Banner by Rituparna Chatterjee, a woman with the potential to make it big. It's not that she can't: she just won't.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Price

Time for a single exercise. I'm sure none of the readers possess a footlong ruler anymore (though their siblings or children might); even if you don't, I'm sure you know what it looks like, and how long it was.


This is what it used to look like. Quite intriguingly, it still looks the very same. One plastic ruler, twelve inches, about three inches longer than the usual lie spoken by the masculine gender.

Step two: take another ruler. Of course, I know no sane house contains more than one footlong ruler. Hence, use your fertile imagination (unless you're too inclined to beg, borrow or steal one); once you've managed to acquire them, place them in this fashion:


Now you've managed to acquire an L-shaped absurdity, comprising of two rulers, placed orthogonally to each other. Yes, I know this looks weird, but haven't we done weirder things in our moments of madness?

Step three: take two more rulers. Yes, I know I'm insane. But then, I really count on your imagination. I really do. Once you've stretched your vision to an unprecedented stage or have actually purchased four rulers and successfully convinced all and sundry that you're not insane, place them to form a square:


Now you're ready for the final part. Even if you have not been able to form this bizarre figure for reasons, logistic or otherwise, you can definitely form an idea of what this looks like. You also have a fair idea about how big it is - why, even one of the tiles in your room might be of the same size!

Concentrate on the size now. On the inside. Consider it to be a somewhat innocuous square bit of place, somewhere in the second-most populated country in the third planet of the solar system. Focus on the square. Hard.

This bit of land can cost - 158,773 rupees (http://www.xe.com is possibly the best website for currency conversions). This chunk of earth.

Don't believe me? Check this out. And do the calculations. 2,048 square metres is roughly 22,044 square feet.

Now, where's that Sorbitrate?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mumbai: A Study in Street Food

Seldom has an Indian fiction hero mention the phrase “as pretty as poha”. Despite all the antics displayed by Tamil heroes on screen, they’re hardly ever referred to as “as dashing as dosa”. Even if you have, I cannot remember anyone using a term like “as upbeat as upma” to describe a cheerful state of mind. There are certain phrases that are certainly not possible.

Let us accept it. Certain kinds of food do not ooze romanticism, and never have or will find a place in classical literature. Ever. There is a reason for that.

Of course, Mumbai street food has a lot beyond all this. Maharashtra being a neighbor of both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, it has its own abundant supply of dosas, idlis and vadas – enough to support its perpetual supply of poha and upma; you also get sweet (yes, I repeat, sweet) panipuris – something I have never seen any phuchka connoisseur ever come to terms with – and its various cousins (sev puri, ragda puri and the likes); bread pakora, which was often referred to as katlis (cutlet?); and of course, chaats of all sorts.

However, if you really want to have the real thing, you need to turn to paaw – the undisputed emperor of Mumbai street food.

Paaw. The word that sends a tingling sensation down the spine of every bonafide Mumbaikar. The soft bifurcated yeasty hemisphere of persistence that has made its presence over decades to form the culinary spine of the city and help it reach today’s lofty heights. Magic.

Before setting my foot in The City That Never Sleeps, I was under the perpetual idea that paaws are meant to serve a dual purpose: to be wrapped around weird-looking balls of potato to form more widely accepted versions of McAloo Tikki, and to be served alongside extremely perverse-looking red gravy containing bits of vegetables.

Mumbai opened my eyes completely and made me see things in a different viewpoint altogether. Of course, there was the ubiquitous vada paaw; it’s just that vada is not the only component that goes inside paaws. Bhajiya paaw, for example: four or five slices of potato fried in pakoda batter, sandwiched inside a butter-smeared paaw; anda-paaw: boiled eggs, sliced in half, inserted inside; samosa-paaw: whole samosas accommodated inside paaws (how is someone supposed to hold the thing?); and the most innovative of all – Maggi paaw: a dulcet existence of oily Maggi noodles, stuffed inside the brown-white version of bread that so enriches The Cultural Capital of India.

And then, there is misal paaw: a rather incredible blend of ghugni and chanachur served alongside paaws; and its half brother, usal paaw: an inimitable product made of boiled potatoes, peas and coconuts to accompany the paaw. And then you get the dabeli – a dish that can be found in Mumbai, is extremely overhyped, has a mysterious larger-than-life image and has managed to trick Abhishek into believing it is actually good – in other words, extremely similar to Aishwariya Rai.

***

Postscript: Tired and frustrated of the word “paaw”, I had finally managed to acquire a baai. Of course, this meant that I would stop eating out and get her to cook. I went to the greengrocers, and asked rather innocently, “bhaiya, bhindi kitne ka?”

“Dus rupya paaw”.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The night

It was the darkest of nights. Not your warm, romantic, mushy darkness that makes you stare at the sky and maybe count stars – but the kind of darkness that means business.

A hooded creature emerged from the castle. Yes, it was a castle. I know that castles have really gone out of fashion of late, but then, so have hooded creatures.

The hooded creature was, as you must have figured out by now, covered in a hood. It was very tall. It also had very thin, long fingers, an almost anaemic complexion and was covered in a very impressive-looking, old-fashioned cloak.

By every classical definition, it resembled a vampire.

In fact, it was a vampire.

Unfortunately, for a vampire it was a rather docile one. It wasn’t the uber-cool type that dupes cute girls into submission to obtain its daily dietary source. For a vampire it was really boring. It had a day job at a blood-bank, thereby fulfilling multiple requirements during the day and hence leading a seriously boring life, listening to Transylvanian Radio Channels in the evening and sleeping in a dilapidated coffin at night.

However, for a week or so, The Blood Bank Employees’ Union had gone on an indefinite period of strike, thereby leaving him hungry and malnourished for days at a stretch. But then, he could not ignore the usual decorum that vampires were supposed to follow. He had been living on frozen goats’ blood insta-mixes. It was a boring life even by a vampire’s standards.

Tonight was different, though.

The vampire took brisk steps across the darkest of alleys, searching for a probable victim. Just when it was contemplating taking the form of a bat and spreading its wings to fly across the sky in typical vampire fashion, it saw a passing shadow, and decided to follow it.

The passing shadow was, of course, a figure of speech. You do not get shadows, passing or static, in a night this dark. It was a real figure the vampire had spotted.

The real figure walked in a swagger. Or at least it seemed so in the dark. In reality, it was a rather clumsy walk, almost a stumble. As the vampire approached it, it looked rather confused.

The figure was hooded as well. It was quite a sight – two mysterious hooded figures on the same alley, facing each other. Any passer-by would have thought it was a climax scene straight out of some cheap Hollywood gangster movie.

The vampire approached its victim and gripped its wrist with its wiry fingers. The other hooded figure seemed somewhat taken aback, and did not seem to protest. The confused vampire lowered its hood (over the years it had developed a rather foolishly styled hands-free method of lowering its hood) and reached out for its victim.

The other hooded creature, too, shrugged off its uncouth hood. It was not a vampire, though. It did not have any vampirish instinct, though – for the sole reason that it was not a vampire.

A strong breeze blew across the alley. A cloud floated by, revealing the full moon that had been so skillfully hidden from the scenario by the narrator of the story. The vampire took a moment to have a look at its supposedly hapless victim. Its teeth snarled in moonlight.

It was a werewolf.

It had been a tough ask being a werewolf. For one thing, he could not have a steady relationship going, since a night's disappearance every month was difficult to explain. Additionally, werewolves weren’t as cool as vampires – they slept on beds, had a normal diet, and had a perfectly commonplace month throughout the month barring a single day.

This was the day, though.

The vampire recoiled and took a couple of steps back. It thought of feeling scared, but then, fear was not its forte. Vampires all over the world and down the ages were not known for being afraid. It was more out of shock than anything else.

The werewolf advanced. Its teeth glistened in the bright moonlight. It was ready to pounce upon the vampire. Unlike the vampire, it was quite muscular, and the vampire was definitely no match in a physical tussle.

And then, it happened. The vampire lost all willingness to save its life and run away. The werewolf, on the other hand, lost all willingness to pounce upon the vampire. They lost all motivation. A sickening, morose feeling engulfed their brains. They felt sad. Really sad. It was as if even the sole intention of living had been sucked out of them.

A third figure glided across the alleyway towards them. This was a hooded one as well. As it approached closer and closer, a strong feeling of melancholy spread across the air. The vampire had visions of remaining confined inside a coffin for ages. The werewolf had visions of the full moon never setting. In other words, both of them turned out to be classic cases for budding mythical creatures’ psychiatrists.

The vampire, fighting its inner self, won the battle in the end; it assumed the form of a bat, spread its wings and flew across the night sky, its silhouette against the moon showing in classical vampires’ movies fashion.

The werewolf stood foolishly. It realised that it was being drained of all motivation and happiness. Being of a strong physique, managed to accumulate strength out of nowhere, and ran away from the third creature as soon as possible.

Hooded creature number three was very close to the werewolf when the latter had disappeared from the scene. It had even lowered its hood.

Where there should have been a mouth, there was, well, a very non-mouth object. It was hungry, and the only way its hunger could be satiated was by administering a kiss. It was a dementor.

The dementor was taken aback at both its victims’ disappearances. It stood there, utterly perplexed, and then set about towards the nearest door.

But he could not reach the door. He was intercepted.

A fourth hooded creature had appeared on the fray. This one was shorter, and judging by the curves, it was definitely female.

She lowered its hood and let her shining cascade of hair fall on her shoulders. She was stunningly pretty. Had the vampire or the werewolf been around, carnal desires might have overcome hunger for a period, however small. However, the dementor, utterly unperturbed by the attractiveness of the woman, glided forward.

Oh, what a night this was! His victim was alone, and it wasn’t even carrying a wand! Surely she could not escape his clutches tonight! Food, after all this time. Food.

The dementor approached the woman. A complete lack of libido meant that the aroma or the proximity of her features did not have an impact of any sort on the dementor. It lowered its hood, half-expecting the distressed, sad face to surrender to its power of mind control.

Only that the face was not distressed at all. She was smiling. And then, she began to laugh.

The dementor was seriously taken aback. This was almost contempt of dementorial behaviour – what kind of creature smiled – let alone laughed – in the presence of a mighty dementor? Let alone the fact that she was no easy meat – how would he face the dementor brethren of Azkaban? They would all laugh at him if the story got out, he knew.

He looked again. There was no mistake. The girl was indeed laughing. It was a silent laughter, but the non-existent sound seemed to penetrate the dementor’s non-existent ears with the usual amount of intensity that non-existent forces typically use while entering non-existent entities.

The dementor could not take it anymore. This was what he had always feared – a helpless creature not succumbing to his power – even laughing on his face. He glided away as fast as he could from the source of the trouble.

A cloud had covered the moon again. As a gentle breeze blew across the alley, the woman sighed. She had nowhere to go tonight. It would have been nice if the other two had been around, she thought. It would have been fun.

Life, after all, is rather boring for boggarts.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mumbai: a Study in Names

The name Saki Naka, as we all know, does not have Japanese origins. It isn’t named after the inimitable Hector Hugh Munro, either. Instead, it literally means The Crossing of the Female Bartenders. Which is an outright lie, of course, despite the innumerable liquor shops and resto-bars around the place, including the iconic Chakra. The shops and bars, between them, have given birth to the famous phrase Spirit of Mumbai – a phrase overused by newspapers to describe the reason for Mumbaikars going to work during monsoon.

Of course, you should not believe anyone who tells you that the morning traffic from Saki Naka to Marol Naka is the slowest-moving entity in the world. It definitely moves faster than a snail, a giant tortoise, a three-toed sloth or a slug; the evening traffic from Marol Naka to Saki Naka is, however, unanimously ranked as number one, moving roughly at about four microns an hour, with the number of overtakes being slightly less than the number of expressions used by Fardeen Khan in his entire acting career.

***

Not all of the stretch from Andheri to Goregaon (has a name ever reflected apartheid in a stronger manner?) is terribly polluted. Between two of the most congested places on the third planet of the solar system there is actually a long green patch of land.

I was often under the impression that this zone was called RA Milk Colony, a place responsible for producing budding Mumbaikars with the calcium essential for concentrating hard on the stock market and paaws with an assortment of ingredients. I was wrong about the spelling, though. It was actually Arrey Milk Colony. In case you’re wondering what it means, one is actually supposed to exclaim in awestruck surprise – Arrey! Milk Colony!!

***

Bandra, of course, has two different versions – the very strong British Bandra (ব্যান্ড্রা/ब्यान्द्रा) and the very soft Indian Bandra (বান্দ্রা/बांद्रा). These can be distinguished very clearly in the Mumbai Suburban train announcements. The Marathi version is also the latter, but for whatever reason they prefer to write it as Bandre (বান্দ্রে/बांद्रे) on the dangling blue signboards.

Who says Mumbai cannot show affection, and is all about ruthlessness?

***

If you're in a city studded with aggressive names like Mankhurd, Bhandup, Kandivali, Ghatkopar and Khar (a place we all remember as the Sharma residence from Gol Maal), you often feel that you're at war: none of that soft, mushy stuff like Sovabazar, Vasant Kunj or Nandanam. Even the names announce their names to you in an unmistakable tone of arrogance.

And then, you come across a name called Seepz - possibly the coolest name for a place in the city. Yes, I know, it's actually SEEPZ (Santacruz Electronics Export Processing Zone), but isn't Seepz too cool a name for a place in a city of hostile-sounding name?

***

There's a Parel. And if you move west, you'd end up in, well, not West Parel, but Lower Parel. The Parels are possibly the only places in the world to retain the old practice of a caste system. There's a rumour that there used to be a Middle-Class Parel somewhere in between as well, but then, we all know that Mumbai really doesn't accommodate mediocrity.

If you move south, past Lower Parel, almost to the south-west corner of the city, you'd end up in a place called Mumbai Central. It currently holds the record for the most inappropriate name for a place located in one of the corners of a city (just for the information, West Bengal holds the equivalent record for any state on the eastern border). A friend had tried to convince me that it's basically the centre for Town (in Mumbaiya language, this is a single word meaning auto-rickshaws-not-allowed), a place between Bandra and Churchgate. But even then, this wonderful map suggests that it's hardly the case.

***

Despite all this, Thane definitely outdoes Mumbai in terms of exotic names. It all starts with Mumbra. Look at the map again: it's at the part that looks like a cleavage - which makes you realise how appropriately named the place is.

Of course, just behind Mumbra lies Diva. She had to.

And then, as we move ahead, on one of the bifurcations lies a place called Titwala. Brazen, blatant, suggestive, and very appropriate for a place just adjacent to another, called Khadawali. A tad too direct, that, but then, subtlety was never the forte of the city, was it?

***

And finally, the city, famous for its uninhibited spirit and ruthless speed, has a cultural capital as well. As the city decides to embrace the intellectual subtleties, this place has definitely emerged as the unsuspected path-breaker, or, in other words, the dark horse. It is, of course, called Kala Ghoda.

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