The Joys of Letter-Writing

January 25, 2010

Remember the days when you would eagerly anticipate the postman with his bag of goodies? He was a veritable round-the-year Santa Claus. You would await his arrival with baited breath hoping he dropped into your letterbox mails from friends and relatives. You would read the familiar handwriting in the address section of the mail, tear open the mail if it was an inland letter or an envelope with a knife, a screw-driver or even your forefinger if no tool was available, savor the familiarity of the correspondent’s hand-writing, revel in the familiarity of whatever ink-colour used; royal blue, black, green, or sometimes even red!

The internet has been a killjoy. The instantly-delivered emails and even more instant IMs have taken away the joy. Your correspondent clicks the “send” button, the mail drops into your mailbox. You click open the mail in an instant and you send your perfunctory reply, sometime even without even explicitly addressing the mail to the person concerned. I find this whole process so very impersonal. Like this chap sends a pdf file of his wedding invitation, with the main recipient being his own ID and the others in the bcc mode. You click “reply” and send the following message:” Congratulations, I wish I could be there! I can’t. But will try the next time round”! Sounds familiar?

Correspondence is a personal transaction between two individuals, between two personalities. It is not the facts and ideas alone which are being shared, we also share a part of ourselves. And that exchange can never happen in the impersonal confines of an email. You really need to hold in your hands the stationery in which he/ she has written, notice the medium chosen (whether postcards, inlands or envelopes), see the colour of ink chosen, and generally sense all that which defines the persona of your correspondent. And that is something which the generic “Ariel”, “font size 12” in yahoo mail, or hotmail, or gmail, would never match. Even if it was on computer-generated stationery.


The lifeline of communication those days used to be the postman. Bhagatji, our very own postman would cycle down our street, tinkling his quaint cycle bell, indicating that he was in the vicinity. A multitude of heads would pop out of the windows and balconies keeping an eager eye on where Bhagatji would park his cycle. There was a tinge of disappointment if “Bhagatji” would not drop in something into your letter box. “Never mind”, you would tell yourself, “Something would come in tomorrow”. You would go back to life, unhurried, but in deep anticipation. Tomorrow shall come, you would reassure yourself.

And “tomorrow”s brought a multitude of prospects. Letters from relatives, from friends, from employers, from girl/boy friends, from sundry other sources.

“Pen-friends” column was a staple of all the kiddies magazine those days. And probably some grown-up people’s magazines as well. There was a regular column in most magazines which had a half-page long listing of those desirous of pen-friends. Complete with name, age, sex, hobbies and address for correspondence. You would choose someone whose profile matched yours and would write a letter and await the response. There were very few girls in the lists, so I suppose they would get a deluge of responses. I did have a few pen-friends the exchange of letters thick and fast initially would peter out over a period of time.

Unbelievable now, but I took this pen-friend business to a different plane. I actually wrote post cards to a couple of dailies in Pakistan giving my background and seeking friends from across the border. (Those days the postal stationery applicable for India also held good for some neighbouring countries.)  “Dawn” from Karachi was one of the papers I wrote to; the other newspaper was based in Lahore whose name I do not remember now. My letter got published in as was evident from two letters I received from Karachi. One was in Urdu, a language I did not know then, so further correspondence was ruled out. But the other was in English and my friendship with Wasim Iqbal continued for a couple of years! Complete with exchanges of photographs.

Letter-writing was taught in language classes. Different formats of letters were taught; son in a hostel writing to father seeking additional funds, letter to the local municipal corporation seeking restoration of street lights, letters to the school principal requesting leave to attend a family function, letter to a friend describing your summer holidays etc. Incidentally everyone’s destination for the fictitious summer vacation would be Simla. My first visit to Simla was decades later only when I was several years into my job, but I had mastered the topography and weather of Simla by rote and would write a detailed letter on it.

The letters to friends and peers were always initiated with the endearing “Pyaare Mitr”, or “Priya Mitr”. And to those senior or for those in authority the standard beginning line was “Seva mein savinay nivedan hai…” That must have been the Hindi adaptation of the colonial phraseology “I beg to state that…”

Letter-writing is still taught, and pretty much along similar lines. That I can see from my sons’ school books. It is another matter that neither of them writes letters, as in a chitthi. Correspondence, for them now is an email which starts variants of the salutation “Hey dude”. And then a string of strange words and abbreviations punctuated with arcane (to me) smileys. I wish they would teach the kids how to write decent emails!

Letter-writing was a must during my hostel days, a-letter-a-week home was mandatory. This was invariably an Inland letter then a very cost-effective 20 or 25 paise. Some friends would dodge this discipline making their parents totally unhappy. In fact, a common point of discussion among parents whose kids were in the hostel was the frequency- or lack of it- of letters from their children. One of my friends would outright lie to his parents that while was indeed punctual with his correspondence, the vagaries of the postal system ensured that his letters never got delivered. His father’s prompt response: send all the letters “UCP”, “Under Certificate of Posting”. I suppose that would have put paid to all his lies.

One you left the hostel, letters were the only source of contact with classmates. Postcards, Inlands and sometimes even envelopes were the means of communication. “Chitthi”,-a letter- was the sole bond with classmates in disparate geographies.

Talking about mail exchange between friends, here is another example. Pitaji, my father, is an inveterate letter-writer. He would write as much as 150 letters a year (I know this as he would keep a log of all the letters he wrote) till a few years ago when his eyesight was still good. He is now 85 years old and has lost sight in one eye and the other eye not too good. But he still manages to write a few letters a month. He has a friend living in another city who is 10 years older to him. Neither can travel to meet the other but the standing pact between the two of them is that they will exchange one postcard between them in a month. And they have rigorously kept this commitment over the last 20 years or so. That one-postcard-a-month routine has kept each of them of the goings-on in the other’s lives, the progress of children, grand-children and great grand-children.

It is this love Pitaji has for correspondence that he wrote to me a series of 18-odd letters on his views on his spiritual guru, Vinoba Bhave’s, philosophy. That was enough material for a book which I got published in 2009. Regular readers of this blog would have read an account of this in a couple of earlier posts of mine: Making of the book, The book release function.


I have not yet touched upon a genre of letters which was pretty popular; love-letters. These letters for which the young people of the neighborhood would flock to the local post office early in the morning to pick up the mail direct from the postman’s sorting station. Just to ensure that such letters did not get delivered to others in the family. It was a common thing those days, and perhaps even now, that anyone in the family would open the mail.

Unfortunately I did not have any exposure to this genre till I got married. My wife’s Bhabhi did try to inculcate this into me after I got engaged; She gifted me a bunch of writing stationery which had romance written all over. Right from the extravagant curliqued die-cut of the paper, the pink colour, and the floral motif on the edges. I was expected to write “love-letters” to my would-be wife on this stationery as we waited out the few months before the wedding took place.

I think wrote one letter on this stationery. But the one letter to her which I remember the most was scribbled on something completely different.

I was a regional sales manager based In Delhi covering North India. A twice-a-month visit to Punjab was common. On one of the train-rides from Ambala to Delhi I got no seating place, the train was so crowded. I had to manage with just enough standing space. I was bored as hell, and then I had this sudden urge to write to me fiancée. Those days most of us sales managers carried a small notebook- spiral bound- in our shirt pockets. This was used to note some salient points from our market work: distributor’s outstanding, his stock-holding, details of the cheques collected etc. I pulled out my notebook. And wrote to my fiancee one lengthy letter, consuming the entire notebook, standing in the train from Ambala to New Delhi. I poured out my love to her into those tiny pieces of paper.

And that, dear readers, was my first and the last love-letter.

I wonder if my dear wife  has preserved the letter. Even if she has not, I still dearly preserve the memory….

“The Three Idiots” and I

January 17, 2010

The Making of an “Idiot”:

I have kept away from the reviews of “3 idiots” as I always do when I plan to see a particular movie; it has been a few weeks since the movie was released. While I could keep myself off the printed reviews, I could not prevent my friends’ and colleagues’ impromptu reviews and the masses of unsolicited emails. Not to mention the recaps of the movie from my sons whose friends had seen the movie in the very first weekend while the family kept away from it as son-the-elder was writing his 10th pre-boards and we decided to abstain from movies in that period. (Now, having seen the movie, I think I was championing the very system the film was trying to denounce). May be I should have allowed my elder son to keep practicing on his fledgling guitar knowledge or his general mastery in computer games instead of focusing on academics.


I have been a product of a system very similar to that of Imperial College of Engineering, the Institute of technology of Banaras Hindu University (IT-BHU, Varanasi). Not one of the IITs, but it was then one of the only two colleges outside the (then) five IITs which admitted students based on the much awe-inspiring JEE, the great IIT Joint Entrance Exam.


Those days, for a reasonably bright student in a middle-class family, there were just two options for further studies, engineering or medicine. Arts and commerce were not in consideration. Commerce, maybe, if you were from a business family or a family of Cost Accountants and Chartered Accountants. Arts was the last resort for all, though your parents would conceal their general disappointment by telling all those who would care to listen that their child was aiming for the IAS- that Holy Grail for the middle-class families. The large majority could at best hope to become a probationary officer in a scheduled bank. Most landed up learning typing/ stenography and hoping to become a clerk somewhere. Courses like Computer Applications (BCA, MCA), Journalism, Hospitality, Aviation et al just did not exist!

Coming now to selection of engineering versus medicine: it was mostly a negative choice; if you did not like- or did not do well in- Maths, you were destined to pursue medical entrance. Likewise, lack of fondness for Biology made you pursue the engineering stream if you were otherwise a bright chap.

However, like Madhavan who wanted to be a wild-life photographer, I had these romantic notions of being a journalist. My father, a college professor, on realizing that I doth protest too much, plotted with my elder brother and sat me down for some “advice”. They convinced me into pursuing preparations for the engineering stream. They remarked that to be a successful in life- even as a journalist- I needed to have intelligence. That was a motherhood statement, I had to agree. If one exam does prove relative intelligence, they continued, it is the JEE. That kind of sealed my “fate”, as it were. If thought I was intelligent I needed to prove to my family and the world at large, that I indeed was brainy. That made sense to me and I decided to take a shy at the much-feared JEE.

Pitaji was a Hindi professor and he had no idea about matters-science. But he knew a trick-or-two about education. He consulted his colleagues in the sciences departments of his college and was advised that whatever I may want to pursue in life, excellence in mathematics was essential. “Santosh”, they advised, “needs to be a year ahead of his class in math.” So, off I was, attending tuition classes in trigonometry while my friends were struggling with algebra. I was learning Calculus while my classmates were learning the rudiments of sin squared+ cos squared= 1. I hated all this. I even bunked a few of these classes to see the latest film releases.

With some hard work and lots of luck, I did pass the JEE. Never mind the rank. I had the consolation of being in the “exalted” list of something like 2000 qualifiers from among 1.5 lakh applicants. I do not know the stats now, the number of applicants has increased manifolds since, and so has the number of IIT seats as there are many more IITs now. The ratio remains somewhat unchanged even now.


The Myth of Rancho, the Great:

I have a fundamental problem with the character of Rancho. I do not agree with the premise that a Rancho can be a comfortable topper without investing time and effort in academics. Sure, Rancho has a thing for machines and can tear them apart and fix them back. Sure he can get the aeroplane-like contraption to fly. But topping the class? I have my doubts. The bindaas Ranchos I have seen during my five years of engineering were at their  best middling in academics or often at the bottom of the class. A true engineer is more than someone who can repair machines, there is a lot more to engineering than just fixing nuts and bolts in the right places. You are not training at the local polytechnic to be a mere mechanic.

(I have one more crib with Rancho, he had the IQ of Einstein- or maybe more- and also was a great friend. He should have realized that his two room-mates did not have matching IQs and should have advised them to pack-in some studies instead of indulging in sundry extra-curricular activities all the time.)

The guys in my Institute who really did well academically were a mix of fun and studies. Of the two toppers in my class, one was into movies of all types while the other was a solidly-built football half-back. The rival teams dreaded him! Sure they studied, but not at the expense of fun. The film guy, by the way, is now a global nano-material scientist with tons of papers published in the coveted journal “Nature”. But in no way I can describe him as a uni-dimensional character, a nerd. The topper in the batch senior to ours was an ace drummer and the Institute cricket captain. And he too studied hard.

Of course, there were enough Chatur’s lurking around, but I cannot remember anyone of these ever making it to the top of the class. Rare was a nerd who topped. To that extent I agree with the portrayal of the character.

The fact remains that the Institute was a great place to gain knowledge and meet and make friends with some supremely talented folks. Music, theater, sports, arcane hobbies; the range on display was breath-taking. A few did kind of drift-off and lose all sense of perspective (I have known seniors who spent 7-8 years to get their 5-year engineering degree.) But most students were intelligent folks who managed to mix work and fun. After all, these were some of the brightest students of their times who occasionally indulged their sundry other interests with like-minded folks.

Like I mentioned earlier, I had no great interest in engineering but having qualified for studying at the Institute I made sure my grades were reasonably healthy through those five years. I may not have been in the top quartile, but what-the-hell, I had my share of fun. Directing plays, editing the campus magazine for a couple of years, picking up cryptic crosswords and going on- what some considered crazy- a 800 km cycle trip from Varanasi to Delhi. I never aspired to top the class, not that aspiring would have helped given the general IQ levels floating around. But I had my fun and passed out much richer in terms of skills learnt, friends made, and generally knowing a little bit more about what all a human can do. And by the way, my CGPA was Ok and I had a coveted campus job as well in the bag when I graduated. It is another matter than I was fortunate enough not to take up the job.

But that is another story!

Psychology of Liking a Person: Part 1

January 8, 2010

Please take out your pen and a sheet of paper and answer this simple question: “Which five friends do you like?” Quite simple, no?

I can imagine you scribbling quickly; Sapna… Meena… Neha. Or, Sanjay… Sunil… Rajiv. Or even a mix of genders. Sapna… Sunil… Meena. Very simple, right? We all can easily write the names of people we like. Open and shut case, of course I know who I like. Fair enough.

Now let me reverse the question. I hope your pen and paper remain ready.

Please now list five friends who Sapna, Meena and Neha like. You should be able to answer this one, pat. So you should be able to list very quickly 5 likeable friends for each of these friends. Sure, you think for yourself, I know exactly what (and who) she likes.

I shall wait as you do that.

You think I am writing one of my usual, light-hearted, frivolous pieces as usual. I am not. So please do go ahead and put your pen to paper.

Done? Then let us proceed ahead.

Scan the lists of the liked ones of people you like. How many of these five lists do you appear in? I can take a bet, you do not appear in all the five lists. Right? Surprised? And you think I am P.C. Sorcar Jr. to have guessed what you see? Perhaps I am. But we shall wait and watch. Just stay with me and be honest with this exercise, you will not regret it. (Or maybe, you will!) Stay with me and the rules of this game. And I hope the sheet of paper you have chosen is big enough to accommodate all my questions, there are more coming.

List the top five people whose company you enjoy the most, the ones with whom you would most like to spend time with. And now, since you know this game, take a guess on which of your chosen five will have you on their lists. This may be a difficult, but take a shot. You may find you do not feature in the lists of all of them.  You would normally assume they would find your company pleasurable too.

If you feel disturbed suddenly that you feature in less than five of the lists, I will not be surprised. I would have been surprised if you did, indeed, show up in even four of the five. And please remember, you have been the one all along making these lists, I have not even asked any of your friends you like, as to who they like. You could be in for a greater surprise on seeing the lists obtained from your preferred companions.

Here is a tougher one. Write down the names of 5 of your friends whom you admire. And guess the 5 whom you think these admired friends would place in their lists of the friends they admire. I know you do not know this for sure, no one does, but please do go ahead.

Do you feature in any of these lists? Chances are, very few of these lists!

If it is a little disturbing for you, I empathize. I was hassled too, when I undertook this exercise. Those we like may not find my company most enjoyable, those whose companies I enjoy may not revel in mine. And those who I admire do not admire me. These truths haunt you and you start wondering about your own judgments and philosophies in life.

A pretty unpleasant experience, overall. So why did I get you to embark upon this?  And let me assure you, this is not one of those pieces from the new-age, self-help book claptraps. This is an actually an outcome of a study I have done, the findings of this study I did a couple of decades ago left me rather taken aback.

Anyway, all this background details can wait till the next post.

For now, I wish that those who have been “cheating” all along- not making the lists as suggested- please go ahead and do so. Let me assure you, you will not regret it.

Or maybe, you will, depending on whether you see the glass “half-full” or “half-empty”!

Vignettes of a Train Journey

January 5, 2010

While my parents were born in their respective villages, I was born and raised in Jamshedpur, a pretty modern town, though a small one. But a trip to the village; called gaon or des was de riguer for the entire family, especially during the summer holidays. Our trips to my mother’s village were more frequent, as her brothers in her extended family were getting married, virtually every year. But the trip was punctuated by a couple of train travels, and that is what this piece is about.

The trip from Jamshedpur to the village was via Patna those days. The Patna trip was easy to negotiate; we used to book our tickets in the quaintly-named “South Bihar Express” from Tatanagar (that is the name of the station which services Jamshedpur residents) to Patna.

The onward travel was a challenge thereafter. We had to sneak into an unreserved bogey on any train travelling westwards from Patna to Kanpur, often via the window! The “hold-alls” and “attaches” would be chucked in first, then younger kids, followed by heavy steel trunks. Women would then follow and just as the train was chugging past the platform the menfolk would slither in, often with half their bodies outside the window as the train left the platform. It was a miracle that all of us would eventually make it inside the same train dabba.

The chosen coach, after a studied advice from the coolie who was hired to transport the luggage into the train, was the general (unreserved) compartment. The “general dabba” as it was called. True to the nature of train travel those days, there would be something like 300 or so passengers in a coach meant for some 75-80 passengers. The lucky few sat on the benches meant for normal travel, albeit five to a bench meant for three passengers. Four would seat squashed tight in a space meant for three. The fifth would perch sideways with just a fraction of his butt resting on the bench, his legs perched firmly on the aisle, firm enough to prevent a displacement from the bench due to frequent sideways motions of the other four passengers trying to expand their personal spaces to release the pressures on their butts! Many would clamber up to the luggage shelf affixed over the passenger seating and arrange themselves on it somewhat similar to the co-passengers on the lower bench. Now just four to a shelf, but just as uncomfortable. Some adventurous ones would even crawl on to the small luggage rack kissing the roof and somehow manage to survive the journey. These stratospheric passengers were actually the good Samaritans as they would periodically rotate the fan blades sticking close to their heads and stoke them into motion to introduce a semblance of air circulation in the compartment. You see, mere electricity was not enough to get the recalcitrant blades into motion so varied implements such as a ball-point pen, a pocket comb and sometime even the small cardboard train ticket was employed to crank the fan-blades into motion.

The oppressive crush of multitudes would initially start off disputes over the seating “arrangements”. The oppressive heat, both from the hot climate and the human exhalations did not help the cause. Add to that the suffocating mix of beedi and hukka smoke hovering around in the air choking even those with the healthiest of lungs. It was, but natural, that the younger men would get into fisticuffs with those who attempted to grab more space by attempting to lie down on the limited seating space. The elders would intervene and sanity- and peace- would prevail in a matter of minutes with the youth from the warring factions muttering retribution under their breaths. Very quickly the crowds would realign and seating (or at least a comfortable seating space) would be found for all. The smaller kids would clamber onto hitherto stranger elders’ laps, some would climb up in the manner described above. Others would occupy every other square inch right from the aisle to the space near the bathroom. Some lucky fellows even would get to perch themselves over others’ gunny sacks scattered across the aisles!

Law and order now restored, it was time now for some to pull out their slim tins of khaini with a choona (lime) receptacle on either side. Some others would “process” the khaini on their grubby palms and this would be passed around to whoever cared for a pinch of the intoxicant. Khaini, as is the tradition, is a great class leveler; it does not respect either caste or class hierarchies. Some would even exchange beedis (they were never shared though, unlike khaini. The rare one carrying a newspaper would cheerfully distribute individual sheets to others when requested.

Those seated close-by would start enquiring about the personal details of each other. Origin, destination, marital status, purpose of visit, number and names of kids, food habits, physical ailments (helpful ayurveda advice proffered gratis for even complex ailments), unmarried siblings, reasons thereof. The queries would go ad nauseum. Never did the queried one ever get flustered, or the questioning one ever tired. After all, each was serving a great role in “reducing” the seemingly endless time and distance from the journey’s source to destination. I have not been witness to any, but I am sure that many a matrimonial relationship would have got hammered into a rough shape in these journeys should there be a congruence of castes between two willing neighbouring passengers.

By the way, if I implied that everyone in the coach was in harmony and socializing freely, my apologies. There was a class of travelers who typically would wear shirt-sleeved polyester bush-shirts (often shiny and dark; they considered this pretty smart) over white or some other light-coloured trousers. They would look suitable bored as they waded through a novel (mostly Gulshan Nanda or Ranu or Colonel Ranjeet). Once in a while they would look at the train chugging past on the neighbouring track, upturn their wrists to read the time off their watches which they wore in the reverse- the dial in the same plane as their palms. They would then make grave statements about how late such-and-such train was running that day. Like ”Today’s Kalka mail is running four hours behind schedule.” A small argument would break out among these shirted-trousered folks. One would say it was the Jayanti-Janata Express running on time while the third would claim it was actually Kalka Mail which was 12 hours late. None was any wiser and after 15-20 minutes of intense arguments they would pull on the mask of a bored look and sink right back into their Gulshan Nandas, Ranus or Colonel Ranjeets. Some of the enlightened ones even read magazines with names like “Satya Katha” and “Manohar Kahaniyan”. And of course the favourite of all train travelers: “Mayapuri”, the film magazine.

Somewhere in the midst of it all appeared the vendors. Those ubiquitous sellers of varied wares, snacks, toys, books, magic remedies. People would ask to be shown the books (Kissa Tota Maina, etc), and toys. They also got the details of the herbs which made up the remedies, but none rarely bought. What indeed got some customers were the tea and snacks. Snacks like boiled-and-spiced chana, sliced coconut (looked so enticing with water dripping from the ends of the sliced coconut crescents) and something which I have seen only in Bihar; “Ramdana ka Laddoo”. Suddenly strangers would offer to buy for others these snacks which after a raucous argument on either side would settle into each of the parties buying and sharing something.

And over the course of the few hours of the journey, strong bonds developed, with promises to meet again if not for any other reason but to meet up at a mutual friend’s, acquaintances family functions. (Arey, agley mahine uskey naati ka Janau hai, kaisey nahin ayengein hain ham.”).

Phir milengey, namastey!


Winter Musings: Part Two

January 3, 2010

Winter was a great time for eating. Mai was more liberal with poori and pulao in winter as compared with summer and monsoon months. Perhaps winters were supposed to be “healthier” than the other seasons. This coupled with the fact that in the winters the choice of sabzis was far more varied, and far more welcome. Summers and monsoons had all kinds of specimens from the gourd family creeping put: Lauki, konhada, turai, nenua, kaddu. To add to this evil- and foul- list were bhindi, sem and baingan. I will not translate these into English for those who do not understand these terms, let them suffer year-long servings of the aforementioned sabzis. Anyway, coming back to the winters, the royalty among the vegetables would surface: phool-gobhi, patta- gobhi, mooli , gaajar, matar, dhaniyasarson- ka-saag, and chane- ka-saag. A gourmet’s selection! (Remember, we were a vegetarian family!). So it could be an aloo-paratha for breakfast, pulao for lunch and gobhi parathas for dinner. What bliss! Especially if the dinner was crowned with gaajar ka hawaa, or more commonly, kheer.


There was one coveted fruit, ber, which the elders tried to keep out of bounds for children till the Saraswati Puja. Ber has multiple species, thankfully only the light-green elongated one (called “Kashi ber”) was the one reserved as an offering to Ma Sarasawti, we could partake of the reddish-brown variety which grew readily in the wilds. In my early childhood days we stayed in a place surrounded by a forested area. And a prominent winter feature was a walk through the woods, as it were, hunting for bers. We would return home satiated with our fill of bers and with acres of our skins scratched by the thorny ber shrub! (To all you nerds reading this piece, the botanical name of ber is Ziziphus mauritania.)

Bhojpuri-speaking people in India have this universal “dish”, litti. If you have not had the pleasures of having litti in the middle of winter, let me tell you, you have not lived! It is not the delectable flavours of litti alone, but the entire process of preparing it on a bitingly-cold winter evening. To start with, litti is prepared outdoors, as much smoke is released when litti is prepared. If you want to know what litti is all about, then here is a rather pedestrian description: Atta is moulded into rounded hollow balls into which you fill a spiced version of sattu. (Sattu is a ground form of chana, it is not NOT besan, the preparation of sattu is a process by itself). As the balls are getting formed, you stoke a “barbecue” with dried cowdung cakes (gointha). The atta/sattu balls are then inserted into the smouldering fire with potatoes, baingan and tomatoes following it for company later. After sometime, the vegetables are pulled out manually, followed by the littis. The roasted vegetables are peeled off their burnt skins and mashed along with spices, salt and mustard oil. That is the “chokha”. The littis are sieved free of the ashes of cowdung cakes on a thin muslin cloth and served along with the chokha with bowlfuls of ghee. Aah, the joys of litti-chokha!!

Now that was a rather prosaic description. There were colorful sidelights as well. As the barbecuing happened, the entire men-folk would assemble around the fire and exchange all sorts of gossip as the cooking proceeded. Some puffing on their beedis. Many lolling around with their gamchhas tied around their legs, below the knee, and their backs; see-sawing on their butt around the fireplace.


Waking up in the mornings was a torture. The waking up process would start sometime around 8 am and extend for an hour or so. Within that hour, I would periodically raise my head from under the rajai, glance around and once I was assured that all was well with the world, and that it was too early and cold to wake up, would promptly cover myself up with the rajai and drift off again. There were mornings I would wake up real early and stroll out into the open air savoring the bitter cold. Blowing clouds of vapors in the open air made me feel all grown up, as if I was smoking a cigarette!

And that remains one of the most abiding memories of my childhood.



Winter Musings: Part One

January 3, 2010

The great thing about my school was the generous winter holidays we used to get. Those days our school sessions followed the calendar year- January to December. So the first week of December saw us appearing for our final exams, with a geometry box clipped smartly into the clipboard we used to carry to the classroom. The clipboard was employed to ensure that we did not drill holes into our answer sheets as they lay spread on the rough classroom desk. The temperature was still reasonably moderate till then, so we could get away with just a half-sweater. Some “weaklings”, as we used to call them, would come fully armoured with a thick full-length sweater and a monkey-cap!

Anyway, the exams were but a mere impediment to the 5-6 week long winter vacation which would follow. Of course there was the small issue of the annual reports to be dealt with but that was just an occupational hazard of being a school student. Thankfully my marks were pretty much ok and more often than not I would be one of the top three rank holders of my class. This meant that I was called upon the stage, in front of my justifiably beaming parents, to receive a prize from the school principal. Ours being a Jesuit-run school (Loyola, Jamshedpur), the prize ceremony also had the usual Christmas tableaux preceding the ceremony on stage. I remember being assigned different roles in different years. A tailor in one, one of the three Magi in the other. Or just a “Christmas tree” in another. And in good X’mas spirit we also would learn how to hum “Silent night, holy night”, “Rudolph, the red-nose reindeer”, etc.).

All good fun. In anticipation of the bigger fun which followed the prize ceremony, the winter holidays!

The one great thing about the winter holidays was that the books of the preceding 12 months were of no use. After all we were moving from one class to another! Hence, there was no homework either. What followed was an unadulterated month and a half of fun which got over only when the school reopened on the Monday after Makar Sankranti (14th January).


Upon return home after the last paper of the final exam, I would have a quick bite and head-out to see what my neighborhood friends were up to. They would all be outdoors, playing in the sun. Winter season sports were varied. Cricket was, of course, the most popular one. We would all get onto the neighborhood field (an open patch with a sprinkling of grass on an undulating piece of land covered mostly with pebbles, really) attempting to become the next Bedi, Gavaskar or Vishwanath. Some would even fancy themselves to the next Salim Durrani who was the equivalent those days of Sehwag, if and when he succeeded in scoring some runs. Some other players who thought they were as agile as Eknath Solkar would end up with bloodied shins and elbows trying to take an impossibly placed catch right in the middle of a rubble in the “field” of ours.

The cricket session depended on whether the sole supplier of the cricket gear to our group was home or not. And if home, if he was in the mood to play or not. Often he would be found on the terrace of his house rubbing vigorously litres of mustard oil (sarson ka tel) on his body soaking in the winter sun before his bath. An application of mustard oil in winter was believed to give one strength to brave the winter onslaught besides of course making one’s skin more soft and supple.


We never despaired if cricket was not possible, there were several options available. The two most popular winter season games were gilli-danda and marbles. Neither required any elaborate kit and we were not dependant on anyone to supply us that. We would fashion, impromptu, our gilli-danda with some branches cut surreptitiously from our neighbors’ guava or mango trees. If you do not understand what gilli-danda means you probably are reading the wrong blog and I shall not attempt to explain the sport to you. For those you do understand the game, you will agree that it was a magical day spent outdoors under the winter sun! Gilli-danda with all its multiple variants. Ditto for marbles!!


The winter sun would set early in Jamshedpur, say around 5.30 pm. It would also get cold and there was no question of staying outdoors any longer. So off we trudged back home on our weary feet. Our grimy bodies longing for a wash, our parched throats aching for drink. A cup of hot Horlicks, more often than not. Our parents would also swathe us in elaborate winter clothing, the winters in Jamshedpur could be pretty severe. Suitably fortified with drink and clothing, I would proceed to my next- and very pleasurable- activity. No, not TV serials, there was no TV around those days. Books were what delighted me when indoors. As I lay tucked into my rajai.


I have done most of my reading of Hindi literature during my school winter vacations. The very first day of holidays Pitaji would get for me some 8-10 books from his college library. Not only books written by Premchand, Dharmvir Bharti, but also translations of Bengali novels into Hindi; I then used to read the novels of Bimal Mitra and Shankar.  If the college library was not enough, there was another library those days in the city, the one belonging to Gandhi Peace Foundation which to my surprise had a lot of stuff even beyond Gandhian literature. Like American books on science and history. If there was nothing else available then there was always this library local Community Development Center run by the Tatas which had among other back issues of Readers Digest.

Winter, as you would agree, is a time for winter clothing. Those days these were confined to sweaters. Half or full. And nearly all hand-made. With balls of wool bought from a store in Bishtupur; “Dongarsidas and Sons”. There were the packaged balls, branded Modella (with the brand logo of a lion) if I remember correctly, and there were the cheaper “loose” wholesale variety. The store also helpfully sold knitting needles (called “kaanta” in common-speak). Mai and others spent many a winter evening knitting sweaters. The single-coloured ones with the following the basic patterns were the simplest to knit. There were more complex designs, the self-design in the single coloured ones, and they was also the dual-tinted wool. Women would kind of memorize the knitting sequence and would recite aloud as they sat knitting among their groups of friends, “Ek-ulta, do-seedha, do-seedha, ek-ulta.” Etc etc. And as the knitted piece of the wool lengthened, they would call whoever was available close-by to check the length.


(To be concluded)

“Kaala Pani”: A Tribute to the Intrepid Freedom Fighters

January 1, 2010

In the last five years I have been to Port Blair, the head quarters of Andaman and Nicobar islands, twice. A great place for scuba-diving and snorkeling, excellent food and very warm, hospitable people. But this is not what this post is about, it is about one dreaded chapter from the colonial times. The Cellular Jail, or “Kala Paani” as it is better known as, is a monument to those brave young men of India who endured unspeakable sufferings in their urgent quest for India’s freedom. A jail where countless were imprisoned, many never to come out alive. Many maimed and handicapped for life. Cellular Jail, that bleak, morbid, and devilish-looking structure of black stone-and-bricks standing upright in the midst of the expanse of deep, dark seas. Kaala Paani, indeed!


I will not go into the history of the prison; there are countless websites with all the details. Suffice it to say that this was constructed between 1896- 1906 to house prisoners from mainland India. Initially meant for hardcore criminals, but quickly converted into an imprisonment for those intrepid warriors of freedom. Each prisoner was assigned a room. Should a single-seater room sound a luxury, consider this: each of these room was a 13X6 feet affair. There was a door- made of solid steel rods-  which was bolted from outside such that it could not be opened by the person within. There was a narrow cot to sleep upon, and there was nothing else in the cell. There was a ventilator, but that was just to let in some light and air; its height was such that the inmate could not look outside. And no going out to the bathroom to relieve oneself at nights. The inmate was issued a bowl into which he had to urinate and defecate after sunset and clean up after dawn when you were allowed outside the cell.

Total isolation from sunset to sunrise, and during the day, there was hard labour. Real hard labour. Sample this: there was a task allocation of any of the following: producing “x” seers of ropes from coconut husk using some medieval back-breaking technology, milling “y” seers of oil in a mill, harnessed like oxen to a devilish-looking contraption or simply constructing more cells for this hell-house. And if the prisoner demurred, he was awarded dozens of whip-lashes in full public view. This served a dual purpose, pain and public humiliation as a punishment for him and a deterrent for the others. If he was even worse “behaved”, there was a creative series of handcuffs to entrap him in. The jailor chose the methodology depending upon his assessment of the severity of the crime. One type of handcuffs would keep the prisoner’s hands free and just the legs were fettered, while the other would shackle his hands and legs while the third would shackle his entire body and make him wonder why he was alive, at all. And if he chose to be completely uncooperative, hanging-to-death was the preferred punishment. The gallows were generous-sized, so at least in death you had the company of others. Three inmates were hung together and there was a convenient located platform nearby to perform the last rituals for the deceased. Small mercies; last rites were allowed.

The Three Types of Shackles

Tableaux Depicting the Whipping Punishment. (This was done right in the center of the courtyard)

Food was completely inedible, weevil-infested rotis, some wild leaves and grass cooked as subzi and often worm-infested rainwater to slake the thirst. Wonder if all this mattered, the prisoners were hardly in a shape to eat after all the hardships they underwent through the day.

This was the jail where some of the bravest sons of Mother India were incarcerated. Batukeshwar Dutt, who along with Bhagat Singh bombed the Assembly in Delhi, the Moplah Rebels, the revolutionaries of the Chiittagong Uprising, Gadar Party revolutionaries, those named in the Alipore Conspiracy Case. And the most famous one of them all, Veer Savarkar who was sentenced for 50 years in 1910 but released after 11 years in 1921; in what some believe to be somewhat controversial circumstances. His cell, at the end of long, long corridor on the first floor of the prison, is perhaps the only one in the complex which is identified as a specific prisoner’s.


In my first trip to the Cellular Jail, I had a colleague of mine from Uttar Pradesh, Rajeev, who mentioned that the family folklore said that one of the family- Gaya Prasad- had become a revolutionary and been jailed in the kaala pani. Mercifully, the names of the prisoners have been enshrined on marble slabs in the jail premises and our group searched out the name of Gaya Prasad. Rajeev, understandably, was a proud man posing next to the slab bearing his ancestor’s name:

Rajeev next to the tablet bearing the name of his relative Gayaprasad at #4 in the United Provinces list; Batukeswar Datta's name is at #2


Please visit Port Blair at least once in case you have not done so far. Visit the galleries where the horrors of the cell-jail are depicted. See for yourself the hardships some of our freedom fighters went through. Walk through the jail corridors, visit the gallows (do not miss the pit underneath where bodies would dangle, three at a time, as I mentioned earlier). Walk up to the platform where the dead were given there last rites. Walk up to the ramparts of the central watch-tower and gaze at the foreboding deep blue-black ocean which would prevent even the most prolific swimmer from contemplating escape.

Think of the unbelievable sacrifice thousands of young men made, in the prime of their lives, for the cause of India’s freedom.


After the sound-and-light show post dusk we walk back towards our tourist coach to be ferried back to the hotel we are staying in. The audio-visual imagery haunting us. Naseeruddin Shah’s baritone narrating the Cellular Jail story backed with great lighting arrangements, music, choruses and voice-overs. None in the group speaks, none is able to speak. We are all overwhelmed by what we had experienced over the last few hours. Then, suddenly, one of the vocal ones in the group cannot resist himself and makes a comment, “Such a prime place should be put to good use. Maybe the government should arrange a tour of this place for the politicians of today.

The quietest in our group mumbles nearly inaudibly: “We could actually go a little beyond this, some of our politicians should be imprisoned here for a few decades. Let them really understand what some of our freedom fighters really went through. That will teach these guys a lesson. And shame them. Besides effectively keeping them off the affairs of this country.”

I hear this chatter. I nod in agreement. But then it dawns on me, won’t that be sullying the very monument to those valiant freedom-fighters! Maybe we should just leave the Cellular Jail alone. And find better ways to fix the the corrupt among the politicians.