Saturday, November 19, 2011

Once upon a time

A couple of months ago, I was traveling on business. While waiting for my flight in the departure area, I overheard a conversation between a little girl, and her father, waiting for the same plane.

"Daddy, you said you will get me a fairy tale book. This is not a book of fairy tales!"

"But sweetie, it is. Look at the cover! There are fairies, dwarfs and wizards. What else do you need?"

"But daddy, this is not a fairy tale book. Look at how it begins!"

"How does it begin?"

"It does not begin with once upon a time. All fairy tales begin with once upon a time. I don't want this book. I want a real fairy tale book. You said you will get me a real fairy tale book."

She was about five, and I think that she had just started reading. As someone who had once parented a five year old girl, I could see where this was headed. First, there would be a tantrum. And, if she did it right, she could keep her old book, get a shiny new one, and perhaps a lollipop or two thrown in. How much she got, purely depended on how experienced her dad was, at handling her. From the looks of it, it did not seem like he had a lot of experience. Perhaps, this was his first time, traveling alone with his five year old.

Five year olds are clever. And little girls, having been blessed with two functional halves of the brain for such situations, are twice as clever as boys. I had once overheard my five year old, boasting to a friend of hers about something, "I know, but daddy does not know!". That, kind of sums it up, as far as a five year old girl's opinion of her ignorant daddy goes. Moms, are somehow immune to all of this -- perhaps, the fact, that they too can think with two functional halves of their brains -- greatly helps.

I was very curious to see where the conversation was headed. But, I was hungry, and needed to grab a sandwich or two. So, I left the waiting area. After fifteen minutes or so, I was standing in line to board the plane. By a strange coincidence, the little girl and her daddy, were right in front of me in the line. Daddy was on his cellphone, busy in a serious discussion.

The little girl had two shiny fairy tale books in her hand. And, she was enjoying a lollipop. I smiled and whispered to her, "You know, not all fairy tales have to start with once upon a time."

With a naughty smile, she whispered back, "I know, but daddy does not know!"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Of Nawabs and Kebabs

Those of you, who have been reading my posts for a while, have probably guessed my political leanings by now. That's right, you pretty much hit the nail on the head when you said that it was left. Or wait, was it right? Probably center, would be more like it, going by some of the posts in the past. To be frank, my political beliefs are not very different from my religious ones -- I am a wanderer.  Across boundaries that are drawn to classify and distinguish, but boundaries that can be crossed. With ease.

And, it is only during these vagabond transgressions of faith,  that I get to discover what I truly believe in. Over the years, I have found that the things that I believe in, are very simple, and can pretty much be classified into any political or religious philosophy, that is out there. But, there are a few things that I am strongly against, and I am quite adamant about standing by the famous Desi Babu's limited list of hard line positions.

Monarchy is something that I cannot stand. When I was young and socialist, to me, monarchy was a true reflection of aberrant human behavior. When I grew up a little bit, and drank a few pitchers of beer with my politically opinionated friends in my many years in the land of the free, monarchy was defined to be a type of human behavior that was best left ignored. Like those hockey players to the north of the border, who still practiced the ghastly tradition. And, when I came back home to Des, monarchy was something to be enjoyed -- in the grand palaces of yore, that are now hotels of the fore. There is nothing like having a nice glass of scotch, sitting in the balcony of an ex-Maharaja's palace, overlooking a majestic garden at night. Lit up with a thousand colors, of all political affiliations and traffic light concessions -- from red to green. And, it is during these times that I am most open to accept monarchy.  And inebriation, usually helps. 

A few weeks ago, a legendary figure of Indian cricket, Mr. Mansoor Ali Khan, passed away. His family once ruled a small estate called Pataudi, close to the national capital. So, when the Republic of India abolished all royal titles and privileges, Mr. Khan ceased being a Nawab, which was a title given to royalty. Recently, a few nut-jobs from those villages, that are in that kingdom of yore, decided to bestow that title to his son. To me, personally, all this is all right now. As long as it does not undermine the democracy and the constitution of India, these ceremonies have no meaning. And I am sure that if the new Nawab, who makes a perfectly good living, singing and dancing in Bollywood flicks, declared independence from India, we could erect a few windmills in his "kingdom" to tilt at. And send him a horse named Rocinante. I read a few fiery articles on the entire issue, with arguments that ranged from "treason" to "'c'mon guys, it was like a birthday party, only, there was no cake!"

The use of the word Nawab, in any context, invariably puts a smile on my lips. It's not about nostalgia -- I  never saw monarchy in the India  that I grew up in. And, I am sure that my ancestors were lowly peasants in those old times, when they would have gladly exchanged their Nawab for a  few heaps of cow-dung. To make cakes with, so the hearth would continue to burn, in the home.  To me, the Nawabs were caricatures of grand times that never were. And their mannerisms, were comical enough, that people would make jokes about them. All the time.

There is a famous joke about two Nawabs waiting to board a train in the city of Lucknow, who kept curtsying to each other, till the train left. The phrase "Pehle Aap (You first)", however polite, has come to represent that comical incident.

In the small town of Bihar that I spent a few of my formative years in, there was an amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurant, that used to sell Kebabs. At lunchtime, I used to escape the sterile probity of the Jesuit campus of my college, and seek shelter behind the dingy lanes patrolled by aimless cows and protective motes made of open drains. And, in one such lane, was Nawab's kebab shop, ready to enthrall us college kids with the most delightful experience known to taste buds. With a chappati as thin as a silk handkerchief, and a couple of  "Nawabi" mutton-kebabs for a couple of bucks, life had never looked so good before.

The man, who used to run the place, was from a family of Nawabs that had long lost its kingdom. I had once asked him, " Janab, jab haamare jaise aam insaan nawabi kabab khaate hain, to aapko bura nahi lagta? (Sir, when commoners like me eat the Nawabi kebab, don't you feel sad?)"

Without a twitch, Mr. Nawab had answered, "Janab, Nawab ke khaane se kabab nahin banta, par is kabab ko khakar aap zaroor nawab ban jayenge. (Sir, the kebab doesn't get its status from being eaten by a Nawab, but if you eat this kebab, you will surely become a Nawab.)"

That, about sums it up.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The dissapearing idiom

A few days ago, during lunchtime, a friend of mine used a very old Hindi idiom, in a matter of fact way. Most of the people sharing the table with us, spoke good Hindi, but none grew up with the language. When my friend saw the blank looks on their faces, he explained what the idiom meant. And then, there were smiles -- all around the table.

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But, I have often felt that an idiom is at least worth five hundred. Specially,  if there are no pens to draw, or brushes to paint with.

And that got me thinking. How many of the idioms that I learned in school, do I still remember? And, how many of those do I use on a daily basis? In conversations with the people around me, who would know how to interpret them correctly. Sadly enough, I couldn't think of one!

But then, I did remember, with a smile on my face, the ones that I particularly liked as a child. The ones, that I would remember without the threat of another round of caning, from a big and burly gentleman that used to teach us Hindi. And one particular idiom that I still remember, after all these years, is "Ulte baans Bareilly ko", which, roughly translated, means, "It's like carrying bamboo (cane) back to Bareilly."

Still confused? Well, Bareilly used to be a sleepy little town in Desi-land,  where bamboo was plentiful, and a lot of people used to make a lot of stuff with it. Stuff, that fed many a family, and sent many a kid to college. And, so, if you were sending a bullock cart, full of bamboo to Bareilly, you were really sending it, where it was not in short supply.

I know. I know. Now, you probably remember an English idiom, that you read in your textbooks. An idiom, which means exactly the same. Does "Carrying coal to Newcastle" ring a bell? Just another idiom, for a pointless activity. Since, once upon a time, Newcastle, was the largest coal exporting port. In the empire, that never saw a sunset.

Times -- as they do -- have changed. Although I have never been to Bareilly, I am told that like the rest of India, it has seen a lot of development. New industries are coming to town, roads are being four-laned, and there is talk of an airport in the near future. Connecting the other cities of Desi-land to the land of bamboo. And cane, that my Hindi teacher seemed to be so adept at using. Newcastle, I am told, has long stopped exporting the shiploads of coal that it was known for. Now, you can carry as much bamboo to Bareilly or coal to Newcastle, as you wish. And no one, will raise an eyebrow. Really.

So, as I flipped through the imaginary book of idioms in my head, I came across many, that probably have ceased to be relevant. And, if you use one in conversation, you probably have to explain it to the listener, since times, have changed. As they do.

Most of the other idioms that I remembered, have something to do with animals, that were once popular in the places that I grew up in. Cows, Buffaloes and Camels. Specially Buffaloes, as they have a special place in the hearts of the people, in the heartland. Although, we often refer to the heartland as the "cow-belt", the buffalo still rules the hearts. And there are many idioms connected to the majestic animal -- everyone you come across, can tell you at least one.

Since I remembered Bareilly after a long time, I also remembered a famous Bollywood song from the old days, that mentions its bazaar.  With phrases, that could have become idioms in their own right. As you listen to the words that describe how a beautiful woman lost her earrings in a crowded marketplace, try to spot an animal or two, in the studio mock up of the famous bazaar of the famous town. Will you?