December 22, 2008


Whatever it means in the English language, for boys growing up in India, it only means one thing - a monthly trip to the nearest barber after a scolding at school!

India's hair cut saloons are a lovely reflection of the culture of the place. The water and the after shave being sprayed around the place leaves a lingering smell which is at once damp and refreshing. The cut locks lying about the floor add their own to the ambience. If the shop is relatively old, the furniture would have got all creaky with lime scales lining up the mirrors. The platform in front of the mirror is littered with water sprays, blades, creams of all makes, dyes, and the like. All in all, a great place to get in touch with the real India (forgive me for sounding like a firang tourist.)

If, like 80% of the general populace, you find it too hard to get up on a weekday for the harvest and only visit the place 'subah subah' on a Sunday (anytime before 1PM), chances are, there would be atleast 7-8 people waiting for attention. These would have a liberal distribution of retired grandpas with their grandsons, teenagers wishing to look cool, and the working man, desperate to get the haircut done as soon as possible so he can rest for the R of the day.

Most of the medium range barber shops have posters showing scalps with various lengths of mane cut in different shapes.

Though for most of the people, the Q 'how do I cut your hair' is generally answered in a word: 'short', 'medium' or the like, few of the adventurous lot desire their cut to look like on of the ones in the posters, or better still, they come up with an original design which takes a lot of effort to explain, with hands going all over the place as they instruct the barber how to apply the razor and the scissors.

It is with precisely such species that the barber is most satisfied with. Though the usual 'I will get my haircut done every four weeks' sort are their bread and butter, these people provide them the freedom to explore their art and push the boundaries. They are their exotic leg glances for six to the common man's dab to the third man for a single.

They provide them the licence to exercise their creative side, to traverse their scissors and clipper through unknown paths, all the while charting a new course which would translate as their very own hairstyle and place the benefactor upon the highest pedestal among his circle of friends, each of whose barbers no doubt would have had tried to take a similar route to the unknown, only to fail miserably, finally resorting to a lift home.

These people leave the place with an investigative look into the mirror, which slowly but surely transforms into an appreciation of their own reflection and a nod to the barber for a job well done. Not for them the quick payment and the rush back home to take a quick bath. They are gifted souls who know how to appreciate a good thing and thus take their own sweet time before taking the much needed head bath.

The reluctant kid with the grandpa is the one to watch out for. For, even though the brat would have arrived a full half and hour late to the place, he is most likely to leapfrog you to the chair. He would also take more time to get an inch of his hair cut than you would for a haircut and a shave twice over. He is the one the barber is least reluctant to get his hands to, for the simple reason that the return in this case is inversely proportional on investment (time), since the rates for a 'baba' cut only being two thirds that of a 'men' cut.

This rule must have been proposed and approved by a commitee entirely comprising of bald heads and women, for anyone who suffered at the hands of these fiendish creatures would have rather banned babas from entering the domain of annas.

The advent of television has transformed these formerly troublesome but, on the whole, stupid babas into 'kids' who talk the talk. I recently came across a ten year old who insisted on having a 'crew cut'. When the barber asked him to take the seat, he, wanting to make sure the barber knew what he was doing, quizzed the barber on the various intricacies of having such a cut done, before granting the barber the approval to go ahead with the cut, with a disclaimer of a non payment in case the cut did not come up as expected! On the other hand, when I was a part of the kid parade, even my 'chota kaato', 'medium kaato' was decided by my dad! Aaah... time does fly!

As people wait to get attention while the cool dudes and the kids are occupying the chairs, most people go through the newspapers or watch the television. For some strange reason, the barber shop is the only place I have ever read Filmfare. I never bought one at railways stations or at other book shops. Maybe because I did not want to be seen reading a film magazine (?), I don't know. But that was that. I also know a couple of people who used to go to the barber's just to read Filmfare and come back without a haircut, but with vital inside information on 'who is with whom'; It must be noted that for much of the nineties, the Filmfare was one of the few sources of news on forthcoming films and of filmi gossips.

The barber's is also a good place to catch up with other 'cutting' friends (for the uninitiated, these are people you know solely because your harvesting seasons match). The barber of course acts as the mediator if you do not come across a few of these for two-three regular visits.

With 'posh' places mushrooming all over the place, the good ol' hair cutting saloon has also caught the bug with AC Unisex saloons coming up in metros. Thankfully, these cost a fortune, atleast for now. I thus have kept my 'cutting' friends till now, and hope to do so, for many cuts to come, till I go bald that is.

September 09, 2008

A tale of three cities

London, New York and Paris are three cities which have withstood the test of time and have redefined the way the modern world has shaped up, for better or for worse.

Having been fortunate enough to spend time in all three of them within a space of an year, and having been bewitched by each of them in their own unique ways, here are my views on them.

London was home to me for two years. London was everything I expected it to be, and a bit more. As a character says in Snatch, "London, you know... - fish, chips, cup 'O tea, bad weather, worse food, Mary @#$%ing Poppins, London!". My own views are not that cynical but yes, the worst thing about London is surely the weather. Well, for eight months of the year at least.

It is not just the fact that it is cold but it so amazingly depressing in the short and cloudy days of the winter, that I often wonder how the British have resisted suicidal tendencies! In the summer, however, England is the best place to be. With the extended daytime and sunshine which is at once bright and not overbearing, the English countryside is a great place to take long walks. Coming back to London though...

No matter what kind of a person you are and whatever is it that you like, chances are, London will have just the kind of place which would keep you interested. For anyone with the an interest in history and the arts, there is the British Museum, the National Gallery, the theatres in West end and numerous other places. If you are a party animal, there are countless clubs blaring out music all night long. If you like Sports, there are at least 3 test matches played in London alone every year, apart from Wimbledon, football, Formula One, the London Marathon, etc etc.

Only a few of the British however, were as I had expected them to be. My idea of a Britisher was of a tough as nails, eloquent fellow who knows exactly how to convey disappointment and appreciation in equal measure, without ever seeming to do either!

Unfortunately, like the rest of the developed world, the British have also gone into a slumber. The youngest native Britisher in my office was 27! Most of the young generation do not study beyond high school and chalk out their livelihood doing petty jobs in supermarkets and the like. Whatever happened to the seafaring adventurers and pioneers of industrial revolution I do not know. They seem to have lost the buccaneering spirit. According to a statistic, Pakistani immigrants would outnumber the English in Birmingham in as early as 2027. What that would do to England as we know it, only time can tell.

But meeting a few of the people I was fortunate to work with made me appreciate what made these people rule the world. The written and verbal communication skills coupled with the analytical ability of one gentleman in particular made me step up the bar of my own work and improve.

While discussing a particular logic, this particular gentleman would say something I wouldn't understand at the moment. As I kept looking for solutions to the problem and thought out the outcomes of each step of the proposed solution, I would finally hit a roadblock and blurt out 'we could have done XYZ but it wouldn't be possible because of ABC' and it would strike me that he had said the same thing about four or five minutes earlier. As they say, the best way to learn to play is to play against a better player and that's what happened to me!

All said and done, as a wise man had said, 'A man tired of London is tired of life!'

London and Paris were the most prominent cities of the middle age and shaped much of arts and technology of the time. I was expecting Paris to be similar to London but the moment I saw trash lying all over the place and overflowing toilets at the bus stop, I knew I was in for a surprise. Paris is as different from London as the French are to the British.

As with London, Paris has more than its share of museums, art galleries and grand old buildings, with a little difference. Most buildings in London (I only refer to the ones built before 1850), though large and grand in their own way, were built to serve practical purposes more than anything else. Not for the British the unnecessarily large halls and archways. Paris, and Europe by extension, has huge palaces and cathedrals which were built to satisfy the royal families' ego more than anything else. Whatever it cost the citizens of the time, they make for excellent tourist destinations. I visited the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and the Eiffel in a single day and that was best combination of monuments I saw in such a short time. The Notre Dame and other cathedrals are also a must watch, and so is a boat ride on the Seine.

Paris once stood for grandeur and magnificence and is now mostly known to be the fashion capital of the world and, for some strange reason, the most romantic city in the world. Maybe it was because I roamed all over Paris all alone, but I couldn't fathom why it is considered so. But not for nothing is it called the fashion capital of the world. Home to every other fashion label, even the streets of Paris have clothes and accessories of all kinds catering to all budgets. I never saw a wider range of shoes and hats worn than I did in two days in Paris.

The Parisians love food. Roadside restaurants with lovely umbrellas and chairs line up either sides of almost all major streets. Sitting in one of these sipping coffee and people watching is a great way to while your time away.

The French are very easy going people. While the British make a conscious effort to maintain a stoic expression and look 'stylish', it comes fairly naturally to the French. They are very liberal, as is evident from their movies, and quite prone to bend the rules when required. The British on the other hand follow every rule to the T.

Paris, thus, is not as clean and disciplined as London is. In two years I saw exactly one traffic violation in London while I lost count of it in Paris in precisely two days, just like I would back home. The streets, the underground railway and the city in general has a feel of a city which 'once was'. However, with so many magnificent buildings and monuments, it is unlikely that Paris would ever lose its charm.

If London and Paris represent the older world, New York, more than anything, symbolises the new world and the idea behind America as a nation. A land of settlers rather than natives, the country has been built brick by brick by people who travelled across the seas to a vast, hostile land which had as many natural obstacles as it had resources.

For more than a century, New York was the first place Europeans from across the Pacific landed in and tried to chalk out a living. It was not a land where freebies were given away. As a result, only the enterprising and the hardworking survived.

In a sense, it is to America and the world what Mumbai is to India. It is a melting pot of people and cultures from all corners of the world. As with London, it has something to offer for everybody. But it is just so much bigger and busier and livelier than London that it took my breath away.

I always thought touring New York would be akin to visiting a concrete jungle. I couldn't have been more wrong. The city has such an energy about itself, it is hard not to get infected by it. Manhattan with its skyscrapers and unruly traffic is a great place to stroll through. Though the likes of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State building and Central Park are good to visit, they are not a jot on the attractions on offer in the other two cities. But that is not where the charm of New York lies. New York thrives on its streets. It is said that if you stand on the Times Square long enough, you would meet people from every country in the world. It is certainly not an exaggeration.

It does have its share of traditional attractions too in the form of museums, night life and Broadway.

New York has for long been a Democratic hub and is quite liberal in its outlook. The dignity it observed while mourning for the loss of 9/11 was a lesson for us in particular. The eerie silence on the WTC site sends a shiver down the spine even today.

The Americans live in a world of their own. All the fuss about global warming and saving natural resources does not seem to have reached them yet. They continue to drive their SUVs as if it is the only 'single seater' conveyance mode available, use up as much paper in form of stationery and toiletry in a day as we would in a fortnight, keep the lights on throughout the night in malls and shops, and do just about everything possible to accelerate the planet's death.

It is not that they do not care, but just that they do not get it.

They are the most interactive of the lot. Any polite enquiry towards their well being is answered with an emphatic 'great!', 'wonderful!' and the like. A Britisher would feel stretched to say as much as 'good'. A typical answer in this case would be that he isn't doing bad, or worse, that he is doing tolerably well.

With its diverse architecture and cultures, these cities have shaped the modern world and attracted people all over the world for more than a century. It is up to us, the developing world, to draw inspiration from them with respect to urban planning and mass transportation.

I certainly do hope to visit each of them again to soak in the sights and sounds of these wonderful cities.

April 11, 2008

Love thy neighbour? My foot!

For an Indian growing up in the 'communally sensitive' city of Hyderabad and having watched the menace of cross border terrorism grow from murders in Kashmir to bomb blasts 5 minutes from my home, I have nothing but the deepest hatred for all things Pakistan.

I remember Wasim Akram once said in an interview that when he first came to India he half expected to find devils with horns walking on the street. My notion of Pakistan, and as an extension Pakistanis was not very different. Though that particular notion has since been put to rest, I have found new reasons to continue my contempt for the nation.

The first time I met a Paki (I use the term purely as short form for 'Pakistani' and not in the derogatory sense), in fact two of them, was in Dubai on stopover to London, which, incidentally, my first overseas travel.

As much as I dislike it I do look like someone across the border, and thus they misunderstood me to be a Pakistani. They surely did not look Indian to me and I guessed at once that they were from Punjab across the border. When I told them I was an Indian they were surprised but when I told them that I was from Hyderabad, they were sort of relieved: 'So that is the reason you speak such good Urdu!'.

Now, as much as I admire Mughal-e-Azam and the fact that I watched it in a theater, I do not consider myself a good exponent of the language. I was only speaking what can best be described as 'Hindustani', which is really a khichdi of Hindi and Urdu. I had heard Rameez Raza speak similarly on TV and refer to it as Urdu but experiencing it first hand was something else!

Once in London you cannot miss interacting with the neighbours, be they Pakis or Bangladeshis. Most of them undertake manual labour and are here only because of the money (what else!). They usually try to juggle 2 or 3 jobs so as to make more money. Since the pay for a white collared job and for manual labour in the UK is not very different, they can chalk out a decent living and save in pounds.

Most of the restaurants owned by these 'neighbours' are proudly classified as 'Indian restaurants' and are unimaginatively titled 'taste of India', 'prince of India' and the like, especially if they are owned by Banglas. The one dead giveaway is of course the menu which would have dishes like 'Shobze masala' (sabzi masala) and 'Balti masala'. In case of Paki restaurants, of course, you find a lot more kabab varieties then normal and a very low sense of hygiene, so it is not difficult to identify.

The watchman (called here as the 'concierge'), in our apartment is also a Paki but for heavens knows why the bastard has married an Indian. He talks about India-Pakistan friendship a lot - he goes the whole length and says things like 'yeh sarhaden to in politician logon ne banaayi hain varna hamaare dil ek hain' etc etc. He said he wanted to go to see the Taj Mahal for his honeymoon but was denied a visa. All said and done I dont believe him a jot even after two years. It does not help that a van allegedly belonging to a 'Kashmir relief group' (also written in Urdu) arrives to meet him once in a while.

I have sensed that they consider the Mughal era as some sort of a golden period when they ruled the whole of the sub continent and the fact that all of the remains of the period stayed with India really gets to them.

I found it very funny that after all the anti India talk they do, they still watch Indian movies, TV serials, and even news channels. (as long as they are not talking about Kashmir!) They love India for all that it has to offer but also hate it wholeheartedly because that is what they were supposed to do in the first place!

Many of the Pakistani artists and sportspersons live off India: their singers sing in our movies; their comedians perform in our shows; half of their Cricket team is playing in the ICL, the other half of course in the IPL, and the hockey players have already been playing the IHL!

While it helps in people-people contact and all that non sense, I never understood why we as a nation never got over this unnecessary and uncalled for desire to help out Pakistan. Maybe it comes from Mahatma Gandhi granting 55 Crore to Pakistan (was that a starting bonus of some kind?)

The Pakis, on the other hand, expect India to fulfill its duties all the time. Javed Miandad for example, said recently that the BCCI should help PCB by coming over for an ODI series! Not that I'm sourcing most of my opinion from Cricket, but when we are talking of India and Pakistan, it is generally an excellent indicator.

Now they have got to a situation where they bred this monster as a weapon to use against India but it has gone out of hand. I hope we resist any temptation to help them out. They would fight among themselves and there would be fewer left for us to finish off.