The Elusive Truth of Photographs

Earlier, a short conversation ensued.

Something that I have struggled with for a while (and I continue to struggle). This post, is by no means an expression of any finality. Struggles are continuous. We take them with us to our pyre.

Ethics in Photography: Primarily related to manipulation through digital tools.

I first heard of Photoshop in the very-late 90s. I used to take photographs much before that. I never manipulated photos (I had no means to; didn’t have access to a darkroom). Then, with my introduction to Photoshop, I realised what was possible. It was still not easy. You had to get your photograph printed, scanned, and then manipulated.

Cut, to the last few years.

The ease with which we can now manipulate photos is a critical factor of how many photos we manipulate, and to what extent. When it was the darkroom, and the effort was huge, you’d be satisfied with the photograph you took. Most photo upload sites Instagram, for example, depend on manipulation. Notice how the app is created; the process calls for manipulation. As this became the norm, otherwise puritan sites like Flickr (yes kids, there’s something called Flickr, and yes, there’s an app for that) joined the bandwagon, and created a manipulate-first strategy. Like we have mobile-first strategy. The humble smartphone camera, humble, no more, now included built-in editing tools. It’s worth noticing, also, that the editing tools are primarily auto-fix or filters. Not Levels, or Curves, and such (I know some apps have them, so don’t kill me for saying it). Why bother users with complex scientific concepts like a Histogram? Why teach core concepts of amount of light and duration of light? Focus on publishing!

All of the above, only to establish our current environment. No judgement, at least not yet.

Let’s come back to the short conversation that ensued.

A participant in a photography competition withdrew his entry, after it was found that he had retouched a photo to remove undesirable artefacts from the photo — in this case, a straw-like-thingy.

The question that was posed: Ethical Violation or Technical Breach.

My instant response was: Technical Breach. And it was so, because the competition disallowed major manipulation:

The rules of the contest state that “No cloning, montaging or digital manipulation other than cropping, ‘digital spotting’, burning and dodging is permitted,” so the photographer alerted Walkey about the suspicious submission. [Link]

For those of us who think that digitally manipulated photos are an ethical violation, I ask: is cropping fine? Or Burning? Or Dodging? In my opinion, cropping is completely removing a context in a frame! By showing me a photograph that is devoid of some context (by cropping) the photographer is changing meaning. Pretty much like sensational headlines or context-bereft sound bites. Then, are you making the sky look more blue? The leaves more green? Are you, Mr. Photographer, deceiving me? Was the sky really a dull boring blue that was almost white, when you saw it? Were the leaves not as you had imagined?

I am not advocating an ultimate realism in photography. As a person who takes photographs, I know that reality changes every millisecond, and so does context.

Broadly, photography serves two realms: that of documentation and that of art.

If an artist painter, who uses a canvas and oil paints were to paint a sky that was true blue (as most of us imagine it to be) we would never question it. Yet, fact of the matter is, we rarely see a blue sky as blue as we imagine it to be. We applauded the orange-grey-green-blue abstract skies of JMW Turner. When a photographer HDR’ed a sky, we felt cheated. This is the first realm of photography, and that is art.

The ethical questions, essentially come in the second realm — documentary photography. This realm deals with reality, harsh reality. And I am not talking of gory photos of dead bodies and such that we see on social media these days. If a photo’s purpose is to show you reality, and if it is manipulated — to edit meaning or create a new meaning — it is, clearly an ethical violation.

Common to both these realms is how we take photos. Given the means and the ease that has been afforded to us, the line between art and documentary photography has blurred beyond recognition. Whereas, we should be seeing photos as either art or as documentary, we are looking at them as manipulated or not.

“Both those taking snaps and documentary photographers, however, have not understood ‘information.’ What they produce are camera memories, not information, and the better they do it, the more they prove the victory of the camera over the human being.” ~ Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography

This post wasn’t going to be complete without a quote from my guru.

Where do I stand?

In the simplest of terms, capturing a moment, for me, has always been about amount of light and duration of light. Primarily. That is what makes a good photograph. Now that the basics are covered, a photographer creates meaning. That is what makes an interesting photograph.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the manipulation of photographs; if presented as art. For, if you are photographer, you know that the real manipulation begins, before you click. When you set your aperture, when you compose, when you set your shutter speed. When you choose to include something or exclude something in the frame, that’s when manipulation has started. In a digital editing tool, you are only continuing the process. Even if you add a simple border, that’s manipulation.

Except, if you are documenting. Documentation is essentially boring. There is no need to manipulate that. Just file it, and be done. And when (and if) you manipulate a documentary photo, you are crossing really thick lines.

Here is a case study:

2015-11-03 12.03.06

This is a photograph I took of an AC fan, outside my office, with my mobile phone camera. After a few minutes, this is what I posted, on Instagram.

Do you feel cheated? Or did you just not care, and enjoyed the Instagram? Now that you know the raw truth, what do you feel?

The Long 400kms

It will be an unearthly time by the time we reach home. Two cars. The other car’s home is a couple of dozen kilometres less than where I have to reach. I have an offer of staying back. 24-odd kms means much less, when you are homeward bound.

It’s dark. Late evening is upon us. I am a little over 400 kms away from home. The road ahead is good. It’s a dual-carriageway. We later discover that this is only a half-truth. But that’s later. My present is very different.

Fog Lights

A very young co-traveller is in my car, i.e. younger than me. I am driving. There’s three of us, I soon realise: the two of us, and the generation gap. The third passenger shows up every time a song plays from my playlist. We exit the city streets and are on the highway.

Man on the Moon, by R.E.M. plays.

“Do you know this song?” I ask.


I let a minute pass by.

“Do you like it?”

She says yes, but I am suspicious.

“If you have any songs on your phone that you’d like to play, feel free to plug your phone into the AUX.”

While I offer her that, and because I have arranged my playlists, Losing My Religion starts playing.

I feel I should tell her something about the song. I do not.

She says she is happy with what’s playing. I wonder what she is thinking. Perhaps, allowing my kind of music to play will allow me to focus on driving. 400kms in the night is not a small thing. I smile. Smart kid. I say to myself.

“You don’t speak much, do you?” I ask.


Wilson Pickett is describing the Land of a 1000 Dances. We’ve spent the last five days together, looking at broken buildings of yore. Alane, by Wayfinder is playing. I recall that in most conversation through the ruins, she has amply demonstrated her presence, yet, hardly participated. Claudette, by Roy Orbison. I offer again; she is free to play her music. Ella Fitzerald says Oh Lady Be Good. She refuses; say’s she’d like to hear what I have on my playlist.

“You had your chance.”

I hand her the iPod. “Skip what you don’t like.”

She owns the iPod instantly; doesn’t speak much, but the quietest, longest conversations I have ever had, is the one that I cannot forget.

Somewhere within the 400kms she feels compelled to make conversation. We play a diminutive version of 20 questions. It keeps me alert; and I think she feels good. She now skips songs on the iPod with ease. It’s a playlist I have curated. I wince every time she skips a song.

Once in a while, she says, “I like this song.”

That gives me the opportunity to tell her more about the song.

I do not know where 400kms went by. We come to the point where the road forks. We say our good-byes. She gets into the other car. I am homeward bound alone, for the next 80 kms.

I smile every time a song she skipped, starts playing.

Cheat, If it Makes Sense

Eight of us, many years ago, got 0/35 in a Unit Test.

A unit test was a form of formative assessment when I was in school.  Nowadays they have a much sophisticated system, I discover, as I do my job. We somehow knew that Unit Tests didn’t mean much, we could wait for the final exams (which contributed the most to the final score) and cram everything up in the last few days before the exam. This allowed us to enjoy the year.

That one Unit Test, where eight of us got 0/35 is something I’ll never forget, however. If you are a kid in school, read the rest of this article carefully. There’s a good chance that it might become philosophical as I write, but read it, nevertheless. Skip the philosophical stuff if you have to. I know you won’t learn much that’s useful. In matters like these, we have to learn from our own mistakes. Very few learn from the mistakes of others. It is the current world order — you are not to blame.

Seven of us cheated in that Unit Test.


This is that class where this happened. i.e. really

Our teacher magnanimously, refused to invigilate the Unit Test. She announced her departure with a bit of a flourish. You are responsible adults, she said, (even though we were only 16 years old, oh, sweet sixteen!) — I expect you to be honest and responsible. We could have been, but yeah, whatever. Right.

My bench-mate, and my best friend for 26 years (let’s call him H) was the topper-contender in my class. He furiously started writing. He didn’t have any qualms about us copying what he wrote. I copied what he was writing, and passed that copy to the front bench (Yes, I was a last-bencher. Some teachers prefer that students are ordered by academic excellence, our teacher insisted we sit by height.) The bench in front of me passed the answers to the bench in front of them, and repeat. That made eight of us who had exactly the same answers. Other kids in the class got out their text books and such. The girls, mostly, were sincere and took the assigned responsibility head-on.

Needless to say, eight of us had exactly the same answers, word-for-word, and we were rewarded accordingly.


H too. And he was devastated.

30-odd kids were asked to leave the room, when the results were distributed, and we were spoken to. H tried to be belligerent. It didn’t matter, in our teacher’s eyes, copying is wrong. Allowing someone to copy is equally wrong. Our teacher knew who had allowed the copying and who had copied. It was a no-brainer.


Moral of the story? You have to be innovative when you cheat. Of course, you shouldn’t cheat in the first place. (Kids, this is what I wanted you to really focus on) But if you have to, be innovative, and to do that – you have to know something about the test that you are taking. Sorry, but that’s how it works.


I am sure I will not be able to complete 210 posts in three months. I need to — I need to coincide my tenth year of blogging with a thousand posts (not that, that makes any sense – it amounts to a hundred posts a year). I have considered cheating. Adding photos with badly formed Haikus and such. My poll asking you if I should merge my various blogs was a means of defending the cheat.

Cheating has to have a moral purpose, with your own standards of morality. No one can tell you what those standards are. (Kids, this is what I wanted you to really focus on.) They have to be your own. Ten people will tell you to do it one way, ten others will tell you to do it another. You may never lean on what others have told you. Your moral compass is your own. Build it, in your own way.

It doesn’t matter whether you cheat or not – what matters is the direction it points to – are you following True North or are you fumbling and compromising your own compass. It is OK to make mistakes. Mistakes matter less than how you stand up after those. It is not about forgiveness, for that is what others offer you. What will you offer yourself? All those mistakes will sharpen your moral compass, eventually; don’t deny the mistakes.

A goal is not just a destination, it is also about how you get there. If you can live with the manner in which you get there, everything’s all right. If not, find a new way. Irrespective of what you do, learn to live with it. You will have to.

Live your life as much as you can – and when the proverbial flashing-of-your-life-just-before-you-die is upon you, make sure, watch it in its full glory,

Make sure it is feature-length.

Making Bad Excuses

It’s seems quite impossible that the reason for not writing would be the lack of thoughts. We think all the time. And therefore, it seems equally impossible that we do not write because we cannot put our thoughts together. To be able to come to the conclusion that we cannot write because we cannot put our thoughts together is a process of putting thoughts together.

Munni Vs. Sheila

A lot has been discussed and written about the better one of the two most popular songs published in 2010/11. This topic is quite delayed now; for obvious reason – it took considerable time to deeply study these two publications, from the various perspectives in which these were presented. This research paper perhaps doesn’t have the same energy and currency that it would have had if I had posted it a few months ago. However, I submit my academic study of the comparative analysis of these two songs that are almost a phenomenon in the Indian ethos.

Munni Badnam Hui vs. Sheila Ki Jawani

Regional Identity

By any means, Munni encompasses a denser Indian ethos than Sheila. Whether it is in the presentation or the language of the song, Munni prevails. Munni sings a song in a single themed (ghagra-choli) costume all through the song: is consistent in her presentation. The costume, if you will allow it, is essentially, Indian. In comparison, Sheila is a world citizen of sorts. She flips from Arabic (Harem Trousers) to pseudo-English shorts and an untied neck-tie to a designer sari (read: I didn’t get enough cloth to design this sari) costumes all through the song. Munni’s song endorses all sorts of Indian products and movie-stars and encompasses other Indianisms (Zandu Balm, Shilpa, Saifu, Cinema Hall, the quintessential Prince Hair Cutting Saloon, and even the country), whereas Sheila epitomises the all-encompassing urban mood of the minority of Emerging India. Munni stays traditional to the original idea of India – in the towns and villages where the real India resides.

Sacrificial Nature

In continuing with the ethical sense of the presentation of these two publications, Munni typifies the sacrificial nature that is inherent in the expression of love. She embodies the needs of the lover to appeal to his myriad senses of pleasure and morphs to become a pain balm, a theatre, an atom bomb, being common, right up to becoming a country. In contrast, Sheila exhibits a certain play-hard-to-get attitude in the her presentation — she is inaccessible — in her own words. She goes on to declare that  no charms work on her, and that the one who woos her will never be able to get her. While Munni has already qualified as becoming a mint for you, Sheila is looking for an easy way in, with only those of you who have demonstrated that they come from money. It is unfortunate that those from the lower economic strata will never be able to “achieve” Sheila. She creates an unattainable aspiration for this segment of the society.

Accessibility & Presentation

Munni, is at all times making a statement of availability, a resume that would be the envy of the best resumes on (maybe, considering the ethos). All through the presentation, Munni makes a compelling case of her qualities, including references from some of the well-known stars in Bollywood. While Sheila makes a similar statement of desirability, her standoffish statement may be the one thing working against her. Somewhere, it evokes desire at a higher level. It has been proved, that to deny competition is a mark of ignorance, and this is an area where Sheila fails miserably. Also, her statement that she would rather make love to herself, may very well go against her, within the Indian ethic and sensitivity (or perhaps work in her favour too, who knows). Finally, in terms of accessibility, you have to consider the location of the presentation. Munni, is out in the audience making close contact with prospects, whereas Sheila is always on stage – which distances herself from the potential audience. For this factor, it is obvious that Munni scores better on the CV value than Sheila.


Having presented this argument, it may still not be clear whether men will choose one over the other. It finally boils down to choice and personal preferences. However, based on the critical analysis that has been presented above, we hope that those who still have a conflicting sense of choice, will benefit from the analysis.

PS: This post is tagged under “Humour”

Prayer of Intention

The good thing about wandering is that you never know what you pick up on the way. Especially when you wander without agenda.

On one such wandering I picked up a prayer.

Our default prayers are those that our parents taught us, to acquire all the goodness in this world. It took most of us quite a while to edit that prayer and add our own specifics, clauses and caveats to it. Some of us let go of the prayer altogether.

One word, it’s meaning, has eluded me for a while: intention.

I have used it many times in life; I now feel, I used it loosely. This possibly stems from the lack of proof, in some way. When you intend (for, or to do) something, that is all you do. It is, as it appears to me, an orphan word. Though it is born of a desire or a wish and it dies with the action that makes the intention a reality, it truly belongs nowhere, and to no one when it exists.

Like raw, unharnessed power, perhaps?

This one prayer, I picked up recently caused a mental feud of what an intention is, really and at the same time asking me, if I have ever really wondered what a prayer really is – and what I do when I pray. Enough has been proven about the science of the power of suggestion, and perhaps all prayers are just that. Some prayers, like the one I discovered are elaborate and elegant; some are crude while being beautiful. And whatever their form and quality maybe, they serve the same purpose: statement of an intention.

However, whatever the nature of their composition and presentation, a prayer cannot be a transaction. A transaction has a shelf-life, which ends when the transaction is complete. And a single prayer cannot be reused for another transaction, because then the specifics would change.

So, is a prayer just a statement of intention of a continuous purpose? Compare, “I need to touch an average of 500 page views on my blog in the next three months”, with, “Let there be a continuous abundance of readers on my blog.” This is obviously a bad example, for it sounds frivolous. But, I suppose it serves the purpose of explaining one defining characteristic of a prayer.

But then who is to fulfil the prayer, be it the one about the page views or of the abundance of visitors. Because the prayer is only a message, and without an addressor or an addressee the message is an unmarked envelope gathering dust somewhere.

But there is no addressee.

There isn’t “someone out there” who actually takes up the job of fulfilling your prayers. And it makes sense that no one entity is taking that responsibility, else it would be a conflict management issue — attempting to fulfill prayers from around the world. Our prayers are addressed to ourselves — only a reinforcement of intention then, of dedicating to the action that fulfills the intention.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Some of you may have seen (or been a part of) the recent Facebook experiment. The status message that asks your friends to dig up a memory of you that is at the tip of your brains. After only a few bothered, it seems my memorial ethos (pun, accidental), would be: conversations, and having them, under the influence or not.

Mighty chuffed, I was, after I read through the memories. There are a million others, which didn’t make it to the experiment’s venue, which however, I treasure with all my might.

These days, it is difficult to have a conversation going; haven’t had one for a while now, except with my artist friend. I don’t quite count IM chats as good conversation, though they tend to be interesting if you can manage the multiple threads caused by the delay, and suffer the typos caused by the difference in the varying speeds of thinking and typing. One such good conversation ensued a couple of days ago, unfortunately on an IM chat.

He and I usually talk of movies. We have had other conversations, like  “ethics of prevalent business models in the mobile communication services industry”, but, he fails miserably at those and it usually becomes a lecture series from us after a while, when he gives up, and we continue to talk of movies. So, after a moot argument about identifying a movie that excelled in (a) the art of film-making, (b) the presentation, and (c) the story-telling and wafting though elements of photography, lesser known Marathi film directors of yore, influence of critics and analysts on art, we ended up at “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

It was a lazy Saturday, three years ago, in London, alone, when, with the intention of spending the autumn afternoon at Trafalgar Square, I gingerly made way to the National Gallery that overlooks the square. I always thought of myself as a misfit in art galleries. I don’t understand art a lot (the technical parts), and I have a peeve about critics and analysts who usually tell us what to look for in it. I usually don’t see the way they do, if, I can extract meaning of the words they use to describe what it is all about, i.e. I like things because I like things. But being with an artist for long, certain thoughts and knowledge permeates through and sharpens your vision. In the aimless wandering around the Gallery, I was suddenly flush in front of this huge painting:

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche, 1833

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche, 1833. Source: Wikipedia Commons

It was overwhelming, to say the least. It told a long and intricate story in a single still image. When I wrote to her about this, I could not tell her anything about the painting. How big it was, the play of the light and such details. I could only tell her what I felt — and that I couldn’t explain it well, either. I only wrote that I was stuck on the bench looking at it for a very long time, and I cried.

This is a life changing painting for me. I am still the same as I was on that Saturday afternoon, however, what I have always believed about art became true that day. Art has a very personal meaning and good art is that that touches your soul. To be able to travel to 1553, the painting becomes a portal of sorts. Since then, I have been able to brave an entry into museums more often than I would have. Willingly. This painting opened a world of experience to me. I read a lot about the British history, especially Lady Jane Grey. I saw many other paintings, and found many, from different times, that made meaning. At the same time, I found many that didn’t.

I discovered that a painting or a photograph or music or a book doesn’t do anything to you, as such. It doesn’t do much to change the world, acting as an external force. It only provides an option: to you, to allow it to relate to you, if you will. If the connection doesn’t exist, you will feel nothing about that piece of art. You will only see its colour, brush strokes, and the artist’s intention, if at all.

If the connection exist, it gently evokes a feeling that you need to experience to find a little bit more about yourself.

Proof of Life

Chanced upon a not-so-innocent-song about the rains. Needless to say – it brought very happy memories from the days when life was a possibility. Not as artificially predictable as we have made it to be through anxiousness and concerns of security.

When I was in college (1989-92, yeah, really long time go) there was this tea-stall at the Pune University Circle — run by this diminutive, yet regal, man who went by the name of Anna. He made good tea. Notice, the subtle emphasis on the word — good. Like the smell of your grandmother’s unique recipe and the mesmerising visions that your father could paint with words, flowing with ease; this is one such taste. It remains with you forever.

My analytical mind, unfortunately, takes over.

Since Anna’s chai, I have had tea at a gazillion tea-stalls, all over the MH state. I am sure I have had as good tea in at least one of these stalls. It makes you wonder, if it was really the way that the tea that was brewed that keeps the memory alive.

It wasn’t the brew.

It was the environment. There is a word, maahoul — which, I doubt has an equivalent English word. Chai at Anna’s was a concept that we were in love with. One Skid-prone-Kinetic, a Bajaj Scooter and a black Yamaha 100cc bike, if he chose to ever find time for us, from his why-does-he-have-such-an-ugly girlfriend. Conversations of today that were heavily punctuated with loud laughter (in the days when LOL or ROFL weren’t invented and you had to use facial muscles to “Laugh-out-Loud”). Building dreams of tomorrow with almost-Italian-style-waving-bare hands in the thin air of Pune’s December. The clinical dissection of emerging role-models by brash arrogance that was nurtured by fearless dreams.

There isn’t a University “Circle” anymore.

The circle has been sliced and bled dry by sharp and stoic grey plates of thick concrete fly-overs that help you get quicker to where you will not stay anyway. I often go to Pune, and every time I take the fly-over to head towards the Expressway, a late-eighties cell-and-tissue-combination in my heart dies a lonely death. Some psycho-somatic mechanism almost denies entry to those memories.

But, coming back to the point, I hate the rain.

I really do. And ironically, my self-proclained-and-personally-discovered roots are in Konkan, and I spent formative years in Goa. Imagine, I call Mumbai — Home. I think, since I started driving, rains in Mumbai have banged in the last nail in a rotting coffin. But, I try and remember, and, I have never liked rains. Not as a kid, because you couldn’t go out and play. Not as a commuter, because I start two-hours earlier for a thirteen-kilometre ride (and yet I am not sure). There is something about rains that seems so “arresting”.

Go out, get wet!

Right. Water in my mobile phone. Fading driving license; thrice wet since it was issued. Wet currency notes that need to come under an iron. Soggy cigarettes that are anyway useless, because the bloody match-box is a hopeless lump of phosphorous, devoid of a spark, even. They still haven’t invented practical wipers for the glasses on your nose. Can’t take photographs – ever heard of a working wet camera? There isn’t even anything really romantic about the rains, unless you are on film set and have a director who can manage your smallest action. In real life, the girlfriend is always on the 5:56pm Karjat-Slow that is late because of the rains. (And she couldn’t call you because she had water in her mobile phone. Imagine this scene as you wait and watch the shoe-shine boys at Ghatkopar station, for ninety minutes, creating a ruckus with their wooden implements. Continuously. Without a break!)

Rain and wash-outs, have an illegitimate relationship.

I have seen the freshness and the squeaky-clean sense that you get after a rain. Rains clean everything. They affect your thoughts, if you are in the rain. I have had, many opportunities to be in a dry place with large windows and a very comfortable chair. Those (very few) instances where I did not need to get somewhere in the same dry state as when I started, when it was pouring outside.

I love watching the rain.

Night of Heavy Rain - 2

When rain doesn’t touch me, it does not wash-out anything. It brings back a-small-smile-on-your-face memories. And that dry place that you are in, with a glass of chai that reminds you of Anna (and his well-oiled moustache) and reminds you of Abhijit who can never laugh with his eyes open. Or the glass of Old Monk and Thums-up stirred with your ring-finger, that reminds you of Mahesh’s theory of how love really happens. That place and time is my happiest place and time on the face of this warm and parched earth.

It is not nostalgia. Oh, hardly.

It is not raking in the past like cleaning up the dry leaves orphaned on the ground. It is not a time-traveler’s wish. It is not the pangs of wanting to get back to those times. Neither is it the craving for a carefree life. It definitely is not a judgement on living a life of responsibilities. It is an acknowledgement of how beautiful a life we have led. This life, not any other.

It is proof of life.

Hey Sweetheart – II

Love is a wondrous thing.

A few days ago, a post that I wrote about my first love caused mayhem on my page view statistics. Thanks is due where thanks is due. It almost reminds me of the Sensex – one moment you are happy with the averageness of an investment going well and a sudden bullish run excites you. As a keen follower you even know that it will peak and trough at whim. The run continues – breaking every tenet that you believed in. It crosses the limits you have known and imagined. What use, however, this bullish run for an investment that you don’t intend to cash-out?

Every city in this world is like that.

Swiss Re

Just when you start believing that you know the city, it will ever so slightly present you with that one look that will mesmerise you with a psychedelic flash you have never known before.

London is a speaking city.

It has made it to the list of my only three cities in the world. It has now begin teasing me. I see its naughty smile every time it presents one of its new faces. I smile back, part sheepishly, part enjoying it. And, it doesn’t need a time and place to do that. On the platform, in the underground tunnels, on its colourful happy streets, over its many bridges over the river. Through transparent odd-shaped glass buildings. Every corner and street and shop and building has a story. Some are hushed, some are old, some are new.

I found a way to talk to London. It was a bit difficult in the initial days – I was still learning the language. I am now fluent. It is much more fun, now. December 12th, without warning, while walking towards my tube, in Victoria, I heard it loud and clear. It was the sweet voice of knowing. The friendly warmth of bear-hug. Wordless expression of affection. You’d think, if my eyes hadn’t swelled, I might have just missed it in the din of the isolating iPod tentacles in my ears. But, no, this voice doesn’t need ears, it needs a heart in love. You could ask me to do a reality check and ask if I am really talking of my love for the winter, the treacherous icy pavements, the chance to wear overcoats and wool, the microscopic icicles melting after laboured breathing. But I love London in the winter, I love it in the summer. I love it all twelve months of the year. Not even the done-to-death-grey-clouds do me in. The rain – I hate it anywhere.

I felt no pang when I left Mumbai one January morning two years ago. I know now – I will not feel it when I leave London.

This is my City.

When you know that a city belongs to you, staying or leaving is irrelevant.

You carry the city in your heart. Some of you who have read my post about Mumbai, may be amused to think that I have an exceptionally massive heart to carry two cities (amongst other things) in it. In an inexplicable way, it is the other way round.

Yet, I carry the city in my heart. It lives in my soul.

PS: Some people who know me and my life more than some of you, may be tempted to derive and construct an apparently obvious meaning of this post. Don’t. PPS: Part 1 happened here.

Hey, Sweetheart!

People who go on about the city and have an unconditional love for Mumbai must be blind. Or just plain insane. Even careless, perhaps.

All the people who easily notice the squalor and shortcomings of this city must be thinking that. They must be thinking that about me.

Stay in a city in the developed world long enough to get even slightly used to its standard of living, and it is easier to relate with those who bash Mumbai about every thing that is amiss in this city.

There are many things wrong with this city – I won’t get into those – many have carefully analysed all those shortcomings. Traffic, weather, crowds, slums, roads, culture – bring in whatever – there is some issue with it all. I recently even read about the Mumbai class divide – as divided by the local trains; well presented. All has been highlighted and spotlighted. Even the media loves it all – when there is a lull in Delhi, Mumbai takes the brunt of the journalist’s enthusiasm to bare it all.

I finished reading Sacred Gamesa day before I was to come back to the city. Shantaram came to mind as I finished the book and wrote about it, hoping it will pass off as a review. Both these books had one character that wasn’t officially credited, yet it figured prominently in both the books. Shantaram described the smell of Mumbai when he landed here:

I know now that it’s the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it’s a sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love.

I never noticed that smell, or any smell for that matter, in the city in this overtly philosophical manner. Perhaps, my olfactory nerves had been dulled by the constant fumes of all that this city can smell or reek of. I gave it a shot this time. I remembered to tune up my nose for when I landed. As soon as I landed out on the ramp, I took in a few deep breaths. Nope. No difference. Even after having spent more than four months in London. Hate, love, greed, perspiration – nothing.

Yet the squalor that most people, unfortunately, notice as the first thing about the city was obvious. After the four months, i.e. I noticed it, felt it jarring my sight, which had otherwise been used to some order and predictability of what you might see in a city.

There is, of course, much more to Mumbai than all of this and I won’t talk of the spirit of the city – which has been done to death (and yet survives).

While I didn’t smell anything esoteric on the ramp, in the immigration counters, or even as a stepped outside, I did feel love – like a huge bear-hug that envelops you in itself, have you ever had one of those? When you can’t see beyond the shoulder that your cheek rests on, when tears flow as a result of the constriction of the hug, when the heart behaves as it has never before, randomly beating and missing its litany as if it doesn’t know how to react to this new-found situation, when you don’t feel like slowly releasing the hug – wishing you could stay in that-a-way forever.

Feeling the love. The love that happens after a long courtship, yet not the teasing kind. The one that promises to stay true without making any overt romantic promises. That one love that will die only when your heart stops beating.

And you see that I fall in the same trap – attempting to cook philosophical mush by pouring in word spice to describe such an overwhelming and surrounding feeling. Words are treacherous – they confine you to a small world and put blinders and make you see one side of the story.

I would never be able to write a book about this city. I never experience anything so esoterically fine that I can describe as a characteristic. I don’t feel the throbbing of its heart resonating with mine.

I carry the city in my heart. It lives in my soul.

Related post: Hey Sweetheart – II

Of Airports

I love airports.

They are a nice place to shatter your preconceived notions about life around the world. Not necessarily so that you can scream in your blog about the great leveller, whether first-world or third-world – the fundamentals of people in transit don’t change, but to know, for your own consumption. People from all over the world share that space for a short time and take off in multiple directions in a span of two or three hours. Airplanes, like thoughts, come and go in every direction, carrying with them people: some happy, some stressful, some sad and more often than not, just tired minds and bodies; carrying with them the additional burden of thoughts of the people they carry.

We never see the many worlds we live in and pass through.

In today’s uncertain and suspicious times, airport navigation has become stressful, no denying that. Somehow, I prefer that to the misery of an undesirable event on an airplane that I am on. Stressful, however is only as stressful as we make it. Ninety-five out of a hundred times, I have been able to cross through the queue without incident. (There should be a saying, ‘the moment you utter your luck it goes away’). All you need to do is do what they say. I see people make it just stressful for themselves by insisting on doing their own things – applying opinion as logic against a defined process. They are the rebels with their useless causes with their later belligerent conversations. Small victories that assert their pointless argument about a twisted personal logic of managing security. The person on the other side of the x-ray monitor doesn’t derive devilish pleasure for the harassment that is not. If you aren’t too busy stressing yourself out – see her face, read what’s on her mind.

Cooperation gets a completely new meaning.

Our inability to see beyond the x-ray machines and security cameras and process restrictions inhibits a good moment at the airport. See the slow arrival of the metal beast at the gate through a thick glass that trembles at the beast’s roar. See the nose of the aircraft in isolation, you might find it childishly cute. See the family at the other corner of the seating area and the children playing with their aircraft inside the airport on the carpeted tarmac. See the strong hands on the cement tarmac outside loading your overweight bags in the belly of the beast. See the uniformed sports team from Augustana College bound for Milan. See a few of your co-passengers getting in touch with friends, family and workmates on phone and free wireless; see the silent ones getting in touch with themselves. See the smiles in-spite of everything.

A Coloured Sky

Our preconceived notions and belief in misery cloud our eyes and line of sight.

If you didn’t have a camera at hand and wanted to carry a picture with you, so that someday, three years later, you would like to come back to that same chair, and congratulate your past-self about a promise you made today, will you be able to confine that image to memory? That image of the strong black vertical and horizontal black metal frame holding clear glass, dotted with rain through which you saw the sturdy aircraft preparing itself for the long haul, just like you, preparing yourself for your personal long haul. The grey-blue of sky cut through a straight line of green on the ground far away. The scissor hi-lift loading food and the conveyor belt loading the baggage for the journey. That image of you on a cushion-less leather chair near Gate 13 at Barbara Jordan Terminal in Austin, TX, cross-legged, chin resting on your hand, elbow delicately balanced on a thin armrest, an open notebook with scribbles ambitious of being the words that will be your history someday. Will you be able to confine that image to permanent memory?

Your camera can capture all that you can see, never capture how you see yourself.

I love airports.

In Tolerance

The first time I was meaningfully exposed to tolerance was in an electronic manner. I was learning to put together radios and stuff and had to learn a lot about resistors, capacitors and transistors. Funny, these components, even devoid of the electronics context, are so meaningful.

I learnt putting together radios too early, so I can’t put radios together anymore, all is forgotten. I can however, still turn on a radio and choose a station I like. And I am content with that. But I remember what tolerance meant, as a concept. Wiki now tells me it is permissible limit of variation. I agree – that’s close to what I remember.

I saw the NEFA post this morning, even before I saw the news feeds. I read the other linked posts.

Somehow, I thought of Set Theory, they teach it at a very early age nowadays – my six-year old niece knows that apples are not oranges but both are fruits. They use baskets and real things, instead of Venn Diagrams. But I digress.

In my own mind tolerance is mute acceptance of a thingy without experiencing high levels of disgust. Silence, you see has myriad meanings. Something snaps when that disgust level is achieved. My teacher could tolerate the lack of attention in my class, but she could not tolerate my argument with my friend about Batman’s superiority over Superman. I remember it like yesterday, “I will not tolerate this behaviour in class.” Out I went of the class! In that, was my first exposure to the T-word, but a meaningful exposure came much later. Electronics: trying to get some signal out of a radio. Then in college, we had a Professor, who oh-so-well explained tolerance, and said “OK” in a reassuring manner, every other fifth word. This time, there were numbers and Greek symbols surrounding the resistors, capacitors and transistors. We needed calculators because from being a concept, it was now real. If that dull diode didn’t light up or lethargic needle on the ammeter didn’t move, someone in the chain was being intolerant, or obtuse, I thought. Rather than calculate and get the right number, we adjusted the current or the voltage or something so that the dim diode could redeem this world of darkness. You see, we tolerated the damned diode. Don’t be getting all technical on me – I don’t remember a thing we did in the lab. I just know that we did something and that darned diode did light up. Sixteen years on I still have nightmares about getting that drowsy diode to light up or the potassium permanganate to pipette out colour in that insipid beaker.

But the concepts stuck. They stuck hard.

Like Set Theory. And set theory is probably another way to describe intolerance (or tolerance). There aren’t just those few faiths any more, you know? X tolerates Y, but doesn’t tolerate Z. There is a plethora of variables now. A single person has multiple faiths. Faith is no more limited only to religion; it is also about lifestyle choices; it is also about standards and values.

What is the tolerance threshold for two people of the same religious faith, one of who smokes and the other doesn’t. Do they tolerate each other because of the same religion or are intolerant because of the lifestyle choice? Add another person and another religion. Permute. Where is the intersection? Add another person; we now have four, add another lifestyle – food choices – organic and non (believe me, this will soon become a faith by itself, if it hasn’t already). Complicate it just a bit by saying that Person A and Person D do the same job but have different standards and values that they attribute to work. Permute and combine. Calculate. How do you depict the Venn Diagram? What are the possibilities and which one of them will hold true? Does the context in which the possibilities occur make a difference?

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that we now have multiple variables, and the permissible limits are lesser.

A New Year starts Today

You have an amazing gift of expression, yet you choose to be silent about it? Even though you feel so strongly about it?

Perhaps, because, I feel so strongly about it.

I don’t understand.

You don’t need to; it’s the law. You just have to follow it. Your comprehension, reasoning, feelings and beliefs don’t matter a whole lot, unless you are willing to waste your earning on fines and your time in jails. The current cost of expression is very high. Expressing what you feel has been demoted to personal worthless ranting, for, the purpose of expression, debate and change just doesn’t work any more. Words are hardly an agent for change – they just are dried ink on paper or bytes on a hard-disk somewhere. For those that were supposed to listen, if they would, there are enough words out there for them, stronger and clearer than I can ever articulate. Imagine that you have so much money that you don’t need to keep track. What purpose does that money serve if you have lost the will to spend? Words are the currency for those that are willing to listen. If I express what I feel, I’ll end up feeling even worse and my misery even bitter.

Does that mean you submit? Is there no concept of a cause for you anymore? No purpose left?

You say that with some sense of indignation, be careful, you may be mistaken for belonging to this side of the argument. But, these are different times. You are probably thinking that this is some kind of a start of a freedom struggle of sorts, or even the end of it. It is not. If any rights have been violated, as some people are saying, then it isn’t anything new, you know that. When I face the barrel of a gun, there isn’t a concept of a right – fundamental or otherwise. Life is precious – only because of its innate nature to offer you an option in the future. Why are people afraid of dying? The end of life in itself is hardly ever a cause – the impossibility of exercising options is what evokes fear. The end of possibilities is what death signifies more than anything else. It is the sustained process of a Big Brother society. Just because Orwell’s 1984 didn’t happen twenty-three years ago, it doesn’t mean that it never will. If George could think of it in those times, then the seeds were sown long ago, weren’t they?

I am not sure where you are going with this.

There is nowhere to go with this or anything else. It is prosecution on undetermined values. This is just another brick in the wall.

What does that mean? There is more to come, you think so?

Lesser, I think, on the contrary. I should write that down somewhere, I like the irony of what I just said.

Lesser of what?

Lesser of everything. In fact even a nothing of a few things. Ingredients in food, concepts of pleasure, fashion, enterprise of entrepreneurship, evolution of intelligence, maintenance of privacy, power of reasoning, freedom of expression, even assertion of independence – lesser of all that. The abolition of the undocumented fundamental right of being yourself. But yes, much more of sweeping power to a few.

But that’s not true of the entire world.

And I don’t know what powers I should thank for that! I will gladly go to places that aren’t yet hugely infected with this dogma, that aren’t trying to outdo each other in this apparently all-appealing propaganda. In any case, hopefully I will be long gone before the entire world looks the same, behaves the same.

Are you complaining about sameness? If the basic unit of life in this world, humans, humanity, humanness, whatever you call it, is the same, the core values the same, then isn’t it a natural characteristic of the world to be the same or at least tend towards being the same?

Yes, it is. Unfortunately we don’t recognise it as such. We still have the pairs of opposites that we use to recognise all humans and humanity – our eyes are bi-polar in that sense – and so is our basic reasoning ability. The black and the white, first-world and third-world, east and west, high-rises and shanties, military and civil, good and bad, spiritual and material, old and new and the one distinction that defines us all – the haves and the have-nots – or at the cost of screwing grammar and inventing words that are never used – the cans and the cannots.

So, in your version of the new same-world there will be no opposites? All will be same in all respects.

No, the only change from this diverse world to my version of the new same-world, and I do like the term you have coined, is that there will be only one pair of opposites – them and us. The ‘them’ will tell the ‘us’ what can be done and the ‘us’ will follow.

In short, 1984.

Perhaps. Yes. Only I don’t think there is a ‘single’ Big Brother in there somewhere – seems more like a brotherhood.

The corporations, you mean?

Far from it. Though the word ‘company’ does come to mind for some reason. But it has nothing to do with creating or building anything of value.

I think your approach is hopelessly fatalistic. Your imagination is taking over reasoning. Surely this one event cannot begin spelling the doom?

My imagination, my dear friend, has always been fecund and ever-ready to take flight. As for my reasoning, it has been always primary at best. In any case it has no place in your new same-world.

Mine? You invented the concept.

Yes, but you gave it an identity – defined its raison d’être. As for this event, like I said before – just another brick in the wall. It is just one of a series of unfortunate events, with due credit to Lemony Snicket. It is not society’s nature to reverse a misdoing. It so convincingly believes in its own action, that it marches relentlessly forward – never a turn, never a pause. It ‘corrects’ itself only by adding on. And coming back specifically to this event, it has affected me personally, therefore this need to introspect.

You believe in it, don’t you – the shape of things to come?

Shape is the limit of form, Plato said, there isn’t any other way you can define shape. Our society, unfortunately is taking shape by limiting all that it can, in a way limiting itself in a very odd shape.

The last cigarette in the enclosed place here that would be the silent witness to our dialogues saw its death. He almost caressed it as he let it go. While I knew of his options of being able to live his life according to his values, I couldn’t help believing that with that dead cigarette, something deep inside had ceased to exist. Not just for him, but also perhaps for all of us – but we were far from realising it.

Coach 78519

Sometimes we don’t relate to the environment around us. Sure, we recognise it – days, months or years of being in it makes everything look familiar, yet there are times when it instantly becomes alien. We tread through it, interact with it, transact with it even – almost subconsciously – zombie like as if some well-oiled gears somewhere have automatically been programmed to respond to the environmental stimulus. Somewhere beneath, however, the sense of it all being foreign nags persistently.

It is perhaps the overexposure of the environment and our implicit unconditional acceptance of it all. So much so that we tend to ignore small changes that happen in our environment – often tripping over them, nearly falling down, steadying ourselves, only half-noticing the small changes.

And it is these small changes happening over a period of time, over and over again, which we ignore as too trivial to be noticed, that one day completely change the complexion and make us wonder why we feel alienated in something that we know so well.

You enter a train and you know everything around you – the smell as soon as you enter the carriage, the hard cushions of the seats, the scenes out of the windows, the familiar sound of the wheels on the track.

You are the same too – except a few crinkly wrinkles that have become permanent after years of laughter – the only sign perhaps – of how much you laughed once upon a time. And all the small changes zip past you – like the angles of the roofs of homes – built as if out of a mould, devoid of any sense of identity.

All this while, your eyes fixate the coach number.

A Discrete Process of Abstraction

Sitting on the Stairs

A thought is never born abstract. It follows a discrete process in becoming abstract.

Thoughts become abstract as they become devoid of context, not by themselves – the thinker does it. The context is removed, often out of choice and sometimes by chance. The achievement of abstraction isn’t that simple however.

There is always an event or an incident which triggers a thought. At that time, it is a full and a discrete thought – abundant in context. Then the thought is slowly stripped off the details of the event. The location is made anyplace, the moment becomes timeless, the names become pronouns. The thought is now generalised. This galvanises the thinkers’ grey cells. The generalisation appeals to the thinker; his mind salivates at the further possibility of softening the edges: he then finely hammers away at the slightly rough edges.

The once discrete, tangible and easily digestible thought becomes abstract as abstract can be. The thinker stands back and imagines the thought as it originally struck him – he recalls the fine details and sees the details in his mind – and smiles proudly at how those fine details reflect in the abstraction he has just created.

He hangs it out for the world to perceive.

In the gallery, the perceivers appreciate the thought – first in its abstraction; for the sake of abstraction – as an absolute. They then do the same that the thinker did when he stood back and proudly looked upon his creation. The perceivers attempt to reflect a few details in the mirrors of abstraction – they do the exact opposite of what the thinker painstakingly did in the first place – they add context – only this time – they add their own context. The thought slowly unfolds itself to them – not as the thinker originally received it – but as they choose to receive it. The abstract thought now appeals to the perceiver. They have context.

The perceiver has now become the thinker. The same process follows again – the thought now propagates through these thinkers.

If the perceiver seeks the context from the thinker, however, all the fine chiselling has come to a nought.

It’s About Time

There isn’t enough of it, or there is so much in surplus, we don’t ever know how we should use it. It keeps ticking (or blinking) on devices which tell us its value only at ‘that’ instant.

Sometimes it just goes away, sometime it never comes. It takes up every moment of our lives. But, that’s its nature isn’t it? We never know how much we have of it – it is the only thing other than life that is free – doesn’t cost anything – yet its value increases as it is expended. The lesser you have, the valuable it becomes. It is just right sometimes; very wrong in certain instances.

The one thing – the only thing that is only ours – is the one thing that we share with everyone in the world, yet it remains ours for us to use, abuse, or waste as we please. We ask for more (as if it wasn’t enough that we have it all anyway) from others – I need more time from you. Can I have some of your time? Time is a currency of sorts – we ask others to “spend” it for us. We even give names to the types of time – periods that are apparently more cherished than the others – weekends, holidays, and festivals. Some of us think of gaining time as we cross time-zones – or losing it (depends on the direction of your travel). We have built icons to celebrate this one phenomenon which we are yet to understand – right from the Jantar Mantar to the Big Ben to a Rolex. These physical manifestations are an endeavour of our purported ability to “keep” time. All we have been able to keep are the physical symbols – the concept is long lost. In this sense – time is ours – only ours – others need to manage it whichever way they can. We adorn ourselves with Casios, Espirits, Swatches, and Titans – rendering jewellery of the one thing that was given to us as a free gift at birth.


We think of bad times. Time is so pure in itself, it doesn’t have any character or polarity – there are bad incidents – that occur at times. Time, doesn’t have a negative or a positive. How unfortunate that we remember incidents by date and time – not by the cause.

Something that comes free to us has no value and therefore no respect. What if time wasn’t available to us as freely as it is available? Imagine if you had to ‘purchase’ time? Imagine if it had tangible value – and therefore a transaction – would we treat time differently? A friend once spoke casually of time as a commodity – traded on the stock market – does that send shivers down your spine? It did for me – for that ‘one moment’ in time.

Is respect therefore an economic concept? A concept based on the surplus and cost? Do we respect only that which we are able to ‘procure’? All else is a given?

I have time to write this post, you have time to read it – and at that instant we have other million things that are slipping down the priority – how would we rather ‘use’ time? Reading, writing, travelling, hang-gliding, sculpting, working, studying, or researching?

It is the only dimension that we have been able to measure, yet never traverse. Lengths, breadths (depths), and heights have been conquered. And I believe there is good reason for that. The purest of all dimensions, the most absolute of all has inherent within it a lesson for all of us. Maybe it is the same lesson – maybe we all need to learn different version – there is a lesson nevertheless.

An evening out on the 7th of November at the Carpenter’s with R is good time, for some stimulating thought. Worth the wait in the cold – time well ‘spent’. Here’s to good times!

PS: Moblogged, possibly need to correct typos and sp mistakes.

A Travel Story Unravels

“Your sister just promoted you to the next generation,” was the excited announcement from Nagpur. It is a happy late evening on the 21st August in 1996. I am alone in the metropolis and all my family is with my sister at that maternity home in Nagpur. Dad is supposed to leave for South Africa in four days, and since he will not be able to see his grand-daughter, he is in Nagpur to see his daughter. My train tickets to reach Nagpur on the due date are booked. Everything is planned. But my niece has something else planned. She wants to see her grandfather before he leaves for South Africa. The guy who isn’t supposed to be there when she is born, calls the guy who is supposed to be there when she is born, and gives him the news. I call the airline to check if I could get that expensive ticket which I cannot afford, to Nagpur. The next available flight is day after. I call all private bus operators. All of them have left or were leaving in a few minutes. Not a chance, not a seat.


All the frenzy of finding a convenient passage to Nagpur came to a naught, and here I am, twelve-odd hours later, 22nd August already, at Bhusaval Junction waiting for Maharashtra Express, and out of the blue it strikes me that there is actually a feature film named after a railway junction, or perhaps sleep deprivation is making me imagine things. As I await the train’s arrival, I think I should write as I have nothing else better to do. As I look for paper to write the events of last night I wonder if I am the only one who has had this sudden enthusiasm to write in between a journey. Not a single railway counter or any of the A.H. Wheelers sell a notebook or any thing that resembles one. I rummage through my hastily packed sack, if I am carrying anything that can be written upon. I find a pocket diary and make the ink and paper come alive with my thoughts:

I think this is a very apt place to write what I am writing. And I hope I have enough enthusiasm to put this down – maybe just tear these pages and stick them in the travel book that I propose to keep.

Well, the pocket diary was an apt place because it is titled “Voyage 1996” and has a travel theme all over it with quotes about travel on all pages. One of them, by St. Augustine, put appropriately in the month of August, says:

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.

And I stopped writing because I didn’t know how much I wanted to write and what if I ran out of paper? More so because I was determined to make a travel book – NOW!


The Maharashtra Express is consistent in its delays. Rarely is it ever on time – anywhere. On this 22nd August it is late and living up to its reputation. I am told by the friendly porter that it’s about ninety minutes late. The ‘coolie’ on any railway platform in India is a mobile enquiry office.

IMG_2597 - Version 2

I walk out of the station and a few steps out in dusty Bhusaval I spot the Trivedi General & Provision Store. I scan the store and imagine that it had seen better times. Senior Trivedi is in his pyjamas and a vest that has aged and coloured with his birthdays, which I doubt he ever celebrated. There is no colour in the store save for some glass jars with bright coloured candies that I had stopped eating long ago. It is dark inside the store, even on a sunny afternoon. The store is lost in time and isn’t aware of a liberalized economy and the rupee becoming convertible. I wonder if Sr. Trivedi cared, even if he was aware. The store did make sense for me, because it sold notebooks. Nine rupees later I would have my own travel book. I only have to decide if I want Salman Khan or Sridevi to adorn the cover of my notebook. I finally settle for Salman. The junior Trivedi probably wondered what city boy like me was doing out his comfort zone buying one school notebook, maybe he even wondered why I didn’t choose Sridevi. I ask him for a sheet of the old newspapers he uses for packing the loose grain and sugar that he sells. He isn’t amused – why do city people need to wrap their notebooks? As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want anyone to think that I was a fan of the movie star adorning the cover of my notebook.

That notebook which I bought in Bhusaval that late morning. The same notebook!

That notebook which I bought in Bhusaval that late morning. The same notebook!

I neatly cover the notebook, as I walk back to the station, with the quarter page of the newspaper which has an obscure tender advert sourcing steel pipes for a government agency I didn’t know existed. I am very excited now. I have my travel book. I should give it some fancy name, I should define a genre of writing my travel escapades, and the handwriting should be neat, unless of course I am writing in the train or a bus. More thoughts race through my mind than trains through Bhusaval Junction. The Refreshment Room on Platform No. 1 would be a good place to start my travelogue. I was nearly smiling to myself on the acquisition of my brand new travel book – how easy it is – just wish hard enough and act on it – and sure enough anything can be yours. As I approach the Refreshment Room, I wonder how long I will be able to sustain the heavy smell of mustard oil. My shallow breathing betrays my olfactory stamina.

On Platform No. 5, there are six drinking-water taps and all of them share a common sink. Four of them are labelled “Cold Drinking Water”, in the standard stencilled Indian Railway font. The other two provide “Fresh Drinking Water”. When a larger percentage of your life is based on assumptions and intuition, it did seem to make sense to me that the “Fresh Drinking Water” was, water at room temperature. I, however, am amused as I imagine what a foreigner would make of this odd instruction. Was the cold water not fresh? I may have looked odd to my fellow passengers, smiling my way away from the funny water sink.

So here I am, defeated by the mustard oil, and amused by the six drinking-water taps, on the other end of Platform No. 1, on a doughnut bench that surrounds a massive multifunction pillar. It is painted in an unknown colour between sky-blue and cyan, and holds together the asbestos roof of the platform, provides the support to hold the tube lights, holds signage and small billboards, carries more wires on its two metal branches than the sixty-four thousand kilometres of rail track in this country, and logically divides the platform in two. And we were told the trees are more giving. Man just imitates nature and imagines himself to be God.

I drive off a half-naked underfed kid who insists on giving me a “butt polish”, because my shoes are fine as they are and I want to start my travel book. I see the diminishing anticipation in his eyes of earning a couple of rupees after I have driven him off for the sixth time. Not many passengers there wear leather footwear – he settles down beside me and waits for more city people wearing leather footwear to come to Bhusaval Junction.

The railway sweeper is in full flow, ridding the platform of all that we didn’t need and decided to leave on the platform. His actions are almost robotic – with extreme and complete lack of concern for your feet on the platform, forget your presence. The moves are standard and practiced, the pattern is predictable. The platform is clean. His conversation with the porter continues, his work undisturbed, he doesn’t need to look at the porter or disturb his conduct. I get myself another cup of tea in one of those heavy white chipped cups. The cup weighs thrice as much as the tea that it carries. The tea is lukewarm, watery and definitely enjoyable.

There is a definite promise in this journey.


Yesterday night, VT Station. There isn’t a train to Nagpur from Mumbai at ten in the night. There is one that goes to Gorakhpur at half-past eleven which went through Bhusaval Junction. Incidentally, the Indian Railway (IR) is undecided about the English spelling of Bhusaval or Bhusawal. So I jump in the unreserved compartment of the Kushinagar Express and decided that I’d find the best way to get to Nagpur from Bhusaval. Now, in spite of the meticulous planning to be in Nagpur on the appointed day, I have no plan. I have a mission. I also decided that I would find out why the Gorakhpur train is called Kushinagar Express. Also somewhere, I was challenging myself to prove to me that a good life in the city hadn’t weakened my adventurous spirit.

If you’ve ever done what I did, you’d know that the unreserved compartment of any train is Little India. In complete chaos and least resources, everybody manages well for themselves and becomes comfortable as the journey progresses. All my efforts to cajole the TTE to get me a berth, bore no fruit.

Everyone has favourite seats. In an airline people ask for the window or the aisle, for example. When travelling in the Indian Railways, my favourite seats are the two single seats – they face each other; each has a window – I call them the RAC seats. You often get wait-listed when there is great demand; the IR allows for something in between the wait-listed ticket and a confirmed ticket. The RAC seats – Reservation against Cancellation. I think it’s innovative, if you really have to make the journey and are willing to spend the night sleeping in a seated position – you have the RAC seats. So here I was on a single RAC seat with a senior devout Muslim gentleman, who seemed uncomfortably content. Somewhat like me, perhaps. Little India, like I said. We share seats as we share faiths.

The train exits the station, and the unreserved coach takes on a new life, for the journey.

There is smell of cheap scents, sweat, the coach metal on everybody’s palms, beedies, and food packed in the afternoon, being opened. The smells meet each other in the air; play their ballet on a stage close to my nose. There is more skin contact with a stranger than you would have with a loved one. The coach becomes one soul for this journey. A blind musician looks at three morose yellow lights separated by a blue light on the arched ceiling of the train and plays an instrument that is in an intermediate mutating state from a sarod to a violin. It probably has a name; for no particular reason I feel ashamed I don’t know that instrument. Elsewhere there is the familiar click-click of a pocket comb coaxing the DC powered fan to begin its rounds. My co-passengers will eventually shut the yellow lights and in the blue night-lamp, I’ll remain. Shirts come off and non-chalant bellies protrude through vests as their owners relax for the twenty-odd hour journey to Gorakhpur. The father in front of me balances two overfed kids on each of his thighs. As we move out of Mumbai, people start finding their comfort zones and pass into peaceful interrupted sleep. I am too excited to sleep. My first own niece ever; what a feeling! My thoughts are interrupted as the kid in front of me stretches his legs, seeking space, even if it is mine. Excitement and young co-passenger’s comfortable feet on me deny me sleep. I fantasise I am Paul Simon, on my way to Graceland. I even have a travelling companion who is (somewhat) nine years old. I am awake and chugging in my own thoughts – planning my day ahead from Bhusaval. I am unable to formulate a plan. A thin cloud of anxiety starts building over me. I ignore the cloud. I see humans precariously placed on seats, luggage, gunny bags, and overhead luggage racks. Happy humans these, when you look hard, their eyes closed in proud achievements of having secured a place to rest, serene expressions hopeful of a better onward journey tomorrow, and relaxed bodies preparing for the inevitable struggle tomorrow. It seems to me then, there can’t be a plan for everything – I will find options – I have to exercise them when I encounter them.

I didn’t realize when, but somewhere after Igatpuri, I fell asleep.


The wool was green. Like algae having lost half their colour. She knitted at the wool furiously. A dull-blue-woollen skull cap adorned her head. It seemed she had woven it herself. The jacket was ready-made; her skirt and her bag were made of the same fabric. She definitely stitched it herself. Her Mediterranean features focussed on the fury, and knotted the long wool thread into meaning. Like a dream about to be realised.

There were earphones plugged in her ear – she was oblivious to the world around her; oblivious even to the bright eyes looking at nimble fingers working at the needles. Eyes, deeply set in a huge face, proverbially, darkened under African skies.

The melanin-deficient tweed jacket accented the colour of his face and his hands – the only visible skin of the huge body. In between the newspaper headlines and the darting of the eyes to the active needles of her wool-work – there seemed an eagerness for the destination. In the eagerness, the headlines didn’t seem to make sense. He worked on the mobile phone while he cursed for the signal that was as away as a lost love.

An empty seat away, far away from his ethnic origin, an oriental held his PDA a few millimetres away from his eyes; eyes that seemed to manage to see the world through soda glasses that heavily rested on an apparently delicate nose. Why would you get a screen so microsopically close to your soda glasses, yet look at the PDA screen through the gap of the soda glasses? Ah! Some eye defect, you think, but you are not sure.

Across him, the girl, in the expensive, branded, and tattered jeans seemed least bothered – about the gadget in the proximity of the eye; the bright African eyes undecided between the headlines and the needles bringing the wool together. About the needle woman herself; no, she was oblivious to the environment. Do I have to go through this drudgery before I experience fun? Does fun come at a cost?

She asked these questions to herself in a way that she couldn’t answer. She didn’t seem inclined to pose the question to me for an answer.

Far away I saw weary faces awaiting their destination as if it would be redemption. Like going back to a loved one; like calling an end to a tired day; like a beginning of sorts, or, possibly, an end of sorts. I wondered who said that the fun is in the journey – not in the destination. Did that person use public transport after a hard day of work?

Three minutes later the tube concluded its run for the night and announced its final stop. All were requested to ‘depart’. And, as Paul and Art said, we departed to allow the tube to continue its journey back into the ‘stony womb’ to help others reach a destination.

It was a hard day – so full of learning.

OCPD Blogging

A potential friend of mine is busy matching clips with clothes. While she is match making, here I am OCPD blogging away. I don’t have (or need) clips. Bloghopping is enough indulgence for me.

I read many “kinds” of blogs, viz., (a) days gone by with emotions twirled with the incidents of the day, (b) news items that have an opinion tagged to each one of them, (c) issues that make (or break) our country; happy to see youth apparently so involved (most of them away from the country), (d) abstract stuff, (e) poems – so personal – yet so encompassing, and (f) random stuff that I don’t understand.

There are of course those nice guys that are attempting consolidation; and their blogs are just that – consolidation of Indian Bloggers.

A friend of mine, who doesn’t talk a lot with me, is enamoured by my take on philosophy. I am like a philosophy shop. Hey, you butcher, give me half-a-kilo of philosophy. Like instant coffee, like a commodity. My blog is the eBay of philosophy – that doesn’t require credit cards – it’s free!

Free is a four-letter word. It is worse a word than the other famous four letter F-word you know. It is more insulting than that other F-word.

Free: it means that there is no transaction. It means that I don’t value your goods – tangible or otherwise. It means – I will not give anything in return. I will bleed you, by my whim. Worse – it tells you how I believe in the value of anything.

An artist friend and I had an argument once about the commerce of art. If you do it for yourself, I said, don’t ask for anything in return. If you do it for commerce, then don’t compromise. You are not compromising on your work – you are compromising on who you are – your values. My friend struggles, but she seems to be getting there.

I read a blog entry about capitalism, in a very different sense today. I am happy that we have people who still value the fundamental precept of capitalism.

I wish I could blog about simple things and put those smileys about my “mood today”. I guess I am not just cut out for that.

I did, like any of you, had incidents today, a blame that wasn’t mine, a lawyer in denial, a response that never came, I friend far away who doesn’t believe in chat as an alternative form of communication, another friend who I could wake up at 2:35AM his time and have a thirty+ minute conversation, a love that is ‘really’ away, and a 10-min call to explain the importance of email to another friend.

Art Garfunkel, in the Concert in Central Park said, “What a night!” I say, “What a life!”

The Value of my Money

What do you believe about money? What is its place in your mind? There have been many ‘definitions’ of what money is; many thoughts and many ideas. One of the most powerful thoughts about money – and more about it being the root of evil, is very well described in the speech by Francisco d’Anconia in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

However that is a very deep thought about the purpose and value of money and its relationship to men who possess it or don’t – their relationship and perception of money.

Yesterday, while waiting for a flight I saw two women stack up all the local currency that they had and I guessed they were doing what we all tend to do when leaving a country – dispose all local currency – especially if it is not easily convertible.

Crumpled pieces of paper started landing up on the table from all possible pockets and wallets. Soon you had a stack of various denominations surrounded by pints of Fosters. The plan was probably to have as much beer as residual local currency permitted.

My first reaction was disgust – not at the disposal plan – I do it all the time. I was disgusted at the way the money was being ‘thrown’ in. The currency notes were as crumpled as a love note that refused to swell in your heart. The notes were tossed in the “beer pit” as casually as grain being fed to birds. A few notes fell to the floor and they were picked up and tossed back in the pit with as much indifference.

In my growing up years, respect for money has been hammered into my head for years together. Parents and teachers ensured that we did not ‘play’ with money. Keep it safe and organised. We even have a festival where we worship money. Money has a ruling Goddess in the beliefs that I grew up with. I felt disgusted at the way the women were treating money.

When I churned these thoughts even more – I wondered whether I was thinking right and thinking enough. I wondered if I was being culturally myopic. World over I have seen money being treated very differently. The ethos of money that I learnt and grew up with is not the same for everyone. For most people, money is just a tool – a tool of exchange. Why and where does the concept of respect come in, then? Francisco said, “Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them.” Ahead, he says that money is, “…only a tool.”

My thoughts come from another part of his speech, where he says, “To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men. It’s the person who would sell his soul for a nickel, who is loudest in proclaiming his hatred of money—and he has good reason to hate it. The lovers of money are willing to work for it. They know they are able to deserve it.”

It, probably, then comes down to how you have made your money – that determines how you treat money. It determines how you use, abuse, or misuse money. It determines how you treat it – like a loved one? It demonstrates your own values about yourself. It describes how much importance you attribute to your efforts that got you the money.

How you treat money talks about how, deep down, you treat yourself and your own worth.