Sunday, 23 October 2011

Diwali Musings

Some incidents of our lives always remain fresh.

We smile, chuckle or guffaw thinking about the incidents even after decades.

This Diwali I will again think of some incidents related to the festival. Some incidents will make me laugh and some reflective.

For me, the funniest Diwali incident that took place around 30 years back is related to Uncle Kapoor. He was in his thirties when I saw him for the first time. His appearance was a cross between Amitabh Bachchan and a hippie.

Uncle Kapoor was tall and lanky like Amitabh Bachchan. He always wore a red shirt and black flared trousers. He would never tuck his shirt. Like a hippie, Uncle Kapoor had long hair up to his shoulders and a black, flowing beard.

Uncle Kapoor set up a kiosk in a corner of the playground in front of our house. He started with comics, kites and marbles. He later added bread, eggs and butter to his stocks in the shop. He also started selling pencils, pens, nibs, ink (we wrote with fountain pens in school), and notebooks.

Uncle Kapoor would also sell firecrackers during Diwali. Children would look at his firecrackers lustfully thinking he would be the happiest man on the earth bursting all his unsold fireworks on Diwali night. Uncle Kapoor would shoo away the children who would watch his stock of firecrackers but not buy.

Two types of firecrackers are popular during Diwali – one that produces a loud noise and another that produces light. The ones that produce a bang are colloquially called bombs.

One Diwali night, Uncle Kapoor decided to burst a bomb that was too big in size compared to other bombs. A group of children stood a some distance, watching his every action. He lighted the fuse, ran up to a safe distance and turned around to see the bomb exploding.

The flare lasted for a couple of seconds and then died out. He looked at the bomb. It seemed to have become useless. But Uncle Kapoor was not a person who could think of losing a bomb; even if it meant putting his body or ‘sensitive parts’ to risk.

After some time, he went towards the bomb. He crouched when he was close. He could not dare to pick the bomb. He kicked the bomb and it rolled on the ground.

The bomb did not explode and Uncle Kapoor became braver. He extended his hand, slowly lifted the bomb and held it at a safe distance. Nothing happened. He stood up and looked at the bomb. He saw the ash of the fuse on the bomb. He tried to dust the ash away with his hand. The ash got stuck to the bomb. He blew at the bomb to clean the ash little knowing that the part of the fuse inside the bomb was still glowing.

Uncle Kapoor’s blow acted as a catalyst. The bomb went off on his face. Uncle Kapoor stood motionless like a statue, unable to see or hear anything for at least two minutes.


My father returned from a tour of West Germany just before Diwali in1985. He had brought back a lot of unspent Deutsche Marks and we became ‘moneyed’ for some days.

‘I am not going to listen to any of the excuses you gave last year while buying firecrackers. I want a lot of firecrackers this year,’ I told my father a couple of days before Diwali.

My father agreed.

We went to a firecracker stall and bought at least a dozen pieces of every firecracker available in the shop. The shopkeeper handed gave a bill of Rs. 83.

My brother and I kept on bursting firecrackers throughout the Diwali night but still our stock did not exhaust. My brother was too tired on the following night. I burst the remaining firecrackers and still much was left to last for another two days.

I developed an aversion for firecrackers.

Last year I went to a firecracker stall, picked up a fountain and asked the shopkeeper, ‘What’s the price?’

‘Rs 85, sir,’ replied the shopkeeper.

‘Rs. 85 for how many fountains- half - a-dozen or a dozen fountains? Not very costly, eh,’ I remarked.

‘Rs 85 apiece, sir,’ said the shopkeeper.

Times, no doubt, have changed.


A confectionary store that turned into firecracker stall before Diwali was our favourite place for buying firecrackers. My father found the confectionary store owner amiable and honest (I had doubts about the second quality of the confectionary store owner.).

I stopped accompanying my father for buying firecrackers as I grew up and did the Diwali shopping alone.

As children we would buy firecrackers at least a couple of days before Diwali. To remove dampness from the firecrackers, we would spread them out in the sun on the following days.

But with age, bursting firecrackers became a formality.

One Diwali evening I went to the confectionary store turned firecracker stall and found the amiable and honest man a little tipsy. Perhaps he had done a good business throughout the day, was tired and taken some rum in the evening.

I selected the firecrackers and he gave me a bill of Rs 310. I gave him Rs 500 note and was not able to count the money he returned due to the crowds there.

Back home I found that he had deducted only Rs 210 for the firecrackers. I decided to return the extra money on the following day. But for me, the following day never came.

Around three years back, by chance, the confectionary store owner’s beautiful niece became a good friend of mine. Three years is a long time but still we are – ‘just friends’. I dearly wish that the relationship should at least now move ahead.

I told the friend how I had unintentionally cheated her uncle. Light-heartedly, she replied, ‘You duped my uncle of Rs 100. Now return double the amount.’

I wanted to tell her that I can return 100 or even 1000 times the amount if that made her happy and she would consider advancing the relationship between us. But I was not able to say anything and still remain single.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

A peep into Gadhafi's life and Libya

Last night a Hindi news channel was showing a short footage repeatedly. The anchor was also repetitive. She kept on saying – ‘You can see the bare body. You can see the body smeared with blood. You can_ _ _ _ _’ I switched to another channel.

In the second channel the anchor it seemed was more interesting in repeating that Gadhafi ensured through medical tests that he had inducted only virgin girls as his bodyguards.

Colonel Gadhafi was finally killed by the rebels of the National Transitional Council (NTC) on October 20, 2011.

Fed up with the news channels that were not showing or saying anything worthwhile, I switched the TV off and pulled out a book from the bookshelf. I went through the contents page. The names of the chapters were – Villains, Dictators, Icons, Bombings, Absurdities and Pleasures. The contents page also did not help me as I was in a hurry. I went to the index page and looked at the entries under the letter g. I stopped at Gadhafi, Colonel - 179-85. I opened page 179 and started reading.

The title of the book was - A Mad World, My Masters; the author - John Simpson, a British journalist. I had bought the book nine years back and had twice read it cover to cover. But yesterday night, I was interested in reading only about Gadhafi. Simpson had written about Gadhafi in a chapter titled Dictators.

Reading about Gadhafi in a chapter named Villains or Icons or Bombings or Absurdities or Pleasures would not have surprised me.

According to the book, Simpson had interviewed Gadhafi twice. The journalist narrates his second encounter with the dictator in the book.

Simpson does not exactly say when he interviewed Gadhafi for the second time. The book says sanctions had been imposed on Libya due to the Lockerbie Bombing and the country had been declared a no-fly zone in the nineties. Hence the interview must have taken place in that decade.

Simpson and his cameraman, Bob Prabhu (most probably an Indian or a Sri Lankan) had to sail to Libya instead of flying.

They were taken to a military base in the deserts on the outskirts of the state capital for the interview on the next day after reaching Tripoli.

Simpson meets Gadhafi in a tent. The interview is recorded by Prabhu. There is no mention of Gadhafi’s women bodyguards in the book. Simpson is happy when the interview is over. He thinks he has a scoop.

Both return to the hotel after meeting the dictator. As Simpson is writing about the about the interview in his hotel room in the evening, he is interrupted by Prabhu.

The cameraman says there is something funny about the interview.

Simpson is alarmed. He thinks that the tapes have been damaged.

‘Nothing like that,’ Bob assures Simpson. ‘Gadhafi was making a noise, that’s all.’

‘Whatever are you on about? What kind of noises?’

‘Kind of personal ones,’ says Prabhu and looks the other way.

‘What, stomach rumblings?’

‘No; worse than that.’

‘What, farting?’ Simpson screams.He is not able to believe.

Simpson was sitting close to Gadhafi during the interview and did not hear any noise.

But Prabhu insists that Simpson should watch the recoding. Simpson does so and is finally convinced.

Simpson writes in the book – The personal microphone which Bob Prabhu had pinned on Gadhafi had picked it up very clearly. The wind passage lasted for about 10 minutes of our half-an hour interview. Gadhafi would rise up a little in his seat, the thunder would roll for 15 or 20 seconds at a time and then he would sink back into his seat with a pleased expression on his face.

Simpson says that he ran the interview in truncated form in two different programmes of the BBC but the wind breaking was audible in both versions.

Simpson wrote about the interview in the Sunday Telegraph. It had the sentence – During part of our interview, Col. Gadhafi broke wind audibly and at length. The article was headlined – Warm Wind of Compromise Blows from Gadhafi.

The book has three black and white photographs of Gadhafi taken during the interview. He is in a Hawaiian shirt, a straw hat and dark glasses.

Gadhafi is looking towards his right, with his mouth slightly open in the first photograph. The caption says – contemplative....

In the second one, he is looking up, his mouth open again. The caption – declaiming.

The third photograph – he is looking down and his mouth is closed and twisted. The caption – ....discreetly breaking wind.

But Simpson was not the only one through whom I had a peep into the lives of Libyans.

Around 10 years back I stayed in a government transit hostel in New Delhi for a couple of days.

The hostel was for Indian diplomats who were to take fresh assignments. On the second day of my stay, the wife of an Indian diplomat dropped in to have a chat with my host.

I became interested when I heard she had recently returned from Libya. The woman’s husband had worked in the Indian embassy in Tripoli and was to take a fresh assignment in India.

I asked her about Libya.‘You feel as if someone is constantly watching you. You feel suffocated,' said the woman, a housewife.

At that time the woman's son was 20 and daughter 16.

‘Even the foreigners are not spared. Being Indians, we knew nobody could harm us. But still we felt uneasy and took precautions,’ said the woman.

‘Saying even a word against the government meant disappearing . Many locals of Tripoli, whom I closely knew disappeared forever,’ she said.

‘Roads in Tripoli would become deserted by 7 p.m. We returned home at any cost before sunset,’ said the woman.

My spine had started chilling. Perhaps reading my expressions, the woman changed the topic and said, ‘Vegetables are much cheaper and fresher in Delhi than in Tripoli.’

Thursday, 13 October 2011

In Kishore Kumar's Khandwa

‘Hardly a day passes when I do not hear Kishore Kumar’s name or an anecdote about him. Either a local person recalls something about Kishore Kumar or a train passenger enquires about him,’ said a tea-vendor at the railway station of Khandwa.

I got the opportunity to visit Khandwa when I took a new job in Bhopal. Khandwa is on the Bhopal-Mumbai rail-route. It takes six hours by train to reach Khandwa from Bhopal.
On October 12, 2003 – eve of Kishore Kumar’s death anniversary, I boarded a train in the night for Khandwa. I reached the Khandwa early in the morning.

I went to a tea stall on the railway platform.

‘Is Khandwa your home?’ I asked the tea vendor. He nodded.
‘Have you ever seen Kishore Kumar?’

‘He died when I was three or four years old.’

‘Do people still remember him here?’

The tea vendor chuckled and said, ‘How can Kishore Kumar die? Move out of the station and you will hear people discussing about him.’

I asked him the directions for going to Kishore Kumar’s house. ‘It is very close to the station. Just walk straight out of the station and ask anyone. It will take five minutes,’ said the vendor.

A wide road from the station leads into the city. Shops line both sides of the road. I asked at the first shop. But before the shopkeeper could reply, a middle-aged man who had overheard me said, ‘Go straight 100 metres or so and you will find Dada’s house on the right.’

Gauri-Kunj said a sign on the small gate of the house and it was not hard for me to understand the reason. Kishore Kumar’s mother’s name was Gauri Ganguly and his father’s name was Kunji Lal Ganguly.

The house looked dilapidated. It seemed that the house had not been whitewashed for years. The walls were blackish and plaster had fallen off at many places.

When I knocked at the gate an old, dark and skinny man appeared from the gallery by the side of the house. I introduced myself to him and told him I wished to see the house.

‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘the house was burgled a couple of times and since then the house remains locked and the keys are with Arjun who lives in Mumbai.’

I asked the man about Arjun. ‘Arjun is Kishore Kumar’s nephew; Anoop Kumar’s son,’ said the man whose name was Sita Ram. He said he was 73-years-old.

Sita Ram was employed in Kishore Kumar’s household as a servant in the early eighties. But with passage of time, relatives of Kishore Kumar either died or left for Mumbai or other places and the house has remained unoccupied for the last several years. Sita Ram had become the caretaker of the house.

‘So you were here when Kishore Kumar was alive? You must have seen him’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said Sita Ram and his eyes sparkled. I requested him to tell me about Kishore Kumar’s visits to Khandwa.

‘Kishore Kumar did not visit Khandwa frequently. But whenever he came, he was accompanied by his wife Leena Chandrawarkar and sons Amit and Sumit. There would be merriment in the house round-the-clock. Every person of the household would be in high spirits and a jovial mood. Kishore Kumar would ask us to cook many delicacies and sweets,’ said Sita Ram.
‘Can I see the house closely?’ I asked.

Sita Ram led me and I tried to peep into the rooms through some gaps on the windows panes but inside it was very dark and nothing visible.

I looked at the house from all possible angles. I was ecstatic as I was at the place where Kishore Kumar had grown up.

I thanked Sita Ram and left for the other destination on my itinerary -Kishore Kumar’s memorial.

I hired an auto-rickshaw and asked the driver to take me to the memorial. It is on the outskirts of Khandwa and I reached there in 10 minutes. The memorial stands at the place where Kishore Kumar was cremated.

Like Kishore Kumar’s house, his memorial also looked decaying. The memorial is a rectangular block made of stones and cement. It stands of a barren tract of land without any canopy or shade and epitaph. Grass was growing through the cracks that had developed over the memorial.
‘Is the memorial also decaying like his house?’ I told Vinay Singh, the auto-rickshaw driver.
‘People talk of renovating the memorial but nothing fruitful is done,’ said Vinay.
I asked him about Kishore Kumar’s cremation.

‘Kishore Kumar had willed that his body should be cremated in Khandwa. So it was brought to Khandwa from Mumbai after his death. It was kept in his ancestral house to enable people to pay their last respects. Thousands of people took part in the funeral procession. Khandwa is a small place and it became jam-packed,’ said Vinay.

‘It seems unimaginable-it took eight hours for the funeral procession to reach from the ancestral house to cremation site -a distance of hardly five kms,’ he said. ‘People not only from Khandwa but even from places like Indore and Mumbai attended the funeral,” he said.

My pilgrimage was over. I stopped at a tea-stall opposite Kishore Kumar’s house on my way back to the station.

FM radio had not yet reached Khandwa in 2003. Vividh Bharti was still ruling the waves there. The radio station was playing only Kishore Kumar’s song as a tribute on his death anniversary.
I tried to think how his fan; living close to his house would feel hearing his name and voice on the radio every day.

Kishore Kumar died October 13, 1987. His house and memorial may be in a dilapidated state but his songs remain fresh.