The Puneri

Pune etc. Nowadays, mostly etc

In Praise of the Pani Puri

Every now and then, your author, contemplative soul that he is, contemplates life. What, he might sometimes wonder, is the meaning of it all? Why, he might continue in similar vein, do we exist at all? How, if he is on a serious roll, do we know if god exists?

These thoughts, I admit, only enter and stay in my cranium when the alcohol stream in my body has a little blood in it, but when the converse is the case, my thoughts are rather more mundane. On such occasions, I might think about the best test cricket team of all times, or perhaps about ten books that I would wish for company when stranded on an island. Or, given my deep, passionate affair with food, it is more likely to be a question that is gastronomic in nature.

And a favorite question in this regard is what makes for the perfect food – and this question, I would have you know, is more difficult than it would seem. For perfect food is a very demanding concept indeed.

It must have texture, for starters. Which means one component must retain crunch, while another must be soft and pliant on the palate. It must provide a contrast of flavours, for another – which implies that the sweet must intermingle with the sour, and whatever spice there is within must be elevated by the salt. More importantly, and this increases the complexity of the dish, it must contrast without losing balance – one should sense all of the above, but any one feature shouldn’t dominate the others.

Pondering dishes that qualify for the finals in this thought experiment is a wonderful way of spending the commute while driving towards a restaurant. Time passes very pleasantly indeed, and more importantly, one arrives for a meal with an appetite that borders on the maniacal.

And of all the dishes that one can think about in this regard, there is one that unfailingly brings out a wistful sigh. I speak of the empress of Indian snacks, the pani puri. She is known by various names throughout my country, a plate of pani puri. North Indians might convince you that all others are worthless nom-de-plumes, and her true name is golgappas. Woe betide you if you meet a Bengali who hears you speak of her as anything other than puchka.

Me, I’m more of a broad-minded generalist – I care not what you call a plate of pani puri. I ask only that it contains, in one form or the other, the following.

A soft filling, which can range from boiled potatoes, lightly mashed, to a daal that is lightly flavoured with spices, and simmers beguilingly on a giant platter. A thin, brownish liquid that stars tamarind prominently, but also a supporting cast that includes but is not limited to cumin powder and salt. A spicy green liquid that consists mostly of chillies, and as far as I’m concerned, little else.

And above all, the outer casing, the star of the show – the puri. I ask that the puri be hard and crisp, and I ask that the puri break open with a soul satisfying noise as our friend, the pani-puri wallah confidently cracks it with his thumb. Watch, then, with ever-hungrier eyes, as he dunks the puri – first in the daal, and then in the brownish liquid, and finally in the green liquid. If you, brave soul that you are, have asked for a spicy rendition, he’ll make sure to stir the green liquid afore every serve.

He puts the assemblage on your plate, which you have been holding all this while, watching the magician at work. And you, owner of a ticket to heaven, plonk it in your mouth before the puri has any chance at all of going soft because of the contents within. The first round of mastication reveals the crunch of the puri, while each successive workout of the jaw brings forth that balance about which we rhapsodized a while ago. Swallow, and await a second ticket, which arrives in your plate soon enough.

Repeat the exercise about six times, for that is the number of times you will get served in a single plate, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll go in for another round. At least.

For I have yet to meet a person heartless enough to not desire another go.

For my money, and if you happen to be in my city, you cannot better the pani puri that is dished out on Canal Road, near SNDT College. Kalyan Bhel does the best version of pani puri there is, and you would be well advised to go and buy yourself a ride to heaven. I promise you, it will be worth your while.

Crrrunch!

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Happy New Year. Or Happy Wednesday. Pass The Booze, Please.

One of the (many) problems with keeping the same email address for about a decade is that every spammer on the planet has attempted to flood your inbox at least once.

I have created many spam filters, hit the delete button a million times, and the “Report Spam” button is now a close, cherished friend. Gmail itself has tried various ruses – they split up a simple inbox into multiple ones, they created auto-folders, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve resorted to hiring shamans in San Francisco. But they pile up nonetheless, those spam mails. They’re the bane of my online life, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

And it was just the other day, when I opened my inbox one fine wintry morning, and saw about a dozen mails within. Of which, you could be sure, about eight would be canned meat product, made mainly from ham. And I was just about to consign them to the recycle bin, when one caught my eye.

“DON”T CELEBRATE NEW YEAR ON 31ST!” it admonished me in no uncertain terms. Intrigued (since this seemed a nice, convenient way to procrastinate a morning away), I clicked upon the mail. And was gratified to see that a solid morning’s worth of procrastination reposed inside.

“DEAR BROTHERS AND SISTERS”, it began promisingly,before striking a rich vein of form, in which it continued for the rest of the mail, ” OUR GRAND CULTURE HAS STAYED WITH US FOR A THOUSAND YEARS AND MORE, AND YET WE SUCCUMB TO THE EVIL TEMPTATIONS OF WESTERN CULTURE!”

The email, I was happy to note, had been sent from a Gmail ID, that grand old bastion of Indian culture. After speaking about how wonderful our culture was for a couple of entertaining paragraphs, and spending some contemplative lines on explaining how bereft of anything nice Western influences were, it got to the point.

“THIS YEAR, BRING IN A POSITIVE CHANGE, AND EMBRACE OUR PROUD CULTURE AGAIN!” it said. “CELEBRATE THE HINDU NEW YEAR,  AND NOT THE WESTERN ONE!”

You’ll have to forgive me, dear reader, for I do not have the mail with me any longer, and my memory is not good enough to remember exactly what the Hindu New Year is called* – suffice it to say that it was a very long name indeed. Whatever the name, the mail said, that is what must be celebrated, and not the Bacchanalian orgy that the 31st of December promised to be. For long-name-that-I-do-not-remember is a true reflection of our country and its culture, while partying on the 31st is Anti-Indian, if not not actually Pro-Evil.

A Pandit whose last name shares an important characteristic with the official name of the Hindu New Year had taken the time and trouble to send me this mail. Far as he’s concerned, New Year parties are evil thrice distilled, and if we want to lead good, respectable lives than we should stay galaxies away from them.

I didn’t send a reply to the good Pandit, naturally, but you can take it as a given that your author will be imbibing plenty of liquids that probably wouldn’t meet the approval of my new email pal come 31st evening. But here’s the thing: you can also take it as a given that your author will be hogging away on all things wonderful come the version of the New Year that Pandtiji would want me to celebrate.

For I subscribe to the inclusive school of thought, you see, rather than the exclusive one. Not that I see myself as belonging to any one religion, but even if I did, I would be all for celebrating all festivals. Not just the evil 31st one, and not just the name-I-can’t-remember one. Because if there is one philosophy that your author subscribes to, it is this: make use of every excuse to eat, drink and be merry.

And on that harmonious note, ladies and gentlemen, here’s wishing all of you very happy new years. May all of them be awesome.

Cheers.

 

 

* No, it wasn’t Gudi Padwa. Something much, much longer.

A Review of How Asia Works

Here’s a name I’m willing to wager you haven’t heard of before you lucked out and started reading this post: Friedrich List.

Said gentleman, as you probably (and for the sake of your social life, hopefully) don’t know the first thing about him, was a German chap. More importantly, he was a German chap who was rather opposed to all that English nonsense about invisible hands and what not. Economics, he haughtily harrumphed, was about the development of a nation,  not an individual. And to ram the point home, we went ahead and became a pretty important cog in a school of thought called the historical school of economics.

And while that school may not win any awards in the what-an-imaginative-name category, it turns out to have been a pretty important development for two nations in Asia – Japan and South Korea. And a third, although to a lesser extent: Taiwan.

These three nations win an approving nod from Joe Studwell, author of the book that is under review today, “How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region“. And if you ask me, these nations should heave a collective sigh of relief, for getting an approving nod from Mr. Studwell takes some doing.

Those nations that hang their heads sheepishly and receive a proper dressing-down include (but, as the saying goes, are not limited to) Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. India doesn’t receive a dressing-down, but that’s because we simply aren’t worth the time and space in the book.

I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s go back to Friedrich. He said, as did everybody else in that school of thought, that a country’s development should take precedence over an individual’s affluence. In other words, if the state needs to butt in and meddle with what an economy needs to do in order to become awesome over time, well, then, the state should go ahead and do just that.

Not, I hasten to add, in a Nehruvian sense. Instead, in a Park Chung Hee-an sense. General Park was, for all intents and purposes, a South Korean dictator for quite a long time, and he was a very, very bad-posterior dictator. He butted in like nobody had butted in before, and made sure that private South Korean firms became awesome. He did this by providing firms absolutely everything they needed in terms of sops, grants, extensions and foreign expertise. If, after this, the firms proved to be less than excellent, he killed them off.

The ones that survived? Hyundai, LG and Samsung, among others – so perhaps there is something to be said for the General’s methods.

His methods also included, as did Japan’s and Taiwan’s, radical land reform and financing that was geared towards export growth – and that forms the crux of this book. The fact that if a nation in Asia hopes to be able to develop, it must do so by getting land reforms right (agriculture), by being ruthless and helpful to a fault towards industry (manufacturing) and by doing all one can to provide financial succour to those firms that show promising export growth (finance).

Do this right, it would seem, and you’re more or less guaranteed a path to development. Do not do this, and you are probably going to have Tom Yum Soup or Laksa for dinner. Or sambal, maybe.

The rest of the book is a truly intellectual tour de force through examples of what the three successful nations did right, and many more examples of what the other nations did wrong. He is scathing when it comes to what went wrong in terms of land reform in the Philippines, or in terms of industrialization in Malaysia, or in terms of financial reforms in Thailand and Indonesia. And his reviews are backed by many reams of citations, each of which are eye openers in their own right. In fact, you might consider yourself in profit with the citations alone. Whether you agree with the central theme of the book or not, there is much to learn here.

Count me among those who don’t agree with the thesis entirely, however. While there is no disputing the fact that the nations he speaks about have done very well indeed, their paths  leave something to be desired. South Korea’s in particular. Rampant inflation, an over-dependence on chaebols for employment, political repression are heavy prices to pay for rapid industrialization – and if you ask me for my opinion, prices that are not worth the end result.

This does not for a minute mean that we’ve got things right here, of course – far from it. Nor does it mean that Studwell’s diagnosis is incorrect – again, far from it. He has done an excellent job of highlighting what went right, and what went wrong in South East Asia – and the consequences of the same over the last forty years or so for the region.

His prescription: this is the path that all developing nations must eventually choose for themselves, and there is no alternative – that is something your author feels a tad queasy about.

Mr. Studwell’s book deserves to be widely read because he leaves you with the distinct notion that feeling queasy about it is the best you can do.

In Praise of the Vada Pav

Childhood, any child will tell you, isn’t all that it is made out to be. All those romantic notions of playtime, no responsibilities, and hour after hour of nothingness simply aren’t true.

They aren’t true, if you think about it from a child’s point of view, for two reasons. One, a child is nothing but a baby who’s stopped being treated as one. Whereas earlier, anything and everything you did was greeted with benevolent smiles and kind words of encouragement, your slightest transgression nowadays is greeted with a bewildering mixture of gravitas and derision. In essence, your days nowadays are one long procession of “What? I don’t even…”

Second, try explaining to a kid that he has no responsibilities, and he’ll likely murder you. This, remember, is a kid who was able to poop in his pants at will just a couple of years ago. Now, your days are an endless parade of waking up on time, getting dressed on time, climbing into a bus full of similarly tortured individuals, and spending hours in the company of one morose adult teacher who, like you, would rather be elsewhere. And your reward for doing this throughout the year, apparently, is the chance to do it all over again. No responsibilities my posterior, the kid is likely to snort in response to your wistful memories of childhood.

And as with all other children, so it was with me. School consisted of waiting for the short recess, then the long recess, and finally that wonderfully welcome chiming of the bell at 3.30 which signalled your freedom until 8.45 a.m. on the morrow.

And the reason the first of those merciful interludes was well worth waiting for lay in a discovery that I cherish until this day – the vada pav. You could (it turned out) walk up to the canteen during the short recess, fork over whatever amount it was, and get for yourself a vada pav. A vada pav, you discovered for yourself, was a snack that consisted of bread without, and the vada within. And the combination, particularly when had with various chutneys, was heaven itself.

Soft, pliant, fresh bread that encapsulated a piping hot vada, along with a spicy red chutney made even school seem bearable in comparison. That magical feeling didn’t last long, of course, and ennui and tedium soon ruled my world in short order – but while I partook of the vada pav, happiness held sway.

And while my memories of childhood have grown softer and rosier over the years, my deep undying love of the vada pav hasn’t changed an iota. It still remains, as far as I’m concerned, food fit for the gods.

What goes into the perfect vada pav?

The pav itself, for starters. It must be fresh – that slightly hard exterior will not do, and the slightly stale pav often gives itself away with that classically tell-tale sign – the bottom portion is very, very chewy indeed.

The vada is slightly more difficult to judge, but that just makes the task more pleasurable. It must, first of all, be fresh and hot. Refried vadas should be shunned, as should cold, clammy ones. The best vadas are fresh out of the cooking vessel, glistening with promise. Bite into one, and two things should happen. A gentle waft should float out gently from the interior, and your mouth should form a surprised O, at how hot it is.

And then your palate should first note the gentle crunch of the exterior. After which, the soft, spicy potato mixture should announce itself. Note the generous use of garlic, along with the occasionally sharp zest that a chopped up piece of chilly provides. There’s a residual hotness that indicates the presence of ginger in the background, and if your vada pav seller is truly dedicated to his art, you’ll pick up traces of coriander as well.

It’s not a two man band, the vada pav orchestra. There also needs to be a supporting cast of the chutneys, and this is where most vada pavs fall short. The ideal mixture calls for a thick tamarind chutney, a spicy green chilly chutney and a thick red chutney that sings of garlic. Most usually provide only the third of these, but a vada pav truly comes into its own when all three play an equal role.

And perfection is attained when the vada pav is accompanied by that masterful final touch – a fried green chilly, coated with salt. Take the pav, then, you lucky so-and-so, and tear it open. Dab some tamarind chutney on it, and top it with the green one. A hefty spoonful of the red chutney on top, please, and then place the vada within. On our tiny green plastic plate, place a couple of those fried chillies. Walk a little away, until you have carved out for yourself your own private space.

Bite into the vada pav, and with closed eyes, experience for yourself that impossible medley of flavours. And at that moment, even school becomes an idea that isn’t so bad after all.

For The Love of the Game

Over twelve years since that match. The one in which a pretender made bold, and tipped away the crown. The one in which the monarch abdicated. The one in which, over the course of five pulsating sets, the wannabe lay claim to his kingdom. And then ruled it with benevolence for most of those twelve long years.

Twenty four years of devotion. Twenty four years of unabashed fandom. Twenty four years of pounding hearts and bated breaths. For an Indian victory of course, but more so for another magical innings from one of the heaviest blades in the Indian dressing room. Heavier in more ways than one.

Twenty seven years. Of an uncompromising, unabated, relentless drive for excellence. Of a team that was imprinted with one philosophy, and one philosophy alone. Of a club that knew of one ambition, one desire and one way of life, and no other. Of victory. Of winning.

If, like me, you are a Federer, Sachin and Manchester United fan, 2013 is a year that you’d like to take out to the back, and shoot. Repeatedly.

From my viewpoint, the greatest cricketer India has ever produced finally said enough, and walked into the sunset. For my money, the greatest manager ever of any football club, across any era, won one final title and then said enough, and walked into the sunset. And for my money, the best tennis player ever had the worst year he’s ever had in literally ten years of on-going dominance, and looks set to play tennis that will still enthral, but will likely never again lay down the law.

The passing of an era one can take. The passing of three of them, all dear to me, and all in the same calendar year, is more than a sports fan should be asked to bear. And yet here I am, struggling to be enthused at the prospect of India sending in a new number four in Tests. Millions of us Manchester United fans watch on in horrified fascination as our team struggle to recreate the swagger of so many years past. And finally, us Federer acolytes gamely support our favourite tennis player as he continues to play tennis, but with the knowledge that he won’t be the favourite at virtually every tournament that he plays.

Sachin and Ferguson have said their goodbyes, of course, and will now only be spotted in the stands, beaming down genially at the spectacle in front of them. Not for them the chewing of nails and gum respectively. Now, it is relatively benign interest in the goings-on of their sport, and the occasional interview offering opinions that will interest and stir – but little else.

The third axis of my personal triumvirate continues to soldier on, and praised be the lord for making tennis an individual sport. For even if he no longer is the lord and master of every tennis court he surveys, he can continue to play for as long as he desires. Without any recriminations, without any insinuations and without any fear of being a drag on his team.

As he himself says, he plays tennis because of two reasons. One, he still believes himself capable of battling it out with the best of them. And while No. 7 is worlds away from his erstwhile heights of giddiness, it still means that he is the seventh best tennis player on the planet. And that is nothing to ah-choo at. Secondly, and this never fails to make me smile, he says he still enjoys playing tennis.

Not for him the tortured tennis that Agassi had a love-hate relationship with. Not for him the endless treadmill that playing at the highest level had become for Sampras. For Roger Federer, playing tennis with the world’s best is a pleasure, including, even, the onerous demands of fitness that come as part of the package. He positively yearns to step out on to the court, and leave a little of himself out there. He wishes to spend three hours and more, at the age of thirty two, and with two lovely daughters waiting for him at home, out there on the court with men younger and hungrier than he.

Because he, like the other two people in my sporting troika, has a genuine, everlasting love for his sport, and nothing makes him happier than competing at the highest level. And it is his great fortune that he is able to still do it, on his own terms. And my great privilege that I am able to watch him do it, after all these years.

Here’s hoping you enjoy every minute of all the matches you play in 2014, Roger Federer. Your fans most certainly will.

 

 

 

A Review of David and Goliath

Why does one read Malcolm Gladwell books?

That’s a little like asking why one watches a movie like, say, Inception. Of course the primary thesis isn’t one that you can easily agree with, and it is perhaps more than a little unrealistic as well. But that doesn’t stop the movie (or the book!) from being a very entertaining ride.

Actually, if one is to be fair (and one strives to be, all the time), Inception is not really an appropriate comparison. Gladwell’s theses aren’t all that unrealistic, and in fact are quite simple, easy to understand and very persuasive indeed. The arguments and examples he uses, on the other hand, can sometimes leave one scratching one’s head, which is what a lot of people tend to focus upon.

But here’s the point I’m going to try and make: one shouldn’t read Gladwell’s books with a view to argue with his point of view or his conclusions. One should read his books in order to know stuff that you didn’t stand a chance of finding out about otherwise. For example, in the latest book that he has come out with, David and Goliath, he cites references that we wouldn’t otherwise consider touching with a barge pole.

Consider one of the many papers that he cites – this one  has the mesmerizing title ” The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions” , and is written by those best selling sociologists, Rogers Elliott and A. Cristopher Strenta. And a guy called et al, who writes a simply amazing number of papers in virtually all academic fields – but that’s a story for another day. The paper was published in that widely read journal which the entire planet is intimately familiar with, the famously racy “Journal of the Association for Institutional Research”.

Its safe to assume that this wouldn’t form the kind of reading that you and I would go in for on a daily basis. And Gladwell’s books tend to be full of such references. Arcane, abstruse stuff that is published in journals that are read by three people at most. I exaggerate of course, but only to accentuate my argument. Gladwell, having no doubt jotted for himself the principal points of the book, hares across to the local library and hunts down those musty tomes that contain these deep dark secrets. Or he’s really, really, really  good at Google searches. It’s one or the other. But here’s the crucial point: his ability, and this is the reason I don’t mind spending money on his books, lies in fashioning an eminently readable tale from building blocks as boring as these.

He’s done it in Blink, in Outliers and he repeats the feat in David and Goliath. The idea is fairly self-explanatory – he focuses on why the underdog isn’t really the underdog – not if the underdog thinks things through. In order to do this, he grabs us, the hapless reader, by the scruff of our necks, and careens us through leukemia,  London during WWII, the American schooling system and a lot of other stuff that one would otherwise have not thought of in this context.

He also examines the question in another context – why is Goliath at such a disadvantage when David puts his thinking cap on? And once again, to buttress his defense of this aspect, embarks upon the kind of tour across time and space that usually requires the consumption of copious amounts of the good stuff.

So is the book worth reading? I’d say yes, without reservations.

His examples, like I said, don’t always bear scrutiny, and you tend to go through your fair share of ” Yeah, fine, but have you…” moments – but again, you’re missing the point if you go on carping about this. Gladwell seeks to inform in light vein, as he always does.

And where his latest book is concerned, he succeeds, as he always does.

 

 

 

Something’s Not Right Here

I was in Delhi in November.

November is a good time to be in Delhi. The memories of summer past have faded away completely, and the insanity that is Delhi’s winter hasn’t frozen all the water in all the pipes just yet. A weak winter sun pops out apologetically, and mopes around until early evening. There is a near perfect balance of coolness and breeziness, and all in all, Delhi is a wonderful place to be in November. Weatherwise, at any rate.

And while in the capital, I took the missus out for lunch. We had, on that particular day, chosen to go to one of those fancy-schmancy places. The ones where turbaned doorkeepers with tremendously large moustaches open the door while bowing obsequiously , and inside a lobby that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Versailles awaits a very pretty young lady to guide you wherever you wish to go. Gurgling fountains, somebody on the piano, fresh lilies in hideously expensive vases, the whole deal. Its all I can do to run as quickly as possible into the restaurant I wish to pay homage to, put on the nose bag, and ignore the ostentatiousness.

And walking through the museum of wealth is usually worth it in these places, for they also hold within their cavernous depths restaurants that dish out truly wonderful food. And for good food, your author will be bowed at by as many moustaches as it takes, no problem.

So there we were, three hours into our meal, suitably satiated after a gorgeous gorging session. I asked for the check, wiped out Ghana’s budget deficit in one fell swoop, and we were on our way out of Ali Baba’s cave when nature called.

Having done with what nature asked me to do, I stepped towards the washbasin, where I noticed a man, quite literally, hanging around. He gave me a wide smile and with folded hands, said Namaste.

Every single urban Indian knows what this means. It means the person greeting you works in a fancy-schmancy hotel. Everybody else stopped saying namaste by mutual consent in 1936.

I smiled warily at my newest friend, and said hello in return. Newest friend bobbed head up and down in delighted acknowledgement of the fact that I had deigned to respond. He also moved a little to the side, bowed gently, and extended his hand, palm upward, indicating that I should step forth and make use of the wash basin. Since that was Plan A in any case, I obliged.

At which point, newest friend stepped up, and before I could stop him, opened the tap so that I could wash my hands. I stared up at him in dumb astonishment, and n.f. smiled at me once again, and by using hand signals indicated that I should go ahead and wash my hands.

And so I did, at which point he closed the tap, and gave me a soft white towel to wipe my hands dry. And it was roundabout then that it finally sunk in.

His only job – my newest friend’s that is – is to wait in the men’s washroom. Once men finish peeing, he opens the tap so that the may wash their hands, shuts the tap and then hands them out a towel. Once they’re done, he bows once again, says namaste, and shows people out. And then he waits once again, for the next person to step into the washroom.

And I don’t know about you, but I find this to be an unwelcome mixture of absurdity, frustration and anger. If I am capable enough of earning enough money to eat at a place such as this, I am also perfectly capable of turning a tap on, and shutting it off. And I may not be the brightest bulb on the wall, but I remain capable of pulling some tissues out of a box. They tear sometimes, I grant you, but I can generally manage it within a couple of tries. The necessity of keeping an employee stationed there escapes me.

I get all the arguments about how the alternative is unemployment for him and so on and so forth, but surely the line must be drawn at stationing someone in the men’s loo? He could water the lawns, hand out newspapers in the lobby, or just stand near the restaurant and greet everyone who enters and leaves. Anything  other than his current job.

Providing service above and beyond expectation is something a hotel should pride itself upon, sure – but this… this is just wrong.

Bah.

Quit Playing It Already, Sam

Your author, keen student of social behavior that he is, rarely misses out on trends that pervade society today. He has not failed to notice, for example, the outbreak of lists that have taken over Facebook.

“36 apps that Julius Caesar would have wanted on his smartphone” for example, or “14 stains that my T-shirt acquired over the last weekend”. They fill my heart with never ending joy, these lists, and I often wake up in the middle of the night in cold, clammy sweats, fearing the waning of this joyous new thing in my life.

This is but one change in the modern, fast-paced society that we live in, of course. There are many such, tiny but ever so important, all striving to the utmost to imbibe in me a feeling of goodwill towards those kind souls who dream up these marvelous conveniences.

But of all these recent changes, the one that makes me makes me break out in a spell of prolonged giddiness, and positively gurgle with joy is this adorable practice that most restaurants have adopted, of playing music at ear splitting levels.

Gone are those days, these restaurants seem to be saying, when having a meal was also pleasantly complemented by conversation that fed the soul. What is the point of conversation, they seem to say with their techno-beats, when one can instead drown out all thoughts in one’s head by the simple expedient of playing hideously loud music.

These are, mind you, proper sit-down restaurants, not lounges or bars or pubs. These are places where one goes to carefully peruse the menu, choose dishes that herald a good meal, and then spend the wait in the company of close friends and family, chatting of this, that and the other.

Or that, at any rate, used to be the plan. Now, when you are guided to your table by your hostess, it is mostly by the usage of hand signals, for speaking is out of the question. You and your companions sit at your table in miserable quietude, listening to the unplanned offspring of Arabic music and techno wail on about something or the other. A waiter with more gel in his hair than existed on the planet in 1999 will eventually come up and watch you point at various items on the menu. He will nod importantly and return with items that were not even on the same page. Your larynx is worth more than the incorrect orders, and you’re past caring anyways, so you let it go.

You pay for your meal, the amount you fork out making your already sunny mood cheerier still, and leave, serenaded to the end by the incessant wailing that rings on in your ears until you sit in the car. At which point the radio jockeys take over, of course. It is a positive wonder that the suicide rate among restaurant-goers isn’t higher than whatever level it is at currently.

Which leads to ask the obvious questions, of course. Why? Why do all of them play music? Why must it all sound so wail-y? Why wear so much gel in your hair?

Maybe people want to listen to the music, I say to myself, as I chomp on the Perfect Punjabi Platter that I had NOT ordered. But then I cast a look around, and all I see are tables with faces as morosely quiet as the ones on my own. That cannot be it, then, I say to myself.

Perhaps it adds to the ambiance and the ‘feel’ of the place, I hypothesize next, as Hara Bhara Kababs appear in place of the Mutton Rogan Josh that I had planned on having. That cannot possibly be right, though. I admit my sense of aesthetics isn’t the best ever, but surely even I can see that all it does is provide for very virile seeds of migraine.

The only possible explanation, I finally decide as I dig into the Special Kids Jumbo Sundae, is that restaurants want  to make people leave the place as quickly as possible. That must be it, really. Rapid turnover.

And feeling quite pleased with my deductive powers, I finally leave the place, satisfied that at least some good has come from attending the local music concert that is disguised as a restaurant.

Given how much I like eating out, I may even end up liking the music that these restaurants play eventually. Don’t count on it, but it may just happen. And if ever you spot on Facebook a list along the lines of “43 Arabic Songs That Lend Themselves Admirably to Techno Remixes”… well, you can take it as given that the restaurants won.

 

 

 

A Review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I was reading, just the other day, an article written by some gee-whiz person about how he manages his time. He spoke about some apps that he uses on his phone to keep track of his to-do list, about how he powers through the most important ones in the early morning… and you know by now how those articles bang on about the same thing. Yadda, yadda, efficiency, yadda, yadda, oh-look-at-me, yadda, yadda.

I confess, at one point of time, I tried to ape them. I’m sure all of us have. Downloaded those apps, prepared those to-do lists, and sworn to complete the five most important tasks by noon. Except of course, we simply can’t do it, us ordinary folk. No more than we can stick to the diet prescribed to us. Wasting time and breaking diets, I have realized, is what human beings were born to do, and I’m happy to report that I excel at both.

The reason I bring this up is because Self Important Person, in that article, spoke about how he doesn’t have a TV at home. “Simply wastes my time”, he sneered, before moving on to talk about how awesome the beta carotene is in the carrots that he has in his 47 second lunch.

My philosophy in life, on the other hand, is completely at odds with his. TV is good. Lounging without purpose in front of the TV every now and then (and more of the now than the then) is fantastic.  I didn’t buy the TV in order to watch beetles in the Amazon clamber up dead branches on Discovery Channel. I bought it to watch in-depth analyses of football matches that I didn’t see. I bought it to watch Karan Johar faff at filmstars on Sunday evening. I bought the TV, in other words, to be entertained.

And four seemingly meaningless paragraphs into this post, allow to me segue seamlessly on to the topic that you thought I had forgotten all about. My attitude towards books, in contrast to my hedonstic pursuits where TV is concerned, is nowadays all about information first, entertainment later. And it is for this reason that I think Katherine Boo’s book, “Behind The Beautiful Forevers” is excellent.

It is good writing, and the tale is (as far as I am concerned) fairly gripping in and of itself, but it is worth a read for more than simply an answer to the question “And then what happened?”.

Notionally, the book is about Abdul, a garbage buyer. A garbage buyer, in the world that Katherine Boo describes so ably, is a superior being, for a buyer is a notch above a plain old scavenger. His job is to ferret out, from the literal garbage pickings that scavengers bring him, stuff that is worth buying. He has a nose for this job, in a very real sense. Using skills that he has honed over a considerable amount of time, he is able to distinguish good, marketable garbage from your everyday, not-worth-your-time garbage. His entire family, it turns out, is engaged in one way or the other in the garbage trade. The book revolves around Abdul and his family, and the events that engulf them with bewildering speed and cruelty.

But it would be a mistake to read this book from the point of simply expecting to follow the skein of the tale. For the pace of the story, and if you are an especially unforgiving reader, the point of the story both dissipate roughly halfway through the book. There is no climax to the story, nor is there a sense that the story is hurtling towards a dramatic unfolding.

This book, then, should be read as it was intended to be read. More as a description of life in a slum, rather than a narration of what happens to Abdul and his family. And read as such, it is an outstanding piece of reporting.

There are many characters in the book, but the characters should be thought of not so much as dramatis personae as they should people who form a society that I, at any rate, was deeply unfamiliar with. And remain mostly unfamiliar with, even after reading the book, I should add. Asha, the social worker who would be a politician, for example – who she is, what her own, unique mannerisms are isn’t really as important a question as why it is inevitable that someone like her must crop up in a slum like Annawadi. This is a question that this book highlights, but doesn’t claim to answer.

Besides, the book covers topics that texts on development economics do, but in a far more in-your-face-manner than those tomes would even consider, and the learning is therefore more magnified. Young girls who “drown in pails” for example, do a far better job of highlighting issues relating to the girl child than do dry paragraphs on the same subject. That almost the entire slum is classified as not being poor exemplifies the problems associated with defining the poor in our country, especially when you consider that the slum can count as its geographical neighbours some of the toniest hotels in the city. That there are poorer people in the country is not under dispute, but is, and should, poverty be analyzed in the absolute, or in relation to what happens in close proximity?

Boo provides no answers in either her narration or her description, nor does she pretend to be able to. Her job, in this book, was to showcase accurately life in the slums, warts and hopes and all, and in this she succeeds handily. It is left to the reader to decide upon what should be done, or indeed, felt.

Don’t read this book is order to learn more about the theory of urban slum development, and do not read it in order to be entertained by Abdul’s story. Read it on order to be informed on how Mumbai can contain within itself the entire spectrum of income and lifestyles, and marvel at that mad city.

But please do read it – highly recommended.

The Magic of Test Cricket

If time hung heavy on your hands, and if idly browsing through the archives of this blog seemed an attractive way of whiling away a desultory afternoon, you would soon discern for yourself a fact that your author couldn’t hide if he tried.

I love cricket.

That in itself is hardly surprising. I was born and brought up in India, and irascible families will commit to the neighborhood asylum those youngsters who show an inkling for sports other than cricket. But where your author differs from the majority of other cricket fanatics who populate this country is in his unabashed love for the longest form of the game, Test cricket.

Test cricket is sport at its best. Ignore, dear reader, those uncouth writes from other shores who would tell you of the ennui that cricket can guarantee, and close your ears to the beguiling sounds that the sirens of other sports create. And revel in the luxuriant, lush celebration of a contest that only Test cricket can provide.

What about Test cricket, you ask, is so fascinating? Plenty of other writers, far more talented than I, have already provided definitive, exhausting answers to what seems to be a rather simple question. My take on the issue is rather simple.

You are on an outpost of the web that would prefer to remain delusional about the popularity of T20 cricket, so that element of the game is not even up for discussion. Suffice it to say that my arguments against one day cricket are more effective against T20 by an order of many magnitudes.

One day cricket, a more refined form of T20, is not really a contest between bat and ball. On the face of it, it seems to be. There’s a bowler who runs in, and bowls. And there is a batsman, who bats. In that simplistic sense alone, cricket remains the same across all forms. But in one day cricket, and here is where the problem resides, one wins by scoring more runs than the opposition.

The idea, then, is to simply score more. Akin to the arcade mode of a video game, one day cricket logically becomes a platform for batsmen. The bowlers on either side are simply cannon fodder, for the victor is decided not on the basis of who took more wickets, but rather on the basis of who scored more runs.  Bowling simply becomes a necessary, and sometimes downright troublesome accessory to an evenings entertainment. And like the arcade mode, the more you play, the more ridiculous your scores become. Very soon then, the game becomes more (and more openly) about entertainment than it does about contest. It is no coincidence that cricket nowadays is more about razzmatazz than it is about sport.

A game of Test cricket, on the other hand, can only be won when you score more than the opposition, and take all twenty wickets. Test cricket, then, is more unforgiving. Victory is not achieved by simply being better than the opposition in one department alone (batting), and nor is it achieved by being better than the other team in the other department (bowling). It is achieved by vanquishing the opposition.

That sense of complete victory, of having defeated in entirety, and not just along a parameter, comes only with Test cricket. It doesn’t come always, for if you do not take twenty wickets, you may end up with a dull, dreary draw – but when it does come, you leave the opposition no wriggle room. You played on the same pitch as your opponents over the course of five days. You scored more than they did, and you took all of their wickets. Twice. Rarely does the phrase “well played” carry more significance.

There are many more reasons to love the grand old form of the game, but they’re all secondary. In no other sport, let alone other forms of cricket, do you have to earn your victory twice over.

Play on, gentlemen.