#11 “…but I have MUM!” – Bollywood Redefined.

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Picture this.

The year – 1975

The Film – DEEWAAR ( THE WALL ) Yes, Pink Floyd took another 7 years to get there!

Brothers on either side of the law.

One a cop, the other a criminal ; locked in an edge-of-the-seat showdown as only Bollywood can offer.

At the end of a cat-and-mouse chase,

The Criminal : “So, what have you got? After ALL THESE YEARS in ‘uniform’, enforcing the law and doing the ‘right’ thing, WHAT have you got to show for it, bro?
Look at me, I have a palatial house, the best car, everything that money can buy..EVERYTHING…and you? All you have are your ‘values’ and ‘morals’…ideals that wouldn’t buy you a square meal, if you tried!
Is that ALL you have to your name after a lifetime of being ‘righteous’…?”

The Cop : “True, you have it all, my brother… everything.
But you forget,
I have Ma…”

END OF.

The audience rises to its feet ; crying, clapping, whistling, cheering, knowing that it’s been money + 3 hours well spent, for that ONE LINE alone ( and the film is studded with many such ‘iconic’ pieces of dialogue )

Bravo !

Welcome to the larger-than-life, singing, dancing, many-splendoured world of Bollywood featuring verbal-sparring par excellence.

A trifle baffling perhaps, to those not tuned in to our unique sensibilities but nothing that can’t be explained.

We’re the LARGEST film industry in the world, we’re the BIGGEST form of entertainment for over a billion people + fans worldwide, we like to break the monotony of a ‘narrative’ with song & dance, we adore heavy-duty dialogue and cheeky punch-lines, we love to dress up, aren’t shy to flash a bit of flesh, we laugh from the pit of our bellies and our tears could cover the water-deficit in a small tropical country, we copy shamelessly, just as we are totally original. We do daredevil stunts, we do breathtaking locales, we do comedy-tragedy-realism-farce-art house-mainstream- THE WORKS!

And every Friday, we set aside differences in caste, class, religion and rank until the end of the film ( two hours, at the very least ) to bond over our shared love of all things ‘filmy’

Oh, and one of our superstars allegedly takes home a pay cheque slightly heavier than Tom Cruise.

I ask you, what’s NOT to like, love , adore ??!

I could do a MILLION posts on Bollywood and still not be done but this one’s inspired by a piece in yesterday’s INDEPENDENT, titled “Bollywood promotes the leading ladies – but won’t pay the wages”

Tut, tut…

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bollywood-promotes-the-leading-ladies–but-wont-pay-the-wages-9891689.html

As the piece suggests, it is a wage-gap not entirely unique to Bollywood. Or even to film, for that matter.
Alongside the Meryl Streeps of the world ruing the dearth of women-centric roles and remuneration to match, we have women in TV, theatre, art, politics, sport, finance and virtually all walks of life, all-too-often confessing to their heads scraping a ‘glass ceiling’ – it’s universal, this fight to even things out amidst male dominance.

Specifically in the context of film, I’m hoping that Bollywood will take significant steps to rectify the problem, and it is a PROBLEM, before the sun sets on my generation.

After all, we’ve witnessed SO many SWEEPING changes to the way things used to be. From the time I remember going to the movies – essentially the 80s and thereafter, it was primarily seen as ‘mass entertainment’ which was largely a means of escapism ( a dreamy flight to a world most Indians couldn’t afford and exotic places we couldn’t visit )
All it had to do was cater to the lowest common denomination ( the song-dance-laughter-tears-happily ever after formula )
A few wise words from Samuel Coleridge was everything that was needed before a trip to the movies – the ability to draw upon that “willing suspension of disbelief” inherent in our DNA.

Perfectly sane, rational, ‘normal’ people would think nothing of, say, a ‘heroine’ ( leading lady ) pirouetting on the snowy peaks of Alaska in a tantalising chiffon saree when the man next to her was swaddled in three layers of jackets from The North Face. Perfectly acceptable!

Or when a ‘hero’ couldn’t scrounge the means to afford lunch but miraculously found the time, money and VISA to be able to visit, then pine for his lost love on the edge of Lake Lugano, lyrically weeping into his cappuccino – only to return to his tattered village-life when the song ended.
Nope, nothing wrong with that either.

It happens ALL THE TIME ( er, in Bollywood, it does )

Or indeed the need for our star-crossed lovers on screen to first hug trees, then dance around them before declaring their love to each other.

Believe me. That’s 100% normal.

THEN INDIA CHANGED.

With liberalisation in the 1990s, with markets opening up, with jobs flooding in, with an increasingly wealthy-confident-challenged and charged-up Middle Class coming to the fore, with the mushrooming of “multiplex-cinemas” which allow small, labours of love ( india going indie ) to live and flourish amidst BIG BUDGET BLOCKBUSTERS, with the very fabric of society changing in what can only be described as a paradigm-shift and the world clamouring for a piece of this ( lights! camera !! ) action – EVERYTHING transformed in INDIA, hence in BOLLYWOOD too.

Post – liberalisation, movie budgets have gone through the roof, cutting-edge technology is now leading the way and the most dangerous element of any creative endeavour, REALISM, has crept in when no one was looking, when those 1.2 billion people were busy debating whether or not Aishwarya Rai Bachchan had shed enough post-pregnancy pounds to warrant another slice of the red carpet at Cannes…( that sort of stuff gets us hot under the collar, all the time )

The song and dance routine in our ‘MASALA MOVIES’ continues but Bollywood embraces a much wider fan base now. Not everything has to be ‘Paisa-vasool’ or ‘money’s worth’ in the sense that earlier, a single movie had to have something for everybody ( song , dance, drama, melodrama, action, comedy, tragedy, social message… )

Bollywood today, has gone somewhat niche!

My personal favourite from a recent crop of films – LUNCHBOX. A small-budget film about love and longing in a bustling city, initiated by the folly of a ‘dabbawala’ delivering the wrong lunchbox to the right guy ūüôā

I went in there expecting another “Slumdog Millionaire” – hope-in-the-face-of-doom attuned to a strictly Western sensibility. Lunchbox had garnered enough column inches in the press here, from all the right sources too ( BFI, The Guardian, Bollywood Season on Channel 4 ) for me to sit up and take note.

The final push came from an elderly English lady who took me by the arm at someone’s party and confessed that it was one of the best films she’d ever seen, well worth the ¬£20 for driving to ODEON, Marble Arch ( congestion charge + parking fee ) before she’d even paid for the movie and the popcorn!
Praise indeed.

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/apr/13/lunchbox-bollywood-review-banked-emotions

What I personally loved about the film?

The fact that it broke even the ‘Art House’ rules in India and refrained from ending on a strictly ‘happy’ or ‘tragic’ note but fell somewhere in-between.
It was life, as we all know it and LIVE IT everyday but rarely see in our films.

That’s HUGE.

Who knows, parity in fee for our leading ladies may just be ’round the corner too, patiently awaiting its first audition in a dusty suburban Mumbai studio, as I write…

Given the infamously horrendous Mumbai traffic, it may take a while to get to its destination, though.

While we wait, let’s dance!

” ONE.TWO.THREE.FOUR – say, Shaavaa Shaavaa, mahiya…say shaavaa shavaaaaaaa! ”

Parineeta_Movie_Rekha_Item_Song

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#10 Us & Them – A Class apart

A divide as old as Time – ¬†haves Vs have-nots, Plebeians Vs Patricians, Proletariat Vs Bourgeoisie, Working Class Vs Middle Class Vs Aristocracy. ¬†Toffs, Sloanies, Chavs….the labels are endless.

The differences, rather deep.

And now, very pronounced.

The Class System has recently come under a lot of scrutiny here following a spate of incidents which gave me, ¬†a relative outsider, ¬†an interesting insight into the British way of life. In 1516, centuries before Martin Luther King Jr confessed to the world “he had a dream” – ¬†Sir Thomas Moore wrote a book about a fictional Island Society in the Atlantic Ocean with near-perfect qualities in his book, ¬†Utopia. By a strange Dr-Who-meets-Beam-Me-Up-Scotty type miracle, if he were to arrive at the pearly gates of Heathrow today, he’d be a very disappointed man.

The Class System – essentially, distinctions in money and mannerisms that pigeonhole us from birth, has always existed. No matter who we are or where we live, we learn our place in society very quickly and we aspire to the next level, openly or otherwise. It’s a fact. WHAT we’re willing to compromise and stake for the sake of getting to the next level, and what we DO once there, that depends on WHO we really are on the inside. More money ¬†= ¬†Bigger house ? Better car ? More ( exotic ) holidays ? Larger collection of books, ¬†jewels, ¬†Birkin Handbags, ¬†more donations to charity… THAT’S where we differ. On the assumption, of course, that acquiring wealth is the only way of sneaking into the haloed portal of the Upper Class – a whole different arguement for another rainy day.

A simple tweet ( below ) from Labour politicain Emily Thornburry last week provoked widespread fury in Britain. Fury, because it was seen as naked contempt for the patriotic, hard working middle- classes. It aroused a bit of bafflement too, among those who had NO idea why this picture was deemed so ghastly, in such poor taste!

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Thornburry promptly lost her job – ¬†because she had tweeted a picture of a working-class home covered in England flags, seen as condescending and snobbish when ironically, she’d herself been brought up in a council house.

In addition, The Guardian helpfully informed us that “the St George’s Flag had always had a complicated history in England and its association with Far Right politics, though fading, is still one that resonates with some. The idea that the flag is synonymous with anti-immigration feeling – and that Thornburry’s tweet was drawing attention to this – also explains why she got into such hot water on the day an anti-immigration party was on course to winning a by-election in Rochester.”

It was beginning to make some sense. I

t’s impossible not to be acutely aware of the fact that broadly speaking, ¬†politicians in the UK represent the priviledged, upper crust of society ¬†( a thin but deeply influential wedge of the pie ) It’s not an impression or conjecture, it’s a FACT. ¬†Everyday we’re fed articles on elitism in government, deriding the “Eton Set” currently in power deciding the fate of the nation. It’s quite an ALARMING statistic actually, feel free to read more…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2235719/Britain-run-private-school-elite-study-shows.html

David Cameron, when asked the price of bread, famously said, it cost “well north of a pound”, then defended his ignorance of the correct cost by saying he baked his own! In the wake of the “pasty tax” furore in 2012,¬†George Osborne became the butt of all jokes when he admitted he “couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to Greggs for a pasty”. Of course, he couldn’t! Probably his butler and footman would make the same confession too because they clearly aren’t the sort of people who go to Greggs – a high-street chain selling “affordable” pasties to the millions who seek / need AND in all likelihood, can afford ONLY that.

The next day, David Cameron, wanting to be seen as one of masses, compounded his folly with the words, ” I‚Äôm a pasty eater myself. I go to Cornwall on holiday. I love a hot pasty. I think the last one I bought was from the West Cornwall Pasty Company. I seem to remember I was in Leeds station at the time. The choice was to have one of their small ones or their large ones. I‚Äôve got a feeling I opted or the large one and very good it was too.‚ÄĚ

Turns out, the West Cornwall Pasty shop in Leeds Station closed in March 2007… Oh dear, dear ! Almost a case of “Too many Etonians spoil the broth”, as Michael Gove not-so-covertly suggested while shedding light on the Education System – the bastion of British elitism!

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2581299/Eton-mess-Michael-Gove-attacks-ridiculous-number-wealthy-ministers-Cabinet-claims-exclusive-developed- world.html

Reminded me of the anecdote from ¬†POSH PEOPLE : INSIDE TATLER ¬†on BBC 2 ¬†( a look at the day-to-day running ¬†of TATLER – a society magazine which has been catering to the privileged few for the last 300 years ¬†) On the show, the Earl Of Glasgow recounted an incident involving one of his ancestors. “After a rough night in a Country Pub, he once sent a waiter flying through a sheet of glass. Later, when his staff brought the shaken, injured waiter to his table and asked, very humbly, what they should do with him, he boomed – ‘ just put him on the bill !”

THAT’S the kind of eccentric, irreverent behaviour we’re talking about at the far ( upper ) end of this spectrum. Hopefully, a thing of the past!

The funny thing is that while on the one hand, we love to pin the blame on the elite and ridicule their excesses, we secretly long to be made privy to the goings-on in their world. How else does one explain the existence AND popularity of TV shows like MADE IN CHELSEA, ¬†INSIDE CLARIDGE’S, ¬†LIBERTY OF LONDON.

The basic premise of each of these shows is exactly the same – ” just look how the other-half lives! ” Documenting the extravagances of the privileged few, it’s an amusing, voyeuristic, often unsettling glimpse into the world of those who’ve been blessed with far too much money and don’t know how to spend it. You don’t necessarily hate them because it’s not about crooks and their ill-gotten gains but real people who were either born into aristocracy and wealth or came to seek and find their own fortune in this world. Doesn’t stop them from being foolish, insecure, insincere, vain, smug, funny, witty, beautiful, friendly… or any of the other things the rest of us are. But it’s an eye-opener.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/posh-people-inside-tatler-bbc2–tv-review-9880618.html

Conversations with my English friends on the differences in Class and Caste always evoke strong views. So does “arranged marriage” – I tell them that the Caste System ( the BANE of Indian society ) stems historically from the JOBS that people did, not necessarily the money they had. ¬†Perhaps the Class System here evolved exactly the same way.

Even in today’s India, the MATRIMONIAL columns in our dailies are fair indicators of how the ‘Caste’ card is played out ; the desire to marry rich is not at all the same as the desire to marry into the “right caste”. People may aspire to both or none.

Hidden in those matrimonial adverts are messages lost to those unfamiliar with the rules of the game ( much like Emily Thornburry’s twitpic! ) “WANTED : ¬†a tall, ¬†fair, ¬†homely, ¬†Convent-educated, ¬†Khatri girl for handsome, ¬†MBA Khatri boy, only-son with 6 figure salary….” is something you are very likely to come across on a weekly basis in any newspaper.

It says more about India than all the books you could find in the British Library!

While “tall and fair” are VERY COMMON personal preferences, ¬†“homely” ¬†alludes to a girl who doesn’t harbour any serious career aspirations and will unquestioningly give up work for kids and family. ¬†And “Convent-educated” ¬†in no way points to someone who can belt out hymns with effortless ease like Sister Maria in The Sound Of Music. ¬†Oh no! ¬†It merely seeks someone who speaks good english and will add prestige to the “family name” ( most likely to be educated in a Convent school, the equivalent of a Private school here ! ) “Khatri” is the all-important caste, in this case.

And behold the prospective ( handsome ) groom ;   what a catch ( as we are lead to believe )

An MBA ( hence the 6 figure salary – a guarantor of all creature comforts ) of the right pedigree and oooooh, an ‘only son’ ¬†– which is again an oblique reference to the fact that he will inherit the family wealth, ALL of it. ¬†Won’t have to share it with siblings or others in a “joint-family” system – another ‘delightful’ Indian phenomenon, mercifully losing ground with each passing day.

The debate on Caste and Class is always an intense and interesting one because it is about WHO we are, WHENCE we’ve come and WHERE we’re headed. Everyone can relate to it and have opinions on it. In some shape or form, it’s been the ‘MOST trending thing on Twitter’ in the UK for the past week, owing mainly to Emily Thorburry, then POSH PEOPLE.

I end this post with a small clip from one of my favourite TV shows – WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, where celebrities trace their family tree. This one features Stephen Fry. As my favourite writer / broadcaster / actor / comedian / raconteur, ¬†Stephen, ¬†says at the start – ” Of course, I want to discover that in fact I am a descendent of Heinrich Heine, the Jewish German Poet and that I have a blood that is as intellectually and aristocratically refined as it is possible to be but I’m most certain of course, to find out, as all human beings that….well, in the end, if you go back far enough, that I’m just another ruddy peasant” If THAT doesn’t put everything into perspective ! ūüôā

#9 food & friendships…

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The English Weather, deliciously warm and comfortingly glorious for precisely 2 and a half days in a year, leaves much to be desired.

I have moaned about it endlessly for the last 13 years, driving Friends & Fam to despair. Perhaps it is time to make my peace with it and seek out a way of looking at the proverbial glass as being “half-full”.
It’s going to be a stretch but I shall try.

Actually, there ARE some wondeful things to be said about permanent grey skies and slanting, freezing sheets of incessant rain…stay with me…it’s inconvenient and horrible for the MOST part, when you have a life to lead.
But on days you can afford the luxury of curling up with a book under the duvet, it’s heaven.

Specially if you’re into Conan Doyle and Cookbooks.

I am convinced that Holmes wouldn’t have held the same charm for me if he were’nt conjured up by the damp, pickled brain of Conan Doyle holed up in misty Edinburgh. I doubt if he’d have painted the same bone-chilling picture of Victorian London sitting on a sunny Florida beach, Pina Colada in hand. The RAIN made him do it!

Similarly, ‘Comfort Food’ would quickly lose its raison d’etre if it weren’t for people like me needing all that comforting in the face of, say, today’s forecast for London – “Cloudy with persistent rain for much of the day, heavy at times. Drier weather with clearing skies will spread eastwards to all parts through the evening. However, temperatures will fall quickly, with a frost and shallow mist patches in places by dawn.”

And this is when you need something warm and sustaining in your arms – like a book that looks good, evokes the right notes and leaves you wanting more.

Buying, reading, sniffing, caressing, dreamily gazing at Cookbooks is a passion I’m happy to declare.
If someone paid me, I might even write one someday. Though there’s little I end up actually cooking from my sizeable collection other than what falls strictly within my own comfort-zone ( mostly Indian ¬†)
Nevertheless, I’m drawn to a beautifully- produced, well-written one like a moth to a flame.

Or an Englishman to a Ruby Murry!

I may be oblivious to the current state of affairs in Syria or be totally clueless about where Lewis Hamilton stands in F1 this season but I DO KNOW that the best  £ 2.90  to be spent every four weeks in London is on the OBSERVER FOOD MONTHLY ( edited by one of my favourite chef-writers РNigel Slater. Also featuring often-controversial yet always-entertaining words from Food Critic Par Excellence РJay Rayner )

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I discovered Yotam Ottolenghi on TV a few years ago and have been a fan since. I picked up his food bible JERUSALEM recently on a friend’s recommendation and wasn’t able to put it down until I’d devoured the first 20 pages in Waterstone’s. In the introduction, he talks about a lot more besides food – things that made him the man he is today ¬†– ¬† his childhood in Jerusalem, his family and a potpourri of influences, both culinary and otherwise.

 

Jointly written by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, it says –

” ….This book and this journey into the food of Jerusalem form part of a private odyssey. We both grew up in the city. Sami in the muslim East and Yotam in the Jewish West, but never knew each other. We lived there as children in the 1970s and 1980s and then left in the 1990s, first to Tel Aviv, then to London.

Only there did we meet and discover our parallel histories; we became close friends and then business partners…
It is more than 20 years since we both left the city. This is a serious chunk of time , longer than the years we spent living there. Yet we still think of Jerusalem as our home. Not home in the sense of the place where you conduct your daily life , or constantly return to. In fact, Jerusalem is our home almost against our wills. It is our home because it defines us, like it or not.
The flavours and smells of this city are our mother tongue. We imagine them and dream in them even though we may have adopted a few more sophisticated languages….everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences…”

 

Who wouldn’t want to read a story like that even though most of the narrative beyond page 20 comes in grams, ounces and liters…

I remember feeling the same way about Russell Norman’s POLPO – a book that does Venice proud and sits beautifully with others who marry ‘style’ to ‘substance’ with remarkable ease. POLPO ( also the name of his uber-cool restaurant, a ‘bacaro‘ to be precise ) dispensed with the notion that good restaurant food always demands prior booking! It drove the critics and food snobs MAD, to find that they couldn’t book a table in advance but had to turn up and jostle for space with the hoi polloi ….ooooh!

Yet POLPO continues to be the most lusted after table in town. And for good reason. Serving small-plates of fine Venetian food and drink, with impeccable style.

I’ve yet to set foot in there myself or take a stab at a ¬†“Duck Ragu, Black Olives and Gnocchhi” ¬†in the comfort of my own kitchen – but the book and its opening pages redefined ‘love at first sight’ for me. It speaks of a man and his passion – ¬†for what he cooks, eats and serves AND for Venice, the city of love!

http://www.polpo.co.uk

I suppose I am partial to those whose pens flow as freely as their spices.
Jay Rayner once wrote, when people ask me at workshops, WHAT  the secret to being a good food writer is, I tell them Рforget the food, you just have to be a good WRITER. That can be honed but not entirely taught. Every fancy thing you need to know about FOOD Рyou can learn. Or google!

TRUE.

In that department, Nigella Lawson makes mincemeat of her competition – she is the undisputed Queen of Words and of food fantasies on telly. You would want to lick the spoon clean, if she gave it you covered in mud – such is the allure of her writing ( HOW TO EAT, HOW TO BE A DOMESTIC GODDESS among many other bestsellers… )
Hollywood looks,with a lifestyle to match and those devilishly dark tresses complete the package.

No one comes close though many have tried.

Yet it’s NOT just about the look and the gloss, I hasten to add.

There has to be a beating heart underneath!
A passion and fire that cuts through the fluff…

Like Nigel Slater’s autobiography TOAST. Very simply yet elegantly written, it ranks among my most favourite books of all time.

 

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If glossy pages and sharp photography were everything, Sophie Dahl would’ve had a winner on her hands. A model by profession, MRS. Jamie Callum by choice and if that weren’t enough, Roald Dahl’s grand daughter too – Sophie attempted a food show and the follow-up book some years ago.

Everything was perfect – the recipes, the mandatory shots of her stringing up rows of bunting as fruity cakes fluffed up in the oven and hearty soups bubbled away on the hob. Even snatches of poetry and distant strains of Jazz thrown into the mix – the show had ALL the ingredients needed to keep you watching and glued.

Yet, looking at her going about her business ( in this case, dishing up delicious food ) one got the feeling that the hottest thing Sophie may have ever come across was more likely to be her curling irons than her stunning AGA. It felt a bit ‘staged’, if you know what I mean. The appeal wore off quickly.

 

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There is a book, however, that I love to read more than any other. And another one that I actually cook from.

Tasting India is almost too heavy to take to bed but it oozes charm from every page, a warm and vibrant food-journal by Christine Mansfield, studded with recipes I don’t have the remotest urge to try. Yet a book I return to again and again for the way she talks about my homeland ; as seen through a pair of devoted, ¬†hungry Australian eyes…

And last but not least, my stained, smelly, oil-splattered, dog-eared, second-hand copy of The Calcutta Kitchen by Simon Parkes and Udit Sarkhel. Between its covers, it holds everything I need to know about everything I love to cook.

Not to impress, not for updates on Facebook but it is food I LOVE to eat. Sometimes, straight from the pan before it’s had a chance to cool. Even when it looks like something the cat may have dragged in, so completely un-Instagrammable!

Cooking is an amazing adventure, as therapeutic, stressful or mundane as we chose to make it.

Nothing is set in stone ( except when you’re baking maybe ) and everything survives an overzealous chef’s signature tweak.

With a fair grasp on the basics and a smattering of confidence, it allows us to build bridges to the future ( full of promise and culinary possibilities ) while it keeps us rooted to the past ( one of my biggest regrets – not finding a suitable replacement for my Thakuma’s rich, tangy, forbiddingly dark ‘Kooler Aachaar’. ¬†Still looking… )

In some cultures, food conveys emotions far more eloquently than words. In Bengal, for example, you are more likely to hear, “here, have another Roshogolla” ¬†than ¬†“I love you” ¬†from members of your family.¬†To them, it’s one and the same thing.

If you think about it – good food and good friends are hard to beat.

The quality and quantity of the food we eat largely determines how long we live.
The depth and sincerity of our friendships determine how quickly we make it through the darkest storms. Or to the sticky, gooey bottom of that Hot Chocolate Fudge!

Everything else is negotiable.

#8 “so here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun…”

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2014-11-20 08-1.24.58Oxford Street, 20th November 2014

 

“So here it is –
Merry Christmas,
Everybody’s having fun…”

The chorus from the Christmas No 1. by Slade ( Merry Christmas Everybody, 1973 , my year of birth ! ¬†) which kicks-off all things White & Wintery for us – you hear it on the radio, in the supermarket, wafting in the cold night air and you just know Santa’s on his way. Again.

Changing the lyrics ever so slightly could also be a fair indication of how things roll in the Autumn months
“So here it is –
Merry Christmas,
Everybody’s raising funds…”

It never fails to fascinate / amaze / amuse/ move me ,  to see how many people come together at Christmas time for acts of charity to raise money and extend a helping hand to others.
Perhaps it is this festive camaraderie that brings out our most charitable side.

Gazing at the glitter and sparkle festooned across London at this time, heeding the call of the High Street to loosen the purse strings, coming home with a truckload of baubles that you did not need but couldn’t resist, confessing to dreams of mince pies swathed in Brandy sauce and desperately trying to find a hiding place for wrapping paper that cost you more than the present ( ok, that’s just me! ) – Autumn is the time for falling leaves and rising debt, such is the allure of “Christmas Shopping”

It is also the time when Britain reminds me, year after year, why it is still GREAT.

A clutch of worthy causes and charities that champion them abound ( more than 150,000 if you’re into stats ) ¬†– the British Heart Foundation, Oxfam, Cancer Research UK, PDSA, Mind, AGE UK, Bernados for Kids, Shelter, RSPCA, NSPCC, Water AID, Macmillan UK, Greenpeace, Poppy Appeal – these are some of the biggest charities, with outlets on every High Street selling secondhand wares for our money in addition to organising marathons, bake-offs, blood donation camps, galas, comedy nights and coffee mornings…there’s always something on !

However, there are TWO phenomenal ( annual ) ¬†fundraising events I’ve been witnessing since I arrived here and I can’t praise them enough!

They leave me with the same question every year ¬†–

WHY can’t we have something like this in India?

Do we lack the resources – NO.
Do we lack the will – CERTAINLY NOT
Could we pull it off if we really tried – HELL, YEAH!
What’s stopping us then – Ermmmm, er, well….it’s complicated.

Let’s talk about the two events first.

The first, CHILDREN IN NEED – is for, well, exactly what it says, needy children.

It’s the BBC’s baby with a staggering ¬£600 million raised since 1980 for the sake of disabled children and young people in the UK and people volunteer to raise money in the wildest possible ways ¬†– ( I shall wear my pyjamas and cycle backwards for 3 hours in the freezing rain or similar ) schools pull out all the stops and ask you to come in fancy dress + a donation ( at least a pound ¬†) but the icing on the cake is the Telethon – when all the channels of the BBC collaborate for a ¬†L -O-N-G ¬†night of entertainment – from about 7.30PM ¬†until the wee hours of the morning.

This is where pop stars, football legends, actors, singers, stage and theatre artists, newsreaders, comedians, statesmen, butchers, bakers, candlestickmakers….everyone gets on the telly to act, sing, dance, mime, play the fool and have fun.
A telephone number flashes across the screen all evening and the stars plead with us to pick up the phone and make a donation. Simple!

The sum on the cash till ( money raised on the night ) goes up and up before our very eyes as the show progresses. Setting records year after year, WE raised in excess of 32 million this year and we’re still counting….

Everyone pitches in and no one is spared – THIS was decidedly one of Tony Blair’s BIGGEST MOMENTS in the public eye when he was PM. What a performance !

 

 

We’re also told AND shown exactly HOW the money is spent every year and WHY it is crucial in changing the lives of disadvantaged kids in the UK. This is the bit where everyone’s left fighting tears because it demonstrates HOW MUCH we can do, WHAT A DIFFERENCE we can make to the lives of others of only we DO IT TOGETHER with a plan that works.

A tenner from me won’t change the world, but even a pound from 61 million Britons, just imagine….

COMIC RELIEF is much the same Рthe name aptly salutes the pair behind it Рcomedy scriptwriter Richard Curtis and comedian Lenny Henry who simply wanted to help the famine victims in Ethiopia in 1985. They rounded up some famous friends, put a show together, urged  people to donate and from there, it grew into an annual TV gala studded with comedians and all manner of celebrities, raising a laugh AND serious amounts of cash for Africa and the UK each year.

Comic Relief also lead to Sports Relief ( for disabled sports men and women ¬†as well as for the overall encouragement of sport, specially among those who can’t afford the training ) and it championed the Golden Pound Principle – basically, EVERY POUND raised is spent on charitable causes, with ALL operating costs paid for by sponsors. Or by the interest gained on cash waiting to be distributed!

A fantastic cause, a great laugh with comedians trying to out-do each other every year…

And oh, more than £650 million in the kitty since Ethiopia and 1985 !

Stick with this sketch till the end and you will laugh until you cry, I promise…

 

 

What fascinates me is the EASE with which you can embrace them and make a donation. Agreed, that the BBC has tremendous clout, not many can boast such an intricate, all-permeating network. But it’s heartwarming to see how it uses it to facilitate fundraising on a massive scale, nationwide.

We’re made aware of Children In Need and Comic Relief looming large through posters, print and TV ads months in advance. Supermarkets start selling official merchandise, schools and offices pitch in, banks allow you to make donations at the ATM, there are easy numbers you can call or text your donations to, addresses you can send off cheques to, fundraising kits you can order, bills you can round up to the nearest pound ( or more ) towards donations.

And if none of this appeals to you, you could simply drop your loose change into a sealed and secure charity bucket practically at every street corner!

The message is SIMPLE ¬†– Get up and DONATE. we will do EVERYTHING within our power to make it as EASY for you as possible…and tell you EXACTLY where your money is going. No red tape, no bullshit – ¬†JUST DO IT…

Who wouldn’t.

People here may think of it as normal but coming from the Third World as I do, I marvel at such professionalism.

And this is EXACTLY what India needs – a concentrated, organised, annual nationwide effort to raise awareness AND funds for the many, many social causes that could benefit from it.

Of course, we already have numerous charities in place, we have countless celebrities giving their time and money to help the poor and disadvantaged, anonymous benefactors across the country changing lives, we have millions of nameless, faceless bravehearts toiling in the heat, fighting corruption, discrimination, political agenda, social stigma and dogged ( misplaced ) beliefs to bring food, water, shelter, education, health and dignity to those who’ve almost given up on life – and they do it, not for the fame or to see their names on the Queen’s Honours List, ( just saying…) Oh, no!

They do it for the sake of charity alone. And against all odds. Mostly anyway…

Yet there’s nothing, NOTHING that happens annually AND on a national scale with the support and blessing of the government!

No, not merely after an earthquake or a Tsumani or despicable acts of sexual violence, religious unrest or devastating floods.

But EVERY YEAR, come rain or shine.

An evening of fun and fundraising for the entire nation to enjoy and contribute to Рperhaps a LIVE SHOW which is beamed across all TV channels, is picked up by radio, supported in Print, endorsed by the government with the added financial blessing of all Corporate powerhouses Р the mind boggles at the amount 1.2 BILLION people could accomplish if they got their act together.

Forget the rest, if Bollywood and Cricket alone joined forces to stage an annual song and dance gala appealing for funds, we’d all be sorted in a day!

If only,

there’s no intent to political gain

no religious/sectarian/caste/class spin put on it

no mile-long queues or complicated procedures hounding those who wish to donate

no ego clashes between A Khan, S Khan and SR Khan or any other Star Who Matters to derail the whole show and defeat the cause!

And

if there’s complete transparency in money matters and a genuine will to make a REAL difference.

It will take a miracle, perhaps, but India is a country where miracles happen everyday….

I patiently wait for this one.

I’m a girl of strong opinions. What I love about my adopted home, Britain, I ADORE – their acerbic wit, their unique brand of self-deprecating humour, their admirable style of fundraising are a few examples.

Then again, there are things that make my blood boil.

Like the Tower Of London charging me  £ 22.00  for a fleeting glimpse of the KOHINOOR.

WHAT ??

TWENTY-TWO QUID to see something which is MINE, ¬†to start with….( not mine, personally, but you know what I mean…)

YOU MUST BE JOKING !!

Let’s stick to fundraising…

 

#7 heart is where the home is…

When was the last time you were caught in a swirl of nostalgia? In the middle of nowhere…perhaps thrown off-guard / ¬†blown away?

It happened to me recently while queuing up to order my food at Leon’s in Brentcross.

There I was, standing behind three others in the queue and patiently waiting my turn when my eyes wandered, as they often do, and I happened to look down.

In a flash, I went back four decades.  BOOM !!!

A mosaic of patterns under my feet, specially the two in the picture below, were the EXACT SAME patterns ( in the same colour palette too ) from my grandparents’ home in Calcutta, about 5000 miles from where I stood that moment.

This was my childhood staring back at me. At the most unexpected place imaginable in London.

BRENTCROSS !!!

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I was born in Calcutta but never lived there since I was raised in various other cities  ( wherever my father was stationed as a Civil Servant to the Government Of India ) Р mostly, in Delhi.

To me, Calcutta ¬†= ¬†Holidays, spent at my grandparents’ sprawling house EVERY summer with a brood of uncles, aunts and cousins gathered from the far corners for a month of revelry.

The house, ‘Notun Bari’ ( ¬†literally, New House ) was built in the span of a year in 1934-35 ¬† ( in pre-independent India ) by my Great Grandfather ( father’s mother’s father ) ¬† Subodh ¬†Chandra ¬†Bose, ¬†a distinguished Attorney-At-Law practising at the High Court in the glory days of Calcutta.

A man of refined taste, he may have had a grander vision for the house to begin with,  but hastily ordered its completion for the sake of his ailing parents who sadly passed away shortly after moving in.

Looking at Notun Bari, you could sense that my great grandfather had  clearly commissioned someone with a penchant for English / European design. Sure enough, the architect Dwijendra Nath Ganguly, was not just his close friend but also the Chief Engineer of Calcutta Corporation who learned and honed his craft in London.

Spread out over two floors with a mezzanine , a small out-house ( rather room ) in the far end of the courtyard as well as a Prayer Room on the terrace, this house was unmistakably grand.

I’m certainly not comparing it to Lord Grantham’s ancestral abode in Downton Abbey but it was definitely very ‘Downton’ in its sensibility if not size! No question.

With high ceilings, huge windows to allow an abundance of light and air ( some windows adorned with patterns on stained-glass, some frosted ) it had wooden shutters on the outside to keep away the sweltering heat ( seen often in homes of rural France ) and  boasted many features alien to a typical Indian home at the time.

Right at the entrance was a small cloak room, almost an antechamber for my Great Grandfather’s clients who were known to pop in every now and then to discuss ‘cases’ or for friends and neighbours stopping by for a quick chat, in no need of lavish entertaining in the main living room.

Bathrooms, and there were many, were a novelty in Indian houses at the time ( the 30s ) One would usually have to relieve oneself in an “Indian-style toilet” ( basically a hole in the ground with a bucket of water+mug at an arms’ length ) which was always built some distance from the main house, maybe ’round the back of a courtyard or right at the bottom a sprawling garden, depending on where and how you lived at the time.

Many shared a common “toilet”…somewhere in a field or by the river ( even to this day in rural India, alas! )

Notun Bari had toilets on every floor, in fact the one on the ground floor, decidedly Western. ¬†With a sink, a urinal, a commode, a huge and I mean HUGE bath tub as well a shower – it was big enough for a game of football, or so it seemed to me as a child. I feared drowning in the tub which seemed endlessly deep, always brimming over with cold water, stored for purposes of washing yourself by scooping out water using a mug as no one was expected to relax and recline in it “as the English would” – it was far too wide and deep for it anyway !

Subodh Bose lived in exalted company  Р  surrounded by academics, intellectuals, bureaucrats and ( future ) revolutionaries of the time, many with similar lifestyles.

In fact, the house of the Chief Justice of the High Court,  a few doors down on the same street,  even had its own lift.  And a remote controlled lock to the main entrance. Imagine that, James Bond!

But back in ¬†Notun Bari, ‘grandeur’ also took ¬†the shape of two kitchens ¬†( specifically for vegetarian and non-vegetarian purposes ) a pantry for storing food and utensils, hallways dotted with armchairs and tables for resting as lazy summer afternoons passed you by…. ¬†discreet staircases and doors for the army of servants – ¬†chefs, ¬†drivers, ¬†cleaners, ¬†maids, ¬†the general handyman, the rubbish collector etc ¬†to let themselves in and out of the house with minimum fuss.

The furniture, oh the furniture…intricately carved, as you would expect, and stunningly beautiful.

Mostly ¬†in dark Burma teak, a lot of it was custom made for each room. Huge four-poster beds which we often had difficulty climbing as little kids because they were so high and stacked with thick mattresses, bolsters and pillows…simple hat racks / umbrella stands tucked away in corners with amazing detailing on them, ornate dressing tables with marble tops, beveled, rotating mirrors and drawers down the side which could all be individually locked.

Dining tables of grand proportions and sofas that you could lose yourself in Р one made of woven wicker and wood.

Arms chairs that reclined, arm chairs that swirled, arm chairs big enough to sleep in, regular straight-back chairs, corner tables of different shapes and sizes and heights, study tables, “office” tables with glass tops, heaving bookshelves ( and NO Bengali home is complete without them! ) – expertly made to fit into specific nooks and crannies.

Narrow tall triangular tables to sit snugly in corners, propping up a visitor’s jute bag, for that glass of water and platter of sweets or for placing the telephone ¬†( another novelty ! ) The telephone number was Burra Bazar ( Exchange ) 1419, the same as the number plate on the Baby Austin in the garage – WBA 1419.

Such style!

Even my grandmother’s Organ, smaller than a Grand Piano but just as impressive, added to its ‘period’ charm.

A tastefully furnished, artistic house and how we took this for granted…

On a mantlepiece downstairs stood a marble bust of a little boy, Sukumar Bose – ¬†the rightful heir, had he successfully battled ¬†Nephritis and not died at the tender age of 11. He was my grandmother’s only sibling, an older brother she lost in 1929 when she was herself barely 10.

Heart-wrenching tragedy amidst all the beauty!

Framed photographs, often studio-portraits of various members of the family, calendars with gods and goddesses on them, decorative antlers and huge clocks clung to the walls at regular intervals. I remember a framed print of The Laughing Cavalier somewhere upstairs and a Grandfather’s Clock too with an hourly ‘Westminster Chime’ on it ( perhaps echoing the Big Ben ?! )

And then there was a “Showstopper” of a wardrobe in one of the main bedrooms on the first floor. An en-suite with three huge windows and five doors along the sides, this room clearly took pride of place. ¬†Alongside the four poster bed which took up the sprawl of ¬†the room, it had two things which captured my imagination as a child because I’d never seen them in any other house.

A huge square safe ( locker ) in wrought iron in which I’d seen my grandmother store the family jewels and important papers and money for as long as I can remember. Forget prospective thieves ever removing it ( or its contents ) whoever brought it up to the first floor and installed it there needs to be given a badge of Bravery in my book!

My grandmother, Thakuma, who came to own the house after her parents  ( and she convinced my grandfather to move in there when her mother became too poorly in the 70s ) Р walked around with a big bunch of keys tied to the drape of her saree slung across the shoulder Рthe jingle-jangle of the metal keys alerting everyone to her presence much before they could see her.

The key to the safe was in that bunch, as was the key to the most spectacular wardrobe ( or cupboard, as we say in India ) I’ve ever set eyes on ( ¬†and I have been looking at the furniture in Downton ¬†v e r y ¬†carefully! )

I’m not sure how practical it was in terms of storage for all I ever got was a glimpse of the dark, forbidding insides but the exterior had ¬†full-length mirrors on each door, mounted on a solid frame of dark wood, patterns of leaves, flowers and birds all intertwined, along the side.

A ¬†shimmering blob of cut-glass served as the door-handle next to a tiny key hole. And on top, the wooden head of a deer with its antlers fanned out, guarded this masterpiece – ¬†adding to its height and making it impossible to be moved elsewhere ¬†as the doors to the room weren’t tall or wide enough for it to pass.

Probably my Great Grandfather’s way of saying – he, who inherits the house, shall inherit the wardrobe too!

And proof, if proof was needed, that it was assembled, if not crafted by carpenters and masons in that very room. Talk about bespoke design…

And last but not least – ¬† the FLOOR of Notun Bari, the WHOLE ¬†REASON for this story – unforgettable, when you’ve spent 20 summers on the trot sprawled out, ¬†playing, resting, reading, laughing and crying on that floor.

Each room had a distinct design, in a variety of ¬†colours, textures and material. Much the same way as many homes here in England have distinct wallpaper. Over a long period of time, it is etched in your brain, never to be erased. And you can identify it anytime, anywhere…

There was patterned stone work at the entrance, chequered black and white marble flooring in the hallway upstairs which ran along the entire length of the house ( the same design as St Paul’s Cathedral – immortalised first, by Princess Diana then, Kate Middleton ; the train of their wedding gown sweeping along this chequered pattern as the world watched and collectively sighed…And I sat staring at the telly, thinking…OMG…Notun Bari !!!! ) – ¬†red and yellow sandstone, either on its own or set in a mosaic.

All this could have been slightly bizarre to an outsider, aesthetically,  though we never questioned it nor thought of it as odd Р having crawled, then walked on those patterns the same way my father had.

This was a house to remember. And remember with a lot of love and affection.

ALL OF THIS came flooding back to me within seconds in Brentcross….

The pattern on the left ( the picture above from Leon ) – ¬†could well be a room in Notun Bari which must have served many purposes over the years but during my youth, was the dining room upstairs. And the pattern on the right, the main entrance to ¬†No1, ¬†Old ¬†Mayor’s ¬†Court – ¬†its official address.

The events in Brentcross ¬†also took me back to a trip to Chichester some years ago . We were passing a village outside Guildford, driving past a row of quaint cottages when the balcony design on one cottage ( pic below ) took my breath away! It was our balcony from Calcutta again…the same arched terracota which projected out over the pavement, just above the garage in Notun Bari.

Suddenly, gazing at the balcony in this very English village, the landscape didn’t seem so distant or unfamiliar anymore.

Bits of my past were embedded here, across the fields of England, albeit in the guise of balcony and flooring. How wonderful !

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There is a piece of that glorious heritage however, which I’ve been immensely lucky to bring over and cherish, even in my tiny London flat. A circular corner table with a top that comes off. Its three legs are the shape of three elephant-trunks that are screwed into the top.

My kids know they’re not allowed to mess about on “Mum’s antique table” coz I never fail to remind them just how lucky they are to be able to unpack and assemble bits of LEGO on it today – ¬†FIVE GENERATIONS ¬†down the line from its original home in Notun Bari.

If this wooden corner table could talk, HOW MANY wonderful stories it would tell….

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#6 And a ‘Mum’ was born….10 years ago

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The month of November has served as a reminder of how utterly wonderful it is to be  ONE РZERO  ( 1 0 ) !

Р Crosses on the calendar each morning, counting down to the Big Day.
– ¬†Mysterious notes under my pillow about gift-ideas while I’m trying to get my head around this harrowing notion that my ‘baby’ is ready to become an “independent traveller” to / from school and face the world on his own. ¬†Without my supervision or help. ¬†At all.

Sweet Lord, my first-born is  T E N !!!

WHEN did this happen, this subtle shift in the balance of power…maybe not so much ‘power’ as ‘need’ ? WHO brought us to this new world where I clearly need HIM more than he needs ME ?!

I remember the beginning so vividly. Dithering for a whole week before taking my Pregnancy Test even though my body was telling me something was afoot. Then sitting in the toilet for a good 15 minutes, stunned,  staring at the blue line which appeared without hesitation. My world changed forever. It was surreal.

I remember sitting there, thinking ; ¬†OMG..I’m going to be a MUM !

Am I ready for it?

Can I do it ?  And do it properly ?

How can I be SURE ?

All these stories about feeding, changing, teething, colic ¬†– ¬†what’s the deal ? How do you cope ?
How long does all this baby-stuff take to fall into place ? When can I be ME again…

Oh wait, What if the baby cries and I HAVE NO IDEA WHY ???

Does it mean the end of FUN, do I have to be all ‘parenty’ and responsible and serious all the time….O.M.G. !!! I’M GOING TO HAVE A BABY !!!

Assurances from parents and friends and neighbours and doctors and Ultimate BABY Handbooks gently warned me of the perilous JOYS of life ahead but failed to fully prepare me for the scrunched up bundle in my arms delivered by the Midwife.”I think he’s going to sleep for a while now” she beamed.
Like hell he did! Not for the next 2 years…

But something magical did happen. ¬†Within minutes, it began to feel as though I’d been handed a miniature-version of myself, the secret piece of a beautiful puzzle which I didn’t even know was missing. And I lay awake all day, staring at this new little person in my life.

Very soon, ‘sleep’ became gold dust and running a brush through my hair – the ultimate luxury.
Night became day and day became night, all the rules of the game changed. 
Even so, the answers to my fears and queries came to me – ¬†slowly, ¬†steadily, ¬†instinctively. ¬†Every day was a new chapter in this book we started together, complete with ‘scary bits’ as well as the ‘happily ever afters’. Or at least, ‘happily until the next time.’

10 years of being “Mamma”

10 years of trying to do what I think is right, what I hope will be good enough,  in circumstances that I have some control over. At least for now.

In all of this, I know there are going be several mistakes – occasions when I wish I could do MORE or do things DIFFERENTLY. ¬†I soldier on in the hope that strewn among all my ‘wrongs’ there will be a few ‘rights’ too. Luckily, the only Handbook on being ‘MUM’ I need to follow is my own ¬†– with head, heart and common sense as co-conspirators.

The things I’ve learnt in these 10 years on the job?

That none of this ¬†( parenting technique – Victorian / New Age / WhatHaveYou ) ¬†really matters in the end, as long as I can get it across to my kid ( s ) that I love them more than I love myself, that I am always here for them, always on their side – EVEN when I’m ¬†FURIOUS, specially when I’m furious ¬†coz I want them to be bigger, better, happier, kinder, funnier, much much more successful than I could ever hope to be.¬†
Nothing life throws at them can be so bad that they have to deal with it on their own, if they don’t wish to.¬†And making them understand from experience, that sincerity and kindness are the ONLY two things that really matter.
Oh, and a sense of humour goes a very long way…

When I see my little one give up his seat on the bus to an old lady…

When he admits he’s sad for his friend who’s dreading Christmas without dad…

When he asks me, wide-eyed, ‘Mum, do you REALLY not like Fractions divided by Fractions? Did no one ever tell you how much fun Maths can be…here, let me show you…’

On days he offers to look after his younger brother without being asked to, coz even in his innocence he can sense that Mum is tired or annoyed or upset about something she’s trying not to show. And failing miserably. ¬†( “it’s ok mum, I’ll make sure Ro brushes his teeth properly ,wears his pyjamas and gets into bed…) – that’s when I realise it’s absolutely true, what they say….

“There’s only ONE perfect child in the world. And every mother has it” ¬†( I shall write the same for Ro, I promise ūüôā )

Have an awesome day and a wonderful life-in-double-digits, my dearest Arnie.

SO proud of you!

#5 falling leaves and hot chocolate….

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AUTUMN COLOURS IN THE FAR NORTH

– Ruth Hill

Flesh, flesh flashes.
Very, very cranberry.
Straw-colored grasses,
and red-twigged osier.
Dark brown cattails:
arsenic and old lace.
Red wine Amaranth,
ancient Queen Anne’s Lace.
Pine green.
Spruce green.
Fir green.
Gold feather-grasses die
’gainst a pink-streaked sky.
Willows hold yellow-gold leaves;
orange Caragana heaves
silver slivers of
blanching branches
into the slate grey sky.
Flurries of falling leaves
leave flurries of snow…
good-bye!……