Friday, November 28, 2008

I wonder how it feels...

…to have fans aged sixteen to sixty, and co-musicians half your age. To open in Calcutta when most—who am I kidding? all—major bands give us a miss. To set 2300 people clapping to the beat of a J. S. Bach chart topper written 300 years ago. To joke about how “I may not be as pretty as Anoushka, but I do jump around a bit more.” To introduce a glockenspiel on stage and mischievously call it “a heavy metal instrument”. To switch from flute to parlor guitar to harmonica to tambourine and back again to flute, all in the course of the same song. To never be too old to rock ’n’ roll.
I wonder how it feels, to be Mr. Ian Anderson.
And in case you’re still wondering: Yes, I went to the concert.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Telegraph: Monday, 24 November 2008

The Fine Print column, which always makes for interesting reading, informs me that Wishroom Shop, a Japanese online lingerie retailer, is selling bras and panties for cross-dressing men. I wanted to find out how and why men’s panties would be different from women’s panties, but a visit to their product page did not help.

The following section from an interview with N.R. Narayana Murthy caught my eye:
Favourite gadget? “I have the latest iPod, the latest mobile phone, the latest MP4 player, MP3 player.”
Favourite holiday? “I don’t go on holiday at all. On an average, I am traveling 20-22 days a month outside India, and the remaining seven-eight days in India I am very busy from morning to night.”
The International School of Business, Kolkata ran an advertisement which featured the following immortal line: “Why the World’s biggest Corporates are hunting Leaders?”
If I were a leader, I’d be running for cover right about now.

Note: Yes, I know the time of post is 2.01 a.m., 25 November, so the post is technically about yesterday’s newspaper. But we have football practice (also known as Rahul Varghese’s boot camp) in the morning, so I get time to read the paper only after dinner.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Third, Last and Longest Bombay Trip Post, OR The Byculla Soufflé

When I did my first internship in Bombay, in the autumn of 2007, I used to find myself at a loose end during the weekends because none of my friends were in the city. I was staying at a hostel in Byculla in Central Bombay, so in my ‘characteristic ever-joblessness’ (not my phrase, Bhavna’s) I would go to the Asiatic Society library, rummage among old books, and read up on Byculla history. It was thus that I stumbled upon a book called The Byculla Club: A History by Samuel T. Sheppard.

The book was written in 1916, four years before the Club ceased to exist, and it is a charming and delightful chronicle, if you happen to like that sort of thing. It has extracts from the Club Minute Book, invoices, croquet scores, lavish dinner menus, and many such fascinating things.

I found many a gem among its crumbling pages. I read an extract from the Club Complaint Book—an 1876 entry by one Mr. Inveracity—which reads: “The gentleman in the bedroom beneath mine is a beginner on the flute. As he has shown no signs of improvement during the last two months, I request that his attention be called to the rule against making voluntary noises in the Club.” I read the transcript of Sir Seymour Fitz Gerald’s speech at the farewell banquet in his honour in 1872, which he concluded by saying: “May the Byculla Club retain the enviable distinction which not only in this country but in other countries it enjoys! May the main drain shortly be covered over! May Byculla mosquitoes be reduced to some reasonable proportions!” (The last wish is one I myself have fervently expressed on many occasions.) But above all, in a chapter on food, I read about the Byculla Soufflé.

But, for the benefit of those who have eaten the fluffy delight, the recipe for the Byculla Soufflé may be disclosed. Take the yolks of six eggs, add three tablespoons of good white sugar, beat well till dry and keep aside. Take half a seer of cream and also beat till dry, now take half a packet of Isinglass well soaked, add one liqueur glass each of Kummel, Chartreuse, Curacao, and Benedictine. Mix the whole well together, then put into a mould, on the top put crumbs of mixed biscuit and keep in ice until wanted. To cooks who attempt to make the Soufflé and fail, a word of consolation may be offered: it can only be made to perfection in the Club kitchen.

At this point, I put down the book and resolved, come what may, to search out and consume the Byculla Soufflé.

This was in the last weekend of my internship, so I could start my quest in real earnest only after another five months, during my second internship in Bombay. After many fruitless efforts which I shall not bore you by describing, once again in the last weekend of my internship, I ran into some luck. Flipping through a food guide in a second hand bookstore, I found mention of Zareen Kotwal on Maharishi Karve Road, a confectioner known for her Byculla Soufflé.

After I recovered from the shock, I gave three rousing cheers and directed my footsteps to the address they had given, only to find that no such address existed. Reluctant to give up, I walked the whole length of Maharishi Karve Road from North to South—a good 6 kilometres—looking for any sign of a confectionery shop. I found nothing. Convinced that I had somehow missed the shop, I walked the entire stretch again from South to North. No luck again. I cursed freely for five whole minutes, and then gave up.

When I came home after the internship, I googled “Zareen Kotwal” and realized that the book had misprinted “1411” in place of “14/1”. So on this, my third visit to Bombay, I finally tracked down the address. To my surprise, it turned out to be a flat in a residential complex, with no signboards or advertisements of any kind. Not knowing what to expect, I rang the doorbell and found myself face to face with Ms. Kotwal herself. I told her my story, and she heard me out with a bemused expression.

“So do you make the Soufflé?” I asked her finally.

“I used to,” she said. “But not any more.”

“And is it available anywhere else?”

“Nowhere,” she said laughing. “Nowhere.”

I thanked her, and trudged away. In the second floor of an apartment block in a quiet corner of Churchgate, my quest for the Byculla Soufflé had run into a dead end.

In the final chapter of the book on the history of the Byculla Club, Sheppard describes the changing face of Bombay: “The Club cat, Freddy, sleeps peacefully on the lawn where the old race course ended and where jackals and hyaenas have sought their prey.”

If he had the gift of foresight, he could have said more. “Where Freddy took his afternoon nap,” he may well have added, “developers construct high-rises and raise ugly clouds of dust. And saddest of all, the Byculla Soufflé is made no more.”

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Second Bombay Trip Post, OR The Sub-Sleeper Classes

A veteran of many train journeys, I always knew that many of those who get up on a train compartment do not have reserved seats. Unlike certain ‘reserved’ passengers who cast cold looks and emit unfriendly grunts at their ‘unreserved’ brethren, I have even been uniformly accommodating towards them, moving up to make space and sharing my biscuits. This is perhaps because I have often been in their place myself: Vasudha and I were once Waiting List 131 and 132 on a train from Bangalore to Chennai, and on another occasion, five of us shared two and a half berths when returning from a field trip to North Bengal tea gardens.

But on the train to Bombay, I studied the phenomenon of unreserved travel more closely. I realized that there are hierarchies even among the unreserved. I call them, the Sub-Sleeper Classes.

Lowest in the hierarchy are those who have no tickets at all. They are mostly beggars and suchlike. They occupy the best seats in the compartment: on the floor right next to the open doors. The only drawback is that they get sprinkled with water by people who have just used the washbasin and are shaking their hands to dry them.

Above them are those who have tickets that entitle them to get up only on the General Compartment. Some of them (understandably) blanch at the prospect of a 36-hour GC journey and prefer to try their luck illegally in the relative comfort of the sleeper. They try to sidle into empty berths, and if you ask them for their ticket, they flourish it before your eyes very quickly, perhaps hoping that you won’t notice it’s not a sleeper ticket.

Higher still are the daily passengers with short distance passes. Their passes entitle them only to board express trains. To board, mind, and not to occupy seats. But these men are seasoned campaigners. Let them spot a small unoccupied part of a seat, and they home in on it and park themselves with a confidence that even we, legitimate ticket-holding travellers, are hard put to muster. But they travel only for a few stations.

Right at the top is the Waiting List brigade. Even among them there are subtle gradations: Waiting List 27 gets precedence over Waiting List 28 unless Waiting List 28 has bribed the TTE first. These hierarchies are jealously defended. The gentleman sitting next to us from Wardha onwards utilised every opportunity to advertise his status as Waiting List 9, making it abundantly clear that he would contest his claim with anyone in the double digits or higher. When a GC ticket holder (a whole two ranks below him) requested him to move up, the Waiting List man went on the offensive and completely demolished his rival. Himself a man without a reserved seat, he lashed out at the GC man, first in Hindi and then in Marathi, before sending him slinking back to his rightful compartment, humiliated and broken.

In other train-related news, they’ve introduced a side middle berth in some sleeper compartments. My Calcutta-Bombay trip was in such a compartment. I was on the side upper bunk. The ceiling’s so close, it’s like waking up in a coffin. And for the relatively simple operation of lowering the middle bunk for sleeping, they have a diagram so complicated it looks like the instructions for assembling Apollo 13. I wish I’d taken a picture of it so I could post it here.

Now I’m one of the staunchest fans of the Indian railways you are likely to encounter. One of my F.A.R.T.s (which Saha praised and everyone else hated) was in fact entirely about the Indian railways. But sometimes, they do things which sorely try my faith. Like introducing a side middle berth. Or not having dustbins in the sleeper compartments. But that’s a rant for another day.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The First Bombay Trip Post, OR My Purpose in Life

To round off my vacation, I went on a four day trip to Bombay, ostensibly to meet up with friends who were interning and seniors who are working in the city. The real purpose of the visit, however, was to eat. (Imho, Bombay is second only to Calcutta when it comes to food.)

I made a list of Places I Must Eat At In Bombay, but with only four days in hand, and generous and overpaid seniors queuing up to take us out for dinner, I sometimes had to eat six or seven meals a day to cover them all.

1. Breakfast Spread (Kyani and Co., Dhobi Talao)
2. Chicken Reshmi Tikka Biryani (Café Noorani, Haji Ali)
3. The All American (Pizzeria, Marine Drive)
4. Chicken Roll (Zaika, Sir J. J. Road)
5. Steak and Onions (Leopold’s Café, Colaba)
6. Mango Ice Cream (Naturals, Marine Drive)
7. Chicken Shawarma (Maroush, High Street Phoenix)
8. Berry Pulao (Britannia, Ballard Pier)
9. Jumbo Sugarcane Juice (Kala Ghoda)

Vegetarians and People who are not going to Bombay in the near future: eat your heart out.