Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Sunday Feeling

All said and done, I am glad that the Sunday Heritage Walks happen on Sundays. They could just as easily have been the Saturday Heritage Walks or the Whichever-day-of-the-weekend-is-more-convenient Heritage Walks.

When I was small, Sunday morning meant Mahabharat on Doordarshan, or sometimes a family outing. In college, Sunday morning meant the best breakfast of the week: coffee and dosa with delicious coconut chutney. But these are personal experiences; the city as a whole experiences Sunday morning in a way that can only be felt by walking its streets, lingering at corners and sitting at chai shops.

On Sundays, life in the city moves at an easier pace. The streets are emptier, and so are the buses and trams. Conversation between strangers flows more freely. Security guards are more indulgent when we ask for permission to photograph protected buildings, because we’re just a bunch of tourists with cameras and what’s more, it’s a Sunday.

On Sundays, kids who are bread-winners for their families for the rest of the week are out on the streets playing cricket, scrapping, and generally being kids. And kids are always willing to pose for photographs.

This week’s walk had several new participants, two of whom were kids themselves, barely out of school. And being kids, they were willing to pose for photographs too.

…though Vikrant complained towards the end that too many photographs with Senjuti were bad for his image.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tandemletter 0

Citizen Kane. Battleship Potemkin. Gone with the Wind. La Strada. It amazed him that so many people, in fact, it would be fair to say, most people, were unaware that the 1952 Celebration Pictures musical The Girl from Peking starring Jules Munshin as Joey Kay and Kitty Alexander as May-Ling Han was in fact the greatest movie ever made.
Alex-Li Tandem, protagonist of Zadie Smith’s wonderful, wonderful novel, The Autograph Man, is hopelessly besotted with forgotten forties movie actress Kitty Alexander. He rents but does not buy The Girl from Peking because he thinks that if he owned it, he literally would not do anything else but watch it. And from the age of fifteen, he has been sending her letters – fan letters and, at the same time autograph requests – and not one has ever been answered. For “Kitty Alexander signed even less than Garbo.”

One day, he realizes that the autograph guides had misled him with their advice that an Autograph Man should talk interestingly about himself, show that he is more than just a fan. He changes his strategy. He decides, instead, to tell her about herself.

He writes hundreds of these letters, and these are not answered either. But the letters are magic.

Dear Kitty,
When behind a young man on a bus, she finds herself staring at his neck. The urge to touch it is almost over-whelming! And then he scratches it, as if he knew.
Love,
Alex-Li Tandem
So, in a form of tribute/plagiarism on the lines of the My Hobby series, I have decided to write Tandemletters to celebrities living and dead, telling them about themselves. The first such post will be up as soon as I think of a suitable celebrity on whom to bestow the immense privilege of being the recipient of the first Tandemletter. Remind me if I forget, please? And yes, suggestions are welcome.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday Heritage Walks

A bunch of us, struck with the realization that we had never visited the more obscure Calcutta landmarks such as the Armenian Church and the Oriental Seminary, have decided to devote our Sundays to the noble aim of exploring the city on foot. We call it the Sunday Heritage Walks Series, because these things sound cooler when you give them a name, and because we are not very good at coming up with imaginative monikers.

Today was Chapter One of the series. Masquerading as tourists in our own city, we roamed its streets from dawn to dusk, and en route, we discovered some amusing pieces of trivia – Calcutta’s Tea Auction Centre is the second oldest in the world after London, St. Andrew’s Kirk has a weekly service in Nepali, the Jews in Calcutta only just outnumber the synagogues.

Rather than boring you with a detailed account of my day, I’ll confine myself to a few photographs and an anecdote. First, the pictures.

And now we’ll talk about photography. What makes a good photographer? Photography handbooks talk about vision, sense of composition, eye for detail, so on and so forth. But they rarely mention one very important quality, a quality that is especially important if you are shooting people. They rarely talk about audacity.

It was audacity that got Yousuf Karsh his famous photograph of Churchill; legend has it that on impulse, he snatched the cigar from the great man’s mouth seconds before releasing the shutter. (Read Karsh’s version of the incident here). And closer home, I’ve seen my friend Bunty at work.

Consider my case, now. I like photographing people, but I am always slightly uncomfortable about blatant invasions of personal space. Bunty on the other hand has no compunctions about waving his camera in the faces of complete strangers – from sunbathing girls on Goa beaches to wretched pavement-dwellers in the more squalid parts of Calcutta – a habit which no doubt annoys said strangers in no uncertain measure, but which also earns him some good photographs.

Among Bunty’s victims today were several members of the dwindling Chinese population of Calcutta. But first, a brief description of the setting. The Sea Ip Chinese Church on Chhatawala Lane (Bengali: Umbrella-makers’ Lane) is a 104-year old red building with curling eaves and a peaked roof. Crammed with intricate sculptures and religious paraphernalia, it nestles improbably among matchbox office blocks; one of those secret treasures that big cities reserve only for the most devoted tourists.

So we are at this church, and I am taking photos on the ground floor. Meanwhile, Bunty decides to check out the first floor, and walks into a full-blown wedding ceremony. The bride and the groom are making their way to the ground floor, followed by a sizeable entourage, when Bunty realizes that his memory card had run out of space. And I walk up the stairs to find him holding up the wedding procession, animatedly explaining his predicament and requesting them to wait while he freed up space.

Happily, the guests were more bemused than anything else, Bunty got his pictures, and I got my anecdote.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Economics of Gelato

In the summer of 2007, the Quaker and I were both in Delhi, interning at the Supreme Court. This was when the first gelato chain stores opened in India, and of course we had to try it out. Of all the places we could choose for our first taste of gelato, we had to pick Khan Market, where one scoop was 120 rupees.

“How is gelato different from normal ice-cream?” we asked the man who was doling it out.

He said, “It has less air pressure.”

At the time, neither the Quaker nor I knew enough about gelato to gauge what he was trying to tell us, to wit, that gelato is denser because it is churned at a slower speed than ice cream, so not as much air is whipped into the mixture. In any case, we did not have 120 rupees, not even between the two of us. The Quaker said, “If I have to pay a hundred and twenty bucks for lower air pressure, then bring on the air pressure.” And we walked out.

That was my first encounter with gelato.

Since then, my relationship with gelato has improved, mostly due to the efforts of the Gelato Italiano chain of stores. They have this scheme which will be remembered with a quiet prayer of gratitude by legions of hard-up gelato-lovers. On the first of every month, they sell scoops of the Flavour of the Month for just nine rupees. The only catch is that the Flavour of the Month is usually the worst flavour on offer. Think Rose-Almond (October, icky-sweet), Honey-Coconut (June, downright weird) and Guava-Strawberry (July, the less said the better).

My friends are cheapskates too, so I know a number of people who queue up religiously every month, whatever the flavour. Sometimes we discuss the possible economic logic behind the scheme. I think the company hopes that lots of people will come to buy the cheap gelato and some of them will be tempted into trying other not-so-cheap flavours. Priyanka, who is a conspiracy-theorist, thinks that they lump all of the past month’s leftover gelato and brand it as a new flavour, and that the KGB is behind this. Pratiti, who is studying Statistics, thinks it is a kind of pilot survey. Sujaan, who had Psychology in high school, thinks this is a social experiment – they will keep producing increasingly worse flavours every month, the idea being to determine how low people will stoop to get a discount. His theory, attractive though it was, suffered a setback yesterday. Choco Crunch, the Flavour of December, is actually edible.