The New Year Calendar

December 30, 2008

It is the time of the year when New Year calendars and diaries begin trickling in. Wall calendars, desk top calendars, planners, pocket diaries, notebook-like diaries, take your pick.

In my childhood, calendars were wall adornments for the middle class; a status symbol even if you managed to get the right ones. Each self-respecting household had multiple calendars hanging from the walls all across the house.

Not that calendars were easy to obtain. Shopkeepers would roll up the coveted object, slip a rubber band on it, and surreptitiously hand it to their customers. If you were a not-so-important customer, you had to specifically ask for a “new year gift” and depending on the merchant’s assessment of your potential business value you might receive one of these coveted item. Or he could even hand out a small pocket calendar and be done with his customer service obligations.

My father, a college teacher, was a well known person in town. He had taught either the businessmen or their offspring who would gladly offer him calendars. He would also receive the classier stuff from the various factories in the city, Tisco, Telco (rather rarely), Indian Cable and some others.

One of the earliest calendars we would get each year was from a hosiery shop called Chaudhary Bros. located in the lane near Manohar Maharaj in Bishtupur. And this signal to us the calendar season.

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The primary purpose of calendars was not as you may think keeping track of dates/days but they served other more important uses.

For example, an adornment in the Puja room in addition to the images and statues of Gods already installed there. The popular deities were Goddess Laxmi (calendars from jewelers), Goddess Sarasvati (from the book sellers), makhanchor Krishna.  A composite picture of Lord Ram, Sita and Laxman with Hanuman genuflecting on the feet of Ram was a common image on calendars and these would come  mostly from the kirana shop owners. Image of Hanuman was also popular; Hanuman tearing apart his chest with Lord Ram inside it, Hanuman flying back to Lanka carrying Meru Parvat on the palm of his out-stretched right hand.

There was this popular calendar visual of a collage of images of freedom fighters, Mahatma Gandhi in the middle, with a galaxy of personalities around him: Pandit Nehru (complete with the red rose affixed to the lapel of his sherwani), Netaji Bose in his INA regalia, Shastri ji wearing his Gandhi cap, Ramprasad Bismil twirling his moustache, a clean-shaven hat-bedecked Shahid Bhagat Singh. The final selection from among these icons was a mix of naram dal and garam dal, perhaps to appeal to the followers of either stream. These calendars would come from any business enterprise wanting to show their patriotic leanings. Such calendars were mostly reserved for the space above the kids’ study table, probably to inculcate into the child patriotic fervour and general discipline.

I am old enough to remember the iconic Murphy radio calendar; the Caucasian Murphy baby smiling from the walls with his (her?) right forefinger nestled oh-so-cutely on his lower lip. THE Murphy baby who was the dream of many an expectant mother! This calendar was of course the preserve of the local electrical goods dealer. Our favourite dealer those days was Beri Radios located in Bishtupur.

All these calendar designs were in their best attempted version of Raja Ravi Verma’s style. The only departure was that these were printed on near map litho quality paper and with pretty garish colour schemes. The layout of the calendars were pretty identical: 60% of the area devoted to the visual, 20% to the name and address of the shop, and the remaining portion of the calendar supported stapled horizontal paper strips, each displaying three months at a glance. So on 31st March you would tear off the first sheet to welcome April, next strip went on 30th June to reveal the July-August-September dates and so on.

While I may have referred to different classes of traders having preferences to different deities, many would hedge their bets and distribute calendars with multiple designs. Like this famous Jamshedpur jeweler Chhaganlal Dayalji who would also distribute large calendars bereft of pictures. One month per sheet, and only dates. Dates for Sundays and holidays used to be printed in red (others in black) and the blank spaces would explain what the red-letter days meant (holi, diwali, id, independence day etc). The blank spaces around the dates were used at home to note quantity of milk delivered by the doodhwalla, number of garments given to the dhobhi for laundry, days when the paperwallah did not deliver the newspaper, etc. etc. Most practical, you will agree.

There were other types of calendars too.

The ones on glossy paper with one month to a sheet. But unlike Chhaganlal Dayaljee’s calendar, these had a large picture and under this the dates/ days printed in one or two rows. Very classy!

If I remember correctly, the ones from paint or hardware merchants were made of thickish cardboard – incorporating a religious motif, of course- with a stapled block of little square pieces. One piece for each date. Every morning you needed to tear off the preceding day’s piece. Each piece detailed the entire astrology around the date/day.

There was this rather classy calendar from a Jamshedpur based company called INCAB- Indian Cable Company. Kebul company as it was called colloquially in Jamshedpur. They would release each year a stiff-board calendar layered with sheets displaying two months at a time. The layout was clean and uncluttered. There was a plastic strip running horizontally around the calendar  which could be slid down every week to position the red plastic window affixed to it which would highlight the date.

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I have not indicated this earlier and I must do it now. A key role of the calendars was to conceal defects on the walls. There were no blotches or scratches on the wall which could not get covered with the aid of a strategically hung calendar.

Now wait. Some of the wall defects were caused by calendars themselves. You see, the calendars sheets were affixed to a thin strip of metal and hung on a silky loop affixed to the center of the strip. During breezy days the calendar would oscillate and over a period of time would leave arcs scratched on the wall at either end on the strip. So in came new calendars to cover these scratches. And these would leave their own marks over the following twelve months.

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In case the calendar was a multi-sheeter, the month’s sheet was folded back onto the “spine” at the end of the month. Tearing off the elapsed month’s sheet was a no-no. The sheet had to be rolled back. The reason was simple; a calendar became thinner- and hence lighter- once sheets were torn off and this increased the chances of the calendar swinging around leaving more and more marks.

The temptation to tear off the calendar sheets is easy to understand, we were keen to cover our books with these sheets. But this process had to wait. Once the year was over, each of us siblings would grab whatever calendar we could get hold of, dust off the layers of dirt- and cobwebs- accumulated on the sheets over the year and use the blank side of the sheet to cover our books. The glossier the calendar the more coveted it was.

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It has been years since I hung calendars on the walls of my house. In fact, I give away all the stuff I receive. There are too many time reminders around for me to ever need the services of a calendar. The laptop and the cell phone display calendars not only for the year but also for years past and future.

No, I do not need a printed calendar around me.

But yes, in recent years I did once seek a calendar. Very classy, very coveted, very elegantly done. But the problem was it was not available either for money or for love. Till a colleague of mine, through his contacts, managed to get one for me. But it never got hung on the wall of either my study or my living room. Or even my bedroom. It got tucked into the box-bed, away from the eyes of the world- and my kids- minutes after I had gone through it many times over.

That was the much talked about, but rarely seen among the common public, the famous Kingfisher calendar! In case you have never heard of it, then I shall not try to explain it to you. In case you have heard of it, and not seen it, then please drop by at our place for a cup of tea. That would be quite inappropriate for the occasion, a mug of beer would be more apt!

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How I Learnt (some) Tamil

December 22, 2008

I was born and brought up in Jamshedpur, a cosmopolitan town thanks to the many industrial units there (TISCO, TELCO, et al). There were of course Biharis constituting a large part of the population along with immigrants from the neighbouring and not-so-neighbouring states. And then there were immigrants from the four southern states. Tamilians, Andhraites, Kannadigas and Malayalis, mostly from the former two.

As was the norm those days, the 60’s, anyone hailing from the south was called a Madrasi. That was the descriptor for people speaking an astonishingly odd language. The common understanding went that this language resembled the cacophony created by pebbles being tossed around in a closed tin can. As we progressed to higher classes we added some newly learnt Physics to it. We said these each of the four languages could be replicated by using different masss of the pebbles, the speeds of rotation and the volumetric capacity of the tin cans. But the tin can- pebble analogy remained!

Not that I did not have South Indian friends. There was this dear classmate, Sharma who despite his North Indian sounding name had Tamil as his mother tongue but claimed he hailed from Kerala . Some district called Palghat, he said. And the only South Indian resident in the neighbourhood had a classic Madrasi name, Murthy, and was indeed a Tamilian, which I discovered much later! Come to think of it, most of my close friends those days were Madrasis, sons of engineers working in the various factories and research laboratories in and around Jamshedpur.

Biharis would call the South Indians, “khatta pani”, obviously taking a cue from the generous amount of tamarind in their cuisine. And the South Indians would reciprocate, as and when this minority group could summon their courage, “Hindustani, daal ka paani, chutiya rakhkar badi phutani”. You have to be a Bihari to understand this, but let me try and explain. Biharis have daal (mostly toor daal) cooked with thin consistency, and many Biharis would keep a little pony tail (“chutiya”) adorning their close-cropped hair. “Phutani” is a typical Bihari word (across various Bihari dialects) which means ghamand, or pride! By the way, in case you did not know, Bihari is no language, it just denotes a statehood. Bihari dialects are several, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi etc., etc.

My initiation into the intricacies of South India started when I joined my engineering college- Institute of Technology at BHU, Varanasi- where I was suddenly exposed to hordes of these exotic creatures living in close proximity. To start with the South Indians in the campus had a descriptor different from Madrasi, they were called Makkalu. I discovered soon enough where this came came from. Makkalu is an acronym for Madras, Andhra, Kerala, Karnataka, Andaman, Lashdweep Union. Makkalu was pronounced as Makaalu, with the second K silent, and they were addressed to as Makalu-wa, in the best manner of Bhojpuri-speak. (Lilke I was called Ojha-wa or Santosh-wa. Makkalus, I discovered were normal folks, people like you and me and would take part in all the activities which I was interested in. Like cutting classes, spending time at the street corner tea stalls, playing card games like 29 (sometimes called 28, depending on the scoring protocol agreed upon); generally all the stuff which teenagers indulge in when they are away from parental gaze. So they were normal folks, after all.

But there was one key difference. Food. Each of the 9 engineering college hostels in BHU had some 5-7 different student-run messes, some catering to as little as 20-30 members. The makkalus would gravitate towards messes serving food of their choice. So there was this generic makkalu mess, the Mallu (Kerala) mess and the Gulti (telugu) mess.

 

As chance would have it, my campus placement after my MBA was in a Chennai-based company.

My first lesson in Tamil language started from my very first trip to Chennai. When I got down at the Madras Central station, I was accosted by a auto-wallah who offered to take me to my hotel. Only if could just pay him some rupees over the meter. “Patta rua pod kudungo, saar!” After much gesticulations and usage of broken Hindi and English I could figure out that he wanted Rs 10 extra. A 30% premium on the normal Rs 35 fare. I agreed reluctantly. I discovered much later that the famous “patta rua” was the leitmotif of the auto-wallahs in Chennai. Anyway, the first few lessons learnt. Patta= ten, rua= rupees, and saar= sir. Kudungo was of course the epitome of politeness. He had respectfully said, “dijiye” and not the rather insulting “do”- “kudo” or worse still “kudraa”.

When in Chennai, I was part of the team launching a new brand of chocolates, Fonda being the brandname. Which brings me to the word I learnt on day one of my field visits. Venda. Many of the shopkeepers who I would request to stock-up on Fonda would respond, venda. Initially I wondered whether venda was the Tamil version of Fonda. But I quickly discovered the meaning, venda means “do not want”. These guys just did not want to stock-up on Fonda!

My selling stint taught me a lot many words. Counting, of course. This was critical to communicate the price of our products. And to take orders (aar pieces or pannenda pieces- 6 pieces or 12). The potti kadai -small retail shop- owners who I had to deal with during my initial sales stint selling chocolates and shoe polish would often fob off my entreaties to stock more of my products with narriya irke (I have enough). They would rarely say waango (please come) or even rarer was ukkarungo (please sit). Very often, while making a sales call, the counter-person would inform me no orders were possible that visit as “Modalali illey” (shop-owner not available). I kind of knew that it was the modalali himself who was posing as the counter person, but I could little but to mumble a nandri (“thanks”) and move on.

And while moving on, and trying to find directions one even learnt a few more words

Then there was this visit to “Murudi’s Lodge”, next to our office, for sappad or a meal. I discovered the joys of “mor”. Mor is butter-milk, the South Indian version of “chhachh”. I always thought that that mor was an apt name, one always wanted more and more of it; it was so tasty!  Also tasty was an appalam which I would invariably orders repeats of. Ur extra appalam kudungo. Please give me an extra papad. And of course the meal was wrapped up with a “beeda”, paan to North Indians.

Slightly out of context here, but I learnt new English words too while in Chennai. Like “cover” meant an envelope, “round tana” meant traffic island/ crossroad. And I also learnt to live with the curious Tamil way of writing non-Tamil words and names. Like dropping the alpahabet “h” from words and adding the alphabet to some others, to probably soften the hard “t” sound. My name, as you can guess by now, often gets spelt as “Santhosh Oja” in Tamil Nadu.

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Forward to 15 years later:

 

I hear my elder son say to his friend, “What, Da?”

His friend replies, “Nothing, Da”. The circle is now complete.

Da is an equivalent of the Hindi “re” in Tamil.

My son has become a Madrasi now!

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Gulabo and Gulabchand: What’s in a name?

December 16, 2008

Chances are if your name is Gulabo, or Gulabchand, you have false teeth, you walk with the aid of a walking stick, you have multiple age-related health conditions and most likely you reside in a non-urban location. Probably you have exotic tattoos on your arms. And exquisite and antique jewellery on your body. Chances are also high that if you are reading these lines, you are neither Gulabo nor Gulabchand. None of your friends has these names. Quite likely you might remember someone generations away in the past in your family bearing one of these names. Family members who are either deceased or fit the senile conditions as described above.

Right? If you say yes, then please stay with me for a while

Consider this now: If your name is Riya or Ishaan, Ved or Diya then perhaps you have stumbled upon my blog by mistake. You are too young to be reading blogs, least of all blogs by a middle-aged man (me) writing about ancient names like Gulabo. You are probably 8-12 years old, if not younger.

Right, again? Yes? Then maybe you really ought to stay with me a while longer.

Riya, Ishaan, Ved, Diya et al: You probably have parents in their mid 30’s to late 40’s with names like Sanjay, Sushil, Vineeta, Reena etc. And your grandparents who are in their 60’s and 70’s have names like Rammohan, Chandraprakash, Gourishankar, Pran Nath et al.

This piece of mine is about trends in names and how the trend varies over time. This piece is restricted to only those names prevalent in the Hindi-speaking belt of North India. I do not claim to have any expertise in this matter and the article is based solely on my observations and anecdotal evidence.

I have always had a fascination for names and I have wondered about the why and how of naming. I have always suspected that there is a societal pattern to naming. My views got stronger after I read the chapter on names in that book – “Freakonomics”-  by the brilliant economist Stephen Levitt”. You will ask me what an economist was doing studying names. I suggest you read this thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating book. The writer gets into even more bizarre domains: proving school teachers to be cheats, explaining why drug pushers stay with their mothers, reasons behind the declining crime rates in New York City etc etc.

His premises in this naming business are that:

  • Names have an “expiry” date, as it were.
  • Naming is linked to socio-economic strata.
  • Names flow down socio-economic strata over time.
  • Names are cyclical in nature. So what has expired some decades ago will return at some point in time.

 I  have done some thinking regarding each of these and I must say the economist is bang-on in the context of North India at least.

Let us start with the first premise; expiry date. My father (84 years old now) is named Satyadeo. My late father-in-law was named Chandradeo. The “deo” piece is coincidental, but what is the probability that you will find someone a generation or two or three younger with the names like Satyadeo and Chandradeo. Most likely: zero! And for that matter, names like Siddhnath, Gowrishankar, Muralidhar etc. None, again? I can imagine, these are name from the past. These names are probably totally out-of-fashion by now. Just like Gulabo and Gulabchand.

Now, consider names like Sushma, Sandhya, Vandana, Rachana. Probably someone in her late 30’s or early 40’s, right? None bearing this name is, I can bet, is in the kindergarten class right now.

In the KG class you shall find names like Dhruv, Ritwik, Adhyayan etc. Names which you can never find in the “men” of the Sushma, Sandhya era. Like do you know a middle-aged Dhruv being married to an equally middle-aged Vineeta?

So each class of names has an “expiry” date. Names which last a generation or two, that’s all!

But, may I point you to the names of the kids of those who are lower down in the socio-economic hierarchy? Can’t you recollect the names from your generation being applied to the kids of the generation below you, like the maid servants, drivers, peons etc.? Probably yes. The lower socio-economic class adopts the names of the class above. Think about it.

Names come back, in some form or the other. My older son is called Ved. He is 14 years old now. He is pretty comfortable with his name, and why not; he finds this name, or variants of it like Vedanta, pretty familiar. Perhaps he does not know that his name is a variant of older generation names like Vedpratap and Vedprakash. Except that the suffix has been dropped and just the Ved piece remains!

Ved challenged me on my hypothesis on the cyclical nature of names. He was reasonably convinced that the Ved+suffix scenario was fine. But he reasoned: Someone in the old age ought to have had the name Ved. Just Ved.

I scratched my head, and then I realized. Ved Vyas, of course. The guy who wrote Mahabharata!!

PS: I wrote this piece without meaning any offence to anyone. I have no scholarly research to back my observations. If I have offended anyone, it is purely accidental. And I am sorry.

What is in a name, anyway!! Gulab ko jis kisi bhi naam sey pukaro, Gulab, Gulab hi rahega!

Why make it Rosy?


Trip to Tshangu Lake: December 2008

December 14, 2008

This was a journey which was as good as the destination. Or maybe the destination was as good as the journey. But all-in-all a wonderful package that morning of 9th December when our group made the trip to the famous Tshangu Lake, some 40 km from Gangtok.

Tshangu lake is just 8km away from Nathu La which is a trading post on the border of India and China.

For those of you, dear readers, who want to be spared the details which follow, let me describe the journey in a nutshell. Driving, chatting, eating, drinking and shopping. That is pretty much an accurate description of what we did on that 40 km, four hour drive from Gangtok to Tshangu Lake. And by the way, in the process we drove up from a height of 4,700 feet to 12,400 feet, a difference of 9,700 feet (Nearly 3 km if you are inclined to the metric system).

 

The Long, Winding Road

The Long, Winding Road

 

The destination: A body of water set against the backdrop of an arid mountain. And yes, with tamed yaks servicing tourists. Willingly or unwillingly, I do not know. More about that later.

First thing first. The journey:

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The start from our hotel (Orange Valley Resort, Gangtok) was delayed by about 45 minutes, but the anxiety about this was relieved by the driver of our car. The great Karma Bhutia. He not only made up for lost time (sometimes causing our hearts skip several beats thanks to the speed at which he negotiated the road), he also regaled us with anecdotes from his 14 year experience of driving on this road to Tshangu. He made a quick exit from Gangtok town avoiding the impending one-way traffic rules and got us out of the town onto the highway to Nathu La. He spilled the beans on some his more colourful passengers, honey-mooners, men getting drunk early in the morning en route, passengers wanting to attend the call of nature en route. His pithy comments on the political leaders in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, if telecast, would have certainly increased the TRPs of the news channels.

While Karma was giving his socio-political commentary, some of us were either catching up on our sleep or catching up on the scenery around us. And what a scenery it was! Alpine forests changing to arid landscape as we climbed higher and higher. The roads were lined with army camps throughout. Shaktiman trucks of the army were a constant companion. It was with some hesitation I pulled out my camera and took photographs through the car windows of these army establishments. In fact, when we got down for a while en route and I saw some jawaans walking by, I sought their permission to take their pic. which they agreed-to with alacrity!

 

The Army Camps of the Nathula highway

The Army Camps of the Nathula highway

Half-way to the lake we chanced upon the Kyongnosla Waterfall, a clear (and pretty cold) stream of water flowing down the mountain. Some of us managed to grab the thin sheets of ice layered upon the water, while others could grab on their cameras the “rainbow” as it shimmered upon the body of water. Next to the waterfall we saw a bridge which was labeled thus on the concrete tablet next to it: “Stock span bridge span 38 ft, 6 in constructed by 109 constr. coy (Gren.) 12 July 1963.” Just after the Indo-Chinese war in 1962, I realize. And, by the way, the road on which this was located was called J.N. Road. Jawaharlal Nehru Road, I am sure. So the ubiquitous J.N. Road so common across the country (as common as M. G. Road) was servicing us even in this extreme part of the country!

 

Kyongnosla Waterfall

Kyongnosla Waterfall

A little further up the road and we see the most amazing sight of snow-clad mountains seemingly just a few km away. Karma, our driver, is kind enough to stop for us to take some pictures of this beautiful sight. The famous Kanchanjangha. Or Kanchendzonga as it is called by the locals.

 

A View of Kanchanjangha

A View of Kanchanjangha

A short drive onwards we stop at the little shopping stop, one shop here is called Kyongnosla Cafe and the height is prominently displayed: 10,400. Just 2000 feet more to go for the Lake. And 8 km. These shops are mini-departmental stores run by Tibetan refugees. You can get a host of products here. Woolens, bottles of liquor, souvenirs, cowboy hats. And paper cups of hot sweet tea. The sales persons are all Tibetan women, all fluent in Hindi to our surprise. They were aided by young boys walking around with cowboy hats which looked impossible large on their tiny frames.

Kyangnosla Cafe 12,400 ft

Kyangnosla Cafe 10,400 ft

I zero-in onto a shop run by an enterprising women duo of which one is more active and voluble.

“What is your name?”, I ask her

“Shhee-rin”, she replies cheerily.

I do not get it, so I repeat.

She repeats as well. “SHHEE-rin” The shhee this time is longer drawn, and the voice seems higher pitched.

I wonder how someone could be called Shirin in this part of the world and then it strikes me that is could be Tshering. This has a distinct Tibetan ring to it!

 

Ms Shirin?

Ms Shirin?

Between cups of tea and chatting with the shopkeepers, our team has gone berserk shopping. The favourite item is a sturdy-looking cowboy hat and soon enough we have a whole army of cowboys scrambling back into their Sumo and Mahindras ready for the final leg of the onward journey to Tshangu lake.

Tshangu lake, here we come!

But, but, but! Our caravan is halted in the way quite abruptly. We see a whole line of vehicles waiting by the road-side.

“What happened”, we ask.

“A landslide, perhaps. But do not worry, the BRO is clearing the road. BRO being Border Road Organization which is responsible for the construction and maintainence of roads across India borders.

Soon the road is cleared and we reach the Lake, finally!

 

Tshangu Lake

Tshangu Lake

Tshangu Lake is a deep blue body of water some 1 km long. While there is nothing dramatic about the lake itself, there are a few things which make it quite remarkable. The lake surface is the largest horizontal surface we had seen for long, long time in this trip. And the lake is set quite dramatically against a dark mountain where rivulets of water had frozen mid flow. This nearly looked as if some naughty kid had poured a bucketful of white paint from the top of the mountain and the paint had trickled down in random paths down the slopes!

And of course, the presence of the yaks. These huge bovine creatures with long black hair, bedecked in fineries by their owners, welcoming the tourists either for a ride or for a photo-op. (Rs 30 for per person!)

Tshangu lake is considered holy by Hindus and Buddhists. And sure enough, there was a stern sign next to the lake, in English and Hindi “Do not urine (sic) on the lakeside”. Thankfully none from our group attempted this, I was scared of the ferocious-looking yaks having a go at the rule-breakers!

Sight-seeing done, it was time for some serious shopping and eating at the surprisingly tidy-looking shopping center a few meters away. More woolens, folding fans, small bells, etc etc. And some chowmein for the hungry among us. I wanted to sample “chhurpi”, cheese made of yak milk. The kind lady running the curio shop did not have it for sale but generous to offer me a piece from her personal stock. One look at the soiled chhurpi pieces strung on an equally soiled thread made me hasten to decline the offer.

Never mind the chhurpi, the journey to Tsanghu is worth every minute of the drive, every foot of the steep climb!

 


The Magic of Numismatics

December 11, 2008

My mother, mai, as we call her, had this curious habit of collecting coins. Coins of any denomination would be collected by her and secreted away into her old tin box, steel trunk it was called, which was stored on the overhead shelf in her puja room. Once in a while the trunk was pulled down, dusted, and a fresh lot of coins was placed inside.

Those days, and I am talking about the 60’s here, coins ranged from one paisa, the tiny round copper ones graduating over time into squares of aluminum alloy. The copper ones were called “tickli“, perhaps due to their resemblance to the bindi which, in Bhojpuri, was called tikuli. There were the flower-shaped two-paise coins and the hexagonal three-paise ones. The five-paise coins were square-shaped with rounded corners. Ten-paise coins were also flowery like the two-paise ones but were larger in size. There was a new coin those days- quite short-lived- the circular twenty-paise one. Made of a copper with a lotus flower on one of the faces. Then there was the smallish circular twenty-five paise coin and the slightly larger fifty paise one. The former was called the “chawanni” – a colloquism for char anna. This coinage, pardon the pun, was rather obsolete as the annas went away a few years after the British left. The fifty paise one was called the “atthani”, or eight-anna coin. The one rupee coin came much, much later.

A couple of years ago, when I was helping out my elder son with a mathematics assignment- the assignment was on coins- I had to hunt far-and-wide for coins. The lowest denomination coin I could find was the ten-paise one. The ones of lower denominations seem to have vanished! Even the ten paise and the twenty five paise coins were rare.

Mai would collect all these coins and tuck them into her tin box. This was a bit of a joke amongst us children, her collection of coins. 

I would ask her sometimes why she was doing this.

She was collecting the coins, she would say, to gift it to my wife, mehraroo is the word in Bhojpuri; “Tohar mehraroo key sab dey deb ham.”  Or a variant of this. Like, she would buy a golden necklace for the wife. Or buy her an expensive Banarasi sari.

I must have been around eight or ten years when these discussions happened and needless to say I used to be quite amused by this argument. The concept of a mehraroo was vague one as far as I was concerned.

And if mai was angry with me for something when I asked her this question she would say she was collecting the coins for the day when I would be married and my wife would give her neither food to eat nor new clothes to wear! All this would amuse me no end!

Over time as I progressed into teenage and my priorities became different, my queries to mai on her coin-collection stopped. I even stopped noticing her coin collection.

If I had paid attention I would have noticed its waxing and waning. When money was not available at home towards to end of the month (before my father, Pitaji, got his monthly salary) mai would dip into her reserves to buy the household essentials. Pitaji‘s salary as a college lecturer was barely sufficient to meet the routine needs of the family. An illness in the family or an unforeseen wedding in the extended family was enough to upset the expense budgets.

One big expense for the family was when I was being sent to join a college in Nagpur for my 11th and 12th Std. My school did not have a plus-two course and there were no other decent ones in Jamshedpur those days.

The weeks before the departure were spent in a flurry of shopping. A new steel trunk of my own to carry my clothes and stuff, some new clothes, toiletries, footwear, a table-lamp and some stationery items. Long-lasting snacks were prepared so that I could partake some home bites in a distant land (“God knows what kind of food you will get in your hostel mess!” mai was concerned.)

I was very excited at the prospect of staying in a hostel and even begun a small research on the cinema theaters in Nagpur. Nagpur those days had at least four-to-five times more cinema halls than Jamshedpur and this was a source of great excitement to me! Academics was incidental!

I did have this nagging awareness at the back of my mind about the financial drain this was proving for the family but I chose to ignore it in the overall excitement of a new life away from home. As my day of departure neared, I would sometimes notice mai crying quietly. I realized that the pain of separation from me was sad for her. But I would shrug it off and would maintain a brave front myself.

The day of departure came, I was to board the train to Nagpur in the evening.

Sometime in the morning, mai called me aside and handed me a small packet in an envelope.

“This is for you”, she said. And then she walked away into the kitchen.

I impatiently ripped apart the packet and I saw inside a gleaming new HMT Kohinoor wrist watch. My very first watch! I never had a watch of my own. During exam time in the senior classes in school I would borrow my father’s watch to help keep track of time.  A metal-strap mechanical affair, white-dialed with “radium”- the watch markings would glow in the dark to enable an easy reading of the timing. I was aware of the financial burden my travel was having on the family and I felt a bit guilty that they had spent scarce finances on the watch. Soon enough I discovered that mai had emptied out her coin collection to fund this watch.

The collection which she had built all these years!

It was my turn to cry!

30 years later: I do not, as a rule, wear watches these days. There are far too many things around you to tell you the time; the mobile phone, the display at the bottom right corner of the laptop, the Ipod. The only time I wear a watch is on a flight when neither the laptop nor the mobile phone is on. Last week, when I was leaving home to board a flight, I picked up the watch I normally wear on flights. The watch was dead, the battery had given up. Rummaging through my collection of watches, I realized that none of these had not been attended-to in the last few years and all had dead batteries. The only watch I could pick up was the good old HMT Kohinoor, which though dead, sprung to immediate life the moment I wound it up!

This watch may be the clunkiest I have, but for me it carries far too many meanings!

And of course it is still my most reliable watch!

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Hotel Shyamprakash: A Love Story

December 10, 2008

Hotel Shyamprakash stood at Infantry Road, Bangalore, right opposite the Indian Express building. A commercial building stands at the site now. It had one of those Bangalore specialties, now fast disappearing, an open-air restaurant where you could drive-in and have a snack, either in your car or sit in the open air. The hotel also offered an economical lodging facility. Nothing fancy, but right in the heart of town. The company which hired me from my college as a management trainee had its head office then on Cunningham Road so it made sense for me to stay at Shyamprakash which was at a short walking distance. I was on a month’s project in Bangalore as a part of my training program.

It felt good having a plate of idli-vada in the open-air restaurant for breakfast and the proximity to office was also a great help. But the chief attraction for me was the restaurant just behind the reception area. Not the food per se, but the band which would play there dinner time, Kannada and Hindi film songs. They had some four or five singers and their music was pretty good.

I would reach the restaurant every evening around eight and stay there till virtually the closing time nursing a glass of beer. I would occupy a table at one corner of the restaurant and listen to music and watch the activities of the customers. There was a mix of people; groups of friends, families, office groups. Some regulars, some for a one-off visit. I particularly remember a boisterous group of four friends who would guzzle whiskeys steadily through the evening and then one of them would stand up, stagger unsteadily to the stage. He would stand close to the stage which was barely a foot in height and shower currency notes of Rs Ten on his favourite singer and walk back to his table.

Another permanent fixture in the restaurant was the owner of the hotel who would occupy a fixed table in a corner of the restaurant across the floor from the stage. He was there every evening in his well pressed safari suit, sometimes alone and sometimes with his guests nursing his drink. All evening he would look around keeping an eye on potential trouble-makers. Once he even joined the restaurant bouncer in beating up a customer hell-bent on misbehaving with a female singer.

I enjoyed the music even the hitherto unknown (to me) Kannada and Tamil songs. However, the main attraction for me were two singers, one, a young man who could sing Kishore Kumar songs pretty well and the other, a woman whose voice, I could have sworn, was a replica of Asha Bhosle’s. And together these two singers could sing some great Kishore-Asha duets of the seventies.

You could request your favourite song, the steward was only too happy to pass you a pen and a slip of paper to write your request which he would have it sent to the stage via a waiter. No guarantee that the band would oblige you, they either maybe too busy with other requests or they may not even have the song in their repertoire. Many a drunken guest whose request had not been met would get into an argument with the steward accusing him of not reaching the request slip to the stage!

While I was keen to request for some of my favourite Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle songs, I was too shy. One day I summoned enough  courage and passed on a request to the stage. The song I wanted is a great Asha solo, a rather rare one, but one of my all-time favorites. It goes, “Baag mein kali khile, bagiya mehki“. Some may remember the song “Saagara..” from the Malayalam film Chemeen. The Hindi song has an identical tune. Perhaps because both these films had the same music director, Salil Choudhary.

An hour elapsed and there was still no sign of the song. I had nearly given up thinking to myself that the song was so rare that the singer would not have heard of it let alone being able to sing it. As I was about to leave, a little bit in disappointment at my failed maiden song request, I suddenly heard a familiar music, the opening strains of “Baag mein…” I looked across the restaurant to the stage and saw “Asha Bhosle” holding her open diary and preparing to sing the song. So she actually knew the song and had the lyrics in her diary! I was overjoyed. I was not sure whether it was due to the song or the fact that my first-ever request got honoured!

The next evening, I landed earlier than usual, one of the earliest guests in the restaurant, and occupied my favourite table. Emboldened by previous evening’s success, I asked for the song again. Perhaps because the crowds had not yet built up, perhaps she was familiar with the song from the previous day, the song came up quickly.

So evening-after-evening the same routine followed. Early arrival, the same request which was always fulfilled and evenings altogether pleasantly spent.

One day, I was otherwise pre-occupied mentally and forgot to make the routine request. I was in my reverie when the familiar strains of “Baag mein..” started. She had actually seen me and despite no request from me, she began singing the song on her own. This took me by complete surprise and I later checked with the waiter who regularly served my table on how she could ever know that the “requester” for this song was around. The waiter informed me that after the third consecutive day of the request for this song, the singer had asked the waiter who this request emanated from. The waiter said he had indicated towards me and it was not difficult for anyone on stage to see the solitary occupant of the fixed table day-after-day.

Over the course of the next few weeks my work in Bangalore got over and I relocated to another city for a few months. When I returned to Bangalore it was for good and I settled into a paying guest accommodation. One evening I was narrating to a friend my Shyamprakash experiences and then on an impulse, I decided to visit the hotel. Was the band still playing there? Were “my” Asha and Kishore still around?

We reached the hotel and it was great to hear the familiar voice singing as we entered the restaurant. No sooner we had settled down I asked for the request slip and placed the old request all over again. Soon enough, “Baag mein” came on sounding as good as ever!

And then something happened during the break! The familiar waiter came to me and requested me to follow him outside the restaurant. I was wondering what was going on as I allowed myself to be led away. My friend, feeling protective, came behind me should anything untoward happened.

We were led to a corner of the open-air restaurant where the band members were taking a break. And there they were, “Asha” and “Kishore”. We were seeing each other at a close distance for the first time.

“Hi! My name is Krishna and she is Sabrina,” said Kishore Kumar.

“Hi”, I mumbled, wondering what was going on!

“So, you are the one who always wanted to hear this song?” said Sabrina.

“Yes,” it was getting embarrassing for me!

I was dying to know why they wanted to meet a “fan”, I am sure they had tons of them already.

Krishna fished out an envelope from his jacket pocket. “May I know your name, sir?”

He neatly printed my name on the envelope and handed it over to me. “Sir, Sabrina and I are getting married next Sunday, we will be delighted if you could come and join us that day.”

I was reading the card when Sabrina gave a small laugh and said, “You must be wondering about all this, right?

“As a matter of fact, I was”.

Krishna chipped in, “The time you used to come earlier was the time our friendship was turning into something special though we did not know it then. The song you used to request became my favourite and then Sabrina’s too. So now you see, this song is special to us!”

Sabrina added with a smile,” And hence, in some way you are special to us too. Please come and bless us on Sunday”.

I could not, unfortunately attend their wedding reception.

I hope Sabrina and Krishna are happy in whatever they are doing, wherever they are.


Strand Book Stall and Mr T.N. Shanbhag

December 3, 2008

My friends know me to be a book lover. A book lover, yes, a book reader, maybe not! I do acquire books and they adorn my book shelves. If you ask me how many I have read, my answer: maybe 60% of my collection. If you see a dichotomy between “book-loving” and “book-reading”, that might perhaps need an explanation. But that maybe in another piece.

This post is on something else. It is on that great institution and its founder; Mr T. N. Shanbhag’s “Strand Book Stall”. 

I have been visiting Strand since the early 80’s. I have stayed in Mumbai for several years as a student and also subsequently as a junior-level executive working there. I would religiously visit the store once a month on a Saturday. Then I shifted to Pune. I would always squeeze-in a visit to the store on my Mumbai visits. Picking books-after- books as and when my finances would permit me to.

Strand was tucked into a narrow lane in south Mumbai, Sir P.M. Road. By the standards of the new bookstores, it was decidedly small, not more than a thousand square foot including the mezzanine floor. And thankfully enough, it did not try to compete with the other stores. No greeting cards, no gift articles, no music CDs, and no coffee. The only stimulant served were books. Thousands and thousands of books stacked neatly on the shelves. The latest and the best. And largely non-fiction.

The staff was invariably knowledgeable and highly polite. You were never hustled into buying a book and were free to sit around for hours browsing. And the store had two very unique features, the price and the owner himself.

First, the price. Everyone was given a discount of 20% on the MRP of even the latest book. If I remember correctly it then used to be 25% on Penguin books. One did not have to ask for the discount, it was given automatically. And even better was the fabulous discounts offered on very slightly dated international titles. Like around the time the Indian paperback edition of “A Suitable Boy” was released, I could buy a copy of the international edition, hard-bound, at a price lower than the paperback. There were some books (or their special editions) which were available only at Strand, Mumbai. For example, the hard-back, colour edition of Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”. The store person recommended this book to me and guaranteed that I could not find this book in any other store in India. I had not heard of the book before. But I liked it, and its price, and I bought it. For the next few months during my travels I would check for this book at big book stores across the country. I did see the paperback edition (with no pictures) but not a hard-bound one. This book, a book version of a popular BBC TV serial of the same name is one of my prized collections. In case you are interested, this book is about the history of science through the millennia.

And then there was the owner, Mr Shanbhag. A short, soft-spoken gentleman. Always there at hand to help a customer. His knowledge of books was such that I would think that he had read all the books in his store. I remember him advising a customer who was confused when offered 4 different editions of Shakespeare’s collected works. Mr Shanbhag walked upto the customer and told him precisely which edition to buy given the customer’s requirements. I do not remember the logic given, but I could see the customer make a decision quickly after Mr Shanbhag’s intervention and left the store a happy person.

I had several personal interactions with Mr Shanbhag. In fact, I used to seek him out on some pretext or the other and engage him in a chat. And I always went back richer with ideas, and books of course. It is due to his advice I bought Toynbee’s abridged one-volume edition of “A Study of History”. This international edition even has the store’s name prominently printed on the dust jacket! And it was he who advised me on the hardcover editions of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984”. “Look at the embossed spine”, he said, as he removed the dust jackets. And he also told me how these would be great purchases as the paper was acid-free, hence would not “yellow” with time! By the way, Mr Shanbhag was the one who advised me on Bronowski’s book referred to earlier.

Whenever I browse though my collection, I can still remember the advice Mr Shanbagh had given me on nearly each book.

While I mention all of this in the past tense, I am told by friends who visit the store that it still remains the same. Similar collection of books, similar discounts, similar courteous staff and continued attention to the customer. What is perhaps missing is the constant presence of Mr Shanbhag himself who has been ailing for a while now.

I have been in Bangalore for the past eight years and I am lucky that Mr Shanbhag’s daughter, Ms Vidya Virkar, runs the only other Strand store outside Sir PM Road, Mumbai; this one at Manipal Center on Dickenson Road. (There are a few other Strand mini-stores at Bangalore but these are in the campuses of IT companies like Infosys and Wipro). The Bangalore store is decided larger that the Mumbai parent, but follows the same levels of customer service. And an identical product mix and pricing strategy. The lovely Ms Vidya Virkar continues her father’s work at Bangalore.

Needless to say, my personal collection of books is built nearly entirely from purchases made at Strand.

Mr Shanbhag’s contribution to the business of books has been so great that he has been the only book retailer to have ever been awarded a Padma Shri! An appropriate token of appreciation for this great man who decided some 60 years ago that his mission in life was to provide great books to his customers at affordable prices!

And that brings me to a little anecdote which I will never ever forget. Way back in the 80’s, I had selected my books and realized that I was short of some Rs 150 on the billed amount of Rs 1200. And this was after the usual 20% discounts etc. Those were the days before I had acquired my first credit card and I hence had to settle the bill in cash. I felt a bit sheepish and was figuring out which book to drop from my selection when Mr Shanbhag sauntered upto the cashier’s desk. Even as I was struggling with my dilemma, he had his staff pack my entire selection and hand the bag to me. Before I could say something, Mr Shanbhag gently said,” Never mind about the remaining amount. You have selected these books since you wanted them, and you must take them all. Thank you for visiting our store. And enjoy the books.” Mr Shanbhag held the door open for me as I stepped out. Wondering how some people can go so much out of the way to make others happy.

Mr Shanbhag, you do not know me, and I have not seen you for nearly a decade now. But I want to convey to you my heartfelt thanks for all the joys you have continued to bring to me over the years, including my years in Bangalore.

Thanks you, sir!