……. and back.

Its been more than a year.  Far too long.

Oceans rose, icebergs melted, and a few hundred polar bears drowned, their bellies churning fat blubber and polychlorinated biphenyl pesticides, their heavy fur dragging them down, the next ice floe too far, their flesh too weak, their spirit too crushed.  Then just for solidarity, the Greeks did a polar bear too.  As did a derrick named Deepwater, sinking more than a mile to the ocean bed, its ugly visage no longer blocking our Horizons.

The earth trembled, then shook, and giant ripples washed ashore: snapping bridges, crunching cars.  Rivers flooded, and torrential deluges washed away a people already embittered by hate and Hadith.  Afterwards, the sun shone, and then shone some more.  Parched leaves wilted and curled in the heat, then kindled and crackled in the shade.  The smoke was visible from the moon, they told us, as if that somehow were a matter of pride: even the Gods can witness our follies now.

Someone set fire to a fruit-seller, and the people – incensed, hungry and bitter, rose to rid themselves of their masters.  Scepter and crown came tumbling down, and in the shifting sands, were made equal.

Bombs went off in crowded markets, and near leaders’ houses.  In the mountains, not far from the roof of the world, tribal areas that were once federally administered were now listless and pockmarked – their  complexion blemished by big metal birds that prowled the sky.

A tall man with a long beard was dragged away from his home by soldiers.  His body was dropped into the ocean a few days later, sinking softly to the bottom of the sea: Deep Waters once again.

So much has changed, yet nothing has changed.  The more I run, the clearer it becomes to me that I am not going anywhere.  This is just a slow sort of place, where the eddies and whorls in the stream of time wash over the boulders every day: seething, smoothing.

The Red Queen would approve.

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: 291 Vaswani Nagar, North Main Road, Koregaon Park, Pune :

Pune was a quieter place then.  It was 1997, the year of the last great Pune Floods. M G Road was a one-way road, Deccan looked like a vast campus and Orient Express (since deceased) delivered pizzas to homes. Aundh was a forest, and NDA stood atop a dark and lonely hill in Khadakvasla.

There were birds in the lake beyond the NCL campus.

Laxmi Road was the artery that ran through the city. Camp was the green lung that breathed, its alveoli soaking the heat and the air. Sassoon stood stolid next to The Railway station, housing (among other things) 2000+ hospital beds and one appendix (belonging to one mr mohandas karamchand gandhi, preserved for posterity). Budhwar Peth was the red light district.

And Koregaon Park was the centre of the Universe.

Its own universe, alone and distinct. A mysterious world of brooding buildings and overgrown gardens, plaster seraphs and purple robes – roaming the streets during the day, their open hair catching the dappled sunlight.

As you passed over the bridge leaping across the railway lines from Camp to Koregaon, the Don Bosco centre would rise on your right, and the turn off to North Main Road soon after.  North Main Road snaked its way to Mundhwa, umbilically connected to South Main Road by a ladder-rung of gentility, seven in all: unobtrusive portals that would ferry you from bustling NMR to the leafy temple-strewn length of SMR. In between the two roads was a mystery land of crumbling old houses and mysterious manors, their facades fenced by ferns and foliage, set deep inside from the tree-lined lanes, in coccoons of sound-soaking eternity. “Old Parsi houses”, we would intone, part-admiration, part-awe, whole-envy. “Old Money”, we would add, throwing in a grimace with pursed upper lips pushing down the corners of our mouths- the ultimate Indian expression of begrudging appreciation.

And right there in the beginning of North Main Road, before the right turn to the Osho Ashram, opposite the yet-to-be-born Hot Breads, next door to Gourmet, home of mouth watering waffles with unlimited honey and butter (which has since been ambushed and swallowed by a bright young Cafe Coffee Day, swarming with peri-pubescent puppydom), was German Bakery, the cafe at the end of the Universe, where burnt-out souls came to rest and feed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

German Bakery was on the first corner, its mian entrance opening out to the main road: the itinerant visitor would step through the threshold into a large leafy courtyard, littered with low stools and short tables, and intellectuals contemplating the swirling grounds in their coffee dregs. The aisle along the side led to the Tibetan shops, presided over by slightly intimidating aunties selling smooth coral stones and necklaces. Between these and the Bakery was the exit to the side lane, leading off to the river and the cremation ghat – a bare clearing with rectangular depressions set into the concrete. The river was full, dark and sludgy, and an Aghori sat on the far side steps of the ghats, tending to the shrine, making conversations and fires, and smoking his butter-like charas in his chillum.

German Bakery itself was always abuzz, and yet untouched: a tiny oasis of Truthful Chocolate ecstasy in a harsh and cruel world. A large Masala chai cup and croissants were among things on offer, along with mashed potatoes, hummus, fruit salads and cream and scones and cakes, and a pick of delicious omelettes. A wide and eclectic menu stared the visitor in the face, neatly inscribed and hung above the smiling Nepali waiter’s head, his cheerful frame dwarfed by the counter, piled high with such suspicious events like Organic Muesli and Pekan Boe tea. The cafe itself wrapped around the kitchen and the manager’s room, and was lined with wooden benches and white-washed walls. The monotony of the walls was broken by random advertismenets for colon irrigation and tantra classes, an ironic speech bubble above the head of Nirvana in night-blue ensemble talking to Pretty Young (Confused) Thing in the corner. A list of rules for visitors on the wall offered pragmatic advice, such as to not offend the locals by kissing in public. A bulletin board advertised second-hand enfield bikes, houses for rent and eternal salvation in Hebrew.

An air of calm ran through German Bakery, with swirling cigarette smoke from tables mixing with the clouds from the coffee. Conversations ebbed, and flowed, and ebbed again, their lines looping and dipping and whorling through the hot summer air. Regulars dotted the tables, sitting beside newer wannabes, and pondered on the meanings of the universe, and on the vagaries of Kishan’s waiters.  As the cries of hawkers wafted across to the tables, somewhere a pair of flip-flops shuffled its way to the gate, its wearer drawn to the swelling tide of human consciousness outside – propelled forward by the purposefulness of the truly aimless. Ashram inmates walked in, their eyes scanning the cafe,  and their purple robes revealed shapely ankles beneath (as their erect nipples revealed sheer nakedness beneath, or so it seemed to our hormone-addled brains). Couples necked in the corner, and sometimes, a Warkari wandered in, lost on the way back from Pandharpur. Her Sari tucked in between her legs and folded neatly into her waist-fold, her forehead marked with a large vermillion circle of sometimes-purple red, she walked into German Bakery, her dish held out in front of her: battered, aluminium. 

And somewhere, another star-struck student would step through the threshold, his eyes drinking in the slice of peacefulness before him, his mind noting with sudden bemusement that time was treacly-thick here, the hours passed like days passed like minutes passed like the lifetimes that spent their years contemplating the slow settling of the black grounds into the murky depths of the Mint Ice Tea…

And history would play itself out again, a tired organ-grinder in the corner cranking up his instrument, preparing to play out the same tune again for the umpteenth time, as a new monkey prepared to dance.

                       – In Memory, German Bakery, No 291, Vaswani Nagar, North Main Road, Koregaon Park, Pune.

 

*Author’s postcript

Like everything else in Pune, the German Bakery was also torn down by the assault of invading Megapolis-Pune. In 2002, Pecuniary Pune crept slowly into Koregaon Park, widening North Main Road and taking a great big slice of German Bakery’s facade with it. The slow decay of the Osho Ashram and the steady invasion of more upmarket coffee chains turned GB into a symbol of wannabe kitsch: frequented by itinerants, populated by infrequents.  As traffic and dust rose with equal ferocity through Pune’s roads, the calm around German Bakery was shattered: its unhurried pace lost, its extravagant space now a thing of the past. Its access to both the main road and the side alley- a metaphorical cul-de-sac linking the mainstream and the alternate, was taken over by an army of rude short-cutters, turning the aisle of wafting thoughts into a thoroughfare to somewhere else. In 2008, when I spoke to Kishan, he confessed that times were hard, and he was staring closure in the face if things didn’t pick up. Presumably they did, because he was open and active till the 13th of February, 2010, over 22 years after German Bakery’s inauguration.

On Saturday, February 13th, 2010, an Improvised Explosive Device ripped through German Bakery, killing 9, and injuring at least 45 persons. Random images of carnage greeted passers-by, in an attack believed to have been targeted at foreigners, or the Jewish Chabad house, located less than 400 metres away. Terrorist outfits are being implied darkly in discussions, impending bilateral talks are being touted as immediate provocations. Possible links to Mumbai are being investigated. Inevitably, a high-profile blame game will ensue, and outrageous statements will be made; ultimately, the powers-that-be will continue to fiddle as Home burns: their railings all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And yet another loud bang will rip through the sunny afternoons of our collective consciousness, tearing through the peace, severed limbs and shattered viscera piercing the bubble of calm around our most precious memories.

                           German Bakery is Dead! Long Live German Bakery!

friday, 13th february, 2009 : sri ram sene and the slumdog millionaire :

well, today is friday the thirteenth.  wat sweet irony, tomorrow is valentine’s day.  and made ever more so (ironic, ie) by the flurry of pink panties, godless women and publess men, scary economy blues, lunar eclipses (ok so there was only one), scarier environment reds and the victory of likud with the spectacular rise of lieberman….

never before really has love had such a bad chance.  it has been amusing to see the amount of anger and righteous indignation that has poured out on to the indian streets over the last few weeks.   of course, in some cases , it has been just outrageous and tragic (sri ram sene dragging women out by their hair), in some cases dangerous and thought provoking ( a free and fair election in israel that threw up the anger that it did), in some cases eerily premonitory (the moon, that trusted friends of lovers everywhere, obscured by a shadow of the earth), and in some cases, just downright insulting and presumptuous (the widespread disapproval of slumdog millionaire for portraying the ugly india)

so let me dwell on two of these issues that i feel are related in some way, and which have animated our discussions, in the month past.

when slumdog millionaire was released, at first, there was the pleased smile of a nation that was charmed.   here was danny boyle, maker of the beach and trainspotting, making a movie on india, shooting in mumbai.  and all that had happened in the city over the last year would be laid to rest.

then there were the whispers that it showed india in a bad t, a throwback to the snake charmer-and-elephant days.  nooooooo……  a collective groan rose all over the country, not again, we don’t want to be branded as exotic pieces in a cornershop in colorado, oh no!

then a few days later the great B spoke, and said : ” if SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.”

oooohh. prickly, aren’t we?  protests went off across the nation.  said voices …this is not how we are: a bunch of dirty, impoverished, thieving schemers, flirting with disease and danger with easy nonchalance.   we are the new india. the one that grew up after shriman bakshi left, so thank you very much mr peter sellers, but we’ll be the judge of how funny your faux indian turn in the movie was.   and if you want to look at the new india, the real india, then for heaven’s sake get your nose out of the gutter and see the millions of young people who’re crouching in front of a “roadies” skinned orkut, sending sixteen scraps to suneeta and sunaina, sataak-se, like that!  we’re cool, really, and we listen to a r rahman’s remixed sufi tunes on our pink iPods while waiting to talk to business associates across the globe, shivering in a european winter..   wake up.   this is the new india…..

………………………..

the sri ram sene, on the 25th of december, dragged women out of a pub in mangalore, ironically named “amnesia”, and thrashed them in public, obliging eager videographers in the vicinity.   when confronted, the leader of the ram sene, muthalik, said that this was his duty, so to speak, he was just doing what the parents of these girls would want, and that this was the sene’s way of enforcing the dictates of indian culture.  this is not indian culture, all these women going to pubs, taking drugs and indulging in alcoholism, he said.   plus, we have reasonably certain information that some pubs are fronts for making blue films, and also for prostitution.

muthalik is a vandal, a publicity-hungry hound who will sell his own mother for a record price if the attention and sensation is worth it.   i shall not waste any time talking about him.   even as i write, a group of women have spearheaded a campaign to send him pink panties, and sanjukta, my friend (of http://www.sanjukta.wordpress.com  fame) is at the spearhead of a “hug karo pub bharo” cmpaign.   there are many women across india who want to join her, and many more who are pledging their support.   many men, too, and children.

my point is this: at a very basic level, wat is the difference between muthalik and the persons protesting the depiction of poor people in SLD? lete us refer to “persons protesting the depiction of poor people in SLD” henceforth as big B, since he has actually voiced it after all.   muthalik believes in a depiction of india that he defines narrowly within his limited understanding of what it is to be indian, and how one must behave.   having done so, he goes on to enforce it, using force to do so.   big B objects to a depiction of a slice of india  shown in an international film that’s gathering much acclaim because he believes its not the india he wants shown outside.   there are many other things here.   why don’t you write about them?   (pardon me for shuddering, but i cannot help but get  a deja vu of some idi amin-esque african dictator’s helpful advice to a visiting journalist: “there are many other things here.   why don’t you write about them?”)

yes.  the difference is the use of violence.  that’s right.

i don’t know if you have seen the movie.  i have, and i did not imagine that the movie depicted anything that was hyperbole in the extreme, nor did it show scenes of incredible squalor and deprivation.  if anything, it showed a smart, self-sufficient people, resourceful and ingenious, living in the massive slums of mumbai (itself housing a population that rivals that of many world cities) and leading their lives with dignity, not as wasted junkies living on dole and roadside crack.  the ugliness that we glimpse thru the movie too, is real, and boyle’s mistake is in perhaps making jamal’s life a generic collection of different situations that may eventually only occur independently to different people.  yet, the details are true.   if you don’t believe me, the proof is a short auto ride away.   your city has a slum too, you know, teeming with people who work in your garages, in your homes, on the fringes of your lives, keeping costs low and luxuries affordable.

yet the great B deems this as causing “pain and disgust” among patriots and nationalists.

wowow. lets stop for a minute here.   what if someone came up to you and told you that the india that you knew, the india that formed your daily existence, your everyday reality, that india (for india is simultaneously many indias rolled inside of one)  is not pretty enuff to swell the hearts of patriots, and showing it is in bad taste?  how would you feel?  what if someone came to you, mr big B-aka-millions-masquerading-as-one, wat if your world of forum malls and swank offices and smart plastic cards clipped on smooth pinstripe shirts  was not beautiful enuff for people to show in an english movie?

what then, mister big bee?

what, indeed?

as a matter of fact, if i have a complaint with SLD, it was the characterisation of anil kapoor as rude and derisive, heaping insult upon pejorative, and heckling a chai-wallah working in a call centre in mumbai.   is that how the west sees noveau rich india, how it imagines the perfumed plutocracy of this country to be, as shallow insensitive cads without a shred of conscience or a sliver of empathy: cold, crude and calculating, calmly calling the cops to carry out their corrupt bidding?

and if that is so, isn’t that wrong?   the great indan middle class cannot be like that!

after the uproar, i’m suddenly not so sure.

january 5th, zero-nine : the lo-to-pha-gi :

They were not greek.  No, altho there was much insinuation made of that brand of love in the house. The dark, slightly damp corner of the room forever redolent of soft sighs, or (more often) of frantic urgings, would join in the discussions, often offering surprisingly imaginative suggestions for buggery.

There was a large game board in the middle of the room. This was the front room, the one that greeted every weary traveller who set foot in the house, greeted him before the inevitably empty bottle of water and the massively rolled joint.

The bottle was to be filled from the tap, the bong was to keep him company on his journey.

It does not matter what the game board was. Depending on which particular racial reality was being eked out in the room, or even, whichever reality was being played out that day in that common living space, the boards would change. Four heads in shared concentration would pore over the central table, their hair tousled, the skin over their foreheads thrown into deep furrows of intense thought. Sometimes it would be carrom, sometimes battleships, often a pack of cards and a flat surface

There would be assorted debris around the room, the flotsam and jetsam of the forever-itinerant-always-static life: assorted mobile chargers, crust-filled boxes of pizza, sandals, reed mats spread out against the far wall, newspapers folded neat and knife-like, pressing finely powdered cannabis in between their grimy leaves, two books by kafka, one assorted dvd of the x-men series and daredevil, and a fine sprinkling of ash coating the entire room, mingling with the dust and entering their lungs, to be wracked out a hours later, trapped in large globs of phlegm.

In an inside room, in a dank and furtive corner, someone wrapped in an oversize blanket would wave distractedly, his eyes intent on the foreign language film flickering on the screen in front of him, its eastern european heroines restricted to limited english lines of ‘yes’ and ‘harder’.  The dialogues would seem to be terse, and pithy, and the urgency of the actors evident in their insistent utterings.

Sometimes, there would be a tv in the corner, the channel forever tuned to Ftv, the cute gluteal folds of some brazilian ramp model ignored in the general interest over the evolving game.

The kitchen would be filthy, and largely unused, grease encrusted plates congealing near the sink while water dripped over the chipped white tile surface. Empty bottles would line the wall, and the fridge would be empty, save a half-empty bottle of flat pepsi and mouldy bread against the far corner.

On the counter, the cool earthern pot would store water, dark and refreshing.

The loo would be small, and often serviced by the only perrenial tap in the house, its lowly status as toilet-water-supply (kindly note the second hyphen) forgotten often when it is the only source of water in the house when the sun was high.

These are the lotus eaters, the carrom players, eternal drifters testing newton’s first law and proving it right every time, stopping only for a smoke or a roll, or reaching out for crumpled newspaper to wipe away the mess.

These are the Lotophagi.

“….How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heap’d over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!”

—                               From “The Lotos Eaters” Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892

sep-one. two thousand and eight : in memory of bihar and the kosi that was :

After the earthquake,

      A child crying

In the silence

        —Jack Keruouac  “Beat Generation Haikus”

 

Shedding tears for Kosi, the sorrow of Bihar.

ahem.

Hello, everyone!

Every once in a while when penning a blog, there is this moment of great discomfiture, this moment of insecurity, when you wonder who your audience is, and what among your random musings it is that they read. Do they skip over the details and pay attention only to the titles and the first 40-odd words? Do they read your outpourings with the reverence that you have accorded them, or do they read, permit themselves a little smile, and move on in search of more grassy pastures to roam upon and to feed?

More importantly, is there a they at all?

So it is with a sense of self-consciousness that one begins the process of addressing, clearing one’s throat and muttering the syllables to oneself first before shouting it out to the still night air, to hear its echo bounce back across the ages.

You can be sure that I deliberated for quite some time over where the comma would be in my rather unhingedly bright salutation, and certainly cringed as I put the exclamation mark at the end, so cheery and how d’you?

Ugh. Definitely contrived. I feel as if I have a plastic smile and black mouse ears glued on my face, in a horrible parody of gaiety and bonhomie, when in reality I am all sweaty palms and mashed insides, my stomach host to brightly coloured, gossamer winged insects, twitching their probosces and dreaming of life in pupo.

Still, how are you, reader, and how have you been?

I have been away for a while, and in the splendidly self-obsessed presupposition of humans, I shall assume that you have been away as well. What’s good for the goose, is for the gander, etc etc, I guess.

anticipation

There is something about the anticipation of a homecoming that always gets me…

I think that it has something to do with my college that had a curfew on when we were in the first year; this was when we were being ragged, all tonsured and stinking, going for days on end without a bath, our energies directed to the sole purpose of staying out of the clutches of a rapacious senior, intent upon screwing our happiness…

Anyway, we used to be let off in the evenings, after class, and expected to arrive back in the hostel by 8 in the night. I used to spend the few hours of freedom and happiness in various haunts of the city known only to myself, in second hand book stores, and in random restaurants, reading the books that I had bought, or merely staring into space and musing.

I did not keep any company those days.

Needless to say, 7:56 would see me scurrying back as fast as my fat little legs would carry me, my breath laboured, my heart aflutter, my pulse pounding in my temples, my ears throbbing with the rush of blood to the head. I would be late, of course, and as I approached the hostel building, furiously running past the gate and in through the gaudily painted flowerpots near the entrance, a nameless dread would seize my heart.

In reality, of course, it had a perfectly common name, called ragging by many and torture by some others, but that was just then, wasn’t it? A handful of weeks, a pithy three and a half months of terror, no more, and then bonhomie and cheer.

Then why did the dread still last?

Why is it that even today, ten years hence, if I were to walk into the hostel building at any time arnd late evening, my mind lights up in terror, the crackling 60-watters of fear suddenly all ablaze, their filaments glowing dully in the inky blackness? Why is it that a late homecoming always leaves various caterpillars in my stomach, slowly pupating themselves into bright winged fliers?

Why does the prospect of an impending homecoming always make my tummy queasy, my thoughts garbled, my jimbers froosted?

Even when the homecoming is not my own. Even though I have been waiting for this day for months, nearly a year? I have plotted and planned and schemed and dreamt about this day, yet, as I see it approaching, it is trepidation and not calm that overcomes me. My pulse quickens, my mind races, bang! there goes the gun and hup-one-two-three there we are near the finishing line, banking to the left for one more lap, hup-one-two once more..

Because there is excitement, definitely. Excitement at what could be, excitement at what was. But it is tinged, most certainly, with trepidation. Trepidation, not at what will be or could, but just trepidation because I am thus. Trepidation, because anticipation always gets me by the balls, and twists it around a coupla times and gives it a good yank before letting go. Trepidation, because homecomings will always be tainted with the silent click of a minute hand that traverses the final seconds towards 8 o’clock.

And nameless dreads shall forever fly up from the bottom of the well, to billow and blow in the breeze, and to make horrid faces and remind me that I may be secure and happy and warm and well fed for now, yet homecomings have the potential to be menacing and scary and dreadful, I only have to peek over the side of the well……

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