Monday, April 28, 2008

One tight slap

Harbhajan Singh slapped Sreesanth during a recent IPL match. That sure makes news. I cringed when I read about it. How could I ever miss it? But then, I am not interested in Bhajji or Sreesanth. I am a Kolkata Knight Riders' supporter simply because I love Shah Rukh and Sourav. So, I never thought of watching the match between the Mohali and the Mumbai team. I had made a mistake. I had missed one of the most memorable moments of Indian cricket - the 'Big Slap'. Much has been said about the slap - of how Sreesanth tried to get onto Bhajji's nerves and the latter lost his cool. At least, the slap has given the IPL cheerleaders some relief from the moral brigade.
I hate seeing people in tears but I liked the way Sreesanth cried. Crying in front of millions of viewers does take guts. It wasn't a sob. It was a weep. Only a person who is in a lot of pain can cry like that in front of a crowd. By doing so, he sent across an important message - sportsmen are 'men' and it's ok for men to cry when they are hurt. Of course, in our country, men don't cry in public. So people labelled Sreesanth as'wimp' and 'a crybaby'. He shouldn't be ridiculed. I think he is already regretting the fact that he shed tears in public. Things will become more difficult for him the next time he has to put up with the Aussie sledging machine. Poor guy!
The slap was one of the most dramatic moments of Indian cricket. I wonder if it will make history the way great cricketing partnerships do. Will we see its replay on its first anniversary? (I would like to watch that for sure.) Will it be dramatised the way it is done with echo in the movies? Will the slap be documented in the Wisdon Cricket books? Will it ever be awarded for being one of ICC's worst cricketing moments of the year? Will journalists get a pay-hike for religiously following it up? Never!

Nobody died doesn't look good

Some aspects of journalist's life are strangely familiar to that of a life scientist.
Take the case of my colleague. He walks in everyday, almost exactly half-hour before our scheduled time. He glances through the agency stories on the ticker. He shakes his head in dismay, "Nobody died today. We'll have a tough time finding stories for tomorrow's paper." Death makes him happy. "The page is taken care of," he tells me.

I remember saying something similar when I was a student of Life Sciences at St Xavier's College, Mumbai. I was great at theory and analysis but I would have a tough time doing the experiments because of my unsteady hand. I would look at blood serum samples and hope they would turn cloudy when I would add the typhoid antibody. I smiled every time the ELISA test for HIV/AIDS turned positive. A positve result would mean that the test was over. I wouldn't have to conduct further tests. Moreover, I liked the way the solution precipitated. I would pray that the test would be positive. I was disappointed when it didn't.

Never during those three years when I was training to be a scientist did I realise that the sample came from a human being's blood. A 'positive' result would ruin his/her life. I never realised how much his/her family hoped that the tests were negative. Science does that to you. It makes you very objective by nature. It got to me in a very big way. I was so obsessed with science that I stopped looking at people as people. When thy were happy, I would term it as 'excessive secretion of serotonin'. I am glad I realised it before it was too late. And, much to the shock of everyone, I switched over to journalism to meet some real people.
At the newsdesk, there is always a crunch. Stories fall, pictures are never good and we wait for the next big mishap. Someone's death is a big news item. Sometimes, whole pages are devoted to it. Deaths, mishaps, coma, collisions make for good headlines. Our only contact with the victims is the story itself. And for us, it's just a good story.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


There are two kinds of birds in Dadar - crows and pigeons. If other species exist, they don't make themselves visible. And out of these two major families, I think crows outnumber pigeons.

It's the nesting season for crows. Unlike pigeons, they don't like building their nests in the crevices of buildings. Crows are larger birds. They like things big. They want more comfortable homes for their little ones. A tree-nest is perfect. But you don't find trees in Dadar (W) and if you do, you aren't too sure if it will survive if the BMC decides to widen the road.

A crow has been trying to build its nest on the ledge outside my bedroom. The ledge is meant to be for an airconditioner which we don't have. So the unoccupied ledge has become a prime spot for the crow to build its nest. Birds, like humans, are very picky about choosing their homes. It doesn't happen overnight (no, not even with pigeons). They conduct various recce missions to see if the place they pick on is safe from other predatory animals and humans. They take into account whether they will be able to balance the nest on the tree, pole, wall or ledge. Accordingly, they choose the materials for construction of the nest. Each bird-nest has a distinct feature that is a characteristic of the species. But birds in cities have got urbanised and you find metal pieces, wires and even chains that hold our nest together. The recces are very important and if the birds sense any danger, the place is immediately scrapped off the list.

What the crow didn't see during his recce is my mom. It assumed that the place was safe. It started dumping twigs onto the ledge. For five days in succession, Mom threw the twigs away. In defiance, the crow would get larger twigs and more material. Mom gave up after some time. The crow wasn't going to give in easily.

Mom changed her strategy. She would stick her face to the window above the ledge as soon as the crows would perch. She would gently tap the window a few times. That was enough to rattle the male crow who would loudly cry out 'Caw caw caw caw...' He would then ruffle his feathers, pump up its chest and try to scare my mom away. Mom wasn't going to budge. She enjoyed it thoroughly. The crows flew away.

I told her to leave the crows alone. She replied, "I want to protect you." I was amused. I told her, "Birds don't fear me. Crows don't cry out when they see me."

I moved to the living room window which has a box grille. I saw two crows tugging at the coir of a coconut at the base of teh grille. The crows saw me but didn't budge. I observed them (I love observing birds) tearing shreds off the coconut fibre and then flying away into the distance.

Suddenly, mom appeared from nowhere and she shooed the crows away. She took the coconut away. I said, "There was no need to take the coconut away. They weren't going to eat it." Mom said, "They won't. But how dare they use coir from this coconut to build their nest on my ledge? This is too much." Egos, I tell you.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Handwriting Analysis

My colleague, Vishwas Heathcliff (Heathcliff has been borrowed from the vindictive character in Wuthering Heights because Vishwas doesn’t use his last name), runs a column in Mumbai Mirror’s Sunday edition. Vishwas is a graphologist and takes the science very seriously. It started as a hobby when he was working with The Telegraph in Kolkata. It then turned into a bit of a passion for him. His ‘pen-killers’ are supposed to have provided relief to many. So it was only natural for me to ask him to analyse my handwriting.

I didn’t want him to help me. I didn’t think a change in handwriting would change my life. I was just curious. I actually challenged him to make me cry during the session (a colleague of mine had broken down during one of his sessions).

My first attempt – a four-liner on a ruled sheet of paper – was trashed by Vishwas. He said, “I need atleast five pages on blank A-4 sheets. It’s difficult to analyse handwriting on a ruled sheet. You need to write at a stretch.”

Next attempt: I picked up a few sheets made of handmade paper and a ball-point pen. “What should I write on?” I decided to play safe (I didn’t know Vishwas well) and decided to fill up four and a half pages with what I thought of graphology. I wrote at a stretch. I always do.

I handed over the sample to Vishwas. He sighed and put it in his drawer that contained lots of envelopes (letters from readers and fans, perhaps!)

I had to wait for nearly 10 days. He asked me to meet him at a Barista (“I can’t rush with this. We’ll have a chat over coffee,” he said.)

We settled down and he started, almost immediately. He went through my g’s and t’s. We talked about stress, relationships, uncertainties, my past, my future, my nature, ambition, intensity, intelligence and of course, my famed photographic memory (it had made me popular in college).

However, the analysis didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. No skeletons in my cupboard? How could I have no secrets? I was slightly disappointed. Vishwas tried to brighten me up saying, “You are very expressive. You don’t have skeletons. That’s good.”

He ordered a cold coffee with ice-cream (that’s a staple during his sessions and the ‘client’ pays the bill.) “That’s not my fee,” he told me. I let that pass. Later, I told him that he hadn’t said anything I didn’t know. He replied, “I wasn’t looking into a crystal ball and looking into your future. I just analysed your handwriting to help you make your life better. I don’t know you that well. Give me some credit for getting my facts right.”

Then came the exercises. “Cross the t’s right on top as I have shown you,” he told me.

Later, during an online conversation, I asked him, "Scientifically speaking, even if my life were to improve, it wouldn't be just because of the change in my handwriting, right? Vishwas shot back, "Nobody is seeking credit from you. At least I am not. Finish the exercise and see the difference. After that you decide you want to give the credit to botany, microbiology or to your mamma!"

I was doing the exercise at home when my mom caught me. She freaked out. She’s a primary school teacher and her job is to teach kids how to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. “It took me four years to teach you how to write the alphabet. How dare a graphologist change the shape of the t? We follow the standard Marion Richardson script.”

One of Vishwas's columns will be about people like my mom. I'm waiting for it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla, Mumbai

"Why would you go to a museum alone?"
"Why do you want to go to a museum if you aren't going to do a story for the paper? It will be a waste of time."
"There's a museum in Byculla? Where? When did it come up?"

I knew I had made a mistake by telling people that after waiting for two years (when it was closed down for renovation), I would finally be able to check out the Bhau Daji Lad Museum at the Byculla zoo. I am a museum junkie. I’ve been to all the museums in Mumbai – BEST Museum at Wadala, Chhatrapati Shivaji Sangrahalaya at Kala Ghoda, F D Alpaiwala Museum aka Parsi museum at Khareghat Colony at Hughes Road and even the RBI coin museum. Though I did not really expect people to know that it's the oldest museum in Mumbai (it's much older than the well-known Chhatrapati Shivaji Sangrahalaya formerly known as The Prince of Wales Museum at Kala Ghoda), I thought people would understand why I was so eager to go there.

The 150-year-old Bhau Daji Lad Museum, formerly known as The Victoria and Albert Museum holds the key to Mumbai's cultural heritage and showcases the city's development into India's commercial capital. But that's not what I wanted to see.

I just wanted to walk along the length of the length of the main display hall admiring the drawings on the ceiling, which I think is the second most beautiful roof in Mumbai after the magnificent dome of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The shapes are geometric and follow a pattern. But the interplay of blue, gold, red and white is simply enchanting. The six-point blue star is similar to the one at the Magen David Synagogue nearby. It's unmistakingly Jewish. As you follow the trail of stars, walking along the floor, you reach the bust of Sir David Sassoon, Bombay's most prominent Jewish businessman in the 1880s. In fact, the marble bust of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's statues were donated to the museum by Sassoon himself.

The outer structure of the museum built in art-deco style with palladian columns and wooden blinds on windows, resembles the Cotton Exchange building at Cotton Green. In fact, it's the same shade of green. That quite explains why it's devoted mainly to the trade and culture of the city.

I found Ming vases from China, Japanese tea sets, ivory paintings from England and shellwork from the Far East (there’s a beautiful carving of Vishnu on a Nautilus shell) that were imported to Mumbai by the rich. The museum displays Indian pottery, Bidri work, metalwork and even tea sets made of coconut shells that were very much in demand in Europe. Then there are oil paintings of Bhau Daji Lad, Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy and the museums trustees and architects interspersed that adorn the walls along the broad central staircase. There are also Persian rugs that are put up along the sides of the staircase.

Upstairs, there are model depictions of life of the people of Bombay – of rural life, of business communities such as Baniyas and Parsis, forms of recreation such as the dandiya dance, traditional games for men and women and even the uniforms of various bearers. I found INTACH (the organisation that took charge of the museum’s renovation) head Tasneem Mehta explaining to a group of foreigners that the different uniforms for syces and bearers determined their rank and grade in the hierarchy. Besides models, there are old maps of Mumbai dating back to the 1770s when the Dungaree Fort (Dongri) still existed.

Just outside the museum are the marble statues of Queen Victoria with a nose broken (the statue was earlier at Victoria Terminus station aka CST), Lord Montague and headless statues of a couple of former governors of Mumbai. There is an iron spire that once stood at Esplanade. There is also a plaque that bears the date of the inauguration in 1776 of the Cowasji Patel Tank in Girgaum (there’s no tank now but the area is still known as C P Tank). And of course, there is the original ‘Kala Ghoda’ statue of Prince Edward on his horse in black stone that once stood outside the Elphinstone College.

The museum stresses on conservation. It was in a very bad state, till the Jamnalal Bajaj Trust and INTACH took over. There’s a corner where there are pictures of how badly damaged the aretefacts were before conservation and the procedures used to conserve them. Unfortunately, as visitors to such places of historical significance, we don’t really understand the significance of preservation.

For others, a visit is also not significant enough. I came across two burkha-clad women just outside the door. One said, “Yahaan pe museum bhi hai! Chal jaate hain.” The other responded, “Hum ghoomne aaye hain. Museum bhi koi dekhne ki cheez hai.”

Bhau Daji Lad Museum
At Ranibaug, Byculla
Timings: 11am to 5 pmThe zoo’s closed on Wednesdays, don’t know about the museum
Entry: Rs 10 for adults…it’s seriously worth the money

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Travel tales

I finished reading two travel books - William Dalrymple's The Age of Kali - Indian Travels and Encounters and Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana - Travels in Small Town India.

I've been a Dalrymple fan. I loved his City of Djinns and have excerpts from White Mughals. The Age of Kali is about Dalrymple's journeys through Bihar, Avadh, Gwalior, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and northern Pakistan. But what really attracted me to the book is the picture on the cover - three statues of Goddess Kali resting on the steps of what seems to be a water-tank with two men sitting on their haunches chewing neem twigs as part of their ablution. It's a picture that screams, "This is India."

On the other hand, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana has a black and white picture of a small-town railway station for its cover. This is a picture of India that we are all too familiar with.
I'm biased towards Dalrymple. He takes me into a separate time zone - going back a few centuries (and a couple of millenia in his essay on Madurai). Indian history is anything but boring.

Dalrymple takes me to the land of the nawabs, of the Nizam of Hyderabad, the temples in Kerala and Tamil Nadu that have had their streams of followers for 2,000 years. He superbly juxtaposes history with current affairs - caste riots in Bihar, Page 3 culture and Shobhaa De, the political turbulence in Pakistan and the degeneration of the garden city of Bangalore. He goes off the trodden path to discover the remnants of the ancient Gandharva civilisation in the North West Frontier Province and the isolated French colony, Reunion in the Indian Ocean. He gets right in the middle of action in an LTTE training camp in Jaffna where cadets learn the art of mortal combat from Rambo flicks.

Mishra's is a travel book. It's more personal than Dalrymple's. It covers a part of India that people don't know about. He talks about journeys in battered state transport buses, tiny motels with dusty beds and torn towels, roadside chai shops, co-passengers who discuss everything from politics to the impact of Hindi films on society, of people who aspire to go to metros and make a name for themselves. He describes places such as Muzaffarpur, Malda, Kalka, Ambala, Ghanerao, Hapur, Jehanabad, Kottayam, etc. Mishra doesn 't dig into a past, probably because the places he visited haven't changed for centuries. Moreover, the book's for a metro audience that is more familiar with Manhattan than Malda in West Bengal. He breaches the topic of small-towns facing the challenges of economic and infrastructure devlopment. This is India Shining, almost.