Posts Tagged ‘India’

I am unfortunately once again holding the post of Editor in a newspaper. Unfortunate. Very unfortunate. Because I am a quintessential escapist. And I love my escape plans. I hatch plans. Follow some pointers, like not buying a cell phone, etc, just so that I can plan my physical escape some day.

It’s not an honorable thing to do for a responsible journalist who’s worked 20 years in hardcore news media, done sting operations, investigative journalism, sat at the helm of a desk, judging others’ copies and designed how to produce them on the next day’s edition. I mean, it’s a deadly job! You are making a promise to millions.

But that’s exactly why I was becoming more and more determined to escape.

This char. This burn. It singes me everyday. The news I am exposed to grills me slowly till I get roasted. It’s a torture to me to hold a responsible position at a newspaper. But, unfortunately I am once again doing so.

And timely too, for the Nibhaya BBC Documentary to come up.

You know how life is when you aren’t a journalist? You smell flowers, you design kitchen gardens, watch “food food” channel and make lovely dishes at home, Ekta Kapoor is a perfect friend then and her serials make me ignorant, blissful and happy.

But sometimes I become an Editor. And then, all that luxury is over and once again I am set on medium rare for slow roast. “Burn for the world, come on!” is my unwritten instruction.

I don’t know how many of you got to see that documentary. Congrats Leslee Udeen, who perhaps had a personal shot to be cleared when she interviewed the rapist: She had been herself raped.

I remembered in college days one of my very concerned male friend had told me, “If you get raped, don’t resist, Enjoy it.”

I didn’t exactly get raped, but molested on public buses, streets… many a times. Someone even asked me “How much?” when I was waiting for a bus at a bustop coming back from the University.

I beat up a few, ran away in fear and did nothing at times. Beating came a lot later, when I realized I could physically overpower at least one puny man (one lucky outcome of my good build).

But enjoy a rape?

Let’s get to the basics here. We  are all adults. A person approaches you, you balk in fear, you run under cover, you throw things at him, he becomes wilder. And then he decides to pin you down. Imagine the scene. You have a complete stranger trying to pull down your pants. With all his strength. There is no one around. His face is in grimace. He tears off you blouse, and digs one hand right into your vagina. Now one thing here. Our vagina’s are not hollow pipes. They are a closed soft organs. Much as you men forget that you were brought into the world by your loving mothers through that kind of vagina. But that opened like petals only for a few minutes, giving excruciating pain to the mother, so that “flowers” like you can bloom and get a life. Otherwise, the vagina remains usually closed. It gets lubricated when she gets aroused by a man she loves, or she has given permission to possess her body, and then someone can enter her at her consent.

So why were you thrusting your hand in there? What were you looking for?  Maybe you should have had your penis pushed in there instead. You may have had more fun.

And maybe that would have been less painful for the girl, and not taken Nibhaya’s intestine out! She may have lived.

By the way, my dear college friend, tell me, which part of me would be able to enjoy this attack.. can you explain? I’ve never been raped, so I can’t really say I tried to follow whatever you said. I’m sorry I am not YET been raped.

But yesterday, 30 years later, during a long debate with a man, a Canadian man, (Indian born) a family man with a wife at home, told me the same thing. “When you get raped, try to enjoy it”.

Goosebumps ran down my spine: Didn’t the rapist Mukesh Singh just say the same thing on BBC?

India booming!

Friends who never visited India, often ask me what is India like? They almost believe India is a lovely land of sadhus, snake-charmers and elephants. I quickly ran to my PC to write this article for them. This might also come in handy for those who are about to visit this quirky land for the first time.

India is a house of extremes. It displays an extravaganza of population, poverty, wealth, corruption, pollution, dishonesty, love, warmth and high-spirited people. (PLEASE read these words over and over again till each of them explodes inside your brain and you become well-armed for the intensity).

India has the most fascinating sites (historical and archeological) and intriguing sights (man-made and natural), and a bountiful range of physical anomalies thrown in — from the snow-capped Himalayas to barren Thar deserts; from the Deccan plateau to a few of the most exotic sea-beaches in the world, from the most orthodox temples, mosques and households, to the daring nude beaches in Goa.

Did you know that India has a medley of a mammoth over 500 languages, 6400 castes, seven religions, two major types of humans… heterosexuals and homosexuals… all living in a disorganized harmony…? Something I don’t think any country in the world could have housed without diligent and regular cataclysms.

Physical diversity too is tricky! One needs to study the country like a textbook for an exam before venturing out. It has places with the biggest floods, most lavish rainfall, driest droughts and bitterest winters, complete with snowfall… all within one country. I think India has the most abundance and most deprivation almost under the same roof.

Tribal women fetching drinking water in Vizag area. Notice the cheerful, gossiping mood they are in.

Let me tell you something interesting. During the ’80s, when I was in my youth, Indians greatly relied on letters, telephones, telegrams and trunk-calls for communication. Computers existed only in certain IT offices and internet was unheard of. Web was what spiders spun and net was something to catch fish in. Hardware was a tool and software never existed. Keyboard was a musical instrument, and monitor and ram were animals. 🙂 (You can read more about my technological know how in my other post: Technology and I… Not the best of Mates)

However, all hell broke loose suddenly during the ’90s. Within a decade, technology permeated into every household, every institution and industry. So much that now every villager has a cell-phone, every village school has at least one computer and every person has to know computers to get any job. Don’t worry if they can’t feed their children twice a day or send them to schools.

Even in the Himalayas, into the remotest folds of the mountains, where sages live in caves, bathe in freezing rivers, eat fruits plucked from trees and meditate, you would delightfully find at least one internet cafe (albeit with slow connection) and some sages animatedly chatting on cellphones.

There are very few places in India where the radar of technology has not reached. And I am banking on these places to run to when I decide to get lost from the world. 🙂

Russell Peters said something which struck me: “India has no poor. The people who you think are poor have been in that state for generations and will remain in that state for generations. So they never consider themselves poor. It’s like, this part of the pavement is my drawing room; this part is living room; Hey! you’re stepping into my kitchen!” Try to uplift them and they’ll say: “I can’t leave my ancestral home!”

Sage with a cellphone in Kumbhmela (Courtesy AFP)

Last time when I left India two years back, I used to call my rickshaw-puller and maid on their cell-phones. I think by now they are reporting sick via email. 😀

An average Indian is extremely educated and knowledgeable and will probably know more about your country’s history, politics and literature than you do. So come prepared only after doing your homework. Indians speak English and know more English than any common man on the streets of English-speaking countries like US, Canada, Australia or UK. An average man knows at least four Latin words, have read Shakespeare and knows about the Renaissance.

This, even when there are millions of children who cannot afford education.

About lifestyle? Even during the ’90s the kind of dress girls wore to parties would make any standard woman in the West blush. I’m yet to see a woman in Canada wear a backless that boldly brushed over the  bikini line. Girls smoked openly… on streets, clubs, restaurants and revolted quietly in orthodox households.

Gays and hermaphodites are out of the closet and making waves in the society. Especially in the fashion and glamor industry.

Don’t try to understand relationships in India. They are more complicated than you can imagine… the gray (or should I say rainbow-colored?) areas between being single to being married to being divorced, religiously gets blurry and more and more perplexing. I can write at least 10 novels based on the relationships I saw around me… but no one would believe me! (And moreover I am one lazy author!)

Live-in relations and extra-marital affairs are so common — even in villages — that the Supreme Court permitted long-time live-in partners to be equivalent to being married and children born out of them are not coined illegitimate. (Read it here)

In 2009, homosexuality was legalized in India… among the first few countries to do so. (Here)

But, don’t be so charmed! Be alarmed! Be armed!

India is treacherous to vulnerable newcomers. Those who are about to enter India with an idea that they will land in a fascinating and innocent land of yoga and peace, and may still get to see the “rope trick”, may be ‘roped’ into so many ‘tricks’ that before you bat your eyelids, you will be ripped off of all your material belongings and you would so wish you knew the “rope trick” to catch a flying flight above back home!!! Hahahaha 😀

PS: I haven’t touched anything on the booming economy and scientific and space developments, though. Let’s keep that for your next visit. 😛

AND FOOD!!!!!! That awesome exhibition of tantalizing platter from every single state and region and religion.

(Did you watch ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and wished you could retire in a warm and vibrant place like India instead of being stuck in 6 months of snow and loneliness in US/Canada?
Well, the movie is now for real….
Retiring in India is now beginning to become a well-chalked out future for you. You can live at less than half the cost ($400-850 rental p.m.). You get the warm sun, yet are living by the sea or the hills, so that you don’t feel the summer heat too much. You can chose your room-with-a-view, your choice of platter and get involved in holistic activities like yoga, spirituality and voluntary work for children and the under-priviledged.
You can take part in adventure sports like WHITE WATER RAFTING, MOUNTAIN HIKING or Camping and come back to spend a few spiritual days doing yoga and holistic activities.
You can also float your own ideas for a business venture or get local jobs to keep yourself busy and earn pocket money.
Foremost, you have people around to take care of you: Maids, sweepers, cook, errand boys, masseurs, and Man Fridays at very little cost. They know, if not fluent, broken English, who are warm and welcoming to visitors. You’ll really want to pay them extra for all the willing help that you’ll get which you never got a taste of in the West.
There’s a whole new relaxed future under the bright sunlight awaiting you, if only you want.
I accompany personally for many trips.
Take the first trip for a few months to test the taste of India.
After a overwhelming response on this blog and requests from several friends, I decided to start a spiritual-adventure trip from Toronto to Haridwar where I will personally accompany you and guide you throughout your tour. Write to careychatt@gmail.com if you want to be a part of the excitement. )

God did not create them; he created only Adam and Eve.

The are neither. They are derelicts, social outcasts, feared, despised and ridiculed by men and women alike. Their coarse voices, their filthy language and obscene gestures embarrass the ‘normal’ and the ‘civilized’, who will never know what is it to be neither… or both.

The pain in written in their lewd hostility. If nothing else, their unabashed strip-tease is sure to make people shrink away. Yet, at the core of that body, which is neither male nor female but an ungainly mix of both, lies a soft human heart. Eunuchs (or transgenders) eat, sleep, drink, pray, bleed and shed tears just as anyone else.  And they are not considered humans among humans.

Harun Masi (We shall refer to her as ‘she’. She prefers it this way) is the leader of more than 500 eunuchs dwelling in slums scattered all around Chetla in South Kolkata — a place notoriously demarcated as Hijra More. She is over 70 years, nearly six-feet tall, fair, and has a face which is nearly devoid of any wrinkles. Her voice is expectedly male and her long hair, jet black. “I won’t lie, Ma (calling me affectionately), I dye my hair.”

But that was long after the battle was won; long after the stony resistance to talking had melted and she had agreed to talk. At first she wouldn’t yield.

She sent out a messenger saying she wans’t at home; then she had the messenger unleash a volley of obscenities to repulse us. “Can you give us back our vagina?” the messenger challenged, clapping her hands in that manner typical of eunuchs. “Can you? If you can’t, go away!”

But, on seeing our insistence, Harun Masi, first knit her brows and listened to the messenger’s ineffective story. (I had by then managed to sneak inside the lioness’s den.) She then pushed off the only cover on her bare breasts and ignoring me completely, marched towards the road, where photographer, renowned Aloke Mitra (http://www.alokemitra.com/), had come on my insistence. Once she emerged through the flimsy curtains, thankfully, she discreetly pulled the covers back.

“What do you want, babus?”

“We want to talk to you,” I rushed out to save an aged Mr Mitra.

“There’s nothing   to talk about. Please go away.”

“About the government recently granting you voting rights…”

“We already have voting rights. Yes, we vote. We even get voting papers. Ask anybody. There’s nothing to say.”

“Please, can’t we sit inside?”

“No. You can say whatever you want in front of everyone. They are all my sons,” she said, pointing to a thick crowd of people  who had, needless to say, had dropped all work and rushed in to watch this live entertainment or reality show.

“Please…”

Harun Masi is a Hindu by religion. She was brought over to Calcutta from Assam by her Guruma when she was an infant. ” I do not remember anything about my parents,” she recollected, crouched on her doorstep, after she finally relented to our pleadings.

“My parents have died and I have a sister who lives in Assam.” None of them, expectantly, has ever tried to contact her after she was taken away. “Guruma was my mother and my father,” she says pensively. And now that her Guruma was dead, she rules over her kingdom of over 500 eunuchs.

Earlier, it was the dai-s and dasi-s who used to inform them about the birth of a baby in the neighborhood. Today matters are more organised. “The corporation and hospital staff themselves come over to inform us,” says Harun.

Their approach to each family is warm — with the team singing and dancing and blessing the newborn. Matters take a turn once the household refuses to pay or negotiate with them. The demands are often very high. Few want to spend that kind of money and the eunuchs often turn violent and gather around the house to treat the locality to an ugly striptease.

“What may be petty to them, is our bread,” Harun explains. “We need to survive till we die. And this manner of granting blessings to a baby and receiving bakshish is the only way we can earn money.” It is noteworthy to say that even today eunuchs are often not included into the actual society and not given jobs or education.

Not one baby can be born born a eunuch without being taken away by elder eunuchs. “It is our right to take away the eunuch babies. We need to increase our clan,” says Harun.

Of the 5.5 lakh eunuchs in India today (1994), two-thirds have been claimed to be castrated males. In various reports it has been claimed that to increase their clan they kidnap young good-looking male babies and castrate them in a rather crude manner. Many die in the process. A study revealed that in India during the years 1990 to 1992 only 213 infants were naturally born eunuchs.

“Very few are born eunuchs,” confirms gynecologist Dr J.K. Basu. “In some cases infants develop ambiguous sex at birth. A girl, for example, may have male organs. But such cases are rare.”

Harun Masi, predictably, denies castrating males. “How can a baby survive after being castrated like that? And even if he does, how can she develop female hormones?”

To make this a noteworthy point, I must admit that when Harun Masi had taken off the only cover on her bare body earlier, I did get a glimpse of her not-so-well formed breasts.

Says Dr Basu,” It is possible for a male to develop feminine ‘characteristics’ if castrated at an age before puberty, since he develops no male secondary organs. However, there is no possibility of a male growing female organs.”

The eunuchs consider themselves descendants of  Shikhandi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shikhandi)  in Mahabharata and they worship God Krishna.

The death of an eunuch too has several stories attached to it. One says that they are buried deep in a ditch in standing position with lots of salt on their heads. Another story says the eunuchs are buried at the dead of night under the same bed they died in the same position with lots of salt around them. This is in hope for a normal life in next birth.

Harun Masi, however, refutes all such stories. “God!” she exclaims! “After suffering through the entire life, the least a eunuch deserves is not to be buried in such a crude manner. No, Ma,  we bury the Muslims and Christians and cremate the Hindus, just like anybody else.”

When I asked Harun Masi what is her aspiration and what’s her opinion about the government granting them voting rights finally, she said briefly,”I want to be a mother.”

Harunmasi strikes a typical pose.

My full-page write-up that appeared in Telegraph, India, 31 July 1994. Photo by ace photographer, Aloke Mitra.

harunmasi20002

Kaberi Dutta Chatterjee

(This story appeared in The Telegraph as a full page ‘LOOK’ story, dated July 31, 1994, right after the government of India stated that Eunuchs are humans enough to be able to vote and formally granted them voting rights. Not much has changed over the past 16 years. They still hoard in Chetla and other places and still barge onto people’s premises to demand money by obscene language and vulgar dances. I don’t think much will change over the next 200 years. I had to edit this 1200 word story to fit the blog.)

PS: Things changed after 20 years of this write-up appearing in The Telegraph.  Supreme Court in India just granted transgenders the right as a third gender on April 15, 2014, issuing the landmark verdict recognizing transgender rights as human rights, saying people can identify themselves as a third gender on official documents.

pubali

Bollywood gives no importance to writers, and the audience is all excited about the film actors, stars, songs from the film, the cinematic experience and even the director. But a writer, who is still considered the ‘First technical crew’ in cinemas, is the backbone of a film, who barely is given any credit. Pubali Chaudhuri, the winner of National Film Award for Best Hindi Film in 2008 for her first screenplay, Rock On! and Filmfare Award for Best Screenplay in 2014 for Kai Po Che talks to Kaberi Dutta Chatterjee, doubting if anyone will be excited
about reading her story

Within two years of graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) Pubali Chaudhuri rocked the nation with her inimitable storyline and screenplay, Rock On! (2008), a year which was interspersed with popular films like Jodhaa Akbar and Singh Is King. Rock On went on to win seven Filmfare awards, four National awards and the cast was featured on the cover of the September 2008 issue of Rolling Stone (India). Its screenplay has also been added to the Academy Film Archive. Yet, Pubali is apprehensive of audience’s interest in storytellers. “Why interview me? Why would readers be interested in the storyteller?” was her first question when I approached her for an interview.

Q: Your career hit off right after your graduation from FTII with ‘Rock On!’, a film that rocked the country with a musical in 2008. What was the inspiration for such a wonderful storyline?

Pubali: Yes, I suppose I was lucky to have a theatrically released film that got noticed amongst a certain section of the audience within two years of my graduating from FTII. The director, Abhishek Kapoor, had approached me with the basic idea of a college band reuniting. I had a deep and personal connect with the concept as I spent my college years closely associated with Calcutta based rock bands, primarily with a band called Cactus. I saw the resurgence of independent music during the mid to late 90’s. So the ‘Rock On’s terrain was familiar turf for me.

Q: Your next, ‘Kai Po Che’, for which you won the Filmfare Award, was based on Chetan Bhagat’s book, 3 Mistakes of My Life. What was the course of action you had in mind when you adapted a popular novel for a film?

Pubali: Kai Po Che was a huge learning curve. At first read, it seemed, that Chetan had all the elements of a popular narrative in his book – cricket, friendship, Hindu- Muslim bonding, romance. However adaptation is a different beast altogether! You have to discover the basic story, which, though inspired from the book, is independent by nature.

Kai Po Che had two crucial differences from the original novel – for one, the book is told from one character, Govind’s, point of view (thus the title). We changed that to make it an omniscient telling of three friends. We also had decided on an alternate climax (in the book the three friends are trying to save Ali, the Muslim boy, from the Hindu mob and in the ensuing scuffle Omi gets killed). In the film we complicated this friendship tale by putting one of our protagonist’s on the side of the attackers. This had repercussions in the entire plotting and characterisation of the story to leading up to this film climax. Omi’s journey ( played by Amit Sadh ) was entirely the invention of the film.

Q: ‘Rock On! 2’ hit a legal battle and now is set to be released in November, 2016. Has the screenplay rights been granted solely to you, or also to Abhisekh Kapoor? Do you want to clarify anything to your fans in Canada about how you feel about sharing the screenplay credit?

Pubali: I don’t believe that screenwriters have fans, to begin with! Film writers work deep in the background of the film — we are the first ‘technicians’ to start work on a film. Much before the audience knows about a film, its star cast, director, the music or what has now become a latest fad – the box office collection numbers.

In any case, yes we (Abhisekh and I) arrived at a settlement regarding the legal dispute around the sequel of Rock On. It was decided to accord Abhishek Kapoor a shared story credit along with me, while I retain a solo screenplay credit for the film.

Q: Rock On!, Kai Po Che, Rock On! 2. All of your screenplays have been great success in the box office. So much that, you are almost making viewers sit up and take notice of screenplay and storywriters, who, in reality, are the spinal cords of any film. Why do you think storywriters in Bollywood get so little attention?

Pubali: Well to be honest, none of my films would compete with the 100 crore (and counting) box-office club. What they certainly have is a certain memorability. And that makes the entire struggle, both creative and professional, worth the while for a writer.

As a creative professional you want people to remember your work, even if they don’t know how exactly you contributed to it. I doubt that any audience member remembers box office collection numbers… what they do remember is really the story, the performances, the entire cinematic experience. Yet, the working environs for screenwriters still remain a challenge in the industry – our Intellectual Property rights as writers are not recognised, we are yet to start a system whereby we can receive royalties, and perhaps what is the most hurtful, is that too often, screenwriters do not get the recognition and the respect that they deserve from the directors and producers.

It’s a complicated issue. Apart from plain business reasons, there is also this warped understanding of the ‘auteur’ theory of film making — the director as the ‘author’ of the film. Films are considered a director’s medium. However, while every other department, like Cinematography, Editing, Sound or Production Design is devoted to translate the ‘director’s vision’, a screenwriter creates part of that directorial vision as the blueprint maker. Unless the writer and director relationship is driven by genuine trust and respect, there will always be the pitfall of exploiting and overshadowing the writer’s contribution to feed the ‘me’ complex of directors!

Q: When you wake up every morning, do you get bitten by the bug of writing a new storyline, or reading a good book which can get you a good storyline?

Pubali: Are you crazy ?! I like quoting Thomas Mann on this and its one of the few things that makes me feel like a writer. Mann once said that the only thing differentiating writers from others is that writing is hard for writers! So instead of some brilliant flash of inspiration what I am battling with almost on a daily basis is the anxiety of writing — fighting procrastination, fighting self doubt and feelings of inadequacy. It’s very much a neurotic process for me… the only thing is that by now I am somewhat familiar with the contours of my neurosis. But yes, I enjoy reading and watching good films. And besides, those are some of the best excuses to get away from doing the real writing!

Q: Your success stories really do not fit into the ‘Bollywood bubble’ storylines, although of late the Hindi Film industry has been producing great original stories. What kind of a trend do you see in storylines that would hit the box-office button in Bollywood?

Pubali: I am far too much of a recluse and misfit in the film industry to comment on ‘trends’. My limited understanding tells me that studios and producers are all hell bent on larger than life movies — star cast, franchises, comic book heroes — whatever is the easiest way to the wallet of the ticket buying audience. As a writer and film maker, I am interested in something to touch my audience’s hearts and minds with.

Having said that, there have been films like Badlapur, Court, Fandry (these two being Marathi films though ) Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Piku, Masaan or a Titli that do not tread the oft-beaten path of formulaic story telling. Even then, the ones without a star cast in the above mentioned list might not meet trade pundits’ approval based on the revenue they earned. So it really all depends on our audience — where they spend their money, what they find entertaining, what kind of films really touch them, beyond the loud noise of the marketing machinery telling them what to watch.

Q: Can we get an insight into your thoughts of your next venture?

Pubali: At this stage of my career, I am really keen on getting to tell my original stories on the floor. I have just completed the first draft of a script, which is set in a college campus. Currently I am developing the screenplay of one of my original stories, which a director is interested in — but its too early in the day to call it a ‘venture’ really. As a writer, I have to follow Lord Krishna’s advice — I must keep on working (writing) without expectations of any results!

Q: Since we had seen an excellent round-up of characters in Rock On, and it closed up very well, leaving no loose strands, I am curious to know what is ‘Rock On!2’ all about? How did you think of opening up an almost closed storyline?

Pubali: That’s really for me to know and you to find out once the film is released! As such you are right in observing that we had neatly tied up all the strands in the original film. Undoubtedly it was one of my biggest challenges to re-start the story with the same characters – but those characters are like real life people for me given the amount of time I have spent with them in the solitude of my room, right from when I started writing Rock On in 2006 — to the 10 years it will complete by the time the sequel releases (Inshallah) ! And if they are living in my head, perhaps they will come alive on the screen as well?

This interview was published in The South Asian News on January 29, 2016 when Kaberi was the Editor of the newspaper.

(Kaberi D. Chatterjee is a novelist/ journalist and author of Neil Must Die and several other books)

Samarth Malik received the letter late evening. He was perplexed. The letter read, “From Mrs S. Misra, Konnagar, Hoogly, West Bengal.’’

Mrs. S. Misra? Who could it be? He tore open the letter. It read:

“Dear Mr Malik,

My late husband, Saurabh Misra was your friend. He died 12 years back. He has left a portion of his will in your name. I had been searching for your address all these years and have found it only recently. Kindly acknowledge receipt of this letter and let me know how soon can you come and accept your gift.

With sincere regards,

Mrs. Sabari Misra.’’

Samarth stood surprised for a long time. Saurabh Misra? Saurabh? In his last 41 years of his life he couldn’t recollect having met anybody by that name. A friend? He sat down on his armchair and began recollecting his college days. Saurabh… Saurabh… Who could it be who would leave a portion of his will in his name? He couldn’t remember.

He tried to remember his Naxalite days. Those days of fire — which he wanted to wipe off from his memory. There were no particular reasons for that. Only that his efforts had proved fruitless. Why only him, the entire movement had proved futile and the best of his mates were killed by the then ruling government.

He survived. There were reasons for that he didn’t want to remember.

Saurabh Misra…? Was he someone he associated during his Naxalite days? Or was he a colleague in his office?

He had emerged after his Naxalite days as a manager of an upcoming private organization. A well-settled organization, which gave him the launching pad for his soaring career in a multinational organization, of which he is a director now. He had built a plush home in the better parts of the city and with his wife and only daughter, had a chalked out a life that he was glad he had bargained for. He prided himself for taking the right decision at the right time.

Saurabh… a colleague? But a portion of will in his name? Strange! Or is he a distant cousin? No. He read the letter again. The lady mentioned that he was a friend.

Samarth decided to investigate the next day. His curiosity took the better of him and he was determined to find out what was this all about. He had been an active Naxalite once and had the grit of a leader. His name was still in the police books and if it were not for the police, his existence would have long been wiped off.

He had been saved at the nick of time. The police had opened fire when they had asked 17 of them to “Run! Run for your lives!!’’ on an open field. They had been promised freedom and were freed from the gloomy cells after a month of gruesome torture. His wrist was broken and his toenails were pulled off. His mates were in no better conditions. All of a sudden one day the Chief came and smiled at them, offering them freedom, at dawn. Thirty of them bundled in one cell; they looked at each other in disbelief.

The dawn came and 17 of them were pushed inside a van, and were driven off. The van reached an open field and they were asked to step down. And then the officer shouted, “Run! Now run for your lives while I count 10!’’

They ran! Samarth ran till his breath began to burst out from his lungs. He didn’t hear when the officer said “Ten!’’ and the three armed guards started firing. He saw his mates falling on the ground, one by one. And then something, a burning hot sensation entered his calf muscle and he fell. He staggered to get up, only falling back with the impact. Then suddenly an idea struck in his mind. He decided to stay motionless on the ground. He closed his eyes and bore the pain. The firing continued for another few seconds until there were no more running figures around. He waited breathlessly for the van to start its engine and drive off. A minute passed by and then two. He opened his eyes slightly to see the van and saw a pair of boots instead in front of his face. He instinctively looked up and saw the officer standing over him with a smiling face…

Konnagar was only a 20 minutes train ride from Calcutta. He reached the small, but busy town at 10:30 in the morning. He took a rickshaw and after several mistaken turns and bends, finally found the residence of Saurabh Misra.My husban'ds last gift

It was a small, one-storied yellow house. A short gate let to a wrought-iron enclosed balcony. He lifted the latch of the wrought-iron gate and clunked on it twice. And then again.

“Who is it?’’ A woman’s eyes peeped from above one of the springs of neat curtains that hung on the windows.

“I am… er… Samarth Mullick.’’

The woman’s eyes looked stoned for a second and then lit up with a smile.

“Oh yes, just a minute.’’

He heard the latch of the door being pulled down. And then he saw the woman come out.

She could barely be in her early 30s and her devastating beauty glowed from her white attire, while she was devoid of any external aid. A touch of helplessness in her eyes struck a node in Samarth’s heart and he wanted to suddenly be the benefactor of an unknown friend’s so lovely a widowed wife.

She smiled. And cupid worked ferociously in Samarth’s heart.

“Please come in. I have been waiting for you for days.’’ Her last words wrenched out from her heart and helpless eyes. Samarth thought about his dried-up wife.

“I am sorry,’’ he said. “I received your letter only yesterday.’’

“Oh! I posted it quite some time back,’’ she led him into the room.

The drawing room was neatly arranged. With frilled lacy covers on cabinets, supercilious sofas, cane stools and standing lamps, the room swanked in contrast to the woman’s vulnerable appearance. The fact that light had blinked out of the widow’s life ceased to walk in through the door into her interiors. She seemed a happy person inside; her garb of sanctity quietly camouflaging her bubbly youth. She was, as if, waiting for hope to re-enter her foyer.

Samarth sat down on one of the sofas.

“I am Sabari. That’s my husband.’’ She pointed with her eyes at a photograph just behind him.

He jerked his head around. And then he recognized him!

“Oh!’’ He was stunned. Too stunned to speak.

“Care for some juice?’’ She asked.

“Yes… okay…’’ he stuttered. “I wouldn’t mind.’’

“Just a minute,’’ she walked off inside.

Samarth looked at the photograph again. He was not mistaken. It was him! But then his name was… yes! Souvik… Souvik Sarkar.

The woman returned with a glass tumbler filled with an enticing chilled green juice. The tumbler was placed on a tray and covered with a lacy cover. He felt special.

“Please take this,’’ she said, “It’s made of fresh mangoes from my garden.’’

“Oh, thanks!’’ He raised the glass to drink the liquid in one gulp.

“Slowly,’’ she crooned and ended with a smile. “Drink it slowly. Or else you won’t enjoy the taste.’’

“Okay,’’ Samarth smiled. Was anybody else around in this house…?

He took one sip and kept the tumbler on the center table. Then he leant back and crossed his legs. “I don’t understand…’’ He tried to begin.

Suddenly Sabari’s expression changed to being somber. “My husband died in police firing. He was in the Naxalite movement.’’

Samarth nodded sadly, carefully heaving out a sigh of relief in small gasps. She went on.

“We were married for only three months. I was carrying his baby…’’

“Oh!’’ He bent forward and took a sip.

She looked out of the window sadly. “We were in love… we had just met in college. He didn’t want to marry me because he was into this movement.’’ Her eyes brimmed with tears.

Samarth shifted his legs nervously and took the tumbler in his hands. He was now trying to finish the liquid.

“…But I forced him. He had no parents and lived with his widowed aunty in this house.’’ She stopped and wiped her eyes with her sari.

“His aunty died a year back… I am all alone…’’ It was an inviting whisper and all Samarth could do was to shift in the sofa nervously. He felt restless.

“You…’’ he cleared his throat. “Your parents?’’

She smiled and looked at him. “They have disowned me ever since I married Saurabh. I will never go back to them.’’

“And…’’ he hesitated. “Your baby?’’

“Was born dead.’’ She looked up… and her eyes were made of stone.

He felt scared. He sipped on the liquid fast. His head was reeling. He was beginning to feel uncomfortable. He now wanted to get out of this house fast.

She went on. “You know how my husband died? He was fired, from behind his back. The police tipped one of his mates — this guy from his college. You know he was in the same movement.’’

“Oh…’’ He began feeling nauseated. He gulped down the liquid and finished it.

“Yes. The police tipped this friend of his with a grand job if he could kill him.’’

Samarth’s head started swaying!

She looked out of the window and tears started rolling down her eyes. “They were walking down this lane and my husband was discussing the next day’s plan with him. And then he fired him from behind, point blank.’’ She began weeping openly.

Samarth held the sofa handle and tried to get up. “I must go.’’ His head was swaying and his entire self was burning.

“Don’t go,’’ she pleaded in the same naïve voice. And then came forward and held his head. She began combing his hair with her fingers. “Relax, Samarth, relax… I need you…’’ She held his head on her flat stomach.

Samarth rested his head on her stomach and felt his orgasm reach the peak. He wanted to pull her down on the sofa and make ferocious love to her. He tried to lift his hands but couldn’t.

He looked up at her and she appeared blurred. “I don’t feel well.’’

She knelt down and began caressing his face, “Obviously you don’t. I know you are my husband’s killer. I have been waiting for you all my life. I have kept myself and this house beautiful ever since I learned that you were alive and so well…’’

His head staggered to fall. “I want to go home…’’ he could somehow blurt out. His whole self was burning.

“How can you go home, sweetheart?’’ She held up his wobbly head, holding his face. “I have mixed a deadly poison in your sherbet. You’ll be dead in a few minutes.’’

She held his limp head in her hands and then threw it with vengeance onto the sofa. His whole self fell, twitching slightly near his limbs — a white frothy liquid flowing out from his lips.

She stood up, “My husband’s last gift to you, sweetheart! Enjoy!’’

(This story is inspired from a short story I read when I was very young, can’t remember the source.)

(A short story from my third book and a compilation of original short stories, Whiff of Tempest)

(Durga Puja and Mahalaya play a great part in building up the emotions in Neil Must Die. For all those who feel Durga Puja close to their hearts may want to read this extract)

durga

Book 5

CHAPTER 4

The Homecoming, MahaSaptami, October 16 1996

The litanies of the Mahalaya were tearing through the speakers throughout Rajdhani Express, pouring generously on the passengers, filling them up to the brim. They were all coming home. As Goddess Durga had already come into the lives and hearts of Bengal, so were they. Returning into the hearts of their own families. From various corners of the globe the Bengalis were returning home.

It was Saptami, the first day of the Durga pujas, and Neil was returning home. For the first time in two years. For the first time after Tuli’s death.

The Mahalaya was piercing through his lungs. His heart. His whole existence. Why did they have to sell the album in cassettes? It was as though the entire world had conspired against him to let him know something. That he couldn’t escape. To let him know that he was coming home, and that was the truth.

He felt uneasy. And was tempted to walk up to the train attendant and ask him to switch off the music. But he couldn’t trust himself. He didn’t know whether he would hit the man if the attendant refused. He shivered a little. He didn’t know whether that was from the excess air-conditioning or anything else. His mind was going numb.

He closed his eyes. He wished he could close his ears. He decided to bear the painful music. He decided to think about Cathy.

Her eyes were brimming with tears when he kissed her, bidding her goodbye at the airport. She held his hand and said, “I love you.” He wished he could say the same. He simply nodded.

She said, “Just give me a ring. And I’ll arrange for everything. I’m waiting for your call…” she trailed off. Her voice had cracked.

Neil felt sad for her. Sad that she was feeling so sad. He held her and hugged her close. He knew all he had to say was, “I’m coming,” at that moment. But he felt tongue-tied. He simply held her. He wanted to see her happy. Cathy looked up and searched his eyes, as if trying to fathom his confusion. He smiled to hide them. But she knew. She smiled back and held his hand tight, “Don’t rush things,” she said. “I’ll be a friend always.”

And then she turned and left. She turned back before entering the security check and waved at him, smiling. Neil too waved back. And smiled. He felt two emotions. A lump in his throat and a sense of relief. He never knew why.

He got up from the seat and walked out for a smoke. He wanted to think of Cathy and not of the place he was going to. He should have been on a plane to Stockholm and not on a train to Calcutta. He pushed the swing door of the compartment, stepped outside and lit a smoke. He had to go home someday or the other. He had to return and face his past. Good. He could think better. He opened the door of the train. Dusk sped by. Dim lights afar flashed erratically indicating that electricity had reached those villages. Before that, of course, lay acres of barren land, aman paddy having just been harvested.

He looked at the sky. He felt a sense of claustrophobia. Previously the sky was always his source of freedom. Now it seemed, ever since Tuli was up there, he had no escape.

Neil took a puff. He asked himself for the umpteenth time. Why was he always escaping? Why couldn’t he anchor somewhere? Who was he? What was his identity? He was already 24 and had not started life yet. Oh yes. He’s a criminal. How could he forget that? Now with that track-record it will be difficult to get a job either. He wasn’t qualified enough. The only option he had was to go back and join Hassan. Join Juhi. Perhaps even marry her. That was the only way out. Or get a job through her. Then of course, he’d have to marry her. He felt uneasy. Sick. Claustrophobic. Felt as if someone was throttling him. He simply had to try for a visa. He had to go to Stockholm. That was his only option.

He threw the cigarette on the speeding tracks and went inside.  He looked at the happy faces. The happy families who were all going back home on holidays. They’d meet their relatives and all would be so happy. He sat down. When did he last feel happy? He didn’t remember. What was happiness? Was he searching for happiness, or searching for an escape from it?

He didn’t have an answer. His eyes stung with self-pity. He decided to sleep. He decided never to wake up…

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(In Canada)

The more I hear about Maggi, the two-minute instant noodles under threat of a ban, the more I fall in love with our favorite comfort food.maggi

I don’t even remember my first brush with Maggi. When was it first introduced in India or when we became buddies. Ever since I remember, whether tired, back from school, or from sports classes, Ma would be serving a bowl of hot, steaming, Maggi, swimming in a delicious sauce. And not just that, the tastemaker packet was something to die for! We would hunt down the kitchen especially for the packet. Licking off the leftover spices from the packet was clearly the happiest moment of our lives.

Often, as a journalist, after returning from my night shifts at the newsdesk, I would silently cook a bowl of Maggi at 3 am and slurp it down in the privacy of the kitchen darkness, looking out at the stillness of the night, when only my Maggi and I are awake!

Maggi was handed down from my generation to my child’s generation and it served a solution to our every hunger pangs. Even as I am writing this, I am having an urge to slurp a hot-steaming bowl of Maggi.

Not to mention, how I found joy when I discovered Maggi in Indian groceries, No-Frills and other Canadian stores after I immigrated to Canada. My cabinet is always stuffed with Maggi and though the taste here is tad tempered, I am proud to say Maggi has held my hands firmly throughout my immigration battle. Hungry, cold, angry, sad, tired, dejected — Maggi would always cheer us up.

Now to know the same comfort food is in a soup, breaks my heart.

For decades now, Maggi—the two-minute instant noodle brand owned by Nestle—has been an Indian favorite. And for the Swiss multinational, it’s been a critical part of its growth in Asia’s third largest economy. In the last nine years, a May 4 report by Nomura said, the Maggi brand has grown in double digits on the back of expanding modern retail, urbanisation, targeted promotions and consistent innovation.

But  earlier this week, Uttar Pradesh’s Food Safety and Drug Administration (FDA) found monosodium glutamate (MSG) and excessive lead content in some of the Maggi samples they tested. MSG, typically used as a flavour enhancer, can cause headaches, chest pain and nausea.

Four days later, on May 20, the FDA in Uttar Pradesh ordered Nestle to recall a batch of products—dating back to March 2014—after they found that two dozen packets of Maggi contained almost seven times the permissible levels of lead, alongside high levels of MSG.

Nestle, however, maintains that it does not use MSG (pdf) in manufacturing any of its products. Emails and messages sent by Quartz to Nestle remain unanswered.

To learn that all these years I have fed myself and my child a food containing heavy dose of lead scares me. But something in me tells this comfort food is too much of a joy to be tarnished in this battle. Maybe Nestle will introduce a fresh new batch with fresh new flavors and the noodles being in troubled waters will soon fade into oblivion.

Maggi has been a friend to not only children, but also to young men setting out to live on their own for the first time, during hostel days and camp times. If they couldn’t cook anything, they could cook Maggi.

Maggi has also been a parameter for Indian grooms to knowing how to cook. The overly-pampered grooms would joyfully announce that they could cook Maggi, thus winning the hearts of their brides-to-be.

What makes Maggi so special? The answer to this is quite simple. It is the staple food of individuals irrespective of the demographics and geography. Maggi lovers are united from Assam to Gujarat, from the chilly valleys of Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Maggi, in a way, unites India and Indians abroad. I find a lot of Asians too consuming Maggi, after trying all other forms of their own brand of instant noodles.

I personally found hot Maggi relieves me immediately when I am having a cold. And I’ve  never had a stomach upset because of Maggi. Why me? Even now, during vrat (fasting) my mother takes “Vegetarian” Maggi soup as she has finds it to be wholesome, delicious, mood-elevating and believes to be not clashing with any of her self-imposed religious restrictions.

Although, on research I find Maggi noodles is made from soy protein using a catalyst enzyme porcine (taken from the intestine of pig)!

Nevertheless, Maggi has passed down three generations and , knowing India, if there is a ban on Maggi, the sale can increase 10-fold. The craving to eat Maggi will aggravate among children and Maggi will be sold in double the price.

And who cares?

Maggi is such a fast-to-cook, good-to-eat solution to all working mothers, such a mood-elevator, and now with all kind of “healthy” options available (Maggi oats, Maggi whole wheat, etc), it is highly doubtful whether the comfort food can disappear from the face of earth.

Now that I have made all of you hungry and drooling and craving for Maggi, here are a few versions of the comfort food I’ve cooked all my life for myself and my child. Enjoy!

Classic Masala Maggi

Keep it simple. The preparation of this remains same with adding water, tastemaker and noodles. There is nothing like having a plain-jane Maggi with the favourite tomato sauce. Nothing in the world can beat this, especially when your tummy demands food at odd hours say 3.30 night. Enjoy.

Cheese Maggi

After making packets of Maggi over the years, we can make it even in our sleep. So now that you have made the Maggi, all you have to do is grate the cheddar cheese cubes or also put a slice of cheese on the hot Maggi. The melting cheese on the noodles is the best sight and trust us, it tastes like heaven.

Chinese spicy Maggi

The love for Maggi and home-made Chinese food is nothing new to us. So while making this avatar of Maggi, you will need to do some frying and tossing of vegetables. Take spring onions, carrots and toss it up with garlic-ginger paste. Add Maggi noodles with the tastemaker, put some water (less compared to the usual recipes) and the yummy noodles are ready to eat.

Tomato-Egg Maggi

This has to be one of the commonly loved variations of Maggi. Add finely cut tomatoes and one or two eggs in Maggie and Whoa, one the finest delicacies is on your plate. One can also try making a proper bhurji-Maggi. Prepare the Egg Bhurji and toss it up with Maggi.

 Soupy Maggi

If you are tired of chewing the long strand of Maggi and instead want to gulp it down, you should make yourself soupy Maggi. This also works when you have a cold. Add extra bowl of water in the usual preparations.