Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cosmetic Changes

(Published in The Bengal Post, 18th Jan 2011)

I absolutely love the beginning of a new year because there’s so much hope in the air. Not just for us personally, but for the country’s future as well. I’m sure politicians make New Year resolutions as well – some of them do reveal human traits, after all. I mean, look at all the lovely things they steal from us to give to their beloved children – that’s solid proof that at least they care deeply for a few citizens!

We’re still in January and I’m delighted to report that changes have already started happening. Take a look at just a few:

The RSS has virtuously declared that it will give up leather belts for synthetic ones to hold up their baggy khaki shorts. Sources say that the change follows reservations expressed by members of a certain community about the use of leather as it is made from animal skin. I, however, have always been suspicious of the fundamentalist RSS and its dubious motives. No matter what they may say, I firmly believe that the real reason for the belt switchover is to accommodate a loyal foot soldier’s expanding girth. BJP President Nitin Gadkari makes Santa Claus look pathetically under-nourished - only super-resilient elastic belts will do for him.

And while on the subject of weight, Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor may not be India’s Size Zero poster girl anymore. Rumour has it that Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee is running for the West Bengal assembly elections on a treadmill! All that huffing and puffing may well blow the ruling party away. I don’t blame her for wanting to look her best when she finally wrests power from the Left – so many wonderful photo opportunities as cover girl! I do have a few words of caution, though: I urge her to give up that strict diet she’s on or else she’ll be scowling furiously in all her photographs – hey, I know I would if I had to give up delicious mishti doi and fish. Now, if only she’d give the Indian Railways (a portfolio she aggressively fought to acquire in her capacity as union minister and thereafter studiously ignored) a badly needed makeover as well. For starters she could consult the same numerologist who advised her to add an extra alphabet to her name – yes, she now spells her name as Mamataa, sigh. Frankly, I don’t care if she re-names it Indiaan Railways or Indian Raailways as long as it runs without glitches! Bad spellings are more tolerable and forgivable than bad accidents.

And still on the subject of weight: India is increasingly becoming a desirable nation. Not just because it’s well on its way to becoming a heavyweight in the international political arena. With food prices shooting far north, we’re a nation of featherweights too. Indians today are as slender as wands with the freshest of fresh breath, untainted by stinky expensive onions and garlic – in short, we’re more attractive than we’ve ever been. Hollywood, here we come! And while I know that a lot of people secretly suspect that BJP president Nitin Gadkari has been hoarding our food supplies in his tummy (and who knows, they may be right), I think the ruling UPA can be equally blamed for this sorry state of affairs.

And finally, on to a ray of hope in the big bad world of politics. Political parties looking for fresh non-dynastic blood have reason to rejoice: a new talent has been recently discovered in India. A charming young man who goes by the name of Shivraj Puri swindled about 300 crore rupees from corporate houses and individuals while working as a relationship manager with Citibank. Pretty impressive, huh? He may eventually wind up in jail and I feel terribly sorry for him because the poor chap missed his true vocation in life. After he serves his sentence, I’m dead certain that the Congress, BJP and DMK will make desperate attempts to woo him. He may as well join one of them – that way he can continue to brazenly steal money from the public without fear of being banished to jail ever again. In my humble opinion, however, the BJP is his best option – they don’t even bother to sack corrupt party members. Take Karnataka Chief Minister Yeddyurappa, for example. He’s still there, smiling widely and cheerfully lining his deep pockets despite the shocking land scam expose.

Cheers to Colaba!

(Published in The Bengal Post, 16th Jan 2011)

“What, no Kalyani Black Label? Bah! ” Those six little words were expostulated frequently during my early days in Bombay in the mid 1980s. Hey, I was a good Calcutta girl – you can’t blame me for desperately missing my favourite brand of beer! And god knows I needed my beer badly because I was in a new city, struggling to come to grips with my first job in advertising as a copywriter – it didn’t help that I had a boss who just about barely managed to conceal her canine parentage. Admittedly, sometimes I did toy with the idea of telling her to roll over and play dead, and then I’d remember that the most important thing I wanted in life was the ability to pay my way through it. Grim realisations like that demand chilled beer. Lots of it!

It was just as well then that I was staying at a hostel in lively Colaba, within spitting distance of fine and not so fine establishments that serve alcohol. Oddly enough, I never took to the iconic Cafe Mondegar. It was and still is a cool place to hang out - but somehow I never connected with its soul. Leopold was pleasant but way too Tower of Babel touristy with a shabby hippie hangover. Besides it was a tad too expensive for trainees valiantly attempting to live it up on a shoe-string budget. Fortunately, my fellow impecunious hostelites had already cased the joint thoroughly and offered to introduce me to a watering hole in the neighbourhood with a seriously uncool name: Gokul.

“God no!” I protested vehemently, wrinkling my nose. “That sounds like a disgustingly wholesome place with the aroma of freshly churned butter and lassi wafting in the air. And I bet the tables are littered with ‘Get thee to the temple young lady!’ Hare Krishna pamphlets. Let’s go someplace else!” But I’m really really, really, really glad that they dug in their heels and refused give in to my petulant demand, because Gokul aka Gokul’s aka Gokes became one of my favourite haunts in the city.

I fell in love with Gokul at first sight! It looked like the sort of place where disgruntled clerical staff knocked back a quarter to forget their nit-picky superiors at work. It was a dank, dark, windowless basement thick with cigarette smoke that hung in the air like dense monsoon clouds. And when the clouds occasionally parted (very, very occasionally) you got a glimpse of yes, disgruntled clerical staff and, hold on – trendy young professionals mainly from the media as well! This to me was the real charm of some of Bombay’s popular and delightfully unpretentious bars and restaurants in the 1980s – clientele from almost all sections of society sat cheek by jowl. Robespierre, the mastermind of the French revolution, would have enthusiastically nodded his approval.

I didn’t faint although the stench of dead rat overpowered the reek of stale spirits. Hey, I was made of sterner stuff. After three years of stoically consuming what I strongly suspected were rat cutlets at the Presidency College canteen, the mere whiff of rat was nothing! And while on the subject of rat cutlets, the food at Gokul was pretty decent. Particularly if you enjoyed seafood. However, you didn’t have to order a morsel to feel as stuffed as a plump Thanksgiving turkey at the end of the evening. The snacks were on the house – and were promptly replaced with even more snacks and even more snacks and gosh, even more snacks till you paid the bill - the rickety tables groaned under the weight of chipped quarter plates. Gokul was a freeloader’s paradise – which is why it was the preferred dating destination of stingy mingy boys who cared more about money than love sweet love!

I have to confess though that I almost had a minor heart attack when, after my second beer, I discovered that Gokul was run by die-hard male chauvinists - there was no restroom for ladies on the premises! “No big deal,” my fellow hostelites informed me with smirks, “we powder our noses and touch up the lip-gloss in a far more hygienic and luxurious place than this grungy establishment can ever dream of offering.” And off we lurched to the Taj Mahal Hotel, a two minute walk from Gokul, with instructions to the amused waiters to keep our table. We received warm, conspiratorial smiles from the female staff at the Taj lobby – those were innocent terror-free days then, and they probably frequented Gokul on their nights off as well! Besides they were used to playing host to hostelites – every other night about ten of us would visit the Shamiana (the old 24-hour coffee shop) and split a pot of hot chocolate between us. It worked out to about a tablespoon and a half each. Ambrosia!

Many giggly walks to the Taj and back were made that night – it felt wonderful to inhale unpolluted sea breeze instead of cigarette smoke every now and then. And all agreed that it was a super way to keep beer calories down! But perhaps the most marvellous surprise of the evening was the bill. I gasped at how little it was. I was a regular thereafter (but of course) and spent many happy evenings unwinding there, particularly during the last week of every month while pining for pay day. On our more obstreperous nights, some of us would gang up and accost the mild-mannered manager with a stern lecture on the necessity of equal restroom rights with the fervour of Emily Pankhurst – the fiery leader of the women's suffragette movement. It is with deep regret that I inform you that he remained unmoved. He’d blush deeply though, to our immense satisfaction. We were only kidding, of course – we really enjoyed those walks to the Taj!

And then, in the early 1990s, pub culture took the city by storm. I shifted my loyalties to other watering holes in Colaba, like Tavern at Fariyas hotel and Leopold (the first floor was converted to a pub and the last of the hippies never went there despite the fact that the DJ occasionally played Woodstock classics). Call me fickle but hell, nothing beats the combination of hard liquor and hard rock! Many years have passed since and I haven’t been back to Gokul yet. You know what, I probably won’t ever. Only because my memories of my wild times there are so terrific, I want nothing to so much as gently ruffle them. Besides, I hear that they’ve got a restroom for ladies now and they’ve put on a few airs and graces as well. Now that’s what I call vandalism!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In search of Intelligence

By Rupa Gulab
(Published in Bengal Post, 4th Jan 2011)

I enter 2011 with the startling discovery that our Intelligence officials are smarter than I thought. They’ve recently issued a nation-wide terror alert – a clever way of disguising the fact that they have absolutely no idea where on earth terrorists may strike, and in the unfortunate event of an attack they can look superior and gravely say, “I told you so!” And perhaps even get a fat bonus for their superior sleuthing skills in the process, bah!

Every other day we read in the papers about how the USA, UK and other European countries successfully foil terrorist plots, and my frustration deepens. All we get (and that too, only occasionally) are sketches or photographs of a few Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who have reportedly sneaked into our country and are never found! Not astonishing, because the sketches are vague and the photographs faded beyond recognition. Even if posters were nailed on every tree in India and pasted on every available inch of wall-space (which they’re not), we’d never recognise them. Not even if they sat directly across us at a dining table and asked us to pass the salt.

I guess that means we all have to look out for each other. So here’s how we can do it:
1. Don’t let security personnel flatter you: Never foolishly assume that they just about barely peer into your bags at banks, malls, cinema halls etc because you look beautifully innocent like a Botticelli angel. Most of the security guards are bone lazy, period! And don’t bother to feel sorry for them because their jobs are so tedious – proof-reading is as much a pain in the neck, okay? What has to be done must be done well! I do my little bit for the security of the nation by threatening to report slackers to management. As a result, my handbag is checked so thoroughly I sometimes find long lost treasures in its crevices like tiny squares of refreshing tic tac. Rest assured after you scrape off the lint, they taste pretty good.

2. Don’t feel embarrassed about reporting suspicious objects: I have on one occasion loudly (and sharply) remarked on an abandoned backpack while refuelling at a popcorn counter during the interval of a Harry Potter film. A young man guiltily picked it up and, scorched by the fiery glare in my narrowed eyes, hastily shrank into the crowd. My husband disappeared before you could say ‘Poof!’ as well – clearly embarrassment is as effective as Potter’s invisibility cloak. He continued to pretend he didn’t know me till we left the cinema hall later. But hey who knows, I may have saved many lives that day!

3. Choose your restaurants wisely: After the horrible Mumbai carnage I have learnt that terrorists keep changing their tactics, and that it’s best to stay in constant touch with family and friends because you never know when you will be saying your last goodbyes. I have also learnt to appreciate dining establishments that sport opaque table-cloths that gently swish and sweep the floors. Very, very important - just in case you need to duck and hide.

4. Always remember that terrorists come in all colours and accents: Consider David Coleman Headley, one of the conspirators in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. He didn’t look remotely like Osama bin Laden. His accent was a Donald Duck-ish drawl. His ‘United Colours of Benetton’ DNA never reflected on the outside. Can you blame the people he became chummy with in Mumbai for believing that he was as American as apple pie? Frankly the only thing stood out about him was the colour of his eyes – one blue and one brown, sort of like a cat. I really wish America had warned us about him before the attacks but evidently they don’t love us enough. However, even if they had, and a photograph had been helpfully inserted in the papers, it probably would have been in black & white, tsk – I fear there is no intelligent life out there! Look, I’m not saying don’t become friends with strangers, but do use Google search frequently. It’s not foolproof, but it may make your antennae twitch.

5. Think like a terrorist: To defeat your enemies, you’ve got to think like them. Oh my god, on second thought, please don’t! It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pakistan-sponsored terrorists are hopelessly insane.