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Wednesday, May 28, 2008


"Some men are born mediocre,some achieve mediocrity and some have mediocrity thrust upon them...."
This seemingly inoccuous statement could have had serious consequences for me a few days back.After a very enjoyable afternoon out with friends,I was in search for an auto-rickshaw ride back home.As I was to find out soon......Boy,did I get one!

A quick rain-check on the status of auto-rickshaw drivers in Ranchi ,for the reader-Not to be confused with the lowly,down-on-luck,wretched creatures to be found on the streets of bigger cities , Ranchi auto drivers are massive chain-smoking,gutka-chewing,cop-baiting Stallones.

They have tremendous faith in both themselves and their machines-angular,lean,diesel-guzzling behemoths,which give off a solid,reliable thunk-thunk sound as they go about their daily rounds of the city,like a benevolent monarch checking on his subjects.

It was a hot,muggy evening,the kind that draws out your sweat glands teasingly,and leave you often with a single,immensely annoying trickle of sweat down your back.I glanced inside the auto which was almost filled.I thought I could squeeze in myself towards the front of the vehicle,and presently I did so.I sat there,two other people with me minus the driver himself,and waited.And waited.And waited.

It seems that the driver was not to be appeased until the auto had broken every known record(if such a record existed) of people crammed in an auto.No amount of pleas on our part could move him to stop looking for potential customers and start his hallowed vehicle.Finally the chap on my side decided that enough was bloody well enough.

"Agar nahi chaalu kiye to jaa rahen hain hum........", he insisted, in what he obviously thought was an ominous,scary voice,as if pronouncing the death sentence to the driver.The driver barely glanced behind his back,continued his calls of "Aaiye aaiye....Harmu colony,Argora road...." and somewhere in between managed these words-"To hum kab roke hain aapko....jaaiyega to jaaiye....sasur ka gaadi nahi hai aapka...."

I was speechless.As the driver stood there smoking a beedi,in his carefully careless way,I sensed all the swagger of a Viv Richards striding out to bat against hapless novice bowlers,a Jimi Hendrix strutting his stuff in front of the swooning millions,a Kasparov secure in the knowledge of his own genius..........

Meanwhile the driver spit out red betel-juice on the road(he had discarded the beedi in the favour of a paan now),an elderly woman stumbled and stuttered her way towards the backseat of the auto.Now the auto was so full, that stray hands and legs were beginning to poke their way out of the open sides of the vehicle,like overgrown diseased branches of some massive banyan tree.Half of my own body was now at the mercy of the elements.

It was then that the driver,I'll call him Rambo,was finally satisfied.So,with four in the front,minus Rambo himself,and God knows how many people in the back,we set forth on our voyage,as intrepid as Columbus himself.

Picture this,if you can.There was so little space in the front,that Rambo was nowhere near facing the steering.Instead he was near the edge of the vehicle,his legs pinned to one side,his upper half contorted in an angle of 45 degrees or even less,to reach and control the steering.And don't even get me started about my own discomfort.It shall suffice to say that I was just about conscious of my limbs,and I was hanging on for dear life.

I have never been on a real rollercoaster,but the mixture of thrill and fear is, I have been told,somewhat similar.It was in apparent disdain for traffic laws and the laws of physics alike that our merry ride was thundering along.

Since Rambo was not directly in front of the steering,he had only his wrists,instead of the whole arms,to provide direction to the wheel.So,the auto was turning sharply and rather abruptly,sometimes avoiding unsuspecting passers-by by inches.Those magical wrists,with all the artistry of a Tendulkar flicking off his pads,or that of a Federer imparting a beguiling top-spin on his forehand.............. they were all that stood between us and disaster.

Yes,the game was well and truly on.After a particularly close shave with a motorcycle rushing directly towards us,he turned towards me,and grinned from ear to ear,showing off his tobacco-stained molars,as if to say,"Close shave,eh?" I tried not to betray the fear on my face as I meekly told him to slow down,a motion seconded by-
1) A young mother clutching her infant daughter who was getting increasingly shrill with each turn.

2)An excitable old lady who presently let forth a stream of Bhojpuri abuse which would,I am sure,have put her grandchildren to shame.

In the face of such strong and varied opposition,even the mighty Rambo had to bite the bullet.He slowed down,and finally a couple of passengers skipped off the auto,grateful to have reached their destination alive and well.This meant that life was a lot easier for both Rambo and myself.He now had more space to manouevre and as for me,well......the circulation returned to my blood-starved legs.

When it was time,finally,to step off the auto,I heaved a huge sigh of relief,having seen tantalising and unescapable proof of my mortality.I looked at the ground beneath my feet,like a pilgrim setting foot in Mecca for the first time.My spirits lifted considerably,I reached in my pocket to hand Rambo the fare,which he accepted with a good-natured grin,which was either a sign of his beastly sarcasm....or his deep-rooted psychosis.

Either way,he left me with this parting thought-
"Bhaiyaji,sambhal ke...aajkal to paidal log ka bhi koi theek nahi hai......hamri gaadi ka kya karen..."

Saturday, May 17, 2008


(This week I read an absolutely smashing, genre-defying novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" by the American author Kurt Vonnegut.Because the basic premise of the book is the Dresden bombing by the Allied Forces towards the end of World War II,comparisons with another iconic war novel "Catch-22" are inevitable.I read it last year in a somewhat hurried fashion,but after reading "Slaughterhouse-Five",I re-read "Catch-22".)

Joseph Heller's "Catch-22"
For a novel which was initially rejected by several publishers,"Catch-22" rose to dizzying heights.Not only was it an international bestseller(spawning the eponymous phrase along the way),it went on to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century.
The novel traces the trials and tribulations of Captain John Yossarian,a fighter pilot who is recuperating from injuries sustained during a mission.He soon realises that there is no such thing as free will when it came to fighting a war.The novel is peopled with eccentric and unforgettable characters like Doc Daneeka,General Peckem,Milo Minderbinder and the impossibly named Major Major Major.

Yossarian's frighteningly human fear for his life and his struggle to remain sane in a world quickly degenerating into insanity is nicely juxtaposed against the barbaric and inhuman excesses of war.What comes out is a pitch-perfect black comedy,scathing in its critique while remaining non-judgmental towards the characters.This is the famous passage from the book where Yossarian realises that he has to fly more missions,no matter what.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."That's some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian observed."It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five"
This book is perhaps impossible to pigeonhole in a particular genre.Nothing like this had ever been written before,and even today it occupies a unique and important place in the canon of world literature.It combines elements of science fiction,metafiction,hysterical realism and fatalism to construct a frenzied,pulasting narrative that takes frequent leaps of space and time.
Billy Pilgrim,the central character,(some critics think that this name has been deliberately chosen as a riposte to Bunyan's medieval Christian text "The Pilgrim's Progress") has become "unstuck in time", that is,he views his past,present and future all at once,and at any given point of "conventional" time lives any moment of his life.
His experiences as a prisoner of war during the closing months of World War II form the crux of the novel.Vonnegut's distinctive writing style,consisting of short,sharp sentences ensures that short passages in the novel often have more meat to them than whole novels by lesser writers.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement on the part of the writer,and surely Vonnegut's enduring classic will continue to enthrall generations to come,while striking a cautionary note against the terrors of war. (I have these two amazing novels on my laptop as e-books right just e-mail me if you want to sample them!)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


(Returning to book reviews after a while...... )

Raj Kamal Jha's "If You Are Afraid Of Heights"
Raj Kamal Jha is one of the most original and unusual voices in Indian literature.His fiction is hypnotic,conspiratorial,always pushing the line between reality and fantasy.According to the author himself,his day job as an executive editor at The Indian Express presented him with " a story-pool lapping away".

"If You Are Afraid Of Heights" is about three seemingly separate stories-told by different narrators. A young man falling in love with a mysterious stranger who rescues him from a deadly accident,a reporter investigating the brutal rape and murder of a child,and a little girl worrying for her parents after a weird suicide epidemic.

Recurring symbols,motifs and turns of phrase seem to suggest a connection between the three.For such a fable-like tale,it is fitting that Jha is mostly vague about the location or the chronology of the events taking place in the novel.He also employs many of the standard devices of magic realism to underscore the dream-like nature of the book,and also to overcome the frequent barriers of space and time that crop up.

The book is a bit taxing on the reader,plot-wise, but Jha makes up for it with some luminous prose,displaying wry,often bleak humour in unexpected places.He also has a gift for imagery,descriptive passages that grab you by the scruff of your neck.These were on display in his debut novel "The Blue Bedspread",too, an effort which won him a Commonwealth award and plenty of critical acclaim.

I am a confirmed fan of his writing,(something which has nothing to do with the fact that he is an alumnus of my college IIT Kharagpur),not just his fiction but also his columns at The Indian Express.I would strongly recommend the following two articles written by him-

1.About the engineer Satyendra Dubey,who was murdered for blowing the whistle about the rampant corruption in the central government's Golden Quadrilateral project.
2.About the Gujarat riots

You can also check out a really cool interview of Jha here

Thursday, May 1, 2008


(I return to these pages after a month,but rest assured..... my vacation has feels good to be back!)

It's a wonderful experience to rediscover the neighbourhood you grew up in....and sometimes a painful one,too.Those well-beloved lanes ,secret hideouts....."addas" where you endlessly plotted and planned future escapades with your gang.....

Everything seemed so right then,there was something in those places that was reassuring. You wouldn't give them a second thought.And yet,when you see them changed beyond recognition,it seems a part of your past has been cruelly snatched away from the passing of an old friend.

In the past 3 years,I seldom had time to check on my neighbourhood........indeed the last one year I had been away to college,and before that.....way too busy with the endless cycle of books,studies,school and tuitions.

So when I took a nice long stroll on my first day of vacation....I was in for a rude shock.

Gone was the sleepy old bunch of houses that used to greet its place was a conglomerate of cramped,soulless high-rise buildings eating up every nook and cranny that we,as kids,had endlessly explored.

Gone were the maidans in which we spent hours and hours.....playing every imaginable sport(and then inventing some of our own! )

The faces seemed familiar,yet alien to me. Kids I had seen playing with tennis balls now sported highlighted locks,leather jackets and tons of attitude.The carefree chatter of children had been replaced by the annoyingrumble of screaming motorcycles,most of them driven by kids barely into their teens(and by the look of it,already inspired by Lewis Hamilton).

I don't know if I am getting too paranoid about the inevitable passage of time,but their was something undeniably sad about this sudden "end to innocence",so to speak.There was nothing to be done,so I quietly walked back home,to think about the good old days.......

Here's to a golden summer for all of you......