Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Wishing Well

May your best day in the Old Year
Be your worst day in the New Year.

- Old Scottish prayer

Wishing all of you wonderful people a happy new beginning!

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Where have all the cards gone?

‘Twas the night before Christmas. When all through the house, not a creature was stirring…

…Except my cell phone!

It beeped, it rang and very nearly leapt off the table in excitement. It jiggled its way through Christmas day and by the end of it, had rung in some 43 text messages and over a dozen calls from friends scattered across the world. A parallel stream of emails and e-cards was also pouring in. One was happily inundated with wishes of every kind… Except the ones that are delivered by the friendly neighbourhood postman!

I was struck by the complete absence of Christmas cards this year. Sure, there was the small stack sent by relatives, but oddly, none from friends. There were virtual greetings aplenty, but how in the name of Dancer, Prancer and Rudolph are you going to string them over the fireplace? (No fireplace here, but isn’t wishful thinking permitted at Christmastime?)

It set me thinking: Have people given up on the simple thrill of a greeting card? The rush of excitement at seeing one’s name on the envelope? The faint suspense until the cover is torn open? And then the unbridled delight? Compare this with an email which says, ‘xyz has sent you an e-card. To view it, copy and paste this hotchpotch of letters, numbers and signs, that in some way, which you won’t care to understand, will lead you to a grotty card, which will try your patience as it downloads…..’

For me, greeting cards have always been the harbinger of things special. They made the agonising wait for the birthday a little sweeter. They brought in the festive cheer. They even gave you a heady sense of your own popularity. I remember being over the moon in College one year, when I received 23 birthday cards! With messages ranging from corny (‘Roses are red, cookies are chewy… another year of your life, just went ka-blooey’!) to schmaltzy (‘It’s a good thing you can’t put a price tag on friendship… coz I could never afford a friend like you!’) to downright wicked (Heard you like sex on you birthday?... That’s strange, most people like it more often!!!)

I still have a sizeable collection of most of the cards I’ve received, the earliest dating back to my 5th birthday. A few years ago, I discovered a hitherto latent calligraphy skill, and combined with a whit of wit, set about making my own cards for family and friends. I still indulge in it whenever I can. Still it was very heartening to receive a hand-made birthday card this year from my ‘bess frend’ Alison. What looked like different coloured pens being tried out was actually her message, ‘Dear Leela, I love you lots. The end. Alison’.

It’s going to take Alison and me a while to revive the heading-for-extinction greeting card industry, but hey, we’ll get there.

Thursday, December 25, 2003


It feels like Christmas crept up on me this year.

Guess that’s a rather fatuous claim when the signs of its advent were unmistakable. Store windows decorated with stockings, reindeers, snowflakes and whatnot… Mailers from credit card companies advertising their ‘Christmas Offers’… Cell phones ringing with ‘Jingle Bells’ instead of ‘Mission Impossible’… Department store clerks wearing fluffy Santa hats (over brown smocks!)… Even the neighbourhood carollers who came a-singing the sole carol in their repertoire, ‘Saantha Close is coming to town…’

Still, I missed all the cues and with two days to go, discovered I had no presents to show. The tree, usually resplendent by this time, was still on the loft, awaiting its annual resurrection. And Mother was turning out all the goodies by herself. If Santa was making his list of naughty and nice, I knew whose name would head the former list.

Come Christmas Eve and all’s well. Alleluia! The presents are wrapped and tagged with cutesy messages for the cousins and niece. No plastic tree this year. Tinsel and crepe streamers bedeck a surprised shrub in the garden in front of the house. Soft carols waft out from the neighbour’s apartment. Droplets of wax gleam and fall from the candles around the house. The aroma of freshly-baked cake fills the room. And the star outside the window glows with contentment.

Peace on earth…

Goodwill to all…

Wish all of you wonderful people the warmth of Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2003

Tech travails

Early this year, my point-and-shoot camera entered its digital dotage. And in casting around for a suitable replacement, I was forced to confront a long-standing adversary – technology.

At the risk of sounding anachronistic, I’ll admit I’m extremely distrustful of gadgets, gizmos and anything that comes with an explicatory manual. Distrustful because these ‘thingies’ amble into your life pretending to be your best friends, and then when you’re slavishly dependant on them, they find the most (in)opportune moment to betray you. Distrustful also because they brag about adding value to your life, when in effect they only add clutter by offering you a bewildering bouquet of unnecessary options. Worse still, by the time you’ve finally figured out all their arcane functions, they’re obsolete, which means you’ve got to start all over again!

Sure, technology has its merits. But it’s the insidious invasion into every aspect of life that I’m holding out against.

But coming back to the camera, another point-and-shoot wasn’t an option. Scanning pictures to post on the Net was becoming too much of hassle. Then, there also was the proliferation of albums at home. My friend recommended a digital camera and suggested I consult her brother. Our conversation…

Me: I want to buy a digital camera.

Friend’s brother: What resolution are we talking of here?

Me: Erm… to buy a good digicam!

(Long silence. Chuckles. Then very slowly…)

Friend’s brother: I meant picture resolution!!!

What followed was a flurry of words… megapixels… flash card… optical zoom… all of which drifted in the hollow space above my head.

I tried another tack – the Internet. In the weeks that followed, I worked my way down a few of the 6,807,551 sites for digital cameras. The fog began to clear as I studied and compared features, decoded jargon and read reviews. I received weekly updates about new models, downloaded data and made notes. At the end of 6 weeks, I’d not only shortlisted 3 models, but had even turned consultant for another tech-challenged friend.

“Try X model’, I told her jauntily, ‘it’s got 3.2 megapixels, with 3X optical zoom and with 32 MB installed memory you should get about 110 pictures of 1600 x 1200 Resolution.’

Once she got over her amazement, she paid me a rather dubious compliment – ‘Wow,’ she said, ‘you talk like a guy!’

Next was the actual purchase. I purposefully strode into the camera store and rattled off the model I wanted. The dealer, as he is wont to, pulled out another model saying, ‘This has a longer warranty and has built in speakers… better than… .’ I slipped back into indecision country.

‘I’ll go for a walk and come back,’ I muttered. A few gulps of fresh air and I decided to stick to my original choice.

The last weekend has been spent poring over the manual and sizing up the many options. Where once there was point-and-shoot, now there was point-select mode-select scene-decide image size-check ISO equivalency-check sharpness-and shoot (if the ‘Kodak moment’ still lingered, that is!)

How the mighty ranters have fallen! Guess I've just validated the 'insidious invasion' argument...

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Sunset at Harishchandragad

A few months ago I chanced upon the perfect antidote to chaotic life in the city: the mountains. The trek in the Himalayas, many many miles from home, in effect felt like a homecoming. And since then, it’s been hard to resist the call of the nearby Sahyadris.

Last weekend when the summons became particularly strident, 5 of us bundled into an Indica and headed off. Our destination: an ancient fort called Harishchandragad, which is also a well-known trekking route.

The moment we cleared the city limits, the horizon magnificently expanded. No concrete heaps, no raucous horns, no scurrying hordes… Even the wind began to whistle as the first of the peaks hove into view… Siddhagad, Dhakoba, Naneghat, Jivdhan… Their resolute visages limned against the sky brought on a warm, familiar feeling.

By noon, we were at the base village of Khireshwar. A cool breeze wafted out towards us. We hitched our backpacks and sleeping bags, smeared sun block and set off.

The blistering sun didn’t affect our pace as the trail was lined with shady copses. Conversation fell to a minimum as the grunting and gasping increased. The ‘real’ world faded away and all my concentration was narrowed down to balancing my 12-kg backpack and myself over the sharp stones.

The meditative silence was shattered by loud, grating yowls. Another group of trekkers had come thrashing through the woods. Their glazed eyes suggested that they were ‘spiritually fortified’. We hurried on, keen to put enough distance between them and us.

An hour later, we stopped to catch our breath at a place called Tolar Khind. I was examining an impossibly contorted tree trunk when I spotted the board, which listed the forest regulations and penalties for breaking them. For some reason, the officials had decided to tack it in a place where it could do no harm. And no good either. What else could explain it being high up in the tree, semi-obscured by foliage?

Even as I mulled over this, a tinny sound reached our ears. The next moment a thin youth appeared carrying a transistor, which spewed filmi tunes. Behind him, was another who was awkwardly lugging a VIP-type suitcase. And bringing up the rear was a third, who was carrying a chicken. A live one! While their enthusiasm for roast chicken at 3500 feet could be commended, their folly could not. Perhaps no one had told them that the woods were home to leopards and wild boar!

Two hours later, we passed the crumbling ruin of the old fort and reached the Harishchandreswar temple. For an 1100-year-old temple, it had aged well. But its more recent history had been fairly blighted. Dried tallow, garbage filled bags, even an empty Old Monk bottle all shared space with the hallowed deity. On one of the walls, a certain ARUN J. RAUT made a vain attempt to go down in history by scrawling his name in hideous yellow paint.

Outside the temple was a board, which proclaimed this ruined edifice to be a national monument. The board itself was covered with a metal grill, which would’ve protected it from the likes of Arun J. Raut. Can you think of a more telling irony?

Somehow, the serenity I’d experienced at the start of the trek had evaporated. All the minor irritations through the day were now hanging like a black cloud over my head.

We followed the snaking trail behind the temple and reached the edge of the cliff, Konkan Kada, just in time to view the sunset. Shrugging off our backpacks, we settled down on the rocks and waited…

Kestrels flew around in lazy arcs. The golden orb turned crimson. And the lofty peaks, bathed in the dying sun’s glow, kept their mute, impassive watch. It occurred to me then that these silent sentinels had watched millions of sunsets. They’d seen everything that was there to see. Seen generations of humans come and leave a trail of destruction. And yet, there was no air of judgment or resentment. And here was I, getting hot around the collar all day…

As the sun slipped below the horizon, a pink glow spread across the sky. The cool breeze now had a nip in it. And I noticed with relief, that the black cloud over my head had vanished.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Gym Jam

Picture this:

X, a high-flying executive in Behemoth Multinational Ltd. (BML), looks at himself in the mirror one morning. Ouch, it hurts! Too many loose folds of meat. The executive lunches have left their mark on the once modest waistline. And some curves have emerged that would shame even a well-endowed woman. Seems like while X was busy totting up impressive figures for the company, his own has gone to seed.

When the different mirror angles fail to reveal any redeeming features, X decides it’s time to shed the excess baggage. He casts around for solutions, and the first he hits upon is BML’s state-of-the-art gym. A-ha, he tells himself, today is the day.

With firm resolve, X strides into BML’s gleaming, air-conditioned gym. Lithe, well-toned figures glance at him as he passes. X self-consciously sucks his gut in and walks up to the trainer. Rippling muscles seem to strain the fabric of the trainer’s black tee. X feigns confidence that has worked so well in so many boardrooms. He pumps the air, swings his arms and says, ‘Ok, where do I begin?’

The trainer looks at the semi-hidden tummy and the other notorious bulges and with a supercilious air, remarks, “Sorry you can’t work out here. You’re not in shape’.

No, this isn’t a Dilbert joke. It’s really the way things are in a company where a friend works.

Want to know why? There’s an incredible reason.

Apparently, the Big Cheese at BML has an MBO that states ‘No employee should die on the job.’ Now Big Cheese has a lurking suspicion that some overworked, overweight sucker like X will one day attempt to correct the weighing scales. In his enthusiasm, he might overdo it, and end up giving up his ghost on the treadmill. And if that happens, Big Cheese will have to kiss the big fat bonus goodbye. Can’t have that, can we? So Plan B, ban all unfit people from working out in the gym.

Moral of the story: Stay fit or just die at home, fatty.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

If tomorrow comes... at Fun Republic

Two FREE tickets to watch the thumpingly-successful, heavily pre-booked blockbuster KHNH. On a Saturday afternoon. At a multiplex not too far from home. With a free meal and soft drink thrown in…

This was like having your cake and eating it and marrying the rich, handsome baker as well!

Ok, rather fanciful analogy. But then we’re talking movies, remember. Where life inevitably sashays towards a happy ending. But first, there are twists in the plot… And I got more than a fair share of them when I landed up at ‘Fun Republic’.

On first glimpse, it resembled a State of Chaos. A higgledy-piggledy mix of steel, glass and concrete which stuck out sorely in a conservative landscape. Food courts, play stations, coffee bars, candy dispensers – all the trappings of ‘fun’ were in evidence. But for some reason, I simply disliked the place.

We took the glass elevator to the loftily-titled ‘Xenon 3’. And waited to be ushered inside.

25 minutes later, we were still waiting. The foyer got crowded and soon every available inch was covered. I was hemmed against the wall, when the lights went out. Groans of dismay arose and soon turned into mutinous rumblings. If the snag wasn’t rectified soon, Fun Republic would have a bloody uprising on hand.

Thankfully, it was a momentary lapse and minutes later, the recalcitrant masses were herded into the auditorium. Our FREE seats turned out to be smack in front of the big screen. But before we had time to rue this, the lights dimmed and the opening credits appeared.

The first stirrings of romance were being kindled, when the lights went out again. A howl of protest erupted. Being stuck in the dark with fragmented images of a promising love story was downright frustrating. If this was a rock concert, a rude chant would have gone up…

10 minutes later, the lights came back. All was forgiven and we were ushered back into dreamland.

We were hooked as the hero liberated his lass with a single-line profundity. But then the screen went blank even while the audio continued. We were torn between hollering loudly and hanging onto the dialogue, allowing our fervid imagination to supply the images. Was this a state-of-the-art multiplex or a banana republic? I certainly wanted to secede.

A few more of these unscheduled intermissions and the fragile link was broken. We were no longer swept up in the intense emotional drama. Still a lone tear escaped my sardonic gaze as the hero lay on his deathbed. But even that turned to mirth a moment later.

A star-struck tot had climbed onto the stage. His mother made a frantic dash for him. Unbelievably, a classic chase scene was being enacted live. The onscreen drama forgotten, everyone applauded when the long arm of the law caught up with the errant youngster.

Thus, an utterly forgettable movie experience was salvaged by an impromptu addition to the screenplay.

I walked away marvelling at how the kid had intuitively grasped the movie’s philosophy of ‘living like there was no tomorrow’.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

The Revolving Doors

A couple of days ago I was bobbing along with the surge of humanity at Churchgate station, when something caught my eye. The drab railway office opposite the ticket window looked uncommonly bright and colourful. Streamers and fairy lights bedecked the entrance. A bright blue curtain served as the backdrop for a glitter-etched placard which read, ‘Mr. M.G. ROY RETIRES TODAY AFTER 37 YEARS SERVICE.’

I climbed out of the subway with the number 37 still on my mind. 37 years! I tried to imagine what it would be like coming to the same desk each day and seeing the same faces, perhaps with new wrinkles as the years went by. And finally signing out with fairy lights, cheery placards and teary speeches. Perhaps, even a gold watch.

Well, one thing’s certain. No one’s handing me a gold watch. My peripatetic career graph has covered 5 jobs in 8 years. No moss on me, for sure. And while I’ve no regrets about each move, I’ve begun to feel a wee bit guilty lately. ‘Work Experience’ has far too many bullet points on my bio-data. Friends and acquaintances ask me, ‘Now where are you working?,’ heavily emphasising the ‘now’. And if my answer hasn’t varied, they feign shock with, “Still there???”

On the other hand, ‘Still there?’ has a different ring in Advertising circles. It’s like asking Liz Taylor, ‘Still Married?’ The shock accompanying the question is real. That’s because at any given time, most people are either switching jobs or planning to switch. My ex-boss evenly admits that she’s worked in 7 out of the top 10 agencies in a span of 12 years. My ex-art partner sheepishly confesses she’s been in the same agency for 6 years and promptly suffixes that with, ‘But I’m planning to move now.’

My new workplace is an eye-opener. My boss recently spoke of someone who worked in the company ‘for a short while’. The short while, I discovered, was 8 years! My boss completes 19 years next month. Most people around tell me they’ve ‘been here for donkey’s years’. (Wonder if there’s something in that phrase now!)

Recently, an old colleague from Advertising joined the team. In the course of our conversation she said, ‘You’ve been here for a while, haven’t you?’

I replied, ‘I’m nearing the one-year mark.’

Without missing a beat, she queried, ‘Ok, so what are your plans now?”

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Do you copy?

What’s the toughest part about being a copywriter?

Is it churning out fresh, original ideas day after day? Is it deadlines called ‘yesterday’? Is it defending your ideas from cretins sometimes masquerading as clients?

None of that. In my experience, the toughest part has been answering the question: What do you do?

Sample conversation:

Neighbour: So what do you do?

Me: I’m a copywriter

Neighbour: ???

Me: I work in an advertising agency. You see the ads on TV, in the paper…. I do stuff like that.

Neighbour: Ohhhhhh….. you’re a model!!!

And that’s one of the flattering interpretations. Over the years, I’ve been mistaken for a journalist, a billboard painter, even an obituary writer. Some have a low opinion about my abilities, obviously misled by the ‘copy’ bit in Copywriter. A friend’s grandmother thought she finally understood what I did when she commented, ‘Ah, so you have a good handwriting.’

My parents too took a while getting used to my vocation. “My ad’s in the paper”, I yelled one morning, proudly displaying my first creation in print. My parents avidly pored over it, taking in every line. I waited breathlessly.

Dad looked up, nonplussed, ‘But where’s your name on it?”

Always practical, Mom wanted to know, “Will they pay you more for this?’

Plumbers don’t have this problem. Neither do politicians nor palm readers nor software programmers. Everyone’s professions are self-explanatory, making it easy to slot them into neat, little boxes. Copywriters, in comparison, are a slippery lot. They don’t copy (at least they’re not supposed to!) and they don’t just write.

‘So what do you DO then?’ people ask curiously, even suspiciously. I point out ads they might have seen on TV or in the newspapers. They struggle with that for a while and then launch the dreaded question, ‘But how do you come up with ideas?’

Recently I quit mainstream advertising and joined a media house as the in-house copywriter. My job is to create advertising for the different publications in the Group. Now, more than ever, I shrink from occupation related questions.

A gist from a recent conversation:

Aunt: Where do you work?

Me: ‘I’m with XYZ (Newspaper name)

Aunt: ‘You’re a journalist?’

Me: No, I’m a copywriter. I do ads to promote the newspaper.

Aunt (frowning): ‘You mean you write those matrimonial ads?’

Me: ‘Er.. aunty, actually I’m a journalist.’

I know when it's time to give up.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Alison goes to the movies

Last week I decided to take Alison for her first movie. Alison is the precocious 3-year old niece who cutely lisps that I’m her ‘bess friend’. That kind of a compliment can be quite heady and enslaving. So when ‘Finding Nemo’ came to town, I offered to take her for it.

The excitement was unbelievable. The wait seemed interminable. The anticipation almost unbearable. And that was just her grandparents!

“Have you got the tickets?,” my mother asked on Monday. A full 5 days before the promised movie.

I’m an ardent movie lover, but I’ve always treated advance booking with disdain. The last-minute dash to the theatre, bagging the last two available seats, feeling one’s way into the darkened auditorium, reading the opening credits while stumbling into one’s seat – are to me a part of the complete movie experience. But when there are 4 excitable grandparents to contend with, advance booking is the lesser evil.

Wednesday onwards, a flurry of mails congested my inbox. Surprisingly, they were from my usually phlegmatic sister. “Should I tell Alison or will you?” “Are you booking tickets today?” “Let me know as soon as you get tickets. I have to tell them to prepare her at home…”

A fun outing was beginning to take on the solemnity of a ceremony. I was beginning to get nervous. Egged on by the excitement around, even Alison had begun asking, ‘When we are going for de movee?’ This even before she knew what a movie was.

Tickets were bought. All concerned parties were informed.


Then began the second part. “What time are you coming to pick her up?’ “Should I pack something for her?” “How long is the movie?” Movie, what movie?! This was a rite of passage.

Before I set out, I got the final instructions. “Carry her waterbottle and some biscuits.” “Bring her out during the interval for fresh air.” “If she starts crying take her home.”

Was Alison on pins, waiting for her introduction to the marquee? When I reached, she was sound asleep with her little bottom in the air. A quick change of clothes and a swig of milk later, we were off. “What we are going to do?,” she asked me naively. How wonderful to be blessed with short-term memory!

Armed with popcorn and chips and with me as interpreter, she serenely watched the movie. Occasionally asking loudly, the way only children can, “Why are the lights off?” and “Where’s the big TV?” The only time she got animated was when she saw the Happy Meal toy at McDonald’s. ‘Hee-mo, Hee-mo,’ she chirruped, ‘I want Hee-mo’.

That’s what it came down to for her. A stuffed toy. All that animation wizardry and cutesy story ultimately meant an addition to her toy collection.

‘So how was the movie,” everyone began asking her. And she spun off some fanciful tale while they listened enthralled.

Alison starts school next year. I can’t wait to watch the drama unfold then.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

There's no such thing as a free lance

It’s been a while since the last instalment in the blog, and there’s a reason for that – freelance.

In a copywriter’s expansive vocabulary, few words elicit such unadulterated pleasure as ‘freelance’. It’s the advertising term for moonlighting, converting clever words into numbers (with rupee signs in front of them!) Why, with the right client and the right fee, one could end up making a month’s salary for just a few days work.

But like all things which sound too good to be true, freelance has its downsides. The most perilous being the name itself. FREE-lance. Somehow, that bit misleads clients into thinking they don’t really have to pay. Or rather, that there’s no hurry to pay up.

So here I wait to be paid for the URGENT job I did in January. I’ve spent more in phone calls following up on that cheque. Each month I’m haranguing a new person, because the previous bloke has quit the company. Sometimes I wonder if I should quit too. But then the galling thought of being cheated makes me lunge for the phone once again.

Another cheque-in-the-mail is due from my ex-agency. If I had an ounce of sense I would have refused the job, because I knew their haphazard functioning. Still the thought of being indispensable to one’s ex-agency was flattering. Now I listen to the same excuses every week ‘We’ve sent the estimate for approval’… ‘Cash crunch in the agency’… ‘Will look into the matter’. Maybe I should invest in a few voodoo dolls.

Recently, I did a job for a friend. That sounds like it has disaster written all over it, right? But hang on; he actually paid me an advance. The job’s been completed a few months now, but not the payment issues. The last time I tentatively brought up the subject, he mumbled something about checking his bank balance.
For a while I began refusing freelance work. Offers came up but I referred other copywriters. Nothing was worth the hassle, I told myself virtuously.

But the filthy love of lucre can’t be quashed and I accepted not one, but three assignments. I’ve just sent my bills yesterday. Now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed and my voodoo dolls poised.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

What's the word for it?

5 years of working in Advertising has left me with a rather dubious legacy. I cannot walk down a road or enjoy a drive without taking in every single billboard, poster and handbill along the way. With clinical precision, the material is scanned, dissected and tossed into mental jars with labels, ‘passable’ ‘execrable’ and ‘guillotine the copywriter’. (That mental superiority is another unfortunate legacy.)

Last weekend, I added three rare gems to the collection (yes, the collection again!) They weren’t obvious howlers, the kind menu cards usually throw up. Rather, there was something deliciously subtle and startling about them.

I spotted the first one as I sprinted across a break in traffic on a busy intersection. A poster tacked to a wooden board in a shop announced: ‘FIREWORKS WITH A TOUCH OF CLASS’.

I paused to consider this. (A rather silly move when traffic is bearing down on you!) Was there a catch? A twist – as ad folks would say. Else, you’d have had to really run out of adjectives to use ‘class’ to extol fireworks. Or perhaps the manufacturers figured that all the good USP’s like Explosive, Dazzling and Spectacular were taken. Or just maybe, these fireworks found a genteel way to erupt, without the unholy row and wake of noxious fumes.

The second gem turned up in pamphlet thrust into my hand. ‘LOVELY CHICKEN AND EGGS’, it announced, in Helvetica Bold, Point Size 48. Pardon the adjective fixation, but Lovely??? Give me a Tasty Chicken, a Finger-lickin’ Chicken… heck, go for honesty and even admit, Stringy Chicken. But Lovely? By the time it has reached me, it’s a little too late to notice anyway. And do I even need to start on Lovely Eggs? Of course, there’s a certain possibility that the owner goes around by the name, Lovely. But we’ll leave that unspeakable parental cruelty for another blog.

I found the third one emblazoned in great, unabashed strokes on a wall. ‘WE TEACH ENGLISH SPEAKING LIKE A MOTHER TEACHES HER CHILD’. No iffy adjectives here, just one mind-boggling metaphor. Now, English isn’t quite handed down in maternal conversations in this country. And some of the English my mother used when prodding my thick skull wouldn’t exactly be found in the dictionary.

The mental jars now feature two new additions: Classy and Lovely. But I’m not quite sure where the last gem would go.

Monday, October 20, 2003

A date with fate

Call it curiosity or quirk or just plain cessation of thinking, but yesterday I went to fortune teller.

Up until now my attempts at discerning the future had been limited to reading Marjorie Orr’s predictions in the Sunday newspaper. But something irrational took over when I walked past the palmist on the pavement three days ago. Dressed in dhoti and kurta, he could have passed for a vegetable vendor. But for the board which said ‘PALMISTRY AND ASTROLOGY’ in a chalky scrawl. A few sheets with complex geometric patterns completed the picture. And on a whim, I turned back.

I found him watching me patiently as though he EXPECTED me to turn around. Clairvoyance? I wondered.

‘I want my palm read,’ I said, squatting on my haunches and peering at his paraphernalia. If he was surprised, he masked it well. He solicitously pulled out a crumpled plastic bag for me to squat on. I felt a little foolish, but gamely complied.

He opened a tattered book with pictures of deities. ‘Pranaam karo’, he said. I cast around for what that meant. He coughed softly and clarified, ‘50 rupees’. I fumbled in my purse feeling like the person in the corner of the classroom with a conical cap.

What’s your name, he asked and then flipped through the well worn pages of an almanac. He stopped at a page and nodded as though it all seemed to make sense.

Traffic roared by. I leaned in so as not to miss a single word.

‘Your stars are good,’ he said. ‘You’ve got determination and can do things you set your mind to.’ Well, that’s a good start, I thought.

‘When you were born, you brought your parents good fortune.’ That part was partially true. I arrived on the same day as their paychecks. Unlike my siblings who chose the inconvenient end of the month to make their appearance.

‘You’ll get a good match,’ he continued. ‘In fact, you’ll be married into a raj ghar.’ I translated that to mean royalty and a vision of Prince William floated into mind. I had to stifle the urge to giggle.

He took on a more serious tone then. ‘But your mind is not at ease. You work at things but they don’t seem to work out. Even your body grows weaker by the day.’ A mild alarm gripped me as he continued. ‘There are certain influences at work. But they can be countered if you wear a certain ring.’

The counters finally tumbled into place. ‘How much for your ring, I demanded. He dismissed it with a wave of hand, ‘Not much, just one hundred and fifty rupees but…’ The roar of traffic drowned out the rest. But it didn’t matter. I knew I’d been had.

As I walked away ruefully, I realised he’d scored a bullseye at least on one count. He’d said, money doesn’t stay for long in your life. I thought of my fifty rupees and marvelled at his soothsaying.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Collector's Issues

Some collect vintage cars. Some collect baseball caps. As for me, I collect memories.

There I’ve said it. I’m an unabashed sentimentalist. A nostalgia junkie, holding on to forgotten little fragments of time as though they were the Crown Jewels. ‘Get rid of this junk’, my folks have frostily told me over the years, even as I get moony-eyed every time I see:

- My Prefect Book from Class 6, the year we won the Best House trophy

- 5 (slightly fading, never used) handkerchiefs from a tie-n-dye Craft class

- EVERY single birthday card I’ve received from the time I was 6.

- A Jethro Tull badge, from the first concert I attended

- The chipped part of my front tooth, from my face-first encounter with a stone bench.

Garden-variety stuff, it may seem. But that’s just the top level of the multi-tiered Pandora’s box. Burrow a little deeper and here’s what you might find.

- A thick file of email printouts, sent by close friends dating back to 1998.

- A stamp collection, foisted on me by relatives in 1979, which hasn’t been sorted yet.

- 8 kilos (approx) of ‘interesting’ news articles, well-written columns, trivia, travel articles etc.,

- A plump bag with brochures and maps from the Greyhound bus-stops on my trip to Canada.

- Leftover paints (still usable) from a college festival in 1993

- A bloated portfolio with every single ad I’ve created during my 5-year stint in Advertising.

And finally the whopper:

723 books ranging from Brothers Grimm to J. K. Rowling, Hemingway to Rushdie. Plus (pause for breath here) over 300 MAD comics!

(There was also a short-lived collection of clam shells. The shells had beautiful, intricate patterns. But the fetid stench got in the way of misty-eyed moments.)

I’ve tried on occasion to walk the Buddhist path of detachment. Imagined myself throwing it all away. But knowing me, it would only be an invitation to start all over.

So now I’ve rationalised that my ‘accumulations’ might just be THE legacy to hand down to the progeny. In the off chance that I become famous, imagine the killing they could make at the auctions.

‘One paper cap from sports day in Primary School… going once… going twice…’

Wednesday, October 08, 2003


Every day I have 2 ½ hours of the most unusual entertainment. I travel by train – Borivli to Churchgate and back.

Last week, I was hurtling down the overbridge as usual, when I saw the 8.36 Churchgate fast pulling in. Double damn, I thought, no seat today. As any seasoned peak hour traveller knows, you’ve got to take your position BEFORE the train arrives and then adroitly lunge in and grab a seat BEFORE the train grinds to a halt. So you can guess what my chances were.

But wait a minute… there was a whole section, including a luscious window seat lying absolutely empty. Hallelujah! There is a God, I exulted as I made a triumphant dash for it.

A woman’s hysterical shriek stopped me mid-air. As I turned to her, she screwed up her nose and pointed to the floor near my coveted seat. Some poor (pathetic, perverse!) creature had emptied the contents of its bowels between the seats. I mentally kicked myself for my premature euphoria. 13 years of travelling and I still hadn’t learned, there’s no such thing as a free window seat.

I glumly settled for an uncomfortable 4th seat, casting unclean looks at my ‘saviour’. (I had to blame someone for my discomfort, right!) Strangely enough, it turned out to be a good vantage point to watch the drama which followed.

Ms. Saviour began relishing her role of rescuing people from ‘shit street’. At every station, it was déjà vu. Eyes would pop on seeing the empty window, women would swarm in, Ms. Saviour would screech, they’d recoil as if they’d been stung. Then they’d press a handkerchief to their nose and squeeze between other sweaty bodies.

One woman bravely announced, ‘We should pull the chain. Get the Railways to come and clean this.” Newbie traveller, I thought with a smothered snort. As if the Railways gave a shit about our genteel sensibilities. As long as the trains reached on time who cared how the sardines within it travelled. The other women too hissed their disapproval and Ms. Chain Puller melted from view.

Some stations later, I discovered the women caught on faster. They did the brisk mental math: crowded train + seemingly vacant space = definitely chee chee. So no herd-like lunging, they’d only peer in to check the extent of the damage.

Finally, one woman who’d been battling with the decision, gingerly squatted on the edge of the 4th seat. A chorus of gasps followed at her audacity. She quickly pulled out her prayer book and transported herself to another consciousness.

Another woman looked at the mound warily, in case it unexpectedly lurched forward, and squeezed in next to Ms. Prayer Book. A third braveheart fished out an old newspaper from her bag, gritted her teeth and placed it over the odious stuff. Obscured from vision now, another two women slid into the opposite seat.

On the other side, some college students began a game of Antakshari. Ms. Saviour, her rescue mission aborted, pulled out her knitting. Someone started grumbling about her maid. As I got ready to get off, I heard a woman quip, ‘We’re lucky it wasn’t someone with loose motions.’

Ah, how I love the spirit of Mumbai.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Hirsute Pursuits

To use a very bad pun, I had a hair-raising experience at the beauty salon yesterday.

I had gone for my bi-monthly hair trim to this parlour that I’ve been frequenting for 11 years now. R, the lady who runs it, is quite competent and very reasonable too. Since I’m not one to experiment with styles and hues, I ask for the same cut with just a variation or two.

So, yesterday in the middle of the snip routine, we got around to the exorbitant rates that some parlours charge. ‘Can you imagine paying Rs. 800 for just a regular hair trim?’, I asked a little self-righteously. I expected she’d have something to add about the unjustified cost too. On the contrary, I found her springing to the defence of the hair divas. What you don’t realise, she chastised me, is that you’re paying for more than just the ambience and the name.

And that’s when she dropped the bombshell. ‘Take this scissors for instance’, she said halting her efforts at carving my wild curls into a chic bob. My untrained eye saw a pair of metal scissors. ‘This piece alone costs 20,000 rupees’. My jaw plummeted to the hair strewn floor. Twenty thousand, I coughed. Twenty, with three chubby zeroes following it???

Wha-how-whe-…. The questions came out in a rush. She picked a lopped off lock from my shoulder and demonstrated. The hair snipped though it with just a whisper of a crunch. The kind you hear when someone bites delicately into a cucumber sandwich. A regular Fiskars, I presumed, would sound like a cement mixer in comparison. But dulcet sounds aside, I learned there were other reasons to invest in a pair of shears worth 20,000 greenbacks. The cut is a lot smoother because the hair doesn’t recoil into unsightly curls. You can cut hair in a geometrically-precise straight line. It’s ergonomic too, not letting stress build up in the masterly fingers, wrist or arm.

I was still struggling to digest this information about a humble pair of scissors. With a flick of a wrist, she then dropped the second bombshell. ‘Actually, this pair of scissors is nothing compared to the one I’d set my heart on in Paris’, she sighed as she snipped over my ears. Apparently, it was hewn from pure marble and cost, hold your jaw, one lakh rupees. Just holding it, she mooned, was heavenly.

‘There’, she said, as she turned off the blow dryer and fluffed my hair, ‘what do you think?’ It was the same cut I’d had for the past year or so. But now, coming to think of it, there was something different about it.