Imaginary conversations

One of my favourite pass times is holding imaginary conversations with people. Only rarely are these conversations happy.

Mostly because they are with people who’ve made me unhappy in some way or with those whom I have unwittingly hurt. These conversations are a great way of setting things right.

Things that I should have set right but didn’t or couldn’t because I either lacked courage or the will to do it.

It’s like a replay of the real events, only this time it plays in your head and turns out just the way you wanted it to instead of the way it actually happened.  So there you are changing an event that has happened already.

For instance, you acted like a coward in the afternoon on the metro when you didn’t stand up to a creep trying to feel a girl half his age and then you spend the rest of the day giving shit to that bastard — in your mind.

I wonder if this happens only to me.

Such imaginary talks are not always grim though. Some times they are funny too. Funny at my expense!

For example, that smart one-liner that didn’t come at the right moment and you said something dumb instead. It’s only later that the right repartee comes and then you replay the scene again with the right lines and imagine the reaction.

So you see these little talks that I have with myself are a great leveller. They help me redeem myself a bit in my own eyes even though in my heart of hearts I know what a coward or a dumb ass I am.

I could write a PhD thesis on imaginary conversations. I am kind of an expert on that. Been at it since my childhood. I can even classify them.

They are broadly of three kinds — post-incident, pre-incident and those that in most likelihood will never happen in real life.

Out of the three variations I can’t quite say which one is the most frequent in my case but quality-wise I would say the last category is the most satisfying.

Mostly because in an imaginary conversation that you know is never going to take place you’re in complete control — of the setting, of the topic and even your opponent (for want of a better word) since you are the script writer.

But it is also the most tricky of the three variations. You have to be completely honest and fair because there will always be the temptation to make you easily win the imaginary war of words.

So as the scriptwriter of the conversation you have to act in all fairness. But if you fall prey to the temptation it will leave you with a sense of dissatisfaction. You would know that you didn’t give the other person a chance. This insider’s knowledge will take away the zing from your victory.

I mostly win such a conversation or argument, but I like to think that I always give my adversary a fighting chance based on my idea of the person and his or her argumentative abilities.

But it becomes trickier if you are talking/debating/arguing with a person you don’t know. That is exactly what I have been doing the whole day.

I have a job interview tomorrow and I have already played it out in my mind. I have even put an imaginary face to my interviewers and as you can guess I have managed to impress them!

The only hitch is I am about half-a-day away from the interview and not in a very relaxed mood. At least not as relaxed and confident as I have imagined myself to be the whole day at the imaginary interview played out between my ears.

The twits don’t like him

Once upon a time there was a novice politician who liked to tweet. But the twits of Indian politics didn’t like him or his tweets.

This young politician (in a country where geriatrics rule being under 60 is young) and his tweets made them uncomfortable.

They didn’t like it from the moment he let it be known that he wants to dirty his feet in the muddy waters of Indian politics.

But he was the blue eyed boy of the queen mother and her son, who have learnt to float on this muddy water without getting dirty. So our young politico entered gingerly into the choppy and dirty waters of Indian politics.

People saw in him a refreshing change compared to the dyed in the wool politicians they are used to seeing. His high-flying diplomatic career gave him a squeaky clean image (presumably) and a glamorous edge over run-of-the-mill politicians.

Poor Mr Novice, he was more used to seeing Western politicos speak their mind living in the US of A most of his life in that hugely tall building in the Big Apple with flags from 191 countries fluttering on its facade.

He thought he could do the same here. But alas in a country where a politician’s idea of reaching out to the masses is  giving a speech from a podium, his tweets challenged the tradition.

Our khadi-wearing or saffron-clad twits found his tweets seriously challenging the status quo. No one is allowed to disturb that.

Granted, in his over enthusiasm he did cross the line once in a while but give him a break he is just learning the ropes. He is just learning how to say things you don’t mean and mean what you don’t say.

They got him the first time when he chose to stay in a five-star hotel paying his own bills. No sir you couldn’t do that living in luxury when a quarter of the country goes hungry everyday.

Then there were more tweets and more noises but Mr Novice has been getting away all this while saying sorry here and there for his tweets and generally because he had the blessings of the queen mother.

But looks like this time the twits have got him. His girlfriend it seems has a stake in a newly formed cricket club that our man, a smooth-talking non-politico twit who shares his name with a monster says, helped her get.

Now don’t ask me how that makes our Mr Novice guilty of anything I’m yet to understand. All I know is that the country is choc-a-bloc with khadi-wearing twits who made their millions right from guns to coffins.

There’s even a twit who bulldozed his way into the Loya Zirga of Indian cricket when he saw that a bad-English speaking business man had filled its coffers.

No one challenges him. There are scores of such twits but they will continue to rule the roost while our man will pray the price.

Mr Novice should really get back to writing novels. The sharks in the choppy waters of Indian politics would rip him apart.

Lost in Venice!

Last night I was watching an eerie seventies movie called ‘Don’t Look Now’. This Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie psycho thriller was shot entirely in Venice.

It beats me why a goosebump-inducing film should be shot in paradise. Nevertheless sweeping shots of the city with its green-domed churches and the Grand Canal brought back memories of a weekend spent in Venice last year.

As Sutherland and Christie walk hand-in-hand through Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square, the most popular hotspot of Venice, I was transported to the courtyard swarming with pigeons in front of the St Mark’s Basilica.

It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon, but we were tired, hungry and lost wandering aimlessly in search of an elusive youth hostel mentioned in our guidebook. Since we hadn’t made the bookings in advance, the hotels were turning out to be too expensive with even the modest ones asking for 60 euros per night.

The ubiquitous Gondola!

Our entry to the city had begun on a sad note. Three members of our group of seven had to leave within an hour of arriving at the Santa Lucia rail station. They had mistakenly booked the return flight for the same evening instead of the next day.

What a mistake to make. We felt bad for them, it was a mood spoiler. Much of the excitement was lost.

Earlier in the day, we landed at Milan’s Bergamo airport from Berlin and on a whim decided to take a train to Venice. The central train station was more than an hour’s bus ride but it took nearly two hours because of an accident on the highway.

Bad luck it seemed had followed us into Italy.

Things had started going wrong right from the beginning when we left for Berlin’s Schonefeld airport early in the morning.

The problem was two of us had two different route maps to reach the airport. Mine, I believe, was the most accurate one but we did not take it.  Our friend from the Philippines had her way because her map appeared to show a (non-existent) easier route than mine!

After much confusion and asking around we reached the airport a few minutes late but thankfully the flight was delayed.

We grabbed a quick bite and a shot of espresso before taking the bus ride to Milano Centrale from where we took a slower Trainitalia regional train to Venice.

Train to paradise

It took an hour more than the faster Eurostars but was easier on the pocket. I somehow couldn’t give up the habit of thinking in terms of rupees even after nearly two months in Europe. So 40 euros meant about three thousand rupees, too much for a 200-km ride!

The journey from Milan to Venezia was nothing much to write about. In fact, after travelling through much of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, the Italian countryside looked quite unimpressive.

We had just crossed a town called Brescia and staring out of the window I couldn’t help thinking that the view could be from any of the richer farm lands in India. At that instant my Pakistani friend said Abhi this could be Punjab and I said ya this could be our Punjab too!

Maybe I missed something because I’m told Brescia is a beautiful historic town in the plains of Lombardy!

And so we reached Verona where we needed to change trains for Venice. Now the name Verona, does it ring a bell?

Verona

Puffing at a cigarette after nearly three hours on train, something was gnawing at me because I couldn’t quite place what it was about Verona that sounded so familiar. And then it came. Of course the city of Romeo & Juliet.

But we had only 20 minutes before the train to Venice arrived. How I wanted to see Juliet’s balcony! There is actually a 13th century villa (Casa de Giuletta) with a balcony as described by the Bard, who turned Giuletta into Juliet when he reprised the Italian writer Luigi Da Porto’s novella and made it famous.

Also, there’s a bronze statue of the fictional Juliet and legend has it that if you gently rubbed her right breast it will bring you good luck in love (no wonder I couldn’t go there!). I’m told that the right breast is shinier than the rest of the statue because of all the rubbings by the love-struck tourists!

But I write too much about a place I couldn’t see.

Finally in Venice

We reached the Santa Lucia station in Venice sometime in the late afternoon. After our unlucky friends left for Milan to catch their flight back to Berlin, we stood at the station’s courtyard overlooking the Grand Canal mesmerised by the sight of the Gondolas that we had seen only on TV.

I was reminded of the Hindi song “Do lafzon ki hai dil ki kahani…” picturised on Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman riding a Gondola in The Great Gambler.

Now what? An impromptu trip to Venice is not what sane people do. We had to find a place to stay the night.

Short on money, short on time and famished we got on to a Vaporatto — the ubiquitous water buses operating on the Grand Canal, the main thoroughfare of the city.

The Lonely Planet guidebook decided our destination — Piazza San Marco, the city centre of this cluster of 117 islands that make Venice. It is perhaps the only city centre in Europe that has no motorised traffic because Venice has no roads only waterways.

Ponte Di Rialto, the oldest bridge in Venice.

On the way, passing through many a landmark that one had heard of such as the Ponte di Rialto — the oldest bridge on the Grand Canal built in the 12th century — it began to sink in that I was indeed in Venice.

The Gondolas lolled by with cozy couples enjoying the balmy air and soaking in the romantic sights. Some had even  musicians on board in traditional attire playing violin as the couples cozied up to each other. If only I earned in euros!

And so we landed at the Piazza San Marco stop after a good 30 minute ride that took us through some breath-taking sights of this romantic city.

After a bout of photo ops and chasing the hoards of pigeons at Basilica courtyard we decided to do the rounds in search of a youth hostel mentioned in the Lonely Planet.

Wandering through the alleys, half our mind was occupied with the thought that we had to soon find a place to stay the night.

Finding the address to this elusive hostel was turning into a futile exercise. We were wondering how mails are delivered in this city where all buildings seem to be seamlessly merged with barely any numbers identifying the addresses.

The sun was dipping fast and we had to find a place soon. After a while we gave up the search and in our desperation started looking for hotels that looked comparatively cheaper. We were ready to shell out more just to dump our bags, take a shower and go out again exploring Venice with a relaxed mind.

But most of the cheap-looking hotels weren’t cheap at all and to top that were booked. Tired, hungry and nowhere to go we sat down on the steps of one of the 455 bridges that connect this city.

It was then that one of us discovered that the guidebook mentions another youth hostel. That cheered us up a little and we set out for the island of Gieudecca that finally gave us a refuge in this expensive paradise called Venice.

Cassanova’s cell

While finding our way back to the waterbus station of San Marco we walked past landmarks like the Doge’s Palace and the prison where the legendary seducer Giacomo Cassanova was imprisoned and from where he escaped, the only prisoner ever. He memoir titled “The story of my escape from the Piombi” become an equivalent of modern-day bestseller bringing him worldwide fame.

Another nugget of information I would have missed had I not overheard a tour guide telling a bunch of tourists about the Ponte Die Sospiri or the Bridge of Sighs!

Romanticised by Lord Byron, this bridge connecting the prison and the Doge’s Palace gets its name from the legend that condemned prisoners would sigh at their last view of Venice through the two windows of this enclosed bridge before being executed.

Zitelle

We reached the Gieudecca island on the other end crossing the channel and the cruize ships lined up. Our stop was Zitelle, a Sicilian friend told me later that zitelle in Italian means an old lonely woman who couldn’t get a husband!

Nice name for a place that has a church by the name of Le Zitelle which once was a refuge for young maidens who couldn’t get married. Hence the name Zitelle.

It was next to this church that we finally found refuge — the international youth hostel that charged 25 euros a night. Phew!

After a nice warm shower and a change we step out to get our dinner — our first meal of the day. And what a meal it was at an open-air place by the sea. Spaghetti with a tangy meat sauce and a potent Sicilian red wine!

The day ended well. The four of us took a walk around the island for sometime and retired for the day. The next day we left for Milan for a half-a-day in the fashion capital of Europe.

Much of Venice remains to be explored. I’m hoping there’ll be a next time!

Bidi jalaile…

The best thing about my office is our 13th-floor balcony. It gives a sweeping view of the ridge in Delhi, a portion of the Lutyens zone and the haphazard concrete jungle of Karol Bagh and Punjabi Bagh.

I like telling my friends that when the sun is about to set the vast expanse of the old houses and office buildings remind me of the  Egyptian old quarters in Cairo. Only the minarets are missing here when the sun dips into the horizon.

But of course no one believes me they say my imagination is running wild! (I have only seen Cairo on National Geographic).

So this balcony, it’s a favourite hangout for us smokers and also those who come out for fresh air but end up breathing tobacco. I feel bad for them. They have to inhale second-hand smoke!

This evening after umpteen trips to the balcony throughout the day, I went out for one last well-earned fag after rewriting three mind-numbingly bad copies on the Maoist massacre in Chhattisgarh.

Some guys were already there smoking and one of them offered me a bidi, which he had bummed off a group four staff. Yes, desperate times call for desperate measures when you’ve run out of stock. I gladly accepted the bidi, hadn’t smoked one in a long time.

Bipasha Basu performs in the song Bidi Jalaile from Omkara.

While the very mention of bidi conjures up images of a scantily-clad Bipasha swinging lustily to Bidi Jalaile (Gulzar can also write this!) somewhere in the badlands of UP, I was reminded of an incident in my third year in college when I borrowed bidis from a police constable.

It was 2.30 in the morning. We were a group of five buddies studying for our final exams in my hostel room when we smoked the last cigarette.

We had four hours to go till we hit the sack and the exams were a couple of weeks away. Since the last two weeks were the only time of the year we touched the books (not necessarily read them) it was quite crucial that we stay awake.

So off we went in search of cigarettes. It was teeth-chatteringly cold and foggy outside. But we were an optimistic lot.

Our optimism stemmed from the fact that there was an all-night tea stall just outside the campus. It catered to insomaniacs like us and attendants of patients admitted to the Banaras Hindu University medical college and hospital.

But to our horror we found the tea-stall was closed, the dense fog and biting cold ensured that we were the only ones seeking adventure that night within a million miles.

Walking back the one kilometer stretch felt longer. But as Paolo Coelho wrote in one of his crappy books that if you want something badly the whole universe conspires with you to get it or something like that, we spotted our saviours.

A group of constables and homeguards were sitting huddled in front of a flickering fire, which threatened to die anytime.

We looked at each other with bright eyes all of us thinking the same thing. Suddenly all their collective eyes were on me meaning I have to do the dare.

It was not an easy task considering cops were a menace if you were found loitering outside the campus late at night and here I was going to ask them if they had cigarettes to spare.

I approached the cops gingerly while my friends stopped a few steps behind. Clearing my throat I said “Chacha ek the bidi mili (can I get a bidi)?” in the local Banarasi dialect.

My tension eased when I saw a welcoming smile on their faces. “Aye bachha log etna raati ke kahan ghumat haua (why you kids roaming around so late in the night?,” one of them asked in a friendly tone.

By then my friends had joined me seeing the cops smiling. We told them we were studying for our exams and have run out of cigarettes.

One of the constables, who looked like the senior in the group, took out his pack of bidis and gave one to each of us. Trying to soak in the warmth of the fire we dragged on the bidis and chatted for a while.

As we were about to leave the same guy called me and gave two bidis each for the five of us.

I still remember what he said with a gap-toothed smile peeking out of his bushy salt-and-pepper mustache: “E la du the aur bidi rakha aur ache se padhai kara humre jaisan havaldar mat baniha (here take two more bidis and study well don’t become a constable like me)!”

Mehdi epilogue!

In my last post I missed out on narrating this experience I had in Berlin listening to a Mehdi Hassan song with a Pakistani friend.

I was in Germany for two months last year for a journalism fellowship. Made many friends from many parts of the world. Among them was Bilal, a journalist from Islamabad.

We hit it off from Day One. It was male bonding at its best between two guys from countries divided by a thorny border. We got along so well that his female compatriot, Sehrish, would feel left out sometimes (I hope Sehrish doesn’t read this)!

But we couldn’t help it.

With Bilal at the historic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

We had made a habit of going out for walks after dinner. It was summer and the German sun set only after 10 pm, which was a little weird for us. But after a while we got used to the sun staring at us the whole day and even at night.

The best part about those walks was we could talk in Hindi/Urdu without having to think about fellow journalists from other countries feeling left out. It was a relief from the constant chatter in English!

When you’ve made friends from across the border the talks inevitably veer towards politics, cricket, Bollywood and if you are a ghazal buff like me — Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, The emperor and prince of ghazal gayaki.

During one of those walks Bilal asked if I liked ghazals, I said of course that’s all I like. And then he threw the bomb at me, ” Have you heard Mehdi Hassan?”

I didn’t know how to reply that!

Bilal never went anywhere without his i-Pod.  If he was not chatting he would have the i-Pod plugged into his ears. But I, for some reason, had assumed that he would be listening to rock or pop or some such music which I understand very little, so never bothered to ask till the day he threw that question at me.

My initial reaction was “what an affront!” but didn’t say that. Just managed to say Mehdi Hassan is my favourite — an understatement if there ever was one.

My Pakistani friend was quite overwhelmed to know that not  only I had heard Mehdi but he was also my favourite. As a quid pro quo perhaps Bilal said he loves Jagjit Singh and of course Bollywood.

In that spirit of togetherness, Bilal offered his i-Pod to me and said “Le ye sunn agla gana Mehdi ka hai (Listen to this one it’s Mehdi’s.”

This ghazal is again one of my many favourites sung by the maestro — “Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain…”.

Instead of me listening to it alone I said let’s share the cords and listen to it together. It was not the semi-classical version I had heard, Bilal said Mehdi sang this for a Pakistani film of the seventies.

That day we walked a lot. Bound by music an Indian and a Pakistani walked through the streets of Berlin listening to a Mehdi Hassan ghazal we both loved.

PS: I am adding the classical version of the song I heard in Berlin. Notice Ghulam Ali sitting in the audience as Mehdi Hassan renders the immortal ghazal.