My Seven Favorite Hindi Stories: Part 3

August 31, 2008

6. Mare Gaye Gulfam (Phanishwar Nath Renu)

Hiraman, is a bullock-cart driver operating in the northern districts of Bihar, the parts abutting Nepal. He became a widower shortly after marriage. He has remained single ever since. He ekes out a living transporting all kinds of stuff (including, once, a circus tiger). One day he gets a passenger, Hirabai, a young and pretty nautanki performer who is traveling to join her new troupe. An immediate bond gets struck between the two due to the common root of their names (“Hira”). It is a long journey which Hiraman tried to make pleasant by singing village songs to her and also telling her stories about the region. His simplicity and the concern he shows for her through the two day long journey endears him to Hirabai. Hiraman in turn is completely taken in by her beauty, her voice, wafts of perfume emanating from her. Hiraman thoughtfully buys for her the rural repast of chiwda and dahi, and she asks him to have it along with her much to his embarrassment. They arrive at their destination and now is the time for them to part. Hirabai wants him to stay for a few more days and organizes free passes for Hiraman and his friends for the nautanki she is performing in. The nautanki experience is the first time ever for Hiraman. In the initial minutes of the commencement of the nautanki, a villager in the audience makes some vulgar remarks about Hirabai. Hiraman can not bear this and he beats up the guy. The show gets suspended as the mayhem spreads and the police is called in. It is then Hiraman tells the show manager that they are here as guests of Hirabai and hold special passes. Peace is restored. Hiraman watches this show for ten nights continuously enraptured by the aura of Hirabai. He has even decided to tell Hirabai not to work in the nautanki company but find a job elsewhere to avoid people from gossiping about her. The suddenly on the tenth day, he is informed by a friend of his that Hirabai is has summoned him at the railway station. He discovers that she is quitting the town and returning to here old nautanki company. There is an emotional farewell before the train leaves. Hiraman is totally shattered by this development. The story ends with Hiraman setting off to return to his village as he finds no charm in staying back when Hirabai is not around.

This story was written sometime in the late 50’s/ early 60’s by Phanishwar Nath Renu. A warm and at-once a heart-breaking story of a platonic relationship between two unlikely protagonists, a bullock-cart wallah and a nautanki dancing star. The way Renu develops the relationship, tentative initially, and then getting warmer; the bond which develops between the two. There is a lot of respect for each other, and mutual affection. She is more demonstrative of the two, calling him Mita, Ustaad, Guruji etc. She even places her hand on his shoulder to emphasize a point. He is ever respectful, but totally captivated by her. You cannot but help feel the deep anguish of Hiraman when he has to bid the final good-bye to Hirabai at the railway platform. You can nearly feel his eyes misting with the thought that she will not be around. Another beauty of this story is the evocative use of the language of the region. Here is what goes through Hiraman’s mind when he sees Hirabai having chiwda and dahi: “laal hothon par goras ka paras. Pahadi totay (parrot) ko doodh bhaat khatey huey dekha hai?” And his description of Hirabai’s voice: “Bachchon ki  boli jaisee maheen, phenugilaasi boli.” One could go on-and-on.

PS: This story was made into a movie- “Teesri Kasam”- starring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman. While it was a failure at the box office, it won the best feature film award in 1967. It had some great songs as well: “Sajan re jhooth mat bolo”, “Chalat musafir moh liya re pinjarey waali muniya”, “Mare gaye gulfam”, “Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar”, “Paan khaye saiyan hamaar”. The first two kasams referred to in the story are: One: Not to ferry contraband goods across the India-Nepal border as he got into some trouble doing this. Two: Not to ferry bamboo as he had got involved in an accident involving a horse-cart which was damaged due to the long bamboos being carried in his cart. And the third kasam he makes: Never again to take a nautanki dancer as a passenger in his bullock-cart.

7. Parda (Yashpal)

Choudhari Peerbakhsh, is the head of a large lower middle-class family. His forefathers were relatively well-to-do though the Choudhari’s immediate family has to survive with his meager salary of Rs 18 as a low-paid clerk in an oil mill. The salary has progressively risen in the past fifteen years from Rs 12 but this rise has not been enough to take care of the ever-growing family of an old mother, the couple and their five offspring. They stay in a rented house in a run-down working class locality with cobblers, washermen and laborers as neighbors. Choudhari is respected in his neighborhood thanks to his white-collared job and the fact that there is a parda (curtain) at the entrance door to his house. The parda is what protects the dignity of the Choudhari household, both literally and figuratively. Over generations the quality of the parda has degenerated, but a parda is a parda, irrespective of the material it is made of. The Choudhari is forever in penury, his salary refuses to keep pace with the growth in his family and the rising cost of living. His employer is loathe to give him advances and loans and consequently he takes recourse to the Pathan money-lender (“kabuli wallah”). The Pathan is easy with the loan but is tough on recovery. When Choudhari misses an installment, the Pathan makes a big ruckus and haunts the Choudhari day and night to recover it. The Choudhari tries to escape the visits of the Pathan till one morning he is accosted for the dues. The Choudhary pleads helplessness which the Pathan does not unbelieve. Thanks to the parda which hangs on the main door, the Pathan believes that the Choudhari is well-to-do and has assets hidden inside the house. Finally, in desperation, the Pathan tugs at the parda which falls off exposing the near naked female members of the household who have only this parda to take care of their modesty. The neighbors, who have been watching the going-on turn their heads away, the Pathan walks away in shame while the Choudhari faints in abject humiliation. When he regains consciousness he has no motivation to reinstall the parda as he now stands totally defeated and realizes that the parda, which concealed the household’s penury has no purpose left to serve anymore.

Yashpal’s easy style of narration accentuates Choudhari’s plight even more. The authors description of the ruses the Choudhari employs to fob off the money-lender may read a bit comical but you cannot but help a deep sense of sympathy for him. Reading this story even now even decades after it was published you can still empathize with the Choudhari. Even today you can still find many Choudharis around you while the credit card companies serve as the Pathans. The middle-class’ attempts to maintain the veneer (parda) of respectability and the lenders attempts to take back their dues.


Here are links to the other two pieces:

Link to part 1:

Link to part 2:

Those, dear readers, were my seven favorite Hindi stories. As I said earlier, such lists are very personal and you may have a different list of your own. Please share your selection with me. And do comment on how you found my piece. You could either post your comment here on this blog or you could mail me at Nothing like a comment from a reader to encourage a writer!

Here is a link to a site which has 5 of the 7 I have discussed here. Unfortunately, I could not locate Parda and Eidgah on the net, I am sure some diligent Googling would unearth these too.

Thank you for you patience.

Bhajiyas in Mauritius

August 23, 2008

Here is a story the edited version of which appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, today.


Bhajiyas in Mauritius


Mauritius is indeed a pretty island state, that was easy to see right from day one when we had gone there for a family holiday. What came as a complete surprise was the cuisine of place, so very Indian!


Nearly two-thirds of the population of Mauritius is of Indian origin, all descendants of indentured labourers shipped out by the British colonists to work in the sugarcane fields around 200 years ago. Most of these labourers came from Bihar and Eastern parts of UP. Through sheer grit these labourers dropped anchor in the island, got rid of their colonial masters and now they rule the country!


Over the centuries, the Indo-Mauritians have preserved their religion, culture and language (official language: French). And even the cuisine, right till the combination of spices.


The Sunday flea market in Quatre Bornes is as good a place if any to sample the snack foods of the Indo-Mauritians. Missing home food? No worries! Make your way to the countless stalls fronted with large grubby glass cases displaying their wares. Bhajiyas anyone? Rs 2 for each, take a bite and let the spices and the aromas waft through! Bhajiyas made from brinjal slices dunked into besan batter. Or may be mirchi bhajias? Buy one for Rs 2 and taste the heavenly dish. Bhajiyas are hugely popular here and are known as “baja“. Samosa is what you will not get here, but you will certainly get their diminutive version, the “samoussa“. As greasy and as inviting as ever as you can get at your favourite chaat shop back home in India! But the real fast mover has to be the spicy pakoda, so delicately christened gateaux piment (French for chilli cakes)! Seven spicy ones for Rs 10 and no sooner you are done with one pack of the gateaux piment, you reach out for another!


Should you prefer to have something more filling move on to the other stall, have some biryani (called “Briyani“) or have some roti instead. But the real winner is the soft dal-powder filled poori, a foot in diameter and as thin as a sheet of paper, soft-as-silk texture and a complete melt-in-the-mouth delicacy. Those from North India would recognize it as dalpoori. (For the others, consider it is a salt-plus-spice version of puran poli). Dalpoori is elegantly spelled as dholl puri,or even d’holl puri making it sound like something from the south of France but actually has its origins in the heartland of Bihar. Here we are at this stall called Chez Navin (literal meaning, house of Navin). Navin serves us dalpoori on handkerchief sized sheets of thin white paper with a ladleful of aloo-ki-sabzi and spicy chutney. And of course, it was difficult to stop at just one serving! Rs 8 for a Dalpoori. What a bargain!


Eating done, now proceed to Gopal and Sons next door for some liquid nourishment. Gopal sells just three items, “Jus Limon”, “La Mousse Noire” (black jelly drink) and “Alouda”. We decide to skip the nimbu paani and the jelly drink and settle for “Alouda” which I am sure must be the national drink of Mauritius. A cold refreshing concoction of milk, water, ice and strands of semiyan-like ingredient is just what you need after the heavenly snacks. Just Rs 15 vierre (glass). A liter of this sinfully delicious stuff must surely be strongly intoxicating, but we had much business left unfinished and we decided to stay contented with just a glassful.


And how can you not have sugarcane juice while at Mauritius. At the Caudan Waterfront we helped ourselves to glassfuls of fresh juice, Siro Pike (sugar cane juice) as the locals call them! Choice of ginger flavour and lemon flavour!


Even at the European tourist oriented hotel we were staying there was was this ubiquitous paratha (called faratta by the locals) served with sabji for both breakfast and dinner buffets amidst all the European food stuff.


Home food, anyone? Head to Mauritius!


How I Learnt (some) Bengali

August 18, 2008

I had no choice but to learn Bengali. I grew up in a suburb of Jamshedpur- Sonari West- where nearly 85% of our neighbors on our street were Bengalis. So I grew up listening to the language, from the domestic help to the shopkeepers, street vendors and all the odd-job men. Despite Jamshedpur being in Bihar then (Jharkhand came into being decades later) we, the Hindi/ Bhojpuri speaking family were considered a bit of a curiosity in the area! The neighboring Jetha Moshai, Kaku, Pishi, Boudi and everyone else would speak to us in Bengali assuming that we were all fluent in the language. Thinking back now, I suspect, despite knowing that we were not fluent in the language they would speak to us in their language anyway. The best concession they would make is the addition of some token Hindi to their Bangla. Like: “Ai chheley, tum amaar janno bazaar sey dim kinega?” (will you buy some eggs from the market for me?). “Nishchoi, Jetha Moshai”. (of course, Uncle).


So, did I have a choice but not to learn the basics of Bangla?


Not that I minded learning the language. In fact, I took it rather seriously and decided to learn how to read and write in Bengali as well. I obtained for myself the basic kindergarten equivalent text book and practiced writing the rounded, sensuously shaped characters. I would also occasionally borrow from our neighbours a kiddies magazine called “Shuktara” and would read up the comic strip “Handa Bhonda” is nothing else. Does the magazine (and the strip) still exist?


Sometimes my Hindi upbringing would get the better of me and I would read Bengali the Hindi way! One example which I still remember was the name of a house close to ours. It was called “Usha Tara”, and I would read it as “Ddesha Tara”, the “oo” in Bengali having a close resemblance to the Hindi D! Also the complicated “juktakshars” (conjugated alphabet) spook me even now despite my valiant attempts to master them!


There were opportunities to read Bengali aplenty. Starting from the political graffiti on the walls of the houses (Kangres ke bhot din– vote for Congress), to the shop signages (Joi Ma Tara Stationery Shop), to the wedding reception (bou bhaat) cards which would be received pretty frequently. One quaint line which found an invariable mention in these cards I still remember is “potrer dwaara trutir marjjina koriben”. Sometimes even the annaprashan (mukhey bhaat) cards would find their way to our household. I remember a mukhey bhaat invite from a neighbour which was actually a B&W picture of the poor cereal-starved kid with his face smeared in kajol. And the bold headline, which was actually an invite from the kid, saying, “Ami bhaat khabo”.


Talking about Bengali wedding receptions, these were something I looked forward to. The reason: the gorgeous food. Right from the slice of lemon (lemu) to the loochi, thick and sweetish chholar daal, maachh (fish) and mangsho (mutton). Climaxing with mishti doi and rosogollas. That was the era prior to the perfunctory buffets now so much in vogue. One actually sat down on sheet metal chairs while the food was served on leaf plates (pattals) hot from the kitchen. One would enter pandal and signages saying amish and niramish would welcome you. I would naturally head to the amish (non-vegetarian) section salivating at the thought of the heavenly mutton cooked in mustard oil!


Living where we were it was but natural that we would whole-heartedly participate in the Durga Puja celebrations. The excitement of waking up pre-dawn on the Mahalaya day and listening to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s sonorous Chandi Path crackling through our Murphy radio set. The joy of buying new clothes, one set for each of the three main days of the Puja (that was also the annual shopping for clothes for us). Going around the Pujo pandals with friends. The gorgeous Khichudi Moha Prosad served for lunch (you had to buy “tokens” in advance for these). The booming dhaak and the evening arati dance competitions. And then came Bijoya (Dashmi) when we would visit our Bengali neighbours, touch the elders’ feet (the elders between themselves would do kola-koli) and have lots of mehidanaa and sondesh. And yes, ghugni too along with some loochi)!


And the jatras! For those uninitiated, Jatra is an open-air theater derived from folk traditions. It does not employ any props and relies solely on melodramatic story lines enacted even more melodramatically. Actors enter the stage through the audience seated all around the stage. The musicians sit around the periphery of the stage albeit at a level below the stage playing loud music, tabla, harmonium etc; the music reaching a crescendo when some heightened action happened on the stage. Jatra, in short, was theatre at its most theatrical. And I would love it. The anticipation would start building up well before the Pujas with cycle rikshwas going around the locality announcing the name, date and the timing of the Jatra which climaxed into the final reminder on the day of the Jatra. “Bhulben na bodhu gon, aaj rat, dash ghatikay…..” etc. etc. The Jatra would be held in an enclosure next to the Puja pandal and we would go there equipped with a sweater or a shawl in case it got chilly late in the night. I have spent many a Puja weeping along with the plight the tragic hero would get into and the woes of the wronged heroine. Sapan Kumar and Sapna Kumari were a popular pair those days!


My knowledge of Bangla (if I may call my frugal repertoire Bangla words “knowledge”) these days surfaces at some very unexpected places. Like the time when I had an animated chat with the owner of an “Indian” restaurant in North Holland. (“Indian” is a descriptor of convenience for restaurants serving South Asian cuisine outside India. These are typically run by Pakistanis and mostly by Bangaldeshis.) After more than a week hearing Dutch, it was such joy to be able to speak with someone in a language so familiar. Besides, of course, the joy of eating roti and sabzi and daal.


I will end this piece with a little story about how my knowledge of Bangla earned me an eternally grateful acquaintance. Many years ago, when I was first began living in Bangalore in the early period of my career, I would visit the panwallah next to where I stayed to get my day’s quota of cigarettes. One morning, I saw from afar a gentleman in an animated discussion with my friend, the panwallah. Obviously the customer was not able to get his point across much to the chagrin of the pan-wallah who had many other customers to attend to. When I reached close I realized that the customer was a Bengali -a tourist from Kolkata. He was gesticulating wildly and nearly shouting, “Mouri hai? Mouri hai? Sheer desperation then, “Mouri, MOURI!” The poor panwallah had no clue what Mouri was. I decided to intervene and clarified that the out-of-towner was asking for some saunf, as simple as that!


I still remember the joy on the customers face on getting his request across! And the hug he nearly gave me for saving the day for him!

How I Learnt (some) Telugu

August 14, 2008

The first word I learnt in Telugu was oddu. Oddu means “I don’t want”. This was during my management trainee days in an FMCG company more than twenty years ago. Here I was, a greenhorn, set loose in Andhra Pradesh to learn how to sell. The work entailed visiting shop-to-shop, at least 40 a day (you were admonished if the score was lower) trying to get the shopkeepers to stock your products, and stock more if they were already selling your products. And oddu was the response one frequently encountered. Rare was the time when any in the trade ever said kurchundi (please sit).


Life got a little more complicated when I discovered other words in Telugu which expressed a negative response. Each means “no” but each is used in specific context. Kadu– it is not that, ledu– no, teliyedu– I do not know. Many a time when I was asked whether I need something (say, an additional helping of majjiga –buttermilk- during lunch) and I would respond ledu, evoking a funny glance from the waiter before he realized that I was new to Telugu!


My selling duties introduced me to Telugu counting. But the circumstances in which I really learnt how to count were completely different. I have written about learning the basic counting in an earlier post called “Booze Stories: Part One” on this blog. But a sales person needs something more advance than basic counting, for example quoting the price of a case lot of our product. The grandiose sounding Nalugu vandala muppai tommidi, irvai meant Rs 439.20. This price pertained to our fastest selling product for which I would rarely hear oddu, but mostly aaunu, or aaonundi (yes, please).


One beautiful word in the language- and I do not think there is an equivalent in any other Indian language- is the word for drinking water. Manchi Neelu. Neelu  means water, but you do not ask for just water when you want to quench your thirst, you ask for good water, manchi neelu. Manchi being the word for good.


And that reminds me of the “undies” of Telugu language. The suffix “undi” denotes respect. The aforesaid kurchundi translates in Hindi to baithiye while kurcho is baitho. And the Andhraites are sticklers for manners and respectful speech. So, oddu was not what they said, it was oddandi. “Nahin chahiye ji”!


But what I had a pretty difficult time reconciling to was the word for ‘’aaiye”. “Ra” is the word for “aao”. You guessed it right, “randi” is the respectful word which means “please come”, or “aaiye”.


Talking about politeness and manners, Telugu must be one of the most respectful sounding languages on earth. The soft, lilting Telugu heard in Coastal Andhra is a treat to the ears. Even very heated discussions would go thus:


Person 1:

What he actually says: “You are one dirty scumbag and you have no right to live after you have screwed me so royally.”

What this sounds to a non-Telugu observer: “You are the center of my universe and I will mostly humbly kiss the earth you tread upon”.


Person 2:

What he actually says “You really think I have screwed you? You have not seen anything yet, buddy. Wait till I unleash myself on various (female) relatives of your family.”


What this sounds to a non-Telugu observer: “Sir, it is you who inspires me to greater glories, I pray your life is filled with joy, laughter and happiness.


And so on and so forth.


Not that all of Andhra speaks such musical Telugu, it is just the reverse in Telangana and Rayalaseema.


In Rayalaseema (southern part of the state) they may even pepper the conversation with a few country-made bombs. Those familiar with the socio-political environment of Rayalaseema would know about the bomb-making cottage industry flourishing there.


And in Telangana (area north of Hyderabad), they would add a generous smattering of Hindi and Urdu words. Example: “Dimaak kharab aaipoinda?” (Have you gone nuts?).


The Andhra-ites love movies (the popularity of NTR being a good example), and I love movies too. So it was but natural for me to see some Telugu movies. The stories would be melodramatic, as any mass-appeal Indian film is. I would get-by with a brief introduction to the plot by a helpful colleague. I did learn a few words too in the process. I still remember the names of a couple of popular films of that era, “Jebbu Donga” (Jebbu= pocket, Donga= thief; pickpocket). Another filmy thief on the prowl those days was “Manchi Donga“ (Good Thief).


Telugu people love their music too. And I could not help but fall in love with the popular Telugu film songs. In fact I loved one of them so much that I hunted far and wide for the song and a recorded version is my prized possession even now. The song “Mabbulo yemundi, manasulo yemundi” (“what is there in the clouds, what is their in your mind”) is a classic song sung by Ghantashala and Sushila, the equivalent of Rafi and Lata. Maybe even better!


I even had the privilege of an encounter with a veteran singer, his name eludes me now, whose one popular song I still remember, “Ghumma lakdi, ghumma lakdi…”. We met in the overnight Narsapur Express on our way from Hyderabad to Vijayawada.


And do the Telugu people love food! I, despite this being my first stay or even a visit to the South of the Vindhyas, got hooked on to the Andhra cuisine. Do not get scared when other people describe it is spicy and warn you with dire events during the morning after ablutions. Just settle down to an Andhra meal (so endearingly called mealsu  colloquially in Telugu; bhojanam is the correct word but no one uses it) and dig into heaps of the lovely Nellore rice sequentially with pappu (daal), the globally famous gun powder (spiced daal powder, pappalu podi)+ghee, sambar, rasam and curd (perugu)/pickles and take sips of majjiga. Throw in a “Chicken 65” if you feel rich and have some rupees to spare. If the taste is still not spicy enough for your exacting standards there are always the two staples to fall back on: the zesty gongura pickle and the fried chillis). After this indulgence, you are most welcome to slouch on one of the couches in the reception area specially placed for this purpose. You may even catch a wink or two while you let the copious quantity of rice you have just consumed to settle in before you set out for the rest of the day’s work.


While I did manage to learn enough to survive in Andhra Pradesh, and some of the words are still there in my memory, there is one stupid mistake I continue to make. And this is one helluva silly mistake for a sales guy to make when he is out selling. Telugu questions end with the “aa” sound, and the answer is in the “ee” sound. For example, “do you want” is kawala and the answer should be, if you do want that is, kawaali. I, of course. would think in Hindi where if someone asks “chahiye” you say “chahiye” in response and then the deal is done. Here I was in Andhra, the green-horn sales guy trying to transact my business in broken Telugu, saying kawaala when the shopkeeper would soften up to my sales spiel and offer to place an order. “Order kawala?” I would respond “kawaala” with strong emphasis on the word hoping to indicate to the shopkeeper how keen I was to get his order. He would give me a quizzed look, wondering why this idiot (me) who is being offered his order asking the same question back to him (the shopkeeper)! However, Telugu people are intrinsically very polite and the shopkeeper would take the order book from my hands, fill in the order himself. I would quickly recover in the meanwhile and with a flourish request him to append his signature to the order; “santakam petandi, saar!” Order procured, task accomplished, it was time to move on to the next shop. Bagundi. Good!! Chala Bagundi, very good!


Ante kada. That’s all! Vastanandi! See you again!

Stationery Story

August 11, 2008

An abridged version of this story appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore (July 2008).


Sometimes I marvel at the (r)evolution there has been in the stationery kit of the average school students. In our days, the kit was simple and straight forward. There was a pair of pencils and an eraser. The “sharpener” was the old Erasmic shaving blade discarded by father (typically after 21-23 days of use; we could know this as father would write on the inner flap of the blade cover the date on which the blade was first used). The eraser of course was the basic one, a grey one branded “Sandow”. We used to eye with envy the very few guys who would carry a “scented” rubber, nice soft and white with a little multi-colour picture on one face. The pencil too had many designs. There was this plain vanilla cylindrical one which was the lowest priced, but the problem with this used to be that the tip would break pretty often and what was worse that the “lead” would occasionally slip out through the other end of the pencil. To counter this malfunction, there was another type of pencil which had a thick black lacquering at the non-writing end which would prevent the slippage of the “lead”. This design is still current and the accepted design. However, this had a small problem. Unlike the simpler version one could not sharpen both the ends to have a two-in-one pencil so useful in emergencies when one of the tips broke! The snazzy mechanical pencils were virtually unheard of those days. One or two kids (with-aunt-in-USA types) did have them, but these were objects of worship and were handled reverentially by the owners who would not part with them, not even for an innocuous demo!


And these aunt-in-USA types would also show off the set of felt pens (or sketch pens as they are currently called) which would turn us all green with envy. Whole sets of 12 or even 24 pens in a plastic sleeve. Three shades of blue and 4 of green and so on… What us mere mortals had was a small box of wax crayons. Each crayon would be coaxed onto paper to leave an colour impression in the outline drawn. Oh, the felt pens were so much better and easier to handle. But, anyway….


As one grew older, (I think from Std Four onwards) came the need for an instrument box, what we used to call a geometry box. Inexpensive tin boxes with compasses and dividers. Camlin was a much coveted brand but generally beyond the reach of most. The compass had multiple applications beyond drawing circles and arcs. For instance this was a handy device to create holes in a crumbling book to facilitate passage of thread to hold the pages together. Also useful for a little disciplinary poke to a classmate.


Simultaneously with this came the fountain pen. We longed for the day when we would graduate from a pencil to a pen. Transition from being a mere kid to a grown up! What a joy a simple fountain pen would get into our lives. The whole process of filling a pen. A plastic dropper would suck a quantity of ink (Chelpark, Royal Blue, always) from the inkpot and it would be instilled into the barrel of the pen. The top of the pen would be screwed back into the barrel. The ink overflow around this joint would be wiped with some scrap paper (or furtively with ones fingers if no one was watching). Then a quick scribble on a piece of paper to ensure that the ink flow was right. The nib would be twisted and curled at odd angles to facilitate better ink flow. Pens held at odd angles to the paper depending on which angle would help write on the paper.


These days I notice that for our kids, buying a pencil means buying a whole boxful of them. Pencils in sets of six. And pencils in multiple designs. The aforementioned black lacquered pencil is the basic version now. Then there are mechanical pencils and long pencils with favourite Pokemon characters as crown caps affixed to the other end. There are fat pencils and there are naked pencils (pencils without any wood sleeve). Courtesy the return gifts at various birthday parties (in our times gifts was what a guest took to a party, but this is another story……) my sons have a plethora of scented erasers, sharpeners, glue sticks, Pokemon pencil hats, crayon sets, pencil boxes to choose from. Depending on what catches their fancy, the relevant stationery object is pulled out, used and discarded. It is that simple! And the coming-of-age symbol, the fountain pen? I wonder if they would have ever seen one. This is the era of gel pens! Buy, use and throw!


How would I have known when I was growing up that the stationery world is so dynamic!!

The Story of the Extra Pillow

August 7, 2008

This story is from my management trainee days in Andhra Pradesh. The training involved visiting grocers and chemists trying to sell our products to them. A sales person’s life is tough and what one needs at the end of the day is a good night’s rest.


I had just returned after a very, very tiring day in the field and my head had just hit the pillow hoping for a good night’s rest when the phone in the room rang. You may be familiar with these phones in upcountry hotels (called lodges in Andhra, with a special emphasis on the alphabet “d”); elongated red bricks with just two buttons on the base unit. Press one of the buttons to call the operator and the other to call the front desk. That probably is a button too many; in nearly all such hotels the front desk guy also doubles as the telephone operator. The phone typically has about two inches thick layer of grease, residues left behind by the previous occupants of the room over the past few years, or least since the previous diwali when the last cleaning-up operation of the hotel may have been done.


Anyway, coming back to call, I picked up the receiver in a daze. Who could be calling me up at this time in this strange small town of coastal Andhra Pradesh, I wondered. A thickly accented Telugu voice at the other end rasped, ” Saar, want an extra pillow?” Before this could register on me, sleepy as I was, the voice repeated, this time with a sense of urgency, “Saar, extra pillow hona kya?” Perhaps he thought I did not understand English, perhaps he thought Hindi may be an easier medium of communication. The penny dropped. Driven by high levels of customer service the “hotel management” (the board outside the hotel proclaimed that the hotel was “Under New Management”) may have decreed that the front desk guy check with each guest at night on his overall comfort level and help out with any other material comforts to have a good night’s sleep.


By now I was awake and in full control of my senses. I looked around the bed and reconfirmed that there were two pillows placed on it. Never mind if the pillows were lumpy, they each had a bright striped handloom pillow-case. Brand new, I could make out from the manufacturer’s label glued to the case still partially visible. I use only one pillow as a habit, so I already had a pillow too many. “I do have an extra pillow”, I informed the caller and thanked him for his concern for my creature comforts. “Saar, you sure you really do not want one?” this person was taking customer service a bit too seriously! “No”, I said firmly and disconnected before he could say anything else. I did think this whole thing was a bit strange and went back to sleep.


The next morning over breakfast I mentioned to my colleague (the local sales rep) regarding this rather odd incident. He asked, “So you refused the extra pillow?” And before I could say anything he started laughing aloud. “You actually did refuse the pillow, ha, ha, ha” he went on. This was now getting curiouser and curiouser. Only when his peals of laughter subsided he revealed what the call was about. “Extra pillow” was the common code in this part of the country for a woman who would be sent across to the guest’s room to make him comfortable. In some hotels the receptionist would offer this “extra-pillow service” on a profit-sharing basis with the woman.


Really, some hotels take customer service very, very seriously!

How I Learnt (some) Urdu

August 3, 2008

In the 1970’s we used to subscribe to a Hindi newsmagazine called “Dinman”. This was a serious news magazine from the Bennet Coleman stable. Like most other decent publications from the publishing house (remember Parag, Dharmyug, Madhuri and Illustrated Weekly of India?), this magazine too is defunct now. Dinman was my Urdu teacher! This magazine ran serialized tutorials on different languages; Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Oriya etc. Don’t ask me why a news magazine was teaching languages, but what a blessing this was! And don’t even ask what a kid like me (I was around 14 years then) was doing reading Dinman, least of all learning languages as a hobby!


Of all the languages taught, Urdu caught my fancy. For no particular reason. What really got me hooked was the teacher’s style; he taught the script via Devnagari! Urdu as a derivative of Devnagari was his theme. And he did not start the usual way by teaching alphabet alif, bey, pey Take, for example, his initial lesson. He explained that the Urdu “R” was a twin of its Hindi cousin. Urdu, as we all know is a “right-to-left” script; So, Urdu R (called “ref”) he said, was a mirror image of the Hindi R. And since Urdu is a script which is written very rapidly, superfluous strokes are dispensed with to accelerate the speed. Just like stenography. Hence the horizontal stroke above the Hindi R was dropped for ease of speedy writing. So the mirror image of Hindi R minus the “hat” becomes the Urdu R. Simple!




Similarly he deconstructed the Devnagari “D” and made it the Urdu “daal”. Hold the D in front of the mirror, knock off the superfluous horizontal stroke on top, remove the squiggle at the base of the alphabet, and there you have the Urdu D! (As an additional coincidence, this is similar to the Roman D minus the horizontal stroke.)





To convert R and D to Ra and Da, one needs to only add a vertical stroke (the famous Urdu “alif”) next to the alphabet. Just as in Hindi. (The mirror image of the Devnagari aakar will remain a top-to-down vertical stroke!). Just take care to add the stroke to the left of the alphabet instead of right as in Devnagari. So we could now construct our first Urdu word, albeit a proper noun: Dara!




Urdu J? No problem! Knock off the horizontal hat and the vertical stroke, take a mirror image and you are close to the Urdu J (“jim”). Just add a dot right in the center of the curved space. After all you are writing Urdu script and a few dots will make the writing aesthetically pleasing! (My observation- it is not what the teacher said). And Cha (called “chim”) was only one step away. Except that there were no mirrors images here, only deletion of the superfluous strokes of the Devnagari “cha”. And 3 beautiful dots nestling right in the center of the curved space.




My Urdu teacher was a genius!


The mirror-image of the Devnagari “Chandra-bindu” looks the same. The “chandra-bindu” imparts a subtle “N” sound. And this, true enough, is your Urdu N (called “noon”). A simple transpose of the Devnagari M (of course after dropping the superfluous strokes in the alphabet) converts it to the Urdu M (“mim”). And so on and so forth. Urdu was becoming fun.





I am not for a moment implying all Urdu script is this simple. But once you got hooked on, you would try to conquer this seemingly complex script. And complexities started pretty quickly. Joining alphabet was the basic one. There is an art in writing even a simple word like “shama”. You don’t write simply a “sha” and an “M” and add an alif, the alphabet need to be fused correctly. And you do not even use an alif in spelling shama!Then the choice of multiple alphabet having similar sounds (choose from 3 varieties of Ha sound and 2 varieties of K sound). And the struggle to remember to place the dots (nuqta) in the right place. One could make grievous errors here. An example which is also a popular proverb is about a misplaced dot which while writing “Khuda” (God) would convert it to “juda” (separated). Remember the saying “Nuqtey key her-pher sey khuda juda ho gaya”?






My father saw me making valiant attempts to learn Urdu, and he decided do  something about it. He knows Urdu (in the olden times in the North students would compulsorily study Urdu) and he helped me learn forming the alphabet with the right strokes. Remember I was learning the script without the help of a traditional teacher whose strokes I could copy and learn how to write. More importantly, my father bought me the Urdu text book for Std 1. I think it was called “Dara, Dawar, Rosie”. This was modeled on its Hindi counterpart for Std 1 called “Rani, Madan, Amar”. My mother frowned at this waste of time in learning what in her opinion was a useless language, but both my father and I enjoyed these learning sessions.


As I learnt more, I began to harbor secret ambitions of writing ghazals, I thought it was just a matter of time before India produced its next Ghalib!


Ghazals were still far away and my interest in Urdu script did not sustain for too long. Perhaps it had also to do with other diversions I was developing, movies being the major one. And slowly my Urdu lessons slowed and soon halted.


But even now, I do remember a fair amount of Urdu script. And this keeps getting revised in strange little ways. For example when on a flight from Hyderabad I chance upon “Siasat” the local Urdu daily, I try my hand at reading the headlines. Pretty tough now for me, but if I know the context of the news item I guess my way through based on some of the characters I recognize. While on a trip to Lahore last year, I had a field day impressing my Pakistani hosts about my knowledge of the script by reading aloud the shop sign-boards. I would, in typical neo-literate style, slowly read the word character-by-character and then join them together into a word. Like this: La…. Ho… Ra, Lahore!


And the Urdu script comes as the most pleasurable diversion in official meetings! Whenever I get bored, I doodle. Unlike most who would draw Rorschachian figures or worse still moustachioed villains in their notepads, I let my pen flow forming the aesthetically pleasing strokes of Urdu script. Boredom and corporate intricacies then seem far, far way!