Friday, February 27, 2009


Now it can be told….Last year, I was lucky enough to meet India’s two-time Oscar-winner, the toast of tinsel-town, the pride of the nation – A R Rahman. Not just meet, as in gawping at a crowded party, but meet, as in working for him (for a small copywriting project, which I am under obligation not to name).

In my near-four years in Mumbai, the only two other celebrities I have seen are the cute-but-past-her-prime Juhi Chawla (at the airport) and the disheveled-but-energetic music director Monty Sharma (at a Crossword bookstore). Friends and relations outside Mumbai constantly tease me about the lack of stardust in my life, even though I stay in a city choc-a-bloc with celestial bodies.

But I am so very happy (and, ahem, proud) that I had a bona-fide encounter with a genuine celebrity – a celebrity who is a superstar not because he has money, or is somebody’s son…but because of his trailblazing, undeniable, 1000-watt talent. His star-power is something you simply cannot argue about, like Amitabh Bachchan, another man whose stardom is beyond debate. Interestingly, Rahman mentioned this very fact; when he was explaining to me the effect a particular character would have on the audience, he said, “You know, like Amitabh Bachchan’s entry…everybody automatically will become silent.” (The spouse, as bigtime an AB-fan as I, was thrilled when I recounted this.)

Rahman’s music is ground-breakingly innovative, yet the man himself is completely rooted to the ground. My friend (who is a very creative and successful concept artist, and who was the person who introduced me to ARR and recommended me for the project) and I met Rahman past midnight in his hotel suite after what must surely have been a very hectic day, yet he was fresh and alert and brimming with ideas. Very soft-spoken, very unassuming and a good listener, he soon put me (I was at my nervous, strung-up, sweaty-palmed worst) at ease. As we discussed the project and came up with the inevitable idea-blocks, he simply flowed like a river over the rocky parts. As we left, he went back, not to sleep, but to his laptop, where he creates and stores his stupendous music.

Rahman is one of the very few stars who seem to generate only goodwill, and that is as much because of his humility as his humongous talent. I might not have met too many stars or moons or asteroids, but I will forever remember my encounter with the SUN.

P.S : Rahman approved of my contribution to the project. That chapter is closed, but the memories remain.


Sunday, February 22, 2009


...a teacher. That’s what I always said when I was very young (I don’t remember saying so, but have to believe hearsay evidence from the family).

A lot of time was spent on rehearsing for the future profession. I would come back from school, take an ancient handbag belonging to my dida (granny), wrap a black orna (veil) around my head to simulate long black hair tied up in a bun and persuade my mother to drape a saree on me.

Then, frequently tripping over the voluminous folds of the saree (which would have to be double-folded to fit my childhood height), I would start taking lessons with various imaginary children. Sometimes I would scribble comments on last year’s used notebooks (Good, V.Good, Fair, V. Fair, Poor, V.Poor; the difficult-to-spell Satisfactory was avoided, and the equally-complicated Excellent rarely awarded) with a red pen kept for this very purpose.

I would teach lessons loudly and earnestly with a lot of imitative gestures like tossing of the head and raising of the eyebrows in the approved teacher-like manner (learning the syllabus myself in the process), praise a few students (whose names were those of my real life class-friends) and vigorously scold a few non-existent poor chaps (with names of classmates I did not like). A boy called Rajeev regularly received severe beatings from a wooden scale – my mother says that the patch of mattress which was supposedly Rajeev was quite worn out because of my strict disciplinarian nature.

I did not tire of playing “teacher-teacher-khela” (teacher role-playing) even when I was nine or ten. Sometimes, my cousin J, who visited frequently, would join in and then we could jointly and gleefully make life miserable for the make-believe students by imitating the classroom-manner of the most fearsome of our teachers. Not all the time, though, because we would also take turns in pretending to be our favourite teacher of the moment.

My Barama (aunt), who was a real-life school-teacher, would sometimes give me stubs of white chalk and I would scribble profusely all over the grey-painted door (which served as a blackboard – scribbling on the walls was forbidden). Once my mother bought a whole box of coloured chalks, and I was over the moon for months. Just as our real school-teachers did, I would draw complicated scientific and geographical diagrams, happily explaining related concepts to my invisible brood of students. In fact, in hindsight I feel it was a brilliant idea of my mother to encourage this role-playing, because it definitely made learning lessons a very attractive game.

Later on, I switched loyalties and wanted to become a journalist. Still later, I compromised by becoming a teacher in a college myself, and getting married to a journalist.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The backbone of the Indian Education system is not the official network of schools and colleges, but the parallel unofficial network of private tuitions. Children get initiated into the tuition racket pretty early on in life, sometimes even before they enter school. There are many tutors who ostensibly coach little kids on the essentials needed for admission to Montessori sections of ‘good’ schools. Catch them young, preferably as soon as they are born!

Coming from a family which prefers to swim against the tuition-tide, we were left to fend for ourselves as long as we could, surviving with a little help from our parents (to twist the Beatles song).

So when I remember my initiation into the tuition-racket, it is actually in the role of the tutor rather than that of the tutored.

I was a ripe 7-year old, newly promoted to the second standard (Class II). It was the carefree summer holidays before term started. I had a younger friend called Sonali, who would start her first standard that year. Now, Sonali’s mother (who I called Kakima – a generic term for all my friends’ mothers), was suddenly inspired to appoint me her daughter's tutor for one month to teach her the basics of the First Standard syllabi.

So, after playing and sweating it out in the playing ground every evening, I would accompany Sonali back to her house and guide her through the intricacies of Addition/Subtraction and Radiant Reader.

My charges? An evening snack every day – an omelette, or muri makha (spicy puffed rice) or chirey bhaja (fried crushed rice), and a bar of chocolate as a grand farewell present.


Friday, February 13, 2009


Of the millions of gods crowding the Hindu pantheon, my mother’s personal favourite is Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. In true Bengali tradition, she reveres knowledge above all other virtues, not just as an end in itself, but also as the means to other ends, like money, career, and – if wishes could be horses – fame.

Which is why, Saraswati Pujo was always celebrated very sincerely in our home when we were young. Some days before the auspicious date, we would all troop to the market and select a suitable Saraswati to grace our home from the idols on display at the market place. Some years she would be a traditional doe-eyed white-skinned beauty with flowing fake jet black hair and a bright saree made of real fabric; on other years it would be a more artistic rendition completely made from clay, with her earthen locks coiled in a knot sideways on the top of her head. Whatever her attire and hairstyle, Saraswati was recognizable by the veena (sonorous musical string instrument) she carried and by her pet white swan nestling near her feet.

A portion of our bedroom would be cleared to place the deity, and baba (father) and Didia (my cousin) would brainstorm to give Saraswati a suitably artistic abode. The backdrop would usually be a saree from Ma’s or Barama’s (my aunt) collection, sometimes decorated beyond recognition. Once, I remember, my over-enthusiastic Baba swirled an entire saree in a tub of mud, let it dry and then made a backdrop of brown mountain peaks for the Goddess. Ma would stoically bear the brunt of all such creative experimentation, no doubt a small sacrifice for the greater cause of erudition.

Didia would enlist our help for the menial tasks, while the grand scheme of decoration would emerge from her brain. We would sit up late, cutting strips of thin coloured paper to make endless paper chains (the adhesive would be a homemade concoction of water and flour) which would hung all over the walls and ceiling. The floor would be decorated with elaborate intricate patterns of white alpana (a traditional method of decoration). The various brass and stone utensils ritually used in pujos (idol worship) would be brought out, washed arranged in front of the deity. Fresh flowers would be piled on a brass thali (platter) and incense sticks and diyas would be lit. As a finishing touch, we would all keep some of our books near the deity’s feet. My pile always contained, apart from other things, my Mathematics book, because I felt I needed divine help most in that particular subject.

Ma would be in charge of the prasad (food offered to the deity). Various fruits would be washed and cut, sweet narkol-narus (coconut-jaggery sweets) prepared and other uniquely prasad offerings would be prepared, like chal-kala (moist uncooked rice with sugar and banana) and moong-narkol (grated coconut and soaked yellow pulses). There would be khichuri (rice-lentil mash), cauliflower-curry and topakul-er chutney (a sweet-sour concoction of a type of plum).

Saraswati is worshipped in Basanta (spring) and so mostly, we would wear Basanti coloured (yellow) clothes. We would wait patiently with folded hands as the Purohit (priest) completed his rounds of chanting mantras (hymns), interspersed with all of sprinkling flower-petals at the Goddess and the tinny ringing of the small brass bell. Maybe the elders prayed for abstract ideals like wisdom and insight, but my fiercely muttered prayers (with my eyes squeezed shut) were directly related to the coming class examinations.

The next morning, we would take the patkathi (jute straw) which served as a pen out of the clay doyat (inkpot) and use the milk within (in lieu of ink) to write the name of the Goddess three times on the small belpata (leaves of the bael-tree, used in religious rituals). A truly tricky test of spelling and calligraphy, befitting the Goddess of Academics and Fine Arts. Needless to say, we could never do it neatly enough, though we were allowed to eat the narkoli kul (sweet plum-like fruit) placed atop the inkpot as a reward anyway.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009


"Cycling and swimming are things that, once learnt, can never be forgotten." - or so they said. My parents were keen bikers, and they gifted me my first BI-cycle (as opposed to TRI-cycle - that safe, sturdy, secure, sweet little mode of childhood transport), when I was about eight or nine.

The bicycle fascinated my dad, because its colourful contours were so different from the plain outlines of his own boyhood bike. It fascinated my brother, because it promised reckless speed and wind-in-the-hair freedom. It scared me for that very same reasons. The colourful contours appeared wobbly and shaky (there were no supporting training-wheels). The promise of speed was more a threat of an ignominious fall-flat-on-my-face-as-I-crashed.

But in a family of enthusiastic bikers, when even my saree-clad mother got up on the bike to demonstrate see-how-easy-it-is, I couldn't voice my misgivings. And so, the lessons began, in the not-so-smooth grass meadow near our house. At first, my father would push us from behind, then as we learnt to gather speed and the balance automatically came, he would let us go on our own, free and flying on two wheels (a lesson in how to take one's steps in life's journey as well).

My brother picked up the rudiments early on. As for me, I was too conscious of the surroundings to enjoy the wind-in-my-hair and the whirl-under-my-feet. The stones and bumps in the meadow rattled me, the children playing at the side rattled me, people behind me rattled me, and I was so distracted by all of these that I banged smack into the brick wall at the end of the meadow. The front wheel was damaged, but not as much as my pride.

Till today, I cannot get up and get down properly from a bicycle. Only if I get an unlimited unhindered expanse of space will I attempt to ride a bike into the dizzy unknown. Otherwise, I prefer my own two legs, thank you very much.

P.S : Needless to say, MY FIRST BIKE very soon became MY BROTHER'S FIRST BIKE, to my chagrin and my parents' disappointment.

P.P.S : It was Michelle's monthly Write-Away contest at Scribbit which made me write this post of ignominy.