Saturday, February 24, 2007

Live - From the Calcutta Book Fair

So, I managed to resurrect my attendance at the Calcutta Book Fair after a three-year hiatus. And quite appropriately, this year was the first time the Fair was being held in a different venue. From the centrally located Maidan, it has moved to a smaller, more intimate location at the Salt Lake Stadium.
Hopefully, this streak of attendance will last as long as the previous one.

One of the attractions of this year's Fair was the ABP stall.
The ABP campaign runs on the punchline - Anandabazar ki Bollo? (What did Anandabazar say?) - and it is a tongue-in-cheek rendition of the topical events of the day. I had written about it earlier as well - but this campaign seems to have grown in popularity enough to be quite a discussion point in the city.
In fact, from the tone of the campaign, it is becoming something like the Amul campaign (without the visuals). Witty, topical and very visible. People in Calcutta actually wait for the next one.
The ABP stall had a collection of all the punchlines from the last few years. I managed to memorise most of them.
For non-speakers of the language, this remains inaccessible. But then, you have not been able to watch a Ray film in its complete splendour, you have not read Tagore in the original. This is just a funny ad campaign you are missing out on!

On Indian Cricket

* John Wright na Wrong?
* Timteam India!
* Ebar Dada-r Test!
* Maharaj Not Out!

Cinema / Entertainment
* Guru-r Kripai Aishwarya-labh!
* Don Banega Crorepati!

Topical Issues of Calcutta
* Shohor dublei office dub?
* Poojo Ashchhey na Bhashchhey?
* Dengue-r Jongi Hana!

Other topical issues
* Ronaldo dharey kaTben na bharey?
* Pluto-r ekhon Shoni-r dosha!
* Abu Salem ekhon Kabu Salem!
* Lojjai Natabar Lal!
* Shilpa Good. Goody Bad.


And I ended the 32nd Book Fair with the following picture.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

My Favourites from Indo-Anglian Fiction

For a very long time, the only English fiction I read was by Indian authors. It started with Midnight's Children and I ran through the entire range of the usual suspects like Rushdie, Anita Desai and Amitav Ghosh. Then I went into unknowns of varying degrees like Jayabrato Chatterjee, Rohit Manchanda, Shauna Singh Baldwin and what-not?
Given that every author at that point of time was launched in a blaze of publicity and fizzled out after their first novels, it was simply impossible to have a favourite author. Only favourite books.
One of the last novels of this genre I read was The House of Blue Mangoes by David Davidar. The erstwhile head of Penguin India had churned out yet another exotic dynastic saga set in rural Tamil Nadu and I called it quits. After all, how many times can you read about the semi-autobiographical sagas of growing up in small-town with all the staple ingredients of extra-marital affairs, child abuse and unrequited love - peppered with descriptions of intricate social customs ?
Today, I saw one of my favourites at the airport bookstall and thought of compiling a list of my ten favourite novels. These have stood the test of time (as far as I am concerned) for I have read each one of them several times already and would not mind reading again.
In alphabetical order, here goes...

Afternoon Raag - Amit Chaudhuri
Amit Chaudhuri wrote about a Calcutta boy's growing up in Bombay. His vacations in Calcutta, his life in Bombay. His novels in general (and this one in specific) is characterised by an absolute lack of plot.
What he lacked in story, he made up for in descriptions of the mundane. The sofa-set, the geometry box, the mound of rice on the lunch plate all achieved the importance of World War III. His eye for detail was fantastic and he composed the novel almost entirely out of an extended description of a music tutorial in the afternoon.
Sounds arbit? It is one of the most readable novels I have ever read!

Bunker 13 - Aniruddha Bahal
This one is - admittedly - one of the more controversial choices of the list and also the latest entrant.
Written in the second person, it is about a reporter who discovers an arms racket, while on an assignment in the Indian Army. The twists & turns, the breathtaking pace and the topicality of the prose (coming on the back of Bahal's expose of corruption in defence deals a.k.a Operation Westend) made the book sort of a pioneer in the genre of political thrillers in India. It ends with such a sting that it completely absolves the author of the absolute rubbish he churned out in the sex scenes!
In fact, he won the Bad Sex Award for the year 2003 thanks to his really far-fetched invocation of a Bugatti in an allegedly passionate paragraph!

The Calcutta Chromosome - Amitava Ghosh
One of my favourites! How did you ever guess?
Science fiction meets malaria meets Bengali matinee idol meets really gripping narrative.
Starting in the future, it oscillates between periods in history, connecting apparently disjointed bits of time in a seamless tale. Blending speculation and fictional recreation of history, Amitav Ghosh manages to trace the movements of two characters from different periods of time - Antar and Murugan - as the latter follows the discovery of a cure for malaria and the former tries to track the latter as he goes missing.

Cuckold - Kiran Nagarkar
What do you do if you are the king-in-waiting of a kingdom in Rajasthan? Thank your lucky stars, right?
What if your father is a nincompoop, your stepmother is out to kill you, your stepbrother is a philandering wimp and theMughal emperor is waiting to crush your kingdom? You find solace in the beautiful wife you have just married, right? What if she spends all her day singing songs dedicated to some dark-skinned jerk, whom she is claiming to have gotten married to?
Kiran Nagarkar does a lovely job of fictionalising history - in intricate details and a great sense of perspective. The Maharana of Mewar - also known as Meera's husband - became a hero like no other, despite his obvious shortcomings. A real page-turner.

English, August - Upamanyu Chatterjee
If not anything else, it added 'hazaar fucked' to our vocabulary! What I liked on first reading, I completely fell in love with when I was sent on a cross-country hike during my Trainee stint. I went to millions of places like Madna, explained to billions of people what my name meant and generally got hazaar fucked.
The city slicker's angst in small-town India - "unknown yet familiar" - and small-town's India's bemusement at the city slicker has never been so accurately described. This became one of the most well-known Indo-Anglian novels after Rahul Bose displayed his derriere in all its pristine glory and both the film and novel became a cult favourite. Post the success of the film, all the editions of the book got a new design with Rahul Bose's mug on it!

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
At a point of time, when I was quite fed up with the same old semi-autobiographical exotica, came a marketing blitz. David Godwin swore on his mother's grave that this novel was the greatest thing to happen to Kerala since the backwaters. And the rest of the publishing world followed suit.
I received this book as a gift before I left for Jamshepdur to join XLRI. And I promised myself that if it turns out to have any of the following, I would stop and probably throw the book down the Shatabdi toilet. The checklist was - Exotic location. Growing up in small town India. Intricate details of insignificant things. Child abuse. Extra-marital affair from a child's POV. Peppering the text with local words. It had ALL of them - but Arundhati Roy gave these cliches such an uplifting form that I read it in one long stretch. No wonder I don't remember a thing from the induction! Pity she never wrote another one...

The Golden Gate - Vikram Seth
Is this a poem or a novel? Is Vikram Seth a genius or a genius?
Everything in this book - starting from the author's bio to the acknowledgments to the contents page - is in verse. And that too, sonnets in the iambic pentameter (whatever that means)! I guess half the world has read the book and the other half has read about the book, so no point going gaga over it.
Just a bit of Vikram Seth trivia - In this one, there was a 'joyless economist' called Kim Tarvesh. In A Suitable Boy, sweets are bought from a shop called Shiv Market. And in An Equal Music, we have a music critic by the name of Keith Varms. All are anagrams of the author's name!

The Last Jet Engine Laugh - Ruchir Joshi
Someone called this the best novel nobody has ever read. Even I would have given it a miss if it wasn't for a friend's stern advice. He usually gives me good advice (including the times he had asked me stop drinking and I ignored) - and this was one of his better ones.
A multi-generational saga ending in the future (or rather, starting in the future) where a female fighter pilot is flying for India in a war against Pakistan. The plot oscillates between her, her parents and grand-parents. A loose montage of events bind the plot together as we go back-and-forth from the freedom struggle to a futuristic war!
And the book's cover (I have a different edition from the one here) must rank as one of the most incomprehensible ones ever - with a banana, pressure-cooker, assorted tins and other such arbitrary esoterica gracing it. Weird!

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes - Jamyang Norbu
For most Holmes-addicts, the pleasure of a Holmes story is not the process of detection. It is the character of Holmes and the build-up that happens prior to the actual case. It is the conversation in the Baker Street living room - where Holmes deduces that Watson's maid is very incompetent or that Mrs Watson is suffering from the cold - that holds great charm for the aficionado. Jamyang Norbu traces the journeys of Sherlock Holmes, when he was travelling through Tibet after the 'fatal' skirmish with Moriarty. He is accompanied by Hurree Chunder Mukherjee (a Rudyard Kipling character) who narrates the story. The plot and the detection is of no great consequence but the seamless bridge that the author builds over a missing part of the sleuth's life is quite a treat for fans. As a pastiche, it ranks as one of the best ever.

Swami and Friends - R K Narayan
Everybody from Graham Greene to Shankar Nag has paid homage to the Everykid from Malgudi. And I am only one of millions who owns a dog-eared copy of R K Narayan's best novel. I had once seen a handsome hardcover edition in a library - with illustrations by Narayan's younger brother. But I never found that edition. Such a brilliant novel deserves to be owned in a brilliant format!

Cow Belt Curiosities

One of the (debatable) perks of my current job is the travel required in the most interesting area of the country – The Cow Belt. It has characters and incidents in abundance – and the space to appreciate the finer details. After all, what is a story if it is not spaced out?
Every trip of mine throws up at least a couple of very recount-able stories which are sure to pep up any after-dinner conversation!
Hell, I love this job!

Jharkhand wants Bipasha!
On recent trips to Ranchi, I am regaled with interesting stories about the musical-chairs that are routine part of the choosing the CM in the state. Then, I was told how the choice of the Chief Secretary also invloves hectic lobbying because one candidate wants to make money, one wants to get into politics and the third candidate is a Bengali... who wants to become the Chief Secretary and then use the clout to get posted to Calcutta! What things you do for Bhapa Ilish!
On one of these trips, I asked as an ice-breaker, “Aur, kya haal hain Jharkhand ka?” – which is really one of those questions one does not really expect an answer apart from a sighing “Chal raha hain…
This time, there was an answer… “Jharkhand mein ab sab ko Bipasha chahiye…
Yeah right, everyone agrees John Abraham is the luckiest man on the planet! So I smiled one of those same-here-dude kind of smile.
But there was an explanation… Bi is Bijli. Pa is Paani. And Sha is Sadak.
So, Ms Basu will have to wait. After Roti-Kapdaa-Makaan, the next triumvirate is here!

Circular No. 41/2005
An interesting board adorns the entrance to the security area in Lucknow airport. Actually, it is probably there at all airports (from the statutory compliance point of view), but only Lucknow is spacious and relaxed enough for it to get noticed.
It is the list of Persons who are Exempt from the Pre-Embarkation Security Checks at Indian airports (vide Bureau of Civil Aviation Circular No. 41/2005 dated 28.09.2005). It consists of positions (not individuals) that are of national importance or prestige. Except one.
It starts with The President, The Vice President and The Prime Minister - predictably occupying the top three spots. The list includes a whole lot of people including (but not restricted to) foreign dignitaries, Supreme Court judges and some exalted classes of Parliamentarians.
What is curious is the last name in the list.
Number 21 is His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
Number 22 is an all-encompassing term called 'SPG Protectees'.
Number 23 is 'Mr Robert Vadra, when travelling with SPG Protectees'.
Which means, we will frisk Sachin Tendulkar at the airports. We will frisk Amartya Sen. We will frisk Amitabh Bachchan (till of course, he becomes No. 1 in the list!) - because they do not hold any post of national importance. We will frisk Rahul Dravid, because his position is probably not important enough.
But we will not frisk a small-time Delhi businessman (identified by name) because he is married to the nation's first Prime Minister's great-granddaughter.

And as I brought one more trip to a close, I saw what I thought had become a astronomical impossibility.
I saw Amar Singh without Amitabh! He chirpily boarded the flight to Delhi. So while I took the brunt of the wrong end of the sighting, some lucksters in Bombay must have hit pay dirt. They would have seen Amitabh without Amar Singh!
Damn, I hate this job!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Pilgrim's Progress: Calcutta Book Fair 2007

The second most popular tourist city in France is not Nice, Cannes or Bordeaux. It is Lourdes - where an estimated five million Christians go every year on a pilgrimage to sight the Virgin Mary. Mecca gets about four million pilgrims each year for Haj. Another five million pilgrims trek some 15 kms every year for a darshan of Mata Vaishnodevi.
On its last day every year, Calcutta Book Fair gets about a million visitors. Over its full tenure, my guess is that there would be about two million pilgrims who visit the Book Fair annually - which is not in league with the most popular religious hot-spots but then, it is the biggest misfortune of mankind that knowledge is not as popular as religion.

I first visited the Calcutta Book Fair in its very first year of existence - 1976 - as a toddler, mostly in my father's arms. I am told, it was a small bunch of publishers who put up a few stalls and offered a 10% discount on their books. My parents - having nothing to do on a Sunday evening - decided to go there on a whim and the entire family was hooked.
However, I became the certified bibliomaniac of the family at a very early age and after the first few years, I bullied everyone into taking me to the Book Fair. The Book Fair grew faster than I did - and soon, it became the sprawling expanse of book, food and trivia stalls that it now is.

I visited the Fair for every single year from 1976 to 2003, religiously saving money and collating a must-buy list for the entire year in anticipation of the pilgrimage. In 2003, I visited the Fair a few days after I got married – wriggling out of several pressing social obligations (of which I will never hear the end of!).
From 2004-06, I missed out on the Fair for a variety of reasons and the intense depression I felt during that time of the years was quite inexplicable. I mean, I bought all the books I wanted and it is not that the Calcutta Book Fair had any book that I would not find anywhere. But still…

I guess the biggest draw of the Fair for me was the thrill of being part of a huge brotherhood of bibliophiles. Admittedly, a considerable section of the Fair-goers came for the more seductive charms of BenFish but the overwhelming majority would be there for the lure of the printed word. And this, in extension, is the psyche of Calcutta – erudition and passion going hand in hand.

Beyond a point, the Book Fair ceased to be a market for books. It became an arena for the arts. The portrait painter. The calligrapher. The group of college students, who came to sell collections of poems they had written. The activist who wanted to propagate the cause he believed in (including one who thought the sun went around the earth). The multinational publisher who wanted to launch his latest bestseller. The celebrity author who came to sign copies of his latest. Even the telebhaja-seller who wanted to his sell his fried snacks was an artiste. And the Fair was a forum for all of them and more.

When the Fair was razed to the ground in a devastating fire in 1997, it came back up within a day as booksellers and buyers alike flocked to the grounds in an unstated show of solidarity. The stalls were destroyed, most of the salvaged books were singed but there was no dearth of enthusiasm as people happily bought those damaged copies, to support the booksellers who had lost almost everything.

Broadly, I think – a pilgrimage is a journey undertaken to fulfill your dreams. In that sense, a visit to the Calcutta Book Fair is exactly that. Everyone – seller or buyer – comes out of the Fair clutching at least a part of what he wants from life. Be it a bag of money, be it an autograph, be it a rare book or be it a ‘mindful’ of happy memories.

Today, my son visited the 32nd Calcutta Book Fair with his mother and grandmother. It was the first Fair of his lifetime, so my wife managed to perpetuate one family tradition by taking him on the annual pilgrimage.
I do not know whether he will inherit my set of bibliomaniac genes but then, that’s not important either. The important thing is to have a pilgrimage to go on. For some, it is Sundance. For some, it is Woodstock.
And the Calcutta Book Fair is a grand enough start.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Slurp, Slurp: Our Favourite Restaurants

So, almost five years after the first edition, the second one is out.
The list of our favourite restaurants. And we did it exactly the same way we did the first… chatting over MSN. Though, by a strange quirk, I was in Delhi this time around and she in Calcutta – exact opposite of the earlier configuration!
We got down our lists of ten each, had five in common and ten very good 'honourable mentions'! Which means that our common choices have actually reduced over the last few years. Blame it on the opinionated-ness of old age!

We have eliminated sentimentality for most of it (so, the first place where we met should not have qualified – but it did!) and screwed regional quotas as well (which is why there isn’t a single Cal restaurant in the top 5)!
Also, the base is obviously the list where we have eaten at… so, some big guns are awaiting inclusion in Edition III.

So, without much ado, here are the places that are guaranteed to make you go heavier in the tummies and lighter in the pockets – and salivating afterwards!

Bukhara – Maurya Sheraton, Delhi
What do I say that Bill Clinton has not said already? Only this – if I consider only the rotis and the Dal Bukhara, even then it deserves entry!

Diva – Greater Kailash II, Delhi
This one has won innumerable awards for its fabled wine list, which has bottles priced at almost my month’s salary! But the food that it goes with is so good that you won’t miss the wine all that much. The freshness of the salmon, the smoothness of the fish, the texture of the chicken are all first-rate. So, go ahead and binge. And don’t ask them to pack it! The presentation of the food is so intrinsic to the whole deal that the steward looks really crestfallen if you do! The wines available ‘by the glass’ are also quite brilliant (not to mention, reasonable), so that’s recommended as well.

Mainland China
They are the Gods of Indian Chinese. No pretensions, no Page 3 crowds, no publicity mongering - just plain good food. Make that plain fantabulous food. No Chinese chef in their right minds would put mustard and fish together. These guys do - and there is a hint to pickle as well. Strange? It works like a charm. And they have perfected the randomness of their excellence so well that we seldom go through the menu. We just reel off prawn-for-starter-chicken-for-main-course-non-veg-noodles kind of order and it is perfect!

Millers 46 – Millers Road, Bangalore
The only dark horse of the Top 5. Bangalore is an absolute Mecca for Continental food but this one takes the cake. Actually, the steak! This Wild West style steakhouse serves the juiciest of the cuts with the absolute perfect mix of pepper, sauce and sizzle. The only reason it beats out the big guns of Bangalore is the consistency of the quality. The meat is unfailingly first rate and the treatment uniformly well done (and I don’t mean the way I want my steak cooked!).

Oh Calcutta
Myth 1: Oh Calcutta is Bengali cuisine.
Myth 2: Oh Calcutta is expensive.
Calcutta is a melting pot of so many cuisines that it is diffcult to keep track - Bengali, Mughlai, Continental, Russian, Railway, Chinese - but Oh Cal does a fantastic job of it. And, thanks to the gleam of the place, it looks really swanky place till you realise the two of you (sometimes three) have stuffed yourself delirious at less than a four digit bill!

And after the best of the best, we are left with the best of the rest - which are just as good. Only, we were not unanimous about them!

Baan Thai (Delhi) - The best Thai food in India. All the reds and greens of their curries in perfect harmony.

Bheema's (Bangalore) - Purveryor of a very esoteric thing called the 'Andhra Thali', which is similar to Scotch whisky in its need for acquired taste! These guys have perfected the art of deferred hotness (where you gorge first and then die of the spice)!

Bombay Post (Bangalore) - Don't ask me why they are called that. Part of a group with really high standards, they manage to stand out spectacularly.

Cornucopia (Chennai) - Limited menu, devastating consistency. Situated in a dilapidated building on Cenotaph Road, their red snappers and pork chops are stuff people will die for.

Karavalli (Bangalore) - The interiors are apparently like that of a Mangalorean house. After the first nibble of the appam and fish curry (or for that matter, anything!), who gives a f***?

Paradise (Hyderabad) - The best biriyani ever. Remember, a Calcutta boy has chosen this over Shiraz. Just take his word for it.

Minar (Delhi) - One of the best kept secrets of the Butter Chicken Trail. Their kababs are too marvelous to be true.

Trishna (Bombay) - Squid. Butter. Garlic. Lightly tossed. Any questions?

Zafraan (Hyderabad) - A dark horse which beats out the top contenders in the Indian domain.

Zodiac Grill (Bombay) - The country's most expensive restaurant cannot NOT get into a list like this. If you have disagreeable company, go the The Grill. The experience will make up for everything!

So, finally I have got that monkey off my back and now I can peacefully go back to Bollywood trivia. And right on cue, guess what the Big B is playing in Cheeni Kum? A master chef, wooing Tabu. The easiest way to a woman's heart...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Play It Again, Sam!

Everyone should have a theme song.
Apart from providing a standard entertainment option at picnics, the greater utility is, of course, when the family gets separated at Kumbh Mela or - more realistically - at the Inorbit Mall. Twenty years later, when a Muslim Police Officer (a.k.a The Elder Brother) will be taking a Hindu Tapori (a.k.a The Younger Brother), a Blind Flower Seller (a.k.a The Mother) has to be singing the same song at the traffic signal so that the 3-hour saga can finally be ended!
Bottomline, everyone should have a theme song.

And guess what? They already have! And for the strangest of reasons...

It could be because Saajan was the first film someone watched with this girlfriend (alone). And "Bahut pyaar karte hain tumse sanam" is his HelloTune fifteen years later.
It could be because a gang from college watched Ishq together. And that has ensured "Mr Lova Lova" has played at every college reunion since then.
For Javed Akhtar, "Woh subah kabhi to aayegi" - heard on a paan-shop radio as a struggler getting refused everyday - holds greater poignancy than anything else.
For Rick, Elsa's request of "As time goes by" kindles memories of how he ended up at the most popular nightclub of Casablanca. Despite the pain, he walked up to the crooner and did not say what everybody thought he did!

These memories have nothing to do with the melody of the song, the success of the film or the charisma of the lead players. It has a whole lot to do with the listeners' state of mind - level of inebriation, agreeability of company, sense of identity with lead players, applicability of the situation to current context etc.
And all that means there is a smile on your lips every time "Mannu bhai motor chale pom pom pom" plays somehere within earshot.

Even film characters have these songs which they hum, whistle, play on mouth-organ before the 70-piece orchestration takes over and the song bursts on to the screen.
Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge had SRK playing the tune on his banjo incessantly and it hovered in the background score before "Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana sanam" reached its climax in the mustard fields of Punjab!
Amitabh and Jaya had one in Abhimaan. Amitabh hummed it. It was played on the piano. We heard it without music. And then, in the final scene, they both broke off from their past demons to sing the evergreen "Tere mere milan ki yeh raina". The elder Burman scored yet again!

We had a Play-It-Again-Sam (PIAS) song in B-school.
It was a number called "Kaisa yeh pyaar hain allah allah" from the film Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya. Aishwarya Rai's debut Hindi film also had Bobby Deol and sank like a rock! This particular song had Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing it on screen - and it was one of those songs which nobody remembers after it exits the countdown shows. But someone in our gang realised that hearing this song before a class test led to an easier paper! This discovery immediately ensured that the song was christened The Anthem - and it was blared out of the music system just before we left our rooms. All of us even saluted dutifully when it was on!
Did The Anthem work? Well, we did graduate, didn't we?

Some songs work even better when given a twist of their own... Subhash Ghai's Karz was to previous births what Anand was to cancer. And its centre-piece "Ek Haseena Thi" had a guitar-riff which has come to be the theme music of rememberance of things past!
Every time anybody tries to remember something, one in the group starts to hum the tune helpfully, Tangta tang tang Tangta tang tang... if you know what I mean!
And the twist I was talking about?
A group of Management Trainees in Reckitt & Colman (now Reckitt Benckiser) changed the lyrics a wee bit. In an ode to the flagship brand of the company, the new version went, "Ek Paseena Thi, Ek Dettol Tha..." and it became something of a theme song for that and subsequent batches of trainees!
Har har! Play it again, again and again...

For me and my wife, the PIAS moment came during Salaam Namaste. Primarily noted for Preity & Saif's toned abs, it also had a song - "My dil goes mmmmm" - which trailed far behind its better known cousin (the title song). Our amazement was for the simple fact that the song managed to describe both of us so accurately that it was almost psychic!
I noticed it first - when they said "Aati hai woh aise chal ke jaise jannat mein rehti hai / Dekhti hai sabko aise jaise sabko woh sehti hai / Par gusse mein jab aaye / Aur aankhein woh dikhlaye / Ladte ladte galti se muskaaye..." - and realised it was the most accurate description of my wife anybody has ever managed!
She got back in the very next stanza - "Karti hoon jab usse baatein lagta hai sone waala hai / Soke jab jab bhi woh jaage lagta hai rone waala hai / Par chupke se woh aaye / Meri neend se mujhe jayage / Le baahon mein aur khud hi gir jaaye..."
Pedantic people will argue that I have never woken her up, but this is one song when we never touch the remote!

Right now, a new PIAS has taken control of my life. My son insists on hearing this one during all his meals and it is as illogical as it gets!
"Signal, pyaar ka signal" from the all-time clanger Bhaagam Bhaag is the one - and His Lordship gets really angry if everybody in the room does not start leaping when the Remo goes "Jump, jump, jump in the air"! We are breathless - and are only hoping to embarrass him beyond belief when he grows up!

So, what song do YOU want to hear?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Do You Know a Nobel Laureate?

Well, neither do I. But there is this guy I know.

He never came first in school. Actually, he spent a whole lot of time standing outside the class (or being suspended).
Then, he took the IIT-JEE with the rest of the world. His rank was a modest 179 (or thereabouts). He enrolled for the M.Sc course in Chemistry at Kanpur. Just when his closest friends were mourning the departure of a real fun guy, he came back. He wanted to study pure Chemistry, which was not happening in the best technological institute of the country.
He started doing his B.Sc in Jadavpur University of Calcutta, where he stood second.
He went back to IIT Kanpur for his Masters – and this time, he stayed on. He stood first.
He went to do his Ph.D in Harvard. There is no ranking of doctorates. However, he has been awarded a prize called the Nobel Laureate Signature Award, which consists of a plaque signed by all the US Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. It is given to the doctoral student whose work has had the maximum impact in the field.
This time, his doctorate guide stated that about half of the current work in his lab relies on the work this fellow had done. Think about it. 50% of the work in a Harvard lab relies on one PhD thesis. One.

But why I am going on and on about all this?
Because for the last 26 years, I have had the privilege of knowing Anirban Banerjee – who started his formal education at the same school on the same January morning in 1981 as I did.
And in these three decades, I have been punished because of him. He has been punished because of me.
I made him read Golden Gate. He made me read Afternoon Raag. (Or, was it the other way round?)
We pooled in money to buy our first bottle of Old Monk. But he never paid me for the taxi fare back home. (He pretended to be more sloshed than I was!)
He watched Citizen Kane at my place. He also watched Basic Instinct at my place!
When he came back from IIT, his father interrogated me for possible narcotic connections. When I was late in returning home once, he was interrogated by mine. And in a classic response to my dad’s “Have you guys been drinking?”, he had said “Kaku, not a drop today!”
And there have been countless movies, binges, books, tutorials and tapes – all of which qualify me for being his biographer as and when it happens!

And I remember a time after our Class XII, when somebody had asked him – why Chemistry and not Engineering? He had said, “There is a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.” I had laughed uproariously at this quip.
That was probably the only immodest thing he had ever said in his life, as we never got to know any of his achievements from him. His pathological fear of praise probably needs medical attention – as he becomes incommunicado every time any thing of consequence happens in his life.

All his friends always made references about him winning the Nobel Prize - not for the fact that he was simply the most intelligent person we had known, but for the fact we did not know of any other big prize in Chemistry! Now, I realise that we never really understood his capabilities and our good wishes ended up sounding like jokes.
For he started to go beyond meeting our expectations. He has started to meet his own.

He has now come up on the same plaque as a whole lot of Nobel Laureates. Maybe, he will come up on the same podium some day.
I am waiting to say yes to the question in the title.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The God of Bollywood Trivia

This blog comes up with a whole lot of Bollywood trivia every now and then. So, no surprises as a few more of them come up. Except this time, all of these are excerpted from mails I have received from just one person!

To start with, here are a few subject lines from my inbox!
1. Scenes depicting bikini-clad ladies from Hindi movies
2. Filmography: Suresh Oberoi
3. List of Jungle Movies
4. Filmography: Huma Khan
5. Filmography: Satyen Kappu
6. Any other Tarzan movie you know of?
7. List of movies released in 1992
8. Movies dubbed in Hindi
9. Subhash Ghai’s films as an actor

And then, excerpts from some random mails over eight years:

First up, a short bio of an actress who changed her name!
An acting graduate from FTII, Rehana Sultana shocked the nation by stripping in her very first film: BR Ishara's 'Chetna'(1970). It was about a boy from a decent middle class background falling in love with a call girl and wanting to marry her. Anil Dhawan played the obsessed lover. 'Chetna' was a hit. So was Rehana Sultana.
Followed Rajendra Singh Vedi's 'Dastak' (1970), another film which got 'A' (For Adults Only) certificate from the censors. It had Sanjeev and Rehana, a newly married couple, being conned into becoming tenants in a kholi, located in a red light area. ‘Dastak’ won laurels, Urvashi Award for Rehana and also brickbats for an unconventional theme.
Her third film 'Man Tera Tan Mera' (1971) too got an 'A' certificate.
Unfazed, Rehana deleted the A from Sultana, became Rehana Sultan and declared, "I have donated the A from my name to Censor Board!"
There were more films. Eventually, Rehana fell in love with her director-mentor B R Ishara, married and retired.

Second, a story on how a top star of the day was conned and by whom!
'Mr X' was inspired by 'The Invisible Man'. In a way, one can consider this to be the mother of Shekhar Kapur’s 'Mr India'! The film had all those tricks - invisible man smoking a cigarette, furniture moving on its own and pistol hanging in air and scaring the villains.
What made 'Mr X' remarkable is a little trick Nanabhai Bhatt and the producer G.P.Sippy played on Ashok Kumar, the 'hero' of this film. Kumar was signed on a daily fee of Rs 1000.
Under some pretext, a smart Bhatt shot the first shots and the climax with him on the same day. And as Mr X was masked throughout the film, a duplicate did rest of the film! The duplicate was Mehmood who, later, rose to become the most successful comedian in the industry!
Ashok Kumar was sore. The amount he had got for doing this entire film was even less than his earnings from Bombay Talkies for his first film! But he was helpless. Moreover 'Mr X' was a hit! From this day onwards he and most of the stars refuse to shoot for climax till they are paid all their dues.
When Bhatt was quizzed he quipped, “Everything is fair in business.” No wonder the sons he has left behind - Mahesh, Mukesh, Parveen and Robin - are as shrewd.
Among Bhatt’s better known films are 'Sindbad the Sailor', 'Zimbo Comes to Town', 'Veer Ghatotkach', 'Rocket Girl' and 'Kangan’.

A letter from him to celebrate the first signs of a Bengali takeover of Hollywood!
Finally, Bengalis have arrived! My dream is to see a Bengali playing Bond - asking for a Vodka Martini, wearing Dhuti on a Bijoya Dasami afternoon as someone has hidden a nuclear bomb inside the Asur's gut. Not exactly there yet, but good progress.
Remember the guy who played the Doctor in MI6 headquarters who was instructing Bond on how to use the defibrillator as Bond was having a heart attack? That guy is our very own Paul Bhattacharjee - I bet his first name is Palash!
This is the 2nd most important day in Bengali history (first one was when Rabi Thakur returned his Knighthood). Whoo hooo!!!

And finally, a mail from somebody else describing a 'classic' film. But it actually describes him amazingly well!
Sent: Tuesday, November 23, 1999 3:11 PM
Subject: Agni-Chakra!

Junta, kal ek itnaa fart movie dekhaa, ki U people can't even imagine! Seriously is se jyaada bakwaas-shit movie aaj tak kisine banaayaa hi nahi hogaa! The name is "Agni-Chakra" *-ing Govinda, Dimple, Nasirudin Shah, and Anupam Kher whose voice has been dubbed by some general Tapori! Usme there is a shady-chap the villain who presides over as the chairman of "University of Crime". For Masochist juntaa (especially Nilendu, but chances R U must've seen it before), this one is not 2 B missed! Eeeegadd! The Pits! Zaroor dekho! Seriously if U feel that there could be any other movie which can beat this one, let me know!

Why did I collect all these mails over the last one week, postponing the much-awaited restaurant post? Well, its the God's birthday. And His pearls deserve to be showcased.

Happy Birthday, Nilendu. Awaiting your next mail.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Master of the Game: The Novels of Sidney Sheldon

Sidney Sheldon passed away on 31st Jan. For me and countless millions of my generation, he was the original Pied Piper, exposing us to an unseen world of sex, lies and goggle-eyed fun! This appeared in DesiCritics - somewhat like a tribute from a fan!

The first Sidney Sheldon novel I read was The Windmills of the Gods, in 1987. I must have finished it in about 6 hours, which is about the longest I have taken to finish a Sidney Sheldon novel. Blame it on my slower reading speed!
Mary Ashley, a political science professor from Kansas is chosen by the new American President to be the US Ambassador to Romania. There is widespread resentment over the appointment. When she reaches Romania for the assignment, she meets two men (and falls in love with one) – and learns the fact that there is world-class assassin out to kill her. It was a breathtaking read – pacy and sexy – quite unsuitable for Class VIII students. And it was loaded with all the standard Sheldon signature tunes, which hooked me for the rest of his novels as well.
Except for A Stranger In the Mirror (which was based on a male Hollywood star) and The Doomsday Conspiracy (which was based on a crash landed UFO), each one of his novels followed the life of a woman and his pet themes religiously. And boy, did we devour them?
The period between 1988 and 1992 was dedicated to Sheldon’s roller coasters and we went through them as if our life depended on them. A counterfeit novel – The Pavid Pavilion – also did brisk business at the height of this craze, though 5 pages into the novel, we could make out that it had neither the pace nor the inventiveness of the original.
It was only from Nothing Lasts Forever that the speed slackened a bit and our interest waned. And that is evident from the fact that I don’t even remember the plot, let alone the names of the main characters from any of his later novels. I read them more out of habit than anything else.
Probably from his background as a screenwriter for primarily television, Sidney Sheldon wrote in episodes and with a battery of contrasting leads. Each one of his novels explored the professional and personal lives of the protagonists through a series of tightly paced events.

So, what went into a Sidney Sheldon novel?

Firstly, a heroine who looks certain to fail in an unfamiliar job.
Tracy Whitney was a super-intelligent bank executive with a flair for acting. She ended up being a con-woman with her capers across the world (If Tomorrow Comes). Jennifer Parker was a lawyer, whose first assignment was a complete disaster and the district attorney himself was out to get her. She ended up being one of the most successful lawyers of the country (Rage of Angels). Noel Page was a small-town French girl, who wanted to act. She became an international star and the mistress of a Greek tycoon (The Other Side of Midnight). Kate Blackwell used her acumen and intelligence to inherit one of the largest corporations of the world (Master of the Game). Elizabeth Roffe is fresh out of college, when he father dies to leave her in control of a crumbling pharmaceutical company (Bloodline).
Several times, the morality of the lead characters became ambiguous. Tracy Whitney was a thief and the ‘villain’ was an investigator (and the Interpol). Jennifer Parker fought cases for the mafia. In The Sands of Time, the ‘villain’ is the general who was chasing the Basque terrorists. But then, if the stories had been morality tales, they wouldn’t have been half as readable!

Two contrasting male characters – one insolent (iconoclastic) and the other sensitive (traditional).
The second recurring theme of the novels. Maybe, I am generalizing too much about their characteristics but most of them did have these two characters.
Rage of Angels had Adam Warner, who deserts Jennifer to become the President of USA. It also had Micheal Moretti as a ruthless Mafia boss, who becomes her saviour, lover and employer (in that order).
The Other Side of Midnight had Larry Douglas, who is a Casanova of a RAF pilot and deserts all the women he beds. It also had Constantin Demiris as one of the richest men in the world. Somebody told me the character was based on Aristotle Onasis but then, how many other Greek tycoons are there anyway?
The Windmills of the Gods had Mike Slade, a CIA operative in Romania who openly antagonized Mary Ashley. There was also a French doctor called Louis Deforges, with whom the heroine falls in love.
Master of the Game had a whole lot of them. The father, husband and son of Kate Blackwell were all characters of great charisma and ruthlessness. Some of them left her, some got betrayed by her.

The third twist in the tale is that usually one betrays/deserts the heroine. The other doesn’t.
Examples of these are best avoided!

Then, there is this nerd/wimp of a male character who is secretly in love with the heroine. Or, close.
Memories of Midnight had this genius (called Wim, I think) who was a bit of a recluse and a bit autistic. If Tomorrow Comes had this brilliant insurance investigator called Daniel Cooper, who trailed Tracy to catch her red-handed during her capers. Rage of Angels’ Jennifer had a gay investigative assistant, who also acts as her conscience in the book. Master of the Game had Banda – but in this case, I think the heroine was a little bit in love with him! Of course, Master of the Game also had this talented plastic surgeon, who was in love with one of the twins (the evil one of Eve & Alexandra Blackwell) in the last part of the novel.

And then there was the episodic narration. In exotic locales, peppered with local trivia and phrases / slangs.
This was probably the biggest draw. Each one of his novels is a series of events pulled off by the heroine. Rage of Angels had at least 20 very clever court cases, fought successfully by Jennifer. If Tomorrow Comes rattles off a series of heists – involving paintings, gemstones and millionaires – all of which were so ingenous that as a teenager, one inevitably had the feeling of why-didn’t-I-think-of-it-before! Ditto for The Sands of Time, where a Basque terrorist (Jaime Miro) and the four nuns (all of whom are not nuns!) escape the brutal police looking for them. Nothing Lasts Forever was the story of four lady doctors and again, there was a plethora of funny, racy, pacy medical adventures they were involved in.
As teenagers, we were left gasping for breath as the protagonists went from one episode to another, from the ‘bedroom to the boardroom’ (to quote the blurbs!) and nobody dared to put down the book without finishing. In fact, whenever the titles got circulated in class, about 14 of us managed to read it in as many days – one night being enough to gulp down the 400-pagers!
What places these happened! Spain. Cote D’Azure. South African diamond mines. Private Greek islands. Hollywood studios. Swiss villas. Luxury cruise liners. Even a New York courtroom felt like an amphitheatre!
And what characters! US fighter pilots. Russian chess masters. Belgian art dealers. African tribal leaders. Colombian assassins.
All these fascinating characters spoke affected English, with a smattering of their own tongue. I marveled at the research, till I came across an Indian patient (in Nothing Lasts Forever) called Pandit Jawaha (!), whose supposedly Hindi sentences were almost gibberish!

And always, a quote at the beginning of the book – usually, one from which the title is taken.
Longfellow’s lines kicked off The Sands of Time. Ditto for A Stranger in the Mirror. The formula for an Egyptian medicinal mixture kicked off Bloodline (which was about a pharmaceutical company). The eponymous nursery rhyme kicked off The Sky is Falling.
And my favourite – “We are all victims, Anselmo. Our destinies are decided by the whims of the stars, a cosmic roll of the dice and the vagrant breezes of fortune that blow from the windmills of the gods.”

Sidney Sheldon’s last few books hardly matched up to the reputation of his earlier ones. Either the episodes were not gripping enough, or they did not come fast enough. Or, the heroines were just not strong enough. But as far his best are concerned, when an old fan tries to write down a few thoughts, the memories come in a torrent – and with no checking of references, one manages to remember most of the names, locales and sequence of events. If one has to judge an author by the best of his output, then Sidney Sheldon ranks right up there in the league of page-tuners!

If you haven’t read it already, pick up If Tomorrow Comes the next time you are in an airport bookshop. Chances are they will have to page you to get you into the flight!