As I stood on the balcony of my home, I watched as the mist enveloped the town. A pretty sight that in my current existence in Bangalore doesn’t find a parallel in beauty or the sense of calm it brings. Watching the town disappear was in its own morbid way peaceful, but then rabidly, cutting through the mist was the loud sound of incoherent music coming in from the maidan where the tableau from all the temples in the evening would converge for the Dussehra gala. This wasn’t religious or local folk music (of which kind very little exists) but were foot tapping and positively life ending item numbers from a time that has passed most of us; yes the early 2000s and its distressful objectification of women through pointless raunchy songs thrown into what were on many occasions pretty tight scripts. On that we shall debate another day. The mist was in turn enveloped by something baser than the hope for some sun. In its essence, it was a town preparing for its most colorful and loud night. It’s a day when the town in all its vast shapes and sizes comes together to celebrate a night of victory charted many millennia ago, in their own varied interpretations of how the day must be celebrated.
Even five years ago the scale of it was fairly tame. It was most becoming of a small town trying hard to rise up to the occasion and in it, lay its charm. As I may begin risking to sound like that city boy refusing to allow his small town to become anything other than what his nostalgia deems right, I do feel a sense of show creeping into the people who make up this town, and it worries me. You know how each of us have this one place in life where we return to the basics. It could be in the not so fancy gym you go to, the chai place near work, the roadside dosa stall you indulge in, the samosa guy at the corner of your street or even the need to skip an Uber for a rickshaw, just for the fresh air (that may be a debatable term in Bangalore). All in all, these are your escapes, your little ways of reminding yourselves of a simpler time. In my case, just five hours away from Bangalore, I have an entire town that does that for me. A town and its people that immediately transports me and allows me to be without my Netflix, television, seamless internet, coffee shops, gyms, Ubers and all the devices that make up my life. That is something that I intend to hold on to with my dear life. But then, I see and realise that the ambitions of the people here are at odds with my sobering plans in life. Here, the arrival of Dominos has everyone excited. The one big café on the outskirts with it’s Café Coffee Day beating vibes is so cool. The music in the streets is hipper, ( is basically Top 40 ) the phones are getting smarter ( the good ol’ Nokias have disappeared ) and there is a general sense of progress or more importantly, ambition in everyone’s eyes. My parents and their friends are fighting for better data speeds from their service providers and wondering why YouTube was slow yesterday evening. They are having angry discussions on why Myntra cannot deliver here and why Amazon is the best. There are arguments on how the Urban Development Authority must protect it’s rights by not encroaching on the farmlands but everyone wants better roads so that the traffic moves better. The traffic! That used to not even be a conversation a few years ago! Where are the good restaurants and cafes, they ask? Where are the better tourists and experiences that they can give them, they ask? In all, there is a desire, probably a need, to be better. They are asking the right questions or atleast the tough ones. The same questions Bangalore asked itself at the dizzy beginnings of its Tech boom. These questions while not so indulgent, are still begging for attention and they aren’t just coming from the young, they are coming from everyone. The lower middle class, the middle class and the upper middle class. You see, the rich and the poor are the minority and their opinions do not really matter anymore. Maybe the government thinks of them, but the people with the tableaus from all the temples, my parents and their friends, the kids of all the locals who have returned from the cities; are all asking the same question, when will things get better and better?
And here I am, the local who is only local on his little breaks from the city and forgotten otherwise, wondering, when did it all change? I remember a time when the new super market were the heights of the town’s ambition and the fact that they allowed it to rest there, allowed them to enjoy their visits to the cities close by a lot more. They liked the weather, spoke of the weather and retired to great weather every night. Their tales were of families and weddings and scandals of the domestic nature. The difference in opinion was relegated to the corners and activism was only reserved for protecting a family’s beliefs against another’s. Tourists were a novelty, not a necessary inconvenience. There was less aggression in the air because, maybe, there was lesser hope. And I begin to realize, that I represent an obstacle, in this and many other towns’ progress. My need for nostalgia and it belonging to a specific place in my memory comes in the way of everyone’s collective dream for their town. I, the supposed beacon of hope of my community and people, am the regressive traditionalist that needs removal and in my place there is a requirement for a progressive, yet inclusive tomorrow. My replacement isn’t someone young, just driven and careless enough to want better and in this realization I quietly surrender to a corner and watch this unfold.
And then, much like I do back in Bangalore, I again go secretly in search of those little escapes in my little town in the hills; the narrow shortcuts to town, the old super market which was big news back then, the keema dosa that no one cares about anymore, walking up the hills instead of taking a rickshaw…
जीना तो उन्हीं का जीना कहलाया
जीना तो उन्हीं का जीना कहलाया
जो भी बिना चु-चा कर के
पानी पी के चले गए…चले गए..
While Jaaga Jasoos will be the brave movie that very few saw and everyone should see, it will, always be the movie with this song.
‘Khaana khaake’ is a song that begins in a moment of frivolity and then just like so many other light moments in the movie, takes a sudden deep dive into the many lessons that life chooses to sprinkle around you, but never hit you head on with. Ranbir’s character walks into a house party where everyone has had a bit much to drink and as many of us have done in the past, waiting for the door bell to ring, only to lie to our nosy neighbours that our noisy party is over. What begins as a standard excuse that everyone is done with the party and are gone, turns into a song in what is a momentous moment for Hindi cinema. Yes, I know it’s just a song, but remember this moment as the time Hindi cinema decided to break into a song just for the fun of it and it truly was fun. This was no inane moment of intimacy turning into a song, or a montage to help the writer avoid actually writing in more scenes, or that boy growing up, or a song thrown in to avoid something technical which would involve a set of skills missing in the writer or just a tool of progression. This was truly a moment of genius like the climax of ‘Ek Main or Ek Tuu’ or when Aakash in Dil Chahta Hain learns that he is in love through the opera or when Karan in Lakshya points at the mountain that refuses to allow him to win or when Mohan sees the boy at the Railway station. These are moments that for whatever little time changed Hindi cinema, or in reality, elevated it for a few brief moments that will always outlast the other nonsense that it endures.
‘Khaana khaake’ is another one of those moments. As the song progresses it quietly segues from just being a group of friends having fun and taking a dig at each other to it actually meaning something profound. Like at many house parties we have been to, a moment of humour generally mixed with alcohol turns into a discourse of some kind. The song begins with a rather clichéd take on life about it being temporary and that everyone is just going to enjoy the party, have some booze, eat some food and leave. And then as the song seems ready to return to its initial course, a small bit is slipped in. A bit about how finally it is the ones who manage to quietly, without much fuss, drink some water, have some fun and leave the party are the ones who seem to live the most complete lives. It made me stop and think and look at my life around. At any point in time it has always been about the commitment, about driving for the cause irrespective of everything else. It could be work, my friends, my family or love. The cause always outraced life, my values took a backseat over any relationship and when that was shattered, I never moved on but allowed those tattered ends to bother me till I found new purpose in the people around me. In the song they talk about how everyone leaves the party, except for Ramu Kaka who stays back to clean up. In a way we are all surrounded by the ones who quietly have a cup of water, enjoy the party and leave and the others who choose to or are bound to stick on to be the torchbearers or the holders of vacant hope. The song wasn’t meant to entertain, it was intended to educate and hidden in a movie that wasn’t designed to enlighten, it sure did more than that.
The song will be forgotten soon and so will some of these questions. But at every point in your everyday, maybe it will never hurt to really ask yourself if you want to choose to be the guy who quietly made his mark, left few fingerprints, drank his cup of water and left the party or be Ramu Kaka, the man who holds the ends together desperately, sometimes failing others but always failing himself or just being the man who loves cleaning up after it’s all done. You see, maybe the songwriter didn’t intend it, but when you choose to startle an audience right in between a movie that will go down as a little unknown classic, you unleash the mind and with it, many questions of the way you live and the choices you make.
Watch the movie. Hear the song. Think about life.
Forgive me but sometimes I need my solitude to create, said somebody who had their priorities right many years ago and some attribute it to the life and work of Geoffrey Bawa. A man possessed by perfection, order, a lack of colors and an insane desire to make memorable pieces of brilliance but worked effortlessly to be forgotten. Yes, I know it’s a strange start to a travelogue of my first of many trips to Sri Lanka, but this trip in many ways felt like a tribute to a man that should have eternity beckoning him, at some point, if not already.
The idea was to find a place that we could get lost in for a few days. A holiday, lived at the pace that I wanted life to be for a brief few days, which was slow, and to allow my mind to think and to be surrounded by company that was both calming and appreciative of the holiday I wanted. And that’s exactly what I got which allowed me to truly breathe in the air of this fascinating country that is less our backyard and should be more, our inspiration. In many ways upon touching down in Colombo I expected very little different from my everyday here in Bangalore, just possibly a little less noise and a generous shortage of traffic. We worked our way through some humidity and faultless roads to reach the holiday retreat of Geoffrey Bawa, Bentota. A quiet beach town unfazed by a Tsunami that ruined its surrounding towns for miles but for some reason stopped short of even touching the first house on the coast here. If there was some magic in this town, it far preceded my arrival. As the day woke up on us and the sound of the sea grew on us, our holiday began to unfold in the midst of one of Bawa’s most tasteful contributions to the country in our little beachside hotel. The desire for perfection extended all the way to the kitchen in this dreamlike existence that we had stepped into. Fresh butter, bread baked a few seconds before it hit the table and an in-house passion fruit jam that deserves attention at par with the stunning use of scale in some of the ornaments that litter the many corners of this hotel. And this was just the start, as the food, both regional and global continued to astonish us, I started waking up to what I have begun to feel might become a new normal; an uneasy restlessness to aspire to something greater. Because both in Bawa and in what the hotel was trying to deliver through the combined experience of phenomenal architecture, service as warm and smooth as their bread and a place in time where they had decided to set this place up, they had created something greater than any award winning hotel experience. They had created luxury with a taste of home and the ease of your most wonderful escape. As the hours and days passed, and we made our way to nearby Galle Fort to discover its hidden cafes and cobbled streets, descended upon the gardens of the Bawa brothers that adorn two sides of Bentota and finally sank into the colonial expanse and flavors of Colombo, we discovered that the way the hotel made us feel was just an extension of what Sri Lanka does to you. It sucks you into a warm embrace and much after returning from its hold, many distinct parts of you remain there and the rest are in the constant search of all that was experienced in your immediate atmosphere.
Bawa lived alone till his death. Keeping aside his reasons for doing so, when you walk through his gardens and his way of life, you begin to recognize his need for order in a well- designed state of chaos, but never at any point losing control of his idea of beauty. With stories of him changing a villager’s roof from an obscene zinc finish to a subtle tiled roof, he was a man possessed with a good view, of life and the structures that make it. He would have been a quite spectacular creator of worlds if he was the ‘architect’ in Inception. He may have created a world that would have forced the creators of the movie to replace the intrigue with a lazy romance. Much for my need to romanticize him, but in seeing his work station in a café in Colombo and the beauty that he demanded to be surrounded by, you discover that when a man’s purpose far exceeds his will to just be satisfied, you are immediately presented in a world that is unforgettable even years after he leaves it behind. You see, as I mentioned earlier, this ceased to be a travelogue the moment I started this post because I’m far from done with Sri Lanka and it will be a tragedy to put a bow to this wonderful country as there is so much more to discover. But in this journey, right from Nuwan who drove us around in his car and tuk tuk with stories of Japanese largess after the Tsunami to his commentary on the merciless killing of cows to Chaminda who stayed awake all night and set up beds for us right next to the pool on our first night, to Damana, the wonderful bartender who made the third best cocktail I have ever had with the first best name (Dr. Feelgood), to Dharshan, the creator of Ministry of Crab and Kaema Sutra which are some of my top food experiences in the last two years to Gayatri’s beautiful Airbnb with breakfast at her table to unending energy of the people dancing on the streets near the Dutch Hospital late into the night; these and the sum of them is what the country is about and will continue to be. In Bawa’s vision of creating beauty across the land and in some way, every ordinary citizen’s execution in creating a beautiful and spotless country not withstanding their many trials, my holiday was elevated from a getaway from reality to a walk through what I believe life should be made of.
To a country I shall return to, to that bread basket I dream of at breakfast everyday, to that cocktail designed to hypnotise, to lovely people, a great holiday and the best travel mate ever, I shall return soon! And even though you live so close to us, in living with you it felt like I was transported more miles than I have ever before.
Back in the early days of January, less as a resolution, but more as an early dawn of elderly wisdom, I decided to stop reading books that were fiction. I felt I had a finite amount of time in a given day, let alone the planet and a state of perfect productivity was what I needed to achieve. My fiction needs seemed to be better served through Netflix and Amazon Prime and a host of options. I can see some purists and friends who have grown up with me and our reading choices, cringing and looking for the closest phone to fling at me, but my mind was made. So I let go off the fiction and said only the non-fiction of the world will make do and long form articles informing me of the world (yes, the app, Pocket, is my best friend). Slowly the wisdom transformed into an insight that even the non-fiction books were slowing me down. The Kindle, which had quite literally re’kindled’ my reading a year ago, was also proving to be a weak influence to my all conquering urge to plough through as much information about the world, as my mind could possibly take. It was all going fine, it seemed to make sense, the rebellion against the one thing I held so dear was up and running. Goebbels would have been thrilled. But then, an argument happened.
A friend of mine, a bigger rebel than me on matters of all things normal, began to question why people watch movies anymore in the era of television that we live in today. His argument consisted of views that varied from the production value of TV shows on Netflix to the quality of actors on Amazon Prime to just names of shows like House of Cards and The OA, to rest his case. In this case I was the traditionalist, fighting the good and just fight for movies all over the world and the long and longer of my argument was that, in its essence, a movie was storytelling at its peak. It did not have the luxury of an entire season of building characters and setting the context to be able to hit you with a sucker punch or that epiphany that makes the popcorn and the ticket worth it or just the gigs of data on streaming it, it just had three hours at best. I pulverized him with movie facts and plots that had the courage to build bold characters and scenes that cast a spell on you. Of how Terrence Fletcher looks Andrew in the eye at the last concert in Whiplash and tells him he always knew, of how Maverick re-engages in the final dogfight in Top Gun, the scene in the shed in ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’, the stammering Aaron in Primal Fear, Robert Angier’s magic and desperate fight in The Prestige…it’s endless. Cinema is storytelling in its purest form and its only from there does TV ever stand a chance to grab us because in its truth and real fabric, TV is just imitating cinema, with a handicap and more time in hand.
And that’s when in the assumed ashes from my victory in that debate, rose a rather disturbing realization. That’s what books are. That’s what they had done for me. It was in the buildup, the tradition of story-telling, its place in time and history, it was all consequential. That’s what books were and always will be. I can have my debates about fiction, non-fiction and whatever else lies out there, but a book was what made reading possible and made it the best time spent with myself. It wasn’t cramming new information all the time, but it sure was hammering in the same point over and over again, in perfect harmony with the world it created for me. A book was very simply, the perfect escape, no matter what the genre. And who doesn’t like a good escape? And while long form articles on my phone will always remain a great source of waking up to the world, they will never be anything more than my favorite TV show, because irrespective of their brilliance, their tenure in my mind is as long as the time I find my ‘next favorite show’.
In the last month I got back to a book I have been meaning to read for a while which is Pico Iyer’s ‘The Global Soul’ which talks about travelers, travelling and the world that has become of it. I also have started ‘Contagious’ by Jonah Berger which is a brilliant commentary on what makes what brands do, contagious, and how that’s more down to a science then the unpredictable art we think it is. And all of a sudden, I can’t wait to get back to the next chapter of both. Much like my favorite TV show…
The friend and the lover are many miles away,So, to an Amy Winehouse tribute, I sway.
In old friends and stories of the past, I find jest,
But in their present and its stories I’m just a guest.
The late night Bangalore breeze sweeps across my face,
Memories threaten me like poison but I face them with grace,
In their entirety they remind me of times spent finding a solution,
To the many puzzles thrown at me and that one tough question.
Is there an easy way out of all this muck and confusion,
In a way that I’m a survivor, proud and free, and not just a pale intrusion,
Into the lives of the many I believe I have touched,
Or maybe those that I have imagined and whose happy memories I have fudged.
There is a silver lining, rainbow or revival thrown in somewhere here,
In the rock solid friend with his colourful beliefs who lives near,
Or the brave and beautiful girl whose love I may lose, I fear,
Or maybe it’s just in me, broken and tattered, deep down, waiting for one last cheer.
He sat with his homework holding back his breath,
Dad walked in with the letter and that look of death,
The room felt empty and sullen,
Dad cracked up, it was a joke, they were moving. ‘Let’s get packin’!
Days turned into years and years into today,
The thought of moving still steered his mind astray,
There wasn’t a time he knew to be permanent and true,
In this strange reality, his mind and reality grew.
Friends, love and time would ask him to stay,
But every three years, a part of him, would begin to flay,
He would fight it and beg for stability,
But his mind and heart, defiantly, refused this insanity.
He was a boy of dreams and wonder,
To which he did often surrender,
And when the mind finally grew restless and tired of this fight,
He would put his hands up and quietly disappear into the night.
Looking at the drama guided by reams of misinformation unfold in the US over the past couple of months has been a combination of hilarity and notoriety. Of the two, which should cause more concern has now just become a matter of insignificance. The hilarity because between Trump and his administration there seems to be this stubbornness to outdo the previous press conference’s stupidity. Misplaced facts and statements, wrong enemies quoted, aircraft carriers sailing in the wrong direction, a piece of cake being tastier than a nuclear situation and also the small matter of discussing his election victory while the rest of the world is talking about Macron and Le Pen. Notoriety, because no democratic government should be led by a man hell bent on making the headlines instead of making sound policy. This is the government Twitter imagined. In every way from the false threats to picking the wrong battles and statements of intent that included a monster bomb with no follow up and the unsuccessful attempt at repealing a healthcare act that even his fellow Republicans couldn’t get themselves to veto after spending years tearing it apart, shows a sense of despondency and delinquency that are bordering on the ‘hellishly scary’.
But let’s get to the part that truly defines a government, everywhere in the world. It really is in the statements they make, the positions they take and how effectively they communicate them. In recent times, shows on the running of an American government have taken on so many genres from comedy to drama to thrillers to House of Cards (yes that’s a genre now) that we have become rather well versed in how the American political machines work, possibly better than our own. As a keen observer and binge watcher (guilty!) of these shows, I must confess that besides the strong protagonists, the ones who seem to have caught my attention in a couple of the shows is the White House Press Secretary. This role is currently being played by Sean Spicer in the real version of ‘Trump’s White House’. That’s the show that plays out in reality but has more fiction shitting all over you than any other show dare can. Two shows that strike me immediately for stellar Press Secretaries are ‘Veep’ and ‘Designated Survivor’. In ‘Veep’, Mike McLintock’s ever bungling and misfiring character is that comical mess that is generally found on the supporting cast of a comedy film. That character that can do no right but is just so embarrassingly clumsy in his execution and gets away with it just because his stupidity is strangely adorable. As a part of a bungling President and her entourage, Mike plays out what the audience expects of pretty much every member of her staff. The President slips from one controversy into another and Mike is expected to keep the Press at bay but invariably ensures she falls face first into a much larger controversy with his moronic Press statements. Sounds familiar?
Then there is Seth Wright from ‘Designated Survivor’. In what is an idealistic show of a man on whom the presidency is forced upon after tragedy leads to the death of the entire government, Seth plays out the role of the righteous Press Secretary, with a boss who is holier than thou and his Papa. While President Kirkman is the epitome of all things right, Seth isn’t blinded by his boss’ principles and has the streets about him, but will only allow the good to come through. He’s sharp with the press, quick with the repartees and always has his President’s back. He is in many ways what you expect ideally of this role, of this person and possibly of the institution. But through the eyes of these two fictional men, you begin to ponder the true purpose of what modern governments are really in the business of.
Governance, policy making, defending rights and the people, some more jazz and all the rest. Yes that is what governments are elected to do. For every Erdogan amending the constitution to remain in power there is a Trudeau balancing the race scales in his cabinet. For every dis-unification loving Theresa May, there is Macron fighting hard to keep Europe together and liberal. There is even a Modi, blindly trusting in his economic push for every Xi polluting and denying the world a better future for the sake of his people’s present. There are possibly no rights, surely many wrongs and a disgusting amount of misinformation out there. And that is where, these men, the men who bring us our leaders points of view become the key to a free society. In no time in our history as citizens, voters and people of our nations have we ever had access to this much information about our elected governments. Our elder siblings, our parents and generations before that grew up in a time when the news was reported on a few news channels and reported fact and very little opinion. Today with social media breaking the news and your colleague having an opinion and closing the debate before the evening news, you are wrestling with facts and decidedly altering the course of decision making, every minute of the day.
Every government will always truly be judged by its people with the mentions of the government’s success that get to them. These mentions will then be broken down into fact and fiction with the lines constantly blurring between the two and then finally processed and digested in 140 character stories, long form opinion pieces devoured over days, TV news debates, GIF and animation heavy videos for the dummies, comedians tearing apart these mentions with humour and converting it into this digestible piece of news and finally those long conversations at work which will invariably be a mashup of all of the above. Your news is your judgement today, your government is the sum of all the good and bad you consume of it, your leader isn’t what he does but how he positions himself and your progress isn’t what you experience but what your peers ask you to accept. Your news isn’t informing you, it isn’t even misinforming you, it is just currently, misdirecting you. Not from the bigger issues or the lesser known ones or the ones that truly matter. It’s just taking you on a ride with no destination in mind, no conclusions to be drawn and no hard facts to be presented in whole. You are right in between an elaborate Press conference where the questions are being fired, answers are being given, but no sense is truly being made. And guess what, you aren’t the reporter or viewer anymore, each of us are now either Mike or Seth or Sean.
The real question is, who do you want to be?