Saturday, August 05, 2017

The Birthday Party Juggernaut

Birthday parties. If you are a parent in this generation, you are either going to one or preparing to host one. Such is their frequency.
Read my latest publication in Spark magazine about how birthday parties are not the memorable occasions they used to be.

The Birthday Party Juggernaut

I am a child of the 80s who grew up in the middle of middle class India. This naturally meant that the things that today’s generation of kids take for granted was an exercise in extravagance at that time. A birthday was an occasion where you would mandatorily visit your local deity and garner some blessings (and perhaps a gift or loose cash) from your elders. The only party we knew was a political entity who came around the time of elections every five years to garner some votes.
I remember my sixth birthday celebration vividly. In Kodak Eastman color. I say so because the celebration was the only one I had in the first decade during which I also got the chance to take some lovely pictures with my parents, friends and family. It was truly a momentous occasion, a rare one.
Three decades later, while the earth has been quietly spinning around the sun, life has come a full circle for me. I am a parent of two Gen-Z boys. Parenting does not come with a manual, but does come equipped with a to-do list. One of those activities is chaperoning the children to birthday parties.
The math itself is intimidating. Both my children have twenty kids each in their class. Even if ten kids from each class invited them for a birthday, that takes away twenty weekends of the year. Add to that friends from the building and you realise soon enough that you can’t buy gifts at a pace that matches that of the party requests.
In full disclosure, everything that I state below will be applicable to me as well since I too host two of these birthday parties every year.
It doesn’t matter when the birthday actually occurs. The celebration is almost always pushed to the weekend. Months before the birthday comes about, parents have to pick the place of the jamboree. Should it be a new gaming zone or a new restaurant? Do it at home or in an indoor sports place? It can’t be too far, it can’t be a repeat of another birthday party, it has to be something your child likes, it has to be something the other children like too. Once you navigate the labyrinth of choices, the booking is made. Just as you heave a sigh of relief, you realise that only half the battle is won. The food has to be organized, the return gifts have to be bought and in today’s hyper-connected world, a WhatsApp group of all the parents who are bringing their tots to the party has to be created.
Note that it isn’t that simple though. There are people who aren’t able to confirm until much later and that dreaded head count that you need to provide to the place hosting the party isn’t ready until much later.
The day of the party nears. You have done your due diligence. A Ninjago cake has been ordered (because Mickey Mouse is so yesterday) and is set to be delivered at the right time for the party. The caterers have been told the menu and you hope and pray that their output matches the recommendation that led you to them. Everything is set. The birthday child, the siblings and the parents.
You arrive early at the venue to receive everyone. No one arrives on time. You wait, and still no one arrives. The birthday boy is getting fidgety. Hungry. And then they come. The swarm of parents and the attendees of the birthday party.
A birthday gift is recklessly shoved into your hands by the child as you are greeting the parents. The child attending the party has most likely got no idea what he or she is gifting. It doesn’t seem relevant to them.
“Come, let’s play” is the call, and off they go into the rumbly-tumbly world of bouncy balls and places.
An hour later, the famished masses are dragged away from the play area by their parents and the children are gathered for the most-awaited cake-cutting ceremony. The cake naturally tends to be the center of attraction and it requires an exceptionally focused adult guarding it to ensure that the cake is not squished before it is cut. The Happy Birthday song is sung with gusto, the cake is cut, pictures are taken and the children are distributed on the chairs in anticipation of the food. Most rookie parents make the mistake of giving hungry children the cake before the food. Sugar on an empty stomach for the little brats simply spurs them to more devilish deeds. Food is brought out but not all children eat the lavish spread well. The hosts generally always order more than what is needed because who wants to host a party with insufficient food? Birthday parties are a great example of how good food is wasted inconsiderately.
Eventually, when it is time to say goodbye, the return gifts are brought out. Kids are so used to getting one that I have had many a kid walk up to me at the start of the party itself and ask me what the return gift is going to be. The goodie bag with the little trinkets is one that all parents hate and yet they impose it on other parents.
The party ends and parents of the birthday child pack their cars with all the gifts and head home. The children open their gifts and enjoy them, but not with the same sense of awe and gratitude that we did. Often, when we celebrate my boys’ birthdays, we ask the guests to not get gifts but instead donate that to charity because the act can go a long way in instituting a higher sense of compassion in children.
The dauphins of France might not be as spoilt for choice as today’s children are. Which naturally means that they will be more dissatisfied than the brats of French royalty ever were. The ease with which they get everything also breeds a sense of entitlement.
Birthday parties have become an obligatory celebration for the parents because of peer pressure and an entitlement for the children because they know no better. Perhaps it isn’t too late for parents to stem the tide. To realise that hosting fewer but more meaningful parties is a better choice. That the yearly journey of the earth around the sun for your child can be special without streamers and a gathering and return gifts. The choice is ours.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

It is Alright

Read my latest publication in Spark. Their topic for the month was 'Night'. I have written a poem about the succor it brings, for those who dread it. 

It is Alright 

It is alright for your night to arrive
You have been embracing this world
Since the sun’s first surreptitious rays
Losing charge as the hours go by
Like the million devices you command
It is alright for your night to begin
Its cloak trailing in the gentle breeze
Gently concealing the world around you
The gains the city made
The losses its inhabitants suffered
It is alright for your night to pass
For what is night but an egress to many worlds
Where your rainbow tinted dreams
Meet your uninhibited thoughts
Under the canopy of closed eyelids
It is alright for your night to end
The first moments when your eyes open
Are your bulwark against reality
When you are neither awake nor asleep
And life doesn’t feel insurmountable

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Story of Our Lives

Read my review of the docu-drama based on the cricketing journey of Sachin Tendulkar published in this month's Spark magazine.
Or as I called it when I saw the movie - a pilgrimage


The Story of Our Lives

Sachin Tendulkar tickles the ball to the fine leg boundary. He completes a century and India completes a famous win in Chennai. It is not just a victory. It is a balm to the nation after the horrific attacks in Mumbai. It is December 2008.
I turn to my son and whisper in his ear over the din of the movie, “Do you know what’s so special about this match?”
My eight-year-old shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly.
“You were born that day.”
His eyes light up. I have just given him context.
It is a fleeting moment in a movie filled with many such moments. The movie is ‘Sachin: A Billion Dreams’ and it is a documentary drama based on the life of the legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.
I took my sons (8 and 5) to this movie so that they could learn about their father’s favorite cricketer. That was the purported reason and yet, it turned out to be a movie where they learnt a little bit about their father. They saw me animated, engaged, emotional. That is what context does. That is why the children of the 80s and the 90s have warmed up to this film.
This is not a story about Sachin. It is a story of our lives.
For many like me who have followed his career since we first heard of him as a precocious cricketer in 1989, our lives have been dotted with one Sachin innings after another. They ceased to be just runs made in a cause. They were milestones in our lives.
The movie lays them in our path within a span of two hours.
A young Sachin, born into the middle class household of a sensitive poet, a hardworking mother and loving siblings puts aside his love for mischief and discovers an undying passion for cricket when his brother takes him to the famed coach Mr. Ramakant Achrekar.
The movie traces these moments in Sachin’s life through the wonderful enthusiasm of the child actor portraying him. The movie takes you in through the journey of the little boy who combined his precocious talent with a formidable work ethic and a strong support system to make it to the Indian cricket team to tour Pakistan at the age of 16. The message that talent alone is not enough without the will and hard work to see it to its logical end is there for everyone to grasp.
Tendulkar narrates most of the movie himself, with his family members, his teammates and opponents all pitching in.
As the years roll by, his pursuit of the World Cup gives the movie its rhythm. Through this turmoil, the rise of Tendulkar paralleling the rise of India in the 90s is shown. His great innings start rolling on the scenes and I could hear knowledgeable people in the theater nod their head when he carts Caddick for a six or smashes Kasprowicz in Sharjah. Don Bradman makes an appearance when he talks about how Sachin reminds him of his younger self and Akram chimes in to say that their strategy to win against India was centered around getting Sachin out.
Sachin lays clear his self-doubt when playing his first test match, his frustrations at being dumped as a captain, his thoughts on the the match fixing saga that enveloped cricket, the pain of the many injuries he suffers. But those looking for spicy tidbits or controversy will be largely disappointed. To that end, the movie panders to the non-critical fan, not the neutral observer who might be expecting to hear about the Ferrari controversy or the famous 194 declaration incident.
We get a glimpse into the partnership that makes him tick – that with his wife Anjali. We get to see him as the goofball father who regrets not getting enough time with his children but makes every moment count when he is with them.
I sat through the movie absorbing this life story even though I knew everything there was to know about it. I could recognize every statistic that was mentioned. I had reveled in all the victories that were shown and I had felt heartbroken at every defeat that we had suffered with the little man at the center of it all.
And yet I stayed glued. A.R. Rahman’s pulsating background score with chants of ‘Sachin, Sachin’ remind the viewer of what stadiums felt like when Tendulkar was in the middle. James Erskine does a good job as a director and his most important feat was getting Tendulkar as a narrator to very simply and effectively tell his own story. Special mention must be made about the editing of the movie for it could not have easy to walk through hours and hours of footage and pick the right gems that people could relate to.
The movie rides on nostalgia. It rides on emotion. And that is appropriate. For calling Tendulkar a mere batsman, however good he may have been, does disservice to what he meant to people. There is a poignant moment at the end where Ramesh Tendulkar says with pride, “The thing that gives me most satisfaction is that people think of Sachin as their own. As part of their family.” That sums up the reaction to this film. That sums up my emotions as I sat through this.
Even die-hard Tendulkar fans accept that post retirement, his aura has dimmed as he tries to find a footing in the world outside cricket with constant product promotions and social media pandering. This movie can either be viewed cynically as another rung down the ladder for him or a sincere attempt to share his inspiring journey with the world. I chose the latter.
I have never cried in a movie theater before but found myself welling up quite often. My sons will grow up in the age of Kohli and in the razzmatazz of the IPL. And yet they’ll have known now that Sachin is special. Because the movie said so. Because their father was teary eyed.
Sachin wistfully says in the movie, “Cricket is like oxygen to me.” Surely he must know that for the India that witnessed his growth and continues to shower love on him despite him struggling to find a way to stay relevant post retirement, he has been like oxygen.
At the end of this very subjective review, I can only ask you to watch this movie in a theater. You’ll not be disappointed.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Merger

Not all relationships trace a linear path. Read this naughty short story published in Spark that traces a merger of a different kind.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/the-merger/

The Merger

“Was it good for you too?”, he called out loudly as he watched his companion for the night disappear into the bathroom, a sheet clumsily covering her bare back. She was aware of the casual light of the day, aware that the folds of her skin had nowhere to hide, mindful that her cellulite stood out to be counted and cognizant that her sagging breasts were on the verge of giving a mindful to gravity for its faults. Hearing his voice, she hastened into the bathroom.
Had it been good for her too? Oh yes, it had. Unshackled by any burden of knowing who he was and by any inconvenience of him knowing her, she had enjoyed the sex for the raw, primal, indulgent pursuit that it was meant to be.
There was no apology in it. She had enjoyed the taste of him, being engulfed in his arms in the dark of the night where perfection was a romp between two misshapen, misaligned and misguided bodies.
He pushed himself back on the bed, propping his back on a pillow that had been pounded out of shape. His phone was lying face down on the side table along with his wallet. He was only slightly hungover, only slightly disoriented. He was not a man of extremes. His deviations from the median were moderate, like his paunch, his thinning hair, or the small cavities that used to visit his teeth with great regularity. The most he would ever stray was indulging in an extra beer when he went out with his office colleagues. And yet, here he was, tired from a night of reckless passion from an unplanned rendezvous with a woman he had not met before.
The evening that led to the night they spent together was a blur now. Among the throes of people that had thronged the karaoke night in the restaurant, two people had clamoured for the same Beatles song. And aided by their raucous friends and some alcohol that had permeated their systems, they sang it together, both equally off key. What started with the singing of ‘Hey Jude’ led to a conversation grounded on flirtation and elevated with a desire to take a chance.
The sound of the shower hummed a minor note in the background. He picked up the phone and ordered some breakfast and coffee. The clothes strewn around the floor assaulted his sense of order and his obsessive compulsive need to maintain it. Bit by bit, he picked them up and folded them. He gently ran his hand over the soft fabric of her dress, noticing a tear at the back, an evidence left by their violent urges. He put it down urgently when the sound of the shower suddenly stopped.
With a firm hand, she wiped away the fog that had held up on the mirror. It was her alright. It wasn’t her bathroom though. Or her room. She put on a bathrobe that she was thankful to find in there and walked out, her heart pounding. He sat on the edge of the bed, dressed in the shirt and trousers he was wearing last night. The jacket had been abandoned, wrapped neatly around the staid chair near the writing desk.
“Good morning,” he said, with a gentle smile.
“Good morning,” she squeaked, her hands ensconced in the pockets of her robe.
“I took the liberty of ordering some breakfast. I hope that’s ok,” he offered.
“Of course. Thank you,” she said, he fingers involuntarily pressing her forehead.
“Aspirin, coffee, water. What works for your hangover?” he asked with a smile.
“All of the above,” she said with a smile, adding, “And running.”
The delicate dance was new to both of them, but the end of the song was approaching and both of them had to now gracefully exit the stage.
There was no sun outside. It had been eclipsed by a black veil of clouds, drowned in a continuous barrage of rain and replaced by flashes of lightning. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go in this weather.
They sat near the window and wordlessly finished their breakfast and sipped their coffee. As he disappeared into the bathroom, she wordlessly put on that which she had shed not longer than eight hours ago and slipped out of the room.
If there was meant to be an interregnum in their story, it was a short lived one. The business travelers all poured out of their rooms, in ironed clothes and formal shoes, slinging laptop bags on their shoulders.
Like two rivulets starting from different nooks and then merging into a big river, unaware of the fate of the other, the two lovers walked into the same conference room. From across the room, a knowing glance was exchanged and a hint of a sinful smile crossed their lips.
The room was a rectangular splendour, seemingly never-ending and punctuated only by a giant oval table that sprouted from the middle of the room. The oval table was ideal to put the two sides against each other. They were sizing each other up, scanning the hitherto unknown faces and the name plates that were placed in front of the seats.
The man in the center got up, straightened his tie and cleared his throat. The room fell silent.
“Welcome, everyone.”
He had the attention of all but two people in the room. She was staring at the little misshapen streaks of grey in his hair. He was searching for her right earlobe, hidden behind the tresses that eclipsed it. They were still somewhere between the sheets, taking in each other, each embrace eclipsing the other. The words around them were drowning out.
“…we are not leaving this hotel till we figure the details of the merger out.”
I am not leaving. We are not leaving. An exchange occurred. An understanding was reached.
Like a hung jury, the deal repeatedly ran into a block. What could have been done in two days took seven. Slowly, gratifyingly, teasingly, the merger was achieved.
And they all drank the night it was done.
And a man walked up to a woman he had known between the sheets in the night and across the negotiating table through the day.  It had been a week and yet they were practically strangers.
He leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Would you like to get coffee sometime?”
She looked into his eyes and smiled, a single word floating over the din to him.
“Sure.”

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Kishori Amonkar: A Tribute

We recently lost the great classical vocalist, Kishori Amonkar. A lot of more knowlegable people have written about her singular greatness as a singer, as a true genius, of her dedication to her craft. I'll talk about my personal connection with her.

This is a small anecdote from the early 90s. Her son used to live next door to me in Andheri, Mumbai. She used to often come and stay with him on weekends. She would get up early on weekend mornings and do riyaaz. At that stage, I had no idea who she was, but her singing was so stupendous, so special that even to my untrained ear, I knew something special was afoot.

I have put together a sampling of some of her work that I have enjoyed. Hope you enjoy it too.

1. 'Sahela Re' - One of her most famous renditions in Raag Bhoop

www.youtube.com
Mesmerizing song by Indian Classical Singer Kishori Amonkar

2. A beautiful song in the raag Sindhu-Bhairavi (many have heard a famous version by K.L. Saigal)

www.youtube.com
Eternal Jugalbandi. Raga Sindhi Bhairavi--Thumri in Kaharva Taal. By Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute ),, Kishori Amonkar ( Vocal )....

3. A beautiful rendition in the raag Yaman

4. A tarana in Raag Hamsadhwani


5. Raag Miyan Ki Malhar. You can almost 'feel' the rains around you.


6. Raag Malkauns 

www.youtube.com
Smt. Kishori Amonkar - Sampoorna Malkauns from the album 'Maestro's Choice'

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

An Ode to the Gulab Jamun

I am not a foodie at heart, but when I had to write for this month's Spark magazine issue themed 'Food', one dish that truly touches my heart came to mind. The sweet, delicious, sinful Gulab Jamun. Read my ode to it.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/an-ode-to-the-gulab-jamun/

An Ode to the Gulab Jamun


There you are, just a foot away from my restraint
You, floating like heaven suspended
Imperfectly spherical, like a hand-crafted ball of snow
Light as the feathers of an Indian bustard
Smooth like the marble of the Taj
Levitating, like a yogi in bliss
Caressed, cajoled, nourished,
by the sweet comfort of sugar syrup
Indeed, there you are, an orb ordained
Shades of red in a sea of brown
Like the glorious sun, overcooked
You are but a sweet, they say
A dessert just like any other
A messenger of decay, a sweet harbinger of death
To them I say, that is not true
For you are not a mere gulab jamun
You are the memory of my mother’s love,
A treat of joy for my limited glory,
A taste of the homes I have been in,
The shortest path to my heart,
An adjective I use to describe my children.
When all else fails and the day is
But another one in a quotidian life
You are my guiltless pleasure
My one act of bravery
That one thing I steal
From the confines of the refrigerator
When the night has gone to sleep
There you are, my sweet taste of heaven,
waiting to be consumed,
Completely missing the irony;
You have already consumed me!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Talisman

Amitabh Bachchan. Haji Ali. A perfume maker and his son. A talisman. They all come together in a story of hope, prayer and unexpected miracles.

Read my latest short story in Spark


Talisman


The red thread was an innocuous-looking object.
“The object doesn’t matter”, his grandmother said. “It is just a vehicle to carry your prayer”
“No, no, it does. Why do you think I went all the way to Ahmedabad to get the right one?” argued his father Salim, who believed that the quality of that vessel was critical to the transference of the appeal.
“Look at Rafiq”, he said, “Didn’t you see his new Maruti? How do you think that came about?”
In the corner, Iqbal sat on his haunches, his back gently touching the wall which was adorned with framed pictures of his family. There was one enlarged close up of his late grandfather looking soullessly into the camera. There was one of his parents, stern, yet resplendent on the day of their wedding. And then there was him riding a bike with Taj Mahal in the backdrop. This was taken when he was three and they had gone to the fair and a photo booth using India’s most famous mausoleum proved too much of a temptation to resist.
“But isn’t there another way? Why send the boy all the way to Bombay by himself?” His mother Sultana’s voice, dripping with concern, floated into the conversation.
Arre, the boy is 22 years old. Don’t you think he can go there by himself?” Salim said, irritated by Sultana’s petition.
The 22-year-old had resigned himself to the fact that he had no say in this matter. How did it come to this, he asked himself? Everyone wanted a solution out of this mess and everyone had their solutions for it.
You see, Iqbal was in the possession of a completely ordinary fate. He was failing again and again to clear his B. Com. By making himself the first person in that family to have made it to a college, he had set up some rather false expectations from his family. There were visions of great successes that everyone from Salim to Sultana to his girlfriend Meher had claimed. Yet, Iqbal did not seem to be blessed with any penchant for education or enterprise.
Iqbal’s father had a shop handed to him by his father who in turn had received the key from his father and so on. They were dispensers of Ittar, the perfumes that were bottled up in the smallest of flasks. It was a business that spanned generations but in the age of deodorants and bottled perfumes from various companies, this was a dying art. Their fortunes had shrunk, mirrored by the smallness of the bottles in which they poured their art. There had to be another way forward and Iqbal was going to lead the charge into a new future for the family.
****
Salim, was an optimistic man. He was once pragmatic too. But dire times call for dire solutions. Having hedged his bets that Iqbal would change their fortunes, he was now shackled by his son’s lack of progress. Salim resorted to the one thing he would have labelled as superstition in his heydays when he had youth and money at his disposal and a reputation as a wild stallion in his circle of friends. His remedy was a prayer.
And not being of the religious dispensation, he sought to seek inspiration in the only higher power he believed in. Amitabh Bachchan. You see, Salim had little faith in the conventional Gods. He had instead decided to place his loyalties at the feet of the superstar. Lost in the wilderness of faithlessness, Salim had turned to the one true hero in his life. He never missed a release of his, and so inspired was he by the actor’s turn in the movie Coolie, he even named his son Iqbal after Amitabh’s name in the movie. In fact, Coolie had more than a fleeting influence on him. When Amitabh was injured during the shoot of the movie, Salim had, in a state of extreme delirium and desperation, gone to Bombay to stand outside the hospital where he was admitted. To make things right, he went up to the Haji Ali dargah and tied a thread in hope of a speedy recovery for AB.
That tide passed and as he grew older and got married and suffered the consequences of running a household, Salim never revisited that state of mind again. Until now. His favourite actor might not have been dying, but his family’s future was. So, Iqbal was sent to Mumbai, red thread in hand to the Haji Ali dargah.
****
Iqbal did not believe in his father’s fantasy. What possible powers could that little thread, which was ready to unspool into its constituent parts, hold? And yet, the lure of visiting Mumbai on his own was too much to resist. So, off Iqbal went, by bus to the station, by train to Mumbai, and by his own two feet onto the railway station where thousands milled around him minding their business. Once he got out of the station, he caught a taxi and went straight to the home of his maternal uncle in the suburb of Borivali where he enjoyed food and rest. Without any consideration for his exhaustion, he disinterestedly set off straight to Haji Ali in a local transport bus.
He had visited Mumbai twice in his life but this independence was a revelation to him. He kept admiring the chaos, star struck, until the bus came to a grinding halt. A film shooting was being set up. Iqbal got off the bus on a whim. Surely, Haji Ali could wait. The pull of curiosity was too much to resist.
“Who is the actor?” someone asked.
“Not sure, bhai.
“Bachchan sahib!
“Really??”
Pakka. I heard someone else say that!”
The rumour spread like wildfire and sure enough, the crowd grew exponentially in the next fifteen minutes. Iqbal found himself being absorbed in it, blown like a feather in the wind.
A Mercedes Benz appeared from the corner of the street.
“Bachchan,” whispered the whispers, loud enough to be a collective voice.
The crowd started pushing and shoving, trying to get a glimpse of the star.
Iqbal leaned forward too. The masses were being held back by a few security men and a frivolous rope. They should have known better. As the car hurried through the road, Iqbal felt the hand of fate on his back propelling him forward. He fell. He stumbled. He rolled on the road. The car came and hit him.
Bleeding from cuts to his forehead and scrapes on his arm, he looked up with a flash of anger, and had he paid attention to Coolie with any amount of diligence, he would have known that the passion of his namesake in that movie was evident in his face.
The car stopped, a towering man looked from the back seat, and in a baritone asked his driver to take Iqbal in. The next few moments were surreal for Iqbal as the man his father idolized took him into his trailer, had him patched up, spoke a few kind words of inquiry and got him a seat to watch the shooting.
The hours rolled on and the mission to go to Haji Ali faded in the distance. The shooting packed up.
“Take care of yourself,” said that baritone again and started to walk towards his car.
Iqbal had a vague recollection of having nodded and then the car became a blip in the distance.
He took out the red thread from his pocket and took a good look at it. That little object had borne the weight of his father’s hopes and had decided to reward him in the most unusual of manners. Iqbal’s destiny would not be fixed for the prayer had been answered with an unexpected blessing. A smile the size of a half-moon crossed his face and he hailed a taxicab.
Kahan?” asked the taxi cab driver.
Still grinning, Iqbal replied, “Haji Ali!”