Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Lost Spontaneity in Getting Clicked!

"If you look like your passport photo, you probably need the trip!" This quote revived memories of posing before a camera, going through a gamut of ‘un-photogenic’ expressions! The seedy photographer in a cramped room adjusted the angles of my chin(s), patted a stray lock of hair down and barked, "Blue or white?" My confused look went down for posterity's sake. Till today I know not whether my passport photograph boasts of a blue background or white! I would rather not glance at the abomination! My driving license picture was no better. "Sit down!" As I made a move, the flash caught me in suspended animation, like a deer in headlights, or more factually, a startled fish trying to breathe! The most constipated photos were taken before tacky backdrops - a garish forest scene or an unreal Taj Mahal. The funniest were during marriage feasts, when photographers captured the exact moment when a person had his mouth wide open to gobble down that enormous, well-rolled mound of rice, or the next, when he had deposited the said mound inside, and couldn't keep his mouth closed over it! Wedding photographs were fascinating specimens with the couple enshrined in pink hearts, with warbling birds and clouds, even shots of them flying to their honeymoon in a fake plane. The black-and-white era was punctuated by grim-faced, ‘stiff as a bedpost' poses, especially in photographs of a patriarchal husband sitting on a throne, submissive wife standing alongside, indicating who wore the pants in the family! Along with the other odd dresses everyone else wore, as well! Family portraits saw a dozen senior members, parked on chairs, while the remaining sixty four stood, in various frozen poses with bizarre expressions. Most of these photographs are still crystal clear on Facebook, posted by one or the other of the babies in the picture, marked, "Guess who!" Amazing comments and anecdotes get dredged up as the elders wax eloquent on precious memories, enlivening life for the youngsters, who grin at the antics of ‘so-called’ staid uncles and aunts, often goldmines of information, like venerable elephants raised on Memorex. Have the fun and the spontaneity of clicking photographs disappeared with the invention of the digital camera. Earlier you got one picture which you had to lump - good, bad or ugly. Today, people cluck over myriad photos, delete if not good and photo-shop, if not good enough! Instagram has shrunk the world! One enhanced photograph can attract a million followers. Tag, and a bandwagon appears behind you! Every camera phone owner turns photographer, oblivious of the brilliant equipment and applications that do the trick so beautifully! However, the joy in clicking photographs is in making time stand still, especially when it involves beloved faces that have disappeared over the years. Today when I see an old photograph of my father in his younger days, and read comments posted by his loved ones, it opens a whole new chapter on a well-loved past, unravelling hidden threads to reveal the person he was much before he became my father... and that is akin to reading an Agatha Christie mystery! Thus, exciting is the giant photo album that is Facebook! No longer do old pictures moulder or get devoured by silver fish! They come alive when rejuvenated, awakening old memories and new! One picture is worth a thousand words, after all!

10th July, 2012 -The New Indian Express


I have no idea why I always loved the Indian Army! Was it because of the life I lived as an Army brat, or the tales my mother regaled me with after she settled down in Kerala? My fascination continued even after I became a 'Lady Wife', which convinced me that there could be no better life than that within the giant arms of this hallowed institution, a life that taught me much, not the least being the knack to get along with all the different species that make up the human race! Mom's tales remained with me over the years, and what better opportunity to put them down on paper than this - a reunion of the very people who welcomed her with open arms as a bashful [???] Army bride? Mom [Nalini] was the first young lady to come into the tight knit 17 Engineer group, Dad [Chandran] being the first to have succumbed to the malady of matrimony. And they had ended up with no official accommodation as he was underage. Mom giggles when she says, “If it hadn’t been for the Anantharamans, we’d have had to make a home on the pavements!” Since Mrs Anantharaman was awaiting the stork, their apartment in the Honeymoon Blocks was Mom’s first nomadic home as a young bride. 21 young officers looked forward to welcoming in their 'bhabhi' by hosting a grand reception in her honour. However, high spirits and young officers being synonymous, when Mom and Dad landed up in their Sunday best for their reception at the Club, there was no sign of their hosts. An hour crept by, and then a couple more! And then suddenly a chastened group tiptoed in, looking dog-tired, barely able to keep their eyes open. Apparently they had not been able to resist placing crackers under the Commandant's chair, and the said crackers had gone off in grand style, setting off an explosion, not only under the chair, but in the senior officer's mind as well. Not surprisingly, the pranksters were taken to task by the proverbial route march! Hours later, almost collapsing in sheer exhaustion, they indulged in small talk with the brand new ‘bhabhiji’, who obviously didn’t have a clue as to why they were looking so bedraggled and worn-out. Thus, the reception was rather a damp squib, [pun intended!], but it did raise laughs ever after! 'The Man Who Came to Dinner' was one of the highlights of the tenure, and the acclaimed play needed myriad gruelling rehearsals to get its comic timing just right. Mrs. Rohini Kumar, the first lady, would herself come and supervise the rehearsals with an eagle eye. Mom had a major role as Maggie Cutler, the eccentric Sheldon's secretary, and at the end of the day, she would be transformed into a nervy young wife who had to go back home and cook and clean, unlike the senior wives who had help at home. As days went by, the sessions became longer and more tedious, and one day, bone tired, Mom broke down on stage, and walked off in a huff, despite remonstrations from the other actors, grunting, “Find another Maggie Cutler.” Back home, she burst into tears as her concerned young husband tried to stem the outburst by telling her not to worry, and to take things in her stride. Poor Dad! Being a mere 2/Lt, there was nothing much he could have done. A brave stand, considering this was the Army where seniors had the last word, after all. The bright spot was that the Deputy Commandant, Col. Jaganathan, took on the role of God-father. He came over to the Honeymoon Quarters, told Mom to pretty herself up and took her out for dinner, where he heard her out patiently. Thereafter, rehearsals were less gruelling, and the play, and Maggie Cutler herself, were a resounding success! The Commandant’s wife and the young officer’s wife thus laid the foundation for a long-lasting friendship. It was same concerned First Lady who pampered Mom when she was expecting her first born, me that is. She recollects how she lay around during her traumatic days of early pregnancy, sick to the gills and nauseous, feeling akin to Chicken Little when the sky threatened to descend on his head! After days of feeling sorry for herself, she was surprised one morning by the arrival of Mrs. Kumar, who took one look at the sorry figure she cut and barked, "No lying around, little girl. Upsy daisy!" Like a veritable mother figure, she got the young lady walking around the whole of CME, having shaken her out of her self pity and languor. The world suddenly seemed a brighter place. And that is when Mom, who had been more of a vegetarian, discovered Chinese food, and gorged on it right through the nine month period! Not surprisingly, I inherited that preference in no small measure! Certain other memories linger on in Mom's mind while staying at the barracks (officially allotted to Dad when he turned 25!) in Dunkirk Lines next to Yerwada Jail, where history had been made by the imprisonment of Gandhiji during the Freedom Struggle Days! Today she laughs with nostalgic mirth, remembering the (ugh!) carry toilets to dispose of waste, meeting lovable eccentrics like Col. Menon, who had the endearing habit of making friends with ladies only if he liked the appearance of their feet, and Mrs. Menon, who made lovely fluffy idlis for Mom when she was expecting! She chuckles when she shares anecdotes about Dad’s lively bunch of batch mates. Bill Kumar, Aju and N.R. Venugopal (16 Engrs) hold a special niche in her heart since they played ‘in-betweens’ during the courtship period of Dad and Mum. Even now there is awe and admiration in her voice (and a hint of tears in her eyes) when she talks about Chou and his daredevil antics, whose prowess on his flamboyant motorbike was proved when he drove blindfold from Dapodi to M.G.Road! Her memory of Rudy Menezes and his repertoire of tongue-in-the-cheek stories could be brought out as a whole book. The young officers once took part in a fancy dress competition where Mom was expected to help them look their parts. One young man, Vijay Kharkar, decided to dress as a nurse, and being boyish looking, decided to put stuffing under his white uniform! Hilarity ensued when the stuffing shifted position during the course of the young lady’s catwalk! These and many such memories made life worth living, and turned into tales to regale folks on rainy evenings and family gatherings! To conclude, Dad (or Sam as he was popularly called) would have loved to be part of this reunion of the 17 Engrs. Who knows, the ‘Dear Departed Four’ may be beaming down from the Heavens above, saying, “Hi, guys, we are there with you in SPIRIT!” (Pun intended) Deepti Menon (Daughter of Sam Chandran)

Heaven in a Wild Flower!

As the jeep travelled up the mountains from Tezpur to Tenga, in Arunachal Pradesh, the river sparkled alongside as the sun rays glanced off, creating little silver droplets that flashed like dragon flies in the breeze. On one side, the mountain wall rose, grey and forbidding, while the valley dropped away in all its glory, on the opposite side. Tiny wild flowers grew in nooks and crannies, creating a colourful tapestry in hues of sunny yellows, blood-hued crimsons and blushing violets, reminiscent of poet William Blake’s evocative images. By evening the mist moved in, casting a pall, imperceptibly growing in intensity, till the road seemed to disappear! The clouds had descended to almost ground level, and the driver could hardly see where he was going. My husband got down, and walked alongside in the dark, guiding the jeep by following the luminescent road markers that had been put in by some canny soul in the past! After a night's stay in Tenga, we drove on, crossing the Sela Pass at a height of 13,921 feet, the highest point of the trip. The drive was spectacular; the view took our already depleted breath away, even as waterfalls gurgled down the rock front at regular intervals, till we reached Tawang, which bordered China. Our eyes were caught by whole areas covered with chopped down tree stumps. History had it that, during the 1962 Indo- China war, all these were cut down by the Chinese who had wandered all the way into India, felling trees in their wake! So what we were looking at was a graveyard of trees, as it were! The Madhuri Lake, so called after the movie Koyla was shot there, starring Madhuri Dixit and Shahrukh Khan, was an expanse of light grey, striking against the deeper grey of the sky, and its waters shone like a mirror, with little herds of yak that grazed by its banks. The scene was ethereal, almost like a mystical painting in hues of grey, ivory and silver. Gazers on had forgotten the actual name of this picturesque lake, which was Shungetser Tso, preferring to use its more glamorous counterpart. The pine groves that encircled the lake gave it a quaintly picture postcard appearance, casting their balmy fragrance around as well. What amazed us was the sight of a row of tree trunks sticking out piquantly in the middle of the lake, casting an unbroken row of reflections that enhanced the mysticism of the lake. Apparently, this lake had been created after a flash flood in 1950, when the waters changed their path and gushed their way around the trees in the adjoining areas. The impression we took away in ‘our inward eye’ was one of a serene untouched land, dotted with colourful prayer flags that pointed us towards the world famous Tawang Monastery, the tuneful sounds of the gongs, and smiling Buddhist monks in maroon robes, which made us feel that ‘all’s right with the world’! 4th prize winner in the Tiny Tales Contest


Ruskin Bond came into Chennai with a bang, enthralling one and all with his trademark sense of humour and his cherubic smile. He was here in connection with the Landmark Ruskin Bond Tour, to launch his latest book. In 1992 he won the Sahitya Akademi Award for ‘Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra’, followed by the Padma Shri for his contribution to Children’s Literature in 1999. An interview with him seemed to be a dream come true, and he did not disappoint!

My Father and I: “My father was the one who gave me that little nudge towards writing. I wrote in little notebooks, as he regaled me with stories to stimulate my imagination. I recall reading Kipling’s ‘Phantom Rickshaw’ and my father taking me along the market in an actual rickshaw. He ran a little Girls’ school for the Royal family in Jamnagar. At the age of four, I sat with the princesses and learnt to read and write. When I joined school, I found myself far ahead of my peers who were still learning their alphabets.

Inspiration: Inspiration came from books, a great escape after I lost my father. I immersed myself in reading Dickens and the Bronte sisters. I was twelve when I came across Wuthering Heights, and I sat up all night reading it. Strangely enough, last month, I picked it up again, and once again, I found myself sitting up all night in a leaky room. It had lost none of its intensity, and I enjoyed it even more this time. When I was a boy, writing was considered unfashionable. I was asked often, “Why do you want to waste your time? Join the Army instead!” Thank God I didn’t, for otherwise, the Army would have been in bad shape!” [With a twinkle in his eye!]
“In my youth, I wrote for an adult readership. Ironically, it was only when I was middle-aged that I began to write for children. Over the years, the two divisions have merged. It is easier to write for adults, as they tend to put up with me as I waffle along. With children, you need to capture their attention and pull them into the story, through that one character they can identify with.

Nature’s Favourite Child: I escaped Delhi in the 1960s and lived in a cottage near a forest in the mountains. I encountered panthers, leopards, birds and even a stray bat in my room. When young, I took these wild creatures for granted, unaware that a day would come when they would slowly disappear. I have often been called the ‘Resident Wordsworth’, but I prefer the poems of Walter de la Mare, Mansfield, John Clare, Robert Frost, as also R L Stevenson’s ‘Child’s Garden of Verses’.

 My Victorian Grandmother: I had a strange relationship with my grandmother, a strong and good person, who lived in Dehra Dun. I still eat whatever is put in front of me, which was one of her rules. “No seconds, if you don’t behave!” She believed that children should be seen and not heard. One day, just to provoke her, I tore her curtains. As a punishment, she actually made me sew them up in big clumsy stitches. Being a rebel, I promptly cut down all her sweet peas. She never forgave me for that and cut me out of her will!” [Smiling]

 The India I Love: “While in England, I was homesick for India – my friends, familiar faces and the places I had grown up in. In India, one is never alone as there are always people around. One might die of a hundred things here, but never of boredom! In contrast, life in the West is monotonous. I love the little seaside resorts, the out-of-the-way, neglected places that dot India.
Two years ago, I discovered Gopalpur on sea. I can lose myself in hill stations like Dalhousie, Mussooorie and Ranikhet. I grew up in Army cantonments like Ambala and Meerut, rare spots which still preserve green and open spaces. Many of my stories can be traced back to these picturesque spots.

 From the pen to celluloid: ‘A Flight of Pigeons’ was made into Junoon by Shyam Benegal, a film that did justice to the book, and brought out its lyrical qualities. ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’ was a short story which I had to expand on. In some ways, the story got a little lost in translation, and the black comedy ‘Saat Khoon Maaf’ had more black in it, than comedy! ‘The Blue Umbrella’ was also turned into a film which won the National Award for Best Children’s Film.

 Other Interests: Apart from writing, I enjoy reading, going for long walks in the solitude of Nature and watching old movies on TCM, right from ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ to ‘The Shop Round the Corner’. I also enjoy the old Nelson Eddy musicals from the 1950s.

On Chennai: I visited Chennai about seven to eight years ago, but just for a day. This time again, I am here only for a day and a half, to launch my latest book. So I have not seen very much of the city.

Hip-Hop Boy and Other Poems: When I was in Bhubaneswar, I saw some young boys doing the hip-hop in the rain and was very tempted to join them. However, it would have looked odd, so I put the idea into a poem, which is how the title of my latest book on poems for children came about. The poems are all about childhood, nature, growing up, and are a mix of old and new pieces.”

Two hours had flown by, and I was still under the spell of the master story-teller, a spell that stayed with me long after I left. And that is the essence of Ruskin Bond!

Published in the Ritz Magazine in 2012

Wait, James Bond is Filling His last Cavity!

Ruskin Bond breezed into Chennai, launched ‘Hip-Hop Nature Boy and Other Poems’, and waltzed into the hearts of his fans. The Ruskin Bond Landmark Tour saw a horde of admirers, jostling to have a chat with the amiable, pink-cheeked author.

“I do feel ancient!” he remarked, when a girl asked him about generations of readers coming together. He soon had the audience lapping up every word. He wrote his first story in Class 6 in an exercise book, and featured his teachers in it. His master found it, read the piece and announced, “Bond, you’re wasting your time!” He tore the story up, consigning it to the dustbin!

“So friends, if you write, leave your teachers out!” was Bond’s advice.

 ‘Room on the Roof’ was first published in London, and also serialized in the Illustrated Weekly. “I was thrilled to see my name in print!” Apparently, he had picked up the weekly, in which the first installment had come, with illustrations by Mario.

"I looked around for a friend to share my elation with. A cow on the road sidled behind me, snatched the magazine and chewed it up! High appreciation indeed!”

 Bond’s straitlaced grandmother had four daughters and one son. “My uncle divided his time among his sisters, till they left for England after Independence. He followed them there, but turned into a cycling postman, opening and reading other people’s letters. Uncle Ken, who is always in hot water, is modelled on him.”

 Bond loves watching the musicals of the 1950s. “But it would be a grave mistake to ask me to sing! Birds fall silent, cows rush across the road and cars crash!”
 His choir mistress once remarked, “Bond, you look charming in your choirboy’s costume. So, stand with the singers, open your mouth, but ensure not a sound issues forth!” And there he was, waiting to burst into song! “So you could call me a failed opera singer!” he grins.

 Once he went into a bookstore to look for one of his books, a slim volume, hidden below the Khushwant Singhs and the RK Narayans. He surreptitiously pulled it out and placed it on top. The store owner noticed this, and remarked, “Yeh nahi chalta!” Just to teach him a lesson, Bond bought his own book!

A pen and paper person, Bond owned quirky typewriters to prove his point. “My first typewriter was missing the letter ‘B’. So after I typed out my entire book, I filled in all the ‘B’s painstakingly.” His German typewriter had the letter ‘Y’ in the place of ‘Z’, which transformed ‘Zanzibar’ to ‘Yanyibar’, another glitch he needed to sort out! His ghost stories are legendary!

One poem he read out was ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ He clarified, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I keep seeing them! I actually make them up!” When asked if he had ever written a detective story, he nodded. “I wrote one long ago, but my readers guessed the culprit by Chapter 3!”

He offered a few nuggets of wisdom to young writers. “Put down what you see or read in a journal and be interested in the world and its people!”

 So, was it a case of saying, “My name is Bond, Ruskin Bond!” He countered that by talking about his uncle, a namesake of James Bond, who was a dentist. When he passed away, his nephew wrote his epitaph: “Stranger, approach this spot with gravity. James Bond is filling his last cavity!”

Published in the New Indian Express  in 2012


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