Zakir Nagar: Serving the Emperors’ Food in a Ghetto

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Sadiq Zafar
After overpowering Ibrahim Lodi and Rana Sanga, Babur established the Mughal Empire in Delhi. Since Babur was busy fighting his rivals, his nomadic life of warfare necessitated all those things, which were required for a longer stay. The Mughals came to India with their distinctive tradition, culture, art, architecture, and culinary. As Mughals were here to stay, their cooks got trained in the tradition of sub-continental food, which produced a fusion  between Central Asia, the region of Babur’s origin, and North India, the region which Babur occupied. The taste of cuisine varied from mild to extremely spicy, with a distinctive aroma. These scrumptious delicacies are famous throughout the sub-continent and there are people who serve them even today. Being a politically important city, Delhi still carries much of the Mughal traces as part of their legacy.

Zakir Nagar in Delhi is a residential pocket, a Muslim ghetto…

View original post 1,031 more words


Ghoom Station

That Darjeeling hides in its folds a town called ‘Ghoom’ came as a revelation to me while growing up in a small town in UP in the late eighties.

I don’t know what Ghoom means in NepGhum_Railway_stationali, the language largely spoken in Bengal’s hill district, but in Bengali it means sleep.

For a boy who could sleep all day and still not get enough of it, this was the ‘Promised Land’. My mind  wandered off to a cloud-covered place surrounded by hills, where I imagined everyone must sleep to their heart’s content!

I wondered if kids there were spared the ordeal of waking up early in the morning for studies. The place is called Ghoom, right? They wouldn’t have given the name unless it had something to do with sleep, my little self reasoned hopefully as I promised myself to build a house there when I grow up.

Years later, a friend who was from the hills had a hearty laugh when I told her this childhood dream of buying a house in Ghoom. She broke my heart saying it’s not the sleepy town of my imagination anymore. It’s apparently an unplanned concrete jungle now.

So that was that. But it is said that childhood dreams don’t die they just morph into something more fantastic. OK, I just made that up in case you’re wondering if that’s a Freudian quote, but that fascination with Ghoom did take a little more complex turn than just buying a house and sleeping there all day.

As years went by, my fascination with the hills grew with my many trips across the country. During one such visit to Shimla, I stood rooted to a spot not far from the Mall Road. Unable to move.

I was told it was a shortcut back to the mall as I walked around in the evening, kind of lost. And there it was right before my eyes, a bend in the wooded walking trail hanging over a valley. Even in the twilight haze, the panoramic sprawl was breathtaking. The twinkling lights far away looked like floating Chinese lanterns being chased by wayward clouds.

That was about the spot, and now for the dream that one hopes will unfold there some day.

I have a thing for books, like most people do,  and I have a thing for the hills, like any sane person should! Also, I am a compulsive buyer of books, with a reading backlog that may stretch into my next life.

Mash that and what you get is what I dream about — a quaint little bookshop in the hills. It obviously cannot be at that spot in Shimla. Somebody would have stolen it by now selling god knows what but not books one hopes.

It can be anywhere in the world, the shop just has to be on a winding hill track bend overlooking a valley.  The wood-and-glass structure would have a transparent rear wall with a sweeping view and a hanging balcony with a couple of tables. Dreams don’t cost a thing!

I have even thought of a corny name for it: The BooTea Shop! I didn’t tell you did I that there’ll be a tea corner as well. A selection of leaves (nothing too expensive) and a few pots, customers will have to brew themselves. No milk or cream, mind you.

Pay if you like for the tea, it will be voluntary, but there will be one strong rider: You will be expected to buy a book if you have spent 45 minutes in my store. I’ll know if you try to cheat and then I’ll let you go, but you will never be allowed in, again!

The mezzanine floor will have a section of second-hand books and music collections with special emphasis on ghazals and country music.

The top floor will be my home. I’ll need an assistant to run the shop if you’re interested. Let me know!


PS: The Ghoom memory was triggered by this beautiful peace by author Anuradha Roy: A Shop of One’s Own

Jaane bhi do yaaron…

My apologies. This tribute to Om Puri is so late now that perhaps it’s already time for him to be reborn! But do read for legends never die and it’s never too late to write about them…

Shabana Azmi was right, wasn’t she?  Pic credit: Times of India

That pockmarked face with blazing eyes had dared to dream of becoming an actor in an industry that ran on star power and “face value”, and Om Puri had neither.

Naseeruddin Shah, his friend of 40 years since their NSD days, recalled in a television interview how their co-star in several parallel films, Shabana Azmi, had looked at an old photo of the two friends and had jokingly commented: How could such ugly men even think of becoming actors!

Indeed. How could they?

The answer was beautifully captured in an ad on Doordarshan in the late eighties or perhaps early Nineties. One vaguely remembers it was an ad for a scooter and went something like this:

Om: Log kahte thhe tum actor nahi ban sakte…lekin mujhe apni kabiliat par pura bharosa tha…

Technician: Sir, shot ready hai

Om: Dekha? Ab sir kahte hain!

Om Puri carried the aspirations of the Average Joes of an entire generation on his shoulders and this ad tried to cash in on the success of this man, who was making waves in an industry that valued an actor’s looks more than his or her acting skills. His success was an inspiration not only to struggling actors but people in general.

He did not even have the advantages that his friend Naseer had — “charm and impeccable English” as Om himself had put it in an interview.

But what he had was confidence — as he says in that ad — in his ability as an actor. The ability to transform himself on stage or in front a camera to be the characters we came to love over the years.

From the angry cop in Ardha Satya to the likeable buffoon in Hera Pheri, from the rickshawala in City of Joy to George in East is East, Om Puri has left his footprints in English films as much as the parallel cinema movement of the 70s and 80s and of course regular Bollywood fare.

But those who knew him closely say his global fame sat lightly on him, to the extent that he appeared quite oblivious of his colossal status in the world of cinema. He was proud of his work but had no airs about him — an uncomplicated, emotional and down-to-earth Punjabi man who had his own flaws like any human being.

The son of a railway man, he is known to have washed dishes at a tea stall and scrounged around for pieces of coal fallen from steam engines on the tracks to help run his family’s kitchen fire. Such humble beginings kept him rooted and helped him effortlessly portray those raw emotions on screen that left us spellbound.

In Satyajit Ray’s TV film Sadgati based on a Premchand short story, Puri’s silent portrayal of the untouchable Dukhia’s pain, suffering and his impotent rage at being exploited by the Brahmin remains etched in one’s memory and so is Ardha Satya’s angry cop Anant Velenkar’s fury when he mercilessly beats up a thief in lockup while the audience sees through Anant’s eyes that he is thrashing his own demons.

But Om Puri was not just about raw emotions, he could also make you laugh. Slapstick comedy came as naturally to him as any of his serious roles and he did it better than those who were known for such roles.

Recall Ahuja in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron in that epic stage sequence where he enters in Bheem’s costume still wearing his goggles. “Oye baat to maine apne baap ki nai suni tu cheez kya hai?,” Ahuja deadpans when asked by Arjun, “Bheem kya tum bhratha Yudhisthir ki baat nahi sunoge?”

A crooked Punjabi businessman, who loves his tipple, played to the hilt by a Punjabi bloke who loved his booze. Recall another legendary scene where a drunk Ahuja thinks the dead civic official D’Mello’s (played dead in the entire movie by Satish Shah) coffin is a sports car! Om lifts this over-the-top slapstick sequence to another level, making us believe that Ahuja was indeed capable of such stupidity.

That was 1983. His knack for comedy remained largely unutilised– barring that memorable DD satirical series Kakka Ji Kahin where he plays a political fixer– till we get to see him in a string of comedies such as Hera Pheri and Golmaal.

The versatility of Om Puri’s craft is matchless, even his legendary college buddy Naseer doesn’t come close. And we haven’t even touched the body of his work in international films, which is for a later post.

Om Puri was born to be an actor. Like Naseer says in one of his interviews that Om credits me with bringing him into films, but the fact is: “Om jahan bhi hota Govind Nihlani usse zameen khod kar nikaal lata.”

Manna from heaven

I know it’s a clichéd headline, but what else can you say for the owner of a made-in-heaven voice? For me, the essence of Manna Dey is captured in his two songs that are linguistically, musically and emotionally poles apart but cover two ends of the melody spectrum he ruled for nearly 50 years.

Manna-deyThe songs are Laga chunri mein daag and Coffee House er adda. The first is a masterly rendition of a classical-based playful number pulsating with energy that makes me go in a trance. The beautiful words penned by Sahir Ludhianvi is layered — naughty and philosophical at the same time.

At one level it is about a woman afraid of returning home with a stained chunri after a rendezvous with her lover. But at another level it says — “wo duniya mere babul ka ghar, ye duniya sasural” — and hence the stain on her chunri can also be compared to the worldly sins that stain one’s soul.

Sorry couldn’t help digressing there! But you only have to close your eyes and hear Manna unleash this torrential number now going berserk with the sargam and suddenly restraining with a tonal inflection bringing to life every poetic nuance of Sahir’s masterly woven lyrics.

And on the other end of Manna’s spectrum is the melancholic, pining-for-the-past melody Coffee House er adda. The song penned by Gauriprasanna Majumdar recounts the Coffee House days of seven friends, who sat over endless cups and cheap charminar cigarettes burning between their lips with dreams to make it big.

But life has taken a toll on them, DSouza is now dead, Amal is dying of cancer, Rama is in an insane asylum betrayed by his lover, Sujata is married to a rich man, Nikhilesh is in Paris and Moidul has gone back to Dhaka. The seventh friend is the unnamed narrator pining for the old carefree days of Coffee House.

There is not a time when I don’t get a lump in my throat listening to this song. The pain in his voice makes you die with DSouza, the guitarist of Grand Hotel, it makes you suffer as Amal, the failed poet, it makes you stare at nothingness like the insane Rama, the love less, failed actor.

I can imagine a concert tonight in heaven where Manna will join the already departed trio that made the famous quintet of Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore and Manna.

Manna in heaven, sing in peace.

PS: Uploading the two songs. Enjoy!

John Doe

It wasn’t just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day. Even the cat. “Shoooh!” he cried, but the cat ignored him and continued to stare at the bloodied mess on the floor, then looked at him and purred as if to ask, “Well, What now?”

“You have any ideas?” he hissed at the cat. The feline didn’t seem to have any good ideas either, so it turned away, and thoughtfully walked to a corner taking its place next to a shattered vase.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he thought. “Not on my off day, I get only one day in a week for god’s sake.” The cat nodded in agreement and made that stupid noise that cat’s make when they have nothing better to do, which irritated him more.

He cursed the cat again and it just stretched its neck, yawned and went right back to ignoring him. A decidedly wisely look came upon its furry face as if it was chewing on the messy problem slumped on the floor.

Now the thing with a mess is it can be cleaned up, provided you wanted to. He remembered reading something to that effect somewhere back in the days when he read to relax instead of smoking up.

Meanwhile, the blood-soaked problem on the floor was silently crying out for his attention, and increasingly he was finding it difficult to ignore it anymore.

Even the cat was restless. It got up to take a closer look at the crisis at hand and slowly lowered itself next to it, whiskers quivering with what seemed to be anticipation.

The bright noon sun peeping through the curtains, finally shook him out of his reverie. He really needed to do something about the mess. So off he went looking for a beer in the fridge.

The long swig on an empty stomach jolted him, and cleared his mind, sort of. But he was still holding the beer bottle and had to finish that first. Besides, he needed to think some more. He blinked several times in the hope of seeing the mess on the floor disappear on its own leaving behind just the empty beer bottles, newspapers and cigarette butts lying about as usual.

“He could have just let me win, stupid bugger,” the man muttered angrily to no one in particular, but the cat nodded all the same.

He felt sad though. They were friends for a long time and he was a constant companion where ever he went. Even in office. In fact, he was his only friend. And now even he is dead. People around him just die, he often wondered if that was strange.

At the back of his mind he always knew that his friend was better than him in everything and secretly hated him for it. “He always got the girl even when I spoke to her first. Even in office, on rare occasions when the boss liked my work he took the credit. And when something went wrong the boss never believed that he fiddled with it and introduced the errors. Good riddance. I don’t even want to talk about the other times when he made me look stupid.”

The man felt dumb whining about his friend’s meanness to the cat who seemed to be giving a sympathetic hearing, occasionally twitching his whiskers in agreement.

He was looking at the cat indulgently when a thought popped into his head, could it be this cat, which is not even his cat that is behind all this? And he shot a menacing look at the animal. This time the feline didn’t ignore the threat and moved swiftly just as the empty beer bottle crashed at the place it was perched till a moment ago. The cat was giving him a wary look now, ready to leap again, just in case.

“Damn! More mess. I should just burn this place down,” he thought. “Yeah!” The idea appealed to him and his eyes lit up.


The man woke up to a stench of burnt flesh, feeling very thirsty. He tried to look around and felt stabs of pain all over his body as he tried to move. “Where am I?” he thought as his eyes took in the sight of what looked like a hospital ward.

The attending nurse came rushing seeing the John Doe move for the first time in two days. “Can’t you hear? Give me some water,” he cried at the top of his voice. But the nurse seemed not to hear and kept leaning closer.

It was then that horror struck. Through the corner of his eyes he saw his friend standing, petting a cat and sporting a mysterious smile. “He should be dead,” the man cried out in horror, “why’s he here, and that cat, that cat…” A weary calm descended on him as the room grew darker. He closed his eyes and wondered if he was dying.

Bollywood’s Gentleman Villain takes his final bow

It was the stylish way in which he was spotted putting a pan in his mouth and chewing it with relish that got him his first role as a villain in his debut 1940 film Yamla Jat. From that moment onwards Pran Krishan Sikand aka Pran never looked back.

This anecdote comes from film journalist Bunny Reuben’s biography of the legendary actor with a quirky title — ‘…and Pran’. An apt title for the life story of a man who, despite never playing the hero in hero-centric Bollywood films, ruled the roost, to use a cliche, so much so that the film credits actually read …and Pran. 

Rest in peace.