Category Archives: Media

How Zakir Khan makes you feel ‘ARREY TUM BHI BHAI?!?!  LOLWAMAX MAI BHI!!!”

          I’ve been watching live stand-up comedy for close to a decade now. It’s a performing art form that’s particularly close to me, and has helped me get through some of my darkest times in the past few years. I make it a point to attend at least one show a week, whether that’s an open mic, a curated show or a special. Earlier this week, I went to watch Zakir Khan trying out an hour of new material at the Cuckoo Club in Bandra. It was the first time I saw him perform, save the bits he’s uploaded on youtube. I have to admit, I have never experienced anything like it. The way he packages nostalgia into elaborately detailed hyper-visual stories is miles above anything else in the scene right now. As a storyteller, he is unparalleled in India.

 

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          There’s no better way of discovering a stand up comedian than on stage. No online clip, no Netflix special can cut it. I felt this way the first time I went for a first stand up gig (Pre AIB Tanmay Bhat and a guitar playing very politically incorrect Daniel Fernandes in Pune) and I continue to feel this way even today. The feeling of being a personal subject of the flow of comedy at that moment, whether that’s for five minutes or an hour is an experience in itself. That’s the part you miss online. The bits you experience on youtube are a comedian’s best bits, honed and perfected over years of doing them. By the time he or she puts these up, they’re kinda ready to trash them from their set. There’s a lot of nuance in selecting the right shot for the right punchline, closing up when there’s a need for intimacy and cutting to a wide when the viewer needs to sit back and enjoy the set up to a joke. You don’t realise it, but you’re being manipulated without even realising it. If you’ve been watching live comedy since 2012, you’ve had a chance to see every single comedian who has hit a certain amount of online fame today absolutely unaccountable to the public at some point, very unabashed and with no fear of public backlash – which is where you realistically come to know what they’re all about, whom they punch and what they truly find funny.

 

       

         For most of the bits online at the moment, I’ve had a chance to see them live in the entirety of the set in which they feature . For a few, I even helped record them. That gives me a very different understanding as a member of a live audience about the context and background the comedian comes from. It also makes me very aware about the larger point they are trying to make. By rule, I stay away from an online clip if I haven’t seen the comedian perform live before. Since the circuit is so small (fewer than a hundred actually making decent money off it), the odds that I can catch any comedian  I want perform at a venue within a radius of ten kilometers from my house in Mumbai are insurmountably high. You could walk in the Cuckoo Club in on a random Monday open mic and see Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Kaneez Surka, Kenny Sebastian and Rahul Subramaniam all try material on the same lineup without much ado about it. The point I’m making is that as of November 2017, access to live stand up comedy as an audience member is super easy, if you know where to go. It’s the only reason why I refused to watch ‘Haq se Single’ when it released on Amazon. I wanted to see Zakir perform first.

          I had observed Zakir’s mushroom cloudesque rise the moment his bits in the middle of an AIB show went viral online. I had regularly seen other comedians tweet or mention him in a very different light, stressing particularly about the power of his storytelling. I had seen a number of women online call him out for thriving on sexist material, as well as reducing women to stereotypes at his level of fame. Zakir, as I observed seemed to be the only comedian I could think of who had cut through every class barrier online. As far as say an AIB goes – and I feel they’re a household name now, I’ve routinely heard the older generation tear them apart with the same eagerness brazen millennials will go out to defend them. I’ve had conversations about Zakir Khan with relatives whom I know can’t type on a computer for crying out loud to auto rickshaw drivers who get a familiar glint in their eye when you mention a punchline of his. They all adore him. He’s Zakir Bhai.

          I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much out of a trial show. I’ve seen seasoned comedians tank the shit out of the room while trying out new material and it’s fair – jokes need time to perfect, they need timing to land right and no matter how famous you are, the first enthusiastic five minutes of applause when someone familiar lands up on stage is the only leeway you get even if you have a few millions hits to your credit on youtube. After that, you’re out on your own. In fact, with fame rises expectation. Your familiarity can help you to a point where you don’t have to waste time to give the audience an essence of who you are. Which is why I wasn’t particularly surprised when Zakir walked on stage to thunderous applause – it’s expected. The audience, predominantly male, desperately trying to snapchat his arrival on stage wasn’t shy in revealing how star struck they were. His first sound – ‘Accha’ got a huge laugh. Make no mistake, he knows how famous he is. His crowd work was minimal, besides giving the entire lot a minute’s time to finish snapchatting him.

          To me, the utter familiarity with which Zakir opens is a huge part of his act, because unlike so many performers he doesn’t bother trying to let the audience know how pleased he is to perform for them. It’s almost like meeting an old best friend after half a decade, because he leaves no room for formality. You could make eye contact with him for a split second and as a member of the audience feel like you’ve known him for years. Because you have. Because you’ve had a friend exactly like Zakir at some point in your life. A friend who you chill with for the sheer joy of spending time with him and listening to his stories. A friend whose stories you never know whether to believe but lord, are they entertaining as well.

          In 2016, I had made a video during my stint at BuzzFeed India called ‘Your childhood in 100 seconds’ We used a top down camera set up to play out a day in school, hoping a collection of memorabilia unique to Indian millennials would trigger enough relatability for a string of shares. The video had gone bombastically viral. It was shared over a hundred-thousand times and got us an aggregate viewing of over eight million views on Facebook in a day. Other BuzzFeed offices copied the format to similar success, with French, German, Australian versions of the same video clocking millions of hits. Nostalgia on the internet is one of the strongest ways of getting people together. An overdose of it can work terribly, but limit the frequency and you’re guaranteed a level of relatability unlike anything else. It’s a way of filtering out only the happiest memories people associate with their childhoods and coming of age years and presenting it to them in a format that compels them to think about simpler times.

 

          Zakir’s entire act is an surge of nostalgia. Through the hour and fifteen minutes he performed, I don’t recollect a single bit/story which was about the incredulity of his life today. Even the few sentences he happened to chance about the present was a detailed description of his inability to fit in the social class his comedy has elevated him into. Tearing into the obsession of non-muslims frequenting Mohammad Ali road during Id, he mentioned  ‘I’m done with it. I hate that area. What you find exotic, is my childhood!’ 

          Zakir painted an incredibly visual picture of how small his town was, and how retrospectively large his house was. Every description of his father revolved around him being engrossed in the act of newspaper reading somewhere in the background, his face covered, his words few. His hierarchical breakdown of his family, which puts his father beyond the realm of friendship and his mother as an absolute equal is incredibly endearing.  His eight years in Delhi, he insisted were like what Yashoda was to Krishna, instrumental in shaping him into who he is today almost like a foster parent who honed him. He moved on to testing whether he considers himself an equal to his father today, a stream of thought I felt was very poignant, testing the actual fabric of household relationships in India. 

          It’s the sheer visual picture Zakir builds when he narrates a story that gets the audience so involved with what he’s saying. Every line is like a cinematic breakdown. He changes the point of view you’re seeing things from in your own head without realising it. There isn’t a single line in the middle of one of his bits that doesn’t involve a visual cue, that doesn’t allow you to stray away from the picture he wants you to build. Which is extremely important, because the stories are stories that have happened to all of us so it’s not they’re new or haven’t been talked about. He changes his tone for every single character he talks about, gives them props to say something more about them. The antagonist of one of the stories in which he gets into a physical fight is a boy from his class who chews tobacco. His voice never changes through his set. Zakir voices him with his mouth full of red liquid, always making sure he spits on stage before his character takes a clean, articulate tone.

          Zakir’s narration – I guarantee you if he told you the same story sitting in a car during a roadtrip or over drinks in a bar or in a flight as a stranger he wouldn’t have to change or edit a single word. That I feel is the utter genius of his storytelling. Which is that it doesn’t matter how many people are in front of him. The version of the story he tells wouldn’t have to change. He can narrate the exact same incident in the exact same way to a friend in the morning and a stadium and the evening to the exact same reaction of helpless laughter. His storytelling will disarm you no matter who you are and will generate a physical reaction of laughter if you’ve lived in India for a considerable amount of time (I’m making the generalisation here that you speak Hindi)

          Is he sexist? Yes. There’s no doubt about it. There’s a liberty he takes with reducing women to stereotypes that I personally feel shouldn’t be done in 2017. It’s a very thin, grey line, but it could be argued that Zakir making fun of women is more a joke on the differences of class between him and the women he routinely makes fun of, or a joke on never finding oneself worthy enough to be loved. To a large part, I think he gets away with it because he also calls men out for their naivety and general lack of intelligence in speaking to/about women as fellow human beings.  It’s easy for me as a male writer to say that -’It’s fine if he does it. He doesn’t mean it’ but I hope that with time, we get to see a more layered version of the mimicry or jest he subjects his female characters to if he continues doing it. I watched his online special ‘Haq Se Single’ after watching him live and I feel like there’s a huge change in the thought behind his storytelling in what I chanced to see in person. The jokes are more subtle, the complexity of ideas he spoke about (Family hierarchy, casual racism, fitting in a new city, male rivalry in schools) befits his rise to superstardom in the past two years. Not once did he use his ‘Sakth Launda’ tag to evoke laughter. It’ll be insane to see him dissect his present, away from happy place his nostalgic past seems to come across as as he moves on to newer realms in comedy.

 

          The depth of emotion I felt when his set was over is what compels me to write this. I have never been made to feel euphoria, sadness, anger, jealousy and nostalgia; all packaged in a blanket of helpless laughter the way I did immediately post his set. The reaction from the entire audience to what I could clearly tell was a very average show by his standards was nuts. There were people in tears, people who were still repeating punchlines and people who were still mouthing songs Zakir referenced and called back to through his set as they were walking out of the Cuckoo Club where he performed. At times he abandoned comedy altogether, turning into a motivational speaker for minutes at a time all to rapt attention from everyone listening.

 

          There will be a time when Zakir Khan  (and I’m willing to bet a large amount of money on this even if you tell me all the odds are against me) will achieve the same level of jewelled stardom someone like a Shahrukh Khan or a Sachin Tendulkar do/did in India. It may take time, it may take a decade but it will happen. There will be a day where he may have to bend, like several artists have in the past to accommodate the tastes of the common man of India; where his material will no longer be what he wants to perform but the common man wants to hear. Till then, if he’s performing around you and you want to experience what it’s like to be in the audience of the first rock star of modern Indian stand up comedy, catch him whenever you get a chance, while you still can. You should, at least once – experience what it’s like to just be there…amazed.

 

 

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PS: Sorry for the headline, Srishti. But yours was too good not to use.

 

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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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