Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mister H

MISTER H

On confirmation as a Probationary Officer in SBI, I was posted in a small village called “Umaria” in a backward district of Madhya Pradesh. Despite being a native of MP, I had to search for the place on the large map of the state hanging in the cabin of the Planning Manager in the Local Head Office of SBI at Bhopal. Being a callow idealist at that time, I went against the advice of almost everyone and decided not to ask for a change of posting. My logic was simple. This was my first posting, the place was only 180 kms away from my native place Jabalpur; and our first born, a bonny daughter, who was only 2 months old, would not be going to school for the next 3 years.  Hence, there was no valid reason for asking for a change. In addition, I would also get to complete my mandatory rural posting.
            I almost regretted my quixotic decision when I landed at the place. I had gone ahead alone to join and a fix up a house for our small family of three. The place was a one street town. The town ended before I realised that I had arrived. My heart sank when I got down at the dusty bus stand. It comprised an uneven plot of land surrounded by a paan shop, a rickety hut which was a restaurant of sorts, a lifeline for the bachelors; and some stray dogs and grazing cows.
            There was no hotel or lodge where one could stay. So, when I joined at the branch, the BM, Mr. Satish Chandra Sharma, who appeared to be a fine gentleman to me (only goes to show what a poor judge of men I am), promptly told one Mr. Shrikhande, a bachelor who was staying alone, that I was going to stay with him till I found a house. Shri, that’s what everyone called him, made no secret of the fact that he was not overjoyed with the arrangement. But he was gracious enough not to refuse point blank to accommodate me. I was thoroughly embarrassed but kept my counsel as I had Hobson’s choice in the matter.
            Shri had a two room kitchen house. i.e. two small rooms and a kitchen of sorts, all in one row. Beyond the kitchen was a communal open well shared by everyone living in that compound. The bathroom was an open area surrounded by chest high tarpaulin sheets and the latrine was in one corner of the common back yard. Shri went with me to the market to help me in buying a folding cot made of steel pipes and nylon strips (called Niwar in local parlance). After adding a plastic bucket and a mug to it, I was all set to begin my life in room two of Shri palace. Shri slept in room 1 which was more spacious and airy. I learnt to draw water from an open well without the luxury of having an axle and pulley mechanism. Shri’s kitchen had a kerosene stove on which we made our morning tea. I found a convenient position for my blue folding mirror in the window where I could shave in a standing position and I was all set to start my innings in SBI.
            House hunting was no big deal as the three peons in the branch had up to date info on the entire village. There was one kutcha house, a lime and clay affair, which was readily available, probably because nobody else wanted it. There was one row of 12 pucca houses, owned by one Mr. Ibrahim, which were in great demand because it had flush latrines, a great luxury in those days and in that place. The who’s who of Umaria stayed there. There was a waiting list in which I promptly enrolled my name. The next vacancy was not coming up anytime soon. So I decided to take up the aforementioned kutcha house as a stop gap arrangement. It was a two storey 5 room affair with an open toilet on the side and a common well in the backyard. The landlady was a very affectionate old Muslim lady who soon taught my daughter her first words which were Alla alla. My wife arrived to join me, with our daughter and our precious household goods packed in two large steel trunks. My younger brother Chhotu and cousin Rajoo (now Padmashri awardee Pandit Vijay Ghate) came with her to help setting up the house. As was the usual state of affairs, there was no power when they landed up at midnight and everyone was suitably disappointed with the place. We soon settled down to a blissful domestic life and our daughter, who was a constant source of joy and wonder, was the main reason for it. Like all parents, we thought she was the most beautiful and precocious child in the world and forgot all about the tedium and minor discomforts of the humdrum life of a bank officer in a dull village.
            As this piece is about Shri Satish Chandra Sharma my first boss, I shall not delve into the other aspects of our life in Umaria. We have a saying in SBI that howsoever bad your current boss may be, the Bank never ceases to surprise you and the next boss would soon make you realise what a great human being the earlier one was, who seemed such a horrible monster at that time. Mister Sharma was, however, an exception to this rule. As I soon realised, he was the most horrible boss one could have. He was a bad leader who ran the branch with the help of a small clique which consisted of three rotten characters; Suresh, a peon, Mr J K Gupta, the head cashier and Mr Borkar the VLW (village level worker) who was on deputation from the state government to assist in agri-business. Suresh was very powerful because he alone knew where all the blank loan documents were kept. The main business of the branch was giving gold loans. Hence, Suresh’s palms had to be suitably greased by anyone and everyone wanting to avail a gold loan from the branch. Mr Gupta certified the purity of gold, so he had to be fed a large meal of two samosas and four gulab jamuns by every gold loan applicant. Mr Sharma sanctioned the loan and took his cut in cash. Mr Borkar performed two important functions. One, he took care of all the agriculture borrowers, their loan documents, recovery etc; two, he lined up sex workers from nearby areas, for Mr Sharma. Every Saturday afternoon, the entire branch witnessed the spectacle of Messrs Borkar and Sharma driving away on Bank’s official motorbike, reportedly for loan recovery; but their body language was akin to that of two boisterous and naughty teenagers going to the village fair. They also furtively carried a spare set of underwear rolled in an old newspaper which was disdainfully pointed out to me by Shri several times till I started believing him. Mr Sharma’s lecherousness did not stop there. He shamelessly flirted with every lady who entered the branch. We, sitting in the banking hall, could easily predict his rounds (the BM is expected to take rounds of the banking hall at regular intervals to make sure that the customers are being served promptly) which accidentally coincided with the occasions whenever a lady entered the branch. He also had this extremely annoying habit of inviting himself for tea at the homes of married staff members, especially those with good looking wives. We soon learned to dodge his unscheduled visits adroitly by inventing all kinds of excuses.
            Mr Sharma brazenly took bribes on every conceivable transaction. One could see him negotiating openly with all kinds of shady loan seekers. His famous, oft repeated motto was “you are at risk only for the split second when you are actually taking the money. After that nobody can touch you.”
            Mr Sharma was a compulsive gambler. Every day he went to a local club, where he played teen patti (a variation of three card poker popular in India) with the rogues’ gallery of the town; a corrupt police inspector,  a slimy civil contractor, SBI’s good for nothing landlord, some local politicians and sundry government officials. These worthies, when they were not gambling with their ill gotten money, were trying to drink each other under the table. For all his wild living, Mr Sharma was a fine athletic looking man who kept himself in shape by playing badminton every morning. Only catch being the matches were played at high bets. He was quite a character. All these things I learned slowly and reluctantly as I was na├»ve and refused to believe everything that was whispered about him in the branch. I was, however, soon disabused of all my innocence.
The clerical staff of the branch comprised young boys who were always joking and teasing each other while working. Some standard jokes were referring to the Head Cashier Mr Gupta’s moustache which had a habit of drooping suddenly at weird angles, in terms of the time of the day. On some day he was “quarter to three”, i.e. moustache parallel to the ground; sometimes it was “seven fifteen” i.e. left side drooping and right side parallel; and so on. Mr Sharma was always referred to as ‘Mister H’ in his absence, by everyone in the branch including his cronies Suresh, Mr Gupta and Borkar. I was curious to know the reason/story behind this strange sobriquet and asked everyone in the branch what it meant. Initially, my queries were met with chuckles, snickers and guffaws but no explanation. Gradually, one thing was pointed out to me that Mr Sharma had to take a dump 4-5 times during the day. The reason given by a sheepish Mr Sharma himself one day was chronic amoebiosis. One welcome fallout of this habit of Mr Sharma was the cleanliness of the branch rest room. He saw to it that it was always kept Swachh (clean). In Hindi, the verb Hagna means taking a dump. So I deducted that this had something to do with the nick name ‘Mr H’. When I shared my discovery with Shri, he smiled indulgently and mysteriously. It appeared there was more to ‘Mister H’ than the frequent trips to the toilet. The mystery was finally accidentally solved by me when the administrative officer from our regional office Mr Sonecha visited the branch. He was an elderly wizened man with a wry sense of humour. He was a compulsive gossip and a chatterbox and had an interesting anecdote for every occasion/person. “So! How do you find Mr H?” was the first question he asked me with a twinkle in his eye. After that I became his shadow and kept pestering him at every opportunity with persistent questions about the story behind the name ‘Mr H’.  At last, in the evening, over a chilled beer, he relented and narrated the entire story of ‘Mr H’.

            Before being posted to Umaria as a branch manager, Mr Sharma was a head cashier in one of the big branches in Jabalpur, the zonal headquarters of the Bank. Everyone was familiar with his lecherous ways and his 5 dumps a day toilet routine. The entire female population of the branch staff detested him for his leering manners and his double-entendres. The male members of the staff were also annoyed with him for his roving eye and his shady behaviour in cash transactions. In short, he would not have won any popularity contest in the branch. Power outages were a common occurrence during the sweltering summer months. One day, during a longish power outage, the branch ran out of water supply and the toilets had gone dry. Knowing his daily routine, everyone was curious to see how Mr Sharma would conclude his noon visit to the loo (in India, unlike the western world, water is used in place of toilet paper after doing the deed. So without water, the act cannot be completed. Also, one has to wash the hands with soap afterwards. Hence, water is an essential ingredient for a visit to the loo.) Mr Sharma was smart enough to carry a bottle of water to the loo. But, when he came out, he started looking for some water to wash his hands. Unknown to him, many of his well-wishers were watching him surreptitiously. Since he had no other option, Mr Sharma went to the large steel drum in which drinking was stored for the entire branch staff of over 200 people. The moment he opened the tap of the drinking water tank, all hell broke loose.  People started shouting that he had contaminated the drinking water of the entire branch. Mr Sharma, usually a very quick witted and resourceful person, was caught like a hyena in full glare of the headlights of a truck (you obviously cannot call him a deer or a hare) and was not in a position to defend himself adequately. With an empty water bottle in one hand and with his sacred thread wound around his right ear (old fashioned Brahmins are required to do this every time they go the toilet), he was caught with his pants down. Soon, the chants of Hagda! Hagda!  (Pejorative for a man who craps a lot) were reverberating in the branch premises. All the customers were asking about the reason for the commotion. Chanting of slogans by union activists was not uncommon those days. The branch managers had sweeping powers to deal with local disturbances. Mr Rathnam, a very tough administrator, was the branch manager then. But against the constant roar of staff outrage, for a reason over which he had little control, he had to sanction half a day’s leave and some overtime to the entire branch staff to quell the uprising that day. From that day Mr Sharma became a laughing stock of the entire branch, entire city rather. Wherever he went, the H word was hurled at him. Finally he asked for a transfer to a distant place and was sent as Branch Manager of Umaria branch. By the time Mr Sonecha finished his narrative, in his inimitable style, interspersed with many choice unprintable adjectives, I was literally rolling on the floor. After that day, I could not look at Mr Sharma without remembering the story and smiling a little. From that day, he was Mr H for me also. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

MY CRICKETING DAYS

MY CRICKETING DAYS

Like most Indians, I am an avid cricket fan, a cricket aficionado, an armchair critic and occasionally a statistician. I remember many useless cricket trivia, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s when our team was getting thrashed everywhere in the world, barring the few purple patches in 1971, 1983 etc. I have picked up enough technical jargon along the way to surprise and impress fawning subordinates, who in any case are only too willing to believe in your greatness, at least on your face. When somebody said on such occasions “Sir! You know so much! You must have been a good player yourself”, I would preen and reply with nonchalance, “yeah! I used to play for my college but did not pursue it later.”
          Now that I have retired, I feel the time has come to let the world have a few more glimpses of my illustrious cricketing past.
          I spent my formative years in “Sapre wada”, a small bungalow with a few latter day additions, in the company of the six Sapre brothers who had devised their own version of indoor underarm cricket which they used to play all the time, in their small veranda. As some doors surrounding the veranda had glass windows, there were strict rules forbidding any aerial shots. 3-4 of the Sapre brothers along with an occasional friend were vociferously engaged in their quaint version of cricket played with a narrow wooden plank and a tennis ball which was more often than not totally bald, which I found very fascinating. We were the tenants of the Sapre family and lived in an annexe.  I was three years younger to the youngest Sapre brother. Whenever I was free, I used to hang around with them hoping to be given a chance to play which was not often. My idea of cricket was attempting a big hoik at every ball while batting and hurling the ball as fast as possible while bowling.  So my style was not compatible with the strict restrictions in force. When I insisted on joining them, and when my dad, on rare occasions, requested them to include me in their game, I was allowed to play for a while and kicked out promptly when I infringed one of their ridiculous rules. What is the point in playing cricket if all the shots have to be played along the ground?
          In school, there was no place or opportunity to play cricket. During the lunch break, we used to play hockey or soccer depending on the season. We even had a devoted gang of marbles players but no cricket. My interest in cricket was reignited by the inter university tournament held in Jabalpur in the year 1970, when we were in our final year of high school. The Mumbai team was led by a flamboyant, handsome and long haired Sunil Gavaskar who, if I remember correctly, scored three tons in that tourney; and the Indore team was led by the 6’4” tall Sanjay Jagdale. When these two teams made it to the finals, it created quite a buzz in the staid town of Jabalpur. The ground where the match was played was near our school. We were a dare-devil bunch of crazy cricket lovers in 11A. We all decided to bunk the afternoon session, a totally unthinkable move in our very old and reputed govt school; and watch the cricket match. Imagine the chagrin of the school authorities when they found that they were one line short in the post lunch prayer assembly. The principal was livid and our class teacher had to bear the brunt of his wrath. The match was very interesting. Bombay, expectedly, won comfortably. (Sunil Gavaskar went on to make his debut in the Indian team immediately thereafter and the rest is, as they say, history.) All hell, however, broke loose the next morning when we all reached the school. (The really smart ones stayed away that day feigning illness.) After the mandatory tongue lashing by the principal, we were left to the mercy of our class teacher to do unto us as he deemed fit. And he did not show us any mercy at all. After thrashing all of us one by one till his hands started aching, we were given the punishment of standing on the bench for one whole week. Imagine the entire section of 50 odd boys standing on their benches for 7 days continuously. It was a big pain but still well worth it. We also became some sort of heroes for the rest of the student community, not only in our school but also in the entire city.
          In college, in 1971, when the Indian cricket was going through a golden period when we defeated the mighty west Indians and the pommies on home turf, we played our own inter class tournament. Here, some more details are warranted. I studied in Agricultural Engineering College at JNKVV Jabalpur. Our college started in 1967 and ours was the fourth batch. It was a 5 year course. Each batch had 35 seats. So after accounting for the casualties, total student strength was around 120. 5 teams for 5 years. So, barring the physically challenged and those rare species that were not bitten by the cricket bug, almost everyone got to play in these hilariously played and fiercely contested matches.
          I was the opening batsman and opening bowler for our team. Those were the days of the famous spin quartet. So, everyone was bowling off spins (leg spin was a little trickier). We needed somebody to bowl the first few overs till the ball lost shine. Since I had continued with my policy of hurling the ball as fast as possible, I became the opening bowler by default. It is a different matter that Prakash, our main off spinner, was faster than me. The spinners came along after 4-5 overs. Even when I was having my brief place under the sun, I was repeatedly told to roll the ball on the ground while throwing it so that the ball would lose its shine quickly. While batting, our side needed some scape goats to face the fiery trundlers of the opposition teams during the initial period. After that the middle order, the guys who fancied themselves to be ‘Vishy’ or ‘Tiger’, strolled in to maul the slow bowlers. Hence, I was the unanimous choice for the opening slot. I rarely lasted the opening spell. But I remember one match in which I was on fire and went after the opposition attack which was quite ordinary, with a vengeance. After I went past the magic figure of 10 runs, there were frantic messages from the pavilion to throw my wicket so that the stars could join the fun.
          Now we have to solve the mystery as to how I got to play in the college team. We had an interesting character in our college called “Badde”( i.e. elder brother in Hindi slang). He was crazy about cricket and a walking and talking encyclopaedia on cricket. He appointed himself ‘captain’ of the college team and went around challenging other colleges for many a friendly match on Sunday mornings. After fixing the match, he went around looking for enough players to put together a rag-tag team to take to the ground. My enthusiasm and persistence paid dividends sometimes when he ran short of players. I also had two distinct advantages. One, my house was a stone’s throw from Badde’s house; secondly, I had a white shirt and white trousers ready on Sunday mornings. I was normally number 8 or 9 in the batting order. So I rarely got to bat. (I had continued to spurn all the efforts of Badde and others to teach me the right ‘grip’ and ‘stance’. Although Viru was not around then, I strongly believed in his policy of hand-eye co-ordination only, and technique be damned). And, as ‘Badde’ himself was an opening bowler, I did not get a chance to roll my arm. I was, however, a very active fielder and even took some catches at times.        Other teams being much stronger; we normally ended up playing the veterinary college team which was as bad as ours. We had some really crazy guys and we played some really hilarious matches. As I mentioned, this guy Badde was the opening bowler. At the beginning of the match, when he opened the attack, he would stand at the beginning of his run up, with his back towards the batsman. Then he would suddenly turn back and start running towards the wicket. He had a long run up but neither the speed nor the accuracy to be a serious threat to the batting side. We were often deeply embarrassed when his deliveries failed to come anywhere near the wicket. Once he hit the silly mid-off fielder on his rump. After that, nobody wanted to field in close in positions when he was operating. We had another guy Kishore, a lanky and gauche character, who fancied himself to be ‘Vishy’ and had more mannerisms than Ian Chappel. Kishore would more often than not strut in to bat, make a big show of taking guard, adjusting his pads etc and promptly get clean bowled on the first ball he faced. To be fair, he did manage to play an occasional elegant knock once in a while.
          During these matches, normally the umpire used to be from the batting side. So he was under strict orders not to concede any LBW/run outs/catches taken close to the ground. Clean bowled and caught were the only decisions given. Even then, I once had the ignominy of getting stumped by a mile when I was deceived by a wrong one. In my memory, only once did I have the privilege of hitting the winning stroke.  Jubilant, when I went to Badde, who was batting at the other end, to ask what stroke it was, his reply was- that swipe could only be described as a Kanhai shot. ( You may know that Rohan Kanhai of West Indies was famous for playing unconventional shots). I was quite pleased to be bracketed with the great Kanhai and missed the sarcasm completely.
          As I was saying, I regularly played cricket for my college eleven. I also played Kabaddi for my college. But that story is for another day.

           

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Babulal

Babulal

In my childhood, we had a neighbour who had this nasty habit of giving outrageous pet names to kids in his Bundelkhandi dialect. His own son was called ‘Lungdi’ and I was called ‘Gunthaduwa’. I do not know what these words meant or whether they had any meaning. But in a grotesque way, call it reverse snobbery, I was proud to be called Gunthaduwa and not just Lungdi or Bangdu.
        In our school days, it was customary to have code names for all the teachers. e.g. B M Tiwari was called Bum, L N Bhargav was Lalloo and R K Tiwari was Rocket. I am sure many alumni would not remember the real names of some of the teachers. I for one cannot remember the full name of Lachchhoo, our maths teacher.
        This practice continued in college with one modification. Even some of the boys were given nicknames. Some names were common like Gullu for Gulati and Sonu for Songaonkar. Babulal was, however, a departure from the ordinary. Prakash was a handsome boy with an aquiline nose and longish curly hair. He was a good sportsman and a decent and harmless kind of bloke. His only fault was an exaggerated swagger and an affected manner. E.g. He bent his hand outwards while shaking hands with others, walked with a stoop as if he was seven feet tall and swung his hands like an 800 pound gorilla. He said Hi, in the era when everybody else used to say Kaay!(meaning ‘what’ in Hindi).  He was part of our gang, but his cockiness was a little irritating. I, therefore, started calling him Babulal, which with due apology to all the Babulals in the world, was a rather down market name for a guy like him. Initially he resented it and reacted violently when addressed as Babulal. But the more he reacted, the more he was called Babulal till he resigned himself to it. Soon, he was only Babulal to all of us. We lost touch after college and I almost forgot all about him.
        The name had however not lost its utility yet. It came in handy again when I was working in SBI at its local head office at Bhopal. We had a great gang of boys, all about the same age, in our Credit department. We had a blast during our lunch sessions, when we discussed, inter alia, everybody in the building. Now we were giving code names to our bosses and senior colleagues. Mostly it was a simple English translation. Sangeet was called ‘Music’, Azad was called ‘Independent’ and Manoj was ‘Entertainment’. Our boss was one Mr B L Joshi, a very suave and polished gentleman with fine manners. His singsong English accent was aptly dubbed by somebody as the one picked up from a girls’ convent school. Predictably, instead of Balkrishna Laxman Joshi, he became Babulal to us, but of course only behind His back. Mr Joshi somehow stumbled across the bantering, mostly good humoured, that went around in the name of Babulal in our department. His curiosity was aroused but he was too uppity to ask anyone what the joke was about.
        Being a fellow Maharashtrian, I was a little closer to him than others. One day, when I was standing in his room, waiting for him to sign some papers, he suddenly asked me “Ghatey, who is this fellow Babulal you all seem to be joking about?” I was totally gobsmacked. I never expected a direct question like this. After hemming and hawing a little, I blurted out the first lie that came to my mind. “He is a peon in the neighbouring department sir.” Mr Joshi did not appear satisfied with my answer but he did not press the matter further. My lie was promptly shared with the lunch club with much merriment.
        After 2-3 days, Babulal, oops, Mr Joshi, called me on the intercom and said “can you please ask that fellow Babulal to come inside my cabin. Our peon is on leave and I have to send some files to the executive floor.” I was again totally taken aback by this unusual request and after realizing what he really meant, feebly mumbled a yes sir. After some time, I went in to inform him that Babulal was also absent that day. Again, he seemed unconvinced but let it go. This incident kept our lunch club in splits so much so that some fellows had to be physically restrained from literally rolling on the floor.
        After that day, Mr Joshi kept asking us one by one about the whereabouts of Babulal till the day when one smart fellow told him that Babulal had been transferred to a local branch. The matter was allowed to rest after that and we all were more careful talking about Babulal  around Mr Joshi.
        Last month, I got a call from an unknown number on my cell phone. “Is that Mr Ghatey?” “Yes. Who is this?” I am Prakash Karanjkar.” “Prakash who?” “Arre yaar, Babulal speaking.” “Oh! Babulal! Why didn’t you say so?” It was great talking to Babulal after so long. We decided to meet the next week when he was coming here. After meeting him in person, I realised that he had lost most of his curly locks and acquired a substantial belly instead. His swagger now looked more like a waddle, thanks to his girth.  The exaggerated gesticulation was now looking quite absurd rather than stylish . As the meeting was taking place after a gap of more than 30 years, we swapped our life stories including the health of our parents, jobs and marital status of our respective progeny, and so on, for quite long. When we parted, I said “Let’s meet again Prakash.” I did not have the heart to call him by his sobriquet Babulal again.

        Yesterday, somebody called to inform about the sad demise of Mr B L Joshi. Mr who? “Arre yaar, Babulal! Our boss in Bhopal.” The First thought that came to my mind was “Thank god! he passed away without knowing the truth about Babulal.” It is this piece of news which triggered off a torrent of memories which I have tried to capture here. At the end of it all, I don’t know what was more saddening; the demise of the Babulal who didn’t know till his death that he was called Babulal, or the fading away of the other Babulal

Friday, August 22, 2014

Aqualung

Jethro Tull

 After recently acquiring a home theatre, I took out some old CDs, removed the cobwebs and put on Aqualung by Jethro Tull, a 43 year old album. I had earlier liked Jethro Tull’s music for their unique style dominated by flute and guitar riffs, rarely paying much attention to the lyrics ‘cept applauding pithy stuff like “skating on the thin ice of the new day”. Being a man of leisure, having retired this year, I desultorily googled for the lyrics. I was really gobsmacked to learn that this was a concept album with the central theme of “the distinction between religion and god”. It was touted to be one of the most cerebral albums to reach millions of rock fans.
In the final number ‘wind up’, the last stanza says,
How do you dare tell me that I am my father’s son
When that was just an accident of birth.
I’d rather look around me, compose a better song
‘cos that’s the honest  measure of my worth.
In your pomp and all your glory you are a poorer man than me,
As you lick the boots of death born out of fear.
I don’t believe you
You had the whole damn thing all wrong.
He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.

The words are really deep and philosophical, quite iconoclastic also, denouncing the ritualism deeply embedded in all religions. Even Osho couldn’t have said it better. And that is saying a lot. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Shikanji

SHIKANJI

I was attending a typical Indian wedding of a scion of a well to do family. The barat, was a shortish affair in keeping with the desire of the socially conscious head of the family. This, however, did not stop the bridegroom’s friends from indulging in wild contortions in front of the equine carrying the ceremonially decked out bridegroom, in response to the blaring brass band mangling the latest Bollywood hits. We all, fitted out in pink saafas, a traditional headgear made on the spot by tying a long cloth into an intricate giant knot which tightens around your pate, were strolling along. Soon the groom’s mom also joined the merriments to the delight of all others who were politely waiting for just such an encouraging signal. Now potbellied balding oldies and frumpy matrons, who were carrying a major portion of a gold souk on their plump shoulders, also joined the dancers.
To avoid the embarrassment of getting dragged into the dancing melee, I stepped back a little and started observing the proceedings detachedly.
To provide bright light for the barat and to add glitter to the proceedings, some hired hands were carrying garishly decorated lamps (tube lights) on their shoulders/heads, which were powered by a genset on a handcart. The entire caboodle of about a dozen tube lights was carried by a motley crowd of women and children clearly belonging to the underprivileged strata of the society. Some kids were so small they were barely able to stumble along with the precariously perched tube lights.

In keeping with the high social standing of the families involved, light tasteful savouries were being provided by liveried bearers to the merrymaking baratis. One of the items being served was a concoction deceptively called Shikanji. It was not iced lime juice as commonly understood by the north Indian meaning of the word, but thick boiled milk made further thicker by adding crushed dry fruits to it;  a deadly combo which can knock out the stoutest tummy with just half a glass. Knowing fully well its effect on the digestive organs, I and many others stayed away from the Shikanji. I found the young boys carrying the tube lights looking at the glasses of Shikanji with ravenous  eyes. They knew what it was, must have often dreamt of it, and had a look of hopeless despair in their eyes knowing fully well it was not meant for them. Suddenly, one boy who was well into his teens and much stronger and bolder than the others, mustered enough courage to pick up one glass of from the unsuspecting hands of a bearer, with a look of desperate defiance. Before the bearer could say anything, he had taken a large swig. The bearer shrugged and went away. The offender drank the rest of the Shikanji with a triumphant smirk. The other boys were aghast at his daring and jealous of his good fortune. Their wistful looks met with a studied wariness from the bearers. I marvelled at the irony of it all. Those who were offered Shikanji` were in no mood to consume it and those who would happily give an arm to have a glassful, were denied it. I felt like picking up a glass from one of the trays being swished around and offer it to the youngest tube light carrier who was looking at it with more desire than what Paris must have felt for the Helen of Troy. But I have never been able to get over the “what will the people say “albatross around my neck. So despite the haunting look of the young tube light bearer, I desisted from doing anything quixotic. I wish I had the courage of the boy who got away with a glassful of Shikanji. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

RUDE CITIES

RUDE CITIES


 When we shifted to Mumbai in 2006, there was a huge media uproar about the recent Reader’s Digest survey which had branded Mumbai as one of the rudest cities in the world. Many media columnists vehemently registered their protests against the totally undeserved sobriquet of a rude city for Aamchi Mumbai. I tended to agree with them till I became a Mumbaikar myself. Then slowly my opinion started changing. When I settled on a tiny 3BHK flat in the swanky SOBO, I was told I will be interviewed by the building society committee members. I thought it will be a mere formality. It turned out like an inquisition. When they started asking how many brothers and sisters I have, I asked them the reason for such personal enquiries. Their answer was quite revealing. They said, we want to make sure that they do not join you once you acquire a shelter here.  Anyway, what swung the wise men in my favour must be the reassurance that I had only one car and no intention of buying another one. (Every flat had at least three cars).
            When my luggage arrived, I was stopped at the gate and told by the security that the truck cannot be taken inside without the permission of the Chairman himself. I met the great man after crashing into his penthouse flat. After telling me pointedly that he is making an exception by allowing me an audience so early, he gave his permission as willingly as giving permission to Shakti Kapoor to take his teenage daughter out. The permission to carry the luggage by the lift was however denied as it was against society rules. That was the time I understood why Mumbai was considered a rude city and I told him so.
            Having read so many jokes on Punekars and their Puneri ways, I was prepared for rudeness when I landed here last week after retiring from SBI at  Chennai. I was not disappointed. When we landed, it was raining heavily. While we were unloading our luggage in the parking lot of the building which housed the SBI guest house where I had wangled a room after several fervent calls, two people came at an interval of 4 minutes and fought with the driver for bringing the car into restricted area. Pleas of heavy rain fell on deaf and insensitive ears. When my luggage arrived from Chennai, I had forewarned the society people to avoid a repeat of the Mumbai experience.  But a crackpot employee going by the unlikely name of Nazuk(delicate) started acting coy and refused to open the rear gate unless he was requested by the society manager himself. When I located the manager, Nazuk had managed to make himself scarce. Finally the manager had to break open the lock to avoid further embarrassment.
            Our neighbours never thought it necessary to even offer us a glass of water while the luggage was getting downloaded and unpacked. But they did manage to pick up a few scraps with the unloaders for blocking the passage, keeping things in their doorway for a few seconds etc. We have recently returned from a trip to the USA.  So it is really amazing that the people of Pune have obliterated all polite expressions like please, thank you, sorry, welcome etc from everyday conversation. not offering a chair, a glass of water or god forbid!  a cup of tea, during business dealings is par for the course. The trauma continues unabated. At this rate, by the time we settle down fully, Pune would have overtaken Mumbai in being the rudest city in the world.

            

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

NOW IT CAN BE TOLD

NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
This piece is neither about revealing important state secrets after the expiry of the statutory lock-in period, nor is it about a long lost love/crush. The matter is a little more scatological. The story has been poking me during those spells of lucidity after or in-the-process-of-trying-to-avoid, the odd middle-of-the-night visit to the loo. (Could be the early onset of a prostrate condition according to our family doctor, who normally dismisses every complaint I take to her as ‘psycho-somatic’). So finally, here I am, at 0400 hours, writing about my windy issues.
Our only daughter Mugdha tied the knot in the spring of 2008. Both I and my better half Shubha were in a tizzy during the yearlong period between the engagement and the wedding. Shubha and Mugdha spent hours and hours rummaging through all the saree shops of Mumbai looking for just the right saree for every ceremony during the marriage function. In the process, the best show rooms of wedding trousseaus in the various upmarket parts of the ‘financial capital’ of the country were declared ‘Bekar’ (of no use) by Mugdha. But that is for another day.
As all the shops in Hyderabad were considered to be equally ‘ Bekar’, it was decided that our future son-in-law Ashvin would visit us over a weekend to select his marriage-wear. Mugdha had calculated that two days would be enough to select a formal two-piece suit for the wedding reception and a few Kurta-Pajamas for other sundry occasions. I didn’t dare mention that 30 years ago, I had picked my entire wedding wardrobe in one 30 minute visit to the Raymond showroom. That would have invited snidely devastating comments on my sartorial ignorance. Also, that was before all those movies like ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ and DDLJ. Anyway, the future bridegroom was to arrive one Friday evening and leave by Monday morning.
We are a conservative family of orthodox Brahmins. So the sleeping arrangement was to be like this: My old parents in their own bedroom, my wife and daughter in the guest room and yours truly and Ashvin in the master bedroom. As the day was approaching, I suddenly realised a serious flaw in these arrangements. This was my pre Rujuta Diwekar phase. So, like all normal Indian families, we were in the habit of having a hearty dinner before going to bed. This had its ‘consequences’. We were not unused to occasional fireworks of the noisy kind during the nightly rests.  The nocturnal emissions of the gastric kind   were not of the noiseless and odourless variety. But in the privacy of our bedroom, after 30 years of marital bliss (?), who cared? But, suddenly, I did! Any such transgressions during the two fateful nights which I was to spend in the proximity of our future son in law were unthinkable. The consequences could be serious. I began to play out various versions of ‘Ye Shadi Nahi Hogi’ in my nightmares. They all started with Ashvin rushing out in the middle of the night with his nostrils shut tightly in a pinch. I was a deeply worried ‘father of the bride’.
Thank god there was Google. I searched all the food groups which caused bloating and farting and prepared a mental list of things to avoid. During the two days of Ashvin’s visit, both my wife and daughter were surprised at my sudden health consciousness and admirable restraint. I avoided milk products, deep fried stuff, lentils, Bengal grams, beans, radish, sweets and tea/coffee after sunset. This being the first visit of Jamai-raja, Shubha had rolled out an impressive array of goodies and assorted sweets. I scrupulously avoided all these temptations, to raised eyebrows, and finally came out victorious in my battles of the boom. As soon as Ashvin caught the cab for the airport, at 5 am, Monday morning, I heaved a sigh of relief and assaulted the fridge with a vengeance.
Looking back, I wonder how the person, who was the recipient of all those gourmet dishes which cause bloating and acidity, managed. He happily partook them in large quantities, thanks to the relentless pressure by the future mother in law, and gentle persuasions of my parents (how can you say no to them without appearing to be rude). Not that I noticed anything. I was a sound sleeper then and the fan was strategically kept full blast.
Anyways, thank god Mugdha married at the right time. Now? Such sphincter control? Impossible.