Sunday, May 31, 2015

India. We’re not that bad

I recently read a blog piece by an American tourist flaying India and Indians, our roads, our poverty, our hygiene. Sure, it’s probably all true. But one does wonder that in a country of 1.2 billion people, with as many languages, traditions, habits and idiosyncrasies, is that all he saw?

He didn’t see the willingness of people to tell you directions,
the resilience of those poverty-stricken children with laughter in their eyes,
insisting on selling you balloons you don’t need.

He didn’t see the volunteers who set up stands to provide cold, life-saving drinks in the heat,
or lines for samosas and jalebis that are way longer than the ones at McDonalds.

He didn’t taste the pickles made by the grandmothers of India, 
with secret ingredients of maternal love, 
nor did he see anyone transform the simple unforgiving onion 
with a few drops of lime and some salt into something edible.  

He didn’t travel in a local train or metro
and hear a thousand stories in a thousand accents from a few hundred regions. 
He didn’t see strangers smile and converse in sign language, 
or share a meal on a train.

He didn’t see the telephone man climbing a rickety pole to fix a line, 
or the indulgence of the motorist towards the cow, the camel, the stray dog on the street. 

He didn’t see the bowls of water kept outside windows for the birds, 
or the scores of women who have turned colourful nighties into a uniform for gossip.

He didn’t see the cheerful old men sitting on a corner in a park, 
sharing tales of their youth that they’ll forget soon 
or the reverence of the kids towards them and other elderly.

He didn’t see the milkman hard at work amid the dung, 
whistling a cheerful tune while the world slept. 
Or the mangos, the sweet juicy balls of heaven, 
over which many a debates are fought, 
in dining rooms and fruit carts.

He didn’t see the multiple cricket matches being played on a single ground, 
or girls playing seven stones amid giggles of uninhibited glee, 
or young boys washing buffaloes in the dirty water, 
throwing cusswords with gay abandon.

Can you sum up India in a word, in an article, in a book?
Not likely.

We’re the chaos. 
A colourful, noisy, smelly, headache-inducing chaos. 
But if you open your eyes, you will grow to love it and live it.
He didn't open his eyes.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Why this paperback apartheid?

Manas Gupta

This new 10 book challenge doing the rounds of social media got me thinking. If you’re fond of reading, is it really possible to choose just 10 best books? Possible, yes. But will you ever be satisfied with such a list? I doubt it.

Interestingly, while my many erudite friends promptly produced lists with Shakespeare and James Joyce and Kafka, one senior journalist spoke with warm nostalgia about the Sudden books — an entertaining series of thin action-packed cowboy thrillers that centre around a lightning fast gunman. And the revelation brought a smile to my face, for I too spent many a winter curled up in a quilt with some tattered, yellowed books of Sudden and other westerns.

Books can evoke different sentiments in different people, but the memory of the first time you encounter a particular book/author that gave you pleasure, stays with you. Everyone remembers those Famous Fives that transported you into the English countryside, with adventures on islands and Timothy and ginger ale.

I don’t quite remember when I picked up my first Shakespeare but I remember my first Robert Ludlum (The Holcroft Covenant) , read on a half-broken sofa in the winter sun, amid the chaos of a house being whitewashed or my first Alistair MacLean (The Golden Rendezvous), which may not have been his finest book but was certainly my favourite MacLean.

Then there were the James Headly Chases, murder mysteries that moved at breakneck speed but had some bizarre covers of women in various states of undress, usually with no link to the story plot at all. These were usually read after being covered in newspaper pages.

Some of these lighter reads, which often make certain connoisseurs snub their nose at us (quite unfairly, I might add) have played a far bigger role in providing me pleasure or helping me while away my time in buses, trains and waiting rooms, than the so-called classics. 

Once, I was delighted to spot a Leon Uris book (one of my favourite authors) at the home of a renowned English professor from my college, and asked him excitedly if he had read it.
“I don’t read bestsellers,” he announced, coldly, in that tiny house which had more books than seating space.  I felt I had shrunk by a few inches under his gaze that day. 

Frankly, this paperback apartheid is unfair and really needs to end.
“I like Wilbur Smith.”
“These Anurag Mathur and Amish books are horrendous.”
“Um, really? I, er, liked some of them.”
*Horrified look*.
Or just: "What! You read comics? At this age? Comics are for kids."

Oh come on! Whatever happened to the “to each his own” thinking. Vanished in the world of social media?

I feel that this peer pressure, combined with the fear of judgement, often forces people to choose “safe” books for these lists. I’d like to follow my colleague’s choice and make a new list, one just of books that gave me pleasure. Maybe, I’ll even read some of them all over again, and pass them over to my daughter in the hope that she likes them too. But if she doesn’t, I’ll be quite okay with it. Honest.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

India’s first comic superhero

Manas Gupta

Everyone in India knows Chacha Chaudhary ka dimag computer se bhi tez chalta hai. And I mean everyone. It’s as iconic as Superman’s flaming red underpants, Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth or Phantom’s old jungle sayings. And it is the legacy of a genius called Pran.

Chacha Chaudhary, that sharp but short old man with the red turban and the toothbrush moustache invokes nostalgia in many of us. In an innocent time, when the Internet didn’t exist and comics and magazines were far more entertaining than the boring Doordarshan on TV, Pran’s comics transported us into a world of colour and jokes and brawny aliens from Jupiter.

For small-town India, Pran’s comics were the equivalent of Blyton’s Famous Five or Asterix and Tintin. Sure, Diamond Comics (or Lotpot) quality wasn’t on a par with these works but everyone didn’t have access to a Tintin comic or a Hitchcock book.

For me, Billoo and Pinky and the gang provided solace in boring afternoons in the small and sleepy town of Bijnor in UP, where powercuts and mosquitos competed to make your life miserable. 

My father had been posted to far off Car Nicobar and he had packed off the family to the home town. Being shy and reticent and usually ill, I found my only friends in the place to be this motley group of comic characters. So, I dove into Pran’s world with gusto and the comics, then available for rent at 25 paise, made me a fan for life.

The world of Hindi comics was new to me, but these characters seemed real and witty and the pleasure we got every time a villain was outfoxed or just beaten to a pulp was something else. So, I learned that doctor was written as daaktar in Hindi, that not only did life exist on Jupiter but so did volcanos and they were inexplicably linked to Sabu’s anger issues. I learned that the name of Chacha Chaudhry’s wife was “ari o bhagyawan” and her uniform was a polka dot sari while the belan (rolling pin) was her weapon of choice. 

Then there was the dog Rocket, the enemy Raka, Billoo who bore a striking resemblance to Beetle Bailey, the naughty Pinki and many more. 

It was a treasure trove of innocent stories that made some difficult times seem easy and perhaps inculcated a reading habit in many.

Thank you Pran Sahab, for the memories. We hope Sabu and the gang will keep you company up there.

You were India’s first comic superhero.