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Condensed Greed

8 Mar

A random rummage in the refrigerator can be very rewarding.

Stumbling upon an unfinished can of Nestlé Milkmaid, for instance, means you can beat your children to it and be reminded of your childhood at the same time. And that’s what happened, the other day…

My brother and I grew up in Calcutta, often on Milkmaid, the can that was always there always there in case the milk supply failed or the milk itself turned sour (not an uncommon thing in those days). For our mother, it was the quick-fix substitute to making tea. Expensive, but efficient, provided you could get through the sealed can.

I have vivid memories of holding the can with my frail fingers while either parent would pull out a rusty can-opener and try to pierce the first tiny hole so that the hook of the opener could get a grip and start cutting the lid open. Sometimes, a hammer or the mortar (of the pestle jodi) would be called in as reinforcement and the tiresome process of opening the equally rusty can would begin. The opener would slip, a finger would be cut, Dettol would be applied quickly and we would resume the operation: what lay within was way too delicious to be abandoned because the worst part of the product was its packaging.

Nestlé MilkmaidOnce opened, the brother and I would stand aside and salivate. A teaspoon would go into the tea being boiled after which it was our turn to dig into the sticky, sweet condensed manna-like milk. Those were days when we didn’t have a refrigerator and the can was too expensive to be finished in one go; so, it would be stored away in the hope that red ants wouldn’t discover it and that it wouldn’t spoil. On many occasions, both have happened but usually a plate with water on which the can would be perched, sufficed.

Puritans will swear that the best way to enjoy Milkmaid is to let a tablespoon glide down your gullet with nothing else accompanying it. However, I had some other concoctions that made it even more irresistible:

  • A slice of fresh bread with Milkmaid smeared on every millimetre. Or, on Thin Arrowroot biscuits.
  • And then with Bournvita sprinkled on it to give it a chocolaty-crunchy topping.
  • Pieces of Cadbury Dairy Milk (the only chocolate available then) dipped into the can and slurped while a trickle of condensed milk threatened to slip away down your shirt.
  • Grapes or almonds dipped into it.

And once these were done, licking the can empty with the fingers being applied to good use made for the most satisfying spells on an otherwise boring day watching the pelting rain from our verandah.

All of this is still very doable. And thanks to Nestlé making the can easier to open with a tab, accessing the condensed milk is so much easier. Storing it still requires an improvised cover but if you’re as greedy as the kids and I can be, you won’t have much left to store.

Now, to try it with a dash of coffee and bitter chocolate…slurrp!


Spread the Warmth

3 Jan

January 2nd, 2013, was the coldest day in Delhi in 44 years. Maximum temperatures have dropped to sub 10°C and the minimum is below 4°C. Image

And while many of us complain about getting ready and coming to work in the mornings, there are thousands who are homeless and surviving the bitter cold in makeshift shelters including public toilets. Already, some news channels and NGOs have launched a drive to collect blankets for these Delhiites who have neither a roof nor a heater.

But, if you really want to help someone, and don’t have the time to donate blankets, here’s something we practise at home and you can do today:

  1. Go home and empty the wardrobe of clothes that are lying unused.
  2. Pull out everything you can spare: shirts, t-shirts, trousers, socks, shoes, saris, petticoats, salwar-kameezes, shorts, jeans, skirts and, of course, woolens of any kind (including caps, gloves and mufflers). Do this with every cupboard and every family member’s clothes. (Chances are you have plenty and can spare some without really missing them. Chances also are that you will discard them anyway to replace them with new, more fashionable stuff at the next sale. So, why not give them away today?)
  3. Once you’ve pulled everything out, sort them into bundles with at least one top (a shirt for example) and a bottom (trousers) in each. Then add the smaller items – caps/socks/mufflers etc. – to these bundles. Your goal is to create a bundle for an individual so sort out the clothes separately for adult males and females and for children.
  4. Now, scout around for pillow covers, towels, bedsheets, shawls…the larger items. If you find some, add these too. Also footwear, if that’s available.
  5. Chances are, you will have at least half a dozen such piles by now. Or more. Take these and stuff them into individual bags (not plastic but the disposable cloth ones) or simply knot the clothes around each other and keep the bundles segregated.
  6. Then, carry them in your car when you leave home. Keep them handy next to you, not in the boot.
  7. Look out for people on the road, at construction sites, bus stops etc. Pull over and call them over: grab a bundle and hand it over to the person. He/she may be surprised at first, but will smile and be grateful to you.
  8. Drive off and look for the next recipient of your generosity.

Go ahead, spread the warmth: it’s easier than you think.






A Collision of Contradictions

1 Jan

There is a strange collision of contradictions happening around us.

For, perhaps the first time since 1947, urban India is resurrecting hope from the ashes of fear. The candle is in transition from being synonymous with power cuts to romantic dinners to silent, tearful protests. Young India is coming of age, they say. From vacuousness to vigilance.

We’re seeing the death of an unnamed young woman give life to a second freedom movement that has engulfed even the most sceptic Indian. Suddenly, ‘rape’ is not just a shameful, four-letter word that tears apart lives; it is the very vocal rallying cry for all of society.

In this paradoxical point in time, parents who had hoped a child named Ram Singh would live up to the name of the god he had been given, cannot fathom how he chose, instead, to do just the opposite. He became a Ravana. There are two significant moments in the naming of a newborn: first, when his name is thought of and, then, when he is actually named – all in the illusionary hope that he will be what is called.

And there are two defining moments when a life is lost: first, when Death punctuates existence with the finality of a full-stop; and then when the physical remains are consigned to flames. Another set of parents, who had named and reared so lovingly their child, watch in disbelief how she goes out of this world and makes it to every conceivable form of media that exists: she is both famous and unknown. Unprecedented but true.

There are policemen, often corrupted and corpulent, but now driven to action and accountability. Once feared and interrogative, they are now faced with questions that will change their future – for they are seeing power slip out of their hands. When you take away their batons, tear gas, barricades and water cannons, you will see dread on their bewildered faces: the uniform is just a mask and the façade is now exposed. Strange, it is, that a political party once at the forefront of the non-violence freedom movement had its back to the Lutyens’ walls of Delhi, armed against its own electorate. Such is the dilemma of democracy. And such is the demonstrably galvanising power of truly social media.

And, finally, the men who plundered her await their own – almost certain – death. Men who, like beasts, ripped apart a loving couple with the brutality of drunken lust. And whose fall into instant insanity will now lead to prolonged legal logic as an inevitable drama plays itself out.

So many contradictions created in just a couple of weeks. So many years of frustration manifested into fury.

But, amidst all the questions that remain unanswered, of this one is certain: the second sex will now be the first.

Be not proud, Death. For, you gave birth to Nirbhaya. 





1 Nov

I grew up on 007. On Sean Connery first and then Roger Moore. And the result of every film was a child’s belief that he could grow up to be a superspy.

But annual bouts of malaria, typhoid and jaundice can put to rest the best-imagined plans of spies in the making. Add to that a quack who overdosed me on quinine and caused my heart to stop beating when I was 10. Death was temporary but true.

And, having been born again, I know what resurrection can be like. Ditto for James in the magnum opus released today.

So, when Sam Mendes decides to conjure up something Ian Fleming would never have dared, he’s playing a high stake game. One that drove me to catch the first day’s first show at DT Mega Mall here in Gurgaon (not a patch on Shanghai though where some of the film is set). With not even an hundred people in the hall, the film started to scattered applause and plenty of anti-smoking warnings. If we were on the edge of our seats, however, it was because of the damp seats in the hall (evidence of a clean-up act the morning after last night’s show, I suppose).

Adele notwithstanding, Skyfall is a let-down. That’s the blunt truth. It isn’t crisp. There’s no real femme fatale. The villain is a wimp. Q is a geek who claims gadgets are passé and M is sentimental. Mr Craig is ageing and not seductive enough; doesn’t once ask for his trademark “shaken, not stirred Martini” though he does get it at a casino.

But there is the original Aston Martin. There is Scotland. Memories of Bond’s parents. And there is Tennyson in full flow. Saving graces for a traditional Bond loyalist.

Should you see it? Of course.

Except that you’ll now pay the premium weekend rate instead of the morning price of Rs 150. Go ahead…you only live once anyway!

Of Times Past

1 May

Every morning, I have a date at eight.

(And, no, this isn’t one of those rhyming couplet thingies.)

I wait at a traffic light near my house in Gurgaon like a roadside Romeo, with a Mac on my back and lunch in the bag, shooing away auto drivers, stray dogs and flies. I wait for Pooja to turn up in her Accent and pick me up en route work…eight is early for me but better than nine, which is when another colleague, Rohit, sets off.

This has been my routine for the last two months ever since my mouse-like driver – paradoxically named Ganesh – disappeared to get his sister married off in Nepal and hasn’t turned up since. After the marriage of his sibling, his father died, tragically. And then his mobile phone died, happily. And with it, died any hope I had of recovering the eight thousand rupees he owes me. So, I became dependent once again on kith, kin and colleagues to drive me around. Why I don’t drive is matter for another mindless post but, for now, let’s come back to where I started…

Pooja is punctual. She’s also a lady. And, for reasons that cannot be shared socially, she’s usually hyper (unlike Rohit who is the most relaxed human being I have seen). All of which means that I cannot keep her waiting. So I have to reach the pick-up point at least two minutes before she does. It takes me four minutes to walk from the gate of the building to the signal. But the wait for the elevator in the building can take 30 seconds or three minutes – and, if there’s a power cut halfway down the four floors, add another two minutes. So I need to set out by 7:52 to make it in time. What’s life without a little precision, I say?

And no matter how fast one shaves and showers, breakfast must be gobbled, vitamin swallowed, watch, wallet and pen grabbed, wife waved goodbye…all of which will take precious minutes. Something in this routine will be forgotten occasionally.

That’s how I forgot the watch yesterday. For, perhaps only the second time in 34 years since I was gifted an Anglo-Swiss by my father. I’ve been a keeper of Time ever since though, sometimes, I think Time kept me. I’ve slept with a watch around my frail wrist; even perched it on a narrow ledge next to me so that I could see the time whenever I awoke at night (not that I kept any record of the wakeful moments all those years). Somehow, one felt naked minus a watch.

And so, over time, the watch became more than a teller of time, it was something to be worn – not as an accessory which is what it is for most people but as a teller of tales. Every watch I own (and there are seven) has a story behind it. Be it the Titan Moonphase that Shovon and I won during an Ad Club Quiz in Calcutta despite Derek trying very hard to ensure we wouldn’t win it for the second consecutive year. Those days, Derek was at his prime, non-political quizzing days whereas today he’s the one being quizzed by news channels. Or the HMT (yes, good old HMT) that was created during Contract’s 10th anniversary in 1996…it still tocks, sorry ticks! Or the commemorative Tintin Swatch I gifted myself in Paris on a lonely birthday in 2008 2006…its strap may be frayed but the character remains.

I don’t look at a watch to see the present; I see the past.

Most people, however, wear a watch as a pure fashion accessory and glance at the mobile phone to see the time: did Nokia kill HMT? And that’s a pity because no matter how smart your phone may be, it’s unlikely to have any deep, meaningful associations of people, places and events from another life.  It’s cold, plasticky and detached; quite unlike the blend of soft, worn, warm leather and cold metal around the wrist. Somehow, a changing digit on a phone doesn’t quite mark the passage of time like the revolving hands on a watch.

But then, I’m probably in a dying breed of watch-watchers caught in a time warp while a very mobile world flits back and forth into a fickle future.

Time to go, I think.


23 Feb

There are times when you need someone to do nothing with.

Someone to just be there. Not to speak with or listen to. Not to touch or be caressed by. No whiff, no whisper, no kiss, no comforting… Just nothing.

Nothing more, nothing less.

But it isn’t easy to do nothing. Programmed as we are to continuously engage in social activity, we look for films to watch, books to read, links to share, friends to hang out with, calories to burn, beer to guzzle, tweets to type and statuses to update…try nothing for a change.

Nothing is a noun, not a verb – so inaction is inbuilt. ‘Do nothing’ is a paradox.

That’s it for now. Nothing else.

The Future of History

2 Feb

The Great Sphinx and Giza's Pyramids
There was a time when Egypt conjured up three stereotypical images: the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx and Mummies. But that was before the country jumped out of textbooks and was thrust on to news (and new) media that have succeeded in pushing back those enduring images and replacing them with those of angry young men confronting a strangely silent army on the streets of Cairo. Strong, soundless monuments have given way to volatile, vocal and violent mobs. And to vulture-like vicarious newsmen who wait for that defining moment of either a fall or a photo-opp that will turn a lensman into a legend. Suddenly, there is no sign of ancient Egypt: almost as though history has been shrouded by present-day flags and banners of protestors.

Clearly, a country known for its history stands at the threshold of a new, albeit uncertain, future. The problem with “a million mutinies” (as Sanjay quipped on Facebook) is that it has no single, unifying leader. So, while there is unanimity in demanding President Mubarak’s resignation and exile, there appears to be no one who is popular – or capable enough – to take charge of a country of 80 million people. It may be good to rebel and have a goal in mind but once that is achieved, what next? After the fall, a country needs someone to rise and take charge before anarchy takes over. The longest-serving president of Egypt brought, if nothing else, stability.

The dissent against him, however, is not new. It’s just that the manner and speed at which it has exploded that defies all logic at one level. In October last year, on a vacation, Egypt came across as a placid but simmering nation. People were, by and large, unhurried and our local tour operator, Mahmood, attributed it to the heat. Though with the kind of crowds one saw in Cairo and with petrol being cheaper than bottled water, there is no way that a car can hurry on its streets any way. Sheesha-smokers at El Fishawy in Cairo's Khan-el-Khalili MarketBesides, the ubiquitous sheesha with its intoxicating agents, added to the languidness of the locals. I have tried calling Mahmood to check if he, his young wife and two children are well but his phone goes unanswered: I can only hope that he is busy (though there are no tourists around) and not part of the madness that seems to have swept Cairo. It was Mahmood who first let on that Mubarak had allowed things to slip (by that, he alluded to inflation) and that the forthcoming elections were sure to be a sham. He even joked about the President being a modern-day Pharoah, though far less benevolent. The Pharoahs were actually extremely forward thinking and had created a Nilometer that measured the level of water in the river that is Egypt’s lifeline (even today) before determining the rate of taxation on their people. Very high or very low levels of water indicated floods or famines and led to lower taxes that year – incredibly simple, incredibly people-friendly and way ahead of its time like so much else the ancient Egyptians did. Nilometer at Kom Ombo

And so, Egypt was all about long, lazy, liquidy cruises on the Nile; treks around and into the Pyramids, crawling into empty tombs in the Valley of Kings, coffee at Khan-el-Khalili and the Mediterranean allure of Alexandria. In the course of covering geographical milestones, history was being experienced just as it should be on any voyage. A long time ago, in another avatar, working on a documentary film script for the Indian tea industry (with the ever-suave Kabir Bedi as the protagonist) I had written “Khazana toh khoj mein hai” i.e. in the journey lies the treasure. Egypt was just that.

Except for one niggling feeling that persisted: as a tourist, you never experienced the same sense of awe and pride from the locals in their historical treasures as we would perhaps do with our Taj Mahal and Red Fort and Gateway of India (Pinku-loves-Tinku graffiti, spitting and public urination being ignored for the moment). The locals who depended on tourism for a living were out to take you for a ride (there is no standard pricing for anything that one buys – including water or juice or colas) and were there to literally cash in on tourists. (Yes, yes, I can hear friends like RP Kumar and Vikas Mehta who have lived in Cairo exclaim “Just as we do in India!”) Even the museum in Tahrir Square, now the epicentre of dissent, was unkempt and disorderly and, having seen Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin Nefertiti: now a Berlinerand many Mummies in the museums of Paris and London, one didn’t want to pay extra for the Mummy Room here. Every ancient temple you visit will have a horde of shops and street-hawkers at the exit so that you are assaulted with cheap, unlikely-to-last souvenirs that kill the grandeur of long-standing edifices.

Why is it that the temptation of the transient takes precedence over more permanent things? Why is there such a hullaballoo about the banning of the Internet in Cairo when we should be worrying about where Egyptians are getting their food? Why gloat about the role of Twitter when schools and offices are shut and the entire country has ground to a halt? Have real priorities given way to the virtual? Is the medium taking over the message itself?

Perhaps this is the way it is meant to be. Perhaps Egypt has stood still for far too long and is now trying to rush ahead to meet an uncertain future. The dust – and there is plenty of it blowing in from the Sahara – will take time to settle and its chronicles will probably be written, and rewritten, several times in the next few weeks. But as long as its people realise that their tomorrow lies not in looking back and merely cheering about today’s face-off with an army that refuses to fight back (strange yet sane)…

History, as the cliché goes, will never be the same. Nor will Egypt.

Perhaps a leader will emerge from the marching millions and the Pyramids and Sphinx will come back on to your television screens soon.

Perhaps history will find its future again.