Watch your back, now!

The ubiquitous ad hawks may just stick their ware up on anything under the sun—coffee vans, car screens, elephants, shaven heads and what not. There is such a mad scramble for space

Look around you and you will find that ads have become a part of everyone’s life without most even realizing it. They are there painted on buses and walls, on T-shirts and shopping bags, of hoardings of all sizes and in all places, on cloth banners and even on the metallic tree guards and railings that partition city roads.

Not satisfied with the ear-marked ad spaces available in newspapers, magazines and TV slots, companies will sponsor, innovate and create, and ensure that their name comes in the most unlikely of places, no matter how hard the consumer tries to void them.

When videocassettes became popular, companies started inserting their ads between the films. And then people started fast-forwarding those ads. Sometimes the cable operators would do it for them. Round one to the viewers. But then came ads superimposed on the film, which came at the bottom of the screen and couldn’t be done away with. Round two to the advertisers. After that, every round seems to have gone to them.

Even on satellite TV, the sponsors’ decided to add their name to programmes to ensure maximum publicity. So we have Videocon Flashback, Lux Kya Scene Hai, Timex Timepass and a whole lot of others. A far cry from the time when the Doordarshan time was sponsored and we’d get captions like 30 Plus time and Booty Mixie time just below the clock that appeared before the news.

Another field is sports, particularly cricket. Not content with appearing on strips around the field, they have spread everywhere. First the company name came on the bat and then sponsors made it to the T-shirts of cricketers as logos. The tournament titles never went without the sponsor’s name, making household names Benson & Hedges, Texaco, Wills etc. Finally came the spectators and they handed out scores of printed 4s and 6s, which had the company name on top. These are wildly waved at every attractive stroke, ensuring that the viewer sees the company name even when the camera focuses on the spectators.

Pepsi and Wills seem to have a pervading presence in the market paces of India thanks to their unique way of sponsoring sleek lighted plastic name boards for shops which sell their products.

Advertisers have also capitalized on Delhi’s Pragati Maidan for one place that was totally free of ads—the blue sky. And so we have balloons of all shapes and sizes displaying products, which swell in number, especially when some trade fair is organized.

And so the race is on to find newer and fresher pastures. Who knows what the future holds and what way companies will find to get the attention (and sometimes irritation) of then average consumer.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times in 1998)

Strangers

He saw her across the crowded room… She was mysterious… And so familiar…

His sunken eyes, pale face and sharp teeth drawing blood belied despair. Silhouetted against the moonlight, he stared at the stormy waves, as the cool night breeze caressed his cheeks. He felt the softness of the stranger’s kiss and shuddered.

“Oh Aru! How I miss you!” Sudhir silently cried. His longing couldn’t quell the pangs of guilt that surged through him. But Aru would never know, would she? She was thousands of miles away. He closed his gritty eyes and his mind automatically veered to the other night…

As he strode down the graveled path to Carol’s beach house, he felt uneasy amidst the hedonistic surrounding. But Carol was his only link with Aru, and he didn’t want to miss any chance… Besides, Carol was good fun.

He stood at the door, adjusting his vampire outfit, plagued with second thoughts about going to the party. He’d almost turned back, when a stunning Cleopatra opened the door. “Wow! Count Dracula himself! I’m honoured,” Carol’s lilting murmur flowed through. She looked gorgeous, from her sensuous smile right down to her cleavage, a la Elizabeth Taylor.

“Come on in and join the fun!” she sing-songed, handing him a drink. He looked around. Through the tinkling glasses and inebriated laughter, he heard a familiar voice. He turned around and saw Khanna, a crashing bore. “Not him!” he groaned to himself. “So tell me…”

One round of drinks and he was already feeling heady. “I need some fresh air,” he muttered to himself, and went out to the balcony. He gazed at the clear sky and felt as lonely as the stars above. That’s how he’d been feeling for the last two years.

Deep, abiding loneliness. He felt so uncomfortable among his friends—they’d all come with their wives. “Why do I bother with these parties?” he asked himself thinking about all the boring ones he’d been to lately. He couldn’t take it any more—he just had to leave. And as he turned, his glance fell on her.

Dressed like an exotic bird, she had all the trappings of a beautiful temptress. Oblivious to the admiring glances she was attracting, she continued to delicately sip her drink. There was something mysterious, something fascinating, something so familiar about her. Their eyes met, clashed and she started, in surprise. And suddenly, her surprise gave way to a bewitching smile.

“Hi! Want to join me?”
Before he could reply, she was beside him with a drink.
“Your Count Dracula getup is cool. You could’ve even scared a bat!” she laughed. “How about taking a walk on the beach?”
“It is quite suffocating here. Actually, I was just about to leave. But… why not?” he murmured.

They walked silently with only the flow and ebb of the waves interrupting their silence. And then she spoke.
“Goan beaches aren’t like the Californian ones. But they’re just so beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Been there, have you?”
“Once, when I was a child. Married?”
“Yes.”
“So how come you’re alone tonight?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Want to talk about it?”

And so the conversation went. Short questions, shorter answers. Neither felt the need for lengthy explanations. And in the process, he realized that she was just as lonely as he was. It was their loneliness that drew them together. They reached the end of the beach.

As they turned back, Sudhir stumbled a little. She held him close. His head started spinning—and it had nothing to do with the drinks. It had been so long since he’d felt a woman’s touch. He couldn’t contain himself—he kissed her.

They were standing near a beach hut. Sudhir offered no resistance when she took his hand and led him in.

As his lips pressed against hers in the dark, he felt her gown slip. Before he knew what was happening, their bodies were entwined in a passionate embrace. His last thought before losing control was that he’d never experienced such ecstasy before.

In the wake of their smouldering kisses, his estrangement with Aru didn’t matter anymore. His depression had finally found mind-numbing release. Exhausted, he fell asleep.

When he woke up after a few hours, she was gone. As he lay on the bed staring emptily at the ceiling, a voice broke his reverie.
“I see you’ve had quite an eventful night.” It was Carol.
“Err, well, umm… It was…,” he fumbled.
“Relax! It’s okay. I won’t spill the beans. It happens to the best of us. Just wanted to tell you the party’s over. Everyone’s going homw. I was just wondering where you’d got to. Ciao!” And she went back.

Sudhir looked at his watch. It was four in the morning. It was high time he left, he thought. And suddenly, he came back to the present.
“Should I tell Aru? Will Carol tell her?” Worried, he got into his car.
As he turned into his drive, he saw a light in the kitchen. He walked towards the open patio doors.

Arundhati was there, sitting in the lounge, calmly sipping coffee. “Oh great!” he thought—she always had a great sense of timing!
“Aru?”
“I’m glad you’ve been enjoying yourself in my absence. Want some coffee?”
Sudhir looked at his crumpled clothes guiltily.
He could imagine what he looked like. Aru could always see right through him. Abruptly, she got up to leave.
“Wait, Aru! Don’t leave… Don’t get me wrong… When did you get back?”
“Does it matter?” she asked, bleakly.
“Why did you return?”
“I had to know something, before we parted. I wanted to know if there was something worth salvaging.”
She started to walk to the door.
“Aru… Please! Don’t jump to conclusions. Let me explain…”
She didn’t stop, didn’t turn.
“Forget it.”
And the door was slammed shut. His breath came in short, laboured gasps, and he went out to get some fresh air.

Outside, the air was rent with the smell of smoke. He ran to the backyard.
All that remained in the burning embers of a slowly dying fire were ashes, remnants of bird feathers and a couple of broken shells.

And, as realization dawned, he crumpled into a heap on the ground.

(This short story won first prize in the Femina magazine fiction contest of 1996)

Divide and Misrule

broken-1739135_1280How can a person feel lonely or isolated in a world of around five and a half billion? It’s not difficult. Man follows the policy of ‘Divide and Live’ — he keeps on dividing the population into ever smaller groups, increasingly isolating himself. First, the world is divided into the living and non-living. The living into plants and animals. The animal world is further classified into vertrebrates and non-vertebrates. Vertebrates into mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and fishes. Then there are two clear distinctions in mammals — humans and non-humans.

Then mankind is spread over five different continents, which could well be five different worlds, separated by race, language and skin colour. The ‘white’ropeans, Americans and Australians, brown and yellow Africans and Asians. Continents are further divided into countries, each fiercely independent and engaged in a rivalry with each other. The Russian-American cold war of yore. Anglo-French antagonism which has seen the two countries in opposite sides in seven wars in the past. Indo-Pakistani clashes. The long Iran-Iraq conflict… The list is long. ‘Love they neighbour’ is a dream; most neighbouring countries have had atleast one major conflict, or are at a perpetual state of war.

As if this isn’t enough, many countries have secessionists who want separate lands. The former Yugoslavia has been torn apart by ethnic conflict, while Afghanistan’s internal turmoil in the 1980s saw much of its population either dying or fleeing the country. The Kurds are seeking a separate homeland in West Asia. Pakistan was split into two in 1971. And India has faced secessionist militancy in Punjab and Kashmir.

There is further division on the basis of religion. All religions talk of God and service to mankind, but history has witnessed the bloodiest of campaigns when armies of two different religions have met. The old world saw many battles between Christianity and Islam. There have been four Arab-Israel wars over religion. It was antagonism against a particular sect that caused Adolf Hitler to court disaster with his infamous ‘Final Solution’. India also has had its communal riots. Almost each religion has conflicting sects. The division chart continues. Hinduism has been divided by untouchability, Islam by the Shia and Sunni factions. In Christianity it is the Catholics versus the Protestants, with many other sects.

There are differences in political ideology. Socialists and capitals, blocs and pacts. The Left, the Right and the Centre. Factions and groups within a single party. There are divisions on the basis of money in one’s pocket — the upper class, the middle class and the lower classes. Two different classes can’t mingle, as oil and water don’t mix. In a country like India, there are states with different languages, cultures and traditions. There is no unity in diversity. Each state is hostile to outsiders, and sympathetic only to its ‘sons of the soil’, granting them special privileges. These sons are further classified into various communities. There are agitations to have existing states divided, and we have Jharkhand and Uttarakhand movements. There are wheels within wheels within wheels…

Finally, your neighbour must fall into one or another of the above categories and you still don’t get along with him. This leaves  you with your family. With the passage of time, brother fights brother and they part. So, in the end you’re left alone and the whole world is out to get you. Five and a half billion divided by five and a half billion equals one.

(This article appeared as an Edit Page Middle in The Times of India newspaper on May 22, 1995)

French Window is a Door

You have all heard of Russia, Portugal and Turkey. But have you heard of Russian roulette, the Portuguese man-of-war and Turkish delight? Do you know what they mean? Or exactly what is an ‘Indian summer’?

Merely knowing the meaning of certain words is not enough, you have to know the usage of combination of words too. Like British, French and German might simply mean ‘of’ Britain, France and Germany respectively. But when used in combinations with a particular word, the result is quite different.

First the French effect. A French window isn’t a window from France, but a glazed folding door. A French door is simply a glass door. What type of leave do you take when its without permission? French leave of course. A lot of ‘French’ is used in cooking too. A French bean is a kidney bean; French toast is bread dipped in a batter of egg and milk and fried, French fries are deep fried potato strips, and French dressing isn’t a type of dress but salad dressing prepared from oil, vinegar and seasoning.

Then the Dutch have a reputation for being miserly. Hence a Dutch treat is one in which each pays his own expense. An auction is a sale in which articles are sold to the highest bidder, but what if you found yourself in a sale in which the price was reduced till a purchaser was found? You’d be sitting in a Dutch auction.

A Dutch bern is one consisting of a roof supported by poles. A Dutch uncle is a person who criticizes with unsparing frankness and a Dutch door is one which is divided into two units so that they can be opened separately. You may not be able to speak Dutch, but you speak double Dutch many times. That is the term for incomprehensible jargon. Do you know how a drunk behaves? He disregards authority, speaks what he likes and could not care for the world. Such courage, got out of strong drink, is called Dutch courage.

Russian boots are high boots with cuffed tops. Roulette is a gambling game played on a table with a revolving centre over which a ball runs, but Russian roulette is a game, in which each participant in turn, using a revolver into which one bullet has been inserted, spins the cylinder, points the muzzle at his or her head, and pulls the trigger.

The Portuguese man-of-war is another highly misleading name. It doesn’t denote a belligerent from Portugal but a type of ocean invertebrate animal having a bladder like structure.

A Roman nose is a nose with a prominent bridge and a Roman candle is a firework consisting of a tube that emits sparks and balls of fire.

Indians are people of India, but Red Indians are the original inhabitants of America. India rubber is one which rubs pencil marks; India ink is a dense black pigment used in drawings or the ink got from it and an Indian file is a single file. ‘Indian summer’ denotes a period of mild, dry weather in late autumn or early winter.

(This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper on 11 February, 1995)

Of adages & reality

post-384929_1280When I was small, I was battered with golden sayings, proverbs, adages and maxims of all sorts. They were there in our ‘Thought for the day’, school diary and liberally in our teachers’ speeches. All of them got registered on my mind as truths of life, but as the days progressed, they started to make less and less sense.

Take ‘Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.’ I don’t know about the healthy and wise part, but I haven’t heard of a single wealthy man who doesn’t go to bed late. Another gem is, ‘Speech is sliver, but silence is golden.’ Saving a few situations here and there, I don’t see how far you can go with silence. You have to be a good talker to make your way around the world.

But I’ve faced the greatest problems with ‘Practice makes a man perfect’. There are certain people who have a natural talent for a thing and are near perfect with their first try. And there are others like me who for years persist and get nowhere.

For example, take football. I watched stars on TV do wonders with the ball and got attracted to the game. I started playing seriously at the age of seven. I played during the breaks, after school and in my spare time. After three years, I was still where I started. I joined a boarding school where we used to play football daily. Let alone master the ball, I never could even score a single goal in a single match.

Once in a match, 22 players were crowded near a goal. I got disgusted and came out. To my luck, the ball popped out of the melee and landed at my feet. I excitedly took the ball and started running towards the opposite goal. The whole crowd froze, staring at me in silence. After some time the opponent goalkeeper also took off.

I thought it would be simple, but the ball just wouldn’t stay at my feet. It moved far to the left, then to the right and then to the left again. I was zig-zagging desperately as the goalkeeper gained on me. I reached the goal after what seemed like ages. I fumbled and kicked the ball to open my account. But out of nowhere, the goalkeeper dived and it was a save. I passed out of school and remained goal-less after a decade of football.

It’s the same with my handwriting. I had the most atrocious handwriting in class. My teacher told me that the more I wrote, the better it would get. I patiently wore out practice books and even chose a greeting card with beautiful handwriting to imitate. I don’t know how many hours I spent in all that and was it worth it? Today, after all that practice I have a handwriting that looks like, as my sister puts it, ‘squiggly ants’.

When I became an adult, I was exposed to two things — shaving and driving. When I shaved for the first time, I ended up with blood and leftover hair on my face. A thousand shaves later, I am just marginally better.

Each time I ride my scooter, I say my prayers. When my father started to teach me to drive in school, he was a very frustrated man in a matter of weeks. Today, after being on the roads for 7 to 8 years and driving in a tough place like Jodhpur where nobody follows any rules, I am what I was.

And it’s the same with a dozen other things.

(This article appeared as an Edit Page Middle in Deccan Herald newspaper in 1995)

On a razor’s edge

shaving-6256448_1280I hate shaving. Period. The very sight of a razor is enough to give me the creeps. I’d rather go to work unkempt than indulge myself in this daily ritual.

But it wasn’t always like that. When I was small, all things connected to shaving including ads on TV had a great fascination for me. I just loved watching my father put thick white creamy lather on his face and see the razor remove all the hair along with the foam like magic. I used to frown whenever I saw any uncle or bhaiya with a stubble.

So there I was looking in the mirror everyday and rubbing my cheeks hoping to see that elusive sprout of hair. One of my schoolmates, as eager as I was, used to shave his face with a dry razor even though he was as barren as the Thar desert.

Then one day, I finally saw it coming! I monitored my chin carefully every morning and patiently watched its progress like a farmer watching his first crops sprout. I soon got a good stubble and it was D-Day.

Armed with all the implements, I started. Phase I. Cool. Working up a lather and applying it on my face. Phase II. A disaster! I took the razor and removed the cream, I got a cut. Then another cut, then another… I washed my face and looked in the mirror horrified. All I could see was patches of blood alternating with patches of hair.

After a few more rounds of shaving I was still left with an unsmooth chin. “Don’t worry,” I was assured, “it happens to everyone the first time. You’ll soon get the hang of it.”

So I waited. In vain. Days passed. The days became months and the months years.

Everyone gave me suggestions. “Rinse your blade after every touch.” “Use warm water.” “Use the right angle.” Nothing changed it, I still looked like an injured warrior with a rough chin after shaving.

“I finally decided to get away from it all and grow a beard. And that’s when everyone started picking on me. My relative, a spinster, looked at me with disgust and said, “I simply can’t stand men who don’t shave.” One girl started calling me Devdas, while another remarked, “You look quite primitive,” relegating me to the status of a Stone Age man. A friend put his arm around my shoulder and exclaimed, “My, don’t you look depressed!”

This sentiment was echoed by others and I failed to understand the negative response my beard was getting. Even the college dean singled me out of all the people who didn’t shave. Bang in the middle of a lecture he gave me one of his cold icy stares and froze the class for 10 seconds before saying, “But why have you stopped shaving?”

The last straw came when one of my best friends refused to go out for a film with me and my beard because I looked to mean and resembled a beggar! I had had enough and decided to shave my grown beard. In my first try, it remained intact. With more than a dozen tries, it finally came off with a record number of cuts.

My friend engrossed in his paper looked up at my blood-stained face and said, “Now you look much better.” I was back to square one.

In a science fiction novel I read, the hero, thanks to a futuristic device, shaved just once a month. I wait daily for someone to come out with such an invention.

(This article appeared as an Edit Page Middle in The Indian Express in 1995)