Thursday, August 04, 2016

YE KYA HUA: HAPPY BIRTHDAY KISHORE DA!

Because it's your birthday & no one can ever match your mad brilliance ❤❤❤ Happy Birthday Kishore da!

#YeKyaHua #KishoreKumar #Legend



Sunday, January 31, 2016

ONE HELLUVA RIDE!

This is a short post.

We're lost in the mountains amongst thick foliage all around, drifting in & out of a fatigue & cold induced snooze on a very bumpy mud road that should make sleep impossible altogether. There is not a soul in sight for miles around and although the near full moon illuminates everything, it slowly dawns on me that we're all afraid. Each one of us has a different reason to be scared: possible wild animals in this overtly dense forest, naxals, ghosts, getting trapped in the mud pits on the non-existent roads, falling off the edge of the cliff or not making it to our destination and spending the night out in the wilderness in bone chilling cold weather with no mobile network and a vehicle with a malfunctioning heater.

Sound ominous? Well, that's what this road (or rather off-road trip) turned out to be. I'm not always particular about comfortable, luxurious journeys. When you set out to see the world, not every sojourn will be a bed of roses and I have done quite a few long, gritty road journeys in the past. In spite of those experiences, nothing could've prepared me for this.

I and my team left Mumbai in a sleepy but upbeat mood early in the morning. Our eventual destination would be the quaint town of Seppa in Arunachal Pradesh where I was to be the headliner for the Kameng River Festival. The audiences in North East India are hugely appreciative & might I say, I have a huge fan following there. Plus, the region is mostly unexplored & beautiful and the people kind and well-meaning. To add to the excitement, Seppa is also known for its trekking, river rafting & paragliding. Needless to add, I'd been looking forward to this for months. However, the North East is not very well connected yet and one has to take multiple modes of transport to get there. We first landed in Guwahati to take a helicopter to Seppa. I was pleasantly surprised that we would be traveling with the (now former) Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Mr. Nabam Tuki, who I'd briefly met during a previous, immensely fulfilling concert at the Tawang Festival, Tawang. After he disembarked at Itanagar to flag off a marathon (and to the political imbroglio that followed), I stepped out for a quick lunch of pork momos when I was intimated that the chopper would not fly any further due to inclement weather. This put all the plans into the spanner. The only other way of getting to Seppa would be by road; an unspecified unknown for us. From my past experiences of traveling by road in the North East, I was expecting the worst. On previous occasions, I had been vacationing and wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. This time I was, and the multiple miscommunications at various levels only made the confusion graver. We hurriedly took the road in the hope of getting to our destination in 6 hours. The audiences in Seppa had been intimated that I'd be delayed & that they should wait at least until 11:30 in the night. What followed was an 8 hour long nightmare, surpassed only by a 13 hour road journey from Gangtok to Yumthang Valley taken a decade ago.

Since our driver Nirba was driving at break-neck speed to get us to our destination, the vehicle bounced about violently on the mud roads, showing us the true meaning of break neck, and within 90 minutes we were feeling very sick indeed. Not even a bobble-head could have survived this kind of physical assault! The body had been thrown in all possible directions, I must have hit my head on different parts of the car many a times and we had no option but to stop. After an hour, some rest & serious deliberations about whether we should continue or not, I was on my way again, for the love of my fans. We passed through a "short-cut"; some of the densest forests & the narrowest mud roads I've come across. Although the thick, gorgeous forest was a thing to marvel at, the car swerved dangerously in some of the morasses & almost got stuck in one. There was also the perceived risk of running off the track or being encountered by wild animals or naxals. Surprisingly, I was mostly in good spirits & none of this really worried me. What did scare me was when we reached a large clearing for future roadways construction and Nirba lost his way. The construction work had closed off the road that led to Seppa and after this already 6 hour long journey, I was mortified at the prospect of returning down the path we'd taken so far. In drastic contrast to what our minds were going through, melodious songs were playing on the stereo system and would you believe it if I told you that these songs played in quick succession: Jag Soona Soona Laagey, Jadoo Hai Tera Hi Jadoo & Hum Jo Chalney Lagey Hain. You'd appreciate the irony, like I did, if you pay attention to certain lyrics in these songs. It seemed like God had set them up to accurately narrate our plight. Sample this:

"Ye kya hua, pehle na aisa hota tha. Main hoon kahaan, main jaanu na. Koi mujhe itna bata de, ghar ka mere mujhko pata de" (How did this happen? I have no clue where I am. Someone please guide me home) or "Aao kho jaayein hum, ho jaaye yun hum laapta. Aao meelon chale, jaana kahan na ho pataa." (Come, let's get lost. Let's go missing. Let's travel miles without any idea of where we're heading) Or "Roothi roothi saari raatein, fikre fikre saare din. Veerani si Veerani hai, Tanhai si tanhai hai" (the nights are angry & the days are worrisome. It's so bad that even the desolation is desolate & the loneliness is lonesome!) Although the songs themselves are mostly optimistic ballads save one, my frame of mind was having a field time interpreting them as prophecies of doom! Hahaha :)

Fortunately, there was some trace of humanity there in the form of some construction workers who were toiling late into the night and they set us off in the right direction; an alternate path that had been cut into the mountain. The extensive roadwork was nothing short of impressive, knowing how immensely difficult it is to carve a way through the mountains and hopefully, in the years to come, travel in the North East will be much smoother & less time-consuming. Nevertheless, cut to the present, some more forest, mud roads, morasses, bumps & hours later, we finally reached Seppa in the dead of night, long after the last of the audience had waited in vain, and left. Obviously, I was upset, not only at the futility & roughness of the journey but at the disappointment of not having performed for the fans. Apparently, the crowds had waited till 12:30 AM and the fact that we reached just an hour later only made the disappointment even more acute. I was literally sulking when we alighted at one of the organising committee's members house for the night and in moments, my anger melted away. They were so kind & apologetic and had suffered so much more than we had in pacifying the disgruntled crowds that it seemed inappropriate to be cross with them anymore. They stayed up late so that we'd be received & fed well and taken good care of. This is one of the hallmarks of most Northeast Indian families; they welcome you into their fold and make you feel like one of their own, and this comes naturally to them. When I left by helicopter the next morning, clicking a gazillion pictures with the locals, mingling with them and waving at the students gathered in the field for Republic Day parade practice to a rapturous response, I had only one thought on my mind. If only I could've taken the stage the night before as well...

For now, I have the love of the Arunachali people & these memorable snippets to take back home and a hope that I can come back to the next Kameng River Festival to finish what I started :)

The gorgeous Kameng river

The sleepy little hamlet of Seppa

This gentleman also performed hours before I was supposed to take the stage. Credited with reviving the traditional music of the Tangkhul Naga community of Manipur, it's a pity I missed Rewben Mashangwa's performance.

*****

An amusing thing happened on the way back home when the cabin crew of one of the connecting flights doubled up as literal wingmen for their Manipuri colleague and tried to set us up! I'm sure both of us were suitably embarrassed but full points to them for helping a fellow out. She's cute and we're bound to bump into each other sooner or later. Now, where could that lead to? ;)

Monday, January 25, 2016

PUNJAB KI BAAT HI KUCH AUR HAI :)

Let me just start by saying that some places have the magic to leave the heart FULL of happiness & gratitude. Over the years, I've managed to travel a lot by extending work trips but it's only recently that I have actively started expanding my plans outside work as well. Even though I now have a better understanding of travel than before, there are no hard & fast rules for it. One must have fun! Having said that, there's been a jinx surrounding me & Punjab. I was to shoot at the Golden temple first in 2008 for Indian Idol, in 2011 for India's Got Talent and was supposed to visit with family in 2015. Somehow, none of them worked out. This particular trip almost didn't happen either, with work threatening to hamper the reunion with a school friend in Ludhiana and the long due visit to Amritsar. Now that I finally did make it, I can say with conviction that it was a gorgeous, gorgeous experience, both spiritually & gastronomically. Ride on with me...

My journey to Punjab started like our approach to most exams. Last minute plans were put into action & I first landed at Chandigarh, where my school buddy Kshitij & his wife Mansi picked me up. They make a really cute couple. Ever since I've known them, I've seen them as two grown-up people who haven't let the child in them wither away. And now many years in their marriage & a baby girl later, their bond has only become stronger. As soon as we exited the airport, we saw a group of people distributing biscuits & tea for free (we'd later come to know that these offerings were being made to all & sundry on the occasion of Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti). Thereon, we were off on lush, canal-lined roads all the way to Ludhiana while discussing travel & philosophy, and reminiscing about old times spent there after completing our 12th board exams over a decade ago. I got some sound relationship & marriage advice from them as well (which may come in handy as many friends feel that I have a terrible taste in partners, but that's a story for another time). It was nostalgic to be back in Ludhiana after so many years & to meet the entire family as well as the two new members: tiny tot Krisha & the grunting pug Oreo. We had a very late lunch of Baba ka butter chicken (best ever!), exquisite home-made paneerrajma-chawal, roti & sewai for dessert. My friend & his mum even joked that I might find a good Punjabi girlfriend during my stay in Punjab. It felt like home, it always has. The only hitch was that this was a very, very short visit; literally just a few hours. I left from Ludhiana with a heavy but merry heart, seeing how much had changed, and how so much was still the same in this lovely family. Until we meet again buddy!


From Ludhiana, I took a train after many years and it felt both awkward as well as familiar. The gentle rocking of the train, loud banters & the aroma of food wafting across the compartment are memories that had faded away. I hadn't slept for over 2 days, and dozed off while reliving those memories. When I woke up, an extremely jovial TC ensured that I got to eat train ka khana; simple & hot fare which, in my opinion, is leagues ahead of the rubbery, gooey, often inedible stuff we get in aeroplanes. With a full belly & some warmth in my cheeks, I stepped out into Amritsar. A quick taxi ride manoeuvreing through extensive construction-debris later, I checked into Le Gold Hotel, named so because of it's insane proximity to the Golden Temple. I met Rachna, my friend & agent and made some new ones in her friends as well. We soon turned in for the night for the bliss that awaited us the next morning.

At 4:30 AM, we stepped into the temple to participate in the bringing in of the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book of the Sikhs) on a palanquin. I can tell you what I saw but can't really put the experience into words. I guess that is something one needs to imbibe for themselves when they visit this shrine. It would not be an exaggeration to say that as ethereal as the Golden Temple looked that morning and that it is a sight to behold as you enter those gates, I was distracted throughout (not hearing much of what my friends were saying, not seeing the gorgeous temple either) by the mellifluous, classically rooted & soul-searching singing of the Gurbani. For those who know the true power of music, this particular recitation was one of the most telling renditions I've ever heard. I had goosebumps and could not help going wah wah every now & then at the impeccable singing. The place was packed despite the biting cold & early hour, and a serene tranquility enveloped everyone. There was peace & calm in the body language & voices of people, as opposed to how loud & often aggressive places of worship can get. I guess the vibe of a place is also made by the people, and the Sikh are a strong & jovial but gentle & caring  folk. When there was no space in the inner sanctorum, I sat outside it on comfortable carpets laid out for devotees. The crowd only swelled with time & I feared getting trampled upon by the crowd but I needn't have worried. Everyone was mindful & the world whizzed past me in a calm blur. The still, constant me with eyes shut tight in prayer didn't have to worry about anything. I've rarely felt such inner peace surreal enough for words & I do highly recommend a visit to this beautiful place. 

Golden temple is one of only two places of worship that I would willingly go to and spend a lot of time at, the other being Bodh Gaya. In my piece on Varanasi, I'd mentioned why I have an affinity to religious places out of curiosity but not out of faith. Before you brand me an atheist, which I could be, let it be known that my faith in many of these religious institutions is zilch owing to their rampant commercialization and/or hypocrisy & corruption, where Godliness is not measured by your intent but by how heavy your wallet is. Bodh Gaya, and now Golden temple are the only places where these didn't matter. Seva (voluntary service) is all that's asked for at this gurudwara. There is no compromise on the food provided for free, almost everyone is a volunteer and there are always enough to get the job done. For a good hour, all of us volunteers combined collected at least 3000 rotis made via automatic machines, put ghee on them & placed them into big containers for distribution at the langar (the free community kitchen). Our feet were bare in the cold & my hands were sore with handling hot rotis but we had the goodwill of people we hadn't met, a content heart & delicious karha prasad (wheat halwa made in desi ghee) for our efforts. What else could one ask for? And who doesn't remember repeatedly going to the Gurudwara for that delicious, ghee laden prasad? This early morning visit is something that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.


Sikhism, Buddhism & many other religions teach you not to indulge in gluttony, but that's one thing that we could not adhere to, not when you're in Punjab! We further treated ourselves to some amazing grub at Kanha sweets. While the choley were undoubtedly amongst the best I've had and the pooris soft, hot & light, it was the sweet aloo sabzi that intrigued me the most with its tangy-sweet combination of flavours. This wonderful lunch was topped off, obviously, with the malai wali lassi and gud (jaggery) ka halwa. The jovial family next to us, who were on a homecoming trip challenged us not to fall asleep after this heavy meal and told us that Drinking & Driving has a different meaning in Punjab, with lassi inducing merry drowsiness in many :)

The best poori in town

Don't drink and drive just got a new meaning ;)
Early evening took us to the Attari-Wagah border for the ceremony between rangers from India & Pakistan. The scene at the border was both overwhelming & exciting. I'm not the jingoistic type, so I can only compare the atmosphere to that of a ginormous music concert; crowds going ballistic, every patriotic song ever composed playing over the public announcement system and hordes of locals & foreigners dancing to these tunes, chants of Bharat Mata Ki JaiVande MataramHindustan Zindabad reverberating through the sky. And even though the Indian side was loud, on this particular day we were outnumbered by the Pakistani tourists on the other side. The only thing I could make out from that side was chants of Jiyo Jiyo Pakistan & some indistinct music. Being in the VIP section gave us the best view in the house & we were closest to the border gates. Conversely, we were far away from the rest of the maddening populace, and for once I kind of regret that because such surging sentiments are best experienced in a crowd. However, the cherry on the cake is the actual ceremony: the lowering of the flags or the Beating Retreat. The drill commences with the blowing of horns, characterised by what I could only describe as speed-marching on steroids (stomp, stomp, stomp!) set to the beats of drums, impossibly vertically delivered kung-fu kicks, elaborately choreographed manoeuvres that symbolise the rivalry as well as the brotherhood & coooperation between the two nations. There is so much attitude oozing out of their every move and the raub-e-tashan, demeanor & fitness of the BSF Jawaans is intense and sure to set your heart racing with adrenaline, pride & patriotism (and apparently this was a toned down version of what used to be pre-2010)! I just couldn't help wondering what a torture it must be on their knees to repeatedly stomp the ground in those boots though! 

This bit, I missed. Image courtesy hastenteufel.name/blog
Image courtesy vodkatrain.com
Image courtesy indiatimes.in
The two flags are lowered simultaneously. Image courtesy indianoverseas.com
The Indian flag is brought back with full honors. Image courtesy hastenteuful.name/blog
Once the ceremony was over and the rangers retreated, there was an obvious rush to click photographs at the border & BSF 102 point. The BSF 102 point is a curious spot on the Indo-Pak border. Shorn of the massive gates that separate the two countries, here you can come face to face with your Pakistani counterparts. Of course, everyone is there only for a photo-op and the rangers & jawans ensure that. But take them away and all you'd be left with is a black chain (denoting the Pakistani border), a yellow chain ( the Indian border), the No-Man's land between the chains, bemused & reticent people on both sides and lush green fields on three sides, albeit cordoned off by electric fences. It was surreal as well as awkward, as folks from both countries just looked at each other without as much as a smile or a wave of the hand. Perhaps the mood was wary owing to the recent Pathankot attacks. This reverie was broken by a smiling Pakistani man who wanted to click a picture of one of my friends, which she obliged him with, and he returned the favour by posing for her as well. It was a cute moment, with not a word having been exchanged and the message conveyed only through a smile & sign-language across the border.

Thank you Papaji Jaspal Ji (extreme right) for making our visit a smooth & memorable one. And thank you photographer Raman for this perspective from No Man's Land
Insaan tum bhi ho, insaan hum bhi hain.

Pakistan Zindabad. Hindustan Zindabad. INSAANIYAT ZINDABAD. Mazhab nahi sikhata aapas mein bair rakhna
Every step for peace will always be met with many to thwart it. And yet, that step must be taken. For humanity, for the future.
On our return to the city, the ladies stopped to sample a variety of eatables. I bought achari mathri which I know my friends will love. In fact, traveling with these 4 women made me shop for things I otherwise wouldn't even have thought of: paapad, dry fruits, mathri (they even said so & were obviously better judges of the quality & price of the same than I). Unfortunately we had sampled so much that by the time we got to our dinner of mutton & fish at Makhan and chicken at Beera, we had surprisingly encountered "Food fatigue." A long night of conversations ranging from Bermuda Triangle to Astral travel to Yoga to Peru, Egypt, mental sanity ensued, notwithstanding the extreme fatigue that ran us down before we finally turned in for the night.

The next morning was reserved for some amazing Amritsari Kulcha at Balwant ke kulchay: Aloo, Gobhi, Paneer, Dal and a mix of all that's called the 4-Mix Kulcha. Before I made an early move back to Mumbai, I knew I had to make one more visit to the Golden Temple. A quick, peaceful visit later & with some more karha prasad, I headed to the congested Amritsar airport with a heart full of love. And as luck would have it, I finally did see the Punjabi kudi my friend & his mom had told me to keep a lookout for. Tall, beautiful, deep sexy voice, long lustrous black hair and so, so angry that I didn't have the courage to go say hi. Well, I guess you can't have everything ;)


PS: I have sourced  some of the photographs of the ceremony at Wagah border off the internet. Thank you to the original contributors for these amazing pictures which speak a thousand words.

INDIAN, and proud!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

GRANNY'S TEA-TIME STORIES: OF KITES & DENTISTRY & WHAT I LEARNT FROM TWO LITTLE GIRLS

Isn't it amazing how some conversations lead to hypnotic revelations about times & people we're not too familiar with? Granny & I often have them around tea which I have christened "Granny's tea-time stories" (they happen around meals as well, but let's not get too technical here). Some of them are meant for personal consumption only, some make it here to the blog, others get committed to memory but not to paper owing to many distractions. Some grab me by the horns & I'm compelled to write about them as soon as possible. This post is about one such conversation & where the train of thought leads to from it. It becomes the third one in this series that I've posted on my blog. Funny it should start with something that occupies most of Granny's time & attention: television!

Even though I detest the tripe that Indian television regurgitates in the name of content, I inadvertently end up watching a lot of it, thanks (or no thanks) to Granny who's a big TV buff and usually gets a good laugh out of my misery. On the occasion of Makar Sankranti, the festival was being covered on all news channels. Aimages of the traditional kite-flying accompanying it flashed across the screen, she randomly remarked that kites were first invented by the Chinese. A heartwarming conversation ensued over a cuppa piping hot tea which began with the story she'd heard from her parents: a man so fascinated by the flight of birds that he sought to create something that could mimic them, thus inventing the first kite which was bulky & bigger than a full-grown man and if the winds were overtly favourable, it could probably give flight (but no control) to the person holding it. The Internet, however, credits the invention of the kite to two Chinese philosophers. Whatever the truth may have been, flying it soon became a favorite past-time and its manufacture a side-income for many. Kite-flying is still very popular in China & the country has its own annual international kite festival at Weifang, widely considered the birthplace of kites. I'd love to witness this gala celebration of elaborate kite designs some day, and probably learn more about the elaborate history of kites & kite making.


Image courtesy : http://kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com/
What came next opened portals of my memory & organically connected some dots. The proficiency of the Chinese with silk & paper products is obviously well documented. Granny tells me that many migrant families (including our own) continued this tradition in India & eked out a living making kites, lanterns, paper flowers & decorations. Over the decades, this work was delegated to or taken over by the Bengalis and the Indian Chinese moved on to other businesses. The last I saw of these alluring traditional decorations was as a child at a relative's place in the then inappropriately named Japanese Building in Kolkata (since it only housed Chinese residents at the time). The reams & reams of multihued streamers, flowers & stacks of raw material occupied more space than the sparse furniture in the room and the rage of colors stood out in stark contrast to the spartan surroundings housing them. I remember this relative well; old & bent over, he only spoke Chinese & always had a beatific smile on his face. And while I could never understand a word of what he said to me, it’s a testimony to the times & resilience of his kind that survived & flourished in India. 

(Update: this relative was the Chinese equivalent of the Hindu Brahmin; a learned & religious person who did not eat meat. Now that's rare; a vegetarian Chinese.)

Image courtesy: www.cutcaster.com

Image courtesy: YouTube
Image courtesy: www.cultural-china.com

Image courtesy: www.englishvisitbeijing.com.cn

My grandparents were part of a big joint family and granny remembers how all of them, including my mother & uncles would sit from morning to night to make these decoratives too. They stopped doing this backbreaking & not so lucrative work once Grandpa started practicing dentistry (a profession that would be passed down the generations) in his mid-30’s at Grant road, Mumbai, two years before the Indo-Pak war. There were already quite a few Chinese dentists in the extended family to learn the craft from, and his keen eye, faultless memory & good hands (the hallmark of many a Chinese dentists) made him successful even though he wasn’t qualified according to today's standards (that is, he didn’t have a formal dental degree or education to back him up). Here the details are sketchy but from what I gathered from our conversation, one didn't necessarily need to complete the Bachelor of Dental Surgery course to practice. Rather, an easy to procure Dental hygienist/technician certificate was all that was needed, the qualifications & criteria for which are suspect but many dentists functioned on the basis of this document alone back then. I can't even imagine such a scenario in today's times. Although one can still risk practicing illegally without a dental degree, they run the danger of scrutiny & permanent disqualification from all forms of practice if caught. 

Since Dentistry was pretty much a family business & the personal domain of the Chinese back then, even the extra-clinical work (mostly making dentures) was done within the family, sometimes even by the lady of the house! Here, with a chuckle, Granny reminisces that she would often help Grandpa in his clinic and even had her own certification qualifying her to work as a dental assistant! So much for not bringing work back home! Mind you, this was an era without the convenience of reliable dental technicians or laboratories. My father was probably one of the first in our family to get a valid dental education & degree from Manipal. He too, made dentures by himself (which explains why home was full of dental impressions, plaster models & casts) and gained a repute for his good handiwork. Meanwhile, mom was raising me & would later start her own beauty parlour. Two decades later, I followed in dad's footsteps by procuring my dental degree in Bangalore. Thereon, our professional paths have diverged but I know that I have his support, because he too, is a creative & musical person at heart.

Where destiny & passion took me :)
What I studied to become...


This refresher course in my family history has renewed my respect for my grandparents & parents who created careers in spite of immense financial & academic handicaps and admirably handled domestic duties as well. They stand out as beacons of resilience & integrity for me. Mom often tells me how hard they have worked in their lives shorn of luxuries, and how we the youngsters have it so much easier. Even if that claim were incorrect, I would agree with it. We live in a more convenient world where the mortality rate is lower, economies are stable, most of our demands are met and barring some roadblocks, we do have a much better life.

As Granny & my conversation came to a close, my mind was afire with our absorbing family history & her robust memory! May she continue to live a long, happy & content life. If you have an elder relative at home, talk to them more often. Not only will it make them happy, it will also teach you so much and fill you with wonder, stories & miles of smiles. Maybe, you too will write about it then :)

If you'd like to read previous Granny's Tea-time stories, you'll find them here.

http://buddhasoliloques.blogspot.in/2010/06/journey-of-thousand-miles.html 
http://buddhasoliloques.blogspot.in/2014/05/grannys-tea-time-stories.html 


*****


By the way, here's an actual conversation I had with two little girls when I was returning home the same night. Enjoy!

Girls: Chang, we lit some Chinese lanterns today. It was so much fun!

Me: Yeah, I see a lot of people lighting lanterns instead of flying kites. I guess it's because today is...

Girls: RAPUNZEL'S BIRTHDAY!!!

Me: Errrr... I was going to say Makar Sankranti, but yeah.

Girls: Yeah, must be. We're doing it because it is Rapunzel's birthday.

Me: I didn't know this. My school textbook never mentioned her birthday. All I know about Rapunzel is of her exile in the tower & her long, lustrous hair.

Girls: We learnt it from the animated movie Tangled. On her birthday her parents would light lanterns in her memory, so we did so too.

Me: Aaaaaaah okay. I must watch Tangled too to update my knowledge about her.

Girls: (eyes rolling & with a disgusted expression on their faces) Uhhhh... why would YOU watch Tangled?

Me: Ummm... for the great animation & to see how Disney has tackled this fairy tale?

Girls: It's just that... it's a girlie movie... and boys don't like girlie movies. They should NOT like girlie movies.

Me: Hey, that's not true. I...

Girls: (as if I've suddenly fallen in stature, dismissively) Ok bye!

Me: ......

Bitch please! Image courtesy: Disney

Sunday, January 03, 2016

THE HAPPIEST NEW YEAR!

The BEST start EVER to a year! Picture courtesy: Victor Mukherjee
Perhaps age has something to do with it, perhaps it doesn’t. Although I’ve attended innumerable parties around the world, having enjoyed some & just ghosted through most, I have also consciously avoided many. The reason could purely be that one party mirrors another, and unless it is to spend time with some genuinely close & loved people, one party is no different from any other. Now, as mentioned in my previous post, I had been traveling & socialising so much over most of December that I was absolutely all right with not doing anything on New Year’s eve. I was convinced about two things, however. One, that I did not want to repeat the loud, vacuous, alcohol-fuelled parties nor did I want to be caged within a box, no matter how big that box might be. Something I did do on New Year's Eve, and I can state with conviction that it was the most blessed New Year I’ve had in my life.

Near a month ago, as with most people in the world (or maybe we were too late in doing so), plans were being made as to how my friends & I would celebrate if we were not working on New Year’s eve. Two strong options were proposed: the hilly trinity of Rishikesh-Mussoorie-Auli or the beachy solitude of Gokarna. The latter was decided upon for the adventure (and warmth) attached to it. The decision was also influenced by the fact that most of us had already had enough of the melancholy winter of our journeys. However, as with many best-laid plans, this particular one fell through owing to many reasons. I was mildly upset but as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t mind doing absolutely nothing on the 31st of December. Some friends decided to spend time with family, some with their better halves, most had already embarked on their plans and yet some decided to sleep in! And while I was enjoying Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a very last minute, alternate, simpler & shorter camping plan at a lake in Malshej ghat was hatched. A plan initially dismissed & later agreed upon, it will stand as one of the most interesting things I’ve done so far as well as easily the best way to have started a year.

On the afternoon of the 31st of December. four of us left from Malad-Goregaon by road, stopping over in Thane for lunch, to purchase camping equipment & meet the rest of the new gang. I guess we got a little carried away with the shopping, and the delay meant that sunset would happen enroute rather than at the lake as previously envisioned. This still turned out to be a blessing, as when we stopped to take a break just before dusk, the sky threw at us colors that are hallmarks of a rising or setting sun against an open sky. No matter how many solar ascents & descents your eyes may have been fortunate to witness, words will still never be adequate to describe their beauty. 


Once darkness set in on that gorgeous stretch, I looked at the sky and could not remember the last time I’d seen so many stars, like crushed diamond dust sprinkled across the black cape of space! I’ve studied for years under the generously clear & open skies of Dehradun & Mussoorie and do not remember witnessing so many constellations on a single night. Giving over the driving responsibilities for a while, I relished the crisp night air through the sunroof of my car. The  drive through roads lined by trees, mountains and darkness pierced only by the car’s headlights has always fascinated me; like a hyperdrive through space, and with the interrupted painted median rapidly running into & away from you. The visual is reminiscent of traversing through dimensions and you'll understand the reference if you’re a sci-fi fan. Many of my childhood dreams have centred around country roads at night, and I relive my childhood on every such journey.

When we finally reached the foot of the lake, I could only hear the waves lapping against the shore, and in the shroud of night the eyes could barely discern the dark, limitless nothingness of the waters. Picking up our equipment & making way with camping flashlights & iPhone torches, slipping on the wet ground & occasionally sinking in it, we settled on a spot closer to the shore and started pitching our tents in near-darkness. Now, I don’t know a thing about tents, and camping had sounded a fabulous idea until the moment to actually set up camp arrived. When we began, I realised that none of us in this big group really knew how to set one up. A lot of laughs & experiments and almost gouging each other’s eyes out with the tent’s skeletal framework later, they were finally up. Wood was collected (stolen actually from a storehouse nearby which, I assure you, was well-compensated for the next morning) to set up a gorgeous bonfire, fuelled by whiskey instead of fuel saved up for the drive back. We could finally "see" each other better as well as embrace the warmth of the crackling fire as the mercury steadily dipped.

As I sat by the fire, the sight around overwhelmed me. I’ll try to describe it: a looming, imposing mountain on our back with the entire constellation above it, giving it a mystic, insurmountable look, and a gigantic lake facing us. As the temperature dropped, the music got comfortably louder, bonhomie wafted through the air and we witnessed the coup-de-grace of the night; seƱor moon decided to make the most dashing of entries just before midnight. I have seen many things in my life, but to see that half moon rising from behind the mountains and cast a reflection on the lake, the kind we only see in the movies, is right up there in some of the most gorgeous sights I’ve ever witnessed. The phone cameras were inadequate to capture this otherworldly phenomenon but the visual shall remain firmly embedded in my memory for a long time. I'd love to return here to see what a full-moon night looks like. 

At the stroke of midnight, New Year wishes were exchanged with those around and via patchy phone network with dear ones who weren’t. For once, it was a relief to not hear loud screeches & music, the minimal fireworks in the distance were adequate distraction and the deep, personal conversations made the night more meaningful. I lit my first Chinese lantern (yeah, yeah) and saw it float away into the zenith of the starlit sky with a silly, content smile. Later, as hunger pangs dominated all other emotions, we had the most memorable 4 AM onion-laden & whiskey-infused Maggi of my life. Don’t ask me how that combination came to be; it just did! If there ever was a good Maggi story, this would be it! By the way, thank you Maggi for being the comfort food of students, bachelors & travellers for decades. You may have lead in you but we still love you ;)


That's a look of genuine, unadulterated glee :) Picture courtesy: Victor Mukherjee
Let it burn. Picture courtesy: Victor Mukherjee
I must’ve dozed off at around 4:30 AM, keeping an alarm for 5:30 AM so as to not miss the sunrise. What’s so great about a sunrise, you say? Very many things, and also more importantly for me as I’m a late riser and don’t see many sunrises anymore (unless I’ve been up all night, and sunrises in cities are pale excuses for those out there in the midst of nature). When I woke at 5:30, a few friends were still stoking the fire and having a great time. Dawn hadn't broken yet & the moon was high in the sky and the ink-black darkness of the night before was gone. Have I told you I love moonlit nights? Interestingly, they don’t remind me of romantic getaways but make me emotional & thoughtful and take me back to school in Dehradun & Mussoorie: of early morning PT sessions when the moon would still be up in the sky, of treks and expeditions under a moonlit sky, of lying down face-up on school benches & counting the stars before night studies hour... With those reminiscences, I dozed off yet again.

Barely an hour later, a friend excitedly woke us, urging us to get out of our tents for the sunrise. As i stepped out, the amber glow of the yet-to-rise sun had already lit the rim of sky outlining the mountains. The music of A.R. Rahman’s Rockstar was playing on the sound dock; Phir Se Udd Chala in particular. I’ve never heard a more appropriate song given the time, mood & place I was in. As the sun finally showed its bright visage, the chatter died down, the music was switched off and everyone stared it in the eye in complete silence. To see this jovial, loud & talkative bunch soak in this ethereal sight in pin-drop silence was a thing of beauty in itself. I wonder what thoughts were passing through our heads. Perhaps, for once, we were not thinking about anything at all.


Net practice. Picture courtesy: Victor Mukherjee

Picture courtesy: Victor Mukherjee
A quick game of cricket later (where everyone was only interested in batting, no surprise there, and would vanish as soon as they had to field), our roof for the night - our tents were packed back in (an arduous task in itself!). The fact that we'd barely slept the night before contributed to our bungled attempts at packing as well ;) Only adrenaline was keeping us awake now.

Heave-Ho! Picture courtesy : Victor Mukherjee
Outta the park! Picture courtesy : Victor Mukherjee
As we prepared to leave, we noticed something interesting about the road where we had parked our cars the night before. This road must have, at some point of time, traversed through the lake. The middle section is now submerged in water and only the two ends can be seen at the banks. Walk in a little before it drops into the depth and you could look like Jesus walking on water! Water so fresh, cold and refreshing that we rued not taking a dip in it before leaving (we just didn’t, even though we came prepared for it. Regrets? Never! We leave that for next time). 


Walking on water ;) Picture courtesy : Victor Mukherjee
As we drove back, the temperature soared considerably once we hit the plains and the usual Mumbai traffic welcomed us home. Over a quick bun-maska malai-chai, this thought ruled our conversation: What a wonderful way & place to have started the new year at! Truth be told, I can’t wait to get back there. 

Thank you Victor for suggesting this memorable trip & taking me along. Victor is also the progenitor of the doomed Gokarna plan, as well as the writer-composer-director of my spoken-word poetronica "Move On" - a philosophical look at the need to let go of baggage both good & bad. You can check the video out below. And I must wish you a very Happy New Year. I hope you’ve had a great start to 2016, and before this one passes in a flash as well, live it up, follow your dreams, love profusely and always, always keep smiling :) :) :) 


Have a great year ahead!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

LUCKNOW: GANJING AND TUNDAY KABABI

The last 10 days have been a whirlwind & I could say I was beginning to feel a little rudderless before the journey came to a conclusion and brought me back to Mumbai. I love traveling, but this is one of those junkets I'm so pleased with as well as exhausted by that I'd now rather stay low for a few days and embrace my bed as I've never done before. And yes, probably even (gasp!) do absolutely nothing on the (over-hyped) New Year's Eve. (But as I type this, I'm secretly hoping for some plan to materialise. Heh! I could well be the brand-ambassador for hypocrisy ;)

The 10 day junket began with Ganjing & Tunday ke Kabab in Lucknow, progressed into a cousin's wedding in Delhi and culminated with a visit to extended family in Indore. But I'm getting ahead of myself; more on the wedding & family get-together in one of the next few posts. On a mid-December afternoon, while I was talking nine-to-the-dozen with my co-actor (actually, she did most of the talking. I'm more of a writer), I got a text from my friend Shilpa Rao asking me whether I'd like to guest-perform with her in Lucknow for something called "Ganjing." At first, I was amused by this Chinese sounding activity in Uttar Pradesh and owing to bad network, the clarifications of what it was exactly were hard to come by. I didn't think much of it and over the next few city-hopping days in Udaipur & Varanasi I finally said yes, I'd do it. Anything for a friend. Till this moment, I hadn't bothered to find out what exactly Ganjing was. In retrospect, the self-imposed ignorance was a blessing in disguise, because the experience that followed came as a surprise, and a pleasant one at that!


On the afternoon of 20th December, Shilpa & I flew into Lucknow. A quick lunch later, the organising committee apprised us of the evening's schedule. Some government formalities, fireworks, an interactive drum-circle, hand shadowgraphy by the very talented Amar Sen & Sabyasachi Sen, who I've had the privilege to interact with when I hosted India's Got Talent (called a silhoutte act here & pronounced as sill-ow-tee by the locals; no joke! Find the video of their ad for MP tourism below) and a musical performance would be part of the evening. Previous editions have had a gamut of eye-catching, ear-pleasing & mind-wowing attractions. In this particular edition, Shilpa would be the headliner and I, for lack of a better term, her celebrity guest on a few songs.





Ganjing, as far as I can comprehend can be crudely defined as chilling at Hazratganj in Lucknow. This state-sponsored public entertainment & engagement program was initiated mere 6 months ago. Celebrated every third Sunday of a month, this is now officially called the Ganj Carnival. On this day, a massive chunk of Hazratganj transforms into a pedestrian-only festival space for all-and-sundry to indulge in. In my opinion, such events should become an integral part of the fabric of every town & city in India; logistics & security permitting. Every culture & society must encourage and involve performers as well as the public, and such a melting pot can only lead to a happier, artistically satisfied populace. 

As the evening progressed, we made our way to the venue amidst
tight security, passed barricades & headed backstage. Even though we couldn't see the audience at that point of time, their enthusiasm was very vocal & palpable. It is interesting to meet fans & folks alike in smaller towns & cities where you can get the true measure of your following as well as gauge the insane reach of television. These are places where people have seen you on big shows as well as little projects that even you'd forgotten about. It was also good to have a casual chat with the police-on-duty at the venue; I dread to think how a conversation with them would go on any other regular night ;) An event of such a massive attendance must be tough for them but they get to rightfully enjoy the night as well. Our stage was set bang in the center of Hazratganj and made for an impressive sight. If my words fail me, perhaps these pictures could tell you a better story; people as far as the eye can see, cheers that resonated off the skies and appreciative roars that warmed the cockles of my heart. Oh, and did I forget to mention a footfall of just under a lakh, despite the late hour & dipping mercury?
How the Hazratganj streets look like, leading up to the Ganj Carnival. Pic by Sajal Sharma
Audience as far as the eye can see, cheers & roars for miles around.

Like every government  undertaking, a lot of things left much to be desired & inadequate prep-time provided for meant that neither the band preceding us nor we managed to squeeze a sound check in (and from what I hear, it was a nightmare to have the stage ready in time in the first place). Nevertheless, the sight of people all the way up to the horizon cheering, screaming, singing along is the best mood-elevator, aphrodisiac even! Shilpa started her performance & I could feel the deafening roar of appreciation on each & every song shake the stage up! This obviously had me quivering with excitement to go join her. Unfortunately, a technical snag meant I could do only two songs instead of the planned three but it was well worth it. The two duets? Yaariyaan & one of my all time Vishal-Shekhar-Shilpa favorite, Khuda Jaane. Man, I can never get over that song (the fact that it also has Deepika Padukone in it could have a strong bearing on it)! I could barely hear myself over the crowd as they sang along on every word, every line. Phew! What else can an artiste ask for? Thank you for being there Lucknow & I hope to be back again soon with a longer performance for you :)


It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's.... AUDIENCES numbering just under a lakh! Picture by RJ Preteek

A ringside view. Picture by Naman Singh Bisht
Picture by Meraki Inc.
Once the gig was over, we were immediately whisked away in our vehicle lest the surging crowds overwhelm us. A quick drive later to Aminabad market, we got off the car & greedily rushed into Tunday Kababi. Packed to the rafters, heads started turning, people started getting excited & a palpable hush was evident. The very gentle & sweet owner of Tunday and our friends in Lucknow ushered us into a separate (and new) family section where we could dine in peace. The company, weather, time, preceding events & how hungry you are do affect the delectability of the food on a given day/night. I was here with the close friends I've mentioned in the previous blog post for yet another wedding on an excruciatingly hot summer afternoon a few years ago. This time it was a cold winter night with just a few familiar faces and many, many new ones. Both so different & memorable in their own ways, but of course the food seemed much tastier this time round. 
With my buddy Shilpa Rao, her mom & brother, her band members and Piyush & Meenu from Meraki Inc.

We gorged on galouti kababs (I being the only one trying the beef variant as opposed to everyone's mutton, although there is barely any difference in the flavour of either), parathas, tandoori chicken & mutton korma. We pigged out so much that there was no space left for biryani, but as a wise man once said, there is always space for dessert. And hence, kheer was ordered ;)
TUNNNNNNDAAAYYYYY KE GALOUTI KABAAAAAAB!!!
Dear Tandoori Chicken, I knew that the moment we'd meet, SPARKS would fly ;)

Mutton Korma

Parathas being made at a brisk pace. Missed trying the orange Sheermal parathas this time. Agli baar...

Koi Kheer Ko Kaise Na Kar Sakta Hai ;)
The mandatory "I AM AT TUNDAYYYYYY" selfie :D

The food was served with brisk enthusiasm & I'm thankful to Tunday Kababi for feeding us famished souls. The meal was topped off with a ginormous meetha paan which was delicious & painful at the same time (painful because the silver/aluminium foil on the paan created a galvanic current every time it came in contact with my saliva & pre-existing silver amalgam restorations. If this sounds Greek to you, it's because it's the Dentist in me talking again. Haha!).

A quick word of appreciation for the team that had Shilpa & me for the Ganj Carnival: the very sweet and recently betrothed Piyush & Meenu and their team at Meraki Inc. I'm sorry I don't remember all the names but thank you for being respectful, affable & protective at the same time. Again, as I've mentioned in my previous post, every subsequent visit to a place teaches you something new about it, and I came back from Lucknow with something new as well as something old & familiar.


Before wrapping up, I'd like to share my new music video Kya Yahi Pyaar Hai with you. It's a beautiful recreative rendition of a classic melody & I hope you like it. Carry it on your lips & in your hearts, and until we meet again in 2016, here's wishing you a very Happy New Year! Stay healthy, stay happy :)