Monday, October 05, 2015

“Khat”-arnak – The Deadly Letter

My latest publication in the magazine Spark is on the use of the hand written letter as a device plot in Hindi movies. Enjoy!

“Khat”-arnak – The Deadly Letter

“Run, Tuffy, run,” you shout at the white Pomeranian tearing across the screen, holding the fate of the sacrificing lovers in his little mouth. This was 1994, before Facebook and WhatsApp and text messaging and SnapChat and Instagram and any other current ways of sending messages was invented. Tuffy was using his gentle mouth to hold on to a good old-fashioned handwritten letter. The handwritten letter has long been used as a plot device in Hindi films. Tuffy was only the messenger. He couldn’t have spilt the beans to Rajesh about Prem and Nisha. No, only the letter could have. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, please hark back to the 90s and watch ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’. For Tuffy’s sake.)

The letter has always served as a simple yet effective way of subverting what would have been a normal story in a Hindi film. No matter how simply and clearly a letter is written, its purpose is usually to confuse and confound and get either the sender or the recipient in trouble.

Take the case of Nirupa Roy in the movie ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’. She is down and out with an illness and is riddled by guilt that Pran has to spend all his income to cure her. So she writes the suicide note which she leaves with her children and goes on her mission to end her life. All hell breaks loose. She who doesn’t want to live gets crushed under a tree, loses her eyesight and is very much left to live on. Pran, who does want to live, takes his three children away from the goons trying to kill him and promptly loses them to give rise to, “Amar, Akbar, Anthony”. The only one to benefit from this letter was Manmohan Desai, who used that two paragraph letter to his advantage. Why Manmohan Desai, even Sanjay Leela Bhansali made sure that when he wanted a twist in ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, Ajay Devgn catches Aishwarya Rai reading love letters written by Salman Khan.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Think of a letter in a film and the first thought that comes to mind is a love letter, not a suicide note. Sooraj Barjatya, who directed both ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ and ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, must have been traumatized by a postman in his childhood. To extract his revenge, he made sure that letters in his films were delivered by a dog and a pigeon respectively. When Bhagyashree sends her first letter of her first love to Salman Khan in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, the pigeon (Handsome. Yes, that was his name) must have put down some terms of his own. No letters were seen in transit in that movie after that.

Sometimes, these letters have the oddest of set up for being exchanged. Consider the movie ‘Lunchbox’. Capitalizing on the rare mistake that the six sigma efficient Mumbai dabbawallahs made, a relationship formed on letters was initiated in the movie between an accountant and a neglected housewife. The film should have been titled ‘Letter with butter’. Talking of mistakes, when the postal department does commit a mistake, confusion ensues. In ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’, the letter gets delivered to a neighbour with the same name.

Some of the silliest plots come from the silliest of mistakes made in writing these letters. When we were taught to write a letter in our 3rd standard class, the first thing our English teacher mentioned was ensuring there was a To and a From. Clearly, that was not the case for the person who wrote the letter in the movie “P.K.” and turned Aman ki Asha into Aman ki Niraasha for the Indian Anushka Sharma and Pakistani Sushant Singh Rajput. It was equally silly of them to believe the letter was intended for them, but then we wouldn’t have the oddest love triangle involving an extra-terrestrial now, would we?

No one expects Hindi movies of being compliant with logic, but even the most hardnosed Bollywood fan would be scratching their head as to how a one-year-old can read a letter! Or a two-, three-, four-, or five-year-old. But Anjali, that little girl in ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ who was entrusted by her mother at age 8 to get the other Anjali back with her father (Rahul, you must have heard his name!), was also left eight letters by her mother before she died. The expectation was that each letter was to be given to her on each of her birthdays. If she wrapped up great life lessons in her letters, she didn’t set it up such that they would be private for her daughter. Even her mother-in-law would have learnt a thing or two.

The use of letters in Hindi film songs has also been exemplary. Consider ‘Likhe jo khat tujhe’. A brilliant song where the letters metaphorically become flowers and stars. If the lyrics of the song are anything to go by, surely, those letters must have been a masterclass in writing. The subject of letters can also get googly-eyed NRIs all mushy and teary when Pankaj Udhas sings ‘Chitthi aayi hai’. I can aver that many a reverse brain drain happened on account of that song. Perhaps Rajendra Kumar wasn’t entirely sure of what effect his letter would have on Vyjanthimala in ‘Sangam’. So he followed up a love letter with a word of caution serenading her with “Yeh mera prem patra padh kar ke tum naraaz na hona” (Please don’t be upset after reading my love letter.)

Times have evolved and movies like ‘Mujhse Dosti Karoge’ involve e-mails while movies like ‘Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge’ show the protagonists using Facebook. But there is nothing like a letter to stir up the pot (or the plot in this case). I’ll rest my case with an example where the Big B is involved. In the movie ‘Muqaddar Ka Sikandar’, Sikandar (a.k.a. Amitabh Bachchan) tries to profess his love to Kaamna (a.k.a. Rakhee) through a love letter. Because Sikandar himself is illiterate, Vishal (a.k.a. Vinod Khanna) transcribes the letter for him. But when Kaamna mistakes the letter as actually being from Vishal, it sends the movie hurtling towards a tragedy and giving the famed baritone a chance to shine through it all. The movie was made better with the letter.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015


My 60th publication is also my first attempt at writing a Ghazal in English, with as much fidelity to the format as I could manage. Hope you enjoy it.


The sky blushed a crimson red for you
The night pushed the day away for you

A crescendo followed the sound of your voice
Three notes scaled through mountains for you

I had caught the moon by the tails of its coat
My wish was to wrap it as a present for you

They abandoned reason, they left behind guile
My words fell away in silence for you

Not even you could look away from yourself
The blessing of your beauty was a curse for you

You shrugged away your desires like an autumn tree
The false promise of spring was a lure for you

What of you, my love, who loves none but self?
What happens when that love dries up for you?

Death will take you in a lover’s embrace

It will succumb to its greed for you

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Hunger Games: An Indian Parent’s Challenge

Are you a parent? An Indian parent? Trying to feed your child?
Read on without further delay my latest publication in Spark magazine about this trial by fire all Indian parents go through.

The Hunger Games: An Indian Parent’s Challenge

The survival of the human race owes a lot to three key things humans managed. Running away from wild beasts, discovery of spices and the patience of parents. Without the last ability, the chances of humans strangling their own chain of succession is pretty high. Children are a beautiful gift from a higher power, sent down to earth to temper moments of bliss with other moments where your temples throb with pulsating rhythms that resonate with their shrieking voices.

Through centuries of evolution, children have always been defiant and parents have always been deferential to their wishes. You’ll see shades of this in every culture around the world. Today, I’ll omit the tragedies of the French parent and the sacrifices of the Japanese ones. I’ll skip over the restlessness of the Egyptian father and the single-minded determination of the Chinese mother. I’ll focus on the tribe to which I belong. The Indian parent. The 21st century specimen whose influence on their kids will dictate how the century of Asia (as it has been touted) will be.

Let me start with a succinct definition of the Indian parent. par.ent
1. a father or a mother of Indian descent often seen chasing their young offspring with a spoon in their hands in a desperate effort to feed them, yet being completely incapable of ensuring the kids put on any weight with all that effort.

I know what you are thinking. Isn’t the definition too narrow? Isn’t there more to parenting then simply ensuring that your child eats food? Good thinking. And yet, this reductive definition tells us all there is to know about the challenges of parenting. Food is essential to survive and you’d think that in itself should be sufficient for the parent to let go off their worries and just put the plate in front of the child. Yet, the Indian parent distinguishes himself or herself from all other cultures in this realm.

In the 21st century, this continues to remain one of the most defining characteristics of an Indian parent of young children. They are often seen trying to feed the child as if he is on the precipice of starvation and as if they are on the verge of doom with only one last good meal left to eat. They try to mimic the Brownian motions of a child as they run around the place, trying to keep pace with the kid. When they finally manage to catch the child, with great optimism, they would tell “Say Aaa”, and unfortunately, the child would only keep his mouth shut tight. This particular behaviour seems amplified when abroad. In the presence of American parents who would basically ask their children to “take it or leave it”, the Indian parent stands out in his or her extreme agility in chasing their child and extreme inability to feed them.

I am going to step into the field of generalizations here. Indian kids are finicky eaters. There, I said it. My conclusion is rooted in all those years of having run around my own kids trying to feed them like a heat-seeking missile chasing its target. And it isn’t just me. It is also based on watching Indian parents around me, be it in the U.S. or India.

Watching an Indian parent feed their child is like watching an emotional roller coaster.

It generally starts with a mild imploring, “Beta, please eat.”

The next stage is a little sterner. “Is your mouth empty?”

Then comes the realisation that the food hasn’t really dislodged itself from behind their teeth.

A tone that borders on being a warning creeps in “I am telling you. Eat your food.”

And when none of this goes anywhere, the parent reaches for the helpless anger that bubbles up and manifests itself into something like this: “You know you can watch and chew at the same time? How hard is it to just eat? Do you know how much you could be doing with this time? You are so old now and yet we have to keep reminding you?”

When none of this has any effect, they give up in a huff, concluding with “I am not responsible for your food tomorrow onwards. If you want to eat, eat.”

But, when the next meal comes, the cycle repeats itself.

It is not that the Indian child likes to run or the Indian parent likes to chase. And yet this circle of strife continues. I often sit back and think about how our parents fed us. Surely, if our children have inherited our genes in all matters positive, this lack of interest in food must also stem from some genetic pre-disposition. Ergo, we too must have troubled our parents the same way our kids trouble us. Our parents must have had infinite patience to survive us.

“Look out the window, my son.”

“The first bite is for the bird, the second bite is for the squirrel, the third bite is for the dog.”

And so on and so forth would each meal go until all living creatures that were visible were accounted for. Can a modern parent, stressed by commute and work and EMIs and the need to keep up with Facebook and Twitter do that? Not a chance, I say.

To the aid of this time-constrained 21st century Indian parent comes technology. Perhaps this is why Indians do so well in the technology sector. They ensure that all tools needed to make the feeding process easier are at their disposal. They say that technology is democratic and that is for a good reason. The modern Indian parent dips into all of them. Angry Birds or YouTube videos, Xbox games or Netflix, American TV or Indian soaps, the world is at their fingertips and they put those fingertips to very good use. The modern day parent knows that moving images constrict the brain so much that the taste buds rarely object at anything they are subjected to at the same time.

Is it always true when kids grow up? Perhaps not. At some point in time, parents and their children find other stresses to deal with, other challenges of co-existing. Food then becomes a foot note, for its purpose as a means of survival becomes obvious to both parties.

The Indian parent, then, takes a moment to look at his or her offspring and pats themselves on the back for having raised well-nourished, well-rounded children. When the moment has been enjoyed, they move onto asking their child about the obvious next thing,

“Have you finished your homework yet?”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lunch On A Lazy Summer Day

A proud day for me today as I become a certified Seattle poet. My poem, which was selected for the 'Poetry on Buses' contest, got published today. The challenge was to write a 50 word poem on the theme of 'Home' and I dipped into a memory from my childhood to write it. 

Lunch On A Lazy Summer Day

Home was the surety of my grandmother’s hand
Rolling grains of flour into a ball,
Cajoling sweetness out of a 
Hot grumpy day.

Readying a meal for her emaciated;
The children, lazing on the verandah
The birds, hovering, for the leftovers
The Gods, waiting to be appeased.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

A Musical Escape

Do you believe in the power that music has to uplift? Please read my latest poem published in the magazine Spark that combines two of my favorite things: music and rains.

A Musical Escape

And then it rained
The parsimonious skies opened
And showered freely their blessing
A brazen wall of water
Enveloping the road

Oh, the road, the road
Whose middle path I stood in
Hands behind the wheel
Clenched tighter than needed
Muttering curses under my breath

It was me, and my frustration
Trapped in an expensive hearse
Surrounded by those
Morbid daily warriors
Dead souls returning home from work

Harried, I turned, to
The last resort I had
And then it unraveled
Like a pearl from an oyster
Like a sapling in scorched earth

A dulcet tune flooded around me
“Go on”, she sang, “Set yourself free”
And I let loose a song
Like a tenor unbounded
Like a prisoner uncaged

“Who knows what tomorrow will bring
The promise of tomorrow is a wonderful thing”
I sang, and my heart escaped
The trap of the traffic
The despondency of my being

“Move ahead, shout out, don’t doubt”
Droplets of rain provided the rhythms
On the wings of music, I soared far away
Even though I hadn’t moved
Three feet in thirty minutes

Friday, June 12, 2015

The FitBit Chronicles

I have been fond of walking from as far as I can remember. I moved three houses in Mumbai when I was studying and my school as well as my engineering college were always a thirty minute walking distance from my house. Just in range for a quick stroll. My friends and I would gather and walk to the beach each evening of our engineering days, spending a good two hours exercising our feet, walking in rugged chappals.
That of course was a different life. Responsibilities were sparse but free time was abundant. My current life is the exact opposite. I spend time driving my kids to school and classes, spend my time sitting through meetings or in my office near a computer. There is limited time I have for going to the gym and while I occasionally run and play tennis, it is fair to say that I don’t make enough time for focused excercise.
Enter the FitBit.
Why the FitBit?
I guess I should start by saying what FitBit is. It is essentially a fitness tracker. Depending upon which FitBit you get, you can track everything from measuring the number of steps you take to the amount of hours of sleep you get to the number of stairs you climb. The FitBit seemed to be well reviewed and met the requirements I had, so I went with it. No intense research was done.
How did I start?
The first few days of FitBit gave me some idea of where I was. The recommended minimum number of steps a day is 10,000. I was fluctuating between 8–10K depending upon the day. Just meeting the bar. Wearing the FitBit tapped into my intense statistic driven part of me. If you would have told me that a fitness tracker can be more addictive than FaceBook, I’d have laughed at you, but that has been the case. I checked my steps very often. I kept a track of when I walked, how much I walked. I began noting how it was 78 steps to the restroom from my office, 430 steps from my standard parking space to my office, so on and so forth. Slowly, my number started going up. Weekends were at 17–20K without effort (with summer and kids), but it was the weekdays where the effect was felt the most. I slowly inched from 10K to 12K on average. It was good, but something better was around the corner.
How did I go to the next level?
My good friend Suhel who is a statistic fiend himself was running a “walk cartel”. FitBit allows for grouping your friends and starting a contest. He joined me up in the Weekday Hustle where steps were tracked from Monday-Friday. If you thought fitness could not be a competitive sport, think again. The moment the competitions started, my 10K steps a day jumped to 15K steps a day. I was now walking 25000 steps more than I used to during normal weekdays. The competitions every week were intense, with people constantly pushing the bar up. The urge to sync my phone to my FitBit to check my steps and see where others were upto was irresistible. Slowly but surely, I was getting back to my old days of walking.
Where did the extra 5ooo steps come from?
My day’s routine was fixed. My free time was limited. I had to find ways to go from 10000 to 15000 without sacrificing any additional time. That required some ingenuity. I basically found every little excuse to move. I started moving during meetings when long winded discussions were on (to little consternation from my colleagues). I dragged a new colleague each day for a post lunch short walk. I took up every single excuse within the house to pick up things, to put them in the right place, to walk around the kitchen island while beatings eggs, or walk to the post box even when there was no chance of a new letter each day. I would feed my younger one a spoon of rice, take a walk around the floor while he slowly chewed it and come back for the next one. In short, I went to being the anti-sedentary guy I needed to be in order to make this happen.
Is this all worth it?
It has been nearly two months of doing this and it is hard to tell what the actual health benefits are. Most of my walking is in short bursts and I don’t know whether just having a large total matches up the benefits of doing a really long walk. I don’t believe walking alone can lead to weight loss, neither am I feeling perceptibly fitter (though I am sure my cardiovascular health is improving). What I do notice is the complete absence of lethargy now. I don’t want to slouch onto a couch and do nothing. If I have free time, I move. If I have two minutes while my coffee is heating, I move. Towards a competitive goal that has nothing to do with the drudgery of exercise. And therein lies the great benefit. Walking was always a joy to me and I have rediscovered it from an unexpected medium. Until the point where I take some of this effort and energy and direct it towards some other form of excercise that doesn’t involve steps, I intend to try and maintain this scale of walking. As the tagline of this year’s hit Hindi movie ‘Piku’ suggested, ‘Motion se hi emotion’ :)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Heaven and Earth

My latest short story published in the Spark magazine is a love story that you might like. Read on.

Original link is the following 

Heaven and Earth

“Chotu, take one cutting chai for the sahib”, the owner of the tea-stall announced loudly for his new customer to hear.

A tiny boy of pleasant disposition scurried over to Uday, who was steadying himself on the base of the old tree near the chai stall. Someone had made a makeshift temple out of it by installing an idol of Ganesha on one side. People respectfully removed their footwear to pay obeisance to the Lord of good tidings. On the other side, chai flowed with full freedom.

Uday always picked that spot. Wearing his thick glasses and an intense expression, he let his wiry frame down on that base made out of brick and set his bag aside. It was nearing 4 pm. It was about time.

The sun could set his clock by looking at him. He was there at the same time every day including the weekends. During the week, these were the three hours he had at his disposal. He spent the morning taking classes at an arts college and spent the evenings giving tuition to Mr. Ishwar’s son.

“Steady, Raghav. The lines need to be straight,” he’d always tell that boy, who, despite his parents’ best efforts, was more interested in playing video games than sketching. At least they paid good money, Uday thought, as he took the chai from Chotu and kept it beside him. He took out his large sketchbook and his quixotic collection of pencils, watching the clock tick over.

It was about time.

The wind was gentle but persuasive. The curls of her hair gave up their obstinacy within moments of the breeze touching her face. They fluttered ever so slightly, parting away the gentle clouds covering her ears. A smiling face now beheld the city through her window.

From the second floor of her building, from a narrow window that overlooked a busy street, Tanvi surveyed a throbbing slice of the metropolis. The world was playing out its own agenda. Vendors were busy trying to sell their wares with a mind cast back to their hungry families. Kids were playing a game of cricket with a chair as a makeshift stump, and with little license to hit anywhere other than a straight line. The cars honked incessantly as if carrying on a mild conversation in blaring tones.
“Tanvi beta, did you drink your tea?” asked a booming voice from the kitchen.

“Yes, Ma!”,Tanvi responded, her dulcet tones barely making it across the house.

She had finished her tea alright. Before that, she had washed her face, scrubbing the blemishes away, selected a new pair of earrings, handpicked the bindi that would adorn the center of her forehead. She didn’t need the tea to freshen up. She was wide awake. As the clock ticked closer to 4 pm, her heart beat a little quicker and a sense of anticipation flooded her.

It was about time. Uday had always thought of himself to be the observer of life’s little accidents. His spot under the tree gave him the perfect platform to sit and observe, to spot the absurdities and the pleasantries, the cruelties and the compassions that flooded the world around him. He would sit and sketch, filling up pages with what he saw. However, a month ago, all of that had changed. He no longer cared for the vegetable vendor pushing his cart down the street, his sinews straining against the weight of the potatoes and the onions. He no longer wanted to draw the picture of the street urchins trying to catch each other, oblivious to the sudden dangers of an incoming car.

No, Uday did not care for all that anymore. He had spotted her once, her face peeking through the window on the second floor. That girl with the curls, who seemed to be taking in the world with the same hunger that he seemed to have. She had an innocence about her, an eagerness tinged with sadness which he could not put a finger on. He could not peel his eyes away from her.

From that moment on, Uday was in love with Tanvi.

No words were exchanged, but as the days passed, Tanvi became aware of Uday’s presence. Her reaction went from annoyance to curiosity. In a few days, she knew that she had an admirer who was firmly besotted by her. Tanvi would not make any eye contact with him, yet she never once shied away from making an appearance.

Today was no different.

Fifty feet away from him, Uday’s muse had shown her face. She, of the delicate expression and the gentle smile. He knew that Tanvi would come and silently observe the world beneath her, ignoring him. He would ignore the rest of her world and set his sights on her. His hands would furiously animate his expression of admiration on paper. The collection of portraits he made of her were enough to publish a book.

Uday made no attempt to hide his love, but kept a respectful distance. An artist’s hardest quest is that of a muse, and nothing would be worse than handing over the reality back to an illusion. The delicate balance could not be disturbed. He knew that he would never bridge those fifty feet, though he harbored a fleeting hope that someday she would turn and see him, that someday she would descend from her private heaven and meet him.

Tanvi spent her routine thirty minutes at the window. She knew his rhythms, knew how much time he needed to draw a new version of her, and she gave him that time. She wondered what it would take for him to venture forth, to walk those fifty feet, to leave the world for a while and join her in her isolation. She dared to dream the dream and castigated herself immediately. Nothing would be worse than handing over

She turned back, scanned around her heaven, and with gentle arms, pushed her wheelchair back into the house.