Dodo Authentic Chinese

I was working as a third assistant director on what was my third or fourth ad in Bombay. The third assistant director has a very important job profile. We do things like tell the actors  ‘Your shot is ready’ or tell costume ‘Iron the clothes now’ or tell the guy running the electricity in the godown ‘AC switch off karna’. It’s a hard life up the ladder. This was an ad for an AC brand. The brand, because they had no sense of what the honest fuck they wanted had dispatched me off to Himachal Pradesh to recce. The idea was (surprise, surprise) the AC transports you to snowfall. It was great for me because my initial idea after college had been to take a month or two off and ‘find myself and write.’ Usually, this is a luxury reserved for people who roll in money, and I didn’t belong to the bracket. So I decided to find my romanticism in the struggle of Bombay. I wanted a story I could tell MY kids about how I landed in the middle of the July floods with five hundred bucks and no money for brokerage or deposit. 

So anyway, back to Himachal Pradesh. This was our second day and we were in the outskirts of an absolutely untouched national park about to be attacked in full force by an army of gaffers, light-men and extras. An average independent film gets made in about a couple of crores, which is more or less the same budget a bloodsucking brand spends for 1 minute’s worth of screen time to let people know their skin whitening cream is better than crack. We were travelling in luxury I had never experienced in two decades worth of my life. They were paying me 5000 bucks a day as a ‘miscellaneous’ allowance, which was tantamount to me skinny dipping in a pool of cash, considering my monthly salary then was about 15,000 bucks. My friend Jalal and I (Jalal was a veteran AD who had lost all sense of hope after Bombay had hacked at his soul for a decade and a half) were using our three day recce time to live the life we never could before our dreams were snatched away from us. 

We got our approvals on the second day. The requirements were simple. Snow – check. Trees in the background – check. Sunset in the horizon – check and check. We had budgets and time for a third day of recce and our director and producer (both in Bombay) were both treating this ad like they could fart it out in their sleep without much time or effort. They urged us to take a day off, blow some money and come back in peace. We decided to go for a trek.

While this idea of exercise and inhaling decent oxygen was all good in theory, three years of making it a point that I had to blacken my lungs with every available cigarette around me had rendered my once whattewow stamina redundant. I started wheezing by the tenth step and got several stitches in places I didn’t know existed in the first hour. Jalal was telling me amazing stories about previous ads and films he had worked on. Jalal was just great to listen to in that sense. He truly didn’t give a fuck anymore. Like really. He dissed all my favourite directors in the industry in the first half hour of the trek. The EXACT names you’re thinking off right now. Yeah! That guy who made that film about the blind and deaf girl. That woman who made the film about those three guys going on vacation, her brother, all of them. Take a hint. It was like a rebranding in my head. Like five mixed up stages of grief and loss. His started with anger. Now we were moving towards his denial about the industry and any scope it had for well written content. I kept listening. I needed to hear his depression out so I felt better about my future. 

Himachal’s dotted with villages up the slopes. I say this with arrogant confidence despite being a head to toe city boy because I worked in the area in my first internship in college. Yeah, go laugh get it all out. It was supposed to be an NGO internship and I wanted to spend a month in a place where, well…no one knows me  and *relatively softer tone* – I managed to convince my mother to shell out thirty grand so I can stamp social service cred on my CV. With my chest out flaunting my privilege, I spent thirty days telling people whose problems I had no fucking idea about how to cope with generic statements like – 1) the man and woman must share work at home 2) you should educate your girl child 3) you should vaccinate your kids and the kind of stuff you learn as fill in the blanks in your value education class in the seventh standard. 

The trail we had gone for was a long nine hour walk. People would usually do this over two days. The route had been recommended to me by a bunch of Israeli martial artists who I had bumped into at a tea stall near Aut (That is a place). They had called it ‘challenging’. My brain didn’t make a note that if a person with abdominal muscles strong enough to be seen through his shirt had called a route challenging I should have ideally sat on a ledge accessible by a four wheel drive vehicle and taken that as an accomplishment. I insisted to Jalal we’d be able to do it. Jalal had failed to let me know then that he spends every morning alternating between two hours of semi-professional badminton or running till he vomits himself in front of strangers on Carter road. He was fairly ready for this challenge.

My wheezes punctuated the first entire quarter of the trek. I mostly listened, very amused as Jalal’s stories moved from star tantrums, to intern gaffs, to communication breakdowns on set and my most favourite – client requests. These were the most bizarre. He was telling me about how Cadbury had stalled production (every hour’s worth of a delay is worth roughly a million rupees) for two hours because they weren’t happy with the exact colour of the milk moustache their ad protagonist was supposed to have. Despite the cloak of negativity he wore with pride, he was a great mentor to have for your first couple of years in the industry. He was a no bullshit person, and his years in the industry had made him as hard as nails. So you couldn’t muck around him. You’d do your work and shut up, and he’d do his work and shut up. He was your ideal first AD. Okay, I should explain the job profile. His job (arguably the most important one on set) is to make sure shit gets done exactly on time and schedule so the director can get exactly he wants. For example – If and I say if as hypothetically as hypothetically can be – if Sanjay Leela Bhansali would like to end the climax of a war scene with Ranveer Singh throwing a spear on top of an elephant, it’s Jalal’s job to A) Get the camera in position on a crane at the crack of dawn B) Make sure the scene is lit exactly as Bhansali wants which is a scary proposition because Bhansali will throw a hissy fit if one of the background elephants tusks’ reflect more sunlight than he wants C) get actors in place in the right costumes and makeup, which means Ranveer will have to have his Quinoa salad at 4 in the morning and he can’t drink water after that. D) Coordinate with twelve elephant handlers to keep them in check and ready for the shot E) Repeat said exercise for the entire day. 

It was March in Himachal. Wasn’t exactly freezing cold in the middle of the day, but you needed a light sweater to be comfy. Perfect trekking weather. My stomach groaned by about noon. It let out a roar. “You better find the most good looking leaves you can to wipe your ass” said Jalal. I corrected him and told him that that was a rumble of hunger. Not a rumble of indigestion. Jalal snorted. We decided to look for something in the next village we hit. This was a place called Jibhi. We hit Jibhi at about 3PM and to our surprise, the place was fairly welcoming. There were a bunch of home-stays around. I noticed two white guys who looked like they didn’t have a VISA and had overstayed their welcome by months, who we waved at – because they were white and what’s an Indian if he doesn’t look out for the validation of a random white person. By now my stomach was screaming, so I begged Jalal to look for a restaurant with me. 

Jalal and I had both travelled enough to know the basics of eating out in unfamiliar territory. The first rule is you eat something preferably hot, high on carbs. Try not to burst your stomach with chillies, if the prospect of a loo isn’t nearby. Basically dal and rice is great. That’s all we wanted. Jibhi was asleep, the entire village. The three or four eateries promising rice plates all pointed me to their neighbours, who in turn pointed me to the original. In a nutshell, no food around. Our other options included potato wafers or bananas. But right then, all we wanted was a hot meal. We walked through Jibhi, the extent of the entire village was half the length of Carter Road back home. So there wasn’t much to explore. We had about 15 more kilometers to go before we hit the village we were going to stay for the night, called Sarthi. Going any further was a bleak proposition. 

“What’s that smell?”, asked Jalal. 

“Smells good, whatever the fuck it is.” I said.

“Does it smell…?” Jalal

“Yeah, doesn’t smell Indian.” Me.

We followed the trail to this place which had steel shutters down. It was the most unsuspecting wood and concrete building, looked old on the outside. There was a sign board outside that said – Dodo Chinese, authentic Chinese with a couple of Mandarin letters right next to it. I giggled looking at the board itself. Dodo Chinese. Fucking hell. There’s no way in a hundred years I would have caught myself dead in the place. From what I could gather from Jalal’s face, he seemed to echo my sentiment. I needed divine intervention to decide whether to lower my guard and ego and check the place out. My stomach growled loudly. I took that as a hint. I winked to Jalal and knocked on the steel shutter. (There was no bell)

Promptly, it was raised to half mast and a woman who looked like she wasn’t used to being disturbed this late in the day or for the matter disturbed at all poked her head out of the door.

“What is it? Hotel is on the first floor, go there”, she said in English after evaluating us from head to toe.

“No, no. We don’t want to stay here.” Me.

“Just wanted to know if we can get something to eat” Jalal added.

“Anything is okay.” Me

“Dal and rice, anything.” Jalal.

The woman narrowed her eyes and considered us. She opened the shutter and pointed at the signboard. “We have chowmein (the north indian accepted word for noodles) and we have chicken. Nothing else is there right now.”

Jalal and I exchanged a glance. “Hurry up and tell me. I don’t have all day to waste.” she barked at us.

“Okay.” I said. Jalal and I walked in. There were literally two tables. I walked over to the second one. Jalal crashed on the plastic chair and put his head down. I was just trying to get a sense of the place. There were nine calendars hanging on the same wall. The woman had disappeared behind a curtain behind which I realised lay the source of the delicious smell that we had been attracted to in the first place. Behind where Jalal was power napping on the table was a small cabinet where there were small porcelain figures of a rabbit, snake, bull and rooster gathering dust. 

I heard loud noises in the background. Through the curtain gap I saw her blaze through scallions and drop them off as a garnish in two bowls. She picked up the China and got them to the table. I don’t know too many people who’d argue with me but there’s no better feeling than seeing steam come off your food in liberal amounts especially when you’re in a fifty kilometer snow radius. The two bowls had soupy thin but incredibly fragrant stock topped with scallions. She got another bowl of steamed noodles.

“Wait, did you make these?” I asked her.

“No, they just popped out of the clouds like rain” she said rudely with a cackle. She looked at Jalal, whose plans of resting his head on the table for a quick five minutes had moved into full blown sleep. She rapped the table. He woke up with a start. “Does this look like a bed to you?”

I dunked the noodles in the broth and had a bite. It was sensational. I felt like how that critic in the rat food film, what’s the name? Yeah, Ratatouille did when he had his final meal in the restaurant. My eyes rolled over. I just tasted flavours I didn’t know existed. Jalal actually moaned a little when he had his first bite. She was visibly pleased with our reaction. I think she softened for the first time since we had entered.

“You like it?”

“It’s…amazing.” Jalal and I.

“My grandmother used to make this for me when I was small.” she said. “Her’s was even better.”

“Where are you from,” I asked her.

“Beijing”

That was bizarre. I did not expect to find an actual traditional Chinese restaurant in Himachal Pradesh in a hundred years, let alone this little village we were in. She disappeared into the kitchen and brought out a tub of flour and started kneading it. 

“See your noodles? This is how you make them” she said. She was making actual Lo Mein noodles from scratch. After binging on several seasons of Masterchef I had a working knowledge of food enough to understand that making Lo Mein was tedious and as most Indian restaurateurs would say – unnecessary. 

Turns out her husband and her used to work in Delhi for a Chinese company. After working in India for ten years, her husband decided to open a home stay in Himachal Pradesh to get the fuck away from the madness of the capital. She decided to run the kitchen. Given how many white people would frequent the spot, their place became a regional hit. She had customers who’d been visiting her place for ten years.

“You want to try some Bao?” she asked me.

“I’ll eat anything you give me ma’am.” I told her.

She went inside and got out two open baos dripping with a dark brown (it looked hoisin) sauce. “We make this with pork at home. But nobody eats pork here so we use chicken.”

It was the fluffiest, lightest bao I had ever had. The chicken was so incredibly crisp. We shamelessly attached the bowl to our mouths and drained it off. I asked her if she had ever worked in a kitchen before. “I used to make food for my mother’s kindergarten in Beijing. We’d cook for thirty to forty kids every single day. They’d cry and throw tantrums if they didn’t like it, so it had to be very tasty. If you can cook for kids, you can cook for anyone.”

Both of us were reeling from the meal. We had been inside this place for barely half an hour, and I don’t remember being this satisfied after a meal since…I don’t even know when. We asked for the bill, she shrugged her shoulders and asked us to give us whatever we wanted. I think she had eventually warmed up to us. She explained, “This is what was left from my home food. I don’t charge for this.”

We put down a couple of notes on the table. She wagged a finger at us and said – ‘It’s too much.’ We beat her down and told her it’s the best meal we’ve had this year. She cackled again.

We raved about the meal for an hour during the next leg of the trip. It has to be mentioned that it was the absolute highlight of our recce. We got her down to cook for the entire set when we shot there, and she was absolutely delighted. She took photos with the two actors (who were absolutely random models from Andheri) but she assumed they were Bollywood superstars and fed me baos on the sly whenever I wanted for the day. She told me she earned more money over the two days of the ad than she usually does in six months. I told her if there’s anyone who deserves to profit off the capitalist greed of the brand, it was her. 

Before we left from her place I asked her, “Why the name Dodo Chinese?”

She laughed and said,. “My husband calls me his Dodo. That’s how.”

I have never judged a restaurant by its name since.

 

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Ten Lakh Rupee Haircut

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“Liked it? Cost me ten lakhs!” said my grandfather proudly, rubbing his left hand on his shiny bald head. A bowl of what appeared to be a murky dal sat in front of him, waiting to be cussed at. “Pimps!”, he snorted as an afterthought, looking at the television screen, as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian cricket team captain got caught and bowled by a stunning yorker. “Can’t bat against pace, what are these kids getting paid for these days. You know! Gavaskar used to -”

“Bat without a helmet against the West Indians…they were the best team in the world…had the fastest bowlers….had Michael Holding….he was called whispering death!” I completed. “You’ve mentioned it to me once or twice, I remember over the past twenty years..”

Grandfather chortled which turned into a animal like cough. As he gasped for breath he pushed the bowl of masoor dal away and turned towards me, raising his finger. “I thought I’d get to eat some fat and meat when Sheela left us. This is worse than what they used to serve us in training.”

It had been a week since grandfather’s last chemo. My uncle, one of Pune’s best oncologists had taken me to a corner in the hospital and told me it’s my job to let mother know we probably have a month with him left. He didn’t have the heart to break the news to his own sister despite being her closest confidant. Today was my Sunday on the calendar. Grandfather, an ex-army man had changed completely since we told him he had stage four. It stripped him of his age by decades. He started resembling the man my mother had told me stories about since I was small. The man who was the centre of attention at army parties. The man who would laugh in the face of his biggest trials and the man who had turned into a shadow of his old self over years of battling debt, depression and marital problems.

“He was a really nice father”, my mother would tell me. “It was my mother who was a real witch. She would provoke him into a fight, and he’d lose his temper and oh god, he had a terrible temper.”

The last time I had visited grandfather at home, he had smashed a large wine glass on my grandmother’s face. We had found them sobbing in different rooms, their entire crockery cabinet in pieces in the living room. We had rushed her to the hospital, spent the entire night watching her wince as the nurse tweezed out bits of glass out of her cheek. I had vowed never to visit their house again post (I swallowed my pride after he was diagnosed) My mother, though furious at her father at first surprisingly blamed her… “She must have said something really terrible. She would always say mean things. Stretch him to breaking point” just before I left the hospital at dawn. My grandmother stayed with us for the rest of her days, till she passed away a year back. She was eighty. A week into shifting in our house, I saw our crockery cabinet combust similarly, this time at my mother’s hands. The temper that was so famed in the house had luckily by the grace of genetics not been passed to me. I never saw grandfather apologise for that day, you know. He continued to harp that she deserved it till…well…till the last time we brought it up before he –

“We haven’t played Ludo for so many days. Get the old set out. Let’s play some Ludo.”

“Eh Appu! Not Ludo. You always end up winning at Ludo. I know you cheat somehow.”

“You rascal, you accuse your old grandfather of cheating? I’ll show you today”

“Do you want to play chess? I can make you some tea and we can play till mother gets here.”

I got the old wooden board out from ‘my cupboard’. It was actually a single drawer where my grandparents would store all my toys when I was a kid. Out of habit, the first thing I do when I reach their house is open it to ensure all ‘my things’ are still there. There’s my chessboard, unused for years, an old whistle I had driven the neighbours silly with when I was five, a couple of Secret Seven books I had re-read till I knew them by heart and I have no idea why I’m so attached to it, but an old World Book I used to press leaves in during summer vacation. Press leaves? You know, keep leaves in an old heavy book in the Summer of 1999 and open the book again by winter to see them etched as a skeleton? I would love doing it.

“You want black?” I asked him.

“Nope. But I know you want white. Go on then.”

I moved the pawn in front of the king a couple of steps ahead. “Boring, boring. E4, E5, NF3, NC6. That chess class ruined you. You were doing so well sitting on my knee and playing. I keep telling your mother, you would have been the next Bobby Fischer.”

Grandfather taught me how to play chess when I was six. I used to sit in his lap while he would furiously explain what each piece was capable of doing in Marathi. By the time I turned eight, I actually started beating most of my family. My parents’ Indian sensibilities blazed to life, realising there’s a miniscule but very likely chance for monetary opportunity here. They shoved me into an archaic buddhibal gurukul where I would be forced to train for hours at an end on weekends till my head throbbed. In six months, I started hating the game eventually refusing to play it. Grandfather was furious his protege had become a guinea pig for slaughter. He tried making it fun for me, but something in my head just switched off whenever I saw a chessboard then. I don’t mind playing it now, I still get flashbacks about the musty smell of the cloth chess boards and the all too familiar irritating click of kids banging chess pieces out of the board whenever they were captured.

“I’ll make tea, wait. Do NOT touch the pieces! I remember where they all are!” I warned him.

It triggers memories whenever I wander around my grandparents’ house. It’s in the old part of Pune, where time stands still – almost infuriatingly sometimes. Theirs is almost a century old, largely made of stone. I remember it being cold. Really cold. It smells the exact same even today, of burning camphor and incense sticks. Except you can also smell the effort invested into keeping an old man alive. My grandparents brought a television way before we did. It just had twelve channels, but it did have Cartoon Network. I’d make excuses to come here and watch Tom and Jerry or any of the old Hanna Barbera re-runs, whilst grandmother doused me with variations of deep-fried, unhealthy snacks. I digress. Where was I? Yes, in the kitchen. Making tea. Boiling water and milk separately. Waiting for the tea leaves to settle down. “We aren’t savages, like them” my grandmother would say with a heap of disgust, referring to her neighbours from Delhi. Her years in the capital left her with a heavy aversion for how the north would make tea – mixing water, tea leaves, spices and ginger till they were well and truly butchered by the flames.

I used to find the reluctance of all my relatives to embrace my adulthood infuriating. As the youngest kid in the family, I would be spoken to like a small prize winning dog – worthy of attention, but no seriousness. In my grandfather’s case, it was the exact opposite. He made me feel important. I’d sit at his desk as a kid and stamp his bank documents, feeling like my involvement is his paperwork somehow mattered. He’d ask me for advice, which I’d find very endearing. I’d see most of my other defence kid friends have a strict hierarchical culture in their house, which was nice to see my grandfather not give a hoot about.

Grandfather slurped the tea. “Tastes a lot like Sheela’s…”

“It’s because mother makes the same tea. And I learned from her…”

“You haven’t moved any pieces for twenty minutes. Are you going to bother playing?”

Grandfather was a simple man. Post his army life, which I never thought he really liked too much, he became quiet and reserved. He’d always tell me how he missed death by an inch fighting the Pakistanis in ‘71, though grandmother had on safe authority that he never actually touched a rifle the entire stint. He distanced himself from all his friends in the regiment and sat at home post his retirement, immersing himself in hours of television and B-grade Marathi novels. He used to be a lot of fun, mom would always tell me. Always filled with terrible jokes

“I think she was having an affair.” said my mother.

“You know know, or you suspect?”

“Um. They never told me anything, but I always overheard bits from their fights. There would be this ‘uncle’ who would come up to our door and take her away in a car. She would never introduce him to us, so I kind of always suspected…”

Grandfather, like several of Pune’s tea drinking heavyweights, has an intricate ritual circling every sip he takes. He slurps each time to a crescendo and then follows it up with a low bass ‘Ah’ as if to reassure himself that it was a sip well invested. I had come to forget his little intricacies over the last decade I’ve spent working in Bombay. My home trips to Pune had become less frequent and the time I’d get at home to visit my grandparents, even less so.

“You want to see the garden?” he asked me, about eight moves from defeat.

“Let’s go.”

We sat on the swing. He chattered on about how his gardener is quite obviously a crook, since his fertilizer supplies having slowly been disappearing, always punctuating his sentences with a racking cough. We spoke in depth about how the rose plants were there just to show off, and no real botany connoisseur would want to have a plant as common as a rose in his garden. He even offered to field for the neighbours’ kids playing in the yard opposite his house, much to their horror. There was a time he would have been really mean to them when their ball crossed over to his fence, but this was a changed man in his last month. I think of his transformation like that ‘Selfish Giant’ story…we used to have it in our Radiant Reader by who was it? Yes! By Oscar Wilde.

“I wish I could have taken you to my Father’s factory!”, he said suddenly.

“Yeah, you guys would make glass, wouldn’t you?”

“And what amazing glass it was!” he reminisced. “Green, violet, orange glass. I used to get scraps of the colours for your mother and her sister all the time. They’d make ornaments out of it. It was wonderful.”

“What happened to it?”

“Oh, shut down in time. Once the borders opened, a bunch of all these foreign brands came in. They were better. Cheaper. We had to sell.”

“You must miss your village.”

“Terribly sometimes. I miss the small things. You know, throwing stones at the mango trees to eat kairi. Cycle races all around the fields. You wouldn’t know the simplicity in that life.”

“Ever feel like going back?”

“No. Not really. You miss them. But you move on. I don’t feel like going back to the army either. I hate meeting my old mates from there. Going on and on about the good old days. I’m quite done.”

We rocked on the swing for a little while. The skies turned a steelier shade of grey. It was just April. We call this rain ‘valvacha paus’ in Pune. The first rains. Just a premonition of monsoon.

“I think I was way more ready to pop it in 71’. This is just embarrassing right now. Tell your mother from my side. They’ve covered me with pipes. Throw it all away. I’m pissing out of a tube half the time in the hospital, if you haven’t noticed…”

“You’re NOT ‘popping it’!”

“Don’t lie to me. Even a duffer like me learns a few things by the time he turns eighty. This chemo and radiation nonsense is meant for people who want to live more.”

“I…you realise no one’s going to let you just wither away right?”

Grandfather ignored me. He began rocking his legs like a little child on the swing. At his most vulnerable, he always reminded me of a child. He was a simple man. He had always been one. With no ulterior motives. No ambition. No desires. It kept him happy.

“I hope it rains today. Been so hot this summer. I won’t need to water the plants too.” he said, as a gust of wind set the windchimes in motion, their clangs echoing through the garden.

“Whatever happened to those parrots? I completely forgot about them”, I asked him.

“You mean, the ones you forced me to buy from the cantonment? Those were love-birds. One of them died. And then the other one-”

“Oh right. It died as well?”

“No silly. We let it out.”

We sat for a while as he hummed a song I couldn’t recognise. “Right. I’m sleeping in for a while. Your mother’s coming here to make sure I don’t kill myself taking the wrong medicines. I don’t want to disappoint her.”

“Do you want your stick?”

“Let it be here. I don’t actually need it till I go outside. I wouldn’t mind a cigarette though? This weather is quite something”, his eyes hopeful.

“If you actually think I’ll get a man with lung cancer a cigarette…you have got to-”

“Yes. Yes. A simple no would have sufficed. I’m going to sleep.

He slowly walked into the house, balancing his drip. I sat alone, my attention moving to the the touch-me-nots he had planted right in front of the swing last spring. I touched one of them, just to make sure they still work. It closed.

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@sumedhnatu – Twitter, Instagram

Artwork: Aditya Phadke
Instagram: @artyaditya

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Happy Birthday! What are you Reading?

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A couple of days back, my mother casually mentioned it over lunch. She said – “You remember Babu? My friend from the Express?”

The predictive text app in my brain launched – “Of course I do! Why? Is he coming for dinner or something?”

“No”, said mother. “He died in the morning” My mother does that. She will tell you that someone’s dead and the milk is over with the same enthusiasm. 

“Oh. What happened?” Me.

“Heart attack” Her

“Shit. Are you okay?”

“Yes. All my friends have started dying. I should be getting used to this…” she said with a sad smile.

I finished the chicken mother had made and walked into my room in Pune, now a ghost of what it looked like when I was sixteen. Despite several protests from my parents, I had clumsily stuck every heavy metal and tennis poster available in Archies on every inch of real estate my room covered. The result was an awkward, out of place collage of Roger Federer, Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova huddled between Iron Maiden, Led Zepp and Metallica. Now what’s left are the amoeba shaped chunks of the wall that have remained after the posters slowly fell prey to several seasons worth of moisture collected over the rains. 

I had met Babu uncle for the first time when I was nine. It was one of those rare weekends when my mother had been in a great mood and had taken me book shopping. Yeah, book shopping would be an actual activity in Pune when I was a kid. I’d spend the week hyping up the two hour slot over the weekend where I’d be allowed to eventually buy one out of the ten books I’d attempt to bully my mother into buying for me. We were at this beautiful old bookstore in Camp called Manneys. Going to Manney’s was an experience because the owner – Mr Mani was a walking encyclopedia on books. He’d recommend/guide/chastise and often, if he liked you enough – even gift you a book or two once in a while. The entire place smelled of aged wood. Plus, it was always frequented by famous writers. My father had told me this hilarious story about how a bearded old man had pointed out ‘Lord of the Flies’ to him in the shop once and smiled and told him ‘You should read this book.’ when he saw my father browsing through random shelves aimlessly.  My father asked why, to which the man said ‘Because I wrote it’. I was far too young then to appreciate the magnitude of William Golding but I still loved books, all the same. 

I had just started reading Blyton’s Five Find Outers then, which was a rehashed version of her Famous Five which was a rehashed version of her Secret Seven. Fatty, Larry, Daisy, Pip and Bets were pretty much the epicentre of my life. Did any of y’all wonder why the fuck you get Poha and Horlicks post school when these British kids were wandering willy-nilly in caravans having scones and cured ham and things banned in India by the Government till today? Yeah, me too. I was skimming some of the titles, trying to figure which mystery seemed more appealing just from its name – Banshee Towers or the Missing Man. 

“Don’t read those. They’re very bad.”

It’s hard to realise your childhood heroes are hacky. It’s harder when someone points that out in your childhood. I looked up to see a man with a very, very full beard peering down at me with a book in his hand. My mother was right behind him. She introduced him to me as Babu uncle. He handed me a hardbound book that had Psmith in the City stamped on it. He asked me which school I was in and what I liked doing. His eyes lit up when I told him I read all day. 

“This is one of the funniest books I’ve read. Read it in class when you have a boring teacher.”

My mother glowered at him, as if to suggest he restrict his ideas of civil disobedience to himself. 

 As I would find out on the rickshaw ride back home, she and Babu were friends since my mother’s first job at the Indian Express, where she was working as an art critic. Babu uncle was a journalist and one of the meanest editors in town. They hadn’t met in years, and had finally exchanged numbers with the firm promise that they’d be in touch from this point on. Psmith was unlike anything else I had ever read before. Every line that Wodehouse wrote was absolutely hilarious. The sentence structure, the way he wrote characters, their conversations all had me in splits. I wrote Babu Uncle a letter (mom made me do this) to thank him for buying me the book. As a reply, he sent me an entire collection of Wodehouse books. I spent months hooked to Jeeves and Wooster’s stories and true to his prediction, got pinched several times in class for reading under the desk. 

From then on Babu Uncle became a critical part of my reading life. He’d come over for tea to meet aai-baba, an event that would end up with me hijacking the conversation and discussing books with him for hours on at a time. He was one of the few adults I knew then who would speak to me like he was talking to an equal. After Wodehouse, he gave me my first R.K Narayan. For someone who had read through his childhood from the lense of British kids in the fifties and sixties, R.K was a revelation. I loved the world of Swaminathan and Mani, whose problems were so much more like mine. Days of anxiety about whether we’d escape a caning in school because I hadn’t done my homework on time suddenly became more comforting. R.K stellar prose extended to his adult books – The Guide, The English Teacher and my favourite – The Financial Expert. 

Every year Babu Uncle would send me a five hundred rupee gift voucher from either Maney’s or Crossword and a note with his recommendations for which books to buy with it. From ten to fifteen I discovered Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor and Roald Dahl’s super dark short fiction. When I turned fifteen, Babu Uncle shifted to Qatar to as he put it ‘earn so much money he can come back to Pune in fifteen years and sleep for the rest of his life’. He asked me what I want to do with my life. I told him I wanted to become a journalist and change the world with all my naivety of just having turned fifteen. He guffawed and asked me to give him a call when I do so he could figure out what he did wrong. 

I don’t think people in Pune are great at keeping in touch with each other if they aren’t in the same city. Babu would still call twice a year (my mother’s birthday and mine) and would always start the conversation with ‘Happy birthday champ! What have you been reading?’ He winced when I told him I’ve been binging on Sidney Sheldon and told me that if I enjoy reading badly written sex scenes in books I might as well read a couple of Harold Robbins’ and get it over with. I laughed out loud on the phone. That annual phone call turned into a ritual almost. I’d recap my year and judge my growth based on what I’d been reading to someone who I didn’t think I knew well enough to call a friend but well enough to trust about how life had been treating me.

I shifted to Bombay half a decade back and slowly lost out on touch. The phone calls turned into my mother telling me – ‘Babu was asking about you’ to template Facebook messages that looked like – ‘Hey. Happy birthday! I hope you’re doing well!’, a little shorter every year. Babu continued to follow all the pieces I wrote, whether it was a blogpost or a commissioned piece. He would send me feedback exactly like an editor – telling me he loved it followed by lines and lines about how my sentences could have been shorter, how my word count needed to halved and how I need to kill my habit of repeating the same things again and again.

This year my mother told me he’s shifted back to Pune which made me think of him at a Roopali-esque cafe on Fergusson College Road with a large hat on his head – enjoying retirement with a bunch of fellow journalists each engrossed in very controversial opinions about the state government and how the filter coffee they had just been served had gone to the shits. I kept making mental notes about meeting him over a coffee or a drink now that I was old enough to buy him one. His death in just six months of moving back leaves me with a dull ache about growing up. I realise this is something I’m going to have to get used to soon.

I went home and actually found the Psmith he had gifted me. Its pages have turned yellow and its been untouched for over a decade. I read through the first twenty pages and had flashbacks of all the times in school I had read this book hidden behind the jacket of my geography and math books. I guess sometimes you don’t need friends for company. Sometimes, the people who count are the ones who teach you how to live life happily alone.

 

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Broken Genius

     At some point in the fifth set last night, I’m going to wager about the same time I poured my sixth gin (I had promised myself I’d stick to a glass every set, 12-12 in the fifth counts as two) I knew Djokovic was going to win. Maybe it’s been me watching ten years of these three (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic) maul it out over the past decade, maybe after you follow a sport for a decade, you eventually learn to read a momentum shift in the game, maybe it was just my gut instinct screaming that a Federer win at thirty-seven was too good to be true. Maybe, and this is the most crucial maybe – Novak Djokovic’s biggest strength on court has nothing to do with holding a racket.  

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        How the fuck did Djokovic win? How did he beat the greatest player of all time from a point where Federer was a stroke away from lifting the Wimbledon trophy? How has he managed to do this not once, but in three different matches on two of the biggest stages tennis has to offer? At this point I can only brood about what could have been. Somewhere, I don’t think Federer’s feeling any different. I’ve been left with a haunting image of him staring at the perfectly manicured blades of grass that make the Centre Court turf in shocked disbelief while Novak nibbled on the court like he had planned it all along. The match has been a masterclass for future athletes in how success at the highest level goes way beyond technique, strategy, effort and a lifetime of hard work. Because Djokovic, for all practical purposes yesterday was the lesser of the two athletes for most of the match. 

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       Federer’s play is genius. There’s no other word for it. I honestly hate using that word, it’s such a fill in the blank nowadays for anything remotely above average. In his case though, it’s accurate. You can’t teach kids to play like him. I’m bored at this point trying to find new ways to remind people how extraordinary he is. I feel everyone knows. Liquid whip forehand, touch at the net matched by absolutely no one in the game, a service motion that kids all over the world have spent several hours of their lives trying to imitate to perfection (poor things), I mean this is a futile exercise. Critics, writers, peers, fans have all written him off at several points in the last decade and yet he’s sat in arrogant defiance in the top three of the rankings for most of the ten years, even managing to reclaim his beloved number one spot for a small part of last year. He’s had a renaissance over the past two years and has found himself a new hobby; ticking off some of the most talented players from the next gen like they’re flies waiting to be swatted away. It’s just embarrassing to hear reporters ask him about retirement, but I don’t blame them. I’d like to know when he plans to hang the racket on the wall only so that I can clear more of my life plans to accommodate watching him play live. 

 

       The Federer Nadal semi-final was potentially this years biggest tennis ticket. Given the gap between their last encounter at SW19, everyone treats these two meeting in any slam with the hanging assumption that it’s going to be their last. Nadal’s a way better competitor on grass against Federer than Federer is on clay against Nadal. By the sheer nature of their playing style, Federer has a slight upper hand on the lawn. Nadal has changed as a player over the past eleven years. He doesn’t run behind every ball like his life depends on it anymore. He keeps the points short, playing smarter than ever before. That’s not to say that his sledgehammer swinging forehand and signature reach is a part of the past. He can still do everything he could as a teenager on court, he just chooses exactly when to transform into his nineteen year old self sparingly now. The semi lived up to hype, Nadal saving four match points in a signature display of Fedal high octane drama before Federer managed to close out a fifth. 

 

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The difference between playing Nadal and Djokovic is very simple. Nadal fights pressure better than anyone else around. Djokovic internalizes it. It’s his biggest strength, and in my opinion the strongest part of his game. While Federer vs Nadal is a clash of opposites in terms of style (righty vs lefty, etc), Federer vs Djokovic is a literal clash of opposites in terms of the best strokes the game has on sale at the moment. Federer’s forehand and Djokovic’s backhand are the two best groundstrokes (in my opinion – ever) in tennis right now. Federer’s service as a package, keeping into account the accuracy, speed and spin is waaaay more effective than players who serve faster than him on an average, which clashes with Djokovic’s return – undoubtedly the best of all time (Yes, better than Agassi too). Federer’s brutally aggressive grass court game is checked and checked by Djokovic’s  brick wall defense from the baseline. 

 

Tennis is a cruel game in the sense that the outcome of matches is more dependant on which points you win rather than how many. Federer won more points than Djokovic did last night. In fact he served better, hit more winners, converted more breakpoints, did better at the net and yet – Djokovic scraped the win. On paper it seemed like there was hardly any difference between them. In fact, the match played out true to their styles of play. In set one and three, Djokovic displayed why he’s a perfect player on paper. He held serve, defended magnificently and edged the set in the tiebreak. In set two and four, Federer managed to break the Djokovic defence multiple times like a freak force of nature. These are times when and I quote Nadal’s autobiography – ‘You can’t play against Roger at his best. You have to keep telling yourself that this will wear out and his level will go down at some point. At these times, he’s unplayable.’

 

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Federer broke in the fifth set and was serving for the match at 40-15. The entirely of centre court wanted him to win. I had already kept a tweet composed – Some drivel about greatness is a concept that keeps getting — you get the gist. 

 

Now Djokovic turns into the best version of himself. 

I’m already in tears at match point. I can’t handle my nerves. I have two friends with me, one of who has passed out and the other is absolutely going to judge the living shit out of me because I’ve wet myself even before the match has ended. The mental strength it must take to swing through Federer’s shots at championship point with absolutely no fucks left to give and yet hit a clean winner is alien to me. It’s like how I felt when I sat through my first class of differential equations in the eleventh. I-can’t-fathom-it. This is what seals Djokovic as a player without any weaknesses. To beat him, you not only have to display a near perfect game but also realise that he’s capable of re-climbing the mountain you’ve trudged up once any amount of times to get the job done. Djokovic was raised in Belgrade when Serbia was being bombed by NATO. His formative years playing tennis were shaped by blasts late in the night. He learned to hit the ball and simultaneously look out for his life. It’s no wonder he plays when he’s down better than anyone else in the world. 

The life lesson I’m left with after the match is that for victory, genius is overrated. It can be fought. It can be beaten. Djokovic winning was no fluke. Those two championship points had nothing to do with luck. Billie Jean King had famously quoted ‘Pressure in tennis is a privilege’. Novak’s done something I thought was previously impossible in sport. He’s befriended it. By the end of the match Federer’s genius was crippled by Djokovic’s sheer display of guts. Despite being defending champion; he played in the most important points like he had nothing to lose. And won.

 

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The Grammar of Genius

We’ve finally made it to St.Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and despite several people having warned me about before I left, it has rendered me speechless. I’m struggling to take in the sheer grandeur of it. Mother, on the other hand has locked eyes with what she’s come here to see all the way. There’s a small horde of people in front of it. Behind them, behind what I’m sure is bulletproof glass sits a haunting marble recreation of Mother Mary holding the naked body of her dead son. Even with my below average understanding of art, I know what I’m seeing pure genius in front of me. I use this adjective very rarely, but if there are a couple of places where one can use it without any regret – The Pieta has to count as one of them.

Mother’s been teaching students about Michelangelo since the past three decades, I’ve watched these lectures turn from notes of paper to floppy disks to CD roms to interactive video essays. In my second year, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through them personally. Today, she’s seeing the sculpture with her own eyes. So am I, but I haven’t spent three decades studying every contour of it. That sculpture is her career. It’s been responsible for oooohh’s and aaaahhh’s in class, it’s been responsible for students failing semesters, it’s been responsible for doodles and jokes and wikipedia searches and kids getting kicked out of class for not giving a shit about it. It’s three decades worth of teaching sitting in front of her with frightening technical perfection. I mean that word. It’s perfect.

You have to understand what it feels like to finally see it. It physically impacts you. There are people standing in front of it transfixed, there are people who are silently crying, there are people desperately trying to freeze themselves in that moment by clicking a photograph or trying to sketch it. Couples are holding hands, small kids are asking questions, history teachers who have come with groups of kids are imitating a man chiselling away at marble, frat boys who’ve made ape like sounds looking at fig leafs covering dicks are staring open mouthed. The sculpture looms over everyone in its sheer arrogance.

If you’ve done a tour of the Vatican museums, this is the last point you’re going to be left at, which means by then you’ve already had an overdose of more art than you can deal with over a lifetime. You’ve seen Raphael’s School of Athens, you’ve seen Laocoon and his sons, you’ve seen Caravaggio, Apollo Belvedere, tapestries large enough to cover entire homes and maps you had no idea existed till you see them there for the first time. Heck, the token minuscule section of the Vatican Museums that houses contemporary art features Dali, Francis Bacon, Frida Kahlo, Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Van Gogh and Marc Chagall. It’s every name you’ve ever heard in every arthouse film, from every pretentious liberal arts friend and every person you’ve known who’s spent a week abroad and come back a seasoned critic. The Vatican museums have corridors leading to corridors which eventually end at the Sistine chapel exhibiting Michelangelo’s other magnum opus: the last Judgement – which looms over the sea of spectators all looking up desperately, trying to make the moment last till they’re booted out.

Yet, the Pieta is different.

It defeats the grandeur of the Basilica it’s in and if I haven’t mentioned already, the Basilica is the grandest, richest, vainest sign of opulence I’ve seen my entire life. It defeats all the art you’ve seen till that point, it erases out at that moment: every colour, texture and contour your mind has stored over the past few hours. It reduces you to silence. You want to shut the fuck up and think of some plausible myriad explanation to how a twenty three year old with a rock and a chisel came up with this. You want to know why you’re so untalented. You now have a benchmark for what ‘really really good is’. If you’ve had that benchmark already, you now know what the best is. You realise you’ve never been good and you never will be that good, no matter what Mrs.Rosy Fernandes said in the first standard, no matter what your Sheela Aunty told you when you drew that travesty of a scenery (seriously, the sun you drew in the middle of the mountains was smiling, it was that bad) on her birthday greeting card, no matter how many art competitions you’ve won. You’ve been below average at your best, and it’s nothing to be ashamed off. That’s just how it is. That phrase – ‘You’d have been great if you had put in effort – It’s a sham’. It’s just  not true. You know what’s worse, he didn’t even do it out of a burst of artistic inspiration. It wasn’t the byproduct of years of trying to find a voice. It was a paid gig. He made what would be known as the greatest masterpiece AD as a fucking freelance job. His brief was ‘To make something no one in Rome could better’ and he did it. Because no one has till now.

I don’t think mother can really take this moment. She’s been really ill over the past three days, and we’ve considered going back. Right now, it’s all forgotten. I ask her if she feels like giving me a personal lecture. She mumbles some random facts about how Michelangelo would mix colours and trails off but honestly, she doesn’t give a shit about me right now. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be her right now. Sixty years old, from a family of artists, to grow up in art school and see some of the brightest talent in the state year after year pale in comparison to to Goliath in front of her right now. I think of that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon ‘You could peel of every date and fact about Michelangelo, but you don’t know what it feels like to stand inside the Sistine Chapel’

I don’t think I deserve this moment. I think mother deserves to be alone with the entire sculpture to herself for at least a minute, but I don’t think Michelangelo deserves to be left for one person either.

“How many students have you taught in your life?”, I ask her.

“Over thirty years? Ten thousand at least’, she says.

“How many of them were extraordinary, like you knew there was something special about them?”

“About seven – eight”

“Anyone this good?”

“I don’t think even he knew he was that good.”, said mom very seriously. I chuckle. She doesn’t.

We sit in front of the sculpture for twenty minutes. Mother asks if I want to take a selfie in front of it with her. I take a photo of her alone instead. She checks it out and asks if I want to leave. I nod. On our way out, she stops.

“What happened?”, I ask her.

“I wanted to take a last look before I leave. I don’t think I’m ever going to come back”

She’s sixty. I disagree. I assure her she will. I tell her I’ll get her back soon. She smiles and tries her best to look like she’s convinced. We leave. We don’t talk for a while. A melancholic silence rests between us. We feel like every commoner in the midst of genius – defeated.

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Nanette: The Power of Pain

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For a lot of us who’ve attempted stand up comedy, there’s a sort of an urgency to hear laughter when you’re up on stage. We’ll do anything for it. We’ll pander, make jokes about ourselves, make jokes about our inability to make decent jokes about ourselves. What we long for at the end of our set is a physical reaction to a joke. Laughter. Lots of it. Nuance, honing our craft, slowly raising the bar of our material are all secondary to our first demand – laughter. They have to laugh. They’ve paid for a reason and there can be no two ways about it.

Over time, the way I’ve learnt to appreciate stand up has changed. I’ve grown to love and understand comics who’ve gotten people to laugh at their pain, or the darkest parts of their life. I’ve adored how Norm Macdonald disregards any form of pandering to his audience whether that means entire minutes of silence or ending in a lull. I’ve treasured Marc Maron’s ‘Too real’, which I found incredibly intimate and introspective. I loved Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, where you could see how much pain went into writing that special, post his wife passing away. I’ve been awestricken consecutively by Ali Wong through both Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife where she channels her indignation and anger into two perfect hours of stand up.

Cut to yesterday, where I finished Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette in basically a crumpled heap of emotions. Her special breaks every single rule of stand up I could think of, but I think Nanette’s crowning achievement is that you’re not meant to laugh through it, except where and when Hannah allows you to. It’s a masterpiece of craft and technique, and it’s impossible to last through it as a straight, male person without feeling a huge sense of guilt how at much privilege we enjoy simply by virtue of our gender and our position in society.

Gadsby confronts her early career that catapulted her to stardom pretty early in her set. She acknowledges how she’s built a career out of self deprecation. She mentions what it was like to grow up as someone who’s gay. She breaks down why we laugh and how comedy works as a unique relationship between creating tension and diffusing it. She explains how her gay identity has been a point of tension her entire life, so diffusing it came naturally to her. The initial moments in her set are light, they show no indication of how painfully real the rest of the hour is going to go. Gadsby reaches a point where she confronts how she’s constantly belittled and put herself through humiliation on stage to make other people laugh, and she doesn’t wish to do it anymore.

I think this point is very important to me, because I see the person behind the act renouncing everything they have done in their career to finally present themselves in a light that they want to be seen in. It’s the recognition that success doesn’t matter if you can’t work on stage on your own terms.

From this point on, Gadsby covers you with the tension which primarily forms the base of every set-up in comedy. She builds on it with every topic she covers. Whether that’s the entitlement of white, male artists (She uses Picasso to build a fantastic case), whether it’s how male comedians have built careers by victim blaming (by talking about Monica Lewinsky) or how she’s paid the price for other people’s homophobia for most of her life. By the end of her set, she declares that she’s angry, and that she realises it’s fine for her to be angry, but she can’t continue to work in comedy anymore, because comedy is a medium where anger is diffused. At this point the crowd (and I assure you, you will consider yourself a part of them) is silent. You want to be relieved. You want her to make you laugh, to say that it was all an act and that you’re allowed to laugh. But it doesn’t come. This is Gadsby at the height of her control, because she refuses to utter the punchline that allows you to walk home in peace. She doesn’t bend. She walks off stage.

“I am not helping you anymore, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all the time, because it is dangerous to be different.”

Every male comic I know (myself included) has at some point given a permutation of advice to a female comic to the tune of – Why are you so angry? Why does it bother you so much? Why can’t you talk about things that aren’t feminist? We do this because as straight, mostly upper caste male comics, we have no visible problems we can talk about at a personal level. It’s easy for us to be woke and cool, because we don’t have any pressure in our day to day lives of living in fear for who we are.  Gadsby’s special changes the very meaning of comedy to me because my eventual goal as a comedian cannot be to merely go up on stage and just make people laugh. It could start that way but it has to eventually be deeper . Comedy must question, it must make people think. More than anything else, if your obvious choice to make fun of someone or something are the threatened, you’re doing this wrong. As she says – Pull your fucking socks up!

Hannah Gadsby is testament that the cost of some of the worlds most memorable punchlines is often an entire life of pain. When a comedian grants us this privilege of a punchline they allow us to share their pain. With Hannah’s absolute refusal to let her audience share her pain, I’m convinced in her case, we don’t deserve to laugh at her genius. I hope she deigns us fit to some day.

I urge you to watch her special. It will question why you laugh at things, it will question what you laugh at and more than anything else, it will leave you with a gigantic question mark about everything you have ever made fun of in the past. It’s a work of art that won’t be replicated for a very long time.

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Bourdain – the Light in a Sea of Bullshit

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Every couple of weeks, I’ll dig up the truckload of memories I have from No Reservations or Parts Unknown and revisit my favourite episodes. Last week, I found a gem I didn’t remember watching as a kid. In this episode, Bourdain revisited the iconic New York Brasserie – ‘Les Halles’, where he used to work as the executive chef at one point. This was way before television stardom took him far away from the line. Not entirely satisfied with putting a very out of practice version of himself back in the kitchen for a nightmarish evening shift, he also dragged along Eric Ripert, the owner of Three Michelin starred Le Bernardin (Chef Eric, to put in context is to the world of cooking, what David Bowie is to music or what Jeff Koons is to art) The people in the restaurant were obviously flummoxed by the sight in front of them. I would be too if I walked in a restaurant and was told Eric Ripert personally fired my steak. As both of them struggled with age, Bourdain characteristically looked into the camera and acknowledged two things- 1) Returning to the kitchen was the exact nightmare he had imagined it would be 2) They were shit help. It’s the absolute honesty that everyone who binged on No Reservations or Parts Unknown had come to expect.

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Left: Chef Eric Ripert

The truth is most food writers don’t know their left butt-cheek from their right. They know they ‘like the taste’ but they have no clue what happens when acid hits meat or to summarise – the actual science behind why dishes taste good or bad. They have no idea what it means to eat a certain dish, the class it has developed from, for example – the millions of people who were so oppressed by the rich before they had no option to use the cheapest cuts to make a dish that’s become iconic over time. They start writing about food because they can afford expensive meals at restaurants others aren’t privileged enough to go to and create an illusion of insight. It’s so easy to befuddle a reader with an above average grasp of a language and no real critical insight. Bourdain to me was the first real deal. He worked and failed and reworked himself silly in kitchens for two decades before he started writing and talking about food. He actually spoke the language of the kitchen. When he went over to a city and broke the food down, he carried himself with the humility. Not once do I remember him acting like the legions of white talk show hosts who make it seem like they’ve tamed and made a region accessible to the west. Over a day of reading about people’s lasting thoughts of him I know that several others like me too wished he’d come and visit their hometowns. He seemed like the kind of a guy who you could feed the misal you eat, without alterations. Someone who wouldn’t say ‘That’s a little spicy for me’ or ‘Ugh. That’s like unhygienic’. One of my favourite lines of his about Indian food was ‘It’s spicy but it won’t kill you’, and he ate just like the rest of us do.

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The first article: This piece would go on to change the face of food journalism and make Bourdain’s career – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1999/04/19/dont-eat-before-reading-this

Bourdain’s refusal to keep politics out of a food show is what makes him such a titan. He recognised how inseparable they are. His work was politically charged because he understood what an absolute privilege it is to have a voice that’s heard by millions. His voice was loud and unfaltering whether it came to talking about Gaza, about Kissinger, about Harvey Weinstein and countless issues. Every show, whether it’s Chef’s Table or Ugly Delicious is a direct inspiration from the base he set. Simply talking about loving food can never be enough. Viewers deserve better.

I hated Mumbai when I got here half a decade back. I was staying in a shithole. The only way I realised I’d get myself to embrace the city a little was with food. I’d plan entire days around it. I marked the city out with restaurants I needed to get my ass to. You know the drill – you travel two hours to eat a oil well of a salli boti because three people guarantee it’s ‘the best thing ever’. It’s mostly still an oil well with floating hunks of meat in even when you do eat it but by then you’re so hungry you truly believe it’s amazing.

Food kept and keeps me truly happy in Mumbai. I owe everything I know about the city to it because it’s literally the only thing that gave me incentive to see and slowly love the place for what it is. Whether that’s screaming through a line of seventy people to eat the first batch of dosas at Cafe Madras, personally wrestling away servers at Thaker’s to insist you cannot and will not eat more servings of their thali just to keep them satisfied, sitting on the pot for an entire day after overdosing on calamari at Deluxe or having the rude as hell servers at Aaswad break into a rare smile and place a sabudana wada on your table without you asking for it, actually being rendered speechless; overwhelmed after eating at the Bombay Canteen…the warmest moments I’ve had in the past half a decade have been around food. It’s helped me come to terms with enjoying being alone and learning so much about who the people around you are with every single bite you eat. 

Bourdain is the solitary reason why I want to write and document food and he’s the sole reason why I will not do it. I won’t offer my expertise on a subject till I know it inside out. I refuse to be a part of a culture that encourages experts who have no idea what goes into the creation of a product. I

In Bourdain, we lose an a man who checked his privilege, corrected his faults with time and stood for what was right. His legacy stands beyond food. I don’t believe in an afterlife but for once, I really wish I did. The world would have come to stand-still to make sure to ensure he had a perfect final meal in the afterlife before moving on.

I always think of the film Ratatouille when it comes to anything about food. It was such a strange alchemy, the way Remy the rat and Anton the critic complete each other. I think of Anton’s speech at the end all the time, it’s a beautiful examination of the job of criticism (In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and theirselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.)

In Bourdain, we find the yin and yang of both, Remy and Anton – creator and critic. It’s going to be incredibly hard to find a replacement and in an unexplainable way, I hope we never do.

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THE RULES THAT ARE OKAY TO BREAK (IF YOUR DADDY’S NET WORTH IS 12.5 BILLION FUCKING DOLLARS)

Ananya Birla (my favourite musician ever wrote a beautiful article about her struggles. I noticed the editors left out a few minor changes in their last round so I did them for her) Her original link is at the bottom.

 

elderly parent

I never really felt like I fitted in at school. That’s mostly because any school available for my education was smaller than my dog Poofy’s Monte-Carlo holiday kennel.  I wrote the words ‘misfit’, and even ‘failure’ in my diary, because I knew they’d come in handy to throw at random at Miss Malini’s salivating PR team once I buy my social media following in the future.  I didn’t comfortably fit into certain boxes or categories, because knowing that my Puhpas’s company’s net worth of forty-five billion dollars in 2015 would usually send any of my commoner friends into a coronary breakdown and because breaking the rules is a luxury I can buy from the change left in my pilates track pants, understanding my privilege and not harping on about how ‘I’ve worked hard’ never really made sense to me.

But as I’ve grown up I found that being a Forbes frequenter have served me well. I always felt compelled to shake things up, to take the road less travelled, you know – because I can reach there in my private Jet giving Ramu Kaka (my personal pilot) a three minute notice. And I believe a lot of entrepreneurs go through the same thing because it’s amazing being  tone deaf and blind; saying absolutely whatever comes to the tip of my mind. 

I would never advocate being reckless, but I think it’s time we acknowledge that there is power and value in strategically swimming against the tide, especially when you understand I AM THE TIDE (Please recite this in the same Leviathanish way Vader does when he says ‘I am your father’) Breaking the “rules” (who wrote those, anyway? lulz conglomerates like daddy’s) is sometimes the most productive thing you can do for manifesting your vision because you will fail magnificently and will need to sell your O+ blood so you can afford instant noodles, whilst I will glide through the air with the same clinical efficiency as a peregrine falcon in a dive bomb) 

Here, I decided to share the rules I broke and why you should think about breaking them too (though this can be summed up with a single ‘Cuz I can afford to, bitch’)

 “Never work with friends or family” – because your family and friends are also poor. 

 What do you want from those who work with you in accomplishing your goals: loyalty, honest communication and shared passions? DO YOU HAVE A BILLION DOLLARS THO? NO?!?!? SHUT THE FUCK UP AND SLAVE AWAY YOU EEKIE COMMONER. Ugh. 

 I’ve found that the candidness, dedication, and the shared passions I have with my closest crew of friends has made them ideal colleagues. I understand that all of them are lying scumbag yes-men because if anyone had heard the travesty of a first song I produced (which I hear they regularly use now in both Guantanamo Bay and ISIS as a persuasive torture technique), they would have threatened me with harakiri before letting me publish it.   They get me, they get what I’m trying to create (lol) – mostly a parody of what would happen if baboons hit random keys on a piano if they’re starved for a week. When one of us succeeds (me) – we all succeed (also me). When it comes to my music, I need to be comfortable enough to expose myself creatively, to be ‘vulnerable’- a term I have heard of in the movie Love Actually and always wanted to experience but was shocked when Harrods said they don’t sell it wholesale.  The trust I have with my friends (and the eight digits that sing a Opera-esque melody when I swipe my black platinum debit card) make them the ideal people to help with my musical career. I forget sometimes that my name brought me to open for Coldplay whilst musicians who have sold their spleens to fund one final trip to Mood Indigo hoping they’d get noticed watched in utter shock, willing to blind themselves with a pitchfork than seeing Devraj Sanyal hiccup his way through calling me a musician online. 

 “Follow the crowd, don’t fight the current trends”

 When I had the idea for Svatantra, the public in India didn’t think very much of the microfinance industry. Microfinance means loaning small amounts of money at fair and affordable rates so rural women with little to spare can grow their businesses. But there were a lot of organisations around going by the name of ‘microfinance‘, who loaned money at extortionate rates. That tainted the industry’s reputationBut I believed in the potential benefits of microfinance – when it’s done RIGHT. Though I am doing fantastic work here, I feel like I forget hundreds of entrepreneurs who have had similar ideas have been asked to brand their backsides with a ‘I will say yes to every clause save sucking dick’ to get a measly round of funding allocated in return for a gigantic chunk of the business and one of horcruxes they had to make to get through it.

 When it comes to any business, you’re playing the long game. I come up with these gems of utterly obvious advice watching Suits and reruns of The Wire in my jacuzzi made from the remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (purana wala, haan) Five years on, Svatantra is thriving and so are many of the women who benefited from our approach to microfinance. Our customers speak for themselves, and their success is shifting the way people view microfinance. (TBH, Svatantra is pretty cool and it has helped a ton of women, so credit where it’s due well done AB. I’d never want to belittle her efforts with mental health or micro financing female entrepreneurs . She’s done amazing work there. Let’s move on to stuff I don’t feel bad taking a dig at)

 Don’t dream too big” – Teri aukat thodi hi hai.

I was obsessed with music ever since I was young. But even when I was at college, performing regularly and writing my own material, I was still scared to tell other people that this was what I wanted to do with my life because they would have rightly fallen on their knees and begged me to leave the guitar at Furtados. It’s so important to realise that life is short and in order to be happy we must do what we’re really passionate about, especially when I, unlike y’all can afford to resurrect Jimi Hendrix for a remedial tutorial in how to tune a guitar. My dream is to be the first Indian artist to break into the commercial international music arena. Has it been done before? No. Does that mean it’s impossible to buy? Certainly not! Do you know what is possible in a paltry four million dollars? I’ll tell you. I can host my OWN FUCKING NH7 and NOT RELY ON A COMEDY COLLECTIVE TO LAUNCH FUTURE HEADLINING ACTS VIA YOUTUBE. BTW ON A SIDE NOTE HONESTLY, HOW MANY TIMES WILL RAGHU DIXIT DANCE TO LOKADA KADAJI BEFORE THE PUNE CROWD GETS BORED.

When I decided to set up Svatantra, I was just 17 and people told me I was dreaming., because that’s an age when normal people hallucinate into oblivion looking at the EMI’s on college loans. 

 Only you know if you have the fortitude and inner resources (See how I played this card) to withstand failure or criticism. In my case my AMEX card acts like a ‘protego’ like shield so I have never experienced either. I hear several Muslims went to Haj specially to beg the prophet, peace be upon him to never have me produce a song again.  That’s when I unleashed ‘Meant to Be’ – the song that made the Gallagher brothers unite and Key and Peele split.

Bots are beginning to respond really positively to my work, my last song went platinum in India via the hard work put in by teenagers employed by clickfarms in Tuvalu and we had loads of radio plays and streams from around the world (other farms in Mozambique, Djibouti, Mauritius, etc). 

When you begin writing a song it can be intimidating, just you and a blank page and in my case absolutely not the slightest mirage of talent. But amazing producers across the world stepped forward to work with me (I wonder why sometimes, it baffles me), from Atlanta to Oslo, and now I have four songs coming out early next year that…let me just say if you found my last two songs bad – this lot is going to make those bad boys look like Gimme Shelter and Yellow Submarine.

“Work day and night. Your vision should completely consume you.” 

Now see you guys, I have a brunch reservation waiting for me at the new Noma and Rene Redzepi’s going to personally feed me hand fished molluscs covered with truffle oil. Work hard and all okay? Love you bye xoxo

This guest post was edited for posterity by Sumedh Natu and is an article of satire)

 

Here’s the original – http://www.mscareergirl.com/2018/01/01/the-rules-that-its-okay-to-break/

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The Two Best Episodes of Bojack Horseman

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To me, the most poignant moment in ‘Fish out of Water’, the iconic no dialogue episode in the third season of Bojack Horseman wasn’t the twist ending, which was the highlight for most of the people I discussed it with. It’s the part where Bojack is offered money for returning the seahorse newborn home, and for the first time in the life hasn’t expected a material gain for something he’s gone out his way for. His first act of selflessness has gained him no love, only a chance to make money (that he doesn’t need at all). It’s that look of real hope he casts in the general direction of the seahorse babies, unable to recognise which one was his the entire while, as he gets no validation from the entire family that’s not only heartbreaking but also extremely funny. That to me, in a nutshell is what makes the show one of the best comedies to have ever been created, because it celebrates the humour in failure, in tragedy, and even more – the humour in sympathy where there should be none.

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This season, Bojack presents ‘Time’s Arrow’, another masterclass in visual storytelling. The entire episode is a series of flashbacks from the point of view of Bojack’s dementia ridden mother, as she struggles to recognise her son and most of her past. Even before getting into what the episode is about I think the very fact that they chose to make an episode centered around his mom Beatrice, shown as a constant villain through the series is slightly eerie. Bojack’s recollections of his mother have throughout the series been painful. It’s very evident that Bojack blames a large part of his ability to not love on his parents, particularly his mother. It’s very evident that he was never appreciated as a kid, from which stems his need for constant approval, often through romance. Switching to the perspective of Beatrice this season, de-villainizes her, because for the first time in four seasons, we’re seeing things from her point of view. Bojack’s mother has reached this stage now where she doesn’t recognise her son. It’s even more infuriating for Bojack because from his point of view, this is the only stage of life where he has a crushing upper hand over her. Her refusal to address him by his name, confusing him with the name Henrietta (the name of her old domestic help) is indicative how bad a state she’s in.

Even more than the premise, it’s how Bojack beautifully blends a very unique visual style to enhance the emotional value what makes this episode stand out. Since we’re seeing memories through his mother’s point of view, some people are are hazy, while some the people who she remembers aren’t. Her first memory of trauma, where she is thrown off a long slide by a group of childhood bullies – a goose and two humans (which her father calls a gaggle of bullies lmao) is oddly deformed. The slide is exceptionally long, way longer than any children’s slide could have been. In her head, being bullied off that slide was a particularly painful memory. The slide’s length adds to her despair. Bojack’s mother remembers her own husband, And the actual Henrietta, whose face has been scribbled over in her memories. As the episode progresses, you realise that Bojack has a stepsister, the result of his father’s affair with their maid.

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It amazes me how much Bojack’s writers test their audience.  By cutting out dialogue in ‘Fish out of Water’, the writers were forced to make the visual gags in the episode strong enough that they heightened the emotional leverage of the episode. Without any understanding of English, you could watch that episode with no background of who Bojack is and feel a unexplainable grief by his failure to find love in a world which is alien to him. Almost reminiscent of Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, Bojack’s lack of etiquette in the underwater world and his helplessness to calm his anxiety with his usual coping mechanism of alcohol and smoke, is heartbreaking.

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Cutting out dialogue in a way cripples both us viewers. Someone in the midst of a tragedy, who is unable to voice his frustration is a paragon of grief. It’s his inability to voice his discomfort that makes Bojack in that episode a victim for a change.  Similarly, in ‘Time’s Arrow’, we are crippled this time by visual if not dialogue. Beatrice’s selective memories make us keep wondering how delusional she actually is. Despite what appears to be a very troubled past, there’s no full clarity on what happened to her right until the end of the episode. Beatrice flits between timelines, her memories becoming more painful by the minute, which Bojack has no access to. It’s the last five minutes of ‘Time’s Arrow’ that are really gutting. There is no love lost between Bojack and his mother at this stage. There’s nothing that’s keeping him from locking his mother up in a decrepit old asylum. Yet when his mother finally recognises him, Bojack at her weakest doesn’t remind her that she is going to be lonely for pretty much the rest of his life, that he is done taking care of her. For the first time in the series, he too falls prey to nostalgia and tells her that she is not in an asylum but in their old house, that they’re back in the small part of his memories which bring him happiness (brilliantly revisited in the second episode) He reminds her that they are completely at peace, watching the stars in the sky and relishing a very basic vanilla ice cream. He asks her if she can taste its flavour before the episode cuts to credit. It’s gutting because despite how awful their relationship has been Bojack can’t bring himself to cut loose. There’s a very small part of him that unconditionally loves her and immediately comes forth to let her live her illusions.

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I spent the entire third season of Bojack wanting to believe, like everyone else, that though he seemed like a complete asshole on the outside, somewhere very deep down, Bojack is a nice person at heart. I then concluded that he wasn’t. It’s strange, the morality of Bojack Horseman, because despite your troubled past, you don’t get your slack cut for your misdemeanours in the present. This season of Bojack has followed its trademark mix of humour coupled with bouts of real pain and grief. This season has left me feeling that maybe, just maybe, even at your worst, you do deserve –

 

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Ganesh Chaturthi as an Atheist

Yesterday marked the first time in twenty-five years I missed Ganesh Chaturthi in Pune. Usually, I make it a point to spend the first couple of days in Pune before getting back to work in Mumbai, because those two days mean a lot to me. It’s not because I’m religious, I’m as much of an annoying atheist as anyone can be. It’s been one of the last family traditions I have left I try to follow. Invariably this year, that’s broken as well.

Pune transforms during Ganesh Chaturthi. The sarcastic scowls that adorn everyone’s face in Pune for pretty much the rest of the entire year are replaced by a genuine temporary smile. There’s incredible warmth in the air, which I’d like to believe is simply because of how well fed everyone is. Buying sweets becomes a gladiator like sport; there’s banter moving in very fierce currents between customers and shopkeepers. Kids line up with huge aluminum boxes, with strict  and precise instructions about how many modaks  they’re supposed to come back with. There’s the ever present fear that one’s family might just have to present a meal to the Lord without a decent steamed modak, which I admit is very frightening. All this, combined with Pune’s perfect almost-autumn weather makes this stretch of ten days one of those annual stretches of time you start counting down from the beginning of the year.

I was brought up really religious, but never religious in the crazy ‘you have to do this because the gods will eat you in the afterlife’ way. Father was never god-fearing, he doted on the idols he worshipped. Besides that, he was a huge on science.  Which was insane. Because he wouldn’t ever endorse the superstitious bullshit that usually accompanies religion. He made a strong distinction between his faith and the influence of religion over his day to day morality. Which meant that he made sure he never made me do things for the heck of it. He’d always explain the meaning of whatever I was saying in Sanskrit and it was never an imposition for me to prove my faith. I worshipped the gods because I enjoyed it. It brought me a sense of peace. When I was really small, I had once placed pieces of egg in the ancestral idol of Ganesh in our prayer room. Mother had freaked out when she saw it, and I half expected father to lose it. I had really meant it as prasad. Father had been really pleased. He said it was one of the most sincere forms of a prayer he had seen. From that day we offered meat (basically whatever we cooked) to the gods as prasad. It was a mark of respect, more than an actual offering to them.

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I also grew up obsessed with Indian mythology. When we were in the second or third standard we had one of those typical mid-term assignments where we had to read out a story to the class from our favourite books. I had picked Bheeshma, from the Amar Chitra Kathas.  Now to be fair, he won over Tintin and Timmy the dog from the Famous Five series, but I genuinely saw him as a hero in the same vein as a bunch of my friends saw Batman or Superman. I loved the Mahabharata, and it’s been a wish of mine to adapt it ever since I read it as a comic book series and saw it transform on screen on Zee TV’s Mahabharata (which was just awful in every way possible). I took a special liking to Karna and Bheem and for some strange reason Drona’s son, Ashwatthama, who I always felt was wrongly represented.  Keeping the religion away from them was beautiful, because then they became like any other comic books, and their stories were just fantastic.

Ganesh Chaturthi was in itself, my favourite stretch of ten days in the year. There’s an air of such purity in every house in Pune. It’s a celebration of utter avarice. My mother would clarify for months before the day vowing to ‘keep things simple’ before demolishing her previous years’s spread by adding at least two more items. Our maids ate everyday at our home often making excuses to stay past their work time, which often made me wonder how badly the other households they worked at treated them.  Mother was religious depending on her mood. About a day before Chaturthi, she would declare solemnly that owing to the sudden onset of her periods, she would be unable to pray or partake in the puja. Father and I would laugh this off because neither of us had any problem breaking the old fashioned rules that demand a woman’s withdrawal from publically showing her faith during her menstrual week. I figured that my mother never liked saying that she just didn’t care for the puja directly. She needed an excuse to back it. If that’s what made her comfortable, so be it. She would channel all her energy in cooking and we’d have a feast ready on Chaturthi.

I would always wake up on Chaturthi morning to the smell of sandalwood. My father, who would usually personify sloth would be hard at work muttering his choicest complaints like ‘no one keeps things where they’re supposed to be’ or ‘So! You’ve finally woken up, when are you going to grow up and help around a bit’.  I would rush out to buy durva, the grass the elephant in Ganesh supposedly likes, the singular lotus flower meant to appease him and a collection of sweets for all the guests in the evening. I’d portion the five elixirs made as a basic offering to Ganesh – milk, honey, curd, ghee and jaggery. After the praying was done we’d eat through the seven courses mother had prepared while her eyes flashed at any signs of weakness from us. After the guests who came to pay homage to our idol left, after the evening prayers were done and the kitchen had (finally) been cleared and the refrigerator was groaning under the stress of mother’s amazing cooking we’d have a dreamless sleep. Here’s the thing though, I would sleep in absolute peace.

After father passed away, I stopped praying. There was a part of me that was incredibly pissed off that a man so utterly religious could have died without any warning. It was about the same time that I grew an absolute disdain for religion. Slowly and steadily, the prayer room started catching cobwebs. The gods were cleaned not out of a sense of devotion, but like any other furniture in the house. Ganesh Chaturthi became a day to celebrate nostalgia, more than anything else. My mother and I would have a quiet meal and spend the day like any other.

In my second year of college, I joined three of my juniors (who would later become my work partners) as we shot footage through ten days in the interiors of Pune, in the heart of the city. The sheer exuberance of the celebration there is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We shot through the late hours of the night scaling the tallest buildings around hoping to get decent footage. It was magical. For the first time I saw Ganesh Chaturthi at its most magnificent. A bunch of my batchmates from college who had badgered their parents into buying them a DSLR were around. It felt nice to belong though, as someone who had been a part of this for two decades. That’s a sense of belonging that I haven’t felt outside of Pune, because the way Chaturthi is celebrated in Pune is a very pure memory in my head.

You know, I’ve had a very weird relationship with religion. I’m as absolute an atheist as I can be right now, but I’ve seen myself transition from someone who was extremely religious, to someone who hated every aspect of religion to someone more accepting now. I feel like if you keep the absolute morality and legislation out of religion, there’s no harm seeking salvation with an idea of a creator.

It’s so weird, but I’ve spent seven years since I haven’t bothered praying. I still haven’t had a day where I’ve felt the absolute sense of peace I’ve felt during my childhood during the festival. I went to Dadar,for a meal last night (a huge part of Mumbai’s Maharashtrian community lives there) to salvage some of the homesickness I had since morning and it felt nice.

I saw a kid carry an idol home on the streets last night. He had such a familiar looking glint in his eye while his father walked alongside, reminding him to be careful where he walked. It felt like home. Simpler times, way more heartfelt.

 

 

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