Ghoom Station

That Darjeeling hides in its folds a town called ‘Ghoom’ came as a revelation to me as a kid 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 (those who prefer sea to hills are crazy). And 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.”

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.

When I wrote this piece two years ago, Mehdi was already ill and bed-ridden. Writing it I dreaded the day when the Emperor of Ghazals will sing no more. Today is that day. It’s a shame that I am recycling this tribute instead of writing a new one. Those who know me know what his ghazals mean to me and they would expect me to write something new. My apologies to them. But the only way I can explain the reason for re-blogging this is a couplet by Faiz which he wrote in another context: “Duniya ne teri yaad se begana kar diya, tujhse bhi dil fareb hain ghum rozghar ke…”

Coalemus's Column

Mehdi Hassan first revealed himself to me through one of my friends in college. I may have heard him before as a kid at home but my fascination with the Emperor of Ghazals began one lazy late afternoon in my first year in college.

We were through with our daily dose of chai, samosas, cigarettes, girls, sex and politics it seemed. There was a sudden hush at our table in the canteen.

Abhishek believed that the best way to fill such a silence was through songs, especially ghazals. So he began humming a Jagjit Singh number. Soon it turned into a mehfil and slowly those who thought ghazals were boring left leaving only a few of us at the table.

It was then that Abhishek began singing “Ranjish he sahi” — one of Mehdi’s most popular ghazals that even those with passing acquaintance with his ghazals would know.

But lightning…

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A Macao beyond casinos

Courtesy — This travel piece on Macao was published in my newspaper the Mail Today.

There’s more to Macao than casinos and gambling. Of course you could do all that this Chinese principality is famous for. But you could also do a lot more than just living in the lap of luxury and buying a lot of chips at the dime a dozen casinos.

The only reason I spent some time fooling around with the slot machines in the casinos was because they allow smoking inside. It helped that I won a few Hong Kong dollars while puffing!

But if you are a serious high-roller unlike me, you already know your mind and must have a table booked at the acres of gambling space that every five star hotel seems to have.

Read on if the gambling chips are just one of the distractions you have in mind.

First things first, if you’re an Indian you don’t need a visa to travel to Macao. It’s almost like travelling within the country except you have to go via Hong Kong. And from there it’s just across the channel an hour’s ferry ride away.

It’s a pity that there are no direct flights from India yet to this exotic former Portuguese colony.

The Senado Square.

A ride from the ferry terminal to any of the hotels downtown could take you through many cities of the world. One moment you could be in Lisbon with its cobbled wavy sidewalks, a few minutes later you could be passing through a narrow street of north Calcutta with iron grilled balconies jutting out of multi-storey houses even as Las Vegas looms on the horizon right ahead with its glitzy facades of casinos.

Macao is a beautiful example of East meets West and they even have a word for it — Mackenese. It not only defines the people of mixed Portuguese and Chinese origin here but also signifies a fusion of cultures that is truly international.

For instance, the Mackenese cuisine is a mouth watering blend of Portuguese and Cantonese style of cooking with Indian, African and Latin American influences thrown in – thanks mostly to the  sailors who roamed the continents is search of spices.

This blend of East and West has also given Macao its unique architectural heritage where you could find baroque style churches from the colonial era stand a stone’s throw away from Taoist temples from the Ming dynasty.

Even the road signs are written in Portuguese and Mandarin with the former being the official language despite Macao’s status as a special administrative region of China much like Hong Kong.

For a city that is often called the Las Vegas of the East because of its flourishing casinos, Macao has something to offer for every palette and not only of the culinary kind of which there’s a lot to explore.

But you must work up your appetite before you embark on a gastronomic adventure. Take a walk downtown to Senado Square – the heart of the city — a pedestrian paradise paved with a mosaic of wavy patterns typical of Portugal.

This Unesco world heritage site, one of the most popular tourist haunts in Macao, can take you on a journey to the past with its colonial buildings on both sides of the square and the yellow façade of St Dominic’s church at the opposite end.

Of course the red Mcdonalds signage and the backdrop of modern high-rises will pull you back to the here and present.

The ruins of St Paul's church

Within a short distance from the square lies another landmark of Macao – the ruins of St Paul’s – a 17th century Jesuit church. The burnt out church of which only the façade remains sports a haunting look despite hundreds of tourists milling about.

Together, these ruins and the famed Senado Square are perhaps the most photographed sites in Macao. These two are among the more than two dozen heritage sites that dot the city state so take your pick and don’t miss any of them. From the Penha church built atop the Colina da Penha to the famed A-Ma temple dedicated to the goddess of the sea-farers and fishermen and of course the mount fortress housing the Macao museum.

If you’re feeling a little peckish by now walk right down the steps of the ruins you came up and into the market place lined with shops selling all kinds snacky items. The best part is most shops allow you to taste the snacks for free irrespective of whether you’re buying any of them.

So go right ahead and pick up an almond cookie fresh from the oven or if you’re a meat lover ask for a slice of the spicy pressed pork on display.

Encouraged by our loveable tour guide Alorino, I had my fill of the freebies walking down from one end of the market to the other. And yes, don’t forget to sample the pork chop bun that is Macao’s favourite snack when you visit the Taipa food street along the Rua do Cunha.

Apart from the street food, there are a host of dining options one more richer than the other in terms of culinary experiences. You could take your pick from local Mackenese and Portuguese to Chinese, Italian and African cuisines.

Among the most memorable dining experiences was at chef Antonio Coelho’s restaurant in the Taipa village, which finds a mention in the Michelin food guide. Antonio being a Portuguese specializes in the cuisine of his homeland.


Amid several rounds of red and white wine from his country, he served a lavish spread of seafood, and meat preparations. But the best he reserved for a special Portuguese desert that he prepared right in front of us in the dining hall. Watching a chef at work is a delight that even a less enthusiastic foodie like me found mesmerizing.

And like a true performer he even showed us the trick of opening a champagne with a sword. Of course he chose one of the pretty girls from our group as an assistant to demonstrate the trick!

Gorging on food and sightseeing apart, one should not miss the other entertainment options that make Macao a complete entertainment destination for a family, which the Macao government is keen to promote to the world.

The variety show Cirque de Soleil, the 3D film show at the Macao Science Centre and the lavishly choreographed House of Dancing Water extravaganza by Franco Dragone that opened only a couple of weeks ago should not be missed.