An impetus for change

Yesterday, I witnessed a very interesting public event. I haven’t been to many political events or gatherings in my life; I have rarely attended political talks by ministers, student leaders and activists. But yesterday was different. My friend B told me a few days back that he would be coming to Bengaluru but he was unsure as to where the event would be held. We knew that he was coming yesterday though. Three people in class were quite excited about it. The rest of them had no idea that he was coming.

I forgot that the event was happening yesterday. Classes ended and I was walking towards the auditorium while reading Animal Farm. I was down to the last 20 pages and was impatient to finish it off for good. The day had already been filled with frenzy and I just wanted to sit somewhere and read until my friend’s classes ended. The phone buzzed and I heard my name being called at the same time. I turned around and saw B speed walking towards me, his phone on his ears. I checked the phone and saw him calling me. “Kanhaiya is giving a speech at Ulsoor. You wanna come?” “Really? Where?”  I asked back. “St. Aloysius College” he said. S was walking a few steps ahead of us and I thought I should ask her if she would want to tag along. She might be interested, I thought. “Wait, I will ask S and come back” I said to him and jogged towards S. S declined the invitation as she had to meet someone at 5, she said with a shy grin. The talk had already started at 3 and now it was close to 3.40PM. Without wasting another moment, we hopped on an auto, gave directions with the help of Google Maps and were on our way to see Kanhaiya Kumar.

Both of us were sure that this chance shouldn’t be missed. I was quite dejected when he didn’t show up for Bangalore Literature Fest last year, for which me and my friends waited the whole day till 5PM, hoping that he would show up. But he didn’t. Also, B told me that this event would be a good chance to get close to him and invite him for META 2017. I, for one, was quote charmed by Kanhaiya’s charisma and his oratory skills. It took me some time to understand what he was actually trying to do with the current political scenario in this country, what his point was and how he was trying to put sense into our minds; especially the youth. And, it was fascinating. Both of us were quite pumped up and B told me that AM asked him why he didn’t go for the event. It was almost evening and the streets were full of traffic. After encountering multiple red lights, we reached Ulsoor. I had never seen the Ulsoor Lake up close and it seemed like any other lake. The waters seemed clean and devoid of garbage. I didn’t pay much attention though. We stopped near the back gate of the college, adjacent to the playground. I saw a police bus and a few cops roaming nearby. They told us to go to the front gate, the one we had crossed seconds ago. We started jogging towards the gate which was a few yards away. We encountered more cops and they told us to go to the ‘front-front gate’. We decided to run this time because it was really getting late. Me and B laughed while we ran, our excitement running wild. We reached the front-front gate and I saw more cops and NCC cadets. We should our IDs and asked for directions. “3rd floor. Hurry up, it’s ending soon!” the guy at the gate said. We ran three flights of stairs and my legs were numb from running all that distance. I hadn’t run for around six months and my lungs were answering. We entered the auditorium huffing and puffing and there he was, standing on the podium, giving his speech. The place was filled with people, all of them seated on benches, a few cameras hovering around here and there. The first thing I heard him saying was how communism has been maligned by people in this country. “They think the communists are a nasty bunch. That they indulge in all kinds of bad activities, have group sex, and propagate antisocial views. This is a grave misunderstanding and it needs to change.” Me and B shared a quick smile at each other as people clapped and cheered along. I started looking around for familiar faces but I couldn’t find any. Spotting an empty bench instead, I went forward and sat down. I could feel my heart pounding from all that reckless running. My mother’s advices related to physical exercise started ringing on my mind. I realized that I should run more every now and then. I stared hard at the floor.

Kanhaiya went on talking about how the youth play a crucial role in changing the political structure of a country. How the youth has to take action instead of just being vote banks for the country. He talked about the skewed ideology of the RSS and how it has been metamorphosising this country based on nationalistic ideals.  “Nau jawan ko sarak pe utarna parega (The youth has to come out to the streets)” More cheering and applause followed. Someone from the audience raised a question, “Will Kanhaiya Kumar be the next Prime Minister?” More cheering and applause. “I don’t know that, I have no idea” was his reply with a smile. He was speaking in Hindi as well as in English. I had never seen him speak in English before on TV. He spoke slowly and composed himself well, that made you want to listen to him because it felt like he was directly speaking with you. The session was coming to an end when a guy much like me stood up and asked Kanhaiya to chant his ‘infamous’ anthem of Azadi. A sudden uproar emerged, a few people stood up, Kanhaiya slowly moved towards the mic. “Aap sabko bhi bhaag lena parega isme ab toh (Everyone has to take part in this with me)” More people stood up, including me. The guy sitting next to me continued to stare at his phone. I tried to lean and check out what he was doing but I was unable to figure it out. There was a lot of murmuring in the room by now. The chants of “Azadi!” boomed across the room as Kanhaiya went on, fist pumping high. All dynamic. All energetic.

It was motivating. I won’t deny that. The event ended and his personal group of bodyguards from AISF barricaded him as he came down from the dais and smiled and clicked photos with the crowd that was by now throwing themselves over him. Some shook hands and talked for a few seconds. The red t-shirt clad AISF men cleared the way as the pushed through. My friend B managed to get in and told him about our purpose and took a few selfies. I refrained from taking selfies as it’s not my thing, although I took a few pictures while he was speaking. People were waiting outside with motives of their own. I saw a few reporters as well. Kanhaiya was ushered inside a room with the college officials and a few special people who sat down and drank tea and took even more pictures and gifted him an executive diary with a calendar from the college. We meanwhile patiently waited outside. A guy poked me from behind and asked, “Which one of them is Kanhaiya?” “Uh, the one drinking tea. See! He just stood up” I said. “Oh! That’s him? Okay, thanks” He went off without saying anything more.

I counted two more police buses after we came out, along with three police jeeps. There were approximately one hundred policemen outside for his security. As he whizzed away in a grey Swift Dzire followed by his platoon of bodyguards, it didn’t take me long to realize how important this guy, who faced jail time for reasons everyone knows about, is and the impact he has managed to create among the masses. He is an impetus for change.

The day everyone forgets traffic rules

The fireworks started off well before it was the 1st of January. My cellphone flashed 11:56PM but I could already hear people screaming and the streets embroiling up with energy. Almost two minutes later I saw fireworks all around myself followed by an increase in honking on the streets below me. I peered down and saw this dramatic change but couldn’t give my complete attention because it was time for us to release the sky lanterns. I was in a small café in Kormangala and we were lighting up lanterns to mark the onset of the new year. My lantern was pink in colour on which we were asked to write a message or a wish. I couldn’t come up with a wish and instead settled for a quote by Dream Theater instead. My lantern struggled for a brief period of time before deciding to ascend into the Prussian blue sky. The four of us released our lanterns and we gazed until they disappeared into the night sky, travelling to places unknown. I remember telling my friend M, “Do you think anyone would find them and read our messages?” I hope someone did.

M’s father had decided to pick us up from Kormangala. We left the café and walked towards where the car was parked. After talking to her father, M said that the car was parked almost 1.5 kilometers away because the traffic was already bad and there was no way one could reach Sony Signal. By now, the city had a different life altogether. I saw scores of people walking down the road, most of them swaying like pendulums. A few scooty and bike riders passed us while wishing us a happy new year on the top of their lungs. There was hooting and whistling in all the directions followed by peppy, EDM music from the pubs and hotels nearby. M asked a bystander for directions because we didn’t know where Udupi Upahar was. M’s father was tensed as we were taking time to reach and he was already witnessing the chaos ensuing on the streets. We decided to book a cab after figuring out that walking won’t be feasible. The fireworks and the hooting continued. People riding bikes at unusual speeds continued to pass by, a lot of those pillion riders waved and continued to scream. I saw red and blue lights flashing on the distance.

The cab arrived and we got on board. M’s father had already called her around 5 times by now. The area near Forum Mall was jam packed. What made things worse were the people who were crossing the roads, the bikes which were maneuvering into every small gap possible, the hands flashed by almost every auto driver indicating that he would like to go first and the constant honking that blared from everywhere. Somehow, it seemed as if everyone forgot what traffic rules were. As we crawled through the crowd, our cab driver cautious enough to not make any mistakes, I saw the city coming to life in a way that I had never seen before. The streets were filled with people, people sitting on the pavements, people holding hands and waiting to cross the road, people who didn’t give a damn and crossed the road as cars braked rashly in front of them, people who were puking on the pavements, people inside cars bobbing their heads to loud music, people who looked tired and drunk and were trying their best to have a good time nevertheless. M’s dad called again and I was pretty sure that he was quite tensed because M’s vocal tone was increasing with each consecutive call. I was able to figure out that she was telling her dad to calm down and that we were on our way. By now, there were traffic policemen on the road and I saw a few more blue and red flashing lights.

We took a left from Sony Signal towards our destination and yet again the road was full of traffic. I saw a jeep in front of us with a few guys in it bobbing their heads to Cheap Thrills. It was evident that all of them were intoxicated as their faces and their driving displayed. One of them was fisting his hand on the air while whistling. Perhaps they were having a good time; perhaps this was their definition of fun and this was how they chose to express it. I looked at the phone of our cab driver and it showed that we were 900m away from our destination. M was still confused as to where her dad actually was. She was talking to him until a few seconds ago. I heard a crashing sound; the sound produced when a car hits another car and I saw that a white Swift Dzire had collided with a red Swift. The right sided back door which was facing the incoming traffic was dented. There was a sudden uproar from the people nearby. I was getting tensed when I heard M saying “Is that my dad’s car? Can you read the plate?” Her voice was a bit shaky. I read the plate aloud and she told me that maybe it was their car. We were still moving in a tortoise pace and I was able to see that nobody was there on the driver’s seat. I told M the same as she dialed her dad’s number. The white Swift Dzire meanwhile managed to get away although we got the license plate. Her dad confirmed that it was their car. People were hovering near the vehicle but nobody tried to stop the fleeing car. We decided to leave the cab and crossed the road. Another duo on a bike crossed our faces wishing us a happy new year while I was panicking because I so didn’t want the night to end up in a negative case. Fortunately, the damage wasn’t too much and a few bystanders informed us the car’s license plate number. Nobody talked for the first ten minutes on our way to Basavangudi until M said to her father that it was okay and that we have the registration number of the car, putting a hand on his shoulders. I felt dismal; somehow I felt that we were to blame for all that happened. On our way back, I saw the same unorganised traffic, the same drunk citizens crossing roads, the same honking and hooting and whistling.

I thought about the jeep and the white Swift Dzire. Maybe, it was drunk driving. Maybe, it’s not a way to have fun after all.

Moments at Koshy’s

Koshy’s at St. Mark’s Road is one of the places which has resulted in me creating a deep bond with Bengaluru. Ever since I stepped first into this almost 70 year old restaurant, I fell in love with the 90s ambiance this place had to offer. The food is impeccably good, the conversations even more. Moments spent at Koshy’s are always memorable and cherished. Gazing around the sexagenarian population, who are regulars at this place gives you a lot to think about. I remember telling my friend M about how, maybe when we are grey and toothless, we will hang out in this place, talking about them good old days and a group of excited college students will come into the place and sit beside our table, some of them having their first sip of beer.

The plans for visiting Koshy’s today were made right after the semester holidays got over. All four of us were dying to have our share of Kaya Toast; one of the must-haves from this place. Foundation course examinations were finished by 10.30 and we decided that we needed some much needed breakfast. I must say, we were probably the youngest people in Koshy’s today. I saw the familiar crowd of the old timers sipping coffees from their cups, slicing poached egg sandwiches and engaging in hearty, laughter filled conversations. A few office goers were scattered here and there, some engaged in phone calls while others gazing lazily at their Mac Book Pros. We decided our orders; all of us had sandwiches except M who ordered the Kaya Toast for all four of us. And then began the exchange of stories. Koshy’s always brings out the stories within each of us. Somehow, we come to know a bit more about each other every time we visit the place.

In midst of these conversations, after the sandwiches were eaten and the coffee being drunk, an old man came towards us to clear away the table. From what I could gather, he was close to 70; maybe above 70. He had a feeble appearance, a stooping back and as he took the glasses and the crockery away, I was filled with a sudden overwhelming feeling of sadness. It took me completely away from the place, like I was picked up from that place and placed somewhere else entirely. He cleared the table away and as he left, he looked towards D and M with a weak smile, as they thanked him and smiled. I wasn’t able to look at him and I just gazed down at the table. The realization of such an old man clearing away tables at this age made me feel bitter about something but I couldn’t gather what it was. All sorts of random things flooded my mind. Why was he still working at this age? Why are his children not supporting him? Does he even have children, a family perhaps? I felt like apologizing to him, I wanted to tell him that he shouldn’t be doing this; he shouldn’t be spending his life like this. I felt extremely bad that he cleared our table but at the same time I felt petrified. I just gazed elsewhere after he left. The others resumed their conversations while I sat pondering about things I was sure I couldn’t get an answer for. All I could do was to reassure myself. Maybe he had an old connection to this place due to which he hasn’t been able to leave it as of yet, considering there were other aged staff in the place. Maybe he was an old employee. Maybe he liked and was satisfied with what he was doing. Maybe his children did support him.

But somehow, that feeling of sadness refused to budge from its place.

Memories of Pujo

One of the few events which I always look forward to is Durga Puja. It’s this time of the year which makes me immensely happy. A big reason for this is linked to my childhood. A lot of memories and experiences are associated with this festival which in some way made my childhood memorable. Thinking about all this while sitting on my desk with long form journalism articles in front of me creates an air of nostalgia mixed with equal amounts of sadness.

The earliest memory which I have relating to Durga Puja is how we used to visit my grandparents’ place during this time of the year. My grandparents’ place was located in a small village in Jorhat, which is one of the most prominent towns situated in what is known as Upper Assam. Before we shifted to Tezpur in 2005, we used to live in Duliajan; also known as the oil town of Assam. Durga Puja was the time when we used to travel to Jorhat to meet my grandparents and my uncle and cousins. It was the time when the family used to re-unite for four days and those four days were something which I eagerly waited for. The road trip from Duliajan to Jorhat, spanning around four hours was something I miss to this very day. I remember how I couldn’t sleep at night before the day of the journey, thinking about the fun times and excitement that lay ahead. The whole trip was always exhilarating and I remember how I used to jump around inside the car, sometimes so much that I pissed my parents off. I always had my sister as company, although she wasn’t as volatile as me.

We used to inform my grandpa the day before we were to arrive and the happiness which he used to get from that piece of news is something difficult to express. My grandparents lived a simple and solitary life in the village with the cows that we had and Bahadur kai, the family helper for the last 17 years. My father’s ancestral home was built by my grandfather some 50 years ago and although it was dilapidated, my grandfather never went for repair. Living a luxurious life wasn’t his mantra and although my father proposed this multiple times, he never let anyone touch his house. Bahadur kai used to take us around the village, bought candy for us, tell us stories, pluck fruits from the trees in the compound, help us climb the age-old amla tree near the gates of the house and bear our constant pestering. The only time the household beamed up with liveliness was when the whole family came together. This used to happen twice in a year. The other time was during Bohag Bihu in April. Relatives and passersby from around the village used to gaze towards our unquiet house in wonder, which usually used to be quiet the rest of the year. I never asked my grandparents but I am pretty sure now that they used to look forward for the time of the year to arrive more than anyone else. My grandfather used to wait near the gate, looking out for our car to arrive. Those gleaming eyes of his when he used to see us is a picture which will forever be vivid in my mind. He used to give us a tour of the land and the crops which were being grown, he used to point us the fruits which were growing on the trees, show us the water level of the small pond which we had near the house, he used to talk to the cows; telling them about our arrival. I feel the animals understood every word he said.

I used to get a new toy only twice in a year. Sometimes, it used to downsize to only one toy per year. My choice of a toy was always a vehicle of some sort. Throughout my childhood, I rarely had any other toy that wasn’t a car or a truck or something along those lines. Durga Puja was the time when I got to buy the toy of my choice and I used to plan months in advance for the vehicle type that I was going to buy that year. It was kind of a yearly rite. If this year was a tanker truck, next year would’ve been a Tata Sumo. My cousin brother on the other hand, had a thing for toy guns. Those guns used to look exquisite but no matter how much I cried, pleaded or begged, my mother never allowed me to get a gun. She had a weird philosophy that buying guns would induce negative behavior within me and strictly prohibited my father to get one for me. I used to feel jealous looking at my brother who used to get whatever he wished for. But somehow, I was happy with my choice of toy as well. Right after Durga Puja, I used to plan and imagine about what I was going to get the next year. Sometimes, things didn’t go as per plans.

As you have known by now, Durga Puja is one of the most important festivals for all of Eastern and North Eastern India.  Although celebrated extensively in West Bengal, we in Assam also celebrate it with great pomp. The entire streetscape of cities gets a makeover for those four days with thousands of people pouring out to the streets to visit hundreds of pandals scattered around the city. Bangaloreans will find it hard to visualize this image. Simply put, it’s the crowd that moves you forward.

As I grew up, toys changed into other commodities but the practice of buying something during Durga Puja, except clothes, remained for quite some time. It slowly transitioned from toys to my first MP3 Player, my first pen drive, a digital wrist watch until I stopped getting anything special every year. Approaching teenage life prompted me to abandon my toys and resort to other things in life. Necessities changed over time. But I still managed to love this festival and that yearly journey, while it lasted.

All of this changed after my grandfather’s death. This happened when I was in class 9th. My grandmother moved in with us. The family home in Jorhat was locked down. Bahadur kai lived there and looked after the land and the cows. The house got even more dilapidated, and rats took refuge inside it. The weeds grew and the mangoes were left unpicked from the ground. Nothing was the same again. The year my grandfather died, we didn’t celebrate any festival, as the customs are. And from the next year, we ceased to visit Jorhat during our puja holidays.  Sometimes my uncle used to visit us in Tezpur but that was about it. Somehow it felt like the fragile link, which was there till my grandfather lived, was broken. In all the years that came, we lived in Tezpur during Durga Puja and I used to go out with my friends. I stopped roaming around with my parents like I used to.  Although Tezpur is my hometown, I didn’t like the celebration of Durga Puja over there. It never matched the experience which I had in Jorhat, it was never the same anymore. In Tezpur, it was always about roaming around with friends and having a late dinner in some cheap restaurant.

It can never match the atmosphere of Jorhat. The chants from the namghar in our village, the payasam and rasgulla given on Maha Ashtami, the feast of the nearby temple in Baligaon, the sea of people in the city walking under the pitch black sky, the variety of street food available, the neon lights of shops and hotels, the irresistible temptation to buy toys from countless toy shops, my mother’s love for balloons, the practice of eating jalebis on Vijaya Dashami and the spectacle of the goddess being given a farewell for one more year; these weren’t a part of me while I stayed in Tezpur.

And now, I write this from a place where Durga Puja isn’t even celebrated properly. Today is Maha Ashtami and my neighborhood is calm. It feels just like any other, regular day in Bangalore. This place is devoid of that air of festivity. This is the first time I am not in my home during puja. The nearest puja pandal is some 10 kilometers away, from what I have heard. Somehow, I feel like not venturing out today. I should get back to those long form journalism pieces.

In search of the purple door

There was a certain sense of excitement as we approached that tiny lane where this place was located. My friend was looking down on his phone for directions while driving at the same time; that to on a two-wheeler! We stopped near the place Google Maps pointed. On my left, there was a construction site and I looked around for a purple door. That was the only identification we had for this place. I looked towards my right and found a bluish door instead above which there was a rectangular signboard which read ‘ Shivajinagar Gardi Ustad Pehelwan Kale Bhai’. Written a little below that was a year, 1936.

This place was one of the few kushti akharas that have survived in the city. What’s special about this particular gardi was the lunch that is served six days a week between 1PM to 3PM. The place is well above a hundred years old as is evident from the infrastructure it has. Once inside, the air smelled of kebabs and deep fried food items. It was lunch time and the place was filled with people, most of them concentrating on their food except for a few who took a lazy glance at us while munching khushka rice. All of them seemed to be regular office-goers.  Right in front of us was a kitchen, its walls blackened by oil, the room filled with a choking smoke. There was a lot of cooking and clanging going on inside in large vessels as numerous orders poured in without any stoppage. It was a Wednesday and we weren’t going to get the special biriyani that this place was known for today. For some reason unknown, the place had decided that Friday was the day you get biriyani with shammi kebabs. This decision was taken almost 20 years ago when the place first started serving lunch.

Right beside the kitchen laid the soil-filled pit. The soil had an unusual red colour. In the pit lay wooden dumbbells, a barbell with two weights and some other weight instruments which the pahelwans use for training.  Four black and white photos of flexing gentlemen adorned the wall behind and it was pretty evident that these four gentlemen were regarded as the heroes this gardi produced.

A man constantly asked us for our orders as we stood there looking around the place. A sumptuous meal awaited us we ordered almost everything the place had to offer. That included mutton chops, khushka rice, chicken kebabs, mutton koftas, mutton cutlets and fried seer fish. Three varieties of gravy were given as complimentary to everyone. A square well near the kitchen captured our attention as the position where it was seemed odd. Peering down we saw that it wasn’t particularly deep. Later, we come to know that the well was as old as the gardi.

“This place is more than 100 years old. It was founded by my nanaji (maternal grandfather), Ustaad Kale Bhai Pahalwaan.” said Muhammad Malik, who is the man in charge of the place. Sitting behind his small cash-table, he was curious about us and asked where we were from and what we were studying. “I used to do kushti as well.” When we ask if he still does, he laughs it off by saying “No. No. That was some 40 years back.” The place is run by Malik and his family while Ustaad Basheer is the guru of all the wrestlers that currently train here, whom we didn’t get to meet. The man who served us food saw our curiosity about the place and approached us. “The Discovery Channel came here a few years ago to shoot a documentary. They shot a lot of photos of the place” he said, his eyes gleaming. The place hasn’t been renovated in any way. The walls have been scraped off the paint which it had baring the cement structure beneath it.  “We see this place as a dewal (a sacred place), this whole compound” said Malik point his finger around the area. “That’s how we try to preserve the integrity of this place.” An order came for a plate of kebabs and went off to the kitchen to help carry things out.

What is surprising is that the place doesn’t have a roof; the tables are placed under a blue tarpaulin attached to four nails. What happens when it rains? “The pahelwans need to be under open air. It’s crucial for their training. When it rains, we just close the business. The tarpaulin helps to a certain extent” said the guy who served us food. There were a few holes on the tin roof above us as well.

Malik at first disagreed to the fact that the door was purple at some point of time. But then he remembers, “It was given a paint job a couple of years back” Finally, our doubts were laid to rest. Just above the place where we sat and eat is a railway rafter that has been attached to the roof. Hanging from the rafter is a pulley and a rod. “That’s used by the pahelwans while training.” Malik informs us.

Alim, one of the many devoted customers of this place said, “I have been coming here for the last two years. I come here all the way from Indiranagar. This place is probably one of the best places to have biriyani in Bangalore.” Commenting on the changes that he has witnessed in the last two years, he smirks by saying, “There haven’t been any. I doubt if anything has changed in this place at all. Have you tried the mutton chops though?”