Saturday, October 29, 2011

A chance meeting with Moinuddin in Bangalore

My Bangalore trips never fail to throw up surprises. This time, a couple of weeks ago, the weather was of course a surprise – it was just too warm for Bangalore in October – but it was a drive in an autorickshaw that produced the real one. Sometime late afternoon one day, I had enough of walking down St Mark’s and Brigade Roads, after having had done a fair bit of shopping, spending an hour inside a store looking for DVDs of old Hindi films I wanted. My legs were aching and as I stood there on the sidewalk wondering what to do, there came along an auto; the driver stopped and looked at me quizzically. So I got in and decided to head to where I was staying.

When I’m in the mood I like traveling by auto. You can sit inside and see the world go by and, more than that, if the driver is the friendly sort, you can always start a conversation and get to know a thing or two. We were chatting about the weather and how the Garden City had lost hundreds of its trees to ‘development’ when suddenly vroom! a sports bike roared past. We were on a bridge, a flyover, where overtaking was not on, but here was a youngster breaking all rules, almost like a recalcitrant child. As I perked up to spot the last of him and the monstrous vehicle, the auto driver sighed in horror. “Why does he have to do this,” he said. “You must drive, much like you eat. Don’t you like to savour and relish the food you eat? Driving is like that – you must inhale the air, get a whiff of the smells and not be in a tearing hurry. Just like you must eat slowly for food to digest well, you must drive slowly to experience the pleasure of driving,” he added.

I couldn’t agree with him more. As my eyes strayed to the meter, I was aghast. The fare showed Rs 65 while we had hardly traveled five or six kilometers. Now I’m not good at handling such situations. So I decided to stay quiet and hoped he would get me home fast. And I stopped engaging him in conversation.

When my destination arrived, I produced a 100-rupee note from my wallet and thought I’d say there was something wrong with the meter, which showed Rs 80. The driver leaned back to have a look at the fare on the meter. He smiled, said “sorry”, and went on to explain how he suddenly realised he had not restarted the meter once I had got in, how he had been wanting to tell me that all along, how he wondered whether I would take umbrage, and how, like me, he too was waiting to get quickly to the destination! I was too flabbergasted to speak. He then asked me how much I would have paid in the normal course. Before I could say anything, he nudged a 50-rupee note into my hand.

“Thank you for your gesture, what’s your name,” I asked. “Moinuddin,” he said triumphantly, his left hand raised in half-salute, his way of saying goodbye. He reversed the auto effortlessly and turned the corner. I waited there a while and wondered whether I would ever meet him again.

No picture of Moinuddin or his auto here, but of colourful Brigade Road and its surroundings.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Heritage store in Chennai shows the way

There is always a lot to forward to in the second half of the year, especially after August when the weather tends to get a bit pleasant (where is the autumn of old!), the sun puts on a milder hue, and the curtains draw open for the festive season. The celebrations peak around Diwali; after the Festival of Lights, there’s only Christmas and New Year to look forward to, and of course winter in some parts of India (even the winter of old seems to have disappeared but for many, anything is better than the oppression of the heat).

Many years ago when I was in PR, I was taken on a tour of some of the major retail stores in Madras to witness firsthand the kind of shopping spree during Diwali. Many of the shop owners told me that the sales during the week preceding Diwali accounted for more than 50 per cent of the total sales during the year. I found it hard to believe then, but that seems to be the truth. For most families, purchasing something or the other for Diwali is a must, and some save up through the year to splurge during Diwali, to make the best bargains possible or to benefit from the best discounts on offer.

Retail stores and chains try their best to outdo each other to attract the customer. In Chennai for instance, the number of footfalls in stores such as Nalli’s, Pothys and Saravana Stores is to be seen to be believed. It’s almost like getting onto or out of trains in Mumbai – the surge of the crowd pushes you inside and out.

Less than two weeks ago I was in Anna Nagar, at the new retail store opened by Poppat Jamal & Sons. The name is well known – the enterprise was established in old Madras, in George Town 110 years ago before it moved to prime property on Mount Road. That’s a store worth visiting for anybody interested in buying high-quality crockery, cutlery, glassware and lighting products. You could call it a heritage block.

Those who run such stores are often happy carrying on as they have been all along, but in a changing world the younger generation who are at the helm in many of them have begun to realise that if business has to grow expansion is necessary. So, the Poppat Jamal outlet in Anna Nagar brings a cherished brand to another part of the city, in this case one of the prime areas that is a retailer’s delight (Mount Road, ever since the four-lane traffic system came into force, has lost its sheen and pride of place as a marketing hub).

There are three floors here, and you can, if you want, leisurely spend a few hours looking at the various products on display. The ambience is modern, the lighting just right, and the area devoid of any clutter. Care has even been taken to provide a history of the company (at the entrance). And, of course, it’s all air-conditioned. Am not quite sure whether the main Mount Road outlet has all these things going for it. Anyway, what more would a customer want! Yes, quality and the right price. The store has earned repute for the first; and what better time than Diwali to offer the ‘right price’, which in other words is discounting 15-20 per cent?

I was tempted to talk to the young owner, probably the fourth or fifth descendant of the man who started it all – Poppat Jamal. But things were going slow at the cash counter, with the computers playing up. And he was in the thick of things. It’s always interesting to talk to youngsters and understand their views on taking such businesses forward.

Pictures show the entrance to one of the floors; attractive glass dispensers on display; customers engaged in the magic of touch and feel as bright red balloons overlook; and the elegant reception area.

Friday, October 21, 2011

When a 7-year-old girl showed her love for reading books

I love being in the midst of children. No matter whether you are tired, upset about something, or down and out, children make you come alive. It’s their innocence, curiosity for small things, witty repartee, questions (unending, sometimes) and sheer common sense that puts to shame an adult’s intellect that endear them to one and all. A few days ago, I got invited to a birthday party. She was as pretty as they come, the daughter of my friend’s sister who has spent many years in the US of A and who now likes it in China. I had never seen the little girl before and I was keen, especially after she had come home when I wasn’t around and had reportedly gone chattering non-stop to the dozen.

At the evening party, however, it took me a while to find her in the rush of family, friends, relatives and visitors. And then I spotted her, standing right in front of her birthday cake, sparkling eyes aglow, focused on the candles, on the birthday cake and an array of specially made cup cakes (they seem to be the flavour of the season, saw some of them on Master Chef). She was undoubtedly excited; perhaps overawed by the occasion or perhaps a tad shy, knowing that she was the centre of attraction.

Later, of course, she blew out the candles, cut the cake with a little help from her mother as her father proudly took pictures of her, and as her older brother watched fascinated from the sidelines. Well, girls are always so special, aren’t they? Formalities over, she quickly bounded in and out of the bedroom before settling down to sample the cakes and all the rest that was on offer.

Well, that quite wasn’t the all of it. While the adults tried to make sweet conversation (I failed miserably) after they had gorged on samosas and cakes and had their fill, I suddenly noticed the birthday girl seated in an expansive chair in the drawing room, surrounded by adults but oblivious of what or who was around her, her eyes riveted to the pages of a storybook she had received as a birthday gift. Her friends were playing in the bedroom.

In a world where they say the printed newspaper is dying and where children do not have the time or the inclination to read, I was stumped to see this little girl proving all the doomsayers wrong. What a heartwarming sight she made! I wished then that the other children who were there and many others would be inspired by her. I truly was, and I really felt having missed out in recent years all the reading I had done during my school and college days. For me, it was the sight that made the evening. Not the birthday cake, or the exquisitely made cup cakes, bless their makers.

Well, you charmed somebody almost ten times your age, Lakshmi! May the reading habit continue and perhaps you may graduate to become a writer some day. Her brother Pranav is a prolific reader, somebody whispered into my ear at the end. May be, she had picked up the habit from him. Full credit to him for that. But on her birthday, it was Lakshmi who floored this writer.

Pictures show Lakshmi blowing out the last two stubborn candles; immersed in what she probably loves doing best; and before her birthday cake(s) wondering what to do next.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Yes, Shuvo Bijoya, Pratik... and thank you for 'reconnecting''

Some years ago, while on an assignment in Calcutta, I met a group of youngsters bubbling with energy, most of whom I had recruited to handle the formal processing of US visas (the company that had deputed me was then authorised to process visas for the US Consulate General in three Indian cities, including Calcutta). One day, I received news while at work in the newly furnished office that one of the youngsters had met with an accident. There were too many things driving me up the wall, and now with the accident, I was left wondering why there had to be so many twists to the assignment.

That youngster was Pratik Tarafdar; he was unconscious when a senior office colleague and I rushed to the General Hospital where somebody had ‘deposited’ him. We decided to shift him to a private hospital and getting him discharged took time, which included tipping all and sundry (we hadn’t heard of Anna Hazare’s voice then!). Until we managed to wheel him into a private hospital, which took hours and where a known doctor immediately took charge, Pratik remained unconscious and I had given up all hope. Miraculously though, he survived. And much later, after I had returned to Madras, he continued to keep in touch. He had never forgotten that accident and the efforts we took to give him a new lease of life.

Well, Pratik, I understand, is doing well these days in good old Cal. And at a time when I keep blurting out nostalgia, I receive an email that shows what Durga Puja means to the average Bengali, how times have really not changed in Calcutta, and how, sadly, the romance of letter writing has almost disappeared. Here it is, unedited (he seems to be a fairly good writer, much better than some of the reporters who send me stuff):

Exchanging Bijoya greetings are no more the "only for Bengalis" affair. Globalization has successfully made Ma Durga cosmopolitan. My friends who love Bangla more than many things, be rest assured about my affection and respect for my mother tongue. I still say "Uffff" or now famous "Ishhhh" instead of "Ouch" or "Alas" :) The mail is written in English to reach out to my friends who don't understand Bangla but truly adore and admire the spirit of Durga Pujas.

Let me wish you and your loved ones 'Shuvo Bijoya' and pray that you could steal some time from your super busy schedule to stay connected to people who matter to your happiness, who bring smile on your face when you feel low.

Of late we have mastered the art of reducing the length of our messages to 160 and then finally to 140 characters but do we always succeed to pour our heart into it? I can't, as a matter of fact and hence is this slightly longish mail. Can't help as I love it.

Seldom we wish to share our thoughts these days and restrict it to micro blogging and clicking on the 'Like' buttons. Does anyone write personalised letters any more? I remember my Baba used to buy inland letters and post cards in bulk before the Pujas and Bengali new years. All four of us - Ma, Baba, Dada and I used to write to all the relatives and wish them. It used to be a fun-filled affair - writing them and receiving from others. Now we live in "real time". It has certainly changed many things for better along with ruining certain simple yet special pleasures of life.

Hope you had a great time enjoying the holidays. No work, good food and latest gossips about the friends and acquaintances must have kept you in good spirit and humor. What about the pandal hopping? Did you have shoe bite? It would be interesting to know what special did you do this puja that you would cherish for many years.

Thanks to the weather that it didn't spoil the mood of the festivity. I missed the typical puja weather to a great extent this time. The fragrance of 'Shiuli' and the beauty of dew drops were found only in the SMSs and updates. They have rather started making their presence felt now, right after the pujas. For me it was purely family time. Lazy days spent with mother, brother and wife. Met few friends after ages just at the onset of the pujas and realised how radically the topics of our discussion change with the passage of time. The hot topics of our younger days are not warm any more.

I find Durga Puja to be probably the greatest festival of all available on earth. One event, generates so many opportunities of work. Long live Durga Puja. Long live the tradition of touching base on Bijoya Dashami. I love this sweet excuse to re-connect.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Calcutta, I miss you!

The place where you are born and grow up is always special. Ask people, and nine out of ten are likely to say the same thing – no matter whether it is Asansol or Ranchi, Kanpur or Raipur, Anand or Baroda, Thiruvananthapuram or Hampi. For over centuries many people have chosen to remain in their place of birth, content to work and raise a family there, and retire and die in the hometown. Even those who ventured to distant lands have felt the urge to return and spend retired life where they grew up and studied, had friends and felt completely at home.

Of course, nowadays, after the great IT boom and scores of Indian youngsters having settled abroad – most of them in the developed world of Australia, the UK and the US, many in West Asia – chances of that much-looked-forward-to return is not on the cards, may never be. But out of that lot I’m sure there will still be some who would want to get back to a place they call home.

I was born and brought up in Calcutta and during my growing years, the city, although no longer the country’s capital, still had a lot going for it. If Bombay scored with its commercial enterprise, sense of discipline and the romantic charm that Hindu films and film stars offered, Calcutta always exuded warmth and care, where old-world charm never threatened to let go and leave. And that is how the city is even today, with the same laidback atmosphere and the Bangali Bhadrolok’s love for chai and Capstan filter remaining intact, as much as the boudi's penchant for non-stop shopping in Gariahat, the schoolchild's love for Salim's ice cream, and the college-goer's fascination for Park Street and the gorgeous girls of Loreto (the college was founded by the way in 1912).

To a casual visitor, Calcutta might sometimes almost seem like being at the edge of an abyss – an abyss of hopelessness, of despair. A friend in Chennai, speaking to a small gathering recently, took sarcastic digs at the City of Joy, where apparently he had spent a few years studying – not in a school that was top draw then (must have deteriorated further) or a sought-after school. He was speaking from impressions gained from that influence; even so, I was left wondering how somebody who had stayed in the city, a city known for its generous heart, could speak so disparagingly.

Memories of Calcutta never fail to bring me alive - of my good old friends, and my days in Don Bosco and St Xavier's. This year I suddenly realised that I had missed out on the pujas the past 28 years! Although I do go there once a year, I have never made it during Durga Puja.

I belong to what I call the ‘sandwich generation’, sandwiched between the old world and the new, where nostalgia often gets the better of the present. I also happen to be an ‘uproot’ (I know it’s a verb, but never mind); years ago, my mother had judiciously decided to uproot half the family and head for Madras. For some reason (many, really) the city never really grew on me. I always belonged to Calcutta. My heart is always there.