The Lost Magic of Kiama

Kiama sits 119 Km north of Sydney via the Princes Highway. The area’s original inhabitants, the Wodi Wodi Aborigines, are said to have called the place ‘Kiarama-a’ or ‘Kiar-mai’. The most popular meaning attributed to the term is ‘where the sea makes a noise’, which is a reference to the blow-hole allegedly addressed by the Aborigines as ‘Khanterintee’ -meaning ‘mysterious noise’. The first European to sight the blow-hole was George Bass who wrote of the ‘tremendous noise’ this subterraneous passage produced when he anchored offshore in December, 1797.

The Kiama Headland that juts into the Pacific ocean is composed of volcanic rock called latite. A volcanic extrusion, known as a dyke, cuts through the latite. The dyke is composed of a softer rock called besalt. Over millions of years the softer besalt had eroded faster than the latite, creating a tunnel under the Headland. Eventually, part of the Headland collapsed creating the Kiama Blow-hole.

As each wave surges against the cliffside and through the tunnel, air is compressed in the rear chamber, building tremendous pressure. As waves subside, pressure in the chamber releases forcing the trapped water up the blow-hole with a loud ‘whoomp’.

When tourists grew more and more adventurous, accidents too began to occur at the blow-hole site resulting in the death of many. Now there are fences and concrete pathways keeping visitors within well-defined safety areas. You are not allowed to walk on the rocks around the blow-hole at all.

I happened to run into someone who went there after an absence of many years. He said the environment appeared still beautiful; a swell from the east-south-east and the blow-hole was still shooting water into the air. There were ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from tourists. But the magic, he said, he knew as a child, was just about gone. It has been sanitised almost to insipidity.

Do you have a place you remember from your childhood? Is it still the same now as it was then? Do you think we have taken the magic out of nature because there may be risks there that we won’t let people take?


Postponing Motherhood

More and more working women these days are warming up to the idea of freezing their eggs to postpone motherhood to a time when they are in a better state of mind to start families.

Fertility experts explain that the number of eggs in women are limited and their quality deteriorates with age. The best eggs are produced between 20 and 28 years after which their quality registers a fall making conception difficult. That is why egg freezing is catching on with most city-bred women these days.


“I haven’t found the right person to settle down with and would like to start a family someday. I took this step last year and think it is not just an assurance, it is an insurance and so empowering”, said a business woman who chose not to be identified.


The procedure to store a women’s unfertilised eggs takes around two-three weeks to complete. The process involves 10-12 days of hormone injections intended to stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs. Once the eggs are mature, they will be retrieved through a procedure called Egg Collection, which happens under sedation. The eggs collected are immediately cryopreserved using vitrification (a flash freezing technique) by experienced embryologists. These eggs are then safely stored at the Centre’s facility until they are ready to be used.


The Bourn Hall clinic in Dubai offers egg freezing facility for Dh25,000 for a period of five years with renewal once a year for Dh2,500. After the five-year period, the situation can be reviewed and the client is allowed to freeze for a period of another five years under similar agreement. In western countries, egg freezing is allowed for a period of 15 years at a stretch

The Kiama Lighthouse


    From the cedar felling days of the 1830s, sea transport had been of major significance to the region. Vessels of all kinds sheltered in the bay to load timber, then wheat, and diary produce, and later basalt. Commercial pressure for increased harbour facilities resulted in the construction of a lighthouse in Kiama in 1886. The design of the lighthouse is attributed to the Chief Engineer of the Marine Board, Rdward O. Moriarty. The total cost for the tower and apparatus was £1,350, £80 below the state government’s estimate.

    Situated on the round apex of Blow-hole point, the Kiama lighthouse stands from the sea level to the light at a height of 224 ft. (It is actually 121 ft above.) The foundation is concrete, 14 ft in depth and 12 ft in diameter; from the bottom of the foundation to the top of the entrance is 16 ft. The height of the building from floor to the coping is 36 ft, to the light is 40 ft, and to the top of the weather vane is 50 ft. The building is of brick, cemented outside and plastered within. The ascent is accomplished by means of 3 iron ladders, leading from one storey to another, the staircase being lighted by side lights.

    The original apparatus was an oil lantern manufactured by ‘Chance Brothers’, Birmingham, England. The light was of a fixed green flame that had 15 lenses and was visible at a 9 mile-radius. The oil burner was upgraded to local coal gas in 1908. This was further upgraded to acetylene gas in 1920 and the light was demanned. In 1969 the light was converted to 240v mains electricity, which used a tungsten halogen lamp, using the original Chance Brothers lens.

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Doing the RIGHT thing

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”
– Rabindranath Tagore      Read More…

faith-and-reason4th January 2016, Monday: I’m an absolute faithful when it comes to the oneness of God, though habitually I’m not that ritualistic. I try hard not to, but sometimes I pass up while I’m offering prayer to the extent that I lose count of the number of “rak’ahs”1 that I’ve completed and that still remained outstanding. It’s quite shameful actually, and I’ve no qualms in admitting that I’m the only one to blame.

In the past I have prayed ‘Tahajjud’2 only occasionally, especially when I was in dire need of a good turn from Him. But since the last ‘Ramadan’3, after being through the experience of offering the ‘Qiyam al-layl’4  prayer during the penultimate nine days5, I did not change the alarm mode in my cell phone, eventually submitting to ‘Tahajjud’ as a regular.

The governing body of mosques in our township have put in place a centralized prayer call system. The ‘adhan’ (prayer call) is called from the famed mosque named after the Father of the Nation, which is relayed to every single mosque under its administration within town limits. This is technological advancement and a demonstration of how spirituality and science go hand in hand. But some elders who have fallen arthritis victims and have to offer prayer sitting in chairs with back support are nostalgic; they miss the old world charm of the long winding village dirt tracks and the muezzin’s real time ‘adhan’ called from the minarets of surrounding mosques at a-fraction-of-second-long disjointed intervals.

I reach the mosque for ‘Fajr’ prayer a good thirty minutes before the ‘adhan’ is heard. The apartment where I liveCat is a little over five hundred yards from the mosque and enroute I have to cross the rear entrances of ‘Via-Delhi’, an Indian restaurant, two Philippino ready-to-wear apparel outlets, a pharmacy and two ceramic tile showrooms. Earlier today, as I drew close, a cat with a mix of grey and white fur, who was licking the droplets of water from a leaking sewage line, looked up. When I returned its gaze, it broke the eye contact by resuming the act it was already engaged in. As I climbed the steps that led to the main entrance of the mosque, I wondered whether I should have driven the cat away from drinking the tainted water. Should I have gone back home and brought some potable water in a container for it? And what if I didn’t find the cat in the vicinity at all when I came back? As a matter of fact, I didn’t go back home, but promptly entered the mosque.

Man walkingBy the time I was retracting my steps towards my apartment, the obscure night that had been resting over the township like a bear on its hind legs had begun to give way to the first rays of dawn. Automobiles still crawled like columns of fire flies through its black arteries. Above lay a dimly lit azure sky. From the top of the distant sky scraper an insurance company’s neon ad blinked, ‘Do the Right Thing’.

It was my call alright. But did I get it right this time? May be I’ll never know.



1 Unit of prayer performed by Muslims 5 times a day; the ritual consists of a combination of bows, prostrations with Qur’anic and other prescribed recitations.

 2 A voluntary Islamic prayer that is offered preferably during the last third of the night.

 3 The holy month during which the first revelation was received by Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

4 A voluntary prayer performed during the last third of the night during which longer verses from Qur’an are recited.

5 Because it is during one of the last 9 days that the first revelation occurred.

This article appeared in Caravandaily portal:





The SHRIEK that Shattered Glass

He portrayed the forgotten face of history in brisk black fables”, said the Swedish Academy in its 1999 Nobel prize for literature citation. “The Tin Drum will forever remain one of the most significant literary works of the twentieth century..” 
      Read More…

17th April 2015: Günter Wilhelm Grass passed away last Monday, on 13th April after a transient hospitalization. The immediate cause of his death is not known. But in a letter he wrote 3 weeks ago to American novelist and screen writer John Irving, Grass had said that his age was giving him a hard time and his heart and lungs were “paying him back” for what he did to them – “smoking with assiduity.”

Grass: words written by one man achieves what the moon should do and move the tides.

Grass: words written by one man achieves what the moon should do and move the tides.

The extraordinary global attention the death of Grass drew, and the untainted grief felt by readers all across the world at his exit, tells us that the love for books still lingers very much in our hearts. Somewhere a severed horse’s head is spilling over with ravenous eels; a criminal is hiding from view seeking refuge beneath a peasant woman’s layered skirts; and a child is deciding to stop his growth, and stay three years old forever by falling down the stairs and succeeds, at the same time acquiring the power to let out a high pitched shriek that will shatter any glass he directs it at; aside from that undeniable power, he is also repeatedly pounding his tin drum, which he absolutely refuses to let go of.

We live in an age of sketchy and deceptive world where predators and zombies stalk. Sadly though, this has gotten to become the order of the day. Yet, in spite of the conceited disquiet in some literary minds, in the better part of the fictional world there is more legitimacy than fantasy. Whereas, Gabriel García Márquez’s  Macondo, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi were non-existent in the real world, the case of the free city of Danzig (under League of Nations then, Gdansk in Poland now) of Günter Grass was not so. But all these writers of our time used imagination to supplement reality, not to break away from it.

Receiving his Nobel Prize from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 10 December 1999

Receiving his Nobel Prize from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 10 December 1999

The Tin Drum is fifty five and half years old now, and despite its immense and continuing popularity, its technique — magic realism — has largely given way, in Europe, to other forms of narration. Francis Ford Cappola had said about his 1979 film Apocalypse Now that it was not about Vietnam, but Vietnam. Grass’ novel The Tin Drum was not about twentieth century, but twentieth century. The Tin Drum has been regarded as a modern classic almost since the moment it was published. On Grass’ 65th birthday, Russian-German writer Lev Kopelev wrote, “Günter Grass’ books present surprising and extremely contradictory combinations of opposites. Minutely detailed presentations of real things and scientifically precise descriptions of historical events are melted together with fairy tales, legends, myths, fables, poems and wild fantasies to produce his own special poetical world.” No writer from Germany has had a comparable impact in the last half-century. No writer from Germany since Goethe was so widely read as Grass.

Despite gaining wide acceptance, Magic Realism is a mostly misunderstood writing style. The trouble with the technique is that people only hear half of it (magic) without paying attention to the other half (realism). But if the writing style contained purely magic, then nobody would take it seriously. However, the magic in magic realism is rooted in the real. As a matter of fact, the technique grows out of the real and highlights it in alluring and fortuitous ways, that stays like a lead weight in the readers’ subconscious.

Grass wrote The Tin Drum during the late 1950s living in a basement apartment in Paris. In what later came to be known as the Danzig Triology, Grass next came up with the Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963). The former was a novella that revolved around a protagonist with a bizarrely large Adam’s apple that set him apart from the rest of mankind. The Dog Years examined three decades of the German history with an end note of frustration, which Grass perhaps had intended to be his magnum opus. His other books include From the Diary of a Snail (1972), The Flounder (1977), The Meeting at Telgate (1979), Headbirths or The Germans are Dying Out (1980), The Rat (1986), and Show Your Tongue (1989). In 1999, handing him the Nobel Prize for “portraying the forgotten face of history in brisk black fables”, the Swedish Academy said “The Tin Drum will forever remain one of the most significant literary works of the twentieth century”.

Grass had trained himself as a stoneman and studied graphics and sculpture before he took to
writing. He always designed his own book jackets. His books often contained illustrations by himself. In an interview with the quarterly magazine Paris Review Grass said, “For me, there is a very clear give-and-take relationship between art and writing. Sometimes this relationship is stronger, other times weaker. In the last few years it has been very strong. Show Your Tongue, which takes place in Calcutta, is an example of this. I could never have brought that book into existence without drawing. The incredible poverty in Calcutta constantly draws the visitor into situations where language is stifled—you cannot find words. Drawing helped me to find words again while I was there.”

Elsewhere in the same interview he said, “Ours was a lower-middle-class family; we had a small, two-room apartment. My sister and I did not have our own rooms, or even a place to ourselves. In the living room, beyond the two windows, was a little corner where my books were kept, and other things—my watercolors and so on. Often I had to imagine the things I needed. I learned very early to read amidst noise. And so I started writing and drawing at an early age. Another result is that I now collect rooms. I have a study in four different places. I’m afraid to return again to the situation of my youth, with only a corner in one small room. . . .  As a child I was a great liar. Fortunately my mother liked my lies. . . .  I started to write down my lies very early. And I continue to do so! I started a novel when I was twelve years old. It was about the Kashubians, who turned up many years later in The Tin Drum, where Oskar’s grandmother, Anna, (like my own) is Kashubian. But I made a mistake in writing my first novel: all the characters I had introduced were dead at the end of the first chapter. I couldn’t go on! This was my first lesson in writing: be careful with your characters.”

Peeling the onionHe was a longtime supporter of the Social Democratic Party and has been known to write speeches for Willy Brandt for almost ten years, before relinquishing his association with the party and the Berlin Academy of Arts, as an expression of resentment against the deployment of US nuclear missiles in Germany.

The food one favors tells a lot about the individual. Grass loved home cooked ordinary peasant food like, smoked goose breast with sauerkraut and caraway seeds. In 2006, days before his memoirs Peeling the Onion was due for release, in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, Grass sought redemption by confessing that he had been a member of the elite Nazi Waffen-SS. “It was a weight on me”, said Grass, “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end.”

He had also equated the 2005 Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (Peace Bu Upon Him) to Nazi caricatures of Jews. In opposing the first Persian Gulf war, he expressed his anger toward his own country, accusing German arms manufacturers of supplying weapons to the then Baath party regime in Iraq.

In 2012, his controversial poem What Must be Said came out, reproving Israel’s nuclear drive and hostility toward Iran. In the poem he said, he had kept silent on the issue for fear of labeled anti-Semitic.

Inseperable Companions

Inseparable Companions

At the end of 2013 he became one of the 562 signatories of Writers Against Mass Surveillance calling on people to protest against the surveillance practices of US intelligence services.

A thread of dance and music ran through both of Grass’ two marriages. His first, with Swiss dancer, Anna Margareta Schwarz, ended in divorce in 1978. His second marriage was with Ute Grunert, an organist. While he had four children with Anna, he also became a step father to two sons with Ute. Ute also gave him two daughters.

Those locks of black hair falling across the forehead, the drooping walrus mustache and the bifocals slipping halfway down the nose, all have now gone down to the loom as yarns that weave our memory fabric.  Let us savor the moment by being grateful when words written by one man achieves what the moon  should do and move the tides.

(Günter Wilhelm Grass, 1999 Nobel laureate for Literature, Born: 16 October 1927, Died: 13 April 2015; Most significant works – The Danzig Trilogy:  The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.)






A hero called ABDUL HAMID

This ‘LIFE’ post had appeared earlier in the India Republic Day Special Report of ‘Khaleej Times’on 26th January 2015. http://www.khaleejtimes.com/kt-article-display-1.asp?xfile=/data/indiarepublicday/2015/January/indiarepublicday_January33.xml§ion=indiarepublicday
Despite rare citations from political circles, a commemorating documentary (Param Vir Chakra, 1988) and a postage stamp (January 2000), the legacy of Abdul Hamid, the war hero, remains desolately unsung. In a memorial for the martyrs of the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai, Amitabh Bachchan acknowledged that the only reason why the citizens of the country are able to relax in their beds in peace is because the men (and women) of the forces kept watch ensuring that their sleep stays undisturbed. But then what have we offered in return for those who have lost their every thing in the process?      Read More…
26th January 2015, Monday: From Harmandir Sahib, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, hardly 60 kilo meters farther in the state highway 21 lies Asal Uttar. A few kilo meters before you reach the modest hamlet, on the way side stands a brick red plaque, ‘Memorial of CQMH Abdul Hamid PVC’ written across (CQMH meant, Company Quarter Master Havildar and PVC, Param Vir Chakra, the country’s highest military honour). There within a walled area, a narrow pathway lined by trees and shrubs leads to the actual memorial that houses Abdul Hamid’s grave. A tablet at the grave-head attests Abdul Hamid’s martyrdom for his motherland. The caretaker of the memorial says hardly anyone comes there on September 10, the death anniversary of arguably independent India’s greatest ever war hero, whose grit and valour had warranted the replacement of Pakistan’s medium Patton tank fleet of M48s with the main battle tank M60s.
The Abdul Hamid memorial plaque

The Abdul Hamid memorial plaque

It was on 27 December in 1954 that army number 239885, Abdul Hamid was enrolled into the Grenadiers infantry regiment. Subsequently he was posted in the 4th Battalion where he spent the rest of his service life. Initially he was with the anti-tank section. Five years later he was promoted and placed as in-charge of the quartermaster stores. Nevertheless, being the best shot with the 106 mm recoilless rifle, the battalion commander wanted him back as NCO of the rifle platoon.

On September 10 in 1965, the fiercest post-world war-II tank battle in memory was fought – the day Abdul Hamid died.

Independent Indía's, arguably, the greatest ever war hero

Independent Indía’s, arguably, the greatest ever war hero

In early September Pakistan had launched an offensive to capture Akhnoor in Jammu. Severing the supply routes to the Indian forces at J&K border and communication lines were their main targets. India retaliated with air attacks, at the same time trying to open up a front in Punjab. On September 6 the 15th Infantry launched an offensive over the border near the west bank of Ichogil canal, but had to fall back on to Khem Karan due to astute Pakistani counter offensive. As a consequence, capturing the territory east of Ichogil canal and containing the attack on the Kasur-Khem Karan axis was entrusted to those sections of the 4th Division which included Abdul Hamid and comrades. The Pakistan army dug in at Ichogil and on September 8 retaliated with heavy shelling and probing attacks on the Grenadiers. But the Grenadiers stood their ground; earlier in the afternoon Abdul Hamid had opened his account of destroying Patten tanks by spiking two of them. On the morning of September 10, the Pakistanis intensified the attack supported by their 100-strong Patton tank regiment. After an hour long pitched battle the Patton tanks succeeded in penetrating the Indian front lines. As the situation was getting out of hand, Abdul Hamid realized that the nail head had to be hit then, and hit hard. Amidst intense shelling and tank fire, with his gun mounted on a jeep, he moved out to another flank and disabled two leading enemy tanks. While he was trying to knock out a third tank he was mortally wounded by a high explosive shell.

It took another three days for Pakistan’s 1st Armoured Division, which was spear heading the attack, to find themselves in total disarray. Approximately 97 Pakistani Patton tanks were destroyed or abandoned. Abdul Hamid did not live to see the victorious end of the Battle of Asal Uttar (Befitting Response), but he had disabled 5 Patton tanks single handedly, though his citation gives him credit for only 3. (Not many people know that social activist Anna Hazare had served in the same Division at that time transporting fire arms to the border.) Less than a week later he was awarded the highest military honour, the Param Vir Charka posthumously. During the 1966 Republic Day parade, President Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan presented the award to Abdul Hamid’s spouse Rasoolan Bibi.

Rasoolan Bibi now lives in a modest two storeyed brick building in Dulhapur village near the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border. A garlanded framed portrait of her late husband occupies the facing wall of the living room. Abdul Hamid’s younger brother too had fought in the 1971 war with Pakistan. As a matter of fact the family’s military lineage had an earlier beginning in Abdul Hamid’s father Lance Naik Usman Farooqi.

In 2008 Rasoolan Bibi had met President Pratibha Patil with the requests for a military recruitment center in Dulhapur, observing the day of her husband’s martyrdom at the national level and government jobs for her grandchildren.

Despite rare citations from political circles, a commemorating  documentary (Param Vir Chakra, 1988) and a postage stamp (January 2000), the legacy of Abdul Hamid, the war hero, remains desolately unsung. In a memorial for the martyrs of the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai, Amitabh Bachchan acknowledged that the only reason why the citizens of the country are able to unwind within the cozy comforts of their beds in peace is because the men (and women) of the armed forces kept watch ensuring that their sleep stays undisturbed. But then what have we offered in return for those who have lost their every thing in the process?



The Story of a Hundred Rupee Note

At the time of my birth only my father had the export license to sell merchandize to the tiny island state. A few years before the 1964 disaster, due to floods caused by heavy rains at Dhanushkodi port, my father lost all his merchandise intended for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)incurring heavy financial losses. Yet he didn’t quite lose his flamboyance at the face of adversities. He wore his warmest smile over his sleeve and landed in Colombo airport…     Read More…
Chattu Kuttan, a metaphor

Chattu Kuttan, a metaphor

19th November 2014, Wednesday: In the new world order recognition comes to the truly deserving only after death, as underlined by the tale of one more heart-break that emerged, this time from Sri Lanka. The 92-year–old Chattu Kuttan had crossed the narrow strait at Tuticorin to reach the tiny island of Ceylon as a teenage fortune hunter. For 72 years he had worked at Colombo’s Galle Face hotel without ever considering retirement. He has been an institution in the sea side tourist attraction rather than the doorman he actually was and without him Colombo would now be incomplete.

Keralites have all along been fortune hunters.

On July 21, 1969 while announcing Appollo 11’s moon landing, a daily newspaper published from Calicut had also carried a cartoon – that of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin strolling towards a makeshift outlet with a signboard spread across that read: Malabar Tea Stall. The man inside wore a petite smile under a thick moustache lighting up his entire face. He was attired in a prayer cap covering his closely cropped hair, a half sleeved vest and a checkered lungi held in place by a two-inch-wide green buckled canvas belt.

 The laughing lines etched in Indian Ink by the Calicut cartoonist way back in 1969 perhaps remains elusive for those sitting at Eighth Avenue in Manhattan right across the Port Authority Bus Terminal even now.

Sense of humor in poor taste.

Whose ‘sense of humor’ is it anyway?

Until half a century ago, Sri Lanka (at that time Ceylon) and Singapore were targeted destinations for fortune hunting young men from Kerala. References of head of families who have been in Ceylon for long, or of those who chose not to return home are commonplace in M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s (the Faulkner of Malayalam) writings.

The Hindu scripture ‘Ramayana’ says that in order to transport his army from the mainland to Ravan’s Lanka (Ceylon) Lord Rama had built a causeway known as ‘Ram Sethu’ (Rama’s bridge). After he won the war and while on his way back Rama with a nudge of one end of his bow broke the bridge he himself had built. Consequently that point of land came to be known as ‘Dhanushkodi’ (end of the bow). On the night of 22-23 December 1964, the ghost town of Dhanushkodi was hit by a 270 km/hr cyclone raising the tidal waves to 20 ft height. 1,800 lives were lost. The Pamban-Dhanushkodi passenger train No. 653 carrying 110 passengers and 5 railway staff was submerged underwater, none survived.

What remains of Dhanushkodi railway station today

What remains of Dhanushkodi railway station today

At the time of my birth, in Central Travancore, only my father had the export license to sell merchandize to the tiny island state. A few years before the 1964 disaster, due to floods caused by heavy rains at Dhanushkodi port, my father lost all his merchandise intended for Ceylon incurring heavy financial losses. Yet he didn’t quite lose his flamboyance at the face of adversities. He wore his warmest smile over his sleeve and landed in Colombo airport eventually winning over his business associate who willingly shared the brunt of my father’s losses. My mom told us that he came home with more goodies than he could carry. I have vague memories of the 5 Kg Horlicks bottles, the gold rimmed colourful timepiece that was adorned at the center with an ever blooming flower and the gold ring with my father’s name written over its green enamel head.

A number of years later my father’s business associate paid a reciprocal visit along with his wife and two daughters. Ours was a small town and there were no decent hotels or lodgings to accommodate them, so they had to limit their preferences and be contended with sharing whatever facilities we could offer them within the confinements of our own house for two days. On the third day morning as they were leaving, uncle Abdul Ghani held me close and placed a crisp one hundred rupee note in my hand; the first ever hundred rupee note I ever laid my hands upon!

[ This article had appeared online on 20th November 2014.]



The Garden Will Not Cease To Bloom

It’s 50 years since Guru Dutt, the unmatched Indian filmmaker and actor, killed himself at the woeful young age of 39.  Here is a tribute to the genius. 
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Guru Dutt as the poet in 'Pyaasa' a role loosely modeled after Sahir Ludhianvi

Guru Dutt as the poet in ‘Pyaasa’ a role loosely modeled after Sahir Ludhianvi

9th October 1964, Friday, Guru Dutt’s apartment at Ark Royal: Abrar Alvi was recounting the implications of the last scene of ‘Bahaarein Phir Bhi Aayengi’. Guru Dutt apparently had been drinking. With his eyelids drooping and tongue dragging, he telephoned his estranged wife Geeta Dutt. Obviously the conversation did not strike the right note and Geeta Dutt at the other end of the line hung up. It was well past midnightwhen the filmmaker and his writer associate had dinner. Dutt then retired for the night. Sitting in the taxi taking him home little did Alvi realize that he would never see the actor alive again.

The following morning Dutt was found dead in his bed from an overdose of barbiturates, he was barely 39. People who have known him for long still debate whether it was a successful suicide attempt or an accident. Though their relationship had gone sour, Geeta Dutt found it hard to come to terms with her husband’s death and suffered a nervous breakdown. She tried to seek solace by drinking heavily. Falling a prey to liver cirrhosis did not stop her from drinking herself to death in 1972.

It was during his struggling years that Dutt fostered a reciprocal camaraderie with Dev Anand to the extent that they even shared an undertaking: If ever Dev produced a film, Dutt would direct it and if ever Dutt directed a film, Dev would play the central character in it. It came true when Dev produced ‘Baazi’ under Navketan’s banner and Dutt directed it. In the following year Dutt’s professional relationship with the husky voiced singer Geeta Roy went overboard resulting in matrimony.

Curiously enough most of Dutt’s films bore an underlying premise of the other woman. While in ‘Baazi’ it was Kalpana

Guru Dutt flanked by the two women in his life; the little girl in the picture is Baby Farida.

Guru Dutt flanked by the two women in his life; the little girl in the picture is Baby Farida.

Vs Geeta Bali, in ‘Aar Paar’, Shyama Vs Shakila, in ‘CID’, Shakila was the heroine and  Waheeda Rahman the mole and ‘Pyaasa’ had both Mala Sinha and Waheeda Rahman. As a matter of fact ‘Pyaasa’ was a turning point in the cinematic life of Dutt. Before the film moved to production Dutt had a most ambitious star combination in Dilip Kumar-Nargis-Madhubala for ‘Pyaasa’ that failed to take off from the drawing board due to Dilip Kumar’s apprehension over the project.

I had an uncle who after a 20-year stint in Singapore came back home to reunite with his forgotten family ties. Though in his mid-40s for some reason he had preferred to remain a bachelor. I still remember some of the songs he used to play in his Telefunken record player on most nights when he went to bed. One of them was ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai’ from ‘Pyaasa’.

In the picturization of this song the protagonist’s (Dutt himself) image was juxtaposed over the main frame with a Biblical connotation as though in a crucifixion. Dutt’s insinuation to the Son of God especially with the subtleties in the employment of close-up cuts was obviously nothing short of brilliant. Despite all the technical advancements now available in non-linear digital editing systems in compiling a film’s final cut before being sent to a negative matcher, the cinematic syntax Guru Dutt applied to propel the narrative forward 57 years ago remains unparalleled in the history of Indian commercial cinema.

Choti Bahu and her attendant, Meena Kumari and Dutt in 'Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam'.

Choti Bahu and her attendant, Meena Kumari and Dutt in ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’.

In spite of all the superlative attributes showered over ‘Pyaasa’, it was ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ that was closest to Dutt’s heart. By Dutt’s own admission, ‘the audiences found it too slow and it went over their heads’. It also proved to be true that Dutt was an artist far ahead of his time. More often than not, the symbolic interpretations in his narrative, as far as the audiences of the time were concerned, fell at a stretch far beyond their comprehension.

For instance, the significant exchanges between Vijay (Dutt) and Gulab (Waheeda Rahman) take place on the staircase which is used to symbolize the lofty expression of love. In another scene where Meena learns about Vijay’s suicide, she is reading the December 1955 issue of Life magazine with the cover picture illustrating the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

More importantly, the film cost Dutt Rs 17 lakhs which was by no means a small investment by the filmmaking standards of the mid-50s. The failure of ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ certainly took its toll on the filmmaker; he never signed a film with his name as director again, though some claim that he ghost-directed ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’ which articulated the tragic tale of the choti bahu through the eyes of her attendant with the decaying feudalism of the 19th century as its backdrop.

A few days before his death Dutt met his old pal Dev Anand expressing his desire to do a film with him again. But then it was not destined to be. Later Dev said of his friend that he could never digest failure.

It was sardonic that in a way Dutt’s fate was intertwined with that of some of the characters of his own films. He always walked the fine line that differentiated between fiction and non-fiction. In his life love just happened, with no sense of time, place or deliberation of consequences. As Radha confessed to Gopal (RK’s Sangam, 1964), love in her case was a state of helplessness over which she had absolutely no control. Nor did it operate in a straight line as a result of which unrequited love only lead to heart break and trauma. Yet, love in its veracious form could only be disconnected. ‘Bahaarein Phir Bhi Aayengi’ was Dutt’s last film that he ostensibly left unfinished. For Dutt, its title song without doubt appeared to hold back an irony: Badal jaaye agar maali, chaman hota nahin khali… (Even if the gardener has been replaced, the garden will not cease to bloom..)






Just be grateful

Both the Robinson poem and the Paul Simon song were taken as comments on how wealth and power could not buy you happiness – and that ordinary people were often happier than the rich even if they didn’t realize it themselves..  Read More…

 August 15, 2014, Friday:
The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show

And the rumors of his parties…

Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he has got…

… So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read

Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”.

Paul Simon

Paul Simon

At first when American singer-songwriter Paul Simon came out with this song it didn’t quite do well in the charts. But when he re-recorded it with Art Garfunkel it became a break-out hit. What many people didn’t know was that Paul’s song was actually inspired by a poem called ‘Richard Cory’* written by American poet E.A. Robinson in 1897 that told the story of a rich man, Richard Cory, who had everything one could hope for but eventually committed suicide.

Then, in the 1970s, Paul McCartney during the historic tour of America with his band Wings, took to including Richard Cory in his live shows. He got one of his sidemen, Denny Laine, to sing it and made one important change to his lyric. In the Simon and Garfunkel song, the narrator says, “I wish that I could be Richard Cory.” In the live Wings’ version, the line became “I wish that I could be John Denver”. The line brought the house down every night because, at that stage, Denver was the biggest recording star in the US. In some ways, many people suggested, McCartney was making a tilted reference to The Beatles and even to himself.

E.A. Robinson

E.A. Robinson

Both the Robinson poem and the Paul Simon song were taken as comments on how wealth and power could not buy you happiness – and that ordinary people were often happier than the rich even if they didn’t realize it themselves.

Two decades later, Denver’s career went into a downward spiral, he began drinking too much and he finally crashed his private plane, killing himself. And I thought of the song a few days ago, when I read about Robin Williams’ suicide.

Why would somebody who made people laugh so much be so sad himself? It turns out now, that he was suffering from

WINGS: Denny Laine, Geoff Britton, Jimmy McCulloch, Linda & Paul McCartney

WINGS: Denny Laine, Geoff Britton, Jimmy McCulloch, Linda & Paul McCartney

depression and that all the humor he demonstrated in public was a performance. He was actually a sad and unhappy man. In some ways, it is the Richard Cory story all over again. How little we really know about the private lives of those who entertain us so well.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

So let’s not expend negative energy envying those we only see from afar (as the songs says “I curse the life I’m living, I curse my poverty, and I wish that I could be Richard Cory”) because we don’t really know what life is like for them.

So let’s just be grateful for what we’ve got. God’s been kind.

* Richard Corey

By Edwin Arlington Robinson

WHENEVER Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.



Chronicles of EMPATHY

Do you give in to that patch once in a while by going into hibernation, willfully planting your feet into that quicksand by insulating yourself as far as it lets you from all perennial forces and drown in the abysmal depths of the eyes of your mistress, solitude? Well, it had caught me off-guard last (year) April to the extent that I wound up filing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s ‘Obituary’ for a print run thirteen months late over her 87th birthday! It has happened to me before, like when you are in the village railway gate eternally waiting for the train to pass by, and when the train actually arrives the railway guard first opens the gate across the road, leaving you with no other choice except to wait for all the vehicles on the other side to go through!!. By the way, did you know that Ruth was the only artist to have won the Booker, and also the Oscar, in fact two of them?      Read More…
7th May 2014, Wednesday: Most of her characters spanning across four decades undergo an identity crisis. Perhaps it was borne out of her own displacements in life one after the other. Born in Cologne (Germany) of Polish parents, she began writing at a very young age. Her family left for England during the war. Her father grew so disheartened by the loss of many of his close relations to the concentration camps that he eventually sought refuge in committing suicide. At the time of her father’s death, Ruth was a student of Queen Mary College. There she met Cyrus Jhabvala, a Parsi architect from India. In 1951, after she had completed her master’s degree, they married, and Ruth relocated to India. Like all young brides during the early part of marriage, she too was enchanted by the colours and fragrances around her. Except for this accident of the heart she would not have come to India because she was not attracted to the things that usually bring people from Europe to India. Neither was she a foreign-service careerist nor a spiritual pilgrim.
Over the years she had quietly produced fourteen novels (‘Heat and Dust’ – Booker Prize, 1975), almost half a dozen books of stories and numerous screenplays two of which have fetched her Academy awards. The bulk of her work had dealt with India, where she lived for more than twenty years. She spelt out the problem that faced all foreigners who had come to live in the subcontinent as, “to live in India and be at peace, one must to a very considerable extent become Indian and adopt Indian attitudes, habits and beliefs, assume if possible an Indian personality. But how is this possible? And even if it were possible, would it be desirable? Should one want to try to become something other than what one is?” (‘Out of India’ – New York: William Morrow 1985).Excerpt

“.. My prayer to be relieved of their crime has been answered, so that it is no longer before my eyes day and night. Now it is as if it were locked away in a heavy steel trunk; this weight may be taken from me at the last hour, but until then I carry it inside myself, where only God and I know of its constant presence.” – ‘Expiation’/‘East into Upper East’

Unlike Naipaul or Forster, those aspiring to portray something beyond costumes and pageantry about India always felt this dilemma. Perhaps that was the reason why she had chosen to write almost exclusively about the comic ambiguities, tensions and mysteries of middle-class India though with a touch of the timeless European fascination with the subcontinent. And yet, as her work darkened and turned more downhearted, we begin to notice that her India becomes as universal as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Her third novel, “Esmond in India” was about a self-deluded Englishman, who married an Indian woman and casually seduced another, set the tone for much of her later work. She brought up the pretensions and absurdities of two cultures colliding, the emptiness of Indians trying to emulate Westerners and the social snobberies of the upper class. Through the 1960s and early 70s she grew more depressed by the ‘heat and dust’, her metaphor for disease and squalor.

Her ensuing association with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory later turned out to be the longest lasting film making team ever. Of this collaboration, Merchant once commented, “It’s a strange marriage we have at Merchant-Ivory. I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a protestant American. Someone aptly described us as a three-headed monster!” By the mid-1980s, however, partly due to the poor box-office response to several of their film productions, Jhabvala moved with the duo to Manhattan, dividing her time between India and the US.

Merchant and Ivory lived in an apartment one floor beneath. They almost resembled an extended Indian family sharing spicy meals cooked by Merchant. The trio produced a series of intelligent, respectful adaptations of period novels, especially those of E.M. Forster and Henry James. In 1984 came ‘A Room with a View’ which brought Jhabvala an Oscar. She won her second Oscar for another Forster adaptation ‘Howards End’ in 1992.

The fourteen stories that appear in ‘East into Upper East’ had been written over a span of two decades. Five of them had appeared earlier in ‘The New Yorker’. It was curious that during the twenty odd years of her life in India, she couldn’t strike a chord with her Indian critics. Though her prose was not consistently taut, shafts of dry humour arose sporadically sustaining the equilibrium. Jhabvala at some points appeared to be finding it impalpable to come to terms with the radical makeover that had come of the heartland of her marriage. The one thing you could never do with New Delhi was to take it for granted. It’s distinguished past had given way to an arguably coarse present, which was perhaps why her New Delhi stories set the pace for those tales of messy little lives in New York. The trespassing of her characters into one another’s lives bore witness to domestic tapestries threaded with emotional lineage. There were, at the same time, westernized Easterners as well as easternized Westerners perched in her canvas. They wove universal predicaments of human experience in muffled urban understatements.

John Updike said that Jhabvala’s novels have “moments and epiphanies, but all somehow displayed behind glass, like beautiful objects that can no longer be handled.” However, the editor of her stories for The New Yorker, Roger Angell disagreed, “one of the marvelous things about Ruth’s Indian stories and novels is that they seem to have the pace of Indian life.”

In May 2005 death appeared like an act in the theatre of the absurd in her life and took away Merchant. Since then she had lead a solitary life in New York city. “Once a refugee, always a refugee. I can’t ever remember not being all right wherever I was, but you don’t give your whole allegiance to a place or want to be entirely identified with the society you’re living in. Everyone is so estranged, no one is rooted.” Perhaps her husband realized this and soon after his retirement joined her in New York. Ruth continued to write; East into Upper East (1998) and My Nine Lives (2004) were her final books. Yet when it came to the last years of her life home mattered because everything to do with home was about breeding and feeding, especially in Ruth’s case 86 years of it.