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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Tales from the Baltic

Stranger in the town

Judging by the curious looks I was getting, I had this nagging suspicion that this 13th-century Baltic sea town doesn’t get too many foreign visitors.

Walking around in this medieval town of Stralsund, I failed to spot a single face that looked like an outsider apart from my own that occasionally bounced off the mirrored shop fronts.

If there were tourists from outside of Germany from the rest of Europe I couldn’t tell, but your’s truly did stand out in the crowds as an odd man out.

Walking up to the Old Town Square in Stralsund. See Panaroma (right) for more pictures.

Feeling rather strange from all the curious looks I was getting — more so because I was walking around with two distinctly German-looking Germans — I decided to share my views with my friends.

“I seem to be the only non-German around here,” I told my friend Andrea. She smiled and said, “Could be. This is a very German holiday destination. Not too many foreigners come here.” Her boyfriend Wilko smiled in agreement.

My suspicions were confirmed when we walked into a shop . The cheerful elderly lady at the counter asked Andrea something and I could make out from her reply that she was introducing me as a friend from India. “She doesn’t get to see too many Indians around,” Andrea said and I thought that was an understatement!

So once my unique presence was established and I came to terms with it, I could now focus on sight seeing in this picture-perfect town that appeared caught in a time warp with occasional modern intrusions.

We were now in the heart of the old town or the Old Market Square (Alter Markt) with the Gothic town hall and the imposing St Nicholas’ church standing guard. My mind wandered off to a different world trying to imagine this market place abuzz with merchants, sailors and fisherfolk milling about.

My reverie was broken by the church bells that rang as a newlywed couple walked out hand in hand and posed for their wedding photographer. On that bright sunny day this medieval town square looked straight out of a children’s story book.

I clicked away furiously with my camera  not quite getting enough of the sight.

After a while, having checked out the imposing cathedral and the town hall, we decided to take a stroll down one of the streets leading to the sea front.

There lay the Baltic sea in all its azure glory. The Ozeaneum — a marine life museum — stands on the sea front shaped  like a concrete-and-glass ship while a real vintage German navy ship from the first world war floats anchored on the harbour.

Soaking in the sight we posed for very touristy photo ops and I tried to capture in vain the deep blue sea in the backdrop of the anchored white ship with my rather unprofessional camera.

Wilko and Andrea in front of the Town Hall.

The sun was quite up by now and we were feeling a bit peckish and beerish as well. And along came wafting on the salty sea breeze a mix of meaty and fishy aromas. My tickled nostrils fought with the smell of fish fries to pick up the meaty aroma trail as we walked to the nearest takeaway joint floating on channel.

My friends settled for fish fries and I chose a schnitzel (cutlet sort of) and we clinked the beer bottles. Refreshed, we walked back into the town.

Soon it was time to say good bye to beautiful Stralsund and move on to our original destination —  the Ruegen island across the bay — for a day of camping in the forest.

Coming up soon: An encounter with Raging Roland!

Believe it or not!

If the Americans have one Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, we have three.

The only difference between Mr Robert Ripley’s cartoons and the Indian versions is that there’s nothing to see, you’ve got to hear them to believe – or not.

The oldest of the three but not necessarily the most famous is Beni’s Believe It Or Not!

Named after a septuagenarian Congress survivor from UP, the protagonist has a penchant for putting both his feet in the mouth and on a good day only spits out colourful abuses at his political adversaries.

But on a bad day, Beni could blast his own PM calling him too old to rule or invoke the EC’s wrath by treading on the same “model” path that a fellow Congressman had followed and fallen.

Giving him competition is a regal Congressman from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh with his own series — Diggy’s Believe It Or Not.

Now this character is in a different mould. Diggy doesn’t believe in treading on anyone else’s path not even his party’s path, he walks alone.

For instance, in a city like Delhi, if his party hurriedly walks away from a landmark building called Bathla House he chooses to walk towards it.

Some say there’s a method to his madness which they say is chalked out at a certain house on a certain street in the Capital.

But the piece de resistance of course is Didi’s Believe It Or Not. It could also be Didi’s comedy show, but let’s not be too uncharitable.

Our Didi has gone on from being an agitator to a perpetually agitated chief minister who is paranoid about even looking to her left.

So much so that she blamed the death of infants in government hospitals on the Left rule saying the kids were conceived before she came to power!

Courtesy: This article was published in the Whiplash column in my newspaper the Mail Today.


A Mafia thriller called NRHM

Courtesy: This article appeared in the Whiplash column of Mail Today

As most scams go this one too had money meant for the poor plundered by politicians, bureaucrats and middleman.

It goes by the name of National Rural Health Mission Scam or the NRHM scam as it is lovingly called by the media and other stakeholders – the accused, the suspects, the investigators and those politicians who couldn’t be a part of it.

The scam took place in Mayawati’s Uttar Pradesh where a huge chunk of central funds meant for the healthcare needs of the people of the state disappeared, as always, without a trace.

And then like in all scams the CBI was called in to investigate.

If you have read this far you must be yawning and telling yourself “yes I know” that’s pretty much how most scams appear then disappear from public memory till a new one catches attention.

One would have moved on too had it not been for an event at a place called Lakhimpur Kheri that suddenly grabbed attention.

A state health department clerk, an accountant to be precise, was found dead on Wednesday – officials refused to call it a murder till the autopsy report says so.

A minor event till you realize that this is the sixth “unnatural death” reported one after the other in the past one year of those being investigated in the NRHM scam.

Four of them were doctors, one engineer and the latest victim is a lowly clerk whose wife alleges that a CBI team had come to meet him before he disappeared a week ago.

The wife also alleges that his superior was pressuring him to sign certain files related to the NRHM scam and that he felt his life was in danger.

Six deaths – two murdered, one found dead in his prison cell, one kills himself, another dies in an accident and the latest one has murder written all over him.

Sounds like a Bollywood potboiler or a Mario Puzo mafia novel in which the don eliminates at will all those who could spill the beans against him.

Could this really be the case?

PS: In the absence of an original post taking the easy way out!

The man with the golden voice

My hostel roommate walked in and saw me juggling with a cricket ball while Jagjit played in the background. He wore a mischievous smile and said, “Isi tarah Jaggu dada hamare dilon ke saath khelta hai.”

In hindsight I feel his ghazals did just that — play with our hearts. At least two generations of spurned, broken-hearted or unrequited young lovers would vouch for that!

So the news of his death this morning somehow took me back to that day in my hostel and to many such days we spent idling in the college canteen singing his ghazals one after the other. Needless to say some lovelorn old fool would start it!

Those were the times when you flaunted your knowledge of his ghazals by pointing out the albums which surprisingly had English titles such as Milestone, Insight, Someone Somewhere or Face to Face.

By the time I got hooked on to Jagjit Singh in the mid-nineties, he had already sung most of his greatest ghazals that he will be forever known by — sarakti jaye hai rukh se naqab, kal chaudhvi ki raat thi, ye daulat bhi le o ye shohrat bhi le lo — to name only a few.

Perhaps the only significant addition to his mind boggling repertoire in the later years was his scintillating collaboration with Gulzar that came out in the form of Marasim in 1999-2000. Even that was more than a decade ago.

This thought that Jagjit was already in his late fifties and had sung nearly all of his greatest ones by then occurred to me only today while reading up on him on the Net.

Yet when we listened to him in those hopelessly lonely nights each of us felt he was singing just for us. When he rendered a line like “jaatey jaatey wo mujhe ek achi nishani de gaya umr bhar dohraunga aisi kahani de gaya” it felt as if our pain had found music.

I couldn’t vouch for our counterparts in the metro cities and those who grew up on pop and rock, but for those of us who grew up in small-town India the fact that we in our late teens and early twenties related to the music of a man older to us by more than three decades was a phenomenon in itself.

Not surprisingly Jagjit is credited with bringing ghazals from the rarified strata of the connoisseurs to the ears of the masses.

Though they say there is no dearth of ghazal singers, I believe that this style of gayaki in the Indian subcontinent stood on three legs — two in Pakistan,  Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, and one in India.

Mehdi can’t sing anymore, Jagjit won’t sing anymore and may the powers keep Ali singing for as long as he can.

PS: I was never too fond of the Jagit-Chitra duets so didn’t mention her though to be honest there are a couple of ghazals where she’s on a par with the master!

An unfinished tale…

Most wives are married to their husbands. Mine is married to my money. Well, that’s not a complaint really, just a statement, or an observation if you like.

The funny part is I like her and even loved her once. But that was before, when we were just friends. Then we fell in love and got married.

Now I just like her. Mostly because she is so honest about her intentions I mean she doesn’t say it in so many words, but makes it very clear. Of course she makes it a point to say how much she loves me but I think we both know what she means. Told you, she loves my money!

Again, I’m not complaining, just stating a fact.

It’s good in a way you know you need someone to spend your money. So I let her do what she does best and I do what I do best – tell stories. How do you think I made all this money?

But I’ll let you in on a secret – I feel no ownership for this money, because I don’t have to sweat for it. All I do is sit at home in my air-conditioned cubicle and jab away at the keyboard of my computer. And the AC is as you know meant to keep you from sweating. So no sweat and a lot of money!

People tell me that writing stories and novels must be such a demanding exercise. Not many people can do it. I tell them “Yeah I am kind of lucky. Not many people can make so much money just by writing.” Although, I bet there must be many people who can write, and much better than those like me who make money out of their writing.

Contrary to what people say, what I do is not demanding at all. Sometimes I feel like a typist who’s taking notes from someone. I feel like a real ghostwriter – someone who takes notes from a ghost. I like to think that the ghost who dictates the stories is not the spirit of a successful writer, but someone who never managed to get hold of a publisher. So I am his (it could be her as well) medium through which this person, the ghost I mean, is telling his untold stories.

Good for him and good for me. It would have been quite a strain on my brain if I had to think up all that I have ever written.

It’s not that I never thought up anything. There are times when this ghost writer goes through a block and clams up. Then I have to put on my thinking cap and I do sometimes come up with nice lines but that is nothing really. That’s just filling in the blanks. And I can’t do that for long because soon my mind is blank and aching and I am left staring at the blank computer screen. Then I go back to waiting for the good ghost to start thinking for me again.

Wait, I think my wife has come back, home I mean. And boy she looks loaded, with expensive-looking stuff of course, after all she was away the whole day, shopping I assume. By the way did I tell you that my wife used to be very pretty? Well, my friends say so and even strangers seem to say it with their eyes that she still is.

But anyway she’ll walk in now, give me a hug from behind and say something as inane as: “I got this most amazing pair of shoes, it’s lovely and costs almost nothing!” And I would say “I am sure” with the minutest hint of sarcasm, which rarely goes undetected.

She’s a brain and a half, an exquisitely smart woman who left me for my money. Sometimes I wonder why she pretends to be dumb saying all these inane, stupid things. Guess she tries to provoke me into reacting.

“Yes baby you were saying?” “Nothing” she says.

Now this word, isn’t it like a transparent glass wall which you realize is there only after you’ve banged your nose against it? By now I have understood that when a woman says nothing it means there’s something and that something she’ll expect you to figure out. How? That’s your problem and you’re damned if you don’t.

“So what else did you buy just the shoes?” I ask in a rather lame attempt to peep around the “nothing” to see if there’s something. But it’s not the right time it seems.

My wife has gone to cool off. She stomped out saying a lot of things and the gist of which is I am a downright insensitive person and that I don’t care about her anymore. Which is true – I really don’t care about her but I take offense to being called insensitive because I am not. I am very sensitive and take it personally if someone calls me insensitive.

Sometimes I really feel I should put an end to this. But like I said I used to love her.

Today is my wife’s funeral. Sad day. It’s raining like crazy and her relatives are still crying. Even the heavens are sad over this untimely death, they are saying. I had to agree with them because I got this sneaky feeling that they are eyeing me with suspicion.

Disclaimer:- Wrote this nearly an year ago in a state of absolute drunkenness in the middle of the night then forgot all about it till I found it on my laptop while deleting old files some days back. This “Unfinished tale” has nothing to do with any person living or dead, least of all me!