Monday, March 24, 2008

Identity crisis

Too fair to be a Bong!

"You are too fair to be a Bengali," Sheikh Aslam told me. I was surprised. That a student of Pakistan's premier business school, Lahore University Management Studies would disclaim my origins is something I had never expected. But I didn't retort. The students from Lahore were on a friendly mission to Mumbai and I, a journalist, was commissioned to cover all their activities in the city. I would have to spend about eight hours with them. I thought to myself, "Mujh kaun si dosti karni hai?" I chose not to respond to Aslam's remark.

Someone in Tehran looks like me

A week later, I had to meet up with a group of artists from Tehran. In order to break the ice, I chose to greet them in Persian. It was a mistake for artist Shiva Sanjari and her friends continued speaking to me in Persian. I was perplexed. Did they not speak English? The group's coordinator, Rajan Fulari stepped forward and introduced me to Shiva. That a Shia Muslim girl from one of the most orthodox Islamic states in the world would share her name with the Great Hindu God of Destuction, amused me. Shiva apologised for speaking to me in Persian earlier. "You look so much like an Iranian that we thought you'd speak Persian. We have a friend in Tehran who looks exactly like you."

You look like a Jew. You should convert

I found myself sitting in the pews of the prayer hall, Magen Hassimdin at Agripada. I had covered my head with a dupatta as directed by Benjamin Isaac, the director of ORT India, the largest and most active Jewish organisation in Mumbai. Mr Isaac had helped me fix an interview with the trustees of the synagogue (the most active one in South Mumbai) and arranged for me (a non-Jew) to participate in the synagogue's activities on Saturday, the day of the Sabbath. As the rabbi read out the scrolls in Hebrew, I looked over to the woman on my right who had the Marathi translations. She gave me her book. I gasped. After a while, I saw a couple of women yawning. There was still an hour to go. The proceedings were elaborate. While the men downstairs were actively participating in them, women didn't have much to do but watch.

The woman on my right, whose name is Rachael, looked at me and asked, "Which country?" What did mean by that?

Rachael asked, "When did you come to India?"

I said, "I am Indian. I've lived in Mumbai for a decade."

"Which synagogue do you go to?"

"This is my first visit."

"Are you a Jew?"


"Jewish girls are very virtuous. Not like the rest."

I smiled.

"My son married a Bengali Hindu. Their religion is so liberal. They worship so many Gods. He should have married a Jew. We could have all gone to the synagogue together. They will bring their child up as Hindu. It's so unfortunate. There are few Jews left in Mumbai. Only 5,000."

I was silent.

Rachael asked, "What are you?"

"Bengali Hindu."

The expression on her face is something I can't forget. It was more of astonishment than guilt.

Rachael then said, "You look like Jew. You should convert into Judaism. It will do you a lot of good. Our girls are virtuous."

Parsi for sure

More often than not, I've been mistaken for a Parsi in Mumbai. My curly hair, fair complexion, aquiline nose and geeky glasses apparently go well with my nickname, Bawi. But to be mistaken for a Parsi by senior members of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, the chief and the richest Zoroastrian organisation in the world took me by surprise. I had to try really hard to convince them that none of my ancestors were Parsis.

Pyaarelal Kachoriwala, Vadodara

I'm not a kachori fan. Yes, once in a while I do become partial to the tiny khaasta kachoris from Camy Wafers at Grant Road but unlike any self-respecting Bengali, I don't fancy having kachori and alu dum for a Sunday breakfast.
So when I stumbled upon Pyaarelal Kachoriwala near the Sur Sagar Lake in the old city area of Vadodara (Baroda, if you please), I didn't think much of it. But my sister-in-law did. "It's one of the best kachori joints in India. And it's over 50 years old," she remarked. And since I like all things that are old, I didn't have much occasion to say, "No."
As the man behind the counter of this decripit shack of a shop dressed up the giant kachori balls with murmura (puffed rice), sev and onions, his accomplice caught my attention.
He stood next to a wooden stool on which was placed a giant cane basket aka tokri of half-chopped onions. He held two large iron knives in his hands. In alternating sweeps he would bring them down on the onions in the tokri (much like a drummer brings the sticks down on a nagara)...left, right, left.... Voila! The onions were finely chopped. I had never seen anything like that before.
I realised this was the Pyaarelal 'performance' for all those who had to wait in the queue for their giant bhel-kachoris.
As for the kachoris, they were huge, crunchy with murmura and sev and sickeningly sweet from jaggery and tamarind chutney. There were some varieties too - alu-kachori, pyaaz-kachori and Jain kachori, all reasonably priced between Rs 8 to Rs 12.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A journo's life

A journalist's saga!
Yeh meetings yeh stories yeh features ki duniya
Yeh insaan ke dushman, Quark ki duniya
Yeh deadlines ke bhookhe, editors ki duniya
Yeh page agar ban bhi jayee to kya hai.
Yahan ek khilona hai sub-editor ki hasti
Yeh basti hai murda reporters ki basti
Yahan par to raises se inflation hi sasti
Yeh appraisal agar ho bhi jayee to kya hai?
Har ek computer ghayal har ek news hi baasi
Designers mein uljhan photographers mein udassi
Yeh office hai ya aalame management ki
Circulation agar badh bhi jayee to kya hai?
Jalaa do, jalaa do ise, phoonk dalo yeh monitor
Mere naam ka hata do yeh user
Thumahra hai tumhi sambhalo yeh computer
Yeh paper agar chal bhi jayee to kya hai?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Vox Populi (Voices of people)

Not many people want to voice their opinions nowadays. For the past 10 days, I have been regularly conducting the vox pop for a daily newspaper. I find it difficult to find five people everyday who will be willing to give me a quote in response to the Question for the day and are ok with their pictures being published in the paper. People don't have the time, are wary of how their quote will be reproduced in the paper, are apprehensive about how their family members will respond to their published photos or are simply not interested.The situation was quite different a few years ago when I was an intern at Bombay Times. People would happily respond to even stupid questions such as, "Madhuri Dixit is going to have a child? What will you like its name to be?" I remember people would respond with, "Agar ladka hua toh Prem aur ladki hui toh Puja because she has done several hit films with Salman Khan where her character was named Puja and Salman's was Prem."Now, ask anyone about politics, cricket or civic issues and you get the response, "How does it affect my life!"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Check these out

The advertising world does come up with some whacky creations. But then, if ads were boring, they wouldn't be called ads, right?

Mallika Sherawat

I first met Mallika Sherawat in 2003, when I was still a student of journalism. I remember her as this ultra-thin woman draped in a blue-pink saree on the sets of Murder at Nataraj Studios, JVPD Scheme. I vaguely recollected seeing her on screen with Tusshar Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor in the very forgettable Jeena Sirf Tere Liye. Mallika had then introduced herself as Reema Lamba, hastily adding, "But my screen name is Mallika Sherawat so if you are writing anything on the film, then please quote me as Mallika."

We didn't care. We wanted to meet Mr Mahesh Bhatt. We were more interested in Bhatt Productions' annual profits and its new ventures than a wannabe starlet. (We did spare a thought for Emraan Hashmi though!)

Little did I know that Reema aka Mallika would soon be dishing out some of the most quotable quotes that gossip columnists and film magazines would vouch for and even work in a Jackie Chan film.

Friday, March 7, 2008


No, that's not a new virus doing the rounds of the internet. It is, as per a Bombay Times report, Himesh Reshammiya's next film, Mudh Mudh Ke Na Dekh Mudh Mudh Ke. "He's gone crazy," is what a film journalist friend told me after I gave him this piece of news. But this piece isn't about Himesh (I'll devote some space to him later). This is about abbreviating the names of our three-hour-long masala movies.

I think the trend started with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak aka QSQT in 1988. But it didn't really catch up till the mid-1990s when filmmakers resorted to naming their films after popular songs of the 1960s and 1970s. Critics realised that the four-word names would take up precious newsprint space. Hence, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun became HAHK and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge became DDLJ. Karan Johar's Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was suitably given the 'chemical' short-form, K2H2. Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham became the higher-valent K3G.

I recently heard a foreigner asking for 'Osho' in Mumbai. It took me a while to realise that this firang film-buff wanted to know more about the Bollywood blockbuster, OSO (aka Om Shanti Om). Even the two-word Jodhaa Akbar found a mention in the review columns as JA. Thankfully, Chak De India wasn't referred to as CDI at the Filmfare Awards this year.

But what I find is that only the names of A-grade Bollywood films are abbreviated. Wonder if anyone will call Chudaail Ki Maut (it was playing at Capitol before the theatre shut down) CKM or suitably abbreviate Teri Hawas Mera Pyaar to THMP!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Hamster's home!

Elton's brother bought a hamster for his girlfriend. They've named it Marco. I only hope it survives the BMC's rat-killing drive.
Check out the hamster pics on facebook

Of birds and bees

I am a closet naturalist. What the hell does that mean? Well, that means that you won't see me taking those treks through the Himalayas to check out the gharials in the streams. You won't find me looking out for 'not-yet-named' varieties of butterflies in the hills of the North East. I haven't even been to any of the national parks in India (which is quite unfortunate), not even the Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Borivli.
But I love birds and bees. I finally admit to it. There was a time when I would cringe when friends would call me an amateur ornithologist. My association with birds started in college (I never really looked at birds in Mumbai before that). It started off with my first-year project on the Taxonomic Classification of Birds for the Life Sciences subject. In the second-year, I had to do a literature survey on the Migration and Mating behaviour of birds and even went on a bird-count trail in Khandala. I thought my association with birds and my regular trips to The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) at Kala Ghoda would end after I decided to give up my plans of becoming a life scientist and took up journalism instead. However, I was wrong.
In the first year of my job, I gradually shifted my focus from party animals to those of the wild. Then came the articles on flamingoes at Sewri - about how they fly in all the way from Central Africa en route Kutch where they breed to winter here at Sewri. Then the articles on how they have been arriving late December instead end-October, why they are coming in late, why how inexplicably their numbers are down from 15,000 to about 2,000. Later, I wrote an article on Adesh Shivkar, a well-known ornithologist who met me on Orkut (no matter what people say, it's the best business networking site for me). Then I wrote one on JC Daniel, BNHs secretary who is well-known for his reasearch on the Asian wild elephant (it helps that Daniel is from Kerala) and snakes. Soon after, I found myself chasing butterflies across south Mumbai's gardens, parks and the Byculla zoo and meeting Isaac Kehimkar, 'the butterfly man' at BNHS.
I managed to find paradise flycatchers, parakeets, different species of sparrows, mynahs, bulbuls, humming-birds, woodpeckers, sand plovers, kingfishers, gulls, terns, jays, kites and barblers in the congested south Mumbai area that is typically inhabited by crows and pigeons.

But it was in Jamshedpur that I discovered my love for all featured creatures. Whether it had something to do with magpies who came visiting every evening, or the eagle that would watch our shuttle-cock as we played badminton, or the white-and-black mynahs that would walk the lawns every morning or the swallows, parrots and golden orioles or the curious absence of crows and pigeons. I would spend hours just sitting in the garden and take down notes on the bird type, colour, size, etc. That's not to say, I didn't look at the myriad colours of butterflies and bees hovering around the dahlias and the chrysanthemums.

Birds are now my hobby. But I still have to take that crucial step out of my closet to become a true-blooded naturalist. Watch this space for more.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Ardha Satya

Some characters from films live forever. There are quite a few examples from Indian commercial cinema that endorse this fact. From Radha in Mother India (1953) to Bhuvan in Lagaan (2001), there have been scores of characters etched on our minds. It's quite rare for characters in films belonging to the alternate cinema genre to be as popular among the Indian film audience though there may be some exceptions.

One such exception is the character of Anant Velankar in Govind Nihalani's hard-hitting film, Ardha Satya (1983). Written by Vijay Tendulkar, S. D. Panwalker and Vasant Dev, Ardha- Satya is the story of Anant Velankar (Om Puri), a sub-inspector in Mumbai. An honest cop, he tries his best to bust goons belonging to a local gang-leader Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar making his debut) but comes up empty-handed because of the latter's political influence. Anant also becomes a subject of inter-departmental politics, which further abets his fall from grace.

Frustrated by the turn of events, he turns to alcohol, and from there on has trouble connecting with anyone except his sympathetic boss, Hyder Ali (Shafi Inamdar) and his girlfriend Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil). Anant's conversations with Jyotsna are introspective in nature. He reveals to her, his innermost feelings and why he is not happy being a part of the police force, the high-pressure situations that he has to deal with and his disturbed past. When she tells him about the rampant corruption in the police, he simply tells her that police officers are also human i.e. "Every policeman is a citizen with a uniform."

Jyotsna loves him and understands his feelings but when he becomes increasingly dangerous she decides that her husband cannot be a policeman.

In a way, Anant Velankar is like Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese's brilliant treatise on urban alienation Taxi Driver. He is a loner; has trouble connecting with people, and carries several emotional scars from the past. Anant's father (Amrish Puri), a tough authoritarian, is also a part of the Police Force. He has no qualms in beating his wife while Anant looks on helplessly with bottled rage. For the fear of his father, who doesn't want him to become anything other than a police officer, Anant fulfills his father's wishes while sacrificing his own dream of becoming a professor in arts.

The crux of the story therefore is Anant's quest for virility or napunsakta. When his senior officers ridicule him (by setting goons captured by him free), he feels as if he has been castrated. These high-pressure situations affect him to such an extent that he becomes prone to sadistic outbursts. Small criminals held in captivity fall prey to his wrath, as he slowly loses control over his sanity.

Om Puri as Anant Velankar, plays a flawed and tragic hero with great verve and simplicity. His pain, his anguish is palpable, but his sadistic behavior alienates him from us. There are moments of blistering intensity in his performance that will undoubtedly gain a round of applause, but to his credit, Om Puri also breathes life in scenes that portray the banal aspects of everyday life. It's a performance that is both 'natural' and studied.

Champaner - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, located about 47 km to the north-east of Vadodara is the only world heritage site in Gujarat. It displays 1,200 years of history and culture. It is believed to bear testimony to the Indian Puranic ages, the Rajput saga, the glory of the reign of the Marathas, the Islamic influences and finally lays proof to the British occupation within its remains.

For more on Champaner, you can click on

For exclusive pictures of Champaner, you can check out Elton's blog:

From the Newsdesk

From the newsdeskI am a feature writer. I like telling nice, long stories, though I have a limited vocabulary. Though I have done a few news stories, I haven't dabbled in hard news - stuff like that goes with headlines like, "Five killed in jeep accident". So people were very sceptical when I decided to join the newsdesk.

I hate being confined to a chair. I love walking down the narrow by-lanes of the inner-city area in Mumbai, only to discover places and people that most people don't know about. Newsdesk would mean fewer bylines, tighter deadlines, late-night shifts and editing badly-written or even incomplete copies. Newsdesk would mean that I would have to work weekends (even Sundays are full-working days) and would have to take my weekly offs on any other day of the week (it turns out to be Monday).

But I also realised that I would get a chance to learn something new. My knowledge of Quark Xpress (the key publishing software) is rather limited. I never had to design a page from scratch at the supplements desk simply because designers would do that. Sub-editors on the newsdesk are expected to design the newspaper's pages. Now that I am learning how to use Quark, I understand how difficult it is to design a page that looks good. I also have to work on my headlines as they tend to be very features-like. There's a lot I have to learn and there's a lot I have learned in my very first week. I quite enjoy the desk experience. I enjoy keeping tabs on what's happening around the world by looking up the agency tickers every few minutes. I get to edit different kinds of stories. One minute I'm editing a story on the Budget, the next minute I get to edit a BMC story.

Yes, I did get withdrawal symptoms initially when I couldn't just go out to check that exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery that I would have written on. But then, that didn't last long. The good thing about a hectic job is that you don't have the time to whine about everything you cannot do. I like that. I enjoy working again. And I enjoy the learning experience even more.
As for writing...I'll start as soon as I can manage desk-functions well. Till then, there's always the blog.