Category: Sunday Post


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There was a time when popular music in India also meant Indi-pop, with its own star system and billboard chartbusters. But no sooner was the genre coming of age, it vanished into oblivion, writes Jaya Biswas

Those in their late twenties or early thirties surely wouldn’t have forgotten those evenings when we would it take a little break in between our homework and dinner to watch Chitrahaar, on Doordarshan on Wednesdays at 8:30 in the evening, which was popular because it aired a bouquet of songs from both old and upcoming films. There were no trailers or teasers back then on television so an odd song was often the only sneak peek at a forthcoming film, a peek that the nation seemed to wait for.
Every Wednesday, with baited breath we waited for Chitrahaar. Like much of the offerings on the state run channel, it was shoddily produced and often half-a-song would be edited out to make way for adverts/ news bulletins. But in the difficult and oh-so-far-way 1980s Chitrahaar, since it didn’t have to match steps with satellite music channels, was oh-so-very welcome.
But the early 1990s were a defining period for the Chitrahaar generation. We witnessed the emergence of yet another musical countdown show which made an entire generation dance to its tunes. Our loyalties almost unflinchingly shifted to Superhit Muqabala, aired on the newly launched DD Metro which promised to be more urbane than the staid and Bharatiya DD National. And it was here, in this show, more brazen than DD and more slickly produced that we first caught Alisha Chinai crooning to a shrill Made in India for a breathtakingly handsome Milind Soman. The song caught the generation as if by the collar and became the unofficial anthem of young India.
The story of the ascent of Indi-pop would remain incomplete without mentioning Biddu Appaiah, more popularly Biddu. An Indian-British music producer, composer, song-writer and singer, he not only produced and composed many such hit records worldwide, the credit goes mostly to him for managing to create a non-filmi niche in the 1990s. It was Biddu who made the Indian audience savour the real taste of pop with Pakistani singers Nazia Hassan and Zoheb, a sibling duo whose records, produced by Biddu, sold millions of copies. Nazia and Zoheb were Pakistani singers from Karachi. The group initially gained prominence with their single Aap Jaisa Koi was then featured as a soundtrack for Feroz Khan-Zeenat Aman starrer Qurbani. The song was also part of the group’s debut album Disco Deewane, released in 1981 by Biddu. The album became a best-seller. It also changed trends of music in Pakistan and was the first South Asian album that was also a hit in Brazil, Russia, South Africa and Indonesia. The duo released their second album Boom Boom in 1982 which was also the soundtrack for the Bollywood film Star, made in 1982, starring Kumar Gaurav, Rati Agnihotri, Raj Kiran and Padmini Kolhapure.
Made in India (1995), composed by Biddu, went on to become one of the highest selling pop albums of its times and Alisha, who had made some name years ago singing in Tarzan, became a household name. Biddu, also composer of the Boom Boom track, featuring the then newly minted Anupama Verma made many a heart go aflutter.
Indi-pop or Indian pop music, notwithstanding the distaste that lovers of western pop showed for its denizens, had started taking shape as a subculture. Bollywood was of course there while a singing culture with pan-Indian appeal, started to evolve outside it and very quickly too. 
Next, Biddu turned his attention to Hindi vocalist Shweta Shetty, both writing and producing the Johnny Joker album in 1993. In 1996, Biddu backed another brother-sister duo with Shaan (Shantanu Mukherjee) and Sagarika Mukherjee, producing the album Naujawan. Biddu spent the rest of the 1990s working with various musicians. Into the new millennium, he produced two hit albums with Sansara, Yeh Dil Sun Raha Hai and Habibi.
Biddu was almost a one-man army for the first few years when Indi-pop gained in prominence. But more than just the score, other factors also came into making it popular — creative videos, peppy music, pretty girls and a new group of talented singers. One must remember that Bollywood was on an overdose of Bappi Lahiri and late Laxmikant-Pyarelal, both insufferably kitschy, throughout the late 1980s. While Bollywood turned a new chapter with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya, Indi-pop emerged as the music for the nightlife — groovy and clever melange of Indian folk and popular tunes with peppy beats and often heady rap especially of the Baba Sehgal variety in Thanda Thanda Pani. Pop music had arrived and by the time satellites TV invaded the drawing rooms, India finally had its own divas and icons slowly but steadily eating up most of Channel V and MTV’s airtime.
In fact, music videos in the country made a splash with Indi-pop. Film music gave little scope to do videos and Indi-pop took the opportunity to make expensive and often experimental (by Indian popular standards) videos, thereby managing to hold on to the increasingly remote-happy, diminishing attention induced viewership.
Indi-pop soon, perhaps too quickly, touched its pinnacle with artistes like Anaida, Lucky Ali, Mehnaz, Daler Mehndi, Leslie Lewis, Raageshwari, Ali Haider, Ila Arun, Shaan, Anaida, Asha Bhosle, Anamika, Sonu Niigaam, Shubha Mudgal, KK, Babul Supriyo, Shankar Mahadevan and bands such as Euphoria, Silk Route, Stereo Nation, Aryans making Indi-pop a convenient money-minting option with albums sales soaring higher and higher.
Anaida’s ouvre was in churning out a strong storyline in the song, well-choreographed sequences, and tight editing with an eye for the over-all impact. Even ace choreographer Shiamak Davar and superstar Amitabh Bachchan joined the league with their songs Jaane Kisne and Ek Rahein Eer Ek Rahein Beer… respectively, also remembered for the brilliantly choreographed videos. Another big hit on the small screen was Malaika and Jas Arora in Malkit Singh’s music video Gud Naal Ishq Mitha.
Actress-singer Suchitra Krishnamoorthi doled out hit albums like Dole Dole and Dum Tara. Ghazal singer Hariharan and singer-composer Leslie Lewis joined hands to form their unique band Colonial Cousins, in 1996. They fused Indian and Western musical genres which were instantly lapped up by the listeners. Their eponymous debut album broke all records including hitting platinum sales in India. The duo also won the MTV Asia Viewer’s Choice Award and went on to bag the US Billboard Viewer’s Choice Award. The album had two major hit singles, Krishna and Sa Ni Dha Pa; their videos repeatedly playing on various music channels.
Shweta Shetty came up with another one in the year 1998 named Deewane To Deewane Hai. Her album became a huge success and her gravel voice and come-hither-sexiness seem to spill out of the television. 
Siblings Shaan and Sagarika hit the jackpot with the remix of Disco Deewane, followed by Roop Tera Mastana and Love-o-logy. Sagarika released her solo albums Maa and It’s All About Love. Few years later, Shaan scored big with Tanha Dil and Tishnagi.
Baba Sehgal, who is credited as the first Indian rapper, shot to fame with Manjula, Thanda Thanda Pani and Aaja Meri Gadi Mein Baith Ja in the mid-1990s. But he went on a world tour and by the time he settled down again no Indi-pop was left. He turned to playback singing and acting.
Around the same time we saw yet another bunch of singers like Daler Mehndi and Sukhbir who made us sample the heady flavours of Punjab. Daler Mehndi switched from classical music to pop, and in 1995 his first album Bolo Ta Ra Ra… was the best selling non-soundtrack album in Indian music history. He received the Award for Voice of Asia International Ethnic and Pop Music Contest in 1994. He earned Channel V’s Best Male Pop Singer Award, which he received in 1996 for Dar Di Rab Rab and in 1997 for Ho Jayegi Balle Balle.
Sukhbir’s unique Bhangra songs were a fusion of Bhangra with rap, techno and reggae. In Oi Triesto (2002), his music was complemented by Spanish and Portuguese rhythms, while he also uses instruments like tablas, congos, guitars and keyboards. He also stated once that Daler Mehndi and Malkit Singh were his biggest competition in the Punjabi music market.
In 2000, Asha Bhosle teamed up with Adnan Sami to release a collection of love songs named Kabhi To Nazar Milao. The music was also composed by Adnan. The album became an instant blockbuster and topped the Indipop charts for most of 2001. Two songs from that album — Kabhi To Nazar Milao, whose music video featured model Aditi Gowitrikar and Lift Karaa De whose music video starred Amitabh Bachchan — became immensely popular.
Sonu Niigaam was perhaps the only singer who could successfully juggle between film playbacks and private albums. His list of non-film popular albums includes Deewana (1999), followed by Jaan, Mausam, Kismat, Yaad and Chanda Ki Doli (2005) — most of which topped the charts.
But sooner than later Indi-pop came to an abrupt, and as we now know, a definitive end. Actress-singer Suchitra Krishnamoorthi had even said that the decline of pop spelled the death of her music career.
Mohit Chauhan, now a popular playback singer and once a part of music band Silk Route, rues, “Music companies are to be blamed which simply refuse to produce Indi-pop albums in fear of incurring huge loss due to piracy. Otherwise, there is no dearth of talent or listerners.”
Suneeta Rao, once famous for her Pari Hoon Main, released her last album Waqt in 2008 which sank. Alisha, like Shweta Shetty tried making a comeback to the Indi-pop scene with Vouz Soulement in 2003. But after that failed, she went back to doing film playback. And then she struck gold with Kajra Re (Bunty aur Babli in 2005). Alisha won several awards for this song and has since scored several hits.
So, what really went wrong? According to music critics and singers, film music itself went pop and Indi-pop lost its musical exclusivity, definition and identity. Almost 20 years down the line, the concept of Indi-pop may sound worn-out and overdone, but we do carry its essence in our hearts! Those who were better performers in the Indi-pop genre — singers, video-makers, arrangers and choreographers — made a quiet but effective move towards Bollywood. And those were there for publicity and money, faded away.
Indi-pop had a short life. Perhaps because Bollywood proved to be too big to take on! Perhaps Bollywood itself accommodated that kind of music. The item number for example, remains a kind of an offshoot of Indi-pop. Many films now shoot promotional videos to go with promotional music. Is it not a legacy of Indi-pop? Perhaps it is. Or may be with the coming of a new breed of talented and smart musicians — from AR Rahman to Santanu Moitra, from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy to Pritam — Bollywood music itself became varied, tracing influences to not only music forms in India but often outside. Somewhere down the line, Indi-pop lost the plot.
Though choreographer-singer Ganesh Hegde claims to have brought the pop music scenario with his latest album, Let’s Party, could we really forget Lucky Ali’s O Sanam Mohabbat Ki Kasam… or Pankaj Udhas’s Aur Ahista Kijiye Baatein… or Ali Haider’s Purani Jeans aur Guitar? If not, then that’s the take away from a decade of what was born and died young as Indi-pop!

Mush ado about nothing

 

 

 

 

 

Men aren’t supposed to like reading romance. That’s the theory anyway… In reality, they do read Mills & Boon novels, but secretly, writes JAYA BISWAS

 

 

It was in a café at the Mumbai airport that I happened to witness this ‘rare’ sight. A tall, plump, middle-aged man engrossed in a Mills & Boon paperback novel titled, Take On Me. The book cover bore a picture of a scantily-clad woman on a beach about to be seduced by a man in swimming trunks. The man reading seemed to relish each and every page, completely oblivious of the fact that he was receiving quite a few odd stares from fellow passengers who were whiling away their time before the announcement for departure. He didn’t care. Perhaps, he was aware of the hypocrisy of other men, who read the same books, but publicly condemn them as ‘rubbish for women’.
Take them or leave them, but you certainly can’t ignore these romantic novels, which have been a part of most peoples’ lives. Hundreds of them stacked in libraries, heaped at roadside book stalls, laid out for second-hand sale on pavements, borrowed time and time again — especially in hostels, where the trick is for one girl to borrow the book and ten girls to finish it in the same night — Mills and Boon books are everywhere. Come on, we’ve all ogled the alluring covers depicting coy, docile heroines with tall, handsome men aching with desperation, anguish or lust, at some point or the other.
But is it only women who read these so-called mushy Mills & Boon (popularly M&B) love sagas? Or are men just as hooked? It is difficult to establish their popularity among men as most will never admit to reading M&Bs. Afsha Khan, a 26-year-old freelance writer from Mumbai, says, “Men are just too proud to admit that they don’t have the patience for descriptive text. They’re more into pictures. They would rather watch a Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or a Pretty Woman than use their imagination. Maybe if M&B came up with a graphic novel with really good illustrations, chances are that they would fall for them.”
However Malay Desai, a college student has a reverse take on men reading mush. He says, “I’m yet to meet a man who owns up to reading M&Bs. Men claim it’s only women who read them because women have no qualms flaunting them. Comparing M&B to well-made films isn’t fair. Rather parallels can be drawn with Indian television’s great afternoon soap factory. Many men watch TVs soaps, but will never admit that they like them. Same with M&Bs. Maybe more men would come out in the open on this sensitive mental orientation if women gave them the assurance that reading mush isn’t ‘uncool’.”
Most men are still not confident of being in touch with their softer, feminine side. And certainly if they are of a more sensitive nature they would never admit it in front of their friends (particularly other men) afraid of being considered “girlie”.
Manish Singh, country manager, Harlequin Mills & Boon India Pvt Ltd, claims that the number of men who buy M&Bs compared to women is very low, “Though concrete data is not available, our research says that the percentage of male buyers is very small, and they normally buy it for others.”
Mr Gautam Jatia, CEO of Starmark echoes this, “Our male customers rarely ‘read’ M&Bs. Around 10 per cent of the total count buying M&Bs are men. However, we have noticed that men usually buy M&Bs as gift items.” 
 The Pregnancy Shock, The Sheikh’s Convenient Mistress, Taken by the Bad Boy, The Billionaire’s Bride of Vengeance, The Millionaire’s Ultimate Catch are some of the most sought-after M&B titles that women lap up till this day, even if it means masking them in brown covers or hiding them inside their study material.
 It is not just men who lie about their liking for M&Bs. There are even some women who claim they don’t read this basic form of chicklit as it is considered low-brow. Suranjana Nandi, a journalist working with a fashion magazine in Mumbai exclaims, “Women of all age groups read M&Bs. They may not admit it but they do. And this holds true for both single women as well as those with partners. The stories are single women’s dream, while those with partners want to know all that ‘could have been’. Therein lies the charm of reading these novels.”
 Interestingly, the reasons behind the popularity of M&B novels are astoundingly mottled. Bonny Ghose (Kolkata), a librarian by profession, cites an example, “Not only do I find young college-goers asking for M&Bs, my mother too is an avid reader and has always been so. However, she avoids the sexually-explicit ones. Mom would rather go for an easy-read formula story after a hard day’s work.”
Mr Jatia couldn’t agree more. He says, “M&Bs are a hit with readers for so many years because they make for quick read, easy connect and the
language is simple, making it convenient for occasional readers as well.”
 Recalls Afsha, “I read my first M&B when I was 13, in the dead of the night when everyone had fallen asleep.  As for why it is such a hit, I think these novels ‘immensely’ improve the vocabulary (pun intended!). My ability to describe things pictorially became increasingly better after my fifth title. Plus, it’s interesting to note how smartly they skirt around certain words. In this case, I’d say ‘reading is believing’.”
 It is no wonder that Harlequin Mills and Boon have grown to become one of the leading publishers of adult romantic fiction around the world for more than a century. There has been a remarkable change in reading habits too, especially in the last five years. Mr Singh reveals, “The readership has risen over the years. The books are available for various moods and cater to all age groups (from 16 to 60 years). The market for English language books has witnessed 10 per cent of yearly growth. Alternative format like e-books has also contributed to increase and change in the readership pattern. The data from other international markets where e-books are a rage, shows that readers are comfortable in downloading the titles and reading them either on PCs or hand-held devices.”
 Anuttama Banerjee, psychologist and consultant at Eastern Zonal Psychological Association (Kolkata), sums up the situation. She explains, “We are all victims of ‘labelling’ by the society. We grow up with certain notions, for example men are associated with qualities like assertiveness, machismo and fearlessness. They are considered to have a practical bent of mind, while women are generally expected to be submissive, docile, romantic and dreamy eyed. And there lies the dilemma. Moreover, it has been observed that men receive a lot of flak and get teased by their peer groups if they happen to exhibit soft emotions.”
Anuttama further adds, “Men have to try hard to match up to the standards set by the society. They prefer to keep it discreet, oblivious from public eye. On the other hand, women have the freedom to express their penchant for romance and no one objects. However, the fact that men read mush cannot be ruled out completely. If they can read women’s magazines, chances are that they read M&Bs too, maybe when their partners are done with them.”
 Girls, all you need to do is keep your eyes open!

Drift in the clouds

 

 

Mountain sights and sounds in winter will make you forget and forgo more than you wish for, says Supreeta Singh

We didn’t expect the things that happened on this trip. My two girl friends, Sammy and Debolina and I have travelled together many times before, but Lava and Rishop caught us off guard. It made us laugh, cry, fight, lose patience, forget things, meet wonderful people, spend sleepless nights and have an incredibly good time.
It was Sammy’s idea to visit a cold place during winter. We decided to spend Christmas at the small hill towns of Lava and Rishop in North Bengal. We were warned that the temperature could dip as low as zero degrees but we ignored it. Little did we know that the experience would leave us in cold sweat!
 
Day 1 – December 23

We boarded the 8 pm Kanchan Kanya Express from Sealdah on December 23 straddled with eight bags — thanks to our woolens. Our RAC tickets split the three of us. After dinner I went to stretch myself on the upper berth but got stuck midway. With one foot on the upper wrung of the ladder, one foot scrambling to touch the floor and one hand desperately clutching the seat, I hung on to the iron support with all eyes glued on me. A young man sitting on the opposite berth came to my rescue. Originally from Rajasthan, he now lives in Bhutan, he said and had come to Kolkata on a business trip. Debolina eyed him with suspicion while he chattered on about Bhutan and its beauty, showed us his shopping bonanza from Burrabazar and even handed me three one rupee notes of Bhutan as a souvenir! It was soon time to call it a night.

Day 2 – December 24

The morning began with our first disaster. In the bathroom, Debolina sent her mobile down the hole. We could not do anything but sit sadly. The mobile must have gone to the permanent lost and never found bucket of Indian Railways. Around 9 am, we reached New Mal Junction. We waved goodbye to our helpful neighbour, collected our luggage and disembarked from the train. As the train began to move, the young man called us back. Debolina had forgotten her bag that contained our money, tickets, hotel reservations, my wallet and phone among other things. Debolina ran and grabbed it. A few seconds late and we would have been stranded at New Mal forever! We could not believe our luck. That guy neither took our numbers nor asked our names, but saved us twice.
Our car was waiting outside. As we went up the hills, the tension melted away as we soaked in the natural beauty. When we reached Lava, our cabbie asked us to take another car and head to Hotel Paradise. We were perplexed. Lava was a small town. How much further are we going? Nonetheless, we followed his advice. We took a cab. Few minutes later, we saw the first cabbie following us. Why? Because we had forgotten our food bag in the cab. The third disaster.
We were already tired and famished, and there was more waiting! Half-way through the journey, we realised our fourth disaster. Paradise was cheap here, so there was a Hotel Paradise in both Lava and Rishop. Our first cabbie had thought that we were going to Paradise in Rishop. So he had put us in another cabbie for Rishop. But we were headed for Paradise Lava. As we did a U turn, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! As we charted our course back, the driver politely asked us to pay Rs 200 instead of the usual fair of Rs 450. He wasted his time and it was he who was sorry that he had to take money from us.
On reaching our hotel, we changed, had lunch and went out. Our first and only stop was the nearby Lava monastery. We had emptied our bags and wore everything we were carrying and yet felt bitterly cold. We were shaking, shivering and turning blue. Walking slowly and braving a biting cold wind, we went around the monastery. Not a single monk was visible. They must have attained a spiritual elevation to evade the the chill. A few tourists loitered around. As evening fell, we were engulfed by fog that drifted from the hills and in a few seconds everything was enveloped in a misty embrace.
By the time we came back to the hotel, we shivered uncontrollably. We carried three small bottles of whisky. It was Christmas Eve. Out came our candles and cakes. Sammy turned on the laptop to play music. I poured the drinks. In the next hour, we danced and made merry and at 8 pm, three pegs down I fell asleep thinking that I can pass the night oblivious of the all-pervading chill. I was wide awake at 8.45 pm, cold and trembling. At dinner, we met a couple from Kolkata who told us that only brandy can keep us alive! At midnight, two of us knocked on their doors and begged for brandy, because death, we realised, is worse than losing your dignity.
 
 Day 3 – December 25

Our first stop of the day was Rachela Peak. Together with another couple, a guide and bottles of water, we walked up the mountain. It was hard, to say the least. I gasped and panted and after twenty minutes reached the top. The view was breathtaking. It was a foggy day. I stood at more than 7,000 feet above sea-level with mountains rolling on all sides, a forest inhabited by bears behind me and the naked, azure sky above. The silence was golden.
For breakfast, we went to Orchid restaurant at the city centre. The place was crammed with Bengali tourists, even during this off-season. In contrast to the quiet nature of the hill people, the noise of the tourists from the plains, was severely disagreeable. Even in Lava, they were stuffing themselves with bread, banana and eggs! Were they at a picnic at the Victoria memorial?
Stuffed with a breakfast of momo, soup, bread and coffee, we headed off to Chhangey Falls. The guide informed us about the films that have been shot here. On the way back, our guide suggested we take a detour. It was a scary experience. A vertigo victim, I almost swooned as I trudged along the narrow and steep path holding on to Sammy.
By early afternoon, it was time to say goodbye to Lava and head to Rishop, a hamlet situated at 8,000 feet. We reached Neora Valley Resort — a beautiful property scattered with cottages amidst a sumptuous spread of greenery. We were told that this is the place where Kanchenjunga can be viewed the best. I waited for it to be morning.
 
Day 4
December 26

It was 6 am when we were woken up by tourists shouting (or may be crying) Kanchenjunga! Kanchenjunga! We gathered at a view point called Jhoola Wala and before we could rub our yes and pray ‘look at me Sir’, The Lord of Mountains was gone. Since this was our last full day at Rishop, we decided to make the most of it. Along with a local guide, a one-hour trek took us to Tiffindara, another view point. The surrounding was magnificent. We stood at one of the highest points in Rishop and all around us we could see mountains covered in thick forests. It was another cloudy day and the cold was almost intolerable. But no complaints! We walked back through a forest, just the four of us, our guide included. There was no need for small talk. We were awed by tall trees, the deep gorges and the sheer remoteness of the place.
The day drew to a close with a campfire in the evening. We were joined by a family of three – husband, wife and their daughter. Swathed in five layers of clothing, we were almost hugging the fire. The night sky was clear and glittering with millions of stars. Sight to behold, not to tell.

Day 5 – December 27

Our trip had come to a close but not without the last, grandest surprise! Very early in the morning we saw that the fog had cleared. We tiptoed to Jhoola Wala, as if our footsteps may disturb His Majesty! And there it was! It shone in the sun, a large white mass of snow, floating in the sky, a mass that grew with the Sun above. Kanchenjunga in all its glory! We had got our Christmas
present!
All was forgiven! We were game to go back and plan our next trip!

The best Khan of them all

 

 

 

By Nasreen Khan
Just Another Fan (JAF) is a simple story told very simply. Yes, the one thing that stays with you after you finish reading the book is its simplicity. The first person narrative by Jayeeta Ganguly and for a little while by her best friend Tapati, flows like an homespun, endearing, conversation. It is direct and straight from the heart. Effervescent and full of positivity, it narrates the tale of the author’s quest to meet her idol, the cricketing legend Imran Khan.
What starts as a case of infatuation transcends limitations of a fan and idol story to talk about the author’s discovery of self. What could have been a regular chatter about Imran and cricket turns out to be a tale of beliefs and values lost in the midst of the past. As Jayeeta narrates about how everything in her life propels her toward her goal, so to speak, she talks of her family, her sibling, her neighbours, teachers and friends. The simplicity of relationships, the depth of emotion is palpable despite the author touching only the tip of the familial bonds. For those who value those ‘Wonder Years’ it is bound to tug at your heart, even though the story is targeted at a very different objective. The novel is about the ennobling effects of being a fan, a value that firmly  militates against the present culture of violent hero worship, vandalism and roguery. 
But the biggest achievement for Jayeeta as a fan is the way her idol became her guide and mentor without actually being present physically. Her biggest tribute to Imran, it is apparent, is the way she grew out of her setbacks and went on to become a successful woman. The one constant factor in her life, since the age of 10, was her idol. It is also interesting to note how she handled everyday situations and difficulties the way “Imran would have done” or stuck to the truth in “Imran’s name”. But what also stands out, particularly relevant to today is the complete absorption of secular values. The way Jayeeta includes Jesus and Islam, the religion of her idol, in her pantheon of gods, and the manner in which she narrates it deserve mention. There is no preaching, no talking about it as an achievement. It is just a way of life. And it is that very way of life that makes the read pleasurable. Not bad at all for a first time author.  Two notes of dissent: the editing could have been smarter and the price more competitive.

 

Shauli Chakraborty

Fynn, as described by Vernon Sproxton in his Introduction to Mister God, This Is Anna, has a strongly developed feminine side which can only be described as skin stretched over tenderness. Sproxton also concludes that Fynn is the sort of person who gives you the impression that though he has been tossed about by life his feet have firmly touched the bottom. And that is to say that Fynn’s Anna has a striking resemblance to Lucy and Heidi novels. Just as Wordsworth preached through his poems the theory of pantheism and how the child is closest to God when she is little and innocent, Fynn too explains Anna’s extraordinary ability for deduction and faith through his two bestsellers Mister God, This Is Anna and Anna And The Black Knight. The books have universal appeal in the sense that anybody can read them anytime and each time they can open a new window in your mind. They have a tendency to make you keep going back to them, if only to know what Anna made of your ideas. Anna is suspicious of people going to church and the whole business of collective worship does not appeal to her at all. Through Anna, we see Fynn questioning the methods of the Church but not the Church itself. There is no undercurrent of controversy. When the local parson asks her if she believed in God she says ‘Yes’. When he goes on to ask her why she did not go to church, Anna replies, “Because I know it all!…I know to love Mr God and to love people and cats and dogs and spiders and flowers and trees… with all of me… And God said love me, love them, and love it, and don’t forget to love yourself.” For Anna you went to church to get the message and once you got it you lived with it all your life, perhaps making modifications along the way. Those who kept going to church repeatedly, Anna thought, either didn’t get the message or did it just for ‘swank’. That’s a strong statement coming from a five-year-old and even more difficult one for a 16-year-old Fynn to come to terms with. Even in her death Anna is curt: “Fynn, I bet Mister God lets me get into heaven for this.” The relationship between Anna and Fynn is more like the one between two friends who get along extremely well but are destined to part ways. The books are a refreshing. Pick them up and confront yourself. That way even theological undercurrents could prove to be fascinating!

By Jaya Biswas

In the last scene in Lagaan the British cantonment leaves on horse carriages. The scene is telling in many ways and one of them is the link between the horse carriages and the British! Horse-drawn carriages, laced with flowers and bells producing a lilting melody, bring to our mind the legacies of the British Raj. “We have heard from our grandfathers that these horse carriages came to Kolkata during the reign of Lord Hastings. It was supposed to be the mode of conveyance for the elite class, like zamindars and British lords,” informs Shafi-ul-Rehman, a carriage driver who can be seen waiting for passengers by the Victoria Memorial with his fragile horse in tow. For students of English literature who have grown up on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (who summons the Victorian taxi cabs all the time, especially those cabbies who double as his informants), seeing horse carriages strutting around the lush green expanse of the Maidan and the majestic Fort William is a treat. Over the years, the City of Joy has assimilated strong European influences and overcome the limitations of its colonial legacy in order to find its unique identity. Within their restricted area for movement, today horse-drawn carriages can be found only around the periphery of the Victoria Memorial. On normal days they charge around Rs 50 to Rs 60 for a short ride round the Memorial. The fare rises to Rs 100-200 or more during festivals like Christmas and New Year’s eve. Local residents are no longer their main clientle, forcing the tongawallahs to charge exorbitant amounts from foreigners who vie for that exotic little ride. Horse carriages in the India subcontinent trace their lineage to the British period. The roads were developed by the British and renovated from brick-dust to cement and finally to pitch covered specifically so that these carriages could ply. Taking a cue from the British, local zamindars and the entrenched elite started to use horse carriages as their mode of transport too. Though the carriages seen in Kolkata currently are open-hooded, the structure and name of carriages differed from place to place. A coach could be two-wheeled or four-wheeled; with coloured-glass windows or open seated. Generally, the wheels are large and made of wood. Horse carriages came into vogue as one of the most indigenous modes of transport across the country. Sometimes referred to as buggies or tongas, they are also called tumtum, jurigari or ekka in various parts of India. The drivers of such horse carriages are known as kochwans, sahis or tongawallahs. The tongawallahs of Kolkata do brisk business only during winter. “Earlier business used to be lucrative, but now there is little scope for us among the flashy cars and bikes,” rues Rehman. “The number of carriages in Kolkata which once surpassed 3000 has now been reduced to 20 or so,” he informs. And these tongawallahs may soon disappear too if People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has its way. In May 2010, PETA launched a characteristically eye-catching campaign with Bollywood starlet Nargis Bagheri of Garam Masala. The photograph shows the sexy actress on a horse dummy with only her long hair covering her modesty. Even as this outrageous image still circulates on the internet, PETA hopes to grab eyeballs and draw attention to the condition of horses used to pull tongas, carts and carry heavy loads. “Horse carriages are cruel and outdated and should be relegated to history books … in the city, a mixture of horses and traffic can make for a fatal combo for horses and passengers,” reads the PETA release, stating Nargis’s opinion on the same. However, the tongawallahs beg to differ. An angry Rafique, who has been in the profession for the last 25 years, lashes out, “We treat our horses well. We give them enough to eat and let them rest in shades while we sleep in the scorching sun. Most of us are emotionally tied to this profession. Though police harassment has made our lives miserable, we cherish it as the legacy of our forefathers.” Due to lack of mechanics in the city, the carriage drivers often face lots of problems in the maintenance of their carriages too. Many drivers are not the owners of the carriages. They work for others. The owners keep most of the earnings and the rest is distributed among the staff. The carriage drivers are not paid a salary but are given a commission of the earnings of the day. “The problems are all the same everywhere. One of my cousins who drive his tonga in a city like New Delhi is also facing the same problem. But the only difference is that irrespective of all hurdles, being the owner of the tonga, he does not have to give away all the earnings like us,” states Mehmood Miyan. Supporting Mehmood, a morose Rafique joins, “Now that we want to educate our children so that they fare better in life and upgrade their status, the meagre income does not even allow us to send our children to schools, leave alone arranging for proper fodder for my horse. Jobless for almost the whole year, we dare not hope for a better future. Acquiring a license is a tough job too.” At the end of the day, most tongas are parked at the Rajabazar stand. Some are kept on the Maidan while others sleep in the stables of Alipore and Park Circus. The horses can often be seen wandering on the grounds opposite Academy of Fine Arts. The other PETA pique is the traffic threat to horses. With the number of vehicles on the road increasing every day, horses are out of place on congested streets. Horse-drawn carriages have already been banned in Paris, London and several US cities. Almost three decades after her role of Basanti, the horse-carriage driver with her mare Dhanno in the iconic film Sholay, actress Hema Malini last year went against horses and espoused a ban on horse carriages in Mumbai. The Bollywood actress wrote to the Mumbai municipal commissioner on behalf of PETA. The letter read: “In Sholay, I had a terrific co-star named Dhanno. Luckily, this affable character will never know the misery that her cousins, who are forced to pull joy-carts, endure.” She said that “her heart breaks” whenever she sees the condition of the horses who are forced to give joyrides on beaches, parks and certain other areas of Mumbai. Back home, Kolkata remains an enigma to Indians and foreigners alike. It continues to puzzle newcomers and arouses an abiding nostalgia in the minds of those who have lived here. It will be heartbreaking if due to lack of patronisation, handful of beautiful carriages disappear from the streets in the coming years.

 

 

By Jaya Biswas

Humourist Melvin Durai’s riveting, snazzy debut novel, Bala Takes The Plunge, explores with wit and insight the age old struggle of middle-class Indian kids — to convince and seek their parents’ support — when it comes to choosing a profession or a partner. 
Bala Takes The Plunge is about Balasubraniam (aka Bala aka Bill) from Madras (Chennai) whose dream is to make Tamil films with superstar Rajinikanth, but who instead lands up in an engineering college. This earns him his Appa’s approval and the opportunity to export himself to America as Director of Design at FlexIt Inc., coming up with new ways to help Americans shed the extra weight around their middles and in their wallets.
Though in an another world, he is at least some kind of director, he consoles himself. Bala loves America, and America, it seems, loves him even more. He has everything he needs to be happy: a green card, a satellite dish to watch cricket, and a companion to share his home — albeit one with a limited vocabulary. His other wish is to find himself a wife before his Amma finds a conventional fair and ‘unspoilt’ girl for him. So begins Bala’s quest for his better-half, someone worthy enough to inherit his mother’s Corelle crockery.
The author uses sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek play on words weaving a humorous story around this main plot. The book has a lot of unique abbreviations such as HIT which stands for Harishchandra Institute of Technology and MRI which means Marriage Related Investigations and so on. But it’s the mundane, everyday sights and scenes we often take for granted that interest him. Also, it is hilarious to note how specific Indians get when it comes to hunting for a bride or a groom.
 Melvin has written hundreds of humour columns and funny blog posts. A native of Tamil Nadu, he grew up in Zambia and spent much of his life in America, which reflects in the manner he impeccably traverses into both the worlds with élan.
There’s a feel-good factor about the book which has an uncanny resemblance to Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans in terms of storyline and style of narration. However, this one is livelier.

By Nasreen Khan

First things first. This is not a book by Sidney Sheldon. It’s a series inspired by his writings or rather an effort, looking obviously at commerce, to continue with the legacy of the bestselling author. The author Tilly Bagshawe is a British freelance journalist and writer based in Los Angeles. She had been a big fan of Sidney Sheldon’s and after his death she was personally chosen by the Sheldon family to carry on writing in his indomitable style.
So if you pick up this book looking for the Sidney Sheldon drama, suspense and thrill, I suggest you pass it. But that is not to say that the book is a let down. The beginning is a tad slow. Then, it picks up pace and comes up with twists and turns that mark every Sidney Sheldon novel. But its the end that leaves you cold, perhaps even in a state of mourning for the deceased author who excelled in the thrill-a-minute, explosive climax in most of his novels.
Grace Brookstein is the prised wife of the king of Wall Street Lenny Brookstein, a true sugar daddy. Billionaires many times over, the Brooksteins have estates around the world, a fleet of yachts and a fantasy life. Lenny is the financial wizard who made billions with hedge funds and then apparently lost it all.  Grace remains the pretty, angelic little daddy’s girl who is guileless and trusting. And she suffers because of that.
When Lenny disappears and billions go missing, Grace finds herself behind bars. Locked up with criminals and facing the wrath of the world, Grace sets out to clear her dear husband’s name. The real drama and suspense begins to unfurl once Grace is in jail.
The book deals with contemporary subjects without delving unnecessarily. There is mention of the Wall Street’s collapse, reminding of the recession. Then there is same-sex love, sibling jealousy and incest. Yet they fail to shock or justify the plot. This is mostly because, overnight, Grace transforms into a bold woman undertaking a dangerous journey.
All through the story you are supposed to feel sorry for Grace and you do. But only at the surface. Underneath you wonder why is she being made to appear as if she is daddy’s little girl. Neither is Grace’s pain convincing nor is her transformation and you might find your interest waning as you near the end. And though the author intends the end to be dramatic, you get a nagging feeling that you knew it was coming. 
The plot feels like a long-running soap opera and the main characters straight out of Danielle Steel novels. There are elements of Mills & Boons too. The characters are one-sided, though Bagshawe tries to add colour through the characters. But in the end they all seem like dummies put out there to highlight Grace’s innocence. Grace is the least convincing, particularly toward the end.
You expect the plot to thicken but no such luck. There are dramatic escapes and sudden accomplices, and friends turn into enemies out of the blue. The storyline is hackneyed and lacks surprise. The author has tried to fit into Sheldon’s shoes but she leaves a clear imprint of her gender. It is good for those looking for light reading. For those looking for thrill, better you re-read some of Sheldon’s earlier novels.

Just brew it!

For I have known them all already, known them all / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons /
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons —T.S. Eliot,The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

 

By Sayandeb Chowdhury
If you are brave enough to suggest changes in an Eliot poem go ahead and substitute the ‘coffee’ in the above lines with tea and you will probably get an idea what the ubiquitous leaf meant in the daily life of the Calcuttan till about ten years ago. Tea was the preferred beverage at home. Families had tea together at breakfast or in the evening. Visitors were treated to tea. Tea had that strange quality about it — it was served during happy, celebratory occasions as well as when messengers and local uncles brought bad news home. Tea warmed up the esophagus in the first case and soothed the soul in the second. Tea was a romance, a daily one too… as much as it was a rite of passage from the parlour to the bedroom! And the kind of tea served at parties or at get-togethers or even when kith and kin came home defined the average Bhadralok retainership of residual Englishness, which was increasingly found deficient in Bengali genes. The better the quality of tea and the farther the shop it was secured from, the rarer it sounded and heavier was the air with the aura of the uber Brit.  In other words Calcuttans, especially Bengalis had 3-Ts dominate them for at least a century now — Tagore, tea and travel. Whether tea’s preeminence is lost is a different story because for now we need to concentrate on where in this fable does drinking coffee stand.
This is a curious case by all means because even ten years ago, going for a coffee meant nothing unless it meant going to a friend’s place. The braveheart and the bearded teenager, especially those who could gather all the assorted paraphernalia of the aspiring intellectual, would take a bus or metro to the Coffee House at College Street (you could say Albert Hall and earn a few brownie points), get baked on the way on a typical Calcutta summer (which, incidentally lasts every year for just nine months) and have their cup of infusion or plain coffee. If you still insist that coffee is what you went to Coffee House for, you were probably a bumbling ruffian, because no one even pretended to do so. But by jove and the baked beans, the Coffee House coffee, notwithstanding the rarified Marxian smoke around and dramatis personae of the chef-capped waiters, was great coffee to boot! And it still is. But by no means is it great enough to force you to take the perilous journey across the city on a weekday, past its dubious charm and petrol. So the finger-long cups of steaming coffee that coffee house served really cheap remained somewhat of a forlorn romance for many who could not go all the way.
This was then the picture of a city on slow move till the nineties headed to a chaotic closure. But suddenly things changed. Along with the new millennium came to this city the ‘coffee joint’ phenomenon with this promise of relief from the Y2K hangover. Y2K was soon dismissed but these clean, air-conditioned and sanitised places, the Barista and the CCD, stayed on and booked a place in the city’s daily life. Going out for coffee was suddenly in and people no more met people at home because no one wanted to serve the home tea at home. Members of the Homo sapiens met fellow members from the same species often, randomly and more often than not without rhyme or reason so they could head for the nearest CCD. So future and estranged lovers met here and so did the new age protestors and old age conformists.  CCD multiplied like Spielberg’s Gremlins and populated malls and street corners with a vengeance. After some setback, Barista hit the marguee. Teenagers, of every hue and humour, armed with new money (exhorted from their parents) and new attitude (borrowed from their TVs) flooded the hubs. Even toddlers were overheard enquiring about the nearest CCD joint once they were done with breast milk and Horlicks.
All was well? Not anymore! Blame the internet or the millennial propensity to get bored with things and places every six months, some of the converts to the Art of Coffee Drinking were  soon asking for more. They wondered if this was all that coffee drinking meant. And the assembly line places, devoid of character and persona, attracted new converts but lost on old loyalists. The other reason, as a survey showed, was that a generation who grew up on CCD and Barista, has now outgrown it. They are in their mid-thirties, have money to spare and need a quiet place to spend with lovers, wives and husbands — not the loud, headbanging variety of music and ambience that most of the teenybopper places proudly expounded.  CCD and Barista saw the writing on the wall and some of them, as a coffee consultant explained, morphed into lounges.
But in the last one year, hearteningly, Calcutta has seen a steady entry of high-end cafes that seek to redefine coffee and tea drinking in the city. Café The (spelt Te, as in ‘te-nor’, meaning tea) is an early entrant among this new breed. The classy café housed on the ground floor of the spanking ICSSR at Ho Chin Minh Sarani is decidedly anti-coffee but makes up more than it takes away with its variety of teas, sourced from an exclusive exporter, that ranges from the fine Darjeeling First Flush to the more exotic Hot Butter Apple Tea. It also serves specialty cuisine, from the European streetside sandwiches to more demonstratively Continental hors d’œuvre of the day. It also makes a meal out of Tagore’s choicest cuisines sourced from his travels abroad. Café The, explains Bitasta Chakraborty who looks after the marketing, is meant to be a quiet, elegant place for the well-heeled,  urban sophisticate who prefer a good meal and some great tea after a session of Paraguan cello played upstairs at the ICSSR auditorium.
Swiss born Coffee World which debuted in September last year at Ballygunge, positions itself as a fine-dining café where an entire family can come and spend a long time to savour its goodies. Coffee World here also houses the Cream and Fudge Factory thereby creating space for a variety of stuff that’s available and more often than not the kids prefer the ice cream while their parents go for the coffee. The niche for this particular stop in the tony neighbourhood is the post-dinner customer who drops by to have a coffee after a hearty meal at one of the restaurants. And this is just not a weekend fad anymore. Sources at Coffee World said that the response has been tremendous and they are looking at more outlets in the future apart from their express format which is already present at South City.
New entrants also include Picadally Square and The French Loaf which face each other across Lansdowne Road near the Minto park crossing. Both of them position themselves as bistro and not café and offer a range of European bakery and street food, from Belgian waffles to mudslides, from pancakes and pizzas to creppe and sundae. Again, they cater to a wide range of customers and are now scouting for space in the south of the city to expand.
Only last month came Mocha, the high-end coffee chain from the Mumbai-based F&B major Impressario. Mocha has selected a notable old building on a lane off AJC Bose Road opposite Jimmy Kitchen’s to open its flagship outlet. The two-floor coffee, hukah and dining den is a designer, atmospheric place with mood lighting and trendy interiors and has the potential to become a game changer much in the way that Mochas elsewhere have been. Mocha is clearly aiming a more high end, matured client who are here more than just for a cup of quick cappuchino. Mocha claims that its coming to Calcutta is a sign that the city is ready for the upper echelons of coffee. 
This surely marks the maturity of the industry which felt shy of serving more than a few varieties some years ago. A decade back, cappuchino was new and opting for a latte instead of a cappuccino was counted as a mark of one’s straying away from brotherhood of the new converts. Now, mix formats, designer cuisines, comfortable dining  sofas and expansive lounges mean that no one type of coffee would dominate a conversation for long enough. And more importantly, tea is getting back as a lifestyle beverage.
Let them grow up and cohabit and let there be more places where grown up Homo sapiens can feel comfortable, where families are not pariah, where one can be oneself and not feel old, where being overweight is not a health issue, where the jukebox catalogue is longer than Paris Hilton’s wig.

As Eliot said in the same poem: (Let there be) time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions/ Before the taking of a toast and tea (or coffee)

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