The neighbour.

“Do you know Kalaignar’s house?” I asked impatiently on the phone to my largely clueless Uber driver, who clearly was not from the city. He of course did. I use this direction detail sparsely because invariably I will have to clarify, “not Gopalapuram. The CIT colony house”. We shared a compound wall with the other family. But it was unnecessary. He was the quietest neighbour in our colony. A small but tastefully built house with tall trees and a beautiful balcony. You could throw a garland or a grenade with equal ease. On numerous mornings, I have sat next to my window and wondered how behind those unassuming walls, walked the entire political and social history of a state. Of a people.

If you saw more than one car parked outside, you knew he was home. If you saw a steady stream of ordinary people walking into his house, you knew he was home. If all the houses in the street received baskets of sweets and savouries, you knew he was home and it probably was a farmer’s festival. You will run into Kanimozhi on the pavement, when you are out to get vegetables. Your maid will show up with gifts from their house. That is how they are. Regular people.

It is difficult to separate the history of the state, from the man. Because he has always been there. Always. He has made poll alliances with people I read about in school textbooks and also rooted for CSK this season. He has always been there. Which is why today it feels like a family doctor died, taking away with him critical pages on why we are what we are. How did Tamil Nadu become the first state to recognise Transgender rights, decades back? How did atheism become critical for social justice? How do you build an organization and a movement that outlives you? How do you become the country’s first screen writing super star? Why is linguistic plurality important for the fabric of this country? Why is it important to be ‘regular people’ in public life?

Karunanidhi-kallaikudi_02_750

(Pic credit: Anna Arivalayam)

Unlike MGR or Jayalalitha, he was no accidental politician. He did not get attracted to it mid way. He was not pushed into it. He wanted this. He planned for it with a primal focus, right from when he was 14. When he laid down on the railway tracks of Kallakudi as a 29 year old, protesting Hindi imposition, he was already mid-career. To put this in perspective, both Jayalalitha and Modi were 9 year old children who in all probability, were playing marbles in their backyards on that hot Wednesday afternoon. Kalignar’s impact on Tamil Nadu is not just political. He has affected the cultural fabric of a region, in a stunningly unique way.

The human body is poor hardware for what the mind can accomplish. But Muthuvel Karunanidhi pushed it as much as he can – for 94 years, through healthy eating and yoga, before these things became cool. I dont think he will complain. If the young man of Kallakudi fame were to meet himself today, he would agree that it was a life well lived. Not just at the work front but at home as well. In innumerable interviews, his children have mentioned how he has always been around, for everything. Regular people.

His career is checkered with extraordinary contradictions. The man who fought for social equality all his life did not have a single woman leader in his party ever – until his daughter, of course. The man who moulded friends like Prof. Anbazhagan into great leaders and stood for civility above all else, also presided over a generation of party workers who were essentially thugs. The man who stood for Tamil rights all his life, presided over the Last War in Sri Lanka, which had ‘war crimes’ written all over it. The man who pioneered social revolutions like Samathuvapurams (equality villages) and Uzhavar Sandhai (farmers’ markets) never really focused on infrastructure issues like water and electricity.

But beyond all this, why is there so much love? why does a politician feel like family? How did he build the Dravidian brand so successfully that even millions of people like me who were born in brahmin households, swear by it? How did he draw an equal audience to his ‘Kaviyarangams’ (poetry slam) as much as he did to his political rallies? The answer probably lies in an innocuous word called ‘Inclusion’. His entire political discourse was based on ‘include them also’ and never ‘take it away from them’. It is not an ideal position to take. Not even the right one at all times. However, it endeared him to generations. We were sure that things will never go really bad with him around. After all, how can this sitting CM uncle, who once embarrassed Jackie Chan by praising him for 40 mts in a language that he didnt even understand, be bad for anyone?

Kalaignar

(Pic credit: Murasoli)

A few years back, it was his birthday and he was in the ‘other’ house. Dad joined hundreds of other people who casually walked into his house to wish him. From a distance, dad recalled to him how his uncle Sethurama Iyer taught him in Class VIII in Thiruvaroor and made him the class leader. The Chief Minister remembered his teacher and even though he was too weak for it, got up from his chair and folded his hands in reverence. Dad was thrilled. He now had a Kalaignar story to tell. Everybody has a Kalaignar story to tell…

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Spellbound

The thing I love most about living in Delhi is that you can set out to drive / walk in any direction and discover something new and interesting in the first 20 minutes. The other day, I had carried trash to the dumpster in our neighbourhood which is next to a Mosque and accidentally read an ASI sign that claimed it was roughly 600 years old. Another time, a walk after lunch in Hauz Khas introduced us to the weekly drumming ritual that happens at the Deer park. So last week, when we decided to take a detour from the ring road into what looked like a bustling neighbourhood opposite the IIT, I was half expecting to see a lost treasure or Jurassic Park or some such. Instead, we drove into a cute little market, complete with a bakery selling warm rolls, the customary florist (Yes, every market in the city has to have one. Ironical, for a city known more for its anger!), a friendly looking liquor store (more on that in a bit) and a quaint little book store!

Besides the name and the fact that they home-deliver books and kathi rolls (I am trying my best to not crack the cliched ‘food for thought’ type joke here. Please acknowledge!), why Spell & Bound grabs your attention is how they have chosen to display their books. The ground floor floors you with their selection of ‘must reads’ (which I am happy to announce, does not have any Chetan Bhagat. So it is safe to bring your kids), which have been carefully picked to appeal to the curious, more than the commercial. Of course my love for the place grew exponentially when I saw a shelf dedicated just for Indian cricket. Again, no cliched Hayden or Akhtar autobiographies, but the more timeless stuff. The basement completes the wow, with a stunning shelf just for hard bound leather classics and a train shelf that is likely to make children fall in love with reading, more than any hot English teacher ever could.  The customary anti-war cookie tin was also spotted.

The best part of the store though, was yet to come. After packing off my loot, which should see me through a month or so, the attendant gave me the best and the worst possible news. The ‘best’ was their loyalty card, which was just that – a card. Just the name of the store printed and no fancy number embossed on it. Show it the next time you drop in and get a 10% off. Nothing complicated (take that Lifestyle!!) and precisely how a loyalty card should be. The ‘worst’ was, half way during the chat he revealed that the store was owned by a relative of Robert Vadera. I had half a mind to flee, or to burn the place down (more of the latter), but then sensing my discomfort through by contorted eyebrows, he quickly added ‘very very distant relative, sir’.

Giving the family the benefit of doubt, we left the place and walked back into the market, spotted the liquor store and walked towards it, half expecting an ASI sign saying it was 1200 years old. But it turned out to be even better -they had ‘Leffe’ and ‘VB’ in stock! Yeh Dilli hai mere yaar 😉

of kings, freedom fighters and childhoods

Weekends in the 80s were worth looking forward to for a few reasons – The prospect of He-Man on Sunday morning TV, followed by episodes of Mahabharat and ‘Fairy Tale Theatre’; The hope of a long session of underarm cricket on the road in front; Weather permitting, even an hour or two on a bicycle hired by the hour. But nothing had us more excited than Dad coming home from work, carrying new issues of Amar Chitra Katha. The prospect of being transported to a whole new world through those colourful, graphic pages was and still remains overwhelming.
I have not known a childhood without ACK. So for me, it has been a grand parent, an encyclopedia, a friend and an oracle, all rolled into one! Those pages always had a way of breaking down profound revolutions, complex epics and mythological mysteries into simple rectangles of conversations that you would always understand and always remember.
Stacks of ACK was pure currency for a kid in the 80s. Worth much more than a pile of Enid Blyton or Hardy Boys or even notes from the science class. And definitely more trade-able than any of them. And come vacation, the most painful bit was to split your stack with your sibling. Of course in my case, it always helped to have a sister whose taste did not overlap with mine – mostly. She chose the Panchatantras and stories of Kings, while I chose the Mahabharata and the freedom fighters biographies. It of course never mattered that both of us have read every single comic, five times over. So the real fight was over the one thing that we both loved – The Jataka Tales. And till date, my favourite issue remains the fascinating tale of the entrepreneur who started off with a dead mouse.
Today, it pains my heart to see these books selling more as collector’s items for thousands of rupees, in fancy bookstores, way out of the reach of a majority of this nation’s kids. May be it is time to create a phone app to take it back to the masses? Or publish it in major newspaper publications as comic strips, in place of ‘Beetle Bailey’ or ‘Peanuts’? Are you listening, India Book House?
It was only when news of Uncle Pai’s death came out last week, that the enormity of what he has achieved finally dawned on me after all these years. On Twitter, I found people from three different generations recalling their childhoods memories reading ACK and Tinkle. How amazing is that? Three generations, whose knowledge of most-things-Indian, coming from the same source – a comic. I guess this tweet by Anand Ramachandran sums it all up for the rest of us.

Close

2006 US Open. Round 2. It is past 10:00 PM and I am speeding in my ’97 Avalon to Kiru’s beautiful apartment in San Antonio. Home away from home. I have just realized that the match is still on. That means he’s gotta chance. I knew that if this thing was going down to the fifth set, Andre’s got it. I park, run up the stairs and settle into the most comfortable sofa in the world.
We watch the 5th set. What a set! Andre wins. He lives to fight another day. Typically Andre. That also means he is not retiring tonight. Phew!
He loses his third round match 2 days later and retires. Ironically, he loses to a kid called B. Becker.
Cut to: 1991
I am a 10th grader, living in Virugambakkam and watching the 1991 French Open final on Doordarshan. He loses to a freak called Jim Courier, who I end up hating. Being an Andre fan since childhood means that you hate his opponents – especially the ones who beat him in a Slam final. In Andre’s case though, this is a long and growing list of people – Connors, Ivanisevic, Sampras, Courier, Martin and even that midget called Michael Chang. So I hated them all, growing up.
I am not sure what prompted my admiration for this guy to begin with. The Sportstar centre spreads? The rebellion? The return of serve? The double-handed backhand? or was it just the audacity of wearing denim shorts, ear rings and a pink shirt, for a French Open final??
But denim shorts go only a little far in a making an idol. What makes Andre my most favourite athlete is his ability to bounce back – not from the floor, but from deeper in the dungeons! My tennis coach at Loyola told me something on a fine summer morning in 1995, that I will never forget for the rest of my life – “Fitness is not running 1500 meters fastest. It is about how soon you recover from that 1500, to run another 400”. And Andre was that guy who could run those 400s in real life (literally & figuratively) again and again and again.
That means being #1 and managing to go down to #132 and bouncing back to #1 and doing this shit all over again for over two decades. He was the most flawed perfection ever in Athletics!
When the girl friend gifted this book last year, the first thing that stuck me was – ‘wow, that is a big close up on the cover!’. Why this rugged, disturbing picture? Why not the one with the 92 Wimbledon trophy? or one of those Aus Open moments? Or one from when he had hair? Or one with Stephanie?
The answer is quite clear after the very first page. This is as honest an autobiography as any you will ever read. This one is not for the gallery. This is all about the flaws, the quirks, the embarrassments and also the triumphs and the fun of it all.
If you are one of those tennis fans like me, who rooted for this guy for most of your teens and twenties, this book is a fascinating read. He takes you through all of it – right from when he won a hustling match against Jim Brown at age 7, till that marathon against Baghdatis in 2006 – His introduction to Pete as a kid with a flawed game, his Canon commercial, Nick Bollieteri, Wendi, Gil, Brad Gilbert, Brooke Shields (in very intriguing 2 chapters), Stephanie and of course the slams! The 8 he won and the million he lost.
I remember most of those slam finals. Strangely, I even remember what I was doing at the time, while watching it on TV. But now I also know what was going on the previous night, on match day, at the court, on the ground and inside his head! And that is much bigger and closer than any ball he might sign and lob at you!

White tiger…

you know the feeling….of running in sweltering mid-day heat, at the peak of chennai summer, listening to death metal on your walkman in full volume? (ok…before you think am demented, I would like to confess that I have not tried it post high school)

anyway…back to the run….its pain and ecstasy at the same time, with all that adrenalin pulling you through, long after your body has given up.

Reading the white tiger was pretty close – just replace the adrenalin with anger. It is a story that is so disgusting, filthy, rotten and raw that you can feel the stench emanating from the pages. The stench will no doubt disgust you at the beginning; but by page 200, you will not just get used to it, but in fact look forward to it indulgently.

If you have ever flown into Mumbai on a window seat, you would have no doubt seen the miles of blue taupaulined slums that the plane sails across, before depositing you int the marble floored, air conditioned, interior-decorated confines of the Chatrapathi Shivaji terminal. The strange thing is that the ‘tarpaulined’ and the ‘terminal’ are two mutually exclusive worlds – totally insulated from each other. While members of both these worlds meet everyday and even need each other to stay alive, they know so very little about the other’s world that it could have as well been in a different planet.

Anyway, the book has nothing to do with Mumbai and so I havent spoilt anything for you 😉 But it is about these two worlds and if you have ever stopped in your tracks once, angered by this rude, dualistic joke that is our nation, then you Will love the book.

Unaccustomed earth…

Garp will have to wait a while. …

Picked up ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, for company on a long flight. Was very apprehensive. I loved ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ and never read ‘The Namesake’, though I liked the film. And I was not exactly in the mood for a weighing down immigration story.

I was excited to find out that it was a collection of short stories. Those are perfect for a train or a flight, especially for slow readers like me. And a quick glance into the first story suggested that it was set in Seattle – not the repetitive Boston. Great…I was sold! Paid for it and boarded the flight.

The first story was ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ – Title track. Strangely, the emotions were very much in the accustomed territory for me. Then again, I think anybody who reads it will feel that way. As it is always the case with Jhumpa, the english was dumbed down, but the effect was piercing. I finished the 60 page story in one shot and realized that the plane was still on the tarmac.

Tried to move over to the next story. After all, there were another 3 hours to kill. The next story was set in Boston and it seemed like a lighter one. I closed the book. Decided that I would rather savour the hangover from the first one for the rest of the weekend.

Later that night, someone asked me what I thought of the book. I said ‘it makes you wanna take the next flight to boston, meet Jhumpa and hug her for 2 full minutes’.

Garp…

found John Irving’s “World According to Garp”, lying around in a friend’s place…had read it eons back and it has since been by all time favorite book. I remember closing the last page on it, thinking…’OK…some things in life are not going to feel the same again, from here on’…

“…….It was an unpleasant sensation for Garp, shortly after Duncan turned six, to smell that Duncan’s breath was stale and faintly foul in his sleep. It was as if the process of decay, of slow dying was already begun in him. This was Garp’s first awareness of mortality of his son….”

I think I will read it again!