Sunday 3 June 2018

I too have a tiger story

Pavankali winked at me. The wink was definitely out of place, but then elephants are autonomous creatures, persistent in what they think is right for the moment and not unduly excited by something as transient as atmosphere. The wink was out of place because of the atmosphere. We were in midst of a forest. There were tall old Sal trees meditatively reigning all around us, densely clustered in their individual solitude, in which they infrequently allowed a sunbeam or two. The sunbeam would filter through a canopy of tremulous leaves, via the tensile beauty of a spider’s web, and fall on the silent camouflage of a grey-brown insect. These were moments for recognising higher truths. Pavankali, of course, chose to wink.

She winked because her mahaout had just commented in the magical lilt of eastern UP – “Ee Pavankali toh saamne ser dekhat hee us par daurat hai” (the moment she comes face to face with a tiger she charges at him), the creases on his face defining the mysterious bond that ties mahaouts to their elephants. She winked as a teenage son would to his friend, when his mother exaggerated what seemed like adolescent foibles. She winked because she knew I was on her side. But she didn’t know that at that exact moment I was also irrevocably lost to her. For the magic word had been spoken. After all my secret finger crossing and hoping against hope, I had come across an insider, a mahaout who lived in these jungles, who could actually confirm by his casual comment, without even meaning to, that tigers could indeed be seen in Dudhwa National Park.

Now this was April 2005. The country was abuzz with news of the missing tigers of Sariska. Editorials were being written and task forces set up. And those in the know bemoaned the staged ‘tiger show’ quality of the tourist sightings in the more famous national parks. As I went about the business of packing odomos and procuring a sun-hat before leaving for Dudhwa, I was wise and superior: "Why are tourists obsessed about seeing tigers its as if the whole trip is a waste if you don’t see one there’s so much more to a forest than seeing a tiger, isn’t it?"

There is. The fact is that the forest manages to lend an electrical charge to the sighting of a caterpillar. I remember ambling disconsolately away from the forest office on my first day, having been told, no madam, you cannot drive into the forest throughout your visit because there is a tiger census on and the park is closed. I was kicking a blameless pebble, standing on the road at the periphery of the forest, when a couple of cheetal emerged. Cheetal. Spotted deer. Available all over the country, seen in several urban district parks on morning walks and caged in many self respecting resort hotels in UP. And yet my heart missed a beat. The moment of emergence from the shadowy trees when a creature is just a creature and not “cheetal” or “tiger” – potentially carnivorous, hoof-footed, antlered, slow-moving…; the recognition that there is not the slightest barrier to physical contact between the two of you; the context of sensuous life that the forest produces – sound, smell, chill, absence of familiar things – this is what they all add up to make – a forever-remembered, missing heartbeat. That is the magic of the forest. It can make the focusing of binoculars on an eagle hugely exciting, and the discovery that the logs in the Suheli river are well-camouflaged crocodiles, a matter of immense joy.

Pavankali was the result of that undisguised blessing called the Tiger Census. Dudhwa has one pucca road running through it and various kuccha but motorable forks that lead deeper into the jungle. The tiger census meant that these forks had been cleaned and the dust smoothened to create about 5-foot long mud “pads” at regular intervals. As the tiger would step on one, his or her pugmarks, individual and identifiable, would impress themselves for the census takers. Since vehicles would obliterate such pug marks, the park was closed to tourists. BUT teary-eyed journalists from Delhi could proceed on elephants on the forest floor, keeping clear of the pads. And so Pavankali, wind-bud, she who demonstrated why ancient Indian texts compared the walk of the nayika with that of an elephant, bore us patiently through that increasingly inward forest. Moist leaves mellowed further under her steps giving off their singular perfume, branches barred the way, and yellow butterflies danced about like happy childhoods. Thus began my Great Tiger Story.

Like most good forests Dudhwa is a mix of vegetation types. Pavankali moved through moist deciduous Sal forest for an enchanting hour and then waded with carefully disguised enthusiasm into the grassland. She was eating then and she ate now. Amongst the Sal, she plucked a few branches to chomp on, but when maneuvered into the 20-feet-high grass she was like a 3-year old who’d been pushed into a room full of cake. Swinging on her back we hung on to the wooden legs of the inverted charpai that was our seat. A racquet-tailed drongo posed high on a tree stump. Red-wattled lapwings called out “did-you-do-it”, frequently. Eagles defined hypnotic geometries in the air. Cheetal and hog-deer were common. We were passing by a pond, the Bhadraula Taal, at about 6.30 pm in the hope that the nocturnal hunters would stop by for a fill of water before setting out to hunt. But there was nothing but pond herons near the taal and we swung away towards the setting sun. 

Now, the forest has the quality of quietitude but it is rarely silent. Leaf-crunching and wind-rustling are perennials, insects can be deafening, and the sheer survival needs of birds and animals make up an aural universe of alarm, mating and baby-calling sounds. Suddenly, the mahaout froze. “Cheetal”, he said. Having seen Cheetal aplenty that evening I wasn’t sure why this was so noteworthy. “Cheetal ka alarm call”, he said, pointing to a sound in the distant air, which I, novice, could not see. It took a moment to sink in. Alarmed Cheetal is equal to predator in the vicinity. Predator is equal to tiger. Vicinity is equal to MY immediate surroundings. In that moment the world changed. Without realizing it our voices dropped below human octaves to something whispered and animal. Our bodies became breath, blood and electrically-charged cells. We stopped moving. Was it to not scare away the tiger or was it to not attract him?

I expected the mahaout to chase the receding Cheetal calls but he reasoned that the deer would be escaping in the opposite direction while the tiger’s trajectory led towards the taal. Accordingly he turned Pavankali back to the pond. She retraced her steps with no protest, resigned to human foibles. We emerged at the edge of the grass on a marshy patch near the taal. There was no sign of a tiger. We stared at the pond for a good minute but, no tiger. Suddenly – and I am sorry but these stories are not possible without a liberal use of “suddenly” – suddenly driver sa’ab sitting at the back of Pavankali made a peculiar sound. I looked around in reflex. And there was the gorgeous apparition sitting at the edge of the grass, barely 30-40 feet away, clearly thwarted in his desire to reach the water. He had evidently been looking at us for the full minute we had been looking at the pond.

It was all transparently clear: why poets would coin immortal phrases, why Ramkrishna Paramhansa visiting a zoo had fallen to his knees in bhakti, why a conservationist would demand a status of symbolic divinity for this – this inscrutable incandescent orange thing with unparalleled focus in his eyes and incomprehensible kinetic energy in his body. As a writer I am happy to say that words failed me. As a photographer I am proud that it didn’t even occur to me to pick up my camera. We were simply replete with the sheer tigerness of the moment. I wonder what the tiger saw. Three frozen human beings on a grass-happy, occasionally ear-flapping elephant. Pavankali, of course, was at a right angle to the tiger and so not “face to face” with him and therefore, did not charge at him. Thank God for big mercies as well.

When the sight of us palled on the tiger he turned back into the grass and vanished. Now tigers do not walk the forest floor at random; they prefer the pagdandis, the mud tracks, maybe because they are creatures of habit, maybe because scrunching leaves on the forest floor would impede stealth hunting. That’s why census pads are made only on these paths and that’s why our mahaout, who seemed to carry knowledge of the area in his blood, confidently pointed and said “that’s where he’ll emerge”. Pavankali set off again this time at what she clearly thought was a trot. We were not chasing the tiger (which would be bad practice) but, having calculated where he would emerge n the arterial path, we were trying to reach a point on the path ahead of him, so we could see him again without making him feel threatened. 

Having reached the point I strained for a glimpse of moving orange through the indeterminate green but, even using binoculars, could see nothing. The tiger phenomenon, however, loses none of its richness simply because he can’t be seen and the mahaout’s periodic “there he is”, “nearer now”, were tiny islands of thrill on a sea of expectation. And he did emerge at the expected spot, saw us ahead on the road, and stood there assessing possibilities while we gloated some more and drank in the spectacle. When he moved back into the grass, there was an orgy of self-congratulation. We patted the mahaout on the back, he felicitated us, Pavankali ambled along with an added spring in her step, when, what else but, suddenly. It was driver sa’ab making his peculiar announcing-the-presence sound again. We whipped around. There, for all the world like a kitten peeping from behind the kitchen door to see if the milk pot is unguarded, was our very own feline, peeping at us from behind a bend in the road, all head and whiskers and huge eyes, suddenly adorable.

We never saw him again...

Saturday 3 June 2017

Travels within myself

[Written for a project 'Behind White Storeys' based on the Connaught Place Middle Circle.]

She crosses me and stands on my extreme edge, almost on tip toe, to catch the last few rays of the winter sun. Her clothes are damp and smell faintly of garbage; she is cold. There are a couple of hours of duty left, with two more garbage points to sort out, and then a long bus ride home. I am familiar with her tiredness; it makes her nearly sink into my rough macadam around this time every day. Her co-worker follows in a minute with a small plastic glass of tea, as he usually does. She smiles and starts telling him of her son's impending wedding. 
My body resounds with steps. They are so easy to distinguish. The fast step of the employed, who need to return to their workplace after a half hour away for lunch; the slow steps of pairs enjoying each others' company; the eager steps of youngsters with some money to spend; the laboured ones of men carrying gas cylinders; the leisurely pace of the odd tourist; the uneven shuffle of the shop owner who steps out for a minute to stretch; the weightless paws of dogs. My belly hums with electricity and the underground transmissions of water and energy. Above me, voices call out, chattering, discussing, instructing, commanding, buying, selling, informing, declaring, persuading, transacting, spitting, coughing, hawking, urinating... I barely miss a scratch or a hum. Horns honk incessantly, wheels roll, mobile phones ring often. Paranthas are chewed during the day, policemen are given placatory drinks at night. It all falls into a harmonious pattern, you'll be surprised.
Except when something strikes a discordant note, and I, for a moment, pay all my attention to it. A scooterist fell yesterday and couldn't get up. His not getting up was the loudest moment. But it passed; a small crowd gathered to help him. Or that young girl who drank too much at the expensive new bar and vomited. Her helplessness was screaming. At such moments, I shrink a bit. I want to gather myself to go help. But my role is to not move so that everyone else can. I can just lie here, in my circular solitude, bearing witness.

Sunday 12 March 2017

A Summer-afternoon Ecosystem — Dehradun 1

In summer afternoons, Daalanwala would gather an air of full-bellied somnolence, draw its curtains and go to sleep in darkened rooms. You could hardly discern the movement of its breath. When we would return from school at about 2.30, and trudge trudge to our homes from the bus stop, an intense blue sky would be pouring yellow sunshine on a silent world of impossible peace. We walked down a silent road, crickets the only sound. The boundary walls of houses on both sides were low, moss covered, a secret world in themselves. Behind the walls, the homes were hardly visible from among the heavy litchi, jackfruit, guava, apricot, or mango trees. Old silvery Eucalyptus stood like patient elephants teaching the riotous red and yellow flowers in the lawns to shush for a while, people are sleeping. We picked their fallen leaves, and inhaled the lemony scent. 

At this time of the day the lawns would be content just being green. The houses themselves, low and bungalow-style, separated from each other by acres of land, asleep. Their windows asleep, curtains asleep. The odd stray dog on the road, her pups gathered around her, also asleep. Only the bumblebees brought life to the portrait, weaving along their drunken trajectories, their buzz and drone holding up the summer afternoon. 

When I reached home I would open a small black gate. To my right, a lawn with two bottlebrush trees, to my left a small mango tree, and in front a generous bougainvillea creeper going up the pale yellow house wall. The house was clearly well settled, full of rice, daal and raita, and dead to the world.

I would scrunch my way on crushed pebbles towards the porch which sheltered the old grey family Fiat. On one side of the car, the giant Bhotia we had – more hound than dog – would open exactly one lazy eye, move its tail sufficiently to make place for, say, a friendly ant, and go back to sleep. On the other side of the car, the orange cat would be magnificently uncaring, and would manage to show it with equal efficiency, using closed eyes or a direct basilisk glare. From beneath the car, two protruding human feet would welcome me. Chacha’s voice would emerge with absent-minded affection as he tinkered with the car’s undersides – the only human awake for miles – “Arre, tu aa gayi?”

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Gossiping with Ruskin Bond

Ruskin Bond on Writing, Growing Old & Kissing Priyanka Chopra

[As told to me at his house this January for an interview that wasn't published].

Ruskin Bond shows me his childhood photograph in a sherwani

On Writing
I started writing when I was in school. I would write the odd story that would get me into trouble with teachers. The very first story I wrote, I remember, was in August 1951. It was about my maths teacher. They really didn’t like it back in my old school, Bishop Cotton (Shimla) – they didn’t send my final character certificate! I am still waiting for it. 

I wrote The Room on the Roof in 1952-53, when I had moved to England. It was based on a journal I had kept in India. I was young, sick, hungry and cold, and missing India a lot – it was all about that longing for the love and friendship that I missed. The Room... wasn’t hard work: I had to do two or three drafts and landed an advance from the publishers of £50. All I wanted to do was return to India. It only cost £40 to get me back to Bombay by ship, and I had £10 left over for the journey to Dehradun. So it all worked out well.

I got a lucky break when the book got serialized in the Illustrated Weekly of India, which was a major magazine back then, with illustrations by Mario Miranda. That brought me a lot of attention – although there were no celebrations or parties or launches at that time. In the 50s and 60s, Slowly I began to get published. 

Some magazines like Sainik Samachar, a weekly for the armed forces, published my love stories back then (that was my Romantic Period!) 

I was published by the Sunday Statesman, Sport and Pastime from Madras, the Tribune, and some other magazines like Sainik Samachar, a weekly for the armed forces which published my love stories back then (that was my Romantic Period!) Then there was My Magazine of India, a quaint little periodical which mostly made money from aphrodisiac ads. I sent them most of my rejects and they paid me five rupees per story, which meant I could see at least three movies for every story they printed. Being a bachelor, young and freelancing, it was all manageable and fun.

I came to live in Mussoorie in 1964. When I shifted, my writing changed but only slightly. Over the years my style hasn’t changed much, only sometimes there is the odd cynical phrase, or some statement with an edge to it. 
Maybe now there is a little less of the innocence that I had when I was writing about pretty girls on railway platforms. 

I have always written about people and unusual characters, but my writing did change as I became more conscious of the natural world. For the first ten years I lived in Mussoorie, I lived near a forest, near the Wyneberg Allen School, and was surrounded by a nice little forest – birds, small creatures, even large creatures. And I gradually developed a relationship with the natural world around me and that was reflected more and more in my stories, essays and poems. 

I’ve always enjoyed writing, but now I started enjoying it even more. It used to be about relationships with humans but now it became about relationships with the natural world. And both would coalesce in a way. I did some of my best writing then. I also started writing books for children: The Blue Umbrella, The Angry River and others. If you are going to write all your life, you jolly well better enjoy it: it’s the least you can do. 
Anyway, I can write about anything. About the ladybird on my desk or about the snail. Just think of it: what an epic journey for a snail to cross a busy road without getting squashed!

On His Acting Career
Acting in Saat Khoon Maaf (2011), based on my story Susanne’s Seven Husbands, was a first. That was fun. It was director Vishal Bharadwaj’s idea. He said, ‘Ruskin would you like to try it?’ and I just said, ‘Yes.’ We went to shoot in Pondicherry, but couldn’t get permission to shoot inside a church, so finally ended up shooting in an old church in Bombay. 

I had a very small scene with Priyanka Chopra, in which I played a bishop. I was supposed to give her a fatherly peck on the cheek, but I was quite clumsy and knocked her specs off. She was very sporting about it, and we did it again… and again. And again. And again. Until the director said, ‘That’s enough, Mr Bond. I think you are doing that on purpose.’ 

I must have been really bad because nobody ever asked me to appear in a film again!

On Growing Old
The nice thing about growing old is that you have so many memories. I look back a lot for writing stories. You often remember things that you had forgotten all this while or not bothered to remember. I also write in my journal. Not necessarily every day – but I jot down notes about any interesting person I meet, or thoughts I have, or an experience of the natural world. So I am dealing both with the present and the past. 

I am not a person with regrets. I have done all the things I wanted to. I wanted to write and have managed to make a vocation of it. I’ve even established myself to a certain extent, which I wasn’t sure I would be able to do but it came about. I had the friendships and companionship I wanted. I have no complaints. 

And as you grow older, life seems to get funnier. 

My childhood was a lonely one and later in life, when I was no longer lonely, I found myself looking for solitude – which is a very different thing: it’s not imposed on you. I want to write, to read, to sleep, and to laze about. I don’t want distractions from that so I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have a computer. Even my typewriter has gone now and I simply write by hand. Fortunately I have  very neat handwriting so my publishers accept it (they obligingly send a typed copy back to me – full of mistakes, I might add!). 

I have been fortunate to have received a lot of love from readers. Sometimes when I go to meet people at the Cambridge bookshop, the occasional reader says, ‘Can I give you a hug, Mr Bond?’ And I say, ‘Of course.’ 

I love getting hugs. I have complained to the bookshop, they have put a desk in front of me, now people can’t come and hug me anymore… 

Thursday 11 August 2016

An attempted blog on films: Ishq-in-progress

With the confidence that behoves the daughter of the family who visits home once in a while, I switch the TV from the usual entertainment channel to one that presents music. A black-and-white image fills the screen and — I’m not being precious using the archaic word here — the air fills the big drawing room. “Dil jale to jale, gham paley to paley, kissi ki na sunn, gaye ja…”. Lata’s voice.

Sheila Ramani in Taxi Driver

A father (aged 75), an uncle (73) and another uncle (70), respectively on their way to breakfast, preparing the dog’s food, and tightening a nut in a recalcitrant pressure cooker, stop in their tracks. 

“Aahhha”, says my father. 
“Sheila Ramani”, chorus my uncles in unison. 
“Sheila Ramani”, my father nods to himself, as they all take a couple of slow steps towards the television. 
Taxi Driver”, one of them mumbles the name of the film.

A moment later they have to almost physically shrug off the spell. “She used to live near our house in Sundar Nagar”, says the youngest uncle. “No no, you are forgetting, that was Erica Lal”, says my father. He turns to me: 
“Wo… jisne Waqt mein gaana gaaya tha, Anglo Indian thi shayad, smart thi…” 
Aage bhi jane na tu”? 
“Haan, that’s the one”. 

Then they resume their routines. My father humming Aage bhi jane na tu, my uncle whistling Dil jaley to jaley, and the youngest uncle shuffling sideways, the spanner in his hand, still gazing at Sheila Ramani with a smile. “Waise heroine Kalpana Kartik thi”, he tells me. Then he giggles. “Hum sab Dev Anand jaise baal banate thhe”. This is true. Every family photo of my grandparents and their five sons shows varying specimens of male Saklanis with a big puff of back-brushed hair.  

The Hairstyle!

More of The Hairstyle (with my father in the centre)

More uncles, yet more of The Hairstyle...


I grew up with the rainbow moods of my youngest uncle, each manifested in a film song or a life situation worthy of the big screen. Chacha in despair, repeatedly listening to “Ye to pattharon ka shahar hai, yahan kis ko apna banaiye” on a Phillips record player. Chacha on his second pre-lunch beer, thrilling to the critical moments of Jab Pyaar Kisi Se Hota Hai, annotating subtleties we would otherwise have missed: “See, see. Anyone would say, take her and elope. But he is not going to do that… that’s the thing… You people won’t understand”. 

And Chacha, reliving his own cinematic life with the pre-dinner whiskies, to rapt nieces: 
“I said to her father: ‘Mr Verma, go back, I give you my word, Rita will marry the man you wish’. That evening I told her: ‘Rita, I have given your father my word’. She said: ‘Raju, if you ask me to, in so many words, then I will marry that man’. And i said it. Yes. I said it. I told her: ‘Marry the man your father wants you to’. And she only said one thing: ‘Promise me you will come to the wedding’. I promised her. And so, now, i had to live, till the wedding…”


Fortunately, growing up saw no attenuation in the filmy chronicles. “Aur, Meena Kumarrreeeee?”, Amit would sing out whenever he saw me with my hair loose and a drink in hand, which, in JNU, was very often. We would sing Hai hai hai ye nigahein and Aankhon mein kya ji. We would sigh to a much-worn cassette of Asha Bhonsle, and its Jaiye aap kahan jaaenge. And fall respectfully silent when Rafi reached the high ranges in Khoya khoya chaand. For friends who got their very first guest-lecturer jobs in Delhi University’s evening colleges, we played Wo shaam kucch ajeeb thi. And when the fellowship money finished and we were reduced to the hostel daal-chawal, Jayant and I invented Meat na mila re mann ka and Raat haddi ek kabab mein aayi

Some time back, my friend Anita organised a screening of a well known documentary on Guru Dutt in her house. Many of us flocked to her TV. Anita was ideally suited for the job because, as a non-Hindi speaker raised in Britain, she was merely doing this docu-watching as an intellectually elevating exercise, not as pilgrimage. She could get us tea or answer the door while we sat, in front of those Midas black-and-white images, turned to gold. 

In which Guru Dutt and VK Moorthy turn us to gold

At some point she gave up the documentary altogether. It was much more fun to turn her back to it and watch us instead. Ooooooh, we crooned in unison as the camera closed in on Waheeda Rehman’s face in sync with Chaudhvin ka chaand ho. We shook our heads at this too-muchness of the universe. Aaaaaaaah, we breathed as we saw Meena Kumari, toe to top, her splendour saturating the screen and poor Bhootnath. We caught our heads in our hands and repeatedly explained how lost we were for words. “Oppphhoooo”, we caught our tongues in our teeth when Madhubala smiled. “Arrrrrrrre”, our heads flopped backwards and had to seek rest, when Guru Dutt hummed “Ye hansste hue phool” to the grass. “Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai?”, and we had to close our eyes and blink back the tears. 

Waheeda in Chaudhvin ka Chand

Meena Kumari floors Bhootnath the first time he sees her in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam


My world is full of people for whom movies may mean anything ranging from casual reference points to joyous and passionate engagement, to the very stuff of life — and often all.

A teenaged Bunty in the 80s, sitting in black despair on the footpath in front of Archana cinema, because coming out of a film, daily life seems so bleak. 

Shomo, not being able to even speak when he hears the misleading rumour that Dilip Kumar has passed away. 

Ami in college, listening to "Tum apna ranj-o-gham, api pareshani mujhe de do", wondering what it would be like to love someone so much.

Mausi, urged by her family to go make friends with a new neighbour, coming back with: “Uss se main kya baat karoon? Wo to ye bhi nahin jaanti ki Talat Mehmood kaun hai!” 

My friend Anirban's nine year old, Sarika, fresh from seeing Mughal-e-Azam, asked by her father if she had finished her homework: "Kaanto ko murjhaane ka khauf nahin hota".

Mumma, having furiously cleaned the house in Tanzania in an all out war-against-tropical-insects, finally sitting down with a sigh and a cup of tea, and suddenly choking as a cockroach makes its steady way down the hall towards her. She nudges me and points poignantly: “Chale aa rahe hain wo nazarein jhukaye”

Baba, relieved after ma’s recovery from a heart attack, doing umpteen chores, and when she asks: “Suno, tum meri nighty press kar doge?”, jauntily replying: “Jab tak hai jaan, darling!”. 

Baba, and the nighty he was so delighted to iron

And Baba again, delighted when i reach home after many days in the metropolis — he is ready with my cokes in the fridge, and the fruit i eat, and the good-bread-you-don’t-get-nearby — kissing me repeatedly and warbling “Jaadoooooooo… teri nazar”.  

Last week's friendship day greeting from a very old friend


Some years back, I went through a kind of depression. Among the people i could turn to was childhood best friend Bunty who rose to the occasion magnificently. Supplying me with just the right kind — and amount — of food, drink, money, books to read, pep talks, discussions of the future… he reached his most glorious exhortation at a critical point: 

“Buss Juhi, ye samajh le, ki iss baar tu Minerva ke parde pe charrhe, to Sholay bann ke hee utare”. 

Sholay created history by running for 5 straight years at Minerva

I have never been given a more precise roadmap in my life. With a little help from stalwarts like these (and friends like you who have actually understood the Sholay reference) i have followed Bunty’s instruction with single minded dedication, steadily turning into a one-woman multi-starrer blockbuster extravaganza. 

Periodically it feels like i have “izzat, daulat, shohrat" as well as Ma. (PLUS, “teesre badshah hum hain”). 

Periodically its just that, har ek cheez hai apni jagah thikane se, kai dinon se shikayat nahin zamane se...

A shrine in my house


Postscript: “Is this too precious an ending for the blog?”, i turn to ask Ami, dropping some tea on the bedcover in the flow of my gesture. Ami knows what i will now say. We say it in unison: “Hum pee phi gaye, chhalka bhi gaye…” The question becomes moot.

Saturday 4 June 2016

A Love Song to Celluloid Bombay: A Litany & a Fantasy

What can i say about this city that has not been said before?
Ayesha (Wake Up Sid, 2009)

Zara hutth ke, zara bach ke, ye hai Bombay meri jaan. But don’t take this too seriously: for perhaps its only when you, against all good sense, don’t go “hutth ke, bach ke”, that you can have your Bombay moment.

You can, for instance, fight dock mafias and grow up to be Vijay Verma.

You can go to sleep in a romantic community of the destitute at Bori Bunder — you are homeless and each coolie here is your secret keeper: ik ik coolie yahan ka, hai raazdaan hamara.

You can bump into a complete stranger, insisting that he is your lost fictional pal Murarilal, and end up making friends with Johnny Walker, who will recognise you right back as the equally fictional Jaichand.

You can give in to impulse, forget about how old you are, and finally rush off to meet that young housewife who has been sending you letters in lunch dabbas that come to you by mistake.

The city of gold and silver, ‘Sone chandi ki nagariya’ (Don, 1978). The city which never sleeps and dreams even when awake, “jo jagte hue bhi sapne dekhta hai” (Satya, 1998). The city where a destitute migrant kid with burning eyes refuses to pick up his earnings from polishing shoes when these are thrown towards him. Inevitably growing up to be Amitabh Bachchan: “Main aaj bhi phenke paise nahin uthaata” (Deewar, 1975). Where a slum kid, desperate to see the same Amitabh Bachchan can jump into a pool of shit to get across to his hero (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008). 

You never have to be told it is Mumbai. Nowhere else in the country do films get to show you this horizontal watery expanse combined with this dizzying vertical skyscraping assertion. These relentless local trains and resounding Ganapati Pujas. These bar dancers, smugglers, film stars, slum dwellers, chawl denizens… this sea face, this crowded beach, this vada pao.... 

The city’s most iconic landscape and architecture stands guard over moments that are like rites of passage in cinema. A destitute Nirupa Roy coming to the big city holding the hands of two kids at Marine Drive in Deewar; cancer-struck Rajesh Khanna letting go of a bunch of balloons and singing cheerfully about the meaning of life, at Juhu Beach in Anand (1971); Gangster Jackie Shroff taking his unaware younger brother Anil Kapoor to Gateway of India, to explain the harsh truths of life (Parinda, 1989); construction tycoon Pankaj Kapoor rising high in his highrise and gesturing disdainfully towards the sea and the shanties near it (“And the higher you rise, the lower they fall” comments a journalist) in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983). 

Indeed, VT alone deserves an essay. “I’ll wait at the VT station, 5 o’ clock, every day, until you come”, Jamaal (Dev Patel) says to Latika (Freida Pinto) in Slumdog Milionaire. She is in a gangster’s captivity, he has just a moment to fix a way out for them, they have no way to contact each other, but Victoria Terminus is the answer. Their meeting culminates in ‘Jai ho!’, the Oscar-winning song shot in the station (at night, when local trains do not run). Mostly, the extravagant Gothic beauty of the terminus is a portal for those cinematically entering the city. Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee in the eponymous Bunty aur Babli arrive at VT reaching the dream city after many machinations. A Muslim Manisha Koirala runs away from her village to the big city and waits for her forbidden Hindu lover at VT, alone amid the overflow of people, in Bombay (1995). Having killed the policeman who murdered his father, a young Velu Nayakan (Kamal Haasan) arrives at teeming VT in Nayakan

Mumbai’s most definitive songs express the angst of the underclass in a big city: ‘Ai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan’ (My heart, it’s difficult to live here; CID); ‘Ek Akela is Shahar Mein’, where the middle class lovers cannot marry for lack of affordable housing (Gharonda, 1977); ‘Cheen-o-Arab Hamara’, which ironically celebrates ‘rehne ko ghar nahi hai, saara jahan hamara’ (we are homeless, so the whole world is ours; Phir Subah Hogi, 1958); ‘Seene mein jalan’ which asks, ‘iss sheher mein har shakhs pareshan sa kyon hai’ (Why does everyone in this city seem so troubled? Gaman, 1978).

As Satya would have it, “insaano ke beech isi fark ne ek alag duniya banayi”, these disparities between man and man invented a new world: “Mumbai underworld”. “Mumbai ka king kaun? Bhiku Mhatre!” And indeed, Vijay Verma, Velu Naicker, Bhiku Mhatre, Malik, Sultan Mirza rule the screen with their razor sharp wits, ferocity, nothing-to-lose and devil-may-care. Respectively, Amitabh Bachchan (Deewar), Kamal Haasan (Nayakan, 1987), Manoj Bajpai (Satya), Ajay Devgan (Company, 2002, and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, 2010), told sagas of the real world Haji Mastans, Vardarajan Mudaliars, Dawood Ibrahims, and Chhota Rajans, with a whole line of Maya Dolas (Vivek Oberoi in Shootout at Lokhandwala, 2007) and Manya Surves (John Abraham in Shootout at Wadala, 2013) to follow. My favourite gangland moment, though, is Abbaji Pankaj Kapoor dancing at his daughter’s wedding, like an awkward reptile with fatherly feelings (Maqbool).

And then there’s ‘ordinary life’. Cartoonist Amol Palekar falling in love with pretty office goer Tina Munim (Baton Baton Mein, 1979), even as he sketches people in the rush hour ‘locals’, the trains that run up and down this narrow, lengthwise city and are its lifeline. Jaya Bhaduri getting married and arriving in her married home, a one-room house, only to share it with her husband, his parents, his two brothers, a sister-in-law, and family friends (Piya ka Ghar, 1972)! Amol Palekar and Zareena Wahab trying to have a house of their own, and how the failure dehumanises him (Gharonda, 1977). The shy clerk Naseeruddin Shah heartbreakingly in love with chawl neighbour Deepti Naval in (Katha, 1983). Tamil migrant Kamal Haasan and the child-prostitute Saranya falling in love, as pigeons take flight around them (Nayakan, 1987). Brothers Nana Patekar and Mazhar Khan nostalgically having chicken at a roadside stall in Angaar (1992).

A young and elated Akshay Khanna and Sonali Bendra taking all kinds of transportation through the water-logged and jammed monsoon streets of Bombay, to meet each other on their first date (‘Saawan barse, tarse dil’; Dahek, 1999). Shilpa Shetty and Shiney Ahuja taking a bus to Churchgate (Life in a Metro, 2007). Migrant Gujarati youngster Gurukant Desai – and we know Abhishek Bachchan is playing Dhirubhai Ambani here –  emerging from a tram and trying to get a foothold in the cloth market. Incidentally, it is Abhishek Bachchan’s Bunty who sums up the small town aspirant’s vision of Bombay: “It is the only place where a person can rise from the streets to become a billionaire. If Dheerubhai Ambani, Ratan Tata, or the Birlas had been in Lucknow or Kanpur, they would be wasting away in Ambani General Stores, Tata Flour Mill, and Birla Paan Bhandar” (Bunty aur Babli).

Then there is small time computer trader Kay Kay whiling away his days of no work in a tea shop, while Tamil tea seller Irrfan Khan sneakily tries out free perfume samples in malls (Mumbai Meri Jaan, 2008). And Irrfan again, having to fight his way into a ladies compartment (“Yes, I know it’s a ladies compartment” quoth he, “Meri lady kho gayi hai”!) to get Konkona Sen Sharma in Life in a Metro. Lame pimp Nawazuddin Siddiqui, desperately trying to play a ‘game’, and escape with someone else’s blackmail money to make a new life with the prostitute he loves (Talaash). Pirated books dealer Tusshar Kapoor giving his much-loved new wife, Radhika Apte, an upbeat tour of the traffic lights where his books are sold by urchins (Shor in the City, 2011).     

And who can forget the eternally-defeated, ever-hopeful Vinod (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir (Ravi Baswani) of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron repeatedly catching the last local from Marine Lines station, finally forced to travel ticketless because their money was extorted by a policeman.

For film watchers all over India, its possibly the seaside that really ‘creates’ Bombay like little else does. Way back in 1956, Dev Anand paid street singers to play a love song as he followed Shakila down the Worli seaface (‘Le ke pehla pehla pyaar’, CID). In 1964, a lovelorn Kishore Kumar haunted the sea by the Gateway singing ‘Mere mehboob kayamat hogi’ (Mr X in Bombay). Struggling singer Amitabh Bacchan and Moushumi Chatterjee got ecstatically drenched by the seaside (‘Rimjhim gire saawan’, Manzil, 1979). Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpai) and best friend Satya (JD Chakravarthy) made life changing decisions next to the sea in Satya. Aamir Khan has had many ‘on the rocks’ moments by the sea: coming to terms with his love (Urmila’s) success and his irrelevance to her life in Rangeela and lamenting his dead child and haunted by his confusing feelings for a call girl in Talaash (2012). Both Sid and Ayesha process their coming-of-age moments, and finally find each other, near the sea (Wake Up Sid).

Aasman pe hai khuda, our zameen pe hum, and somewhere in between I nurture a fantasy Bombay of my own. This Bombay has a chawl. In the chawl Deepti Naval is threading a sky blue ribbon through her two tight plaits. On the road behind her, Amol Palekar is walking with “inn umr se lambi sadkon ko, manzil pe pahunchte dekha nahin” playing in his head. He needs to be liberated from this pain. Which is why Neeraj Kabi had decided to stop eating and perform Santhara. But now, with profound peace within him, he accepts to himself and the world, “I am not ready”.  The moment he says this, it starts raining. Waheeda, raw and untutored, has to take shelter under a tree and Guru Dutt offers his coat to her. 

The sea sprawls near the chawl and Tabu is standing there, laughing, forcing her reluctant lover Irrfan to call her “meri jaan”, literally at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the last local goes past and Smita Patil alights. The tall young man walking her home asks her, aren’t you afraid to live alone? “When i am alone, there is just me”, she says, “and why would i be afraid of myself?” Hearing this gives even more energy to failed actor Nawazuddin, who now entertains his sick daughter in sheer exhilaration, flailing his arms in pantomime, skipping like some divine emu that has been given flight, as the screen retreats and swells with my love for it.

Thursday 10 March 2016

JNU portraits: The Rain in Francis

Francis’s eyes go way beyond the walls of the basement canteen he runs in the School of Social Sciences building, way beyond this cliché I am forced to employ 26 years later: he does look far far away. It is Saturday and we have converged on Francis’s canteen because on Saturday he cooks beef. It is a rare treat in a life punctuated by slightly watery mess meals and dhaba paranthas or bun omelettes. With his Malayalam tongue Francis calls me something that sounds like Juggi – I love it because, even erroneously, it feels like a fellow soul has chosen to feel affectionate enough towards me to give me a pet name. Most of the time, he is in a T-shirt and folded up lungi, tall, smiling, moustachioed, dignified, and during holidays gravely accepting of the drinks his student-patron-friends share with him.

We visit him this Saturday in August. It has been raining and we – young, heady on new friendships, able to quote just-learnt poetry and sing very old songs in giggly tuneless choruses are very pleased with life. Our hunger is perpetual and pleasing. A hot parotta and beef curry meal awaits. Peacocks are calling out from our hostel Syntex tanks.

It is raining, we tell Francis as we enter the canteen, making the most of the drops on our heads and clothes, making the most of the experience of getting slightly wet. We don’t realize it but already the act of not carrying an umbrella has become an unshakeable brick in forming our anti-establishment personas. We are not just sensual rain lovers, not just adventurous risk-takers, we are also not that which carries an umbrella in the rain. We are not family, or private property or state.

It is raining, we gush, but Francis is not impressed. This is not rain he says, in a Hindi picked up painstakingly over years in conversations with employers, landlords, bus conductors, shopkeepers, students. This is not rain. Real rain, toh, happens in Kerala. Aah, Kerala, we say respectfully, and it sounds far, unreal, redolent with possibilities of travel and discovery. We know it rains a lot in Kerala. “It rains a lot in Kerala, na?” we ask.

That’s when Francis’s eyes look beyond the walls of the basement canteen he runs, way beyond this cliché I am forced to employ 26 years later. He does look far far away, and says: I cannot tell you. It rains so much that it keeps dropping from the trees much after it has stopped. It keeps raining for half an hour after it has stopped raining…