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.