Monthly Archives: July 2010

How to… be a mega serial addict

    Photo: The Hindu

  1. Make no mistake – being addicted to a mega serial is hard work. You’re in it for the long haul. We’re not talking a couple of weeks or even months. These serials run for at least a couple of years at a stretch and you need to be mentally prepared to go the distance with its long-suffering heroine.
  2. Remember, these serials have been built as an extreme test of patience, so you have to persevere. Every emotionally wrought situation – the heroine’s long-lost sister has suddenly reappeared but has amnesia! Her husband has been shot in the head and his life hangs by a thread! – will be as drawn out for as long as it possibly can, and you will have to withstand many, many weekend cliff-hangers. (You might want to practice deep breathing for those moments when the urge to wring the director’s neck is particularly strong.)
  3. Anyone who believes that watching a tele-serial doesn’t exercise the ol’ brain cells has obviously never followed one before. It isn’t just those complicated plot twists (see above) that keep you on your toes mentally; it’s also those entire generation shifts that happen every now and again (a whole new cast to keep track of!) and all those convoluted relationships that need to be followed (the first husband’s third wife’s illegitimate daughter’s best friend’s half brother, etc.) A serial family tree tacked to the living room wall is strongly recommended.
  4. Being a serial addict also requires considerable emotional investment. Following those catastrophic events that happen to your favourite characters every week – murder, betrayal, family feuds and the odd heart attack or two – can be quite exhausting. But a true addict doesn’t fight it; give in to the blatantly manipulative storylines, revel in the melodramatic music, fret and fume vocally at injustices meted out to the heroine and shed a sentimental tear at her ultimate triumph over evil (and philandering husbands).
  5. Finally, following a mega serial day after day, week after week requires planning. You will have a wedding reception/family dinner/office function to attend precisely on the day a crucial revelation about the heroine’s parentage is to be made. Inconsiderate friends/family members will interrupt when the drama’s at its peak. Your motto must be ‘be prepared’: recorders on standby at all times, re-air times on your fingertips, and the world at large prepped that only the most dire emergencies need apply for your attention during that period.


Filed under Articles, Humour

Stand up and be counted: The Great Indian Census of 2010

Photo: S.S. Kumar

I’ve finally done it; I am now officially part of the mammoth national undertaking that is the Indian Census of 2010. I’ve been counted. And all it took was a month of missed visits and phone calls to and from my friendly neighbourhood census officer, frayed nerves and mounting stress on both sides and a grand finale worthy of a Hollywood summer blockbuster to get it done by deadline (July 15).

Here’s the thing. Everyone from our Prime Minister down has been sitting around debating what should be covered as part of the census — let’s call it the Caste Counting conundrum — and the deep philosophical implications thereof (“If caste is not covered in the census, does it mean it will no longer exist?”). But no one is talking about how ridiculous the task is logistically; I mean, how the heck does one go about counting one billion plus people?

Well, I got a bit of a glimpse into the process and let me tell you, it ain’t pretty. This is an undertaking of the Indian government, so naturally there is absolutely no system of any sort in place. The grand plan? Get together a bunch of hapless men and women, give them each a big, black carrybag with the big, broad census sheets attached to big, broad boards  and then send them forth on foot on our crazy streets… at the same time everyday. (Just to make things more fun, they decide to get started at the height of our hideously hot and humid Chennai summer. )

Now what this means is that Mrs. A, my census lady, came to my apartment at the same time every afternoon for nearly a week and I was blissfully unaware of it. A parcel delivery guy comes once and if you’re not home, he leaves you a note, a number and an address you can contact him at. But I only come to know that my country’s trying to take my attendance when the sweet 70-something year old mami next door finally catches hold of me as I come home late one evening and anxiously passes on the message that Mrs. A’s been to my flat four times and wants me to call her on her cell. She gives me the number written in her neat, slightly shaky handwriting on a torn-off piece of paper, which, of course, I promptly lose.

About a week later, I meet Census Lady in person when she rings the doorbell just as I’m dashing out in the afternoon for a work assignment (I’d just happened to stop by to pick something up on the way). I am, as always, cutting it perilously fine. As in, I literally have every second of the next thirty minutes accounted for, and there’s no leeway for census officers who pop up out of nowhere. Unsurprisingly, our first meeting is not a success. She blocks my path and threatens to null and void my existence on the national census if I don’t give her the info she needs; I lose my cool and tell her I’ll lose my job if she doesn’t move out of my way right now. She points out she has a job to do too, and I calm down a bit and promise I will give her the details, will come to her office if need be,  and give her my cell number as a peace offering. She drops the attitude and apologises for getting snippy; it’s just that she’d already come by five or six times on foot, and not found us there: “Please don’t take it the wrong way, meddam.”  I tell her it’s just me and the husband here and we both work, so there’ll never be anyone home at this time, can’t she come in the morning? (This breathlessly as I run down the stairs – no electricity). She just looks at me stoically as we pause near my car, and says what is to become a familiar litany in the weeks that follow: “I am in office till 2 p.m., after that I’m coming for taking census.” I give up and jump into the vehicle; if I don’t hurry, I won’t have a job to be at the following afternoon.

That heralds the beginning of a strange new phone friendship between me and Mrs. A. She calls every now and again in the afternoon to say she’s at my door. Her faith is touching, really; clearly she believes if she rings a bell often enough, the door will magically open one of these afternoons. Either that or she’s not particularly impressed with my professionalism and doeesn’t think I’ll be holding on to this job for long. Each time I re-iterate with growing desperation and guilt that no, no, I’m not home, I’ll come to your office one of these days, I promise. But that day never seems to come; something seems to crop up every morning and I can’t make it. It reaches a point when I’m haunted by Mrs. A’s sad face in my dreams at night. “I’m coming to your house on foot, meddam… 10 times I’ve come.”

I do manage to make the time to go in search of her office one morning, only to end up getting lost. Forget finding Venkataratnam Nagar Ext, Ist street; no one seems to have even heard of the darn place. After driving around in circles for half an hour, I call her, only to hear her sniffly voice on the other end tell me that she’s sick and on leave that day. Sometimes you just have to admit defeat; I turn around meekly and head to work.

As per government regulation, she normally doesn’t work Saturdays, but that weekend, presumably because she’s now feeling a similar sense of desperation, she turns up at my flat. Needless to say, both the husband and I are working that particular Saturday and no one’s home. By now,  I’m starting to feel quite miserable every time ‘Census Lady’ flashes on my cellphone.

Determined to put an end to this continuing torture, I finally track down the phantom government office on the phantom street (turns out it’s nestled somewhere in the heart of Kasturba Nagar… who knew?) on the morning of July 14 (one day to deadline. It’s now or never.) In a quiet, shady cul-de-sac in the middle of the residential neighbourhood stands the nondescript building with an Ambassador out front bearing a ‘Govt of India’ license plate (some things never change, I think fondly). I’m feeling rather cheerful as I bound up the stairs; it’s almost over now. I enter expecting a scene of utter chaos… they are, after all, counting a million or so households, but all I find are four elderly men and women silently sitting behind their computer screens, and nothing much else. One of them, Kindly Old Man No. 1, tells me, to my disbelief, that Mrs. A is ‘on leave’ and my bubbly mood fizzles out completely. A sense of being in some sort of neverending nightmare comes over me; was I not meant to be part of the 2010 census? Was it all some sort of elaborate joke? Kindly Old Man No. 2 seems to sense my desperation and asks me which street I live on, clearly wanting to help. But he sadly shakes his head when I tell him. “I’m doing only fusst main road, ma.” A couple of calls later, and we uncover the final cruel twist to the story; today was the one day Mrs. A decided to break the rules and go to take census before coming to office.

Close to tears now, I call Mrs. A, and tell her in a wavering voice that I’m in her office while she, apparently, is one street away from my home. Desparate times call for desparate measures, and Mrs. A takes the situation firmly in hand. “Come to the corner of the main road by the hospital. I will wait there… maroon sari,” she tells me somewhat cryptically. Grasping at straws now, I follow the instructions obediently and make my way there in record time. I park and look around furtively, feeling for all the world like I’m trapped in some B-grade Tamil spy movie… but no maroon sari. And then, suddenly, the trees across the street seem to part and the sari appears in my field of vision, as autos and cyclists whiz by. I feel like dramatic music ought to be swelling in the background. I lean forward to open the car door and signal to her, but Mrs. A seems to recall my car and comes straight towards me with a smile. I’ve never been this happy to see  a maroon nylon sari, sensibly oiled plait and big, black census bag before in my life; we’re virtually like long-lost friends being reunited after decades apart. “Sorry meddam, I’ve really taken up your time and troubled you,” she says as she gets into the car. “No, no, I’m sorry,” I say, beaming like an idiot.

The actual census-taking process is over ridiculously fast — we cover the number of rooms in my house, whether we have a radio or internet connection, our birthdays  etc. at record speed. She apologises again, saying she’d have just gotten the details over the phone except that I have to sign the form. You don’t have to apologise, I tell her.

She says with a sigh as she puts the forms away, “If everyone who missed the census visit took the trouble to come and give me the information like you, my job would be a lot easier.”

And just like that it’s all worth it. As I watch, she hefts the bag on her shoulder and walks over to some hawkers nearby, obviously asking for directions, the noon-day sun beating down on her maroon sari and her sensible plait. The sheer enormity of the task she and all those men and women in the office I’d visited had dawns on me. It’s a thankless job, and I’m just glad that I did my bit to help out.


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Travel: The call of the fronds


Travelling into the Palm Jumeirah feels disappointingly… normal. I mean, here we are, driving onto a manmade island in the shape of a palm tree, an island whose engineering is something of a technological miracle. And it feels as though we were going down any other Dubai road, smooth and lined with painstakingly pruned greenery on either side.

Well, it is just another Dubai road, I’m reminded by my family. Albeit built on reclaimed land in the shape of the giant trunk of the giant palm in the middle of the Arabian Sea.

The aerial shots on the National Geographic documentary made it seem much cooler, I grumble.

Then I see the road signs, and my disappointment lifts. Because, you see, on Palm Jumeirah, you don’t have street names; you have frond names. Signs all around us read ‘Frond A to G’ or ‘Way to Frond D’, and it dawns on me (to my delight) that all those turns off to our left and right are actually the fronds of the giant palm. With perfect little houses on them. Finally, I declare, I’m feeling it – I really am in the middle of the world’s only island in the shape of a desert palm (or any other tree for that matter).

There’s more to come, as our laconic Malayali driver unexpectedly reveals himself to be a treasure trove of island gossip. These aren’t just any old frond-street houses, he tells us conspiratorially. That one, he points, belongs to none other than King Khan himself, and that one to football superstar and metrosexual extraordinaire David Beckham (I’m suitably impressed and make a mental note to Google for further goodies.) 

The fronds are where the bulk of the (ridiculously expensive) independent homes are – the main road is where the action is, or at least is supposed to be. Right now, the tall, elegant buildings that line the road wear a rather forlornly empty look. The economic downturn has hit the Palm project very hard, and the road that ought to be jumping with happening hotels, restaurants, clubs and stores lies still and quiet.

One joint that really is buzzing is the magnificent – there’s no other word for it – Atlantis at the heart of the island. The outrageously over-the-top hotel that was launched with much fanfare a couple of years ago is a rhapsody in beige and aquamarine, all soaring arches and towers. A thematic hotel based on the legendary Lost City of Atlantis (how fitting that it’s on an island that arose out of nothing in the middle of the sea), it boasts of a huge aquarium with an assortment of marine wildlife (65,000 animals in all), a maze of underwater tunnels and halls, décor that’s just the right mix of the mythological and the surreal, and of course, tons of water sports for the adventurous. (It’s so popular, in fact, that on this holiday, some of its public areas resemble a fish market more than a mysterious underwater kingdom.)

In the evening, we take a ride on the monorail shuttle that runs through the island. At every turn, the sea glints at us in the moonlight, and every building on the silent main street is beautifully, subtly lit. We’re confused by a stop that seems to have nothing there, until the monorail conductor explains it’s the site of what’s going to be the biggest mall in Dubai. It’s already the most amazing, he quips – it’s invisible. Like so many other ambitious projects on the island, this one too is stalled. In some ways, by nightfall, the Palm begins to resemble a ghost town, humbled by the worldwide recession. Then we see the Atlantis sparkling in the midst of it all, and it seems like perhaps there’s hope for the lost island of Palm Jumeirah.


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Highway to Heaven: The Gang of Biker Vadhyars

It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon in Chennai and we’re in our car, making our way back home after lunch through the sparse traffic. I’m twiddling with the radio dial, he’s making desultory conversation, and both of us are already halfway into our Sunday afternoon nap mode when we suddenly hear a throaty vroom vroom from somewhere behind us. Not good. It’s a sound familiar to any Chennai-ite and usually signals the arrival of one of those greasy-haired, too-tight-jeans-wearing bikers who gets his kicks by flouting road rules to such an extent that auto drivers seem positively staid by comparison. And if there’s one, there’ll be more; they invariably travel in packs.

“Uh-oh,” I begin, “it’s one of those crazy biker gan–”

Before the words have left my mouth, he’s streaked past us in a blur, a flash of pristine white. It takes my somnolent brain a minute to process that there’s something rather different about this biker. It isn’t his attitude; no, he’s loudly signalling his fellow bikers across the three lanes, zipping in and out between vehicles, and being quite as obnoxious as the worst of them. But this one’s hair is pulled back in a tightly-coiled kudmi, not a tendril out of place (I spend a moment admiring the sheer staying power of that knot). And no jeans, tight or otherwise or t-shirt with lewd slogan in sight. No, this guy flies by with his panchakacham flapping briskly in the wind, his poonal streaming devil-may-care somewhere past his left ear and his angavastram bellowing behind him like some sort of weird Tam-Bram version of Batman’s cape.

“Do you see what I see?” I ask the husband falteringly.

Before he can answer, the scene takes on an even more surreal feel. Vadhyar Biker No. 1 has now been joined by two others in equally complete priestly garb (though their kudmi-tying skills aren’t quite on par — definitely some frizz happening with one) and they all three zoom into our field of vision, gesturing, hooting, and generally behaving as if Lalitha Sahasranamam is the last thing on their minds . Dear God, I think. It’s a whole gang of them.

“If you mean the Hell’s Angels of Mylapore, then yes,” he says, sounding as shaken as I feel.

By this point, the Gang of Biker Vadhyars, led by he of the perfect kudmi, have congregated at one point for a U-turn, and when we last see them, are high-fiving each other and laughing fit to fall off their bikes. No religious ceremony will never be the same to me again, I think dazedly, as we continue our journey in stunned silence. The next time I see three vadhyars sitting together at some solemn occasion like a shraddham, I’m not going to be able to get the image of them doing wheelies out of my head. 

Okay, so our society is changing fast. In the US, I once saw a vadhyar arrive at my aunt’s house in jeans and a t-shirt, change into veshti etc. to conduct the poojai in her fireplace and then zoom off again in his Toyota Camry. We got to change with the times, I get it. Take the vadhyar at my friend’s recent engagement, who stayed plugged in to his MP3 player (ear phones dangling stylishly off one ear) the whole time. That I can understand — he’s only human, he needs to listen to music during work, yada yada. We all do it.

But this? Even typing ‘Hell’s Angels’ in the same sentence as ‘vadhyar’ feels faintly blasphemous. And yet, those three were the veritable embodiment of biker ‘tude.  Then a small voice in my head says, why not? Just because a guy’s day job involves piety and prayer doesn’t mean he can’t be a bad-ass biker by night (or in this case, by afternoon). We all need a way to unwind. Yoga or meditation seem a little more apt, perhaps, but hey, who am I to judge? Maybe guys with a direct line to God are the only ones who should to be zipping around at those speeds on our roads anyway.


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Article: Grigoryan Brothers interview and concert review (uncut version)

Photo: R. Ravindran

Brothers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan hardly spent time together growing up. Slava, older by nine years, left for London when he was just 18 to make his mark as a solo guitarist, and Leonard stayed behind in Australia, practicing hard so he could one day play with his big brother.

That day came a few years later when Slava returned home and found that his brother, then 14, had turned into a ‘fantastic musician’. “At the same time, I’d gotten quite tired of always being on the road by myself – being a solo guitarist is a very lonely existence,” says Slava. “We started developing a repertoire for both of us, and we’ve never really looked back.”

In the eight years since, the Grigoryan Brothers, as they’re known, have made a name for themselves as the finest guitar duo in Australia, and have toured across the world, from Russia to Japan, Austria to South Africa, to universal acclaim.

And along the way, they’ve more than made up for all those years spent apart. “We’re kind of discovering each other now, later in life, without all the baggage other siblings carry with them,” says Slava. “We’re brothers, of course, but we feel more like friends,” says Leonard.

Playing together has also opened up a whole new world to them musically. “We arrange a lot of music, we commission a lot of composers to write for us – the solo guitar repertoire, in comparison, is much more traditional,” says Slava.  “What you can do as a soloist is more limited as well – when you add a guitar, the range and the possibilities are endless,” says Leonard.

That range, with these two immensely talented guitarists, is quite mind-boggling. Trained in the Western classical style by their father (both their parents are violinists), the brothers were encouraged to explore a variety of influences from early on, whether it was contemporary jazz, flamenco, rock or even Indian fusion. “One of the very first concerts we were ever taken to – I was 12 and Len must have been three! – featured John Mclaughlin, Kai Eckhardt and Trilok Gurtu,” recalls Slava. “And my first band in school played Jimi Hendrix.”

Today, their music is such an eclectic mix of styles – classical, jazz, Latin guitars and more – that the brothers don’t even try to categorise it. “For us, there has to be a showcase of all the different possibilities on the guitar,” says Slava. “Playing beautiful, lyrical ballads is just as meaningful as playing technically demanding classical pieces.”

And they revel in its international flavour. “As a guitarist, you feel like you have a very international ownership – we’re from a Russian background [their parents emigrated from Kazakhstan], we grew up in Australia learning classical guitar, and yet we feel very close to Spanish and Brazilian music!” says Slava.

Plus, they’ve done an album on French Impressionistic music, are planning one on Russian piano music, and every now and again, they take a break from being the ‘Grigoryan Brothers ‘ to team up with another pair of musical siblings from Egypt (who play the Oud and the Req) and perform as the ‘Band of Brothers.’

“We bring contemporary guitar influences into their world, and see what happens,” he says with a smile. “It’s a lot of fun – we were recently in China with them for the World Expo, and our album will be out next year.”

When they’re not travelling around the world or extensively touring across Australia (their last tour had 45 concerts), Slava and Leonard are… well, they’re hanging out with each other. “We have the same non-musical interests – we play golf together, we love food and wine and cooking…” says Slava. “So even when we’re not playing, we end up seeing each several times a week,” says Leonard.

“And after all these years, we’re not sick of each other at all!” says Slava, laughing.


A standing ovation and two encores later, the packed audience at the Taj Coromandel Ballroom were still loath to let the Grigoryan Brothers leave the stage. That’s the sort of impact the guitar duo had in their first-ever performance in the city.

The music was gorgeous right from the get-go. They opened the concert (presented by the Australian high Commission, Delhi) with the incredibly soulful ‘Distance’ from their 2009 album of the same name, a melodic piece (full of delicate strumming and harmonies) that defied categorisation. This was followed by two movements from the more traditionally classical ‘Suite Bergmasque’ by the French composer Debussy (adapted for guitar by their father) – first the lively, playful “Minuet”, and then the sweetly evocative “Clair de lune”.

The variety in their repertoire was on ample display as they performed two whimsical and quirky contemporary compositions by Ralph Towner, and then the infectiously high-energy ‘Jongo’ by Brazilian composer Paolo Bellinati. Every note was perfect, their synchronisation impeccable even in the most frenetic interludes, and when they stopped to beat out a complex rhythm on their guitars during ‘Jongo’, it was, of course, to perfect time.

By the time they played their own version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’, it was no longer a surprise that they’d added so many unique flourishes and variations that the original seemed almost staid by comparison. Really, can you blame the crowd for bringing them back not once, but twice?

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