Category Archives: Media

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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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

Over the past year we’ve seen so many of our idols fall prey to their own problematic behavior. I feel no remorse for them. Fuck Louis CK, fuck Woody Allen, fuck Mario Batali and Morgan Freeman and every other person we’ve admired at one point. They don’t deserve pity or sympathy. Their work in my opinion deserves to whither. Which is what makes this particular loss hard. 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 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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Christopher Nolan’s Magnificent History Lesson About Survival

In the tenth standard, we had an entire chapter dedicated to the Second World War. Amongst the several terribly written paragraphs, there were only three lines about Dunkirk’s famous retreat. Our professor had read them out verbatim to us without elaborating on any of them, without sharing any explanation about why the incident was important and had told us to underline one of the three lines. The line as I remember clearly was – Winston Churchill called the Dunkirk retreat a ‘miracle of deliverance’.  He reminded us it would come as a ‘fill in the blank’ in the exam and that was that. All I knew about Dunkirk’s evacuation was that single fill in the blank.

 

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I walked out of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ yesterday feeling cheated out of a history lesson in my school days. The movie is an exhausting watch and I recommend you see it as it’s meant to be, not on a digital platform, not on your laptops, but in a cinema hall; preferable IMAX. It’s one of the most haunting, involving films I’ve seen in a while and judging by the number of people who had their hands over their mouths in graphic horror shortly before the unnecessary interval, I wasn’t the only person who felt like an eyewitness to the entire tale.

In many ways, most of great war films are remembered for the human story behind them. Saving Private Ryan, Paths of Glory (my personal favourite), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Even Band of Brothers (which follows Easy Company from England to Germany) concentrate on the personal story of the soldiers behind the larger incident. In Dukirk’s case, I felt strangely detached from the characters. Nolan doesn’t offer you the time to build a connect with any of his ensemble, swiftly intercutting between the air, sea and land in three non-linear timelines to maintain the feeling of constant danger and panic at a high point right from the very beginning. That I feel, is the heart of why the film works so well, what makes it a ‘Nolan’ film, because we’re effectively watching what’s supposed to be an hour in the sky, a week of land survival and roughly a night of sea battle cut with the same degree of importance. Failure during any of these time periods has only one eventuality – certain death.

The film begins with an empty street in Dunkirk, propaganda posters falling silently through the air while British soldiers carefully make their way through. Hans Zimmer’s eerie notes almost preempt the start of violence, a constant pattern through the film, with each segment like a mini-movie within itself. Four of the Brits are gunned down by Germans, leaving Fionn Whitefield the only survivor; as he bolts into French barricades before heading to the ships. Whitefield, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles lead the subplot on the ships, as they hopelessly try to survive till aid reaches. Nolan never cuts to the Germans, he never at any point intercuts to who is firing from the ground, or inside their cockpits, or for the matter within the confines of their U-boats. We never see a single German face, or hear the word ‘Nazi’. The only interaction a viewer has with the German army is direct onslaught.  This constant presence of a faceless enemy is disconcerting to watch, because there’s no predictability in their attack. As a viewer you experience it only at the moment the Brits do.

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Nolan’s mastery grasp over technique is indisputable. The film belongs to his crew just as much as it belongs to him. The flight shots, which are some of the most minimalistic and surreal shots I’ve seen in a war film work in complete antithesis to the chaotic mess soldiers on the ground are in.  Hoyte Van Hoytema’s raw camera comes closest to virtual reality; working in tandem with Zimmer’s unique, jarring soundtrack. It works up a crescendo in every sequence slowly, building up a gradual fear arcing to panic. Nolan’s erraticness of action, his decision to actually show how random war is and the absolute uncertainty of who/what will be hit next, who will have an upper hand, who will luck favour in the next five minutes is what keeps you on the edge of your seat

In a scene where a torpedo strikes one of the rescue ships, soldiers have just been fed warm tea and bread and are totally off guard.  The resultant feeling of suffocation, as water bursts into the chamber is so intense, so sudden that you barely get time to adjust to it, to tell yourself that it’s happening on screen. Unlike a lot of directors, Nolan allows these moments of strike to play in wides without cutting to the actual projectile detonating. He makes sure one gets to view the chain reaction of soldiers reacting to a threat, never letting you know where exactly the damage will happen. He emphasises how much luck dictates survival in a war.

 

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Tom Hardy’s entire portion in the air is almost like a reprise of his stellar work in Locke, as he powers through a third of a movie with just his eyes and his voice.  You’d think that as the biggest star in the film, he’d be given more coverage. That it would be logical to show his narrative as the most important. Nolan doesn’t do that. He treats him as an equal to the rest of his characters. His soldiers are kids. They aren’t older men playing younger parts, they’re actually young.

To me the film belongs to Mark Rylance, who plays a British civilian sailor representative of the hordes of non-navy personally called to bail out the troops from the beach. There’s a strange inevitability of having accepted impending doom in his demeanour to try and help his country. Yet, his character is as much of a fighter as any of the troops. His storyline is a constant reminder through the film that its theme isn’t about war, but about survival and to me, that’s what makes Dunkirk unique. None of the soldiers in the film are looking out for the romanticised glory so typical of war films. They want to go home. They can see England from where they are and they’re willing to do anything they can to cross and reach there.

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Above: Mark Rylance playing Mr. Dawson.

Nolan’s the first director whose work I fell in love with in college. He was a posterboy for films we wanted to direct in our first year. There were a countless others like me. We all wanted to make a film where the top continues spinning in the end. We all fell in love with the ambiguity of his endings, the idea that we don’t owe our watchers an explanation to a concrete resolution. We also grew out of it, eventually coming to terms that his films do have flaws, and that aping the style of someone whose intentions you don’t understand isn’t the wisest thing to do. Dunkirk takes me back to the days where I was blown away by the audacity of what he was doing on stage. It’s not the greatest war movie ever made, but it’s certainly a modern masterpiece. Watch it in the theatres please! You’re going to be making a very, very strong long time memory.

 

 

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Uncle bought a Mercedes Benz today.

Half an hour before father’s evening prayers, the house unwillingly tries to adjust its mood to something more sombre. The television shuts down without fail, always disconnected from the main switchboard, never by only the remote. Nanda bai is given her daily reminder to not grind masalas in the kitchen. A dull silence takes over in fifteen minutes, broken only by father’s monotonous singing of selected verses from the Bhagwat Gita while he bathes. Our bathroom door doesn’t close properly, which allows steam to waft through the corridors connecting my room and his. As he reaches the end of the shloka, which I’ve memorised verbatim over years of hearing it again and again, he barks out my name where after I’m expected to fetch turmeric and sandalwood from the kitchen. Father needs the paste to be of a certain consistency. I grind the sandalwood blocks in the kitchen just as I hear the bathroom door open, to make sure it’s fresh and moist enough for prayers. By this time, the entire corridor is flooded with steam and one can barely see the door to the small prayer room at the side.

Our prayer room is the only room in our seventy year old house which hasn’t been touched by renovation. My father and his father before him were very vocal about this. As your cross the boundary of the room, the marble turns to wood, the cream paint that adorns most of my house, save the cracks that land up uninvited till you throw them out during Diwali – slowly vanish to red brick. One’s eyes immediately flash eastwards, towards the main statue of Ganpati kept there in a silver devhara, our only real family heirloom. It’s solid silver, but father refuses to let me clean it with acid because of which it’s become a dull shade of grey. I’ve often asked father how much it’s worth with the antique value of three hundred years backing it, but he refuses to tell me, sometimes even demanding how a son/daughter of his could dare put a price on something so valuable to the family.

Something strange happened today. My father didn’t go straight for a bath and rush to pray after coming home. Instead, he sunk himself in one of the sofas and handed me his wallet. He told me to walk up to the corner and buy a full box of pure ghee pedhas, the ones with powdered sugar on top of them. Years of asking questions and never getting answers from father has conditioned me to simply following instructions. I walked towards the corner where six shops have been standing for a decade without a hint of change to what they sell. The way was littered with Gulmohor pods, just about to flower. I made a mental note to stock these up for school tomorrow. They’re filled with water and make for excellent ammunition to fire mid way through Geography class.

There’s a dwarf that sits on the large stone slab separating Chitale Sweets and Joshi Sweets. He polishes shoes for the entire neighbourhood. I used to be really scared of him when I was small. There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t seen him sitting in his canvas shelter, never bothered by the weather, always flashing a smile to all the regulars. He overhears every conversation that transpires in both the shops, often wincing when people order the wrong things from both the places. He waved cheerily as I entered the lane and asked me if I saw Thursday’s match. I told him I had and added that Ganguli was indeed the star of the game. Pleased at my critical insight, he swore at Sri Lanka, who we had fought, threw a mango toffee at me and picked up the brush and a tub of very brown polish.

The two sweet-shops are almost sacred in Pune’s rigid culinary space. Chitale Sweets is known just as much for its eccentric and rude salesmen as it is for it’s paper thin saffron Jilbis, which people from neighbouring towns have been heard to make entire day trips for. A visit inside is never complete till you’re shown the sweets the servers believe you’re worth. They never greet you, they never smile at you. Over the years, people have warmed up to this show of arrogance. They don’t mind the stabs of humiliation one goes through while one begs and reminds the man behind the counter that a kilogram stands for a thousand grams, not nine hundred and fifty. Only the choicest regulars, the inner circle of buyers who have grown old along with the store get access to the fresh lot of sweets. Still, no one can deny how exquisite the produce from the place is.

Which brings us to Joshi sweets, owned by one of Pune’s oldest families. Every generation that’s owned the outlet has fought bitterly in a very, very public spat worse than the previous one. Every decade a rumour resurfaces where close friends of the family swear by their blood that the shop will shut down any day. It never does. The sweets have not changed in their taste in over a hundred years, a fact verified time and again by their oldest customers. The Joshis are the antithesis of the Chitales. One is welcomed inside with one’s first name. One is asked what one wishes to buy and subsequently taken to every other counter other than the one one wishes to carry out business with. As one is just about to leave the store with the shopping bags heavier and one’s wallet lighter, one is reminded – have you forgotten your so and so? And one has to buy a final item. The portions are always large and the taste is rustic and raw with flavour. There is never any delicate garnish, no sprinkles of dainty gold foil, just eight glass counters and barrels of the choicest food.

I have to admit, I’m loyal to neither. Father never touches anything post the doormat at Joshis, so it’s going to be me facing the Chitales today.

Almost to reaffirm what people whisper saying, the shopkeeper served three people who walked into the store after me reminding me each time – Old people are more important. I sat on a stool, listening to the unbearably monotonous chorus of ‘Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram’, which plays there on loop every single minute of the day. Father had once told me that  old man Chitale had been told to chant Lord Ram’s name ten thousand times a day if he wanted a male heir to his empire of sweet shops. Ever since, he’s played the cassette on loop. It never stops. He even has it as his cell phone ring-tone, just in case. After quizzing me with several questions about school, how my preparations for the terminal examinations were going on and how my sister was doing in college, he measured half a kilogram of pedhas, made sure the sum total was four ninety five grams and pushed the packet in my hands.

I thought about school. Today was an eventful day at school. Yellow house defeated green for the first time in six years to win the annual sports day overall championship. There is no way this could have happened without a certain amount of red tape involved, we suspect Anshuman Thombre, who was seen sneaking out of the PT sir’s house last Sunday. Yellow have had a terrible history at excelling in anything, so it was quite the day for anyone unfortunate enough to have been drawn into the house. I cycled home like any self respecting student, extremely indignant that we’d have to deal with all of them gloating for the next year.

Father was already standing in the backyard by the time I reached home. Our old Esteem was dripping water by the time I walked into the driveway. Our watchman Baban, an old wrinkly fellow with an awful amount of hair sprouting out from his ears and who, to be fair would have been removed a long time back if it hadn’t been for the fact he had served us for a while looked at me approaching and declared that my uncle was going to visit. It always bothered me that he was privy to father’s intimate days months before I was. He would share with me the less harmful details of the future he had overheard, just to remind me how important he was.

Father checked the contents of my purchase to verify if I had brought what he asked. He asked me if I got a receipt, followed by the change. He asked if I had counted it. I replied affirmative to all three counts. He pushed an open palm at my watchman, who placed a packet of 555 cigarettes in his hand. Father opened the packet and lit one up. He would smoke either while he was driving, or when he was having a great conversation with someone, or when he was edgy. He didn’t qualify for the first two right now.  I had no idea why father was so nervous about his brother coming over. Kaka used to stay in America, and had just recently shifted back to Pune. He was always fun to hang around, had hilarious stories about what it was like to be an Indian in America. He still spoke perfect Marathi, which I find really funny, because I can’t. Mine seems strange and foreign. He would switch from an American accent in English to a perfect Kokanastha Brahman accent in Marathi right between sentences, which was very disconcerting the the ears.

The first thing he noticed was that the car had wipers on its headlights. That was a huge deal. What an important vehicle this must be, if its lights needed wipers, he thought. He remembered all the scrap books he had made with entire pages filled with cut-outs of the Mercedes-S class, the Mercedes-M class and so on. The star looked exactly like one of those. It was raven black and shiny to the point where one could use it as a mirror if one wanted. As his uncle parked the car, the smell of fresh leather and foam started taking over the wintery smell of Gulmohor and Chapha. He looked at his father, who nodded before his son could ask the question.

He screamed and jumped on his uncle as soon as he got out of the car. Why didn’t you tell me? When did you get it? Why did you get black? Didn’t they have blue? How many people know? Does it have a phone inside like they say it does – were some of the questions he fired without a seconds pause for an answer.

The uncle touched his father’s feet. They hugged. His father reminded the uncle to offer the pedhas as a prasad to Lord Shankar, without whose mercy the father was sure this extravagance would not have been possible. The boy opened the door and sat marvelling at all the knobs and buttons inside. There’s a real phone here, he exclaimed looking at the car’s satellite phone, a device useless in Indian territory. The boy pressed the first button on the dashboard and the car whirred into life, its mirrors slowly coming out. We need to do this by hand, he reminded his father. He pressed a second button and the windows disappeared into the car, all automated. How many hours of his life he had spent wrestling with the rear windows in their Esteem, he remembered. He pressed the horn and the car blared out a sound so unique he was sure all the neighbours along the street would come out to take a look. He was wrong, for his neighbours were already watching. Some from their balcony like Mr Yadav, with a cup of tea and khari ready at the side. Some had walked to the porch almost disappointed to find out that it didn’t belong to a celebrity, perhaps from the television shows. The uncle pulled the boy’s cheeks and reminded him that the car belonged to all of them. The boy demanded they go for a drive. The uncle asked the father if he’d like to drive all of them along. The father insisted his son and the uncle go on their own, he would watch them from the distance.

The boy was anxiously watching through the car windows. He really wanted his school friends to see him. Of course, he would tell them about the drive anyway, but the actual thrill of having their jaw drop without any sort of warning was what he was hoping for. Neither Utkarsh nor JP were playing in their porch. He cursed their timing at being unproductive.

The car cruised through the lanes of Pune, orange with fallen Gulmohor. People craned their necks to look inside the car. The boy made sure he didn’t make eye contact. Other kids on the road excitedly jumped and pointed to their fathers and mothers, who ruffled their hair and told them not to point. At the signal, a college graduate of Pune’s prestigious Fergusson college poked his girlfriend, who assured him that he too would drive such a car one day. The boy decided it was time he showed of his vast knowledge about automobiles, and quizzed his uncle with a volley of questions about the BHP of the car, the torque and so on. He had no idea what any of them meant of course. The uncle knew this but complied. The boy made notes in his head, he knew he’d have to add this when his friends would argue about how powerful the car really is tomorrow in school.

They passed by Law colllege and went past Kanchan Galli, where the foothills of Pune’s hill start from. As they crossed Maggi Point, a spot made famous by its serving of India’s favourite instant noodles, the uncle asked the boy if he’d like to drive. The boy naturally wanted to but was very forthcoming about his lack of maneuverability in controlling the vehicle. The uncle chuckled and asked him to sit on his lap. The boy complied. Now keep one hand here, and keep the other here, instructed the uncle in a voice that resembled his father’s except it didn’t have the pages of safety instructions his father would have mentioned before.

The boy turned the steering slowly, his uncle making sure he didn’t turn to much. The car turned obediently. The boy was thrilled. He couldn’t wait to grow up and stop pedalling for a change. He asked his uncle whether he could put his foot on the accelerator and change the gear, but his uncle said no. A few more years and I’ll teach you he added, as an afterthought.

The father was still waiting downstairs when the drive was over. He invited his brother for dinner but the uncle refused, lying about a prior commitment at the Gymkhana. The father didn’t try to force him into coming. The boy demanded to know when they’d go out together, the uncle laughed and said they’d plan a long trip to Rajgad or any of the many forts scattered around the Maharashtrian countryside. He reminded his nephew to hang from the bar every day and stretch his spine, the boy promised he would.

Father stared at me again, and he pushed the box of pedhas I had brought a little while back at me. I passed it to my uncle. He opened it, finished one in a single bite and gave me the box back. I thanked him for the drive and he pulled my hair. You don’t need to be formal with me, he said. I’m your uncle, not an outsider.

The house was silent and dark when we walked upstairs. The lights in the prayer room, which are usually gleaming bright by now, had been forgotten. Father threw the house keys on the sofa and asked me how my day was at school. He asked me how prepared I was for the terminal exams. I said I had finished reading all my books once. I would finish reading them again by the time the exams started. Father told me he was very proud he had me as his son. He started walking towards his bedroom. I asked him if I should prepare sandalwood for the pooja later. No need, he said.

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Artwork credit: Aditya Phadke
Instagram – Artyaditya

Story by Sumedh Natu

Twitter, Instagram – @sumedhnatu

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ARNAB GOSWAMI’S SILENCE

Hey guys,

A lot of people followed the blog a couple of years back and I haven’t been that regular writing anymore. I’ve been meaning to write to the few of you who’d wait for posts just explaining what I’m doing, but I haven’t and I apologise for that. I’ll be doing that very soon. I have however, taken my articles to video and I’ve been trying to create a Nerdwriter1, Every Frame A Painting, Crashcourse format here in India that’ll benefit our content. This is the pilot of that effort.

I hope you guys like it. Your feedback is ever welcome.

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