India’s first bullet train is to have a 21km long underwater stretch north of Mumbai, said a news report last week. But only if the surveyors looked west near the Palghar coastline, they could well find a tunnel running 1600km south, to the tip of the Indian peninsula.
Thirty-six years ago I was visiting a college mate of mine in Kelve-Mahim near Palghar. It happened to be Hanuman Jayanti. So we cycled to a temple outside the village. Praful had told me that ‘Ahi-Mahi che devool’ had a fascinating story, quite unremarkable though it looked.
The stone deity in the dark sanctum had sunk into the floor at about 45 degrees, like a precariously listing ship. A frail old man who had made the temple his abode led us down a flight of broken steps
descending into a pond thick with a sickly green algal bloom.
“The other end opens in Rameshwaram,” he said. He then told us a fascinating story from the Ramayan. Ahiravan and Mahiravan, Ravan’s sorcerer brothers kidnapped the unconscious Ram and Lakshman from their war camp in Rameshwaram from right under the nose of their custodian Hanuman. Ahiravan carried the duo on his shoulders through Pataal.
“This is where he emerged and hid them here,” said the old man. When Hanuman got wind of it he followed him down that tunnel and at the end of a great fight lasting days killed the sorcerers. Finding the unconscious Ram and Lakshman crouched behind the stone deity he kicked it hard to get to them. “That’s how it sank.”
When he was a little boy, a ‘gora sahib’ came to find out if this was true. A rock was tied to lengths of rope from 40 charpoys and sunk into the pond. “They ran out of rope. It goes all the way to Rameshwaram, you see.”
Manojavam Marutatulya Vegam… Hanuman Jayanti greetings!
I must have been eight. Dad and I were going somewhere in a Mumbai local. A middle aged gent boarded at a station and plonked himself on the bench in front of us. He began a monologue, gesturing intermittently. Everyone glanced at him. Some chuckled, some smirked. A few stations later he got off. I asked dad. “All of us talk to ourselves but some do so loudly. It’s called soliloquy.” I wasn’t impressed. I thought he was talking to a ghost. I was into ghosts then. I made bold, “How do you know he wasn’t talking to a ghost whom we couldn’t see?” Dad promptly exorcised the topic. I spent the rest of the journey running all sorts of scenarios about the ghost and the gent in my head. It was the stuff of Calvin and Hobbes.
Cut to last week. I was on an errand dropping a friend’s eight-year-old someplace. We stopped at a light. Another car pulled up alongside. I glanced at the driver who was talking and gesturing animatedly. There was nobody else in his car. His gesticulations also caught my young passenger’s eye. “There’s no one else in the car. Do you suppose he’s talking to a ghost?” I asked. “Nah… he must be on his handsfree,” came the reply. No more ghosts in this digital age. No Calvin and Hobbes, too, for that matter. And soliloquy vanished at that railway station all those years ago.
What’s 13 times 5? If you can roll it off your tongue, this might resonate. A film historian was guest lecturing at my media school some 30 years ago. The raconteur par excellence told of a director of the ‘forties who spent a whole month on one shot. He wanted to perfectly capture the reflection of lovers embracing – on the surface of a gently flowing river. No digital special effects then. Neither fancy cameras. You simply worked with what you had and waited for perfect conditions. With countless takes.
I’ve recently come to know this talented young filmmaker who is cast in that old mould. You can feel his passion for his metier. He’s no Ray or Kurosawa but his craft is redolent of the time when moving images weren’t processed by microchips. He says he works with natural light, real, natural settings. He eschews special effects. He doesn’t mind the extra time and effort than if he had opted for digital wizardry, when he has it all on his laptop.
But he is an improbable anachronism. After screening his short earlier this week he invited questions. A young film student asked which special effects software he had used for one of the more poignant scenes. The filmmaker said he hadn’t used any. The questioner was unbelieving. How could that ever be? He must have used something? Else, how could he get that effect? Not his fault. He is of a generation that wouldn’t know how to multiply 13 times 5 without a smartphone.
Amidst the Aamir Khan/Kiran row, some on social media took vows like the earthshaking vows that many men and women in our epics and Puranas took. Some last week swore never ever to spend a single rupee watching any of the actor’s movies.
I was reminded of an acquaintance that took a similar vow when Salman Khan’s case was hogging the social media space some months back. But when he told me he’d watched Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I asked him about his vow. His reply proved to me that there is a little Birbal or Tenali Rama in each one of us. And as in the case of many of our Puranic vows, his workaround was fiendishly clever.
He said he’d kept his vow – not spending a single paisa watching the film. “I streamed it from a pirate website. The quality was bad, there were lots of interruptions but I had the pleasure of not paying anything to watch that [expletives deleted] actor’s movie. Enjoyed the movie without a paisa spent.”
Any qualms watching illegal stuff, I asked naively. “Nah, that’s the best way to treat him.”
I grew up with my fair share of spiritual gurus inherited from my elders. Most were ill clad, unkempt, looking penurious, even gaunt. They looked that way because they had renounced everything, had no worldly possessions, no filial relationships. They were so one with the world that there was nothing to possess – no distinction between the possessor and the possessed. They were the world; the world was them, or so I was told.
I don’t see gurus like them anymore. Every guru of today is a brand. Distinguished by carefully coiffured heads of hair even if looking wild and windblown; velvety flowing robes; signature accoutrements; headgear straight out of a fancy dress party: Their image so very selfie-ready; poised to materialise a hundred social media posts a day, a myriad likes and a million dollars from thin air. A global network of opulent ashrams, a who’s who of followers, fancy sets of wheels and wings, dedicated media channels vending instant nirvana…
Like the gurus of old, the world is at their feet. Yet unlike them, there seems so much more to possess!
Or how a tycoon dissuaded a banker from leaving India…
This happened a very long time ago, when I was but a minion in a very large Indian enterprise.
At one of the many drinking binges, which were hosted so very often for all sorts of celebratory reasons, I happened to listen to this conversation between a high-profile cowboy banker (long since dead) and a tycoon (very much alive but not so kicking anymore):
The banker, just back from a trip to Switzerland and Amsterdam, told the tycoon they should all move base to Switzerland and do business from Europe. The life was easy he said. “Kya ladkiyan! Kya ayyashi, everything so clean, spic and span!” The next five minutes, thoroughly sozzled, he went on to describe his exploits over the past week.
The tycoon gave him a patient ear. Then, equally sozzled but with all his wits seemingly about him, he said it was a great idea to buy a private plane, a chalet, even a bank in Europe – but always live in India, no matter the grime and the poverty.
Why? Asked the banker. “Because, in India you can buy everything you can’t dream of buying anywhere else. You can buy netas, babus, police, chief ministers and even prime ministers – all have a price and you can even haggle!” the tycoon replied. “You need to have a little tolerance for the gandgi and garibi.”