Friday, 24 July 2009

Baby you can drive my car

I often wistfully think about the promised lands where my friends who have moved out of India live in.

Especially when I am stuck in a traffic jam caused by a religious festival, waiting to take on the potholes of Mumbai.

Then I console myself by reminding myself that I live in a country where you still get domestic help. That I won't have to go back and do the dishes. Or navigate the crazy traffic myself.


Our maid has bunked for the last couple of days. Our kitchen's a disaster zone.

And we have been driverless for a while.

Bunking is our maid's thing. It used to bug me and I often wanted to sack her. My wife restrained me and six years later our maid has become Pygmalion to my Henry Higgins. When she comes to work that is.

But our luck with drivers is the stuff of Bollywood tear jerkers.

We have been without one for a while. Three of the last four didn't last beyond a day. We sacked one, the next one inexplicably disappeared after day one and the third called me after the first day saying that he was getting a better salary elsewhere. The fourth came to our place, agreed to the terms, and never turned up.

I ate the humble pie and called our last driver who was a bit of Cinderella and wouldn't want to stay beyond eight even for the love of money. He had this angry young man thing going and would normally greet me with a scowl. We let him go in the promise of one who was highly referred to me. The new guy didn't live up to the build up that he got and was the first of our recent one day stands. I had to read him the riot act.

Anyway Cinderella responded to my pleas to make up with a SMS (!) which said "thousand Rupees more per month, two hours less per day".

Since then I have been at the mercy of Meru cabs and a few attempts to drive myself which end up in a backache.

We have had more drivers in the last six years than the number of craters in the average Bandra by-lane.

The first one taught me how to drive. It was his first driving job as well. He used to drive tempos before. Things were fine till he began to think of me as an ATM machine for some reason. Loan for school, farming, house, a difference of opinion on paying up loans (I felt he should, he felt he shouldn't) and we had our first break up. Like Taylor and Burton, he joined me a few drivers later and then left. He fell for the call of the wild. He went back to driving tempos! The sad thing was that we had to hear this from other people. He had told us that he was returning to his village.

In between we had one who used to mysteriously fall ill on Saturday and Monday and take extended weekends. Another who could barely see, wouldn't recognise us if he saw us on the roads and would make potholes seem like air pockets. And there was one who would run at eight to have dinner with 'Maushi'. Even if we were in the middle of nowhere. Replaced by one who claimed to be a Bandra boy, but didn't know what lay across my road in the centre of Bandra. He drove like a maniac. Then quit before I could sack him. He told me, "It's not you, it's me" He said that he was a 'pilot driver' and that I deserved someone nicer and less wild.

Then came Raju. A stable driver. Polite, diffident, middle aged. Happy times? Well, he looked up to his name sake in the film Sri 420. He would take off home for a nap while I was at oblivious at work. With my car! And bought an expensive colour camera phone after taking money for us to buy a basic phone. There was no money left for a SIM card to activate it. His response to my flustered threats in Hindi was a whimpered "Lalach me aa gaya tha Sir" (I succumbed to greed sir).

I feel very hassled when I have to tick off a driver. I could be seething in anger but would be at my wit's end about how to convey my angst in my broken Hindi. I would blurt out something at the end with no idea about whether the message got through.

My parent in law's favourite, 'Tauji', came next. As old as Methuselah, with the heart of Shumacher, and a rasping smoker's cough which would make us flinch in the car and send him to the doctor. All was fine till he disappeared for six months for his daughter's wedding. This wizened Obi Wan is back in town and often pops unexpectedly from below a car these days asking me for a job.

And then there were the ones who came to try for the job and didn't make it. Most didn't know how to drive. One damaged the car while taking it out of the parking lot at home. Seven thousand rupees down. Another was a gym attendant who knocked the car while taking it out of the building gates during the trial. There were quite a few whom I asked to get off the wheel two minutes after they took it out of our house for the test. One flummoxed me by saying "meri tamanna tha aap ke saath rehkar driving seekhu." (It was my dream to be with you and learn driving). He was the doorman of the restaurant opposite our house.

Valet parking guys, cake delivery guys, studio stunt drivers ... I have tried them all.

The only thing that keeps me going was what Madhuri Dixit said in the film Dil to Pagal Hain ... "Someone..... Somewhere..... is made for you"

I hope she was talking about drivers.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Bangla Rocks

I was trying to get the little woman to leave her Jap and Mexican authors aside and read Sankar's Middleman.

"Why are you Bengalis so clannish?", she exclaimed in exasperation.

She would know, being married to one. And, being in advertising, quite a few of her close friends are Bengali too.

I have heard others smirk and say that two Bengalis always break into Bengali when they meet each other, even when non Bengalis are around.

Well I have seen Malayalis, Tamils, Parsis and Gujaratis do that too. So do people from the Hindi belt except that Hindi doesn't stand out as much as quite a few speak it.

But yes, it is downright rude to break into a language when there are others around who don't understand it.

Put two Bengalis together and they will rubbish Bombay's biriyani in comparison to Shiraz's and Chowpatty's paani puri's in comparison to Lindsay Street Phhuchkas. And nothing will convince them that even Golden Dragon or Royal China or China Garden are a patch on the Chinese of Barbeque, Tangra and Jimmy's Kitchen or that there will ever be a continental dish which matches up to Mocambo's fish a la diana. We are food chauvinists.

But I have seen Tam Bran friends go weak in their knees over tahir sadam (might have spelt it wrong) or curd rice and Punjabis who go to buffets and fondly call dahi vadas dahi vallas and black daals maa ki daal.

You would also find to the last existing die hard fans of Saurav Ganguly amongst Bengalis. But cut us some slack. There hasn't been a single Bengali sportsman of note since Netaji kicked his Principal down the steps of Presidency.

While I am not much into it ... Bengali books and papers are widely read in Mumbai. And music from Tagore to Hemanta to Bangla Rock would be in quite a few Ipods of Bengalis outside Calcutta.

But then I have Malayali friends who would be in seventh heaven when they found Malayali films in grocery shops in New Bombay.

And if there are eight Bengalis, one more than required to start a trade union, then you will surely find a Durga Puja. Even if its on the surface of the moon! I think that's where we over shadow festivals of any other immigrant communities.

The Bengali accent and their way of speaking English and Hindi are often subjects of mirth in pop culture. But then show me a single Indian community which doesn't have its own way of speaking English and I will show you an American who spells correctly.

I think that the one reason why Bengalis and their idiosyncrasies stand out is that you have a disproportionately high number of us in circles such as arts (films, music, literature), media, advertising, market research and even marketing. Circles which a number of Facebookers and Bloggers belong too.

On the clannish bit... I think that there is a certain comfort that emigrants, or probashis as they say in Bengali, find in shared memories. This, I think is fine and innocuous in comparison to the communal diatribes, lingual xenophobia, religious posturing and cultural intolerance that surround India today.

I have heard out of towners say they find it tough to mix in and feel at home in Calcutta. I agree with that.

But then show me any other city in India, apart from Mumbai, where people can feel at home so easily.

So are Bengalis clannish?

I would think so.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Joker

I took the Bandra Worli Sea Link to work a few times before today.

I was quite sold on it. It cut the time to reach my first stop, Kainaz's office by more than ten minutes. And, for those interested, the taxi fare of black and yellow and Meru's is exactly the same on the Sea Link and on Tulsi Pipe. The fifty Re entry fee being the difference.

Then, as Bertie Wooster would say, the scales fell.

We set off by the Sea Link this morning. The sea looked very mysterious and grey. It was wet, cloudy and seemed cool and surreal. I could see the peak of the skyscrapers at the Worli Side through the mist. Smog actually but mist seems more poetic. It seemed straight out of Batman's Gotham City... dark, menacing and yet, exciting.

We got off at the Worli Sea face and saw that the U turn to Worli Naka was closed as usual. I don't know why they can't be flexible and keep it open when traffic is low. The city planners don't care for the energy crisis apparently. Today was particularly crazy as the U Turns were closed later too and one had to hit the main road, get stuck in terrible traffic. Batmobile to reality in ten minutes.

So we limped forward, struggling to gain every inch, while we could have easily taken a U Turn after the Sea Link and hit Worli Naka in a jiffy.

But then what would the guy at BMC who thinks of new ways to test the tenacity of Mumbaikars do if we could do that?

I am sure such a department exists. After all why would they concretise roads, break them, put palaver stones, break them, concretise them, and then block the road wondering whether to make a fly over, or demolish the existing one?

Without them, as T would say, 'where are the hardships?'.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Learn in the USA

I was quite amused to read recent media reports that Barack Obama plans to revamp the American education system to compete with India.

This took me back to my high school days and my friends who would sit at the back in class and solve SAT and TOEFEL papers. An American education was what many dreamt of. Visions of a whole new world, a whole new way of studying with no learning by rote, subjects such as micro biology and liberal arts, lovely campuses romanced by Erich Segal in his books spurred many. I was interested too but found applying to scholarships to be an expensive affair. I don't think that I was sure of what I wanted to do in any case.

So the closest one has come to experiencing an American education is through novels and films. I studied under the British System till the fourth standard in International School. I found it very tough to adjust to the ICSE system initially with its focus of exams and 'by hearting' (memorising) and compliance. A far cry from the creativity and free thinking which I was used to till then. An example would be 'write a story about a suspicious looking man' to 'write ten sentences on your pet'. Duh!

My perception was that the American system would reflect these liberal values too.

Is Obama speaking of basic, elementary education? Or is he speaking of the post grad system?

So have we come a full circle now? Is the land of the free looking wistfully at societies which are not fully unshackled?

Or has Dr Singh left a big impression on everyone!

Do write in if you know more on what Obama said... and definitely if you have experienced both the Indian and American education systems.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Hardly the Wonder Years

I read the Bengali author Sankar's book, Jono Oronyo, while I was at Goa and was blown away by it.

The way Sankar set the character of the protagonist, Somnath Banerjee, in two paragraphs, right in the beginning, is a lesson in great writing. I felt very proud to belong to such rich literary heritage when I read the book.

Here I must confess that I actually read Arunava Sen's translation of the original Bengali book. It is called The Middleman in English. I have not read too many Bengali books and this possibly expalins my awe when I read the book.

I know a lot of Bengalis will take this personally and would consider me a snob for admitting that I don't read Bengali books. There is a simple explanation for this. I learnt Bengali after I came to India. Uninspiring teachers, Christian schools which espoused English and a general love for English books did not inspire me to explore Bengali literature. I never took to reading in Bengali, struggled with a few Satyajit Ray books (yes the master wrote too) and then gave up. Today I like to believe that there are many ways to connecting with one's culture. Eulogising Bengali food or supporting Saurav Ganguly (a lost cause most often) are my hooks.

And I am now getting a taste of Bengali literature thanks to brilliant translations such as Sinha's Middleman.

Enough about me. This is not an autobiographical post. Coming back to the book, it is about Bengali middle class angst, unemployment and corruption in the seventies. I could really feel the pain, frustration and desperation of Somnath Banerjee. Rarely have I read a book which gets so under the skin of a character.

The book is a telling commentary of Calcutta forty years back which appealed to the Sociological orientation that P R tried to instill in us in Presidency years back.

I recently wrote about parents who pushed their children into the rat race through the hidebound paths of medicine, engineering or management studies. "Where is the creativity and free thinking", I brashly asked.

Well, this book gave me a huge insight into the psyche of parents who had grown up in the job scarcity era of the sixties and the seventies. I realised that they would have gone through a lot to get a toehold for themselves and must have been very, very scared about what would happen to their children.

We have seen another side of India where there was a shortage of manpower till a few months back. Companies were in a hiring spree. And there were lots to do in emerging India. Things have changed a bit since then and I am sure that we are oceans apart from the bleak situation portrayed in The Middleman today.

I hope we never slip back.

It's sad that so few of Ray's films are sub titled well. And that so few of Indian books are translated well.

We can step into a video library and get a sub titled Kurusawa or step into a book store and buy a Murakami.

Hopefully someday someone in Tokyo can do the same with a Ray classic or a Sankar novel.

Any idea of where to get a copy of Satyajit Ray's film on the book, Jono Oronyo, in Mumbai? Ideally with English sub titles so that I don't have to do a simultaneous translation for K.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Roll over Pygmalion

I read a shocking piece in The Times of India. Schools in Kolkata, the city where the sun never set on the British Empire, have legalised American English! As has Calcutta University!!!! And Bombay University

Topping the list of schools mentioned in the article was my Alma Mater, St James' School, Calcutta. I did my plus two there.

Is this the school where our principal, J A M, ruled as a martinet armed with Wren and Martin? Scratching our essays with red? Making us shiver under his sophistic and pedantic attacks? He even wrote a book on English Grammar which, surprise surprise, was part of our curricula. Though, to be fair, it was a good, handy book. He then went on to Doon and Dubai but left generations of us Jacobeans guarding the Queen's English.

And, he would have spotted sixty two mistakes in this post by now. Including the fact that I started the last sentence with 'and'.

Call me old fashioned, call me over the hill, or call me uncle as the college kid in the corner store recently did, but I can't spell favour favor and I need to start my sentences with a capital letter and the last letter of the alphabet is zed, not zee and I will end this sentence with a full stop and not a period.

The default language in my spell check is English UK.

What is yours?

Monday, 6 July 2009

Papa kehte hain ... the path well travelled

Aamir Khan crooned this famous song from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak in the late eighties, straight into the hearts of all the girls in my school. While I made collages of Juhi Chawla. Thirteen is an impressionable age.

In this coming of age song, Aamir Khan's character, Raj, sang of his father's hopes from him.

Part of the lyrics went as follows:

Har ek nazar ka sapna yeh hai
Koi engineer ka kaam karega
Business mein koi apna naam karega
Magar yeh to koi na jaane
Ki meri manzil hai kahan
Papa kehte hain bada naam karega

This loosely translated means "everyone has a dream, some want to be an engineer, some want to make it in the world of business, but no one knows where I'll end up, Papa says I'll make a name for myself".

This song was quite symbolic of the times we grew up in. Add doctor and CA to engineer and business and you have the career options opent to a twentieth century Indian laid out in front of you.

Most of us followed these routes and earn a living, often quite adequately, diligently and with some efficiency.

And yet many of us blog by night ... and in these blogs are hidden aspirations to be writers, chefs, food reviewers, poets, photographers, journalists, rocket scientist, designers, film critics ... professions very different from doling out medical certificates, building bridges, selling soap or researching why people buy soap.

Of course there is the odd story such as that of an ex colleague who quit her job, became a Mom and now a published writer.

But these stories are probably far and few. Even folks in 'creative' fields such as advertising take up film making or song writing to discover themselves.

I think a part of this was because India didn't have a social security system. Nor do we have a culture of living on credit. So the aim of most middle class parents was to see their children settled and earning a living as soon as possible. No place for Bertie Woosters here. So going for the tried and tested seemed the best option as a nation of young minds sharpened themselves for medical, engineering and MBA exams.

I started working in the late nineties. I wonder if things are different more than a decade later. Are today's students chasing their dreams. Or are they working towards their pay cheque, the safe way?

The stories in newspapers about admission anxieties don't seem to indicate much of a change.

My first job was with The Asian Age for about a month before my MBA entrance results came out. Close to fifteen years later I am my own editor and my own journalist! Just that I don't earn a living out of it.