Rule Britannia

Britannia in Ballard Estate is first known for its berry pulao and then for its eccentric owners. Proof of their dottiness is on the walls of the restaurant, which are hung with admonitions such as ‘Please do not argue with the management’ and pictures of the owner’s late rooster. If you’re lucky, one of Britannia’s aging owners (two old and two middle aged men man the shop) – the one whose face has a bird-like quality – will reminisce about his beloved rooster (he loved Goldspot and nuts) before he takes your order.

On a recent visit, I noticed a new oddity – a cut-out of Prince William and Kate Middleton perched on the banister of the mezzanine floor. The picture was taken after their engagement. The owners, the Kohinoors, are dedicated anglophiles. According to this story, the restaurant was named Britannia because the British commissioner in 1923 gave the founder a licence in one day on the condition that he give his restaurant a British name. A large portrait of the Queen adorns one wall; it’s right beside a portrait of the man who threw the Brits out, Gandhi.

Parsis of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries admired the British, emulating their customs and adopting the English language. Many were sad to see the Brits leave, fearing the country would lapse in the hands of natives who were not nearly as efficient administrators. I know that my maternal, Parsi grandparents were rather fond of the Brits. They had a little collection of royal memorabilia, including a plate marking the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana in 1981.

The few Parsi ‘monarchists’ that are left didn’t have much to cheer about till the William-Kate wedding last year. If the Kohinoors keep Britannia going – they’ve been threatening to shut shop for years – Harry might join his brother and sister-in-law in watching diners eat berry pulao.

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The curious case of Priti Chandriani

Mumbai Mirror’s front page story on June 22 nearly upstaged the lead story about the fire in Mantralaya. While Priti Chandriani – the papers have misspelt her name as Preeti Chandrayani – a 53-year-old documentary filmmaker and resident of Worli, was on her way to the parlour, excise officials visited her home. They had been ‘tipped off’ that Chandriani was in possession of vast quantities of alcohol without a permit and that she made alcohol-infused chocolate. According to the Mirror report, chocolatiers who use alcohol in their sweets and those who buy liqueur chocolates require permits. Chandriani claimed that she makes chocolates as a hobby; she doesn’t sell them. But according to this report, menus with prices were found in her house. And a Google search reveals that she does actually sell chocolate.

Not only did the officials confiscate all the alcohol and chocolate, they took away all her recipe books. It’s alarming and deeply distressing to know that excise chaps can just swan into your house to inspect your booze cupboard and then detain you for possessing alcohol without a permit. But I’m incredulous of this story. It seems too wild to be taken at face value.

Why did the excise guys zero in on Chandriani? Who could have ‘tipped’ them off about this chocolatier/hobbyist? There’s obviously an underlying reason that’s either speculation or difficult to verify that has not been reported. Could the tip off be some sort of act of revenge? Why would anyone go to this length? Have her documentaries pissed someone off?

It’s not farfetched to imagine a dystopian scenario in which the excise department swoops down on unsuspecting people in their homes the way Dhoble does to clubs and restaurants. Selling permits is after all a major source of revenue for the department. But at the moment, if there’s any certainty at all in this strange strange story it is that the excise chaps had Chandriani’s chocolates for dessert.

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The Wisecracktatus

                                                       The library of a solipsist


Cartoon by IC and Azeema Pardiwala.

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Rage machines

Last Sunday, Mayur Aggarwal, a 25-year-old businessman, rammed his Swift three times into Amit Valinjkar’s Honda City. It was, apparently, a case of road rage. Valinjkar was with his wife, two-year-old son and parents. Aggarwal was with his father and brother. The two cars were at the signal near Mahalaxmi station. Apparently the Swift was in the Honda’s way. Valinjkar honked. Aggarwal, angered by the honking, reversed his car into the Honda.

In a city that’s constantly seething with road rage, it’s surprising that you don’t read more stories of this sort. Some instinct of self-preservation must be keeping us from ramming ours cars into others, turning the roads into a macabre bumper car playground. That, and the ridiculously low speed at which we’re forced to drive in Bombay. It’s a tenuous instinct before the violent impulse that driving on Bombay’s lawless and noisy roads evokes. When a car blindsides you by overtaking from the left, don’t you just want to put a dent in its rear? Or when the cabbie behind you relentlessly jabs his horn even though you’re stuck in a traffic jam, don’t you want to reverse into his bumper? Or when a car in the wrong lane tries to unapologetically cut into the right one, the one you happen to be in, don’t you want to knock it back?

The incident seems to me a presentiment for a future of frequent acts of road rage. There are bound to be clashes of this sort as more cars hit roads that are already over burdened.

According to news reports, Bombay had 17,67,798 vehicles as of 2010. An average of 300 two-wheelers and 200 cars were registered every day since 2009. The public transport system, while it is excellent, is simply not enough for Bombay’s population. The metro and mono rails will hopefully encourage people to take the train instead of driving. But who knows when they will be ready. The first phase of the metrol rail – Andheri-Versova-Ghatkopar – was to completed by the end of 2010. It’s nowhere near ready.

The scenario lends itself spectacularly to science fiction. Some time in the future, road rage has assumed the form of a disease. Drivers continue to drive badly, perpetuating violent acts of rage. Entire cities are wiped out by way of car crashes. Or, the government harnesses the power of the car horn, whose sound drives men to the point of madness. Soldiers are turned into killing machines by subjecting them to the sound of honking. When suitably enraged, they are unleashed upon the enemy. (As writers of fiction like to bring things full circle, the soldiers eventually realise they are being exploited and turn on the government.)

It’s doubtful that the Aggarwals see the futuristic quality of their act. They have more pressing things to think about as they’ve been accused of attempted murder, a charge that carries a sentence of up to ten years in jail.

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From the Jaipur Literature Festival

The Jaipur Literature Festival was uncomfortably crowded, the food was rubbish and you could write a novel waiting for a chance to use the loo. But it was enlightening and fun at the same time. I had imagined that the over abundance of speakers would mean talks that lightly skimmed the surface of their subjects. But many of the sessions, even though they weren’t in-depth, were wonderful teasers of the works and thoughts of writers.

Some notes on and arty-paparazzi style pictures of the JLF 2012

Kiran Nagarkar

The scrum outside Diggi Palace on the third day of the festival. Thousands had come to watch Oprah and the crowd was unmanageable. The organisers stopped letting people in. This led to much anger and confusion outside. Just when we thought we’d have to wait till after lunch to get in, the convoy of the Queen Mother of Bhutan of all people exited. There was a gap in the barricades and the waiting crowd sprinted in. Astonishing, as this is the sort of behaviour one expects at Bollywood events.

I’ve never had reason to complement Shobhaa De. But kudos to her, and her husband, for showing up at Penguin’s 25th anniversary party in turbans. It was a sartorial nod, I’m guessing, to Rajasthan.

Meenal Baghel, Namita Devidayal and Mohammed Hanif at the Penguin party.

AC Grayling at the Penguin party. Farrukh Dhondy is on the left.

Jason Burke from The Guardian, the philosopher AC Grayling, the organiser Palash and Farrukh Dhondy

One of the strangest sidelights of the festival was a memorial for Christopher Hitchens. It was bizarrely announced at the Caravan-New York Times party as some sort of after-party. The invitation, I am told, said Black Label would be served. People rushed over excitedly only to find a sombre gathering. Guardian writer Jason Burke, AC Grayling, Farrukh Dhondy, someone on Skype whose name I couldn’t catch and the organiser of the event, one Palash,  remembered Hitchens. Dhondy spoke volubly about his fellow Trotskyite. For those expecting a ‘rocking’ memorial, the Black Label was the only compensation.

Chai in kulhads, the perfect refreshment in between sessions

Hoshang Merchant

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Junking the junket

A couple of years ago, I was picked to go the US on a junket. When I mentioned this to a colleague, she shook my hand and congratulated me. I searched her face for a smirk, an ironically raised eyebrow. But her smile was genuine and her brow was a permanent chicane that had nothing to do with irony and everything to do with tweezers. Apparently, I learned, junkets to the first world are prestigious.

The junket is an amusing institution. You get a junket if your boss is pleased with you, that is, if you have no life apart from work. Or it’s a placatory bait, especially around appraisal time when employees, unsatisfied with raises, threaten to quit. Journalists love junkets as they love freebies. And the junket is the ultimate freebie. So getting to go on one is a matter of prestige. I’ve seen junket-returned journos distributing the mini chocolates they bought at the airport duty free and being thumped on the back by colleagues.

A junket usually involves corporate companies or tourism departments flying you to foreign countries to visit factories, inspect new hotels, participate in conferences or attend festivals. In return you give them a bit of publicity in your “esteemed publication”. Journalistic ethics? Never heard of it.

After four junkets, I decided I wouldn’t go on any more. (Despite the siren song of business class travel.) The niggling conscience could no longer be ignored. And I realised how boring most of them are. Listening to PR drivel, even if is in a fancy hotel in a foreign country, is just boring. The only fantastic junket I’ve been on was the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore. There were no speeches, only food. Lunch at a nice restaurant in the city followed by a master-class by some Michelin-starred chef, followed by sampling the stuff prepared at the class, followed by a ten course meal. But the trip was an exception.

My first junket was to Genting Highland in Malaysia, an endless amusement park set atop a hill in the midst of ancient rainforests. The perfect setting for a dystopian sci-fi film. Expecting to travel with other journos, I was surprised to find waiting for me at Bombay airport, just one other writer and a group of college kids who had been awarded a free trip to Malaysia after creating the winning model of the Petronas Towers at a competition. Not sure why the Malaysian tourism department threw us together. The best part of the trip was eating laksa.

A few years later, I travelled to Anaheim in California to attend a convention for fans of a company known for its animated films. Not much fun if you’re not a fan. Anaheim itself was a bore. It’s a lifeless town where all you see on the streets are palm trees and the odd Puerto Rican.

The latest junket was to Milan for an event promoting a coffee company. I spent a day and half conducting phoney interviews and a day and half exploring Milan. It’s a funny city. The women are ridiculously well dressed. And the men are ridiculously predatory, cruising the streets like sharks and occasionally throwing some rapid, flirtatious Italin at you. The high point of this trip, apart from business class travel of course and walking on the roof of the Duomo, was a visit to the museum in the Sforza Castle. This time, a bent old lady threw some rapid Italian at me as I stood next to the naked statue of a boy. She grabbed her crotch (that might be the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen) and gestured at the statue. The only word I understood was ‘piccolino’. But that was enough to tell me she was voicing her opinion on the marble lad’s tiny wee wee.

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The Maoist and Dhirubhai

A piece of news in the Hindustan Times two days ago made me remember A Clockwork Orange. The bottom of the Nation page has a story about an experiment that might be conducted on jailed Maoists. A 17 year old is currently the guinea pig of the experiment that involves reading books such as biographies of Dhirubhai Ambani, You Can Win by corporate self help guru Shiv Khera and Positive Thinking by Joginder Singh, a former chief of the CBI. The idea is to undo Maoist indoctrination.

This is hardly comparable to the Ludovico technique. And the CRPF’s experiment seems comically naive. To think that feeding the kid hagiographies of capitalist rockstars like Ambani would turn him into an enterprising, positive thinking freemarketeer… Or maybe it will. Who knows?

At the same, this counter indoctrination is disturbing. The cops have chosen books that are almost propaganda for a capitalist way of life. These are books that suggest, directly and indirectly, that money is the autobahn to happiness. They could have given the kid novels or biographies of truly great men. Great works of art can have transformative effects. (This is not an argument against Maoists.) This is happening, not in Gujarat, but in Bengal, a state where people esteem art and consider money a dirty necessity. Intellectuals practically form an entire social strata here. One of the state’s greatest intellectuals, Amartya Sen, once attributed West Bengal’s low crime rate to the Bengali habit of reading. But perhaps this choice of literature is less surprising when you consider the money-minded zeitgeist.

In an article in The New Republic, Jed Perl talks about how pecuniary partnerships between galleries, museums and collectors influence the art market. Artists who are good but not great are privileged as their paintings sell for millions at auctions. Culture has always survived on patronage. But what we’re seeing today is culture being leashed by the might of capital.The West Bengal cops are attempting to tame the 17 year old with the appeal of capital. And that says a lot about a state in which calchaar ees keeng.

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The bumpy road of politics

Raj and Uddhav Thackeray recently sparred over potholes. In a fantastic exchange, the cousins displayed ingenious word play to slander each other. To sum up: Raj threw the gauntlet saying that Uddhav should photograph potholes instead of wild animals. He was referring to the Sena-contolled BMC’s shoddy road work during the monsoons and his cousin’s passion for wildlife photography. Uddhav retaliated by saying that wild animals are preferable to traitorous “namak harams”. He outdid himself by adding that Raj had made a pothole in the strength of the Marathi manoos (by splitting votes of course) and that Raj should first locate the potholes in his heart (not sure what he meant by that).

Uddhav is not usually this creative with his diatribes. So it was obvious that he had help. There’s only one person in the Sena who has the imagination to script such ripostes. Babanrao Mahadik. We caught up with Mahadik to chat about his role in the latest war between the Thackerays. Mahadik suggested a clandestine meeting at a coffee shop. He was craving a “non-wheg” sandwich as he was tired of Shiv vada paos, the official snack at his shakha.

Immanuel’s cant: Did you enjoy scripting Uddhav’s replies to Raj?

Babanrao Mahadik: I enjoyed wery much. And I have responses prepared for at least ten more verbal attacks.

IC: But Raj has been quiet after the first speech.

BM: Yes, but my sources tell me that he is planning a series of comments on potholes. I know exactly what he is going to say.

IC: What?

BM: First Raj will say: ‘I’ve checked my heart. It is free of potholes. But you need to repair the potholes in your reputation.’ To that Uddhav will reply: ‘Since you are obviously incapable of doing raj over the potholed roads of politics, you should live up to your real name and make music instead.’ Not many know that Raj’s real name is Swararaj, king of music. To that Raj will give his stock answer for questions about his name: ‘The only raag I understand is the raag (rage) within me. And I’m full of raag at what you have done to this city.’ Uddhav will say: ‘You haven’t seen real raag yet. Wait till I pay you back for trying to steal my ally.’ Raj will say: ‘We’ll see whose side the BJP is on in the next Lok Sabha elections. You might not remain the raja of potholes much longer.’

IC: But how will Raj know what Uddhav is going to say?

BM: I have exchanged notes with my counterpart in MNS.

IC: So this is a game that you and your friend are playing unknown to the Thackerays?

BM: Then what, yaar! What is rajniti without some potholes.

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New school

Azeema Pardiwala and I did these cartoons for the alumni section of our school magazine.

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‘Bad’ bavas

Parsis are generally thought to be a uniformly kind, just and generous lot. The community’s history of philanthropy and lovable eccentricity has put them above reproach. So when people hear of Parsis involved in any sort of wrongdoing or activity that deviates from the eidos of the community, they are shocked.

At a meeting the other day, a reporter happened to mention that Arthur Road Jail has a Parsi convict. The information prompted a collective intake of breath. But they’re sweet goofballs who stubbornly cling to ideals in a morally decrepit world. How can they thieve and murder?

Three weeks ago, Subramanian Swamy outraged the country with his fascist views on Hinduism and Islam in an article in DNA. In the course much heated discussion over his article, it emerged that Swamy is married to a Parsi. There was surprise. How could a Parsi marry this fanatic?

Speaking of right wingers, not many know that the Shiv Sena had a Parsi MLA – Dinaz Patrawala of Cusrow Baug. Fancy that – a Sena member who is both a woman and a Parsi.

Another Parsi spouse raised eyebrows recently. It was reported that Santosh Shetty aka Anna, a gangster who is being blamed for the murder of lawyer Shahid Azmi, is married to a Parsi. How could a Parsi marry a gangster, even if he did come from Warden Road?

Of course the Parsi deviant who captivated the entire country two years ago was Kobad Ghandy. The discovery of a Parsi Maoist was received with such astonishment – it was as if penguins had been found in Africa or the dodo was still alive. Parsis either run empires or live off inheritances or potter about their colonies polishing Yezdis. That one could engage with the wider world, leave the comforts of Bombay to rally labourers in Maharashtra’s hinterland was hard to believe. Especially since Ghandy came from a privileged family. His father was an executive at Glaxo, the family had a flat in Worli and a bungalow in Punchgani and his brother ran an ice cream company called Kentucky; it was one of the first to make fresh fruit ice cream in the city. Maoists are usually regarded the scourge of society. But fond pieces were written about Ghandy, his quiet intelligence, his cooking skills, his family’s strawberry ice cream.

One has only to read about the fractious Bombay Parsi Punchayet elections to know that Parsis are human too. They fight political battles as shamefully as anyone else, can be as fanatical as Bal Thackeray and when you prick them they bleed – blood, not the milk of kindness.

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