Friday, December 15, 2006

I live in the house that Iqbal built

In 1993, a home driving distance from Mumbai set amongst leafy glades, with recreational facilities and running solar-heated water, was nothing short of living in a resort. Still, living in a village, we naturally feared that our children would turn into village idiots. They in turn found themselves sadly compromised. Which child would want to live in Number Two? Such was their fate.
Over the years, Clover Village wannabes sprouted all over Pune. Outside our little village, bustling, chaotic activity developed. From being a locality that rickshaw drivers had never heard of, it began to sport traffic jams and specialty food stores.
But a few quiet spots and intensely rural situations prevail. For a brief period recently, my office was in a nearby building a short walk from home. The shortcut led through an open field, a rare un-constructed plot, overgrown with weeds, stray dogs and the odd drunk.
Walking home for lunch one day, an apparition approached me: a beautiful, brightly-dressed woman with a basket of combs, beads, bindis and other intriguing trinkets on her head. Strangers crossing paths on a lonely road, we made eye contact and half smiled and she startled me by suddenly dipping down, hitching her sari to her knees, and proceeding to urinate, the basket still poised on her head.
I did actually have my camera with me. The sky above shone a brilliant blue, and a pair of lovesick goats frolicked blithely. Beyond the haphazard vegetation, the Lego-brick blues and yellows of Clover Village peered over its walls. It would have made a wonderful photograph, the ideal cover for The Lonely Planet Guide to India. But I didn’t dare. The woman was younger than me, and despite all my celebrated strength, she could probably run faster – even mid-stream. Even with the basket on her head.
I myself was dressed in maroon trousers and a white cotton shirt with large flared sleeves. I looked, if I must retain my reputation for honesty, somewhat like an escapee from the Osho International Meditation Resort, perhaps fatigued by the flapping of the sleeves in one of the more energetic jumping-about meditations, and a little inappropriate for the office, some might say.
The thing is, I tend to be a bit nonchalant in the matter of dress, egotistically presuming that garish personality, if bandied about loudly enough, easily prevails over shortcomings in other areas. Just the other day, I was lunching with my friend Shanaz, when she suddenly started to laugh. It began with a flickering smile and built up into a rollicking, eye-watering guffaw. If we’d been eating fish, she’d have surely choked on a fishbone. The waiters drew up in concern. And what was so funny? Apparently madam had suddenly been overcome with a vision of the footwear I had worn on my wedding day.
And another time recently, I went out to dinner wearing my large black sweater with golden motifs on it that makes you look like a Christmas tree. One of the other guests admiringly confided that she had something similar, bought in London, and inquired if mine had the same lofty provenance. I had to confess that I’d bought the thing for a hundred bucks off a cart at Shivaji Market and in the years that followed have worn it to every single outdoor event between November and March. I take it as a tribute to my personal audacity that no one has ever given me one of those sneering ‘haven’t I seen that thing before’ looks. Anyway, if you happen to see a large, bossy-looking woman wearing that black sweater one of these evenings – hello there, it’s me.
Some parts of this appeared in Saaz ki Awaaz under the title A brighter shade of pale in Times of India, Pune on 14 Dec 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I wore a veil once. Semanti and I fancied ourselves glamorous Egyptian beauties and tied little chiffony bits of fabric round our noses and posed for a photograph outside the Girls’ School at Lawrence, also known for various reasons as Red Fort. We were fourteen. We perched our knees stylishly on the garden bench and smiled bashfully into the camera. Semanti was gorgeous – she still is. My knees were stout and lumpy – they still are.
In those days, the bulky knees were a source of deep misery. You have to be fourteen and pasty looking, which I don’t suppose you are, to understand how acute this was.
In later years, I tried to convince myself that the fat had been, all along, just another kind of veil. Like any veil, it included elements of both protection and oppression, each encroaching on the other in a subtle dance – changing position, intertwining, first one sidling ahead and then the other.
The oppression, I told myself, (quoting from the feminist literature and pop psychology fashionable at the time) came from society – horrid, unsophisticated society – where thin was an officiously-defined aspiration. And the protection was created for a sad inner core which couldn’t bear to reveal itself and therefore sheltered under layers of fat.
Finally one day I faced myself with the sad truth that I was fat because I overate and if I stopped overeating, I would eventually stop being fat. Moreover, it was ok to be fat, you could still be loved and comfortable (and healthy) and all those other things that we wend this mortal plain striving to achieve, and if eating was such a great pleasure, then – well – what the hell.
Meanwhile, I had acquired the habit of scrutiny, of keeping a careful watch on precisely which factors of existence served as veils, and which ones were real.
Make-up, of course, was an obvious veil – but then so was beauty. One who projected beauty had the freedom to develop, underneath, in any way they wished – but were equally prisoners of the fact that not many would make the effort to uncover that reality.
Wealth, social position, and material achievement were, of course, veils. They protected one from hunger, cold, loneliness, crowds, dirt and other distasteful possibilities. But they subjugated one with insidious suggestions of conformity to norms laid down by others.
Conformity itself was a veil, suppressing your wants, your identity, your uniqueness, just so that you could feel you belonged even when you didn’t really belong.
Arrogance, snobbishness, superciliousness – even sophistication – these were veils that hid the trembling uncertainty within.
Friends were a veil to cover loneliness.
Maturity was a veil to cover the inadequacy of upbringing.
Even illness was a veil that cloaked despair.
Emotions were veils, too – they veiled each other like anything, anger covering up for fear, fear suppressing sadness, guilt masking resentment, fear of rejection masquerading as entitlement – and under it all a deep, deep sadness, the sadness of basic unlovability.
Was anything, then, real? Or was it true in the end that we were all so controlled, so dominated by that most delicate of all veils of existence, maya as the ancients named it, that no matter how sincerely we shone a torchlight within ourselves, no matter how rigorously we worked to uncover the One which truly existed, maya was a permanent fixture in the sidelines, engulfing us in subtle ways and duping us with images of individual immortality.
First appeared as ‘Veiled Meanings’ in Sunday Mid-day on 12 Nov 2006

Monday, July 31, 2006

Obelix goes to see Pirates of the Caribbean in Mumbai

One morning, Getafix was out in the woods cutting mistletoe for his magic spells when a little sprite by the name of Inbox came to him with a message from a faraway land.
It was an invitation from an indomitable fishing village across the seven seas. Our doings had reached their ears and they had sent Inbox with the offer of an exchange of friendship. They had chosen us, of all the little fishing villages in the world, as their sister village and had invited me, Obelix, on an exchange visit. I would be the recipient of their warmest hospitality, and one of their inhabitants would later come back with me to Gaul to visit us.
Excited by the prospect of this new adventure, I packed a few little boars for the journey and a menhir or two as a souvenir for my hosts, and set off, Dogmatix tucked comfortably on my shoulder. Cacafonix tried to sing a farewell lament in my honour but Unhygenix the fishmonger sat on his head. I tried to wheedle a little pouch of magic potion out of Getafix to protect me on the way, but he refused. As you may know, I fell into the potion when I was a baby and its effects have been permanent. So I climbed aboard the Phoenician trading galley that had brought a supply of silks and spices to our village, and set off for Mumbai.
My host Outforasix and his family were very friendly and showed me around. Asterix and Vitalstatistix had warned me that the inhabitants of the indomitable fishing village of Mumbai were accustomed to strange forms of transport and cautioned me to be careful not to fall off any of their wagons. I assured them that I was quite safe since I’d been on the wagon ever since the morning after our last banquet when I’d woken up with such a bad headache that I could only eat 6 boars for breakfast.
On the first morning, Outforasix said he would show me his office and we squeezed on to the 84 Ltd. Some of the other passengers called me “Jadiya” which, Outforasix told me, means “Handsome Prince”. I knew at once that I was going to enjoy my stay in this indomitable fishing village. These Mumbai people were jolly good fellows.
Outforasix introduced me to his friends Allergictovix, Chinesepunjabimix and Diplomainmechanix who travelled with him to Glasgow every day. I was a little confused by this because I seem to remember Getafix mentioning once that Glasgow was an old Caledonian town but I suppose this is an extension of the expression All Roads Lead To Home. Getafix always says that travel broadens the horizon, and I now saw for myself how right he was.
At one point I looked out of the window and saw some wild boar sniffing around a garbage skip. Naturally I tried to leap off the bus to get them, but a young man by the name of Broadspectrumantibiotix clutched tight to my overalls and since I hadn’t packed any clothes, and Outforasix’s daughters had promised to take me to a Dandiya Nite, I decided I’d better not climb off.
I wandered around on my own when Outforasix went to work and who do you think I met but our old friends the Pirates!
These guys, as you know, do get around a lot but I was really surprised to see big signs celebrating the Pirates of the Caribbean. I tried to push my way in to get them, and was really surprised that the ferocious Mumbai crowds simply pushed me right out again. I wish I’d brought a few Romans along, I would have loved to share them with these guys.
That evening I went to the Dandiya Nite with Outforasix’s daughters Veni, Vidhi, and Vissy. Their names made me feel strangely homesick because they reminded me of something, I’m not sure exactly what. We had a wonderful time dancing and a lot of people called me Jadiya here too. What nice hospitable people Mumbai has. Veni and her boyfriend Teachersbumlix even won a prize for the best dressed couple. Oops! I promised not to say anything about the boyfriend – don’t mention this to Outforasix, will you.
Dogmatix, meanwhile, was getting along famously with the neighbourhood dogs. He loitered around street corners with them and they sang loud songs till late at night, living the good Mumbai life.
It was now getting time for me to set out on the long journey home. I had made good friends with a dabbawalla, Palamburwillfix, who lived right near us. The first time we met I had tried to snatch away his dabbas and get at what was inside but he defended them brilliantly. When I later heard that the Mumbai dabbawallas are certified as six sigma, I wasn’t surprised at all.  Anyway, he invited me to his home and we feasted on bheja fry and kulfi.
When I got back home, the whole village was crowded round, waiting to hear my stories. They refused to believe some of what I told them, even when I gave them the recipes for the bheja fry and kulfi. Perhaps you find it difficult to believe me too but I promise it is the truth, Qasam É Dastaan – or, as we usually put it, QED.
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 30 Jul 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied a range of humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Dave Barry and Fat Women

It so happened that one day I was walking down Carter Road and I noticed a lot of young people and the thought came to my mind, “My god, these kids are fat! Will you just look at the young women especially! They are not even trying to pretend that their fat parts don’t exist by covering them up either as they used to do in my day!”
This is, of course, good news for us as a nation. In years gone by Indian women were starving themselves and painting gook on their faces so that they would get chosen Miss Universe and they would be on TV and everybody would clap and they would get lots and lots of money. Now, they are walking around in skin-tight lumpy outfits with such grace and abandon that it cheers the heart.
I had long suspected that women would soon suss out that all this business of getting thin and becoming Miss Universe was a big scam, perpetrated by men who wanted to keep all the food for themselves, which is why I was very pleased recently when my alert journalism colleague Santosh Kadam referred me to an Associated Press article concerning a discovery made by scientists at the Kasargod Institute of Science (KIS), Mangalore, that women who had waist size 34” or more, or who weighed 70 kg or more, tended to live longer, earn more money, have more boyfriends and generally have a lot more fun than women who did not.
The article, headlined Fatties Rule, also said that both men and women who were candid in their enjoyment of food were much more likely to be expressive and flamboyant in other areas of life and body as well. It went on to aver that unselfconscious enjoyment of food did mind-blowing things with the amino-acid-inhibitors released by the peritoneum, which led to a feeling of general well-being as well as spontaneous and often rather dramatic opening of the chakras. (In case you are unfamiliar with nutrition-related terminology, I should explain that an “amino acid inhibitor” is apparently some kind of thing in the human digestive system.)
Aside from Carter Road, I also noticed a lot of large-sized girls and women at various Baristas, Café Coffee Days, and some malls and multiplexes. They bulged out of their shorts and halter tops with calm confidence, and added a cool 4 spoons of sugar to their coffee even when everyone was watching. They were businesslike and could on occasion be quite ruthless if anyone happened to pass comments. Consider what happened to Ramesh Shetye of Gayatri Mall, Wanowari, Pune, whose story was brought to my attention by alert reader Pandurang Popat.
Ramesh had been hired by the Fancy Foods Company to cut and offer tiny slices of their new product YummyBix which came in 3 flavours (wild berry, musk, and chocolate), and earnestly explain to shoppers the virtues of YummyBix while they were eating their free samples.
A certain Preeti Arnyani (name changed on request) was savouring her sixth little slice when Ramesh, who was describing the ingredients and other virtues of YummyBix in a continuous, rapid-fire monologue, started explaining their low-calorie aspect. This so annoyed Preeti Arnyani that she hit him very hard on the head with her handbag with the result that – in Ramesh’s own words – “Concussion ki wajah se admit kiya mere ko. Teen bottle lagana pada.”
“I think she was fully justified in what she did,” Preeti’s protective and well-built elder sister Sweety avowed. “Sometimes when I’m at a party taking my fourth helping of dessert and some silly ass of a man will look at my plate and say ‘bas? You’re on diet or what?’ and I will gather up saliva in my mouth and spit in his eye. I do that to anyone who tries to suggest that I or any other woman might be (or should be) on a diet. But of course that doesn’t stop them. It’s very hard explaining to certain types of people, you try it and see.”
And you’re just not going to believe what happened last week when I went for a swim at the Bombay Gym pool with my teenage son Archie, but I swear it is the truth. Six enormous women in string bikinis were lined up to jump from the high diving board. In they plopped, one after the other, and there was a succession of wobbly thighs cutting elegant arcs in the air as they dived. Before the last one entered the water, a small commotion arose. Apparently a man sitting at a table near the pool, watching with a thoughtful look on his face, had made some kind of absent-minded observation to himself about the Archimedes Principle. One of the women swam gracefully around, pulled herself up smartly over the edge of the pool to her waist, leaned over, clamped a rather large hand around his ankle – and tugged and dragged the astonished man right into the pool. The others then floated across on their backs, and they took turns at placidly holding his head under the water, completely unconcerned by his kicking, struggling and spluttering. After the man finally came out, red in the face and gasping – and I wish to stress that I am not making any of this up – they went right back and did several stylish lengths in tandem. They came pretty close to Archie and me, but it was never scary; it was – and here I will quote Herman Melville – very cool.
It turned out that the man had been an actual Miss Universe judge, and several alert readers called in over the next few weeks to tell me that he had gone home that day with a huge box of chocolates for his wife (who had apparently had gone into shock and been unable to speak for 48 hours after seeing him with it) and flung his daughter’s entire collection of South Beach, Atkins, General Motors, Fit for Life and other related material out of the window. The next day he sent in his papers to the Miss Universe Corp, quoting “Better Prospects” as his reason for leaving.
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 30 Jul 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied a range of humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Code of the Watsas

I was sprawled on my bed, engrossed in the final episode of Sex and the City when Jeevan sidled in to tell me that my flight tomorrow was likely to be late.
“Fogs in Delhi, Batty-baba,” he said. “Thereby all flights in country being delayed.”
This just put the cap on it. Preeti would be livid. I had promised to pick up fresh stocks of Fortnums’ goose liver paté from Patel Stores, our friendly neighbourhood bania, and if I failed to arrive on t. – well, you know, hell hath no fury like a rakhi-sister scorned, what?
“Jeevan,” I said, “there is no time to be lost. “Get Captain Modi on the phone pronto.”
Homi was one of the best. We’d been at Lovedale together – shared our tuck, travelled home by Bombay-batch every hols, and what not. If ever there was a bloke who could get something done in this desperate situation, it was old Hormuze Modi.
“Hey Batty!” Homi’s mellifluous tones attacked me from the speaker phone. “Have you heard the latest on Ma Gupu?” and he proceeded to drone on and on about our old Geography teacher who apparently had been through some rather awful times but was now retired and last sighted vicinity of Coonoor. Now I loved old Nergis Barucha, and the sound of her bossy “Bharat Watsa! you will accompany me to the headmaster’s office!” was still enough to wake me in a cold  sweat from deepest slumber, but this was not at all the time for this kind of thing.
“Listen, Homi old chap, will you be quiet for a second and allow me to confide the most awful problem a man ever had to face?”
“Oh no Batty, not the clap again,” Homi said worriedly. He was one of those few chaps who really cared about a chap.
“Worse,” I assured him. “Preeti’s having her annual bash in Goa tomorrow, and the boat pulls out at 7 p.m. sharp. Jeevan tells me my flight is likely to be late. And you know what Preeti’s like. If I don’t get the paté there on time I’m for it. Do you think you could you could get the old Lear out?”
“Any time, Batty, you know that, but tomorrow is Binaifer’s annual candle-light  vigil, that Save the Dolphins thing she’s been doing ever since she was 3 – so sorry old boy.”
You know, if anything ever did get me to tie the k. it would only be the hope that a cute thing like little Binaifer Modi might spring from the Watsa loins. I sighed and put the phone down heavily – then picked it up again.
Arvind and I had lunched at the Bombay Gym last week, and he’d let slip his new acquisition – a hovercraft, don’t you know. Surely he would - ?
But Melissa, Arvind’s delicate half, was out of sorts. “Bai trouble,” Arvind confided. “Poor Melissa apparently told her very clearly to cut the kakdi gol-gol but she went and served it cut lamba-lamba. I’d really better go in and check whether she’s regained consciousness, she’s been lying in a faint since lunchtime. Pip-pip, old man.”
Sighing, I now tried calling Rajeev, Preeti’s second husband, no. 2 (ha ha, nice coincidence there) at one of these enormous oil corporations that have their own helicopters and what not. He was a jolly good chap, though an old Mayo boy, batch of 1968 – to tell you the truth I like him a darn sight better than any other husband Preeti’s had. But the silky voice that answered his direct line said he was busy with Japanese visitors. Out on the golf course I’ll be bound. Never can understand how these oil fellows ever get any work done, honestly.
I had my hand on the phone again when I heard a small cough. I let go of the phone. Jeevan, as you may have long suspected, was the brains of the family. I knew from the expression on his face that my worries would soon be relegated to an earlier period.
“Don’t mind it Baba, but how about we can try the Gidwani-madam?” he asked solemnly.
I looked at him aghast.
“What, that old battleaxe!” I stared at him haughtily, waiting for an explanation. Old Jeevan was clearly losing it. It was all that fish he ate – mercury poisoning, don’t you know. The Gidwani bird, to put in plainly, was the rudest, ugliest old harridan that dined out every night of her life on a bridge story. The one and only time my dear departed mater and pater had her over had been one fateful evening 17 years ago. I had just learnt to play myself, and they’d called me in to make up the fourth.
“Do you play Stayman?” Mrs. Gidwani asked me. I did, of course – I mean to say, what sort of bounder doesn’t play Stayman. But instead of responding with a simple “One no trump” which would have sufficed the likes of you and me, she gave a loud cackle and started telling us about the time she’d sat down to a rubber at the Willingdon and politely asked her partner, “Do you play Stayman?”
To which the gentleman had apparently replied: “Madam, I AM Stayman.”
Now I mention this only so that you will have some idea of the vintage of this Gidwani. But while one expects that temperance and wisdom shall follow great age, as the night the day, our Gidwani has only got successively more ghastly. I shudder as I reveal this awful fact but since that evening she has gazed at Jeevan with covetous eyes and I assure you I have lived in utmost dread these 17 years.
Now Jeevan unfolded his plan, “Baba, you are knowing every time Gidwani-madam is telling to me her desire for man-servant like my good self and her intention of ample reimbursement?”
My eyes narrowed. What on earth was the man trying to get at? Surely, surely Jeevan wasn’t suggesting that he sacrifice himself to the Gidwani just so that Preeti could get the paté on time? Where on earth was his sense of proportion!
“I am talk to Raju, Gidwani-madam’s driver,” Jeevan continued, heedless of the young master’s visible agitation. “They are having first-class new SUV, and Raju is anxious for opportunity to travel on new, improved NH4. I can be telling to her that I will go now itself and tomorrow morning bringing for madam young chap for household work from my native village of Karad. I have speak to my sister and one fellow is there able and willing. From Karad Goa is nearby only. Raju will quickly dropping you at Preeti’s madam’s place late night. Next morning itself we shall be coming back with servant boy for Gidwani madam.”
By golly, the chap was a genius!
“Quick, Jeevan,” I cried, “chuck some things in a bag and let’s push off!”
“I have took liberty of already packing bag, baba,” smiled Jeevan.
So that’s how it happened, and there was great happiness and r. all around. Preeti’s paté got to the party well in time. Mrs. Gidwani was delighted with the bloke from Karad. Melissa soon recovered – it had only been one of her regular migraines – has them every now again don’t you know. Even sweet little Binaifer managed to save the dolphins. I mean to say, I was going to Goa anyway, and a chap’s got to do what a chap’s got to do, what?
(All characters in this narrative are fictitious, with the exception of Nergis Bharucha, former (formidable) Geography teacher at Lawrence School, Lovedale – presently retired to Coonoor.)
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 23 Jul 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied a range of humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Code Returns

The Dnyaneshwar Code (Part 2)

Sophie-Kutty and Robo Langdon have arrived in Pune, following Sophie-Kutty’s recently dead grandfather’s cryptic directions. Sila the hijra is in hot pursuit. They join the huge annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur known as Palki, looking for more clues. Inspector Jadhav too has sworn publicly to solve the mystery.

The Palki comprised long lines of simple rural folk walking along in bands.
Some carried banners. Many were singing, playing the cymbals, or chanting. The women wore flowers. The men were dressed in dhoti-topi. Elders were carried in palanquins. They had walked for days; covered hundreds of miles. Pune traffic was diverted to non-Palki routes. In their fervour for Dnyaneshwar, school kids and office goers too had decided to stay home.
Sophie-Kutty was filled with pangs of grief for the loss of her grandfather. She looked at Robo. They had grown fond of each other. “I think we should mix in the crowd separately,” she told him. “Let’s meet at the German Bakery tomorrow lunchtime.” Langda nodded. He knew she was right.
Next day, Sophie-Kutty was surprised to see Langda already at the German Bakery, hanging out with a familiar-looking face. “Meet Shantaram,” he introduced her. The famous Australian convict had lived in Mumbai slums, saving lives with his first-aid skills and equipment. Sophie-Kutty had loved the book but found the Marathi renderings pretentious.
“Hmm, not bad,” Sophie-Kutty acknowledged, impressed, “but see what I got!” and she brought forward a handsome but rather dirty-looking young man whose upper-class British antecedents became evident the minute he cleared his throat.
“Antimony Hopscotch,” Sophie-Kutty offered him proudly to the others.
“Fascinating, this Pulkey,” Antimony beamed with native wit. He put down his backpack and he and Shantaram compared notes on their separate groups, routes, rituals, evening entertainment, and where to get good dope.
“Son of a duke,” Sophie-Kutty briefed Langda. “Mother studied metallurgy at Edinburgh. Badly oppressed by life of royalty and disappeared in the middle of his gap year. Surfaces occasionally to e-mail addresses where his folks can wire him money.”
“Gap year?” asked an unfamiliar voice, “Do you mean he spent one year buying t-shirts? Sounds like my son.”
Sophie-Kutty and Robo looked up. Inspector Jadhav stood at the entrance stroking his moustache. A shrill scream from Sophie-Kutty cut short Langda’s socio-economic analysis of the phrase Gap Year. He looked hurt, but she pointed behind the inspector where Sila was shackled. The inspector looked modestly victorious. “We caught him trying to make away with Sant Dnyaneshwar’s sandals,” he explained.
Sila leaned forward and thrust a piece of paper into Langda’s hand.
“Gup re,” shouted Inspector Jadhav threateningly, “Ek kan patti lavtho”.
“Well done sir,” said Robo, “Sophie, we can go home now.”
“What does Sila’s note say?” Sophie-Kutty asked later as they tucked into greasy cheese toasts on the Indrayani.
“I’d forgotten about that!” Robo exclaimed and unfolded the slip, but recoiled when he read FART IN A SHED.
Sophie-Kutty studied the message, squinting worriedly into the railway sheds they passed. As they walked out of CST, Sophie-Kutty jumped up, slapping her forehead. “My grandfather would have been ashamed of me!” she exclaimed. Can’t you see Robo darling, FART IN A SHED is nothing but ANDHERI FAST! Let’s hurry!”
They raced across the streets, propelled by the sea of evening commuters, and fell breathless into an Andheri Fast, pouncing into window seats before others got them.
“Sila!” Sophie-Kutty screeched, leaning and stretching her hands out through the window bars towards the hijra who had found them again.
“I am innocent! Those were MY grandfather’s sandals, he was a famous hijra!” Sila shouted.  “DNA test was done and sandal found to belong in my family. Please Sophie-Kutty, remember one thing, Evidence in a corruption!”
“What?!” Sophie-Kutty asked, startled.
Evidence in a corruption!” Sila repeated.
The train began to move. Sila ran alongside.
Continue prior deviance” he yelled desperately.
“Her grandfather was a hijra?” Langda asked incredulously. “I’ve always wondered how these things work.”
“Robo, listen,” said Sophie sternly. “These are Jacob Sussanna’s last two messages. Both indicate very clearly that the convict Shantaram stole Sant Dnyaneshwar’s sandals.”
Arriving at Shantaram’s posh new apartment at Lokhandwala, they found the front door key under the door mat, but no sandals inside.
Later, Sophie-Kutty sipped her chai and mused despondently, “I should have realised my grandfather would never leave me so obvious a clue.”
“Look at this,” responded Langda excitedly, “FART IN A SHED also reads FANS HIDE RAT. Did you know that one year the British banned the Palki saying that the plague was going wherever the Palki went? But the order met with outrage and rebellion of such magnitude that they had no choice but to revoke it.”
“My god!” Sophie-Kutty hurriedly interrupted his lecture. “My grandfather was one smart old geezer! That fits in with Ha ha! Vast armpit injuries itch!
It was Robo Langda’s turn to slap his forehead. “I’ve got it!” he shouted, leaping up.
Later that day, a beaming Inspector Jadhav faced a battery of mikes and press cameras. “I owe thanks to my dear friends Sophie-Kutty and Robo Langda with whose help the Mumbai Police have apprehended the notorious criminal Mr. Antimony Hopscotch.”
Jadhav and Langda had led Antimony into a temple, while Sophie-Kutty quickly picked up the sandals he left outside and returned them soundlessly to the relieved Palki. When Antimony’s own sandals had torn, he had been too broke to buy a new pair, so just helped himself to the Palki’s sandals without anticipating the resulting furore.
“It’s quite simple, really,” Langda said. “Evidence in a corruption and Continue prior deviance are both anagrams of Received pronunciation.”
“Besides,” added Sophie-Kutty, you must have noticed that most evil villains speak in that posh Brit accent. Remember Sher Khan in Jungle Book? Sean Ambrose in MI2? Lagaan, Mangal Pandey, Rang de Basanti? Cruella D’eville? Lord Farquhart? Hannibal Lecter? Even that horrid Simon Cowell in American Idol speaks like that.”
Concluded Inspector Jadhav, “From my side I am relieved that the culprit has turned out to be a foreign national. The minority groups would have been giving us lot of trouble. These days even our Hindus have become very sensitive and are closing down Hussain exhibitions and the like. The messages of our native Saints like Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram have become increasingly important and I request you all to follow. Jai Maharashtra.”
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 9 July 2006

Monday, July 3, 2006

The Dnyaneshwar Code

Robo Langda awoke slowly.
The doorbell had been ringing insistently for several minutes. He cursed silently and groped his way to the entrance of his apartment, forcing his eyelids painfully apart. That pesky sadistic newspaper boy did it every Sunday morning.
Robo opened the door with the chain on, and felt the large wad of newspapers thrust right into his gut. Coffee, he needed coffee. He tipped a generous shower of Brazilian instant into a mug of water and shoved it into the microwave. Then he saw the headline, and he reeled.
Castrating the ouch! it read. Langda’s breath came in slow, painful gasps. The famous communist poet Jacob Sussanna was no more. Langda, professor in History at the Bombay University, had read Sussanna in Femina and other esteemed magazines ever since he was a student. Sussanna had a brilliant mind, and was well known to be a storehouse of cultural knowledge. Vastly respected for his wit and wisdom, Susanna was a darling of the TV news channels and regularly held forth on various debate shows.
Fully awake now, Langda peered at the extraordinary headline and the photograph of one well-built Inspector Jadhav, arms akimbo. According to the article, Sussanna had phoned Jadhav bare seconds before he died of a massive heart attack. He had been sounding rather strange – Jadhav confirmed that Sussanna often sounded rather strange – and had requested the Inspector to come and see him immediately though it was the middle of the night. Indulgent of the eccentric behaviour of brilliant poets, Jadhav had rushed to his side, but too late. Sussanna lay on the floor, tightly clutching a note in his hand on which was hand-written, in bold capital letters, “Castrating the ouch”. What could it possibly mean?
“Inspector Jadhav is certain that Sophie-Kutty, famous Sudoku champion and granddaughter of Susanna, will have a solution to this mystery,” the article concluded.
Langda, who had an earnest face and kind heart, was romantically unattached. He thought for a moment, then pulled on his trousers, splashed some water on his face, and walked down to the Bandra station.
Soon enough, Sophie-Kutty appeared, and Langda, cunningly looking the other way, stuck his leg out so that she tripped over it. As he helped her up, they held each other’s hands for a brief, warm moment.
Sophie herself was not that bad looking and had small, well-formed (but extremely strong) bones.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your grandfather,” Langda said gently.
“He was trying to warn me,” Sophie-Kutty sobbed. “I’m so scared – see, I’ve been followed!” and she nudged Langda, indicating subtly with her eyebrow. Langda looked where she had pointed and said soothingly, “Don’t worry Sophie-Kutty, that’s only Sila the hijda. She lives behind Elco and I’ve known her for years. She’s quite nice, really.”
“But she’s chasing me,” Sophie-Kutty whispered. “My grandfather knew this was going to happen!”
“Sussanna was a genius,” said Langda. “You know his penchant for double meanings. Take a closer look,” and he pointed at the headline.
Sophie-Kutty gave a little start. “Of course!” she said. “I should have seen it myself. It’s a simple anagram. Re-arranged, CASTRATING THE OUCH reads CHURCHGATE STATION. She tugged at his sleeve. “Let’s hurry!” and they raced across the overbridge.
The train pulled into Churchgate and the two stumbled out but Sophie-Kutty’s blood ran cold. Sila was lurching along behind them, pushing the other well-dressed Sunday commuters out of the way. They hid for a moment behind a milk booth and when Sila paused, Sophie-Kutty grabbed Langda’s sleeve. “He’ll never look here,” she said, and pulled him into the Gents. It was deserted but the stink made them retch. Then, a large graffiti on the side wall made them reel. Retching and reeling, they clutched onto each other for support.  Ha ha! Vast armpit injuries itch,” Sophie-Kutty read aloud. “What can it possibly mean?”
“I know!” Langda shouted suddenly. “Quick! Can’t you see, it’s another anagram! My god, Sussanna was a genius! CHHATRAPATI SHIVAJI TERMINUS!”
The two ran out and piled hurriedly into a taxi. After the toilet, that whiff of Sophie-Kutty’s perfume was very pleasant to Robo.
“Jaldi, jaldi!” Sophie-Kutty begged the taxi driver when Sila began tapping on the window with threatening looks.
They shot off but Sila ran alongside. “Just ignore her,” the driver advised. Sila was keeping abreast, tapping on the window, sari flapping in the wind, muttering dire threats. “These hijras are something else,” said the driver, “they could make our country proud by joining the Olympics or the marathon. But no, all they want to do is chase my taxi.”
Langda was immersed in thought. Peering at the headline again, he gasped. “Sophie-Kutty, look at this! Castrating the ouch can be rearranged to read CATCH TOUGHER SAINT. My god the extent of Sussanna’s cryptic skill is simply amazing. Finally I know what he was trying to tell us.”
Langda rushed to the window and bought 2 tickets to Pune.
“It’s the Palki,” he explained to Sophie-Kutty. “It’s one of our oldest religious traditions! The greatest ever expression of spontaneous faith! A movement never sullied by politics or powerbroking! Every year, untold thousands of pilgrims walk from all over the countryside, through the birthplaces of the great saints of Maharashtra. Huge processions swell as they move from one village to the next, until they reach Pandharpur on Ashadi Ekadashi.
“Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath – these names you have surely heard? The Bhakti movement influenced the course of our country’s religious history from the 13th to the 16th centuries. They preached the equality of all humans, the all-pervasiveness of the almighty, and that spirituality had no favoured language. Of course the Brahmins didn’t agree.”
Sophie-Kutty yawned, Langda was a History Prof, remember.
The train pulled in at Pune Station. Among the crowd of faces that milled on the platform, Sophie-Kutty spotted Sila, and shivered.
-        Will Sophie-Kutty and Robert Langda solve the mystery of Sussanna’s messages?
-        Will her grandfather send any more irritating anagrams?
-        Will Sila finally attack them?
-        Will Sant Dnyaneshwar’s sandals be returned to the Palki?
-        Read about it next week in the concluding part of The Dnyaneshwar Code.
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 2 July 2006

Monday, June 12, 2006

Famous Five Go To Lonavala

It was the first day of the summer holidays and Junoon, Annapoorna, Deepali and Digambar sat in the train, chattering excitedly. Digambar bit into his cheese toast. “Isn’t it simply wizard to be going to Lonavala,” he said.
“I was just thinking how odd it was that our parents never seem to take us home for the vacations,” Deepali mused. The dog Timmiah who sat curled up under their seats thumped his tail and made a low growling sound that they knew meant he was a little puzzled too.
“Yes,” said Annapoorna, squinting her eyes hard in concentration, “I’m trying but I can’t for the life of me remember how me mum looks. I wonder what the Athavale’s are going to be like.”
Mrs. Athavale stood at the gate of the honeysuckle cottage, beaming with a merry twinkle in her eye. She was large and a bit untidy but looked very jolly and the children knew there were many treats of puran poli and perhaps a midnight feast or two with shreekhand that they could look forward to.
“I’ve been expecting you,” she glowed at them merrily.
“Really,” said Junoon. “Being pregnant is one thing, but expecting four children and a dog – honestly. That’s a bit much even for this country.”
No one laughed. “I think I’m getting a bit old for this lot," Junoon thought to himself.
Junoon, Digambar and Annapoorna were brothers and sister. They were at the same boarding school as their cousin Deepali.
“Hello, Deepali,” said Mrs. Athavale trying to give the girl a motherly hug.
“I’m Deepak,” she responded fiercely but Junoon intervened before Mrs. Athavale could take offence, handing her a box of Cooper’s fudge that they had bought near the station before they trudged up the hill to Kailashdham, the Athavale’s summer cottage where children could have adventures. It had stables and everything. “She wants to be a boy,” Julian explained. “She’s saving all her pocket money and expects to have enough for an operation in 2009 at Dr. Polly Umranikar’s pollyclinic. You can call us Julian, Anne and Dick. This is our dog Timmiah, but of course we all call him Timmy. You can too,” he added kindly.
“Come on in,” Mrs. Athavale ushered them in cheerily. “Kashinath Uncle is in the study, and you can meet him later. He keeps himself to himself and children, don’t mind him when he gets cross, he has a heart of gold. We want you to enjoy your holidays here and you can walk around and do whatever you want but just keep away from that area over there where you can see all the trees have been uprooted.”
A little thrill ran through the children. “Why can’t we go near that area over there where all the trees have been uprooted?” asked Annapoorna?
“Yes, why can’t we go near that area over there where all the trees have been uprooted?” asked Deepali fiercely.
“Now don’t ask too many questions children,” Mrs. Athavale admonished, waving a cheery finger at them with a little twinkle in her eye.
That night the children, tired out with excitement, fell asleep at once. Nothing disturbed them till early morning when a cock from one of the nearby poultry farms got in through a window into the room where the boys were sleeping, sat on a rafter just above them, and crowed loudly enough to wake them both with a jump.
“What’s that!” said Digambar. “That awful screeching in my ear! Was it you, Ju?”
The cock crowed again and the boys laughed. “Blow him!” said Junoon, settling down again. “I could do with another couple of hours sleep!”
Just then, Deepali came running in, panting. “There’s lights flashing in that area over there where all the trees have been uprooted!” she called out excitedly. “Come ON, you lazy lot!”
Deep, who was going into the 10th that year, had been sitting at her table all night fiercely mugging up the 10 years solved SSC papers when she saw the lights flashing in that area over there where all the trees had been uprooted. A little later she heard the back door close, and heard someone creeping up the stairs. She got up to investigate, and could have sworn she saw Uncle Kashinath’s bright red dressing gown disappearing round the corner into his bedroom. What on earth could he have been doing flashing lights in that area over there where all the trees had been uprooted? She ran to get the others so they could go and investigate together. “Smugglers!” Digambar had said excitedly. “Silly clot,” said Junoon, “We’re nowhere near the coast! It’s probably just the nasty builders and their nefarious deforestation, setting up a swimming pool villa complex while the civic authorities doze.” And Annapoorna had put her foot down. “I don’t think Mother and Daddy would approve,” she said firmly. “We’ve only been given the ONE instruction. I’m not going anywhere near that area over there where all the trees have been uprooted that the Athavale told us to stay away from, are you Timmy old boy?” Timmy thumped his tail and made a low growling sound that they knew meant that HE certainly wasn’t going anywhere near it.
So the children kept away from the area over there where all the trees had been uprooted, and the holidays went by in a haze of sunshine, walks to Bushy Dam, chicken biriyani made with chicken from the nearby poultry farms, nimbu pani made by Annapoorna, and Digambar had to visit the dentist and have a tooth extracted from eating too much chikki.
But one day as they were walking home, tired but happy after a game of snap on the grassy downs by the old highway near the Fariyas Hotel, Timmy ran after a stick thrown by Junoon and vanished out of sight. The children ran in the direction Timmy had disappeared. “TIMMMMY!” they shouted, over and over, but there was no response. Annapoorna began to cry. Deepali looked sulky, and Digambar kicked a large stone off the edge of the road. Even Junoon’s manly chin quivered a little. Suddenly, an orange ball of fur bounded out from behind a boulder and jumped on Annapoorna, knocking her over.
“It’s you, Timmy!” she shouted in glee, hugging the dog and sobbing in relief. The boys crowded round. “Timmy, old chum,” began Junoon, but Digambar held his nose and made a face. “Peeyoo, you stink, Timmy,” he said.
Deepali had wandered over to the side. “Do you lot know where we are!” she exclaimed fierecely. “We’re in that area over there where all the trees have been uprooted!”
“So we are!” exclaimed Junoon. “Now I understand! The orange mess and horrible stink that Timmy’s covered in … the flashing lights early morning … Uncle Kashinath’s unexplained absences … don’t you see, it those mangoes we’ve been eating! Don’t know if you’ve noticed but none of the little cottages we’ve spent our vacations in ever had a toilet. Good old Timmy, he always solves our mysteries for us, doesn’t he!”
“Good old Timmy,” agreed the others, but Anne was the only one who would let him come anywhere near them as they bounded up the road towards the sabudana vadas Athavale Aunty had promised them.
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 11 Jun 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied a range of humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Monday, May 8, 2006

India, a software superpower

In 6 Autobiographical Chapters
Chapter One (The Application)
Recruitment In charge,
Hi-fly Technologies.

Subject: Application to offer myself for the openings in your firm.

Respected Sir/Madam,
This letter is in response to your advertisement calling for engineering professionals. I intend to offer myself for the career opportunities you have in offing.
It is with no ambiguity when I say that every engineering professional aspires to have their careers kickstarted with a start at your esteemed organization. Your renowned organization's name is synonymous with "Technology and Development" and it is hard not to have heard of you, especially among the engineering fraternity.
As of you to know me, I am attaching herewith my personal academic and other information in my resume for your kind perusal.
I hope to meet you in person and prove to you, my ability and deservedness to associate my services towards both our interests.
Yours faithfully,
Saaz Aggarwal

Chapter Two (The Interview)
Good morning to you madam. Myself Saaz Aggarwal. I am extremely most grateful that you are abling to consider my applications. I am very hardworking and sincere person. If you will give me opportunity I will forever grateful. I will work very very hard and you will never be causing to complains. My technical skills is very excellent. From childhood itself I am doing websurfing and I enjoy to computer games too much. So my mama-papa they are telling to me that you must have to become software engineer. Software engineers is very hard working and getting foreign opportunity also. Further, my communication skills is also perfect and I am having leadership abilities to demonstrate. Now I will tell little about myself. Myself Saaz Aggarwal. I am very sincere and hardworking person. Upto fifth standard I am standing first in class every day. I am very brilliant by nature and was getting into engineering colleges in many states but have chose to continue further studies in Pune itself. In hobbies I am solving aptitude test and CAT papers daily. Everyday I am enjoy the cricket on TV. Please to give me opportunity in your esteemed organization and I will never regret.

Chapter Three (My Date Of Joining Is Also My Birthday)
Good morning to you all of you my dear friends and superiors. I am not thinking any other company in whole world is bringing cake for each and every single employees. I am very extremely happy and lucky person to join company who is giving so much individual importance to all of the individuals and today is my birthday also so thanking you very much for birthday cake and celebrations. Today is my first day of working in company. I am very bright and fresh youngster. I am think to learn great deal and contribute to growth of company. I will be very hardworking and never complain about all the situations. My family is told to me that I should try my best in all the things. I will try to my utmost to satisfy my superiors in every works they are telling to me. I look forward to very long and fruitful associations with all of you my very dear friends. This is company to be exactly like family to me and I am extremely very happy, nobody can feel so happy as I am feeling. After many years I will work and company shall gain many benefits from me and I too shall grow along with company.

Chapter Four (Going On Site. One Month Later)
Now I have finish to my induction training. I am learning too many things about dotnet and so many nice-nice Microsoft technologies. All the colleagues are very friends. Company has offered many nice nice facilities and facilitate paying of electricity bill, telephone bills and the like. We are having too nice supportive environment in company. Next week ago I am going to put on live project in client-side. I will getting some allowances and the like. Next week I am getting loan approval to take bike. I shall bring peda for all the friends and superiors in office. My office is too nice place and we are enjoying many Japanese classes also.

Chapter Five (My HR Department. Six Months Later)
I was thinking that my HR manager was liking to me very much. Every time when I am seeing her I am saying hello with very big smile. She is also smiling and looking very much happy. One day she was telling to me that you must fill up training feedback form. I am ticking to every box is “excellent” so I am thinking HR manager will be happy with me. Now my six months trainee periods is over and I think so my performance is very extremely good so we shall be skip probation periods and HR will be going to do my confirmation in performance review. However such is not the case. I am be continue in probation only. My many other friends are there in other companies and this time all companies are giving 20% pay hike to all employees however here we are not getting. I am think so management is got confused in expansion mode.

Chapter Six (The Application. Ten Months Later)

Recruitment In charge,
Cocacolasys Infotech.

Subject: Application to offer myself for the openings in your firm.

Respected Sir/Madam,
This letter is in response to your advertisement calling for experienced software professionals.
I intend to offer myself for the project opportunities you have in offing.
I am very intelligent and hardly workings 3 years experience Project Leader with extensive knowledge of Japanese language and cultural habits. I have worked on large number of Japanese client side projects and have become familiar with lot many Japanese peoples and cultural habits. I was also about to past Sankyu level of Japanese language certification however project pressures came and I was working daily till 2 p.m. in the morning so therefore I was unable to prepare for examination. If I was getting opportunity to pass examination then surely I would have been getting 70% or 80% marks. If I am sent to client side project in Japan then Cocacolasys Infotech will be getting my very good benefits.
As of you to know me, I am attaching herewith my personal academic, experience, and other information in my resume for your kind perusal.
I hope to meet you in person and prove to you, my ability and deservedness to associate my services towards both our interests. However please to excuse me from sitting for aptitude test. My aptitude is being very excellent. I am having 3 years experience and aptitude test need not be required for senior members of development team.
Yours faithfully,

Saaz Aggarwal 

First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 7 May 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied a range of humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Economist Style Guide to the Galaxy

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Express Highway lies a small un-regarded yellow brick Cooperative Housing Society. Nestled inside, roughly at a distance of Rs. 14 by rick from the nearest station, is an utterly insignificant blue-green kitchen.
This kitchen has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: though the dishes that lay in them had not been washed, there was absolutely nothing there for the cockroaches, which roamed freely under the sink, to eat.
 Many wise people pondered this problem. Some had brilliant ideas, and wrote long, sometimes rather witty, fortnightly columns and when the newspaper was delivered, they would spend long hours smiling back at their faces, oblivious of the cockroaches for the nonce. Nothing seemed to work.
 And then, one Thursday, two thousand and six years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a young man sitting on his own watching Taxi No. 9211 suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and he finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything. The young man, whose name was Maruti Suzuki had found, tucked under his cinema seat, a sheaf of printed papers with the cryptic title (in large friendly letters) The Economist Style Guide and it had answers to all the questions that had ever crossed his mind. Son of the well known Sangli-based half-Japanese barber Muchikapuka, Maruti was a roving freelancer and it was his kitchen in which the cockroaches sought nourishment in vain. Maruti picked up the sheaf and squinted at it eagerly. Unwilling to wait until Intermission, he shone his cellphone torchlight on it.
 “Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought,” he read. “Try to be economical in your account or argument. “As a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give to your style.” (Sydney Smith)”
 Wow! Maruti wiped perspiration from his brow at the force of the well-chosen words.
 Immox the hot, Immox the remote, Immox with the bossy staff who don’t permit outside food! He sat back and immersed himself once again in the film, his 29th Nanny Pattycake movie in a row. He was working on a cover story on screen tragedy heroes, and Pattycake was his chosen favourite. Heartthrob of post-menopausal women throughout the known universe, Pattycake was also (Maruti knew) widely admired for his wit, cynicism and generally anti-religious attitude, and this was borne out by the parting exchange of their meeting a few days before.
 Pattycake had spoken admiringly of the 9:43 Bandra-Churchgate slow that he had used as a student and which still ran its unflinching schedule come April heatwave or August deluge. He held the existence of this local to be a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God, thus:
“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “the 9:43 Churchgate slow is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. Q.E.D.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
 They had laughed, and parted friends. Maruti now scrunched himself further into his seat as he skimmed another passage in the Guide.
 “Some words add nothing but length to your prose,” he read the reassuring words with a frisson of pleasure. “Use adjectives to make your meaning more precise and be cautious of those you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. The word very is a case in point. If it occurs in a sentence you have written, try leaving it out and see whether the meaning is changed.
Maruti let out a low groan. If only, if only he had known this before that interview with Sachin Tendlichibhajiaanre the littlest master-batter that this nation has ever seen! He resolved that he must do yet another interview with the great man, in which he would wipe out every single superlative and all the very’s.
The day of the meeting, Maruti received an early-morning anonymous phone call. “Gold seal!” a husky voice whispered into his fuzzy unwashed ear. “New organic treatment!” And it read out a phone number. Maruti grabbed a pencil, sought around desperately for a piece of paper and then tried scratching it into the floor but the point broke. The caller hung up abruptly. Maruti slapped his forehead in exasperation. He had been so close to solving the mystery, and now the clue was gone, out of his reach forever! To make matters worse, Tendlichibhajiaanre, when they met, spoke in familiar but cryptic and rather incongruous nuances.
“I facing many problems when I be younger,” he began earnestly, “But I trying my best and learning lot many important skills. Some people helping to me. Many poke the funs at me.” Maruti, taken aback, narrowed his eyes, unable to pinpoint what exactly this reminded him of, but his expression cleared when Tendlichibhajiaanre added, as explanation, “Boasting, is the secret of my success.”
 “An empty vessel makes the most noise!” he now intoned sonorously. “One drop of honey will attract more cockroaches than fifffty litres of sherry!”
“Pompous ass!” thought Maruti, but then sat up straight with a light in his eye when it struck him that this string of clichés might just hold a clue to his dilemma.
Trembling, Maruti picked up the Guide for reassurance. A thrill shivered through him as he read, “Lazy journalists are at home in oil-rich company A, ruled by ailing President B, the long-serving strongman, who is, according to the chattering classes, a wily political operator – hence the present uneasy peace. Prose such as this is freighted with codewords (respected is applied to someone the writer approves of, militant someone he disapproves of, prestigious  something you won’t have heard of).
Maruti was breathing hard. Filled with a new resolve, he now set out for Bombay Central to board a launch to the party where Kishore Biriyani was said to be standing at the Crossroads. Maruti knew that the party was his last chance for a solution to his cockroach problem. He was also eager to experience the fantastic globs of food passed around stuck on small sticks, which, Salman Corn had once told him, very large sums of money were paid for by very rich idiots who want to impress other very rich idiots.
This was before Corn had been convicted and clapped in irons for being a complete rascal. Still, Maruti had been well aware that he was not above a little bribery and corruption in the same way that the sea is not above the clouds. It was well known that when he heard the words integrity or moral rectitude he reached for his dictionary, and when he heard the chink of ready money in large quantities he reached for the rule book and threw it away.
Maruti turned once again to his trusted Guide for sustenance. “A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image,” said Orwell, “while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of wornout metaphors which are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”
Maruti felt a surge of wellbeing rush through him. He knew now that he was very close to receiving the final answer. And then he saw it! The road leading to his Cooperative Housing Society was dug up for cable-laying and maybe a flyover or two. He walked balancing himself gingerly on a pile of loose black earth. Then, just outside the gate, he saw a large signboard with a black and yellow striped border and with large letters flashing in bright orange. Here was the answer he had been seeking all these years: “Inconvenience Caused is Deeply Regretted,” it said. 
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 16 Apr 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied a range of humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Annie Tharakan by Woody Allen

Annie Tharakan limped because her shoes were too tight. “Didn’t you try them on before you bought them,” her mother barked.
The truth was that Annie had not felt comfortable in the shoes but she could never bring herself to say no to a salesperson. “I want to be liked,” she admitted to Sushma-madam, the nerdy Maths teacher. “Once I gave all my pocket money away to someone who said she was collecting for the Deaf and Dumb Association. She sprinted away as soon as I put the money in a tin piggy bank which she held out to me, and I’ve never seen her again at the Solar System mall.”
Annie and her school-mates did spend a lot of time at the Solar System mall. They liked it because the escalators had shiny handrails and there were large signs that said SALE 50% discount on selected items, conditions apply. But also because it was air-conditioned and the toilets had a warm-air hand dryer which occasionally worked.
Sushma-madam was outwardly sympathetic but she would later mock Annie in the teachers’ common room. Annie’s mother, who taught Geography, happened to be there. She told the others about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for “no” in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, “I’ll get back to you.” She too appeared warm and understanding and inviting of confidences, but later hit Annie on the head with the blunt handle of her imported rubber spatula all the same. “Why did you buy them if they’re too small?” she asked Annie, unaware that she was articulating a quintessential human paradox.
The day Annie bought the shoes, she had actually gone looking for bras. A nice-looking but slim sales girl with a name tag that said Cynthia came up and said “Have a nice day”. Annie was desperate but felt shy to ask for help because there was a man watching her and she naturally didn’t want him to hear what she said when she confessed her bra size to Cynthia.
For some reason, Solar System had put this pimple-faced youth in charge of Nighties. Women would approach the counter but turn around quickly once they saw him. Naturally, nobody ever bought any nighties. He was quite a pleasant-looking fellow actually, as he leaned comfortably on his counter, resting his chin on his arm, and watched while Annie crept round trying to pick up bra boxes and check the size and design without him actually seeing what was written on them.
Finally she gave up and wandered towards some loud sounds near the entrance. It was the finals of a song and dance competition. Annie watched with envy as Pravina who sat next to her in class swayed and bent to the sounds with simple abandon. Even Rishi, the boy whose father ran the kirana shop just outside Annie’s building was swinging beautifully. No one could imagine that the Rishi who helped at the shop on weekends and made home deliveries on his bicycle outside school hours could have reached the semi-finals of this national show with footfalls as stylish as these! Annie sighed. She felt sad and depressed. Slowly, she walked towards the food and grocery section, and inched to the chocolate counter stealthily checking from the corner of her eyes that no one was watching. Near the dog food counter, a boy and girl called Rinku and Pinky were sailing a ball at each other, skipping around, and singing a very silly song. Annie did not even have a dog. She did not know the meaning of the expression GIMROI. But she did have enough money to buy some chocolates.
There was no Zippy-mate raisin-enriched fun-bar, the chocolate that gives you more raisins, more chocolate, more iron content, more energy, more calories, more everything per cubic metre than any other chocolate. Annie did try asking two sales girls where she could find some, but they were very engrossed in whispering secrets to each other and when they detached, they would only look at the other shoppers and tell them admiringly, “Good morning, madam!” and “How can I help you, sir!” with so much charm, sincerity and enthusiasm that Annie just did not feel like getting in the way and she bought Cheepy-mate instead since it was marked down to Rs. 5 from Rs. 13.50 and also 15 for the price of 3. Their lovely green-striped aprons reminded Annie of Cynthia from the Ladies’ Underwear Department and filled with a new resolve, she went back upstairs, determined to get what she had come for.
Cynthia was kind and when she understood the problem, asked the pimple-faced youth (Annie saw from his name-tag that his name was Viren) if he’d mind going on his lunch break now. He argued for a while, then before he moved off gave Annie a deeply reproachful look which Annie knew would haunt her forever. Later, she stood in line at the till with the 3 bra boxes concealed safely at the bottom of basket filled with dog food and Zippy-mate and the shoes which were too tight. But when her turn came, she was horrified to discover that there was no barcode sticker on them and the till assistant had to call out loudly to the supervisor, describing the product in great detail so it was heard by not only everyone in the store but also Viren, the pimple-faced youth, who happened to be passing by at that moment and he turned around and gave Annie a triumphant sneer.
Annie was sad but it was a lesson she would never forget as long as she lived and a few years later when she became sought after as a witty dinner companion she would hold long discourses on the subject and repeat often “Location,” – and here she would briefly before driving home the punch line – “Location” (she would repeat for effect) “is everything.”
First appeared in  Sunday Mid-day on 19 Mar 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Monday, March 6, 2006

Bill Bryson's Bombay

I landed at the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport and stood at the entrance to Mumbai in that state of mild indecisiveness that comes with the sudden arrival in a strange country when you’re pounced upon by hundreds of swarthy young men clamouring to take you home. I breathed in the warm, humid air that carried whiffs of petroleum fumes, drying fish and the impact of water shortage on several million bodies, and bravely resisted twenty seven taxi drivers urgently tugging at me until I spotted with relief the hotel welcome board with my name on it.
The first time I came to Bombay was 25 years ago, with a high-school acquaintance named Steve Gatz, which I soon realised was a mistake. The best thing that could be said about travelling abroad with Gatz was that it spared the rest of America from having to spend the summer with him.
We stayed in a guesthouse near the Gateway, sharing a room with two Germans who knew where to get good dope and we would have featured in Shantaram if it’d been 2 decades later. One evening we decided to get some native colour and walked down to Churchgate Station to experience the death-defying sport of catching a commuter train into the suburbs. A filthily ragged woman in a headscarf squeezed into the carriage loudly orating the tale of her troubled life and asking for money. The baby on her hip was so startlingly ugly that it was all I could do to keep from putting hands to ears and screaming, “Baap re!” (for by now my Marathi was coming on a treat). I quickly gave her twenty rupees before Junior loosed a string of dribble onto me, but soon discovered that my wallet had been lifted. The woman of course was nowhere to be seen – she was probably at this moment sitting down to a feast of truffles and Armagnac with seventy-four relatives on a secluded railway siding near Dombivili with $1500 worth of traveller’s cheques, not bad for five seconds’ work.
But this was only memory, and the entire workforce of my hotel now glowed with joy at my arrival and the bellboy all but touched his forehead to the ground near my feet, a welcome change from last time when I would don my rucksack each morning, staggering around in the manner of one who has been hit on the head with a mallet.
The TV in my room showed a local soap, alive with beauty, agony, and malice, and I watched with appreciation. Here was progress: before, Indian television was only good for the sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience. About every fifth word was in English, but the strain of putting it together became wearying and I decided to go for a walk.
Mumbai is not a good city for walking. The humidity makes biscuits soggy, preying insects plentiful, people sweaty and exhausted. There’s also the constant danger that you will fall into open pits, and even when you stumble out limping, it’s all you can do to dodge the rush of dilapidated taxis and occasional Mercedes Benz that come sweeping down. It’s not that Mumbai drivers intentionally want to kill you as they do in Paris – they’re just too busy blaring horns, cutting off other vehicles, talking on cellphones, indulging their lap-held progeny with a chance at the wheel. You can’t help but admire the free spirit of this great democratic nation.
I wandered around, looking for The Ideal, which Gatz and I had frequented. I hate asking directions. I am always afraid that the person I approach will step back and say, “You want to go where? Mohammed Ali Road? Boy, are you lost. This is Andheri you dumb clot,” then stop other passers-by and say, “you wanna hear something classic? Buddy tell these people where you think you are.”
So I trudged on. Rats the size of young swine scuttled alongside. Lounging at intervals were some of the most astonishingly unattractive prostitutes I’d ever seen – fifty year old women with crooked lipstick and body parts reminiscent of flowing lava. They stood side by side in a seemingly endless row of doorways. I couldn’t believe that there could be that many people in Mumbai – that many people in the world – requiring this sort of assistance just to ejaculate. Whatever happened to personal initiative?
Just as I began thinking about phoning my wife and asking her to come find me, I turned the corner and there it was.
By now I was so hungry that I would have eaten anything, even a plate of my grandmother’s famous creamed ham and diced carrots, the only dish in history to have been inspired by vomit.
The Ideal used to be one of those places that had marble-topped tables, bentwood chairs, a surly owner, and a list of stern instructions regarding Outside Food and Hand Washing. They served chai in glasses but Gatz and I would be honoured with white china cups. It now had formica tables, muted lighting, and a menu that included paneer dosa, Manchurian pizza, and even Mexican and Lebanese food. I tried to think what my jaljeera put me in mind of and finally decided that it was a very large urine sample, possibly from a circus animal with hepatitis. The kheema pau at the Ideal (short, I now realised, for “Ideally you should stay home for dinner”) had been our staple for weeks but it was absent. The intriguingly named Vegetable 65 I now ordered was so bad that to say it was crappy would be to malign faeces. I returned to the hotel and retired with Philip Ziegler’s classic account of the Black Death, imaginatively entitled The Black Death – just the thing for lonely nights when travelling.
I walked down Marine Drive next morning, exhilarating in the beautiful sweep of bay and energetic morning walkers, but stayed clear of Chowpatty. I remember Gatz’s enthusiasm as we climbed down Walkeshwar after an early morning excursion to Ban Ganga, sighting the flock of exotic migratory birds that appeared to be roosting there – and his horror when we found it was just some squatters engaged in alfresco excretion.
When I was twenty I liked Bombay for its laid back attitude but it was oddly wearisome now. Indians have been congratulating themselves on their tolerance for centuries, and it’s now impossible for them not to be nobly accommodating to graffiti and queue jumpers and excrement and litter. I may be misreading the situation. They may like excrement and litter. I hope so, because they’ve certainly got a lot of it.
Later, I headed for Dharavi, pausing briefly to admire Mumbai’s gothic railway station that had once been named for Queen Victoria but now, like many other city spots, revered the mountain hero Shivaji who with his band of guerrilla warriors successfully stayed Moghul penetration to southern India.
Dharavi seemed agreeable enough in a thank-you-god-for-not-making-me-live-here kind of way. I walked through narrow lanes, stepping over gutters oozing slimy, ill-defined fluid, when two vaguely thuggish-looking men walked purposefully towards me. Uh-oh, I thought, causally sliding my hand into my pocket and fingering my Swiss Army Knife, but knowing that even in ideal circumstances it takes me twenty minutes to identify a blade and prise it out and I’d end up defending myself with a toothpick and tweezers. But all they wanted was a friendly chat to practice their Conversational English – where I was from, my wife’s maiden name, how much I made last year – that kind of thing.
Back at the hotel, I wandered the maze of shops selling pashmina, jewellery, carved elephants, silken garments and leatherware. Tourists from every continent beamed, dazed and laden with shopping bags. I heard an American trying to knock the price of a jade figurine below two hundred rupees, less than $5. There was no pharmacy here – strange for a city that has several on every stretch of road – more medical shops than litter bins. Gatz had once bought a bagful of dangerous and addictive medication at one of these without the word “prescription” mentioned once in the transaction. This must make it fun for people who live here. Still, if you wake up with a bubo on your groin, better see a doctor all the same.
First appeared in  Sunday Mid-day on 5 Mar 2005, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bridget rides again

Sitting comfortably in back seat when ghastly screeching and lurching. Self thrown up in air. Moments of slow-motion lucidity observing self in highway accident and anticipating high drama. Scorpio shuddered to halt, 4 of us dazed but relieved that still able to move limbs and nod head. Foul scent of country liquor overpowering. Ravi at wheel trembling. First time in 15-year-career, accident of any kind. Father in front passenger seat also trembling but more from Parkinson’s disease than shock/horror.
Man on scooter racing down wrong side of road slapped self carelessly onto us. Ravi veered and car shuddered, landed in ditch in centre of highway. Urgent longing to believe that nothing has happened and we can carry right on home. However, car trapped, so unable to move.
Disembark! insists loud pompous voice at window.  Terrified of imminent lynching by crowd. Saved by flashback to movie in which heroine is dragged to stake screeching and howling. Had resolved that self would never be silly ninny but go with head held high and sophisticated smile on lips. Now have chance to show world. Pompous voice belongs to medium-size man, no match for woman of traditional build like self, and melts away (intimidated) into crowd.
Angry crowd gathers, shaking thunderous fists. Man on road is dying, put him in your car and take him to hospital! Yes, but car stuck in ditch, remember?
Scooterist prone next to scooter, unconscious. Pool of blood. Sardarji wearing lungi sidles up to Ravi asking, you driver? Yes, Ravi perspires. Police will come, says sardarji with sly look, tell them you are passenger! Tell them driver ran away! Man will die, your life ruined! Gives conspiratorial wink, nods from side to side.
Noisy traffic thundering past. Bike stops, and highly competent-looking individual alights. Is angel in disguise, off-duty inspector Galinde from nearby policy station. Waves crowd aside in authoritative manner. Whips out cell phone and calls for assistance.
Watch with amazement as ambulance arrives in ten minutes and carries away unconscious scooter rascal. Smell of spilt liquor still strong – bootlegging activity in vicinity, confides inspector.
Crane fortuitously passing by. Inspector Galinde stylishly commands it to halt, pull hook out of smashed Honda City and into our poor black steed. Daddy led to side to wait till crane has towed car out of ditch. Poor old daddy shaking violently now, less from Parkinson’s than fear of suffocation by crowd who have now developed loving feelings and clamour to help support him.
Mild-looking police team from nearby chowky pull up in van. Inspector Galinde hands over situation with flourish and rides away in puff of glory.
Rescue car arrived from home, hurrah. Police officer Chaher now wants to take Ravi to chowky to record FIR. However, am loth to let faithful long-tenure admin assistant into hands of police in middle of darkest night! Chaher, slow and reliable, reassuring, walking gingerly as might one with bunions on feet. Sit cosily on side of road under streetlight and give statement to police. Shrewdly remember to say was on way home from Mumbai (not “Bombay”) in order to impress personnel of force. Squeeze into small rescue car with box full of food packed by loving aunty to take home for family in manner of Red Riding Hood carrying basket to grandma balancing on knee. Moist patch on lap as last felt when dandled baby (now 19) on knee. Fear bladder accident due to stress and middle-age-woman-incontinence syndrome, however only raita from box of goodies.
Next day, send Ravi to police station for chowky procedure, RTO, insurance etc. No news for several hours. Pacing with worry and images of police brutality in manner of Bhagalpur. Try phoning chowky but no response and engaged tone alternate. Call 100, no response. Call several nearby chowkies but no solutions. Lady at police control room very kind but unable to help. Ponder calling commissioner’s office but what to say? “Hello Additional Commissioner Dhiware, do you remember me, I’m Saaz Aggarwal, can you help me find my driver?” Decide on the whole better wait for bit. Ravi returns unhappy but in tact.
Next day learn that man on scooter will never again ride down wrong side of highway. Corporator phones, suggests we pay money to bereaved family. Police officer at chowky agrees. Has yielded to stereotype that traditionally built woman wearing pearls in back seat of gas guzzling vehicle must surely be wife of crafty unscrupulous builder or similar (in manner of self and Bhagalpur blindings assumption). However self is merely hardened woman of world who believes that safer wear helmets, obey traffic rules, and avoid alcohol. Unfortunately only charity permitted by current circumstances is kindness and patience to those in immediate vicinity. Explain to all who will listen that if not for Ravi’s reflexes and superior control of vehicle, self would also now be needing all kinds of help or perhaps none at all.
first appeared as Bridget bangs-up on Mumbai-Pune highway, Lives to tell tale in Sunday Mid-day on 19 Feb 2006