better, with the huge balcony, the open garden, friends and her name written all over the place. Nevertheless, living here was an experience in itself, one which had to be had. There were things to admire here, the wide roads, the tall buildings, the new state-of-the-art malls. Yes, the malls! That’s what Mr. Seth intended to see today.

Anil and Priya had promised to take him shopping one of these days. But they hardly seemed to stay home, leave alone taking him out. Both left early morning and came back late, after which they seemed too exhausted to do anything else but eat and sleep. Even the only Sunday that could possibly have been used for an outing was spent with Anil on the laptop. How much do these corporate firms make you work? Can’t you even have one day left to yourself, even one Sunday?

Mr. Seth eventually decided to make the trip himself. It was two in the afternoon, he had had his lunch and there were at least six hours before Anil and Priya returned from office. Going at this time had an added advantage – there wouldn’t be too much of a crowd at the malls. So, he gave his tie another look in the mirror, and when satisfied fully with the symmetry of the knot, picked up his phone, his purse, the keys of the flat and left.

It was December, and though the sun was out, Mr. Seth felt glad that he had brought the coat along. The mall that had just come up, Anil had told him, was just a kilometre away from the flat, opposite to the central market. I’ll walk, these legs still good enough. Mr. Seth walked past the fruit and vegetable shops, the petrol pump, and turned right for the mall.

The entrance of the building looked singularly spectacular. Huge advertisement posters of movie stars and models hung on either side, and in between was an electronic display flashing the latest news in red. The crowd, unexpectedly, was substantial. Even on a weekday? Even at this hour? Mr. Seth pushed open the glass door and went inside, passing through the automated security check.

The sight inside was nothing short of spectacular as well. The structure was of a longish rectangle, with three stories, screaming out a countless number of brands. The huge posters were inside too, on the far side of a white girl dressed in corporate attire, holding a mobile phone quite provocatively with its flap open. Mr. Seth could sight some benches positioned just a few feet away, he decided to sit for a little while and give his limbs some rest.

There was an ice-cream shop near the benches and he saw a couple asking their two sons which flavour they would like to have. One opted for butter-scotch while the other for chocolate. Having taken the ice-creams and paid the money, the couple proceeded to sit on the bench opposite Mr. Seth. They looked distinctly Punjabi, the man tall and stout, the woman wearing a shiny salwar-kameez and bangles up to her elbow. The children, having got what they wanted, started to wander off in random directions. When the woman noticed that keeping an eye on them wasn’t going to be easy in the crowd, she called out – “Sanju Pintu come back to Mamma. There there! See the ice-cream’s all over your shirts!”. And although the ice-cream wasn’t quite on their shirts yet, Sanju and Pintu came back to Mamma obediently.

After a while, Mr. Seth got up and walked further to the end of the rectangle. Right in the middle of the ground floor, he could see Barista, a coffee-shop which offered a whole lot more than just coffee. One look at the prices was enough to convince him that a stop here wasn’t really going to prove lucrative. Oh God! Is the Chocolate Truffle topped with jewels or does one of every twenty Café Frappes contain a diamond at the bottom of the cup? Having given the prices a long-enough, satisfactory stare, he then decided to explore the other floors.

The other floors were pretty much the same. All the difference they provided was in the name of the brands, selling everything from cosmetics to music discs. He could see a couple of teenagers trying out a pair of sport shoes at Reebok, typical ‘high-society’ women flipping through all the salwar-kameezs on offer at a designer clothes outlet, people munching noodles at Yo China!, talking animatedly to each other behind glass walls. The atmosphere, overall, resembled celebration, of each celebrating the power of choices with oneself. What if I stood in the middle and screamed at the top of my voice? Would anyone notice? Let alone noticing, would they even hear me? And if Mr. Seth had expected something different on the top floor, it wasn’t to be. The place was largely occupied as a gaming zone, offering everything from bowling to video games. People of all ages seemed to throng especially to the bowling area, where a queue of at least fifteen people awaited their turn to get inside. The only other places except these were PVR Cinemas and Haldiram’s. And having been lured by the familiarity of the name, Mr. Seth decided to take away something from the food outlet.

Haldiram’s itself was stacked up to the maximum, in fact more than any other restaurant he had seen before. It looked like a hall-sized mela, where two hundred hungry people had been shoved in and asked to “Please Accommodate”. Looking at the counter queue, it wasn't going to be easy getting a Butter Milk for himself. I am here now, so I might as well take something. So, he joined the line, waited for around five minutes and having taken the chit for the milk, proceeded towards the food counter. There were two men there, taking the chits from the hungry folk and returning with the desired items. Mr. Seth, not quite in the age to go barging, putting his chit in front, waited while the younger ones had been satisfied. The only consolation in all this was that the Butter Milk was of very good quality, almost, just almost worth its cost of forty rupees.

Now convinced that he had seen all there was to see, Mr. Seth decided to leave. And having successfully negotiated the challenging escalators he had previously experienced only at airports, reached the ground floor again. Just then, he spotted, in between all the hullabaloo and crowd, something called the Om Book Shop. What is a book shop doing here, at this circus? And glad that he had finally found something to suit his taste, he decided to give the place a visit too.

Nor did it disappoint him. The place was noisier than book shops normally are, and a lot more crowded. But in terms of size and the variety offered, it was easily the biggest of its kind that he had ever seen. In a corner near the entrance, there were magazines displayed, almost all of which had names he hadn’t heard of before. Probably imported. And beyond that, he saw rows and rows of books, dealing with almost everything – fiction, lifestyle, health, travel, cuisines. The sheer enormity of the place overwhelmed Mr. Seth, and he found himself tempted to pick up a book and sit on one of the chairs kept in the middle. It was only because he could not decide on the one thing to read that prevented him from doing so, and he finally decided to leave.

It was almost evening now, and the crowd outside was beginning to thicken, as if it wasn’t thick enough already. Mr. Seth, gave the place one last look from outside, admiring its enormity more than anything else, and then walked past the petrol pump, the fruit and vegetable shops to his flat.

The house inside felt abnormally quiet. Anything would, after coming from the place I’ve been to. He suddenly found himself tired, mentally more than physically. All the noise and crowd had taken a toll on the old man. So, he had two glasses of water, changed his clothes and decided to get some sleep for a couple of hours.

Evening came. And so did Anil and Priya. For some reason which even he couldn’t sum up, he decided not to tell them about his little trip to the modern mela.