Thursday, April 29, 2010


“Love’s like a kaleidoscope” sang the bard, “Every twist reflects new colours… new shapes, mirroring all we hide in our hearts”. On a recent trip to Jaipur, I began to understand what the lines could’ve meant…

Glued to the viewfinder, I shuffled backwards with my camera, trying to get the arches of Amber into focus, when I felt a firm grip on my forearm. Irritated with whoever it was that had ruined the shot, I turned to look at the long sweaty fingers clutching my arm, and followed the hand that led to a lean bronzed arm wearing a bead bracelet that disappeared into the long loose sleeve of a faded once-green tee, clinging with perspiration to his narrow shoulders; the long neck, an anxious Adam’s apple bobbing along its length, emerged from a well-worn collar… My eyes met his… His features were all jutting angles and overhangs, just like the fort. In his other hand, he was carrying a heap of trinkets. He saw me frown. He seemed unsure, but he still didn’t let go. Instead, he said “aap gir jaate, sir!” I turned and saw the ledge I was standing on ended in a short drop just a few feet behind me… He didn’t really save my life but he did save me and my camera from an embarrassing dust bath. I thanked the fellow and he smiled. I got off the ledge and was about to ask him his name when he trotted off behind a group of German girls, pushing and pleading with them to buy his treasures. Th e moment one of them got interested, our friend went from pleading to flirting, or so I gathered, since the conversation happened in two distinct versions of German. Eventually, he made a sale. Then he walked over to me and said, “Sorry sir… business ka time tha…”

I asked him his name. Twenty-two-year-old Shamim was from a village near Jaipur. He’d spent time in a school where he’d picked up some English and then jumped into Amber bazaar’s coterie. He seemed to enjoy what he did. Aft er a couple of unsuccessful attempts with some other tourists, he came over and sat down next to me where I was changing lenses. “Photographer?”, he asked. I shook my head. “Just a hobby”, I replied and started fiddling with an unfamiliar button on the camera just to keep up appearances. Promptly a lens popped out… I hurriedly changed the topic and asked him about future plans. He couldn’t possibly hope to make a living all his life just selling trinkets. “No problem sir… promotion ho jayega!” What promotion? “France sir! I’ll go to France… Germany bhi chalega…” Whoa! But how? “Shaadi karoonga sir… baat chal rahi hai. We met last year. She’d come here as a tourist. We spent some time together. She… er… we fell in love and she wanted to take me back to France… but no passport. I’ll get one soon…” And then? “We’ll live together, get married, and if not… kuch kaam dekh lenge…” Some plan! And his peers? “Sab is umeed mein hain… To fi nd the girl who’ll fi nd them… hamare bhai Italy aise hi gaye hain” And love? “Ho jayega sir… sab achcha hai to woh bhi achcha hoga!” said Shamim as he watched the tourists and nibbled on a blade of grass.

Jaipur’s like Cinderella, plain and unadorned by day, but transforms into a gorgeous damsel in the kohl-lined sparkle of the night. One such evening, I strolled into the glittering chaos along the Hawa Mahal, where, surrounded by touts was this blonde lady in a salwar cradling a baby with rose-tinted cheeks and a runny nose. Her friend, a brunette, was wearing the more tourist-like long-skirt with summer shirt ensemble. The crowd had surrounded her so I proceeded to try and help…

But when I reached, she waved and said, “I’m with friends. It’s ok!”. Uh oh…! She was speaking to them in Hindi. I apologised and while backing away, bumped into her companion. “I’m sorry… I thought your friend was…”, I tried explaining… “That’s ok… happens all the time…” she said with a smile. The blonde, it turned out, was a German, and her name was Radha. Her friend, Ayesha was an Iranian-German. The two of them first came to Jaipur five years ago where they met this guide who showed them around the city. The heady concoction of the riotous colours, the timeless legends of love, intrigue and valour, forever swirling around the ramparts and the chance meeting with this handsome Indian tour guide, pushed Radha straight into the path of Cupid’s flower-tipped arrows. She returned home, packed her bags and rushed right back into ‘her guide’s’ waiting arms, got married and settled down to a middleclass life in a Third World Country.

If you’re wondering ‘why?’, well, Ayesha doesn’t know either. “I’ve known Radha since grade school… was with her when she fell in love, when she got married and ever since… back home we thought that when the reality of life in middle-class Jaipur hits home, she’ll come running back but she’s been living happily ever since and ever after. Rupak’s a nice guy… sure… but that doesn’t explain it. Guess that’s what love is… you can’t understand it till you feel it…”


Thursday, April 22, 2010


After spending the afternoon wandering in Mysore Palace, I found my way into the elephant compound, and had barely exchanged pleasantries and rubbed noses with the resident pachyderms, two lonely ladies chained to pegs driven into the ground, when an old man in a kurta, with long greasy matted locks and reeking of cheap liquor, gate-crashed our little ménage à trios (What?! It’s French for a party of three, and a far better phrase to describe the moment than ‘a jumbo threesome’ as someone suggested). I would’ve ignored the drunkard when he hollered a slurry warning, “This elephant’s dangerous… and you’re no elephant boy, young man!,” but he called me a young man… I had to lend him at least an ear after that. The kurta-clad figure didn’t stop though and stumbled and tumbled into the hedgerow… I took a hurried step or two to help the man to his feet.

“I’m okay, young man (!!)… I’m okay,” he protested, as I held his bony arms and helped him to his feet. But the man still swayed in tune with some loony rhythm in his head. I pulled him up a grass slope, and at the top the man lay down while I sat down to watch the palace domes as the last rays of the sun bounced off them, smearing the sky in streaks of amber, gold and fuchsia. The molten river of sunlight in the sky, the domes and spires of the palace, the milling crowd and its colours, the sculptures and gardens, and the two elephants, their trunks intertwined, like two housewives sharing a neighbourhood-gossip… it was a sublime sight.

Lost in that moment, I heard the man mutter in Kannada… “You okay?”, I asked.“The elephant boy… the elephant boy…” he said, in English this time. “Yes… I’m here...”, I reassured him, assuming he’d call me that since he’d seen me with the elephants. “Nai… not you… in my bag…” he said, with unrestrained consternation. More curious than miff ed, I handed him his satchel. Lying there on his back, he held the satchel to his chest and kept talking to himself. “Who’s the elephant boy?”, I asked him. Having sobered up a bit, he sat up and pulled out a thick handwritten manuscript from his bag which had an old laminated cover with the words ‘The Elephant Boy’ etched on it in calligraphic alphabets. “Super hit! Super hit!”, he chanted. Was that a movie script? “Script… novel… super hit story!”, he repeated, patting the manuscript.

Ramanna wasn’t a Kannadiga at all but a Telugu-speaking Hyderabadi. He’d spent all his adult years in Bengaluru and Mysore, working as a correspondent for a local daily, but in his heart beat a magnum opus – a story he believed would make him a “super hit writer” – the true story of Sabu – The Elephant Boy. “It started here,” said Ramanna, as he pointed a grimy long-nailed finger at the palace. “Sabu’s father was a palace mahout. He was born and raised amidst elephants. When his mother died after childbirth, whenever he would cry his little hammock was rocked by female elephants. Sabu was barely eight when his father also passed away. He was brought to the royal elephant stables, and out of consideration for his father’s services, the palace administration took him under their wing. Here, the little boy learnt to care for and ride the royal elephants. A prodigious learner with an intuitive understanding of the elephant psyche, he shared a special bond with these behemoths. Sabu was a happy little boy in a world of his own, a world where he had tusks, trunks and tails for toys, and gentle giants for playmates, who considered the little urchin one of their own.

The year was 1935, and that summer, rainbow dust invaded Sabu’s world of black, white and grey. Robert Flaherty, a filmmaker with a penchant for exotic locales and ‘local’ actors reached Mysore, location-hunting for his film based on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Toomai of the Elephants’ – a story about the adventures of a little boy and his bull-elephant Kala Nag. Someone pushed little Sabu in front of a rolling camera, and the dusty little urchin was transformed into this beautiful lad whose earthy charms convinced Flaherty that this was his ‘Toomai’. His ease and unbridled joy around elephants removed whatever little doubts that might have remained. Sabu and his good friend Airavata, an enormous tusker, became the principal characters of the film. Soon, the two friends went to London to complete the film, where Sabu quickly learnt the language. The film, titled ‘Elephant Boy’, was a huge hit. Airavata retired and found a home at the London Zoo while Sabu was whisked away to Hollywood by Sir Alexander Korda, a film financier, and offered an exclusive contract.”

Sabu Dastagir, I later discovered, was quite a star. Unlike most Asian in Hollywood, he wasn’t just a one-film wonder but had starred in Hollywood classics like “The Thief of Baghdad” (1940), “The Jungle Book” (1942), and “Black Narcissus” (1947). He became an American citizen and even joined the Air Force, seeing action in World War II as a gunner. “Sabu returned to Mysore in 1952,” Ramanna continued… “He was a stable hand when he left on the back of an elephant but returned in a Cadillac as the king’s personal guest.” Unfortunately, the eternally youthful Sabu died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 39. It was a beautiful story cut tragically short

Still hugging the manuscript to his chest, Ramanna swung and swayed down the slope. “India has forgotten one of her sweetest sons… my book will remind them,” he’d said.

It was dark now. The moon bathed the courtyard in soft splashes of silver. Below the slope, the two elephants, their trunks still intertwined, rubbed against each other. I walked towards them and half-wished ‘… if only Robert Flaherty were to come back right now…’


Thursday, April 15, 2010


It was hot. Susan Boyle’s voice swirled along the CD and rose above the hum of the car tyres. On the passenger seat next to me R was struggling to keep his balance on a tightrope of a note that Susan had let fly. Behind us slept Shelley (named after his aunt, not the poet) and Iqbal Singh, their heads lolling and dribbling in perfect harmony. Cruising along Karnal road, ensconced in climate-controlled comfort, pursuing the seductions of the open road, it was a good day until I slowed down behind a tractor trailer and… WHAM!!! Shards of glass screamed into the cabin, pelting the occupants like hail. I ducked and braked till the car stopped mere millimetres from the trailer. I looked around to assess the damage. My friends, all strapped, looked shell-shocked and a little funny, with odd angled glass pieces peeping out of their hair… But ruined coiffures aside, we were largely undamaged, which was no small relief. Our SUV was another matter though… a truck had rammed into what was now a rather pinched rear. The rear windshield had shattered to bits… we got out of the car while the truck driver was trying to reverse out of the situation. I pulled the trucker’s arm and hauled him out while Shelley clambered onto the truck’s cockpit, landed the usual introductory blows and snatched away the keys. While I held onto the trucker so that he didn’t run away, R and Iqbal carried on with the introductions.

I started feeling a little sorry for the guy. Well over six feet tall and wiry, he kept apologising. I tried to stop R and Shelley while Iqbal continued with the verbal volleys. Th e man’s pleading got to them and they calmed down. That’s when he said “Shagirdi kar raha hoon… maaf kar do…” That upset me. I couldn’t believe that a man who hadn’t learnt driving yet was callous enough to get that overloaded behemoth onto the highway, endangering others around him. What if he’d rammed into a smaller car or a two wheeler? People could’ve died. Though I hadn’t raised my hand yet, I pushed him onto the pavement in incredulous anger…

He stumbled back onto the crowd that had gathered around us… advice flew in from everywhere, like vultures descending on a carcass. Earlier, out of pity, I’d considered letting the poor guy go… after all accidents happen. But when I learnt how irresponsible he’d been I hoped to teach him a lesson. Shelley suggested we take him to the cops. So R and I got into my car, which was still functional, while Iqbal and Shelley got into the truck to ensure it followed us to the police station.

Once there, you’d expect things to roll our way. After all, we’d been ‘rammed from the rear’; the driver was without a license and we were ‘press folk’. Well, you thought wrong, for around here, the cop’s always right and you’re only as wrong as you are stingy. Things weren’t looking good. So within our modest means, we invoked the near-divine forces which matter in these corridors of power – senior police officers. Shelley informed a friend whose father’s chair was stationed near the very top of the police pyramid in the area and he was kind enough to call up the SHO and asked him to address the matter… with that, the rusty machinery creaked into noisy motion. The driver got another earful, the owners were summoned and we were asked if we’d like some water

Another friend’s father knew a surveyor in the area who offered to help assess the damage. The surveyor chalked up an estimate that had me peeling my eyebrows off the ceiling just as the truck owners entered. The two men – pudgy 30 year olds – smiled at the SHO and said, “Sirrr… idhar aaiye.” Under normal circumstances, I would’ve smelt a rat but secure in the knowledge that the cops wouldn’t mess with people who know their bosses, we relaxed as the trio conferred. The SHO returned and said, “They’re offering to pay damages… want to settle? Or would you like to report the matter?” We contemplated our options and agreed to ‘settle’. But when they were shown the estimate, they shook their heads at the figure like bystanders might at road kill. I wasn’t in the mood for negotiations and stomped off to fi le a report. The SHO now draft ed a statement that not only mentioned the accident but also an unidentified corpse he’d ‘recovered’… whoa! I wasn’t going to sign that. Meanwhile, the owners agreed to cover more of the damages. So, I told our SHO that I’d be happy to ‘settle’ instead. And the SHO (as the kindly surveyor revealed later) then told the owners that they’d settled for too many, taken his cut and then walked up to me and without batting an eyelid, said, “Perhaps you got two thousand more than you’d expected… so (give me) the rest…?”. We just stared back with round-eyed innocence until he got the drift …

So with a crushed car but a restored ego, we headed out for Chandigarh with the sad realisation that while we keep hoping and working towards making our world a better place, for now if you’re in trouble, you better know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who matters, otherwise, you’re ‘fish’ed!


Thursday, April 1, 2010


Bhuvan was upset. He’d come in late for work and something didn’t seem right. He seemed upset… very upset. He kept staring into the Google homepage as if the screen had been cussing at him and he couldn’t think of something appropriate to spit back at the monitor. I walked up to him with trepidation, put an arm on his shoulder and asked “Run into someone this morning?” Bhuvan’s expression softened and he smiled half a smile and nodded, “Yes… Ma!” Now that’s a surprise. Bhuvan adores his parents and his wife and his mother get along like a house on fire. But now it looked like there’s fat in the fire. After all, friction between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law will oft en ignite more than just TRP ratings.

“Don’t worry…” I offered “It’ll die out… these saasbahu fights always do. …” Bhuvan shook his head, “It isn’t us. I had a showdown because of the maid.” Now, you’ve heard of men bickering with parents for a wife, but how many men do you know who would fume and froth in anger and squabble with parents for a maid. I choked on a chuckle since Bhuvan’s earnest fury hadn’t abated, and just asked him what happened. Bhuvan let out an exasperated sigh…

“You know Ma… (indeed I did know “aunty’. Till 2008, she was working with a rather well known school in Delhi as senior faculty, Social Studies. She’s educated, opinionated and righteous, with the same upper caste middle-class-and I use the term without any attempt at condescension or deprecation- values that are the pride and joy of her pre-liberalised generation. A kindly soul and a disciplined yet open-minded mother, she had instilled all the right values in her only son). She is being a… a… (Bhuvan seemed to struggle for the right word) a… hypocrite!” Whoa! I hadn’t expected him to use that strong a word…, “You know that Saheli and I have been looking for a house maid or a man-servant for a while. Ma and Pa need to rest, take care of themselves and enjoy this period of their lives. But instead, Ma keeps labouring away in the kitchen. Pa’s coming to terms with the idea of ‘relaxing’ but Ma just wouldn’t listen. Last week though, they finally agreed. So Saheli and I started looking around for a person who could stay and help with cleaning and dusting and cooking etc. It wasn’t easy. Some would do this but not that while others would quote a figure that would make an imperial butler blush. Finally, we found a guy who fit the bill but then scampered away at the mere mention of police verification. And then we found Rina, a twenty-something lass who would cook and clean and was quiet chatty. Ma’d like that, I thought…

She connected with the vibes in the house, was eager to learn and open to correction – basically, just perfect. A day later, Ma and Rina got talking over a cup of tea after she’d completed the day’s chores. Ma asked her a bit about her home and family… you know Ma likes talking… and Rina matched her syllable for syllable… ‘Best cook in my village…’ she gushed. ‘The sewiyan (vermicelli) I make for Eid is famous in our district’. Ma frowned… ‘Sewiyan for Eid? What’s your full name, Rina?’ The girl seemed a little zapped by the question ‘Rubina… Rubina… Ma-ji… what happened?’ Ma got up and walked away from the living room. Saheli and I followed her upstairs… ‘She’s a Muslim!’, Ma said. So…? Well, so ‘…we can’t have a beef-eater in the kitchen… we just can’t’. You have to understand that after spending thirty years with parents who’ve always taught me to treat people based on their human values and not religious ones, aft er my mother has cooked for my Muslim friends who’ve stayed over, necessarily voted for secular parties, and studied Urdu because of her love for Ghalib and Mir’s poetry, I was more than a little shocked. Ma, I’ve eaten beef and you know it, I told her, but she would have none of it. If you weren’t my son, I wouldn’t allow you in the kitchen either, she told me, and said ‘I like our Muslim friends and can happily give them a hug and remember them in my prayers but can’t have them cooking in the kitchen. Call me what you will but I just can’t… Period.’ I was worried that Rina would overhear our altercation and yet I couldn’t hold back. Shock mingled with anger and frustration spewed forth and I said things I perhaps shouldn’t have but the realisation that the very person who shaped my secular world-view was now acting against those very values stirred a raging storm in my heart. My mother wouldn’t budge, and though adamant then, I knew that it’d be impossible for Rina to stay… this morning Rina left , and I won’t forget the look in her sad understanding eyes. I had let both her and the values (Ma has inculcated in me) down.” Bhuvan walked off towards the coffee- counter… and I wondered whether I should celebrate the winds of change blowing slowly but surely in every Bhuvan’s house or lament the sense of alienation that every Rina endures even today.