Joga Bonito

ShibajiIf you enter Suri Lane, from the Lower Circular Road end, the second building to your right belongs to the tea merchants – the Tosh family. One of their daughters were married to Shibaji Banerjee, the legendary Mohun Bagan goalkeeper. Banerjee was a celebrity. His expertise assumed himalayan proportions when it came to stopping penalty kicks. Radio commentators waxed eloquent how he would deliberately stand closer to one end and force the shooter’s kick towards the side he had chosen. What thinking! How could one even dare such tricks! So imagine my delight when I see this man – fair, athletic, tall right in front of my eyes speaking one day with my maternal uncle. For me he walked straight out of Pushpen Sarkar’s commentary to 14/1A Suri Lane, which was my uncle’s home. That was the first time I saw in flesh and blood a first division football player. I think he tousled my hair as well

The earliest soccer match I recollect was a India versus Argentina encounter in the Nehru Cup. It was 1984 and television had just made its entry in the small town of Burnpur. We did not have a TV set but my friend Pradip’s uncle, who ran a shoe shop on Station Road, had one. We trooped to his home. The picture was grainy to the point where someone was designated to hold the antenna pointing generally in the direction of Chitra cinema hall, opposite to which the TV transmitter had been erected. But what a match it was! Carlos Bilardo was the Argentine coach and Ciric Milovan India’s; you could never imagine a study of contrasts between the mercurial Bilardo and the stoic Milovan, who the team affectionately called Dadu. An almost international level Argentine team was thwarted by the Indians for 80 minutes before Gareca (now coach of the Peru national team) rose high, chested a cross down, swung away from Monoranjan Bhattacharya and unleashed a vicious right footer just past the outstretched hands of Atanu Bhattacharya and into the back of the net. The fellow holding the antenna in place came down immediately

The first time I witnessed international soccer in all its glory was 1986 – the world cup in Mexico. I learned about spectators standing and sitting in sinusoidal patterns and later someone at Dalhousie Institute told me it was called a Mexican Wave. I also learned of a man called Diego Maradona. I was witness to his magic against England as he took control of the ball in his own half and set out for the now famous seventy yard run. That year in school I did horribly bad in Math (they wrote a letter to my father – that bad). The 1986 Maradona experience would have been infinitely sweeter if I could take away the numerous times my mother reminded me “Haan, dekho dekho – tomake oi Maradona-i udhdhaar korbe” (hopeless translation: Watch as much as you like. Maradona will be around to save you). He wasn’t – but I somehow scraped through like how he took his team to the finals in the 1990 version of the world cup

Football ran in my family – so I grew up listening. My father played for the IISCO team I have heard – I have never seen him play. My father’s first cousin had apparently represented the country in international tournaments (which one, I have no idea). S. Roy – I don’t even remember Poltu-kaku’s full name, played for East Bengal Club. My father showed me his picture in a slim volume called “Club’er naam East Bengal” written by Shantipriyo Banerjee. He worked for Bengal Chemical and died a quiet surreptitious death at his home on Panditiya Road – even the know-all Google does not seem to have any fragment of memory of this left winger (Addition: The very kind @jaydeepbasu on Twitter threw light on S. Roy, Poltu-kaku. He played the 1952 Olympics and had none other than the great Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, Chief Minister of Bengal, clear him for health. This merits a separate post altogether!)

KrishanuJust opposite to the Burnpur Stadium was its car park. A rather large open space where I have never seen a single car parked (Burnpur probably had about ten cars then). That tract of land was our playground. My football season would begin with the lethargy overhang of the cricket season. I invariably would never get picked when teams were getting formed. Then I realized the more I ran up and down the pitch – even without the ball – the better I got at the game. Had Gladwell been around he might have found I did 10,000 runs before they started picking me in their teams. It was in this Burnpur Stadium I first saw magic. Port Trust was playing some team in a competitive match. Port Trust had this young player, almost frail with a shock of curly hair and a dangly moustache. It was clear this was the last season for him at Port Trust before one of the big two of Calcutta Maidan picked him up. I have never seen, in person, Messi weave his magic. But that rain soaked humid afternoon in Burnpur, on a pitch muddied and bereft of grass in patches I saw the genius of Krishanu Dey. The soccer ball at his beck and call and he splitting defences open with his left foot. The invisible glue that the rain wasn’t able to wash away holding the ball to his instep and like he had inserted a GPS enabled chip in the ball, it would find with mind numbing accuracy the other end of his assists. I saw him play just that once. I was sure he will make it big – real big possibly even on international circuits. Krishanu Dey passed away at the age of 41

PubTrust me, there is nothing more entertaining than watching soccer – a World Cup match too at that – in New York City. A cauldron, a melting pot of cultures that congregate to the pubs in Lower Manhattan to raucously support their own teams. It is quite an experience. I was to be at NYC the entire duration of the world cup – I was excited like a teenager. But there was a larger problem to solve first. This was 2006 and match timings from Germany were bang in the middle of the workday (Rich Seltzer, my colleague at Thomson Financial, said he’d tivo the matches, immediately adding a new word to my vocabulary). But help was closer at hand. The President of our Group and later CEO of the Daily Mail Group, Suresh Kavan, like manna from heaven, sent an all-staff email that every LCD screens in our office at 195 Broadway will screen the matches live. That is, all these omnipresent screens across ten floors showing tick data from global markets would respectfully give way as Zinedine Zidane would toil the midfield! As we picked our jaws off the floor my boss Rajesh Naik shot a mail to Suresh – “thanks Suresh, this is a really wonderful gesture – thank you”. Barely had the mail landed in Suresh’s mailbox that Rajesh got the reply – “no worries Rajesh. I realized this is much easier than me being in the Irish pub across the street every day the next two months”

Football brings people together. I watched the 2002 world cup in Zimbabwe. My friend Jerry Gezana took me to the home of a complete stranger – a clerk at his bank who stayed nearby office – to watch the Brazil v England quarter finals (Owen had slipped one in to put England in the lead, sending widespread panic attacks in both Jerry and I). Our host’s wife served us delicious beef pies that tasted even better as we watched Ronaldinho put through the winner and Roberto Carlos held off the likes of Beckham, Scholes and Michael Owen. Paul Spinelli, a brilliant software engineer and our colleague, was Italian and his girlfriend Argentine. My boss Rajesh had invited them and us to Rajesh’s sister’s apartment on 1st Avenue to watch the Argentina v Mexico encounter. Italian, Argentine, Indian – all holed up in Namrata’s apartment overlooking the UN Building watching a soccer match played in Germany. That is sport. That is soccer – the beautiful game that brings people together. Makes friends out of complete strangers. In a world brimming of hate and constricting humanitarian boundaries I wish they played world cup soccer every year


The Lonely Cuisine

There was a time, about a decade and a half back, when I would hear a lot of this. “You know, in a lot of ways, they are like us”. This was a Bengali seeking the comfort of commonality with a Gujarati. Drilling down on the point would reveal that the resemblance stopped at a mutual affinity for the sweet taste. “They put so much sugar in their cooking, you know”, would be the next gush of coyness. Desperation of a culture in seeking a bedfellow (that too in one that is perched at the other end of the country’s map) is perhaps the first sign of debilitation. But then we Bengalis have so often prided ourselves on our self proclaimed loneliness on a self anointed cultural peak. “We are different, baba, bujhbe na (you won’t understand)”. We allow a single political party – Communists – to rule our state for more than three decades, drive a marquee car factory out of the state (to Gujarat, no less), support South Africa when a Sourav Ganguly-less Indian team plays at the Eden Gardens – we are indeed different, baba, bujhbe na. So frenzied has been our zeal to not be bracketed with the “bourgeoisie” and “decadent cultures” that slowly the world has happily left us alone in our cubbyholeDraupadi Hotel

Hence it does not come as a surprise when Bengali cuisine gets the same treatment and is allowed cessation from the culinary milieu of India. “Bengali food” is an institution by itself and in a way has meandered away from the mainstream (as you can see from the photograph that adorns this post. This was taken at Puri, Odhisa). The divergence starts right from the mustard oil that is used as the cooking medium (until recently before clever marketing moved the dial a bit towards the vegetable and sunflower oils. Actually, I have this thumb rule of determining a higher concentration of Bengalis in a given Bangalore locality – check the shelves of the local Foodworld for Dhara mustard oil). And goes right down to the Ravi Shastri wire when the venerable (and hence by definition lonely) mishti-doi is served after the meal. Loneliness is fine so long as others are aspiring to reach that vaulted spot, but that clearly wasn’t what was happening with Bengalis. We got left behind and elements of our culture never made it past the Bengal-Jharkhand border. The story was the same with Bengali cuisine, until chains like “Oh, Calcutta” and “6 Ballygunje Place” did their bits as culinary ambassadors, reaching out to metros other than Calcutta (though, I must confess, a large part of their clientele are Bengalis residing in those metros)

Richness of the Bengali cuisine is accentuated by the fact that it is also an international culmination of two very culturally rich heritages – that of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and the traditional West Bengal (immortalized in popular parlance as “bangal” and “ghoti” owing allegiance to East Bengal and Mohun Bagan respectively in club football). It really has no reason to go around looking for vague similarities and extend shameless “friend” requests – to use a Facebook metaphor – eking out frivolous culinary similarities in other cultures. Cultural exchanges, including culinary ones, happen out of a feeling of mutual respect – not condescension.

Perhaps the revolution can start at Puri.
Wouldn’t it be poetic if the said “Draupadi Hotel” specialized in five cuisines and not three?


Traffic Nirvana

I have witnessed car drivers do a wide variety of chores stuck in the infamous Bangalore traffic. Conference callers are easy to spot. The moment you think someone has lost it, shouting or smiling or as is mostly the case – smirking – at oneself, you will notice the tiny hint of something sticking out of the ear. Hail our early morning time-zone conqueror! These days cars have built-in bluetooth, which makes it impossible to distinguish a mental case from a corporate go-getter (and you’ll argue the dividing line was blurry to start with). Ladies who have to rush in the mornings use their jam-time to powder their noses. Curling their lips to a near kiss on the rear-view mirror (and stopping heart beats of many a male driver in the trailing vehicle) they bring out vibrant color sticks to brighten their days. Once, I saw a lady sit up straight and do her eye lining while chomping on a piece of toast.

sleepToday I witnessed something different and definitely more pragmatic. Stuck in a half-a-km-in-half-an-hour traffic, I was scanning the rearview when I noticed this gentleman. I was aware of the derisive “asleep at the wheel” as a corporate leadership epithet but had never seen its origin in action. Our man had pulled down his seat to a recline and tilting his head back he took heavy odds that Old Madras Road will not clear up in a hurry. He was fast asleep. Suddenly the road (of a kind you may find on Mars) opened a patch in front and I, like a drive-deprived carnivore ate up the space with first gear glee. I then looked back at the rear-view. Our man took slim interest in such territorial aggression – he was still fast asleep. Soon the driver in the goods truck behind him started shouting for him to go conquer the 10m space between his car and mine. Our man woke up. Slowly he brought his seat upright, fired his engine and holding out a hand that blessed no one in particular, restarted his journey towards nirvana

ICANN Launches Special dot mafia Domains

After repeated requests from several quarters, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, has decided to launch internet domains with the dot mafia extension. Spokesperson from ICANN, who chose not to be named, confessed that they have received copious requests for allowing the use of that domain. The person confessed that a couple of request letters had US Dollar notes (several of them later detected as fake) stapled to them while some had generous sprinkling of anthrax. “The pressure was mounting and then we decided that, hell, let everyone make some money”, the spokesperson said with a touch of exasperation

The announcement was greeted with deafening sounds of gunfire in several locations across India and hurriedly arranged cultural programs by organizations that curiously were all into community welfare activities. “Ours is a country of technology savvy people. This (allowing dot mafia domains) will not only let us build our own brand equity but will also allow people to discover and participate in different schemes that we launch time to time”, exalted Mutthubhai Bhattikatti, also known as “Pandi” Bhatti for his unlicensed activities around handling pigs and pork. Originally a rowdy sheeter from Mangalore, he explained his tech-strategy that included adding Andriod apps to provide an experience continuum across devices to his clients. “We are seriously planning a industry-platform focused around group-deals and micro-mafias. Imagine a road-rage situation where you need to immediately eliminate the other fellow. Just login to the mobile app, find services in your vicinity, place a request and your supari will be completed. That simple”, explained Jaggu Kalia, who for several formative years worked for a Noida based BPO company before joining the more attractive and less stressful local sand mafia. “Talent attraction has been a big issue for us. Using razor focused web strategies we will better reach out to gain access to both national and international talent”, said Sabu Alem, long known as a scout operating in the hinterlands of the cow belt in India

Though ICANN confirmed they have not yet opened bookings of domains, insiders from the association say domains like sand.mafia, liquor.mafia, garbage.mafia have already been booked under a pre-booking scheme. Some ICANN insiders have expressed surprise at inquiries coming in for domain names like middaymeals.mafia, religiousgurus.mafia and cleanchits.mafia. “Very strange”, a person familiar with these developments said. “We have gotten in touch with the Indian government as almost 90% of these requests have been coming from there”

Official spokesperson for the government, veteran politician Parhad Shawar confirmed that the government will not tolerate anyone from its party owning dot mafia domains. Receiving a call on his mobile phone, he hurriedly excused himself from the interview. On his way out he was overheard negotiating a bulk domain booking deal with the customer service department of popular web domain registrar Godaddy

“Naam Keno, Bodnaam Bolen…”

Ray was as much fond of alliterations as his comic relief character, the crime novelist Lalmohan Ganguly – Jatayu – was. Sometimes it becomes difficult to tell if the author of Koilashe KelenkariBombaiye Bombete and Gangtoke Gondogol is not the one who also wrote Gorillar GograshHounduraser Hahakar and Koral Kumbhir. So it was not unusual that he settled on Maganlal Meghraj as name for this villain – one he would install in more than one of his famous detective stories. Unveiled in his novel Joy Baba Felunath, Maganlal became the villain who did not require detection. In a way, to bring nuance in taxonomy, Magalal was the villain while the story had a different criminal. Smuggler he was to start with – after all it was heady days of the profession when Ray wrote the book in the 1970s – but later graduated to crimes more befitting the status of international criminals. It was in connection of acquiring – illegally of course – and smuggling out a Ganesha figurine three inches tall that we first meet the man. An earthy criminal who went to college in Benaras, dropped out and hopped over to the darker side of life. He was not an expert at Mathematics and Astronomy as Professor Moriarty was. He engaged much more in brawn than in brain his rival, the super sleuth Prodosh “Felu” Mitter

Utpal Dutta playing Maganlal (left) and Ray's sketch (right)

Utpal Dutta playing Maganlal (left) and Ray’s sketch (right)

Bengali novelists have eschewed the idea of creating a super  villain like Conan Doyle did with Professor Moriarty. I guess it had to do something with predictability, which is a natural bane for a crime novel plot. Undeterred by tradition, Ray broke away from this arrangement with a flair that a master story teller like him only could muster. Maganlal Meghraj, in his full glory, appears in two novels and in both his character helps develop the part of the plot that is predictable and in a final twist intersects the interests of the criminal who gets detected (and identified) at the climax. The phrase “full glory” is important as Maganlal made a third appearance in a later novel – Golapi Mukto Rahashya. I wonder what made Ray introduce him in that story – like Ray’s story telling ability, Maganlal too by then was a spent force (very interestingly another Bengali crime novel legend, Saradindu Bandopadhay, creator of Byomkesh Bakshi, brought one of his villains back after four years. Anukul, the cocaine dealer of “Satyanneshi” reappears again in “Uposhanghar“. Curious coincidence between two generation of crime writers in Bengali literature). But back to Maganlal

Maganlal exudes the feeling one gets touching a block of steel in winter. He rarely gets angry – except at his own people. For a smuggler operating from his gaddi in Benaras he has a pretty decent sense of humor. His threats are not those that bring roofs down and yet in both appearances he manages to put across not just a verbal threat but actually caused not physical but deep psychological damage to the detective. In both occasions he does not pick the detective – Felu – to inflict the wound. Why pick someone same size? This is crime, not some egalitarian make belief world where all battles have to be fought to a code. This is the winding dark alleys of Benaras and dimly light rooms – be it his own (Joy Baba Felunath) or a suite in a five star hotel (Joto Kando Kathmandute). The intent is to maximize damage, hitting out a debilitating blow at an emotional spot of vulnerability. Topshe, Felu’s cousin got into this business being his assistant out of his own desire to be associated with adventure. He is young, energetic, sharp. Lalmohan Ganguly on the other hand does not belong to the family and yet his dedication to Felu borders on reverence. He is elder to Felu, not the athletic kind and has that docile North Calcutta middle-class attitude that only middle aged North Calcutta middle-class citizens of the 1970s would relate to. It is set up such that Felu is almost expected to protect the elderly novelist in his adventures – like he would sleep on the floor of a train and offer the seat to Jatayu when he knew they would be attacked that night (Shonar Kella). What better target then than “unkel”, as Maganlal would call Lalmohan? Call it premonition or clairvoyance, Lalmohan was also the one who was convinced that Maganlal was plotting something evil – like poisoning their cool drink. Hit the vulnerable man – in front of his protector. Maximize damage. Point a gun at the helpless detective and have a geriatric, arthritic, retired knife thrower throw six consecutive rusty blades at the man, who we come to know had fainted somewhere midway through the grotesque experience. Some years later, as Mr. Meghraj gets out of jail and shifts operations to Nepal, a small bit of Lisergic Acid Dithylamide (or LSD) goes via a sugar cube into the tea that he serves to the elderly novelist at the hotel suite of this cult villain of Bengali literature, leading to a night of hilarious hallucinations and pain for Lalmohan Ganguly. In the first instance the detective was rendered helpless and in the second clueless as the mastermind executed his devious plans. But all crimes have retribution. Revenge is often advised to be savored cold. Felu did not believe in that doctrine – for him getting even was a matter of restoring balance in the equation between the good and the bad. It also was about restoring faith in the simple man who was unnecessarily wronged

Utpal Dutta immortalized the cult villain on screen

Utpal Dutta immortalized the cult villain on screen

Interestingly, revenge was never part of the script in the book that marked Maganlal’s debut as a villain. It was simple in Joy Baba Felunath – the known villain (Maganlal) is caught and handed over to the police and then there is this all-hands climax meeting where the bad-guy-in-veils (Bikash Sinha) is identified. When Ray made a film out of this story, it called for more drama. Maganlal was pinned with his back to a wall and Felu Mitter, disguised in a menacing red robe as the fraudulent Godman (yet another significant departure from the book) pulls out his Colt and fires six shots around the villain much like how the knives had been hurled at the elderly novelist earlier. And like Jatayu, Maganlal faints halfway through this ordeal adding to the sense to balance that the detective wanted restored in his world. This gave Ray a template to play with. By the time he wrote Joto Kando Kathmandute, his readers all had seen the film (some several times over). There was nothing wrong for Felu to now punish his arch rival right there in the book, in a manner identical to how his friend Lalmohan was attacked by Maganlal. Thus just before the climax, Felu makes a dash to Pig Alley, one of the drug underbellies of Kathmandu, procures something that he makes Maganlal consume right after he has unmasked the mystery. Prudently, the detective seals Meghraj’s mouth with tape after inserting the sugar cube laced with the same LSD that Jatayu was fed a few days previously. Revenge might be nice when served cold but some dishes make for better eating when piping hot

No chronicle of Maganlal Meghraj can be complete without mention of the actor who immortalized him on screen. Utpal Dutta worked with Ray for only a handful of his movies, starting with Jana Aranya in 1976. Two years later, in 1978, Utpal-babu played Maganlal Meghraj in Joy Baba Felunath. Quite adept at playing overt villains in both Hindi and Bengali mainstream films, Utpal-babu brought the character to life. His diction – speaking flawless hindi and bengali with an overt twang of hindi – was just what one came to expect from a crook with operations in Barrabazar and Benaras. Utpal-babu reappeared again in 1986 as Maganlal when Ray’s son, Sandip, made Joto Kando Kathmandute as a television serial in Hindi, named Kissa Kathmandu Ka. Less said about that the better – clearly even royal villains have their sell by dates

To Lose My Way Again

@diogeneb, who does not speak or read bangla, did this lovely rendition of Salil Choudhury’s Poth Harabo Boeli Ebar Pothe Nemechi. What follows below is my (pathetic) attempt at translating Salil’s poem into English

It is to lose my way again
I have taken the winding road once more.
Straight roads have blinded me for long

The forbidding sentinel had closed my heart,
she called out in vain – but I answered her not.
Now with closed eyes I shall see you again –
that I had lost it all with open eyes

Beset in the familiar I failed to familiarize –
I search for myself now in the melieu of unknowns.
She sang tunes that I did not care to hear –
tunes that now touch the heart of gold.
These strains I have failed to take to my heart

It is to lose my notes again
I have tuned the sitar once more

Sachin Tendulkar Retires

If you can read bangla, please stop right here. Click on the picture below and you are all set

No bangla? No problem. This is a pretty rough translation of the original bangla piece that appeared in the Anandabazar Patrika dated 16th September, 2012 (and what travesty – no mention of the author’s name?).

In a maneuver reminiscent of Back To The Future, we bring you the news – tragic news – splashed all over the country in solid melancholic black. The date – 1st September, 2049…


Sachin Tendulkar has announced retirement from international cricket. Coming at only seventy six years of age, the news has stunned cricket followers and pundits all over the world. The President of India first spoke to him on telephone and later paid a personal visit to Sachin’s home (to request that he at least considered continuing to play T10s and T5s) but the little master unequivocally stated that he has never played for himself and he wanted to step down immediately and make room for like-aged colleagues. TV channels across the country are showing on loop immortal images of Sachin walking out with a bat and a walking stick – visuals that have emotionally swept the country for his last 144 innings. Also being shown are footage of Sachin walking out to open the innings with his grandson at Lords (at which the entire stadium stood up and applauded for two hours and forty five minutes, forcing the umpires to call for lunch without a single ball bowled in the session), visuals of him spraining his lower-back during mid-pitch celebrations completing three million runs are also being widely shown on TV. There were concerns that Mumbai could get flooded from the combined tears of all Maharashtrians when they hear this news. Sachin Tendulkar proactively donated seventy seven crores to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund – his entire endorsement earnings from hearing-aid advertisements last year – to benefit the would-be flood victims. Fevicol and Wisden has jointly announced that no Sachin Tendulkar record will ever be allowed to be broken. If such a situation happens, the records shall immediately be restored to their original state. Planchette experts immediately contacted Late Sunil Gavaskar for his comments on this historic event and he….


Hungry Jacarandas: 4. Hindi Hai Hum!

————– 1 ——————

The Devil’s Gorge – Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side

There is nothing sadder than seeing a friend – or even an acquaintance – in distress in a foreign land. The degree of sadness goes up exponentially if the sticky point is something that cannot be altered by mere wish or even by effort. Someone’s name, for example

“But boss, that is what my name is! How can they say it is not?”, wailed Sridhar, leaning towards me so purposefully that the movement took his chair backwards away from my desk. He was in a cocktail of emotions, primary ingredients of which were rage and frustration, garnished with roughly chopped desperation. Sridhar was a short fellow, curly hair, a rather prickly looking moustache and a paunch that held out a lot of promise to grow into something really meaningful with passage of time. He was a management consultant by profession

Management consultants should always work for management consultancies – that was a firm belief I held in my simplistic way of defining career choices. The transgressions started happening when these IT companies got super impressed with ideas that management consultants sold them about “moving up the value curve”. Loaded with lots of cash and goaded with suitable regulatory nudge after the Enorn scandal, these IT Services firms did what in Investment Banking is called a pac-man maneuver – they bought up those very management consultancies that were consulting them. Thus IBM became a consulting company that also sold computing gear. Smaller IT companies – like the one that offered me employment – started to build in house teams of management consultants. After all, size should never be a constraint for ambition, they were always told (perhaps by management consultants). Sadly, these cadre of management consultants never remained faithful to their trade and ended up as pseudo-salesmen in shiny suits. They would take up seemingly innocuous projects with pompous names like “Strategic Re-engineering of Retail Lending Practice and Operations” at a bank and instead of telling the loan guys to not lend to bankrupt drunkards, they would slyly recommend that they purchased a shiny new banking system automation product that had the following list of features and functionality. That list would be taken, invariably, from the sales collateral of a product developed by the same IT company. Most often Banks figured this out after a while and never trusted these guys in suits and ties. And that day Sridhar was not even wearing a jacket

“Name toh nahi hum badalta sakta hai na?”. I did not have the inclination to either correct his wrong south indian hindi or the fact that names can indeed be changed with some legal intervention. I wanted to fully understand the situation before I made that suggestion to him, sitting at the Mount Pleasant offices of the African Banking Corporation, at Harare, Zimbabwe. After a round of conversation I understood from Sridhar, who had calmed down a bit by then that the Nigerian Embassy in Harare had refused to grant him a Visa because they were not happy with his name. While embassies may have preferences with names, that should not extend to denial of visas but in Sridhar’s case it was weird. He did not have a name – they argued. Apparently Sridhar’s passport, issued in some place in Kerala in the pre-computerized days just had “Sridhar” as his name. So he had that as both his name and surname as per the only internationally accepted official identity he carried around. “But is that really the case?”, I asked cautiously. “Nai boss, my full name is R Sridhar. But somehow in the passport it showed only Sridhar. I never thought I would get into a problem with that. I explained to the embassy that in India it is possible that people just have one name but they want that to be certified by the local Indian Embassy”, said Sridhar almost in one breath. Then he narrated how he went to the Indian Embassy and they asked him to come the subsequent week. “Why?”, I asked. “Because they are busy with 15th August celebrations, boss”, Sridhar clapped his hand, which I had realized by then was a South Indian way of emphasizing a point and not a gesture of glee. “You know the High Commissioner, no – please kuch kado na dada. I have to leave for Lagos this weekend”, wailed Sridhar.

It was true I knew the High Commissioner – for the simple reason that he was also a Bengali. II was introduced to him via the ethnically vibrant, pre-Facebook bengali community of Harare. Amal Kanti Basu, a short dark complexioned, balding, jovial Bengali (actually a “bangal” for those who wish to make such subtle distinctions) was in his pre-retirement assignment at Harare – we called him High Commissioner Kaku. I promised Sridhar I will try my best to help him and later in the day called Mr. Basu. “Ei gulan ze kothhika asey, ar ki ze koy buzi na”, was High Commissioner Kaku’s response when I narrated the story. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Sridhar or the folks at the Nigerian embassy. Or me, for that matter. “Theek ase, tumi Murthy re bolo, o kore dibekhon”, concluded the High Commissioner. Soumitro Ghosh, a friend of mine at Harare, once told me that it is fairly easy to identify Mr. Murthy in the embassy – “Mone rekho owr puro naam Shyam Murthy”, Soumitro-da had said with a punchline that will lose all its punch in translation

Sunset. From atop a hill in Bvumba, near the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border

True of most “on-site” assignments for consulting work, the clients didn’t care much if one is around in the office (sometimes they wish one wasn’t). I took off early that day and drove up to the Indian Embassy. The arterial parkway (as the Americans would call it) in Harare as one drives uptown has the diplomatic offices of different countries down the quaint roads that crossed it (The South African one was easily identifiable. It had a permanent mile long queue of Zimbabweans wanting to flee the country). The Indian Embassy was tucked away on Natal Road in the Belgravia suburb in a quiet, leafy area. I could see several cars parked near the gate that led to a short driveway to the two storied embassy building. By the time I reached halfway between the gate and the embassy portico, I could hear a group singing Sare Jahan Se Achha to the music of a tabla and harmonium. I understood why Sridhar was asked to come after five days – patriotic urges had trumped the need to serve the citizen. Inside the embassy in a large room I could see a host of people – almost all from the Bengali gang in Harare, including my colleague Abhijit Ghosh’s wife Shoma and the aforementioned Soumitro-da – deeply engrossed in a rehearsal. Intending to not get dragged into their activities and also stay focused on solving Sridhar’s problem, I went to look out for Shyam Murthy. After some twenty minutes the friendly, tall and unusually dark gentleman assured me that he will help out Sridhar. I was planning to sneak out unnoticed when right on the ground floor I met Mr. Basu. “Kaz hoilo?”, he enquired. “Porshu sharey noytar shomoye ashba kintu. Flag hoist hoibo, ami speech porum”, high commissioner kaku said – rather, instructed. Switching over to English he gave a final directive – “get all your colleagues – Indian colleagues. They must attend”

—————— 2 —————–

Shoaib Akhtar to Grant Flower with brother Andy at the non-striker end. Batting at the pavilion end, at deep fine leg is a fantastic pub – Keg & Maiden (partially visible)

It did not require any amount of coercion to get my Indian colleagues to get over on the 15th of August. Their patriotism mixed with a fair proportion of curiosity dragged them all to what was a rather cheerful looking Indian Embassy on that chilly morning of August (southern hemisphere, remember?). Mr. Basu had started  delivering – rather reading a speech. I learnt that the President’s speech, delivered on 14th August in India is faxed to all Embassies around the world and respective High Commissioners read that out on 15th August as part of their celebrations. High Commissioner Kaku was reading the speech with a fair dose of dramatics. Dr. Abdul Kalam possibly would have found it curious that someone was reciting his speech with a slightly bangal accent in the southern part of the dark continent. The speech ended with Mr. Basu’s deliberately purposeful “now everyone repeat after me – Zoy Hind”. The cultural soiree happened right afterwards where Sujoy-da’s (Yet another bengali in Harare, selling medicines for IPCA Laboratories in the SADC region) son recited a poem and the singing group took over thereafter. It all ended with the customary song that Sridhar would have immediately resonated with if he understood bangla – “jodi tor daak shuney keu na ashey tobe ekla cholo re”. Ended did I say? Sorry, it did not because Soumitro-da came over and asked me to come over to Mr. Basu’s residence – India House in Borrowdale – the following day. “Customary lunch for all other High Commissioners baba. It is quite an event. Come over”, he said

“ETHIOPIA! ETHIOPIA!! Please remove your car from the gate. PAKISTAN driver please bring car. PAKISTAN gaadi lao jaldi”. I had never heard anything like this ever. Despite being a regular visitor to Mr. Basu’s home, I had never parked my car so away from the gate as I had to do on the 16th. There were rows of diplomat cars all along the lane that led to India House and there was a specially installed consierge who was barking instructions to cars and chauffeurs so that the diplomats did not have to walk the few yards and get to their cars. The scene inside India House was that of mild chaos. The sprawling lawns of the bungalow were laid with long tables loaded with food. The guests milling around were a stunning milieu of cultures – dark Africans, tall white caucasians, short Asians – and they seemed quite friendly with each other. Just as I was wondering why these same nations choose to go to war against each other, Mrs. Bose – mashima – emerged. She was busy entertaining the guests along with the womenfolk from other Indians at Harare. She instructed me to not leave without eating – “I’ve made the sweets”, she added with a playful smile. The food spread was wonderful and totally Indian. Mr. Basu introduced me to a couple of diplomats who were rather intrigued that we were working to help an African bank, staying here suffering the Harare hardships. Little they knew how this was an experience of a lifetime for us. I had the devilish idea – that I quickly abandoned – of locating some Nigerian diplomat and ask about their visa rules, especially how they deal with Indian names (That was before there was a sudden boom of Nigerian widows with $10M to give away, else I would have certainly discussed this deep demographic-philanthropic phenomena with someone from the Nigerian embassy)

A Kudu. Hwange National Park

I walked down the lane, shining Volvos and Mercedes’ on either kerbs, and reached my modest Mazda. Driving back to the bank, I realized I will never forget these two days of August in my life – celebrating independence of my country in a foreign land. I had barely parked the car and climbed up a flight of stairs to the second floor of the Bank that I met Sridhar briskly walking away. “Ho gaya, dada – certificate mil gaya. Gave it to the embassy. Abhi now I need to get some Nigerian Nairas. Do you know where I can get?”. I nodded a negative – there’s only that much help that can be done in two days

—————— Footnote ——————-

Where do we go with this?: Hungry Jacarandas will take a break. Complaining of fatigue after just four installments is just plain lazy and that’s not the reason. Some readers have suggested that I explore alternative formats as the blog structure may not be best suited for a serialized travelogue. So I shall do some navel gazing (my navel) on that. But I promise there shall be plenty of other stuff coming up your way on Howrah Breeze

Hungry Jacarandas: 3. The Country Taketh Away

Double Rainbow at the Victoria Falls

“Subrata, kichu mone korbe na – ekta request korbo?” (I hope you would not mind, Subrata, if I made a request). It was mid afternoon in Bangalore when my phone screen flashed an incoming call from an unknown number. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be Toton-da – Anjan Ghosh – my friend from Harare. I had returned to India after the first leg of my stint and was scheduled to return to Zimbabwe after a few months of hiatus

Mrs. Bose – Mashima – and her family gave me a second home at Harare – there was absolutely no reason for me to turn down any request that Toton-da had for me. But I have to concede the details of his request was a touch strange. He gave me a list of things he would like me to carry back for him. Ninety percent of that list was baby food, milk powder and health drinks for his three year old daughter, Pinky (it wasn’t difficult to understand why she was named such. She must have been the most adorable bundle of pink when she was born). The phone line with Toton-da was poor, and I did not get a chance to seek details but evidently things had taken a turn for the worse back in Zimbabwe

I carried those items in my suitcase when I returned to Harare. My colleagues who were still in Zimbabwe warned me that customs at the airport had now started to confiscate items not because it was illegal to carry them into the country but because items that held their fancy were no longer available – or affordable – in Zimbabwe. I was quite worried that Toton-da’s items might get taken away so I took Bapi-da – Toton-da’s elder brother’s advice on this matter. “Just go to Gariahat and buy some sosta (cheap) but new T-shirts. But remember – don’t take out the tags or the packaging. Pack these T-shirts right at the top of the suitcase and the food stuff right at the base”, Bapi-da advised me over a phone line almost inaudible thanks to constant static. “How will this work? Simple, the guy at the gate will ask you to open the suitcase. Once you do that he will take away the new T-shirts and let you go”. I tried to detect if Bapi-da was pulling my leg but I was convinced he was not. I did exactly as he had asked me to. On my arrival, the scene at the Harare International Airport played out exactly as he had predicted it would. I knew this was a very different Zimbabwe than what I had left six months back

It was a Sunday – the day I arrived, so no Thomas (Thomas and his wife Ranganayee would go to Church on Sunday. Ranganayee usually returned with a whole chicken and Thomas with a whole bottle of cheap liquor). There was no car either (I had to get a new one sanctioned by the Bank as I had returned the earlier Mazda 406 that the Bank had allowed me to use). So I walked up Teviotdale Road, turned onto The Chase and went in to the nearest Spar. This was the same shop where I had brought my first consignment of groceries when I first landed in Harare, almost an year ago. Well stacked shelves had greeted me then – much to my surprise. I was expecting none of it then – my view of Africa was of malnourished children, murderous tribes and aggressive soccer players. This time around my expectations were tempered – I was somewhat aware of the accelerated economic descent. But the stark nakedness of the food shelves hit me like a bad blow. Aisle after Aisle of empty shelves (and all stores in Harare get replenished to the full on Sundays) with just a very few basic foodgrains and items of grocery were on sale – the overhead signs a complete mockery. A few rotting potatoes adorned the shelf beneath the sign pointing to Speciality Personal Care. The aisle that usually had milk curiously had no overhead sign. And no milk either – quite obviously

Mashima made the best mishti – Bengali sweets – I have ever had outside Calcutta. She always had modestly bestowed credit to the excellent quality of milk available in the city. Yet it is ironical that for the next six months that I spent in the city, every morning of mine would start with a lookout for milk. Just outside our home, across Teviotdale Road, was a small kiosk from which milk distribution happened every morning. Rather – was supposed to happen every morning. The practice had disappeared just as milk had from the city. From the balcony of the house where we stayed, first thing I did after waking up in the morning was look out to see if a queue had formed at the kiosk. That was an indication that milk might – and it was just a mere possibility – be distributed that day. I would ask Thomas to stand in the queue and if the rumor was accurate, purchase the allotted quota of milk. The milk – usually two liters of it – I would drop at Toton-da’s place on my way to work so Pinky could get her diet of calcium. The rumors would mostly be false, and the queue – which started forming at around five in the morning – realized and broke up if supplies did not arrive by seven

Blissfully asleep. Lion cub at the Hwange National Park

Supplies being curtailed to the extent that they were, speculation of the time and venue of distribution became key to even a chance procurement. Petrol was no different – in fact it was even worse as it had to be imported. Robert Mugabe could not find any international seller of fuel to his country, thanks to his empty foreign exchange coffers and also an unofficial international embargo on Zimbabwe. Thus the old man turned to another dubious African leader, who had oil but could not sell through the OPEC. Mumar Gaddhafi was happy to sell Mugabe the oil but he struck a strange deal in return. The Libyan leader had an immediate need to launder money and what better than stakes in financial institutions. Using this unusual barter, Mumar Gaddhafi took stake in some Banks in Zimbabwe (how privately run Banks were coerced into this agreement was unknown to me but I guess it wasn’t very difficult in what was virtually an autocracy). Curiously, Mumar Gaddhafi also picked up stake in fast food restaurants in the city. My friend Jerry Gezana pointed out astutely that it wasn’t without reason these restaurants started displaying a conspicuous yet hitherto unseen sign – “Halal Meat Only”

He had summed up the Zimbabwe situation quite nicely. I don’t think I knew or asked his full name. Mashima would call him Barin and Toton-da Barin-kaka. He was a mining engineer, working at a town called Mutare and would drive down occasionally for lunch or dinner at Mashima’s place. He looked exactly like how Mandar Bose of Sonar Kella would look like if he was allowed to age gracefully – those dominating sideburns indicating the toughness that lied beneath what age had obviously conquered. “You say you like Zimbabwe, heh?”, he said looking straight through me. He was possibly looking at the horizon, trying to discover the Zimbabwe me missed. “Have you ever seen a buffalo after it is felled by lions and the pride had had its fill? That is what Zimbabwe is today. Shudhu konkal ta porey achey (just the skeleton remains)”. I asked him why he is still staying on. “I don’t know, Subrata”, he now looked down at his drink, the voice a touch forlorn. “Perhaps because this country has given me so much. I am in debt, Subrata, serious debt with this country”. The country evidently was enthusiastically recovering its dues with usance

Hungry Jacarandas: 2. The Value of Money

The most worthless piece of metal on this planet!

It was a Sunday and Mrs. Anita Bose (who I had briefly introduced to my readers in the – well – Introduction) had called me home for dinner. Mashima, as i called her, would do this at the faintest opportunity. Motherly as she was, she realized that the cooking prowess of Thomas, our designated cook, was rather shallow at best. That evening Toton-da – Mashima’s youngest son – had called over a few of his friends and their family for dinner. For those who had access to foreign currency – US Dollars or South African Rand – alcohol was dirt cheap in Harare and the vodka was flowing well that evening. “You heard this joke about Mugabe having this dream?”, asked Arif, a Chartered Accountant as he shifted his drink from one hand to the other. He wasn’t expecting an answer and continued his narration. “Well, Mugabe  dreamt he was going to the local Spar to buy stuff with a wheelbarrow full of money. Two thugs come out of nowhere and mugged him. And they fled with just the wheelbarrow”. Strangely, Arif did not laugh at the joke and neither did anyone else. We all shifted nervously, reaching for our drinks or the chips. The complete uselessness of the local currency was not a matter that evoked any hint of mirth – however nervous.

I had read stories of hyperinflation in Germany in the nineteen twenties. The Deutsche Mark notes were so useless, housewives in Berlin burned them instead of firewood to keep the house warm. The Zimbabwe Dollar came very close. The economy was quite fine to start with at independence and the Dollar (it would have been politically incorrect to name the new currency a Pound, I presume) was pegged at the exchange level of the Great Britain Pound. It was in 1992 that the first exchange rate crisis happened and things went pear shaped. I am not a student of economic history and hence ignorant what caused the problem then, but the hyperinflation of the 2000s was squarely created by trade imbalances. Mugabe’s policy of grabbing farmland from the world’s most productive farmers – the whites in Zimbabwe – and handing them over to the indigenous population resulted in severe shortage of food, especially foodgrains. There wasn’t enough to eat at home, forget exports. But forgetting exports has its consequences – namely a shortage of foreign currency and hence a depreciating domestic exchange. The double whammy came from a supply side driven food inflation. The indigenous population did not know how to farm. “You know what the old man’s propaganda machinery has blamed it all on, Sub?”, Ezekiel Bopoto, or Bops, asked rhetorically. “The two consecutive years of solar eclipse visible from Zimbabwe! God’s doing this apparently, not the old man”. Bops would rock as he laughed. He was six four and weighed at least two hundred pounds, every bit of it muscle. You would not have seen a more gentle giant – trust me. But I wasn’t sure if it was proper for me to join Bops in the laughter

Five hundred Dollars. That was the largest denomination that currency notes came in Zimbabwe – at least till September 2002 (the notes were called Ferrari. They were red and went fast!). A loaf of bread would cost about five thousand dollars. One fine afternoon in Harare, larger denomination notes suddenly started going around in premium. Please do not misunderstand this as a figure of speech – that was not my intent. Five hundreds were impossible to get and people were willing to pay more than the intrinsic value to get those notes. Stanley Mpofu, boys from our consulting team called him StanMan, one day narrated to me over lunch how people had started bargaining with the bank for a higher interest rate for deposits made in all five hundreds. And their negotiation of interest rate was not something how we traditionally understood usance. “I will give you a hundred thousand in all five hundreds. I want the deposit to show a hundred and twenty thousand credit” – that was the deal. Stan, the ever simple man that he was, actually went up to Sethuraman, my colleague and asked Sethu if he knew how the additional twenty thousand should be accounted for in the core banking software! With all the five hundreds gone to Banks, and the banks hoarding them because the value of those notes were going up by the passing minute, all that remained on the streets were fives, tens, fifties and a few sporadic hundreds

Immanuel, another gentle giant, would ferry us between the two campuses of the Bank in a Mitshubishi Pajero. Zimbabweans had this thing about imported cars. Soumitro Ghosh, an economist working for the World Bank had once told me how imported cars are used as the only hedge against inflation in Zimbabwe. But we digress from an incident that has been seared in my mind. One day my colleague Ranjit Nair and I were in the car when Immanuel wanted to go the BP Bunk to get a fill up. Fuel was scarce, not to mention prohibitively expensive, but this gas station had a special arrangement with the Bank. A black board hung near the window of the small room next to the pump tills – that’s where people paid after their purchase. Scrawled on that board in white chalk were the curious words – “Only one denomination please”. Just below the window, on the other side, was a young boy manning a weighing scale. Immanuel pulled out a outsized brownpaper bag from the boot, went up the window, bent down low to level his head with the window and said “All tens”. He then placed the bag on the weighing scale. I peeped into the window – whatever Immanuel’s big size would allow – and saw two small boys at the back of that room sorting out notes into piles. They were more than ankle deep in currency notes. It is a pity smartphones with cameras were not around then but even today when I chat with Ranjit – now settled in Chicago – this invariably comes up

Mt. Nyangani – the highest peak in Zimbabwe. On a clear day all cities of the country can be seen from this spot

Thomas, the gardener cum cook, was paid by the Bank. One day Thomas walked up and said that he needed to be paid more frequently than at the end of every month. He never studied economics – I don’t think he studied anything at all for that matter – but was astute to understand that inflation erodes purchasing power. Hyperinflation obliterates it. The Bank agreed to pay him weekly wages, which was only fair since prices fluctuated – rather, only went up – with mind numbing frequency. I was out one weekend with Abhijit Ghosh – my colleague – and his wife Shoma and we went in to Nando’s to grab a chicken lunch. Nando’s had replaced all their price lists with black boards on which they would write the prices with color chalks. That day we were chatting amongst us, making up our minds on what to eat when the queue stalled with two men ahead of us at the counter. The girl had stopped taking orders because one of her colleagues had just climbed up a ladder, wet cloth in hand. She wiped out all the prices and was painstakingly writing the new ones. Clearly, the price of Nando’s Special Peri-Peri Chicken Wings at Mount Pleasant, Harare had started imbibing behaviour of a volatile stock trading on the New York Stock Exchange

“Have you seen the latest, Sub?”, Bops was standing at the door to our office in the Bank. Not quite an individual office – it was a large room where three of us had our desks. He was holding up a pale green bank-check like instrument between his thumb and forefinger. “A bearer bond issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Fifty thousand dollars denomination. And you know what this one instrument by itself can purchase?”, Bops had this naughty smile and tilt of the head that he did just before saying something funny. “A copy of the evening news paper”

The photograph at the beginning of this post is that of a fifty Zim cent coin from my collection. Before the original Zim Dollar was replaced with a new rebased currency, you would had to place 300 trillion of these coins one atop the other to get one US Dollar at the prevailing exchange rate. The coins are about 2mm thick. You know where I am going with this, right? That stack of coins would measure 745,645,431 miles. Think of this number

  • this is 1561 round trips from the earth to the moon
  • 29,943 times around the circumference of the earth
  • a beam of light traveling from the base of this stack will take one hour and six minutes to illuminate the top-most fifty cent coin

All this for one US Dollar