Saturday, September 13, 2014

TOP TEN BIRIYANIS you must try before you croak!

From the perplexing grain of culinary variations lapping across the subcontinent, if one were to pick a national dish for India, it would be sacrilegious to overlook the prospect of the ubiquitous Biryani as a strong contender with its countless variations conforming to a generous rate of not less than one from each province. There’s not another exclusive dish from the diverse cuisine of the fiery Indian palette that stands a fighting chance against this phenomenon as far as popularity and countrywide consensus goes.

If one were to superficially examine the many versions of its famously disputed origin, Biryani has two unrelated derivations, one that leans more towards the royal rearing in the Mughal kitchen and the other that it swam across the Arabian Sea to the Malabar Coast with the Arabs, and although it traditionally started off as a spicy lamb-based rice dish, there came into being, chicken, beef, egg, fish, prawns and vegetable variants of the same over time. They also spread through the length and breadth of the peninsula adapting to local tastes resulting in a range of remarkable offshoots, each speaking volumes about the province it comes from. Following is the top ten of the best regional variations available... plunge in!

10. Moti Biryani

In this biryani from the Nawabi Kitchen, the customary chunks of meat is replaced by small koftas (dumplings) made from minced meat that is first steamed and then coated with chandi vark (edible silver), and without simmering in the masala, is assembled in layers before the final baking with saffron flavored rice. These small beads of meat that melt in your mouth and resemble pearls (moti) with the silver coating, gives the biryani its name. 

9. Bhatkali Biryani

A Karnataka specialty from the Konkan coast, this variant uses more than any else, a generous amount of onion in the masala, and often cooked in the non-dum style as well. Apart from the fact that it employs curry leaves, which is a common South Indian practice; the rice here is cooked without a drop of ghee or oil! Good news for the really health conscious Biryani lovers! The only sad part is, there are very few restaurants that serve it, and to get a genuine portion, one might have to take a ride to the coastal town of Bhatkal for all you know.

8. Sindhi Biryani

This Biryani variant hails from Sindh province in Pakistan and has potatoes and prunes as characteristic departures in the ingredients, which along with mint and sour yoghurt are prepared in a spicy hot masala. The masala to rice ratio here is slightly more than any other type.
Sindhi Biryani is perhaps the most consumed dish in Pakistan and is very popular in India as well.

7. Bohri Biryani

When compared to Sindhi Biryani, the Bohri variety is more fragrant and less spicy. This type comes from the Bohra Muslim community in Gujarat, most particularly from Surat, and has largely migrated to Bombay making it a present day stronghold. Bohri Biryani is generously sprinkled with cashews and apricot, typical of the enigmatic Bohri cusine, and could only be trusted for an original right from a Bohra household.

6. Moradabadi Biryani

Coming from Moradabad, in Uttar Pradesh, known for the brass and handicraft industry, this genus is liberally dotted with cumin seeds and is hot with the zing of whole green chilies. Every essence of the taste here except the fire of the chilies is so subtle that even the change in water apparently makes a difference to the end result. Bastardized version of this type is the most popular street side Biryanis available in Delhi.

5. Kolkata Biryani

This type of Biryani from the eastern state of West Bengal, like the Sindhi and Bohri versions, uses diced potatoes along with meat and rice in addition to the regular mixture of spices used in the Nawabi Biryani of Lucknow. But Potato was initially used as a cheaper substitute for meat, which stayed on even when the patrons prospered.

4. Ambur Biryani

Coming from the Ambur region of Tamil Nadu, that essentially has more number of biryani shops per square kilometer than any other town in India, the difference in this type primarily lies in the small-grained Seeraga Samba rice that is used here as opposed to the long grained basmati rice. Here the flavors are subtle, and is more often than not eaten with a spicy brinjal curry.

3. Malabar Biryani

Variously known as Thalassery Biryani and Kozhikodan Biriyani, this Malabari variant of Biryani uses a small-grained fragrant rice (Khyma) similar to the one used for the Amburi variety, and is predominantly relished throughout the southern state of Kerala. Another important factor is the omission of yoghurt and the increasing quantity of fresh mint and coriander leaves in the meat masala. This type however has no association to the Mughals whatsoever, instead came via Arabs through the Arabian Sea.

2. Awadhi Biryani

Also known as the Nawabi Biryani as well as Lucknowi Biryani, the Awadhi kind involves the baking of alternate layers of half cooked rice and half cooked masala over slow flame. Marinating the meat is a key to make it succulent in the end. This is also the best form of the Mughlai types that has retained the ‘subtlety in richness’ of their cooking.
This subtle flavored type is also where the Kolkata variant took off along with an exiled ruler.

1. Hyderabadi Biryani

No prize for guessing this one, as this particular gastronomical delight is the only species that made it to the comprehensive Top Ten Indian Dishes you must try before you croak list. The Nizam’s of Hyderabad are credited for this lip-smacking outcome of the blend between the original Mughal recipe and the ethnic Andhra cuisine.

Now for the real Biriyani buffs, there are lot more different varieties you must dig into, just in case you haven’t already, that is! Beary Biryani, Memoni Biryani, Vaniyambadi Biryani, Andhra Biryani, Bombay Biryani, Kolhapuri Biryani, Kalyani Biryani, Cubbonpet Biryani, Ranipet Biryani, Delhi Biryani, Punjabi Biryani, Virani Biryani, Palakkad Rawther Biryani and many more including a host of non-Indian ones as well.

In addition to these there is also the Tahri biryani, which is vegetarian alternative to any of the variety mentioned above.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

BOTTOMLINE Comic Strip #11

Celebrating the bombastic Indian Stereotype...

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Cover illustration by Yasha Mushtaq Mir
It was an unsettling sight. He went asking for it, and he got it good. As he lay with his head down, blood seethed all across his back, and on it lay in a tangled pile, the carcasses of the dead sons and daughters of Niobe, all fourteen of them. She sat at the top, with an impassive face, tears spilling out and soaking into the blood lapping against her hem. Her face was twisted in a faraway gaze like that of somebody who has seen the end.  She was supposed to be as beautiful as Aphrodite, but grief veiled it all. The twins were not in sight. It was just the heap of dead bodies, and Niobe above it. Arrows that pierced the stiffs fanned out as rays all around her. The sad sight struck the end of many things, and not just the lives of the fourteen. It was all over for their mother. But she was the one who asked for it, and the twins gave it to her, right there, right then.

As each one of her darling children dropped down dead at her feet, she couldn’t meet eyes with the mother of the twins whom she had earlier outraged in public. “I got fourteen; seven sons and seven daughters, and against their might, her twins don’t stand a chance!” she had earlier scoffed from the podium. But then little did she know that the twins would call it war, and drown it all in a flood of blood. Those tears- she would shed till her very end, but the blood on his back would dry up in a day or so. One had to carefully look in order to see the details, as the lines were fresh and bleeding. He lay on the futon prostrate with the ceiling fan switched on the whole day, perhaps to cool the sting down. Tuck must be back in town. It couldn't have been anybody else. He was majorly into these big themes. The clowns who ran shop in the shacks along the beach pricking butterflies and scorpions on hippies can't hold a candle to this, because this one was a perfect tattoo, and it called for a real artist. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

BOTTOMLINE Comic Strip #10

Celebrating the bombastic Indian Stereotype...

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

BOTTOMLINE Comic Strip #9

Celebrating the bombastic Indian Stereotype...

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

BOTTOMLINE Comic Strip #8

Celebrating the bombastic Indian Stereotype...

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

BOTTOMLINE Comic Strip #7

Celebrating the bombastic Indian Stereotype...

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Thursday, June 19, 2014


At first, Rustom decided not to return to Vincent. That was not his home anyway. He even got into a bus headed for Venkaipalayam to meet his sister. But when the bus took a turn towards Punnur at the Valai Boat Jetty Junction, he changed his mind. He got down and managed to buy a ride in a chicken-carrier rickshaw that was going back to Vincent. He had to scooch next to the driver - a boy barely sixteen or seventeen years old who gladly took all the Gandhi heads that he flashed in his face. The kid apparently offered the ride for free on other days, badly in need for a company for the hour-long journey back home. He usually waited at the Jetty Junction for somebody to ask. Rustom realized in some time as to why. The boy couldn’t keep his mouth shut for long. Not speaking for an hour could drive him nuts. His name was Ali, and he drove a load of chickens down to the Jetty Market once every week for his uncle who had a farm in Vincent.
“You don’t look familiar,” he said when they were well on their way, “Have I seen you before?”
“No.” Rustom said showing little interest.
“I don’t forget faces even if it’s only for a second I saw it ever in my life. So you’re not from Vincent. Meeting someone there?”
He nodded.
“In Old Town?”
“I’m not sure.”
Rustom did not know there was an ‘old town’. Two decades ago when he left, the marketplace in Vincent was just five minutes in spread on either sides of the Main Souk road starting with a Philomena Tailors and Maurya Chits on one end, and terminating with Binny Bakery and Faraz Daruwallah’s shop of captive birds on the other. It was a small sleepy hamlet that collectively grieved the death of a neighbor’s pet with community prayers. He was there for hardly a month. Every time he picked the newspaper to check on ‘The Dorabjee Case’, he did come across the burgeoning new developments with seafood export industries cropping along the costs of Vincent every other day, a boom that was already beginning to spread its roots back in the day when he was around. In fact it was the industrial lobbyists who were responsible for his transfer, and many others’, to Vincent. It was they who steered his life towards that abysmal road of no return, a road even Vincent seemed to have taken at the time. When he left, change was everywhere, in and around Vincent, and the sheer joy of small life was visibly on its way out.
Rustom gasped for breath in the wind, as the boy drove like a lunatic.
“I know almost everybody in Old Town,” he said, “We will find out your guy even if he’s in the Paulo Area. The new district is a mess, filled with all the factory workers and office people. It could be a little difficult to fish out somebody from there. Nobody knows anybody since they're all from outside. What’s his name? The guy you’re meeting with?”
Rustom thought for a minute. Then said, “Farva… her name is Farva Bamji.”
“Bamji… Hmm… I know a Cyrus Bamji.”  He thought out loud, “A guy who runs a cycle repair shop in Old Town. Then there’s a Firoz Banajee, who’s dead now. So that’s out. Parsi people, right?”
Rustom nodded.
“Bamji… Bamji… Let me think. What does she do?”
“I don’t know what she does now. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. About twenty years ago, she worked for this woman called Gul Dorabjee. She must have been about fifty back then.”
“The Murder Case- Gul Dorabjee?”
“The dead one, right?”
“How do you know them? I mean, the Bamjis and the Dorabjees and all. Are you from some newspaper?”
Rustom remained silent, as the boy squinted at him trying to search for clues.
“That one was a nutcase, I heard- Gul Dorabjee. It was a chap from outside town who finished her.”
“He didn’t do it!” Rustom said impulsively.
The boy was surprised at his passive companion’s sudden rush of passion.
“He didn’t do it. He couldn’t have. Killing a housefly made him nauseous.”
The boy frowned. ”How do you know?” he said not taking eyes off of the road.
“He’s a friend.”
“The murderer? I mean, the guy who was tried and sent to jail?”
Rustom nodded again.
“Actually my folks knew this Dorabjee quite well. They might know Bamji as well. Farva Bamji, yes? She must have worked there during the murder then.”
Rustom was silent again.
“I heard most people were happy that she was gone. Dorabjee, that is. I mean, only the non-Parsi people… even the authorities and the city council and all, they all partied afterwards. She was a pain in the wrong place or something. Parsi people of course lost their leader. Now there are so few of them around. Back then she was there to get into fights with everybody who questioned the rights of Parsis- very unlike Parsis, if you know what I mean. They are a peaceful lot otherwise. But she messed up with the Collector and the City Commissioner every week. Can you believe it? Some activism crap and all!”
The boy went on and on about the fabled Gul Dorabjee, the mysteries surrounding whose murder found no end in the newspapers for years. He reminded Rustom of his own young days, when he talked and talked like there was no tomorrow. He used to love talking. If it irritated anybody, no one told him about it anyway. It was the Prison that muted him. Especially being in there for a crime he never committed, being on life sentence for a murder that he had no part to play in.

The long road to Vincent was still deserted except a few structures that had sprung up here and there over the years. Coconut palms lined up on either sides of the road the entire run. He saw as many coconut palms together for the first time only when he came to Vincent. He was twenty-four then, and was newly appointed as assistant engineer at the PWD. Vincent was on the brink of change. New buildings were springing up every day. Every other morning, a new scheme was flagged off. Old roads were widened, and new ones were built. The public sector expanded ominously providing ample infrastructure for the booming private sector. The new posting that brought him into the picture was to take care of a road-widening scheme that was long stalled due to public noncooperation- the controversial road widening of the Church Gate, a road that housed among many others, the humble abode of the firebrand Gul Dorabjee. Things totally spun out of control as Dorabjee who up until then brawled for reasons exclusively pertaining to her community, for the first time rose to save the Holy Trinity Church of the Mother of Vincent. The plan, per se, would not have affected the Church as such, but its course razed all the houses that stood on it, and tore through the church compound splitting the Bishop’s quarter into two. Gul Dorabjee’s fights with the system were numerous. There was an ongoing battle with the city council for procuring landmass to build an Agiary, the Fire Temple for the Parsis in Vincent as “the resident Parsis had to fly as long as Bombay for even getting married”. There was also another tussle for reclaiming land for burial grounds for Parsis. But unlike any of those causes, the movement against the widening of Church Gate road got more mileage on newspapers and other media as she was backed by the Christians as well as the Anglo Indian community of Vincent.

Rustom vividly remembered his first meeting with Dorabjee, when he went to break the news of the road widening and the demolition of the houses. She was very harsh, and extremely abusive. But then, for her, he was just the face of the adversary. She must have been a nice lady who would have welcomed him had the meeting took place in better circumstances. But sadly he only met her once more- but that was on her last day. Things were sour even then, although in a different way.

When their rickshaw reached Vincent, it was teatime. He did not recognize a single building there. If he were just passing by, he wouldn’t even have noticed that it was the same Vincent. That old Church Gate Road now housed numerous multi-storied buildings, owned by the Navrang group and other such corporate giants, which sprung on the houses of late Gul Dorabjee and her erstwhile neighbors.

Ali invited him for a tea, where Rustom met his large family, surprisingly all of who were home at that time of day. There must have been easily twenty of them counting the smallest one crawling on the floor blowing spit bubbles. It was one of his uncles, the one that owned the poultry farm, who remembered Farva Bamji as the faithful maid who had to witness the murder of her own mistress.
Rustom shuddered.
Bamji’s statement was the final nail to his coffin that was already erected by circumstantial evidences including a forced-open-door and his singular presence at the crime scene. When the whole world accused him of smothering and hanging Gul Dorabjee up on her ceiling fan, the motives were pretty hazy. But when Bamji claimed to have witnessed Dorabjee resisting his advances before the subsequent strangling, Vincent spat on him in unison. From a likely foul play of the biggies and the investors, when the motive was patently reduced to a primal instinct, Gul Dorabjee was raised to a post of the first martyr of Vincent for the wrong cause. She was an admirable woman, but her fight against injustice and the lopsided growth of the private sector was all lost in the tidbits of a sexual attack that never took place. And in the process, a clueless innocent was framed.

It was not just Ali’s uncle, but also his mother and few of his aunts who remembered Farva Bamji in the due course of the tea.
“She was a pious lady. She only went crazy after the murder,” reminisced one of them, “I have seen her roaming around the market place on the Main Souk road begging for food. I think she had a brother and a son, not that either of them could have done anything to help her in that state.”
“She must have lived like that on the road for almost a year,” said Ali’s uncle, “Then one morning she was found bleeding and dead outside the fish market having eaten half of her own hand!”
Rustom was speechless. The woman he held in great contempt all his life despite having known she was only a pawn in the big game, had paid her debts and left. He couldn’t see her as anything but heartless up until that very moment he heard of her sad end. She turned out to be the woman who knew the bearing of her sin even before she committed it. Rustom had forgiven the poor woman by the time he took leave from Ali’s house with a box of dry meat his mother packed for his journey. He did not know what he would have said even if he met Bamji anyway.

It was not the corporate companies that killed Gul Dorabjee, he knew. They only forced Bamji to testify in order to frame him when the uproar of her death began to get in the way of their plans. It was not even a well thought of resolve. They just wanted to clear up the mess and move on quickly. They cleaned up evidences that could have proved his innocence. But none of it mattered anymore. Time was served, and parole was granted.

He was the only witness to that murder, and probably the only one who knew who actually killed her, although nobody believed his story. He had tried to stop it even. Everything he testified in court was true to his knowledge. On the afternoon of that fateful day, he had gone to collect signatures from the residents on Church Road for their consent for road widening, and coax those ones that turned hostile. He was alone as Harisharan, the field boy who usually accompanied him was down with flue. Besides, he was always making up excuses to avoid working on days Rustom scouted the neighborhood as he was a resident too, and clearly did not want to antagonize his people.

Dorabjee was in a particularly cranky mood that day. Bamji was off to the neighbor to watch TV. One fact about Dorabjee that he sadly realized that afternoon, and that he had yelled at the top of his voice over and over at the court in his defense, was the fact that she was a victim of acute clinical depression, all evidences proving it however having been cleaned out from the ‘crime scene’ hence. So there was nothing to prove his story as even Bamji refused to concur. Moreover it was a fact that was easy to disbelieve given the vibrant public persona of the victim that stepped on one too many toes every day.

When he approached her on that day, without a word she had banged shut the door on his face, and as he stood watching through the window, she mounted the chair set on the coffee table, tied a noose with a bed sheet on the ceiling fan and swung down from it with great force. He heard the neck break instantly over the rickety fan that groaned for dear life. He yelled out for help and broke open the door. He was frantically trying to lift up the oscillating dead weight by which time Bamji came running in with company. But by then Dorabjee’s rattled soul, oblivious of the upshots of her final act, had escaped Vincent, thereby flagging off the road widening and the big plans that were to follow! Depression claimed her life, and that suicide cost him almost twenty years of his, and yet there he was with nobody to prove anything to after all those years of void restitution. Did anybody in Vincent even care what actually happened to Gul Dorabjee anymore? Not likely, since they all knew for a fact, it was that chap from outside town who finished her.

Rustom took a good long stroll through Vincent, and ended the visit with a nice bottle of Carla Deluxe cashew feni from the so called Old Town before taking the last bus back to Punnur not sure if there was going to be a connection bus to Venkaipalayam at that hour. But he was ready to take that chance, as he did not want to spend another night in that town. As the bus drove away, Vincent stared down at him from behind like a grumbling dark fiend, its eyes blazing fire, without waving a goodbye. He did not care much. It was not his home anyway.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Ever since the food court and restaurants on the second floor started on full-fledged, Select Citywalk was crowded on weekdays as well, but the multiplex remained less in demand after office hours, which is when we always caught up with the latest releases.  On the Wednesday of the week after Ranbir Kapoor’s Barfi released, I left my car at the office in J-Block as planned, and slowly walked to the mall as parking there was another war-cry. Cars that lined up for the basement parking there, almost always backed into the road clogging the routine traffic that shocked snails. Vasudha had just left CP by the time I reached the cinema. So I decided to hold on that thought till she gave me a positive sign, as I did not want to beg the guy at the box office to resell our tickets two days in a row. There were enough seats left if she could make it inside of half hour. I asked her to buzz me when she left Hauz Khas station and walked into the Crossword on first floor, the one place I couldn’t go in if she was alongside. I was not planning to buy any books, but browsing through them gave me the joy. It was deserted except for two or three kids hovering around the newsstand and new arrivals near the entrance. There was also a mother and daughter rummaging through the toys opposite the cash counter. I walked deeper into the literary section, pulled out a Palahniuk, installed myself on that regular red footstool in the corner, and started to flip through the pages. I must not have finished the first sentence right when I heard a hum from behind the racks- a pathetic imitation of ‘Born to be wild’. It wasn’t very loud, so to say, but with the absolute silence, the discordant tune was exceedingly clear. I read that one sentence over and over to no avail, and when I was just one moment short of rising to settle the matter, a small thin bloke in a light green T-shirt came around from the other side with a yellow cap worn front-side-back. The boy must have been around eighteen or nineteen, too young for Steppenwolf. On his shirt written in large thin font covering the entire front side was- ‘The Last Living Grasshopper’- whatever that meant! He must have noticed me trying to read it out because he stood facing me till I finished, with a creepy grin on his face. I returned to my book without acknowledging his presence. I might even have rolled my eyes a little.

Reading a bit into the book, I realized I was being watched. I first checked through the corner of my eyes to confirm. The guy was blatantly staring at me! When I looked up, he smiled again, and looked away shyly. There was something effeminate about him, which was not too evident in the typical head tilt or the limp-wrist kind of way. I tried calling Vasudha. It was pointless till she got out of the metro. The only option left was to wait, like I was already doing. I shoved Palahniuk back into the ‘P’ section and moved down to ‘W’ on the other side. There I leaned down to pull out a Marabou Stork Nightmares for a reread when I bounced into someone with my back. I turned around to apologize when I was met with the last living grasshopper’s smug face again, this time with an impish “That’s ok!”
On closer looks, the guy was older and muscular in his tiny frame, but still in his twenties. I gave him an annoyed glance and slowly moved away. I was probably overreacting, but what irritated me was the fact that he seemed to enjoy it all. In the next minute, without any further signal or provocation, he came and stood right next to me, confidently brushing against my hand. That is when I lost my temper. Saying, “What’s your problem, man?” through my clenched teeth, I yanked on his T-shirt and took him a half circle almost throwing him off balance. That minor action was all very hushed since the both of us respected the silence of the bookshop. Right at that instant he pulled out a gun and aimed at me! 
I froze. 
All my life in Delhi, I never encountered a problem like this ever before, although Jessica Lal Murder Case and such did play out in the background as someone else’s problem everyday. These kind of things, you never assume would actually happen to you. Standing at gunpoint was a scary business. But since this happened too soon, I hardly had time to process. He was standing very close to me now, digging the gun into my belly. I was still figuring out what to say. I obviously couldn’t ask him to stand away, anymore.
“You say a word, and I’ll let go off one!” he whispered into that remaining thin space left between us. He still had that slimy smile on.
“What’s wrong with you!”
“How did you get a gun inside here?”
“I said shhh…”
“What do you want?”
“Why? You gonna help me with that?”
“I mean, why’re you doing this? What did I do?”
He paused for a while and pretended like he was thinking.
“Dude, I’m not carrying cash, if that’s what you want. And I’m not wearing a watch.”
He kept staring into my face for some more time, and then said, “Who’re you waiting for?”
“Why? My fiancée.”
“I mean, what do you mean, who’re you waiting for?”
“Let her join. I’ll tell you then.”
“What do you mean, let her join? Dude, I have no clue who you are, or what you’re doing with a gun inside a mall, but you sure…”
“Hush, dummy! You raise your voice, and you know- click!”
“What do you want, man? You don’t wanna be standing her with me all night turning that thing into my stomach. What do you actually want from me?”
“Okay, then, kiss me.” he said rather casually.
“Huh?” I wasn’t sure I heard that right.
“I said kiss me, fucker!” He said pouting, and it did not look like he was kidding now.
“I’m sorry, what? No way! What the hell, dude!”
He pressed the gun harder. This time it started to hurt. The smile was gone from his face.
“C’mon, do it! Give me one, and you walk.”
At this point, I had started to shake. I was absolutely clueless.I looked over his shoulder. The cash counter was too far away. 
"Don't even think!" he said
“I’m not kissing a dude!” I told him making up my mind.
His pointy beetle-like face made my bowels retch.
“Not even for your life?”
“You’re not seriously gonna pull that thing for a kiss from another guy! That too a stranger!”
“Well, I guess, that was the whole point, right?”
"You know the kind of trouble you'd get into if you get caught with that?"
"Why do you sound all concerned all of a sudden?"
His bubblegum breath wafted all across my face.
Right then, my phone rang. Vasudha!
He did not seem troubled by it at all.
“Pick it!” he said.
I pulled out the phone from my front pocket and took the call, turning away from him.
“Bhasker, where are you? That bastard rickshaw guy dropped me on the other side of the road. He already charged me thirty bucks from the metro station. Now to just take a U-turn he said he wanted an extra ten. Bloody looters. Can we catch the show now? It must have already started, na? We’ll grab a bite from Amici then, what say? Bhasker?” she breathlessly continued, “Where are you? I’m inside already.”
“Err…Vasu… wait for me at… I mean… you’re inside, huh? The show must have… Vasu? Hello?”
I did not want to invite her to the bookshop.
“Hello? Bhasker, are you still at Crossword?”
I did not know what to say.
I turned around, and I was stunned! He was not there! I quickly checked between the neighboring racks, at the same time talking on the phone. “Vasu, I’ll meet you at Amici.”
I hung up and took a good look around the store to confirm. He was really gone. The kids near the entrance, at the newsstand and new arrivals were not there anymore. Two guys sitting behind the cash counter were chitchatting. I quickly stepped out and scanned the crowd. There was no sign of the last living grasshopper anywhere. I was still shaking. That bully could be anywhere inside the crowd, and he was carrying a gun. Or was it a real gun, even?

Amici was an Italian eatery with open kitchen just outside Crossword on the first floor, good for a quick bite. The whiff of fresh breads, cooked cheese and olive oil was in the air. Vasudha had an apologetic smile when she saw me, for making me miss the movie again. I was never more relieved to see her before. I walked up to her and hugged her good. “Oye! What’s up?” she giggled. She must have thought about my overly critical statements about public displays of affection. But she did not say anything at the time.

I looked around to see if that familiar green T-shirt was anywhere in sight. People were all over the place. The Wednesday flea market on the terrace is what brought in all that extra crowd. They moved unassumingly around the atrium, in and out of shops, up and down the escalators, laughing, yelling, slurping ice creams, texting, immersed in their mobile phones, while somewhere amongst them wandered a lunatic with a gun wearing a green T-shirt with “The Last Living Grasshopper” written on the chest in large font. Even after we moved in and grabbed on the menu cards, I’m not sure if I still felt safe. Amici was a wide open place. Shoppers were always moving past you.There was also a connection to the neighboring mall through it. He probably went that way.

Finally when we were settled, and were sipping on ice teas waiting for our raviolis, Vasudha got on with her group chat on her phone, and I was still trying to figure out what actually happened that evening. What was the whole point of the gun show? What the hell was it? Why did he pull it out in the first place if he was not planning to do anything about it? Was it just to creep me out? Or was it a reflex to my sudden attack? Was he actually gone, or was he still watching me from far? Stalking me? It simply didn't make any sense at all! Was the grasshopper something that just played out in my mind? I felt my belly. The pain from the jab was gone.

When the raviolis arrived, I craned my neck and looked around once more. Then I leaned over the wooden table and said, “Vasudha, which one was the grasshopper again, the round, beetle shaped one or the one that looked like crickets?”
She didn't know.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

BOTTOMLINE Comic Strip #6

Celebrating the bombastic Indian Stereotype...

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

BOTTOMLINE Comic Strip #5

Celebrating the bombastic Indian Stereotype...


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Monday, May 26, 2014


She had to pass through fire to prove her chastity. That was Sita’s trial. At first, having followed her husband Prince Ram to exile for fourteen years, she was condemned to a life of austerity in the jungle. Then she was abducted by the demon King Ravan, and was incarcerated in the fortified capital of Lanka. Later, following the fateful battle when she was rescued, her husband publicly asks her to prove to the world that she was untainted while in enemy custody! Consequently she undergoes Agni-Pariksha, the ordeal of fire, to prove her chastity. In the Hindu canon, this event from the celebrated epic Ramayana presents one of the most deprecating and unkind examples in the annals of sexual bigotry. This is also perhaps the first instance you sincerely frown upon the instincts of Ram, the virtuous hero of the story, for his perpetual urge to demonstrate his impeccable righteousness to the world even when it came at the cost of openly humiliating his traumatized wife who was just salvaged from capture. That Sita agreed to undergo Agni-Pariksha, and that she walked out of fire unscathed as a proof to her purity still does not underplay the sheer callousness of his demand, and no justifications can make it go. But what if it was all a part of a divine plot? What if the fire stunt was to cover up an elaborate hoax by the gods? What if the lady who went into the fire was not the one that came out? It could be quite an unsettling detail, but the many versions of Ramayana that have divinified the characters and events of the epic tale over time, features a mysterious figure called Maya Sita, the illusory Sita, who replaces the original one during the ordeal of the kidnapping through the humiliation of the fire test!

Apparently, foreseeing the event of the kidnapping, Sita was replaced in time with a divine body double that was seized and imprisoned by Ravan. So it was this substitute called Maya Sita who suffered the teases, and the taunts, and the relentless love overtures of Ravan while in captivity, not Sita. This shadowy alter ego was allegedly created by the fire god, Agni, who subsequently also provides the real Sita a hiding place in the refuge of his flames. After the bloody battle of Lanka and the rescue thereof, Sita emerges from hiding and switches place with Maya Sita in the pretext of the ordeal of fire. So the infamous Agni-Pariksha actually provides the required smokescreen for the return of the original untainted Sita going by these versions!

When it was originally written, Ram, a mere human hero, refuses to accept Sita, “the property of another man”, as he was afraid of the gossips. He wished to satisfy his followers who he assumed wouldn’t be pleased if he accepted the “maligned lady”, which is why he mentions that he had waged the war in the name of righteousness and not to reclaim her. He gives her options to marry any other prince, or do what she liked. Here his actions are defended only in terms of the duties of an ideal leader, and there is no mention of a stunt-double whatsoever to clean up the mess.

It is well known that unlike Valmiki Ramayana, the acknowledged original, many of the epic’s diverse adaptations including the canonical Adhyatma Ramayana, emphasize on the divine undertones of the story in varying degrees thereby justifying the actions of the principle characters in the name of the higher purpose set by the gods. The events in the epic, as portrayed in these various divinified versions, become a mere execution of the conspiracy of the gods to rid the world of the atrocities caused by the ten-headed demon king Ravan. Here, Ram and Sita are heavenly incarnations sent to offer, in merely human terms, first the pretext and later the solution to end this evil force. Taking all the baits set for him, when Ravan seizes Sita and imprisons her, he was in fact facilitating a motive for the final clash in which his end was preplanned. The kidnapping was an integral part of the scheme, without which there would not have been a question of any altercation between Ram and Ravan (read Good and Evil) to begin with. But in the process of the hijack when Sita, the mother goddess, was going to be ‘defiled’ by the touch of Ravan, things did not seem all that divine. It also made the goddess look too powerless. This is the place where the motif of Maya Sita gains significance. She was annexed to both save Sita of the shame of violation as well as later justify Ram’s insensitive demand for the fire trial as a comeback vehicle for the divine fugitive. According to some versions, Maya Sita, the providential scapegoat, is an incarnation of Swaha, wife of Agni, whom he offers for the greater cause of the destruction of evil. In some other versions she is the rebirth of Vedavati, who, before self-immolation and death, had sworn to be the cause of Ravan’s destruction for violating her in a previous life. Both had ample reasons to be associated with Fire, the former being his consort and the latter’s soul having ended up inside his flames after she ended her life in it.

In addition to many versions of Ramayana, Maya Sita also occurs in various other Hindu texts including Kurma Purana, Skanda Purana, Brahma-Vedanta Purana, and Devi Bhagavata Purana. Here, an elaborate plot unravels to embrace the plausibility of this phantom character. It starts with the life of Vedavati, who according to some versions is an incarnation of Goddess Laxmi while in some other accounts she is Agni’s wife Goddess Swaha. She was born to Sage Kusadhwaja and his wife Malavati. During a penance to win Lord Vishnu as her husband she was taunted by the demon king Ravan, which resulted in her taking vow to be the cause of his death in her next birth, and her eventual suicide in the fire. Then as we know, during her term as Maya Sita in the next life, she emerges from fire, replaces Sita, and achieves her life goal of being the cause of Ravan’s end. Then she retreats into fire. What happens after that, also seem to have a few different versions. In Kurma Purana during the Agni-Pariksha, having done her job, she is destroyed in the fire, and it ends there. According to Brahma Vedanta Purana, there occurs a much more fascinating and interwoven sequence of events that connects Maya Sita to Draupadi, the firebrand heroin of the epic Mahabharata. Having retrieved her through the ordeal of fire, Agni takes Maya Sita to Pushkar where she performs penance for the rest of the eon. She is reborn as Draupadi from the sacrificial fire of King Drupad of Panchala, and marries the five Pandavas, the princely quintet of Hastinapur. Therefore the cult of Maya Sita is not just confined to providing a glorified surrogate to the consort of Ram, but ends up encroaching the events of neighboring stories adding layers to the complex network of lives in the Hindu canon.

The addition of Maya Sita is undoubtedly the highest order of any add-on that ever materialized in Ramayana, a book that has been subjected over time to innumerable and often tasteless modifications to glorify the virtues of the protagonists highlighting the iniquities of their adversary. Here, at the same time as providing a clever alternative to the thinness of the divine façade, it also offers a remarkable twist in the plot. The ambiguity regarding this enigmatic figure also opens up a plethora of imaginary possibilities within this epic poem that in its current shape is otherwise crowded with merely characters that are ideal human beings making trite statements about duties and virtues in every step.
Also from the Ramayana series:


Sunday, May 18, 2014


Like many others around him, he had special powers. It was not just his golden teeth, or the horns, or the overall radiance. He could turn into ashes anything at will. Perhaps that is where the scandal started. That when he was born he consumed his parents for not being able to provide for him, however ridiculous it may sound. But that was to speak of his fury alone. He was the supreme cleanser of them all, blaze and heat fueling his powers. He was all-consuming. He could also see over the darkness of night, and he was the youngest of them all.

They were eight of them, the cosmic octet, attending to the Lord who was also his twin brother. But that was only going by one of the many versions about his origin. Across the vast unbound space he grew up in, everyone had a different story to tell about his birth, and in each of it, oddly enough, his parents were different! His birth was special, repeatedly implied the ballads of ‘the gifted ones’ who composed and performed music for the very best, but out of fear for him they remained vague about the versions not knowing which one pleased him more. They couldn’t mess with him, as he was the spirit of fire. In fact he was fire itself. He could destroy with a mere thought, let alone look. He was also equal in supremacy and might to his twin, their king.  

Of course, his birth was special. He rid the universe of its nebulous darkness after all. They could see finally, their world supported by pillars of smoke above the three stories of sky, the mesmerizing beauty of the celestial nymphs who danced to the tunes of ‘the gifted ones’, and the direction of every step they took to move away from the cosmic authority. But even at the end of it all, he was still the one with many fathers! As appalling as it was to stomach, he refused to claim out loud, like everybody else, his share of the great grand sire’s pedigree. His reputation as the infant who devoured his own parents at birth also remained uncorrected. How much ever truth there was in the allegations, it mostly came from rumors than reasoning. So deaf ears served them well.

The incessant wags took the tales far and wide across the space, and some to even the other world- a world he more than any of them was closely associated with – and where lived the humans, the descendants of the first mortal. He was the only immortal to coexist in their world as the singular link between the two worlds, as the messenger. There, his standing was unparalleled. He was their righteous protector who never discriminated the subjects. He was a part of their very essence, and he accepted their sacrifices. But if it was fear more than respect that made them bow in front of him, only the mottled lore of his origin was to blame. In one of the many versions they sang, he was born from the union of Sky and Earth. His origin from the mouth of the Cosmic Man also had orators. It was also widely assumed that he had ten unwed mothers, who were sisters. While many believed his father to be one of the seven great seers, the guardians of the divine law, some also called him ‘Son of Water’. There was absolutely no dearth to the variations how much ever mutually contradicting they were.

His birth was kept a secret, which explains the many assumptions. In fact he was born twice, and it was covertly dealt with both times. Right from when he was cuddled in the warmth of his mother’s womb coiled on his twin brother like a snug handclasp, they knew of the danger awaiting them, so did their parents, which is why nobody could know.

His great grandfather, the Wise One, was the creator, who amongst nine others had created the Lord of the Womb- the new master of creation and the first-born who was his grandfather. Sky and his love Earth were his creations- the siblings who were eternal lovers, always joined in a tight embrace, inseparable- a sinful but necessary union. They remained united even after they conceived the twins by which time, lurking in the dark was Evil in the form of a creation gone rogue with supernatural powers who already knew direction. Further creation could not stop, so their mother had to save them. But they were still not fully developed. Earth decided to carry them within her till the enemy left, and she did for many autumns. But he was not the one to give up. He had already imprisoned the waters of the world by then, and eagerly awaited the arrival of the progenies of incest. 

Meanwhile on the other side of the walls of Earth’s womb, they grew more vigilant by the day. Even though they both sensed danger, his brother was the intuitive of the two. He knew the usual exit was doom as evil waited at the gateway to strike on release. So he asked their mother to free him sideways. But even after discharge, the two undeveloped embryos were trapped in the embrace of their love-blind parents which, fairly enough, baffled the creators who were looking forward to the destruction of the rogue force in the hands of these two powerful successors.

It was the grandfather who provided the brothers with the cosmic nectar of immortality. At the same time as the release of his two grandchildren, he also wanted to separate Sky and Earth, hopelessly intertwined, slowing progress. His brother, the smarter and quicker of the two, drank the elixir and emptied the urn in a blink- the first blow of treachery before he was even born! When he still yawned and stretched in the primitive state, his brother expanded in size and strength widening the gap between their parents finally separating them. Excessive consumption of the elixir had made him so powerful and, Sky and Earth, torn form each other were hurled with great force in diametrically opposite directions to the far ends, and they never met ever again. In the process he, footless and headless, still not fully formed, was thrown out into the space while his brother stepped out into the dark amidst hails and applause.

His grandfather, the Lord of the Womb, got hold of his propelling embryo, carried him in his two hands, and nursed him with his ten fingers- his ten unwedded daughters. These sisters who were also his aunts in the role of foster mothers, nurtured him till he was relocated to what would be his first birthplace. His flaming embryo was still inside the membrane when he was submerged in the waters of the world that by then were freed from the confines of the Evil force, killed by his mighty brother, in the ecstasy of the elixir, at the request of the immortals, in return of his position as their king. Back then nobody knew his part in the killing; it was only his brother. The Lightning was made with the heat form his fiery embryo, and that was the weapon, which his grandfather granted to his brother that eventually culled the enemy. Treachery struck again, and the smart one left with the name, fame and recognition while he unhurriedly matured in the waters.

In the meantime more creations had begun to crowd the realms, and his two sisters, Dawn and Dusk, were also born. By the time he was born from the womb of the Waters, the great grandsire had already let his imagination run wild, and Ii was given more color by the visuals of his birth- his splendid emergence from the water as the blazing ball of fire. Before he took shape with two heads, three legs, four horns and seven hands, the idea of Sun as the giver of light was fully in motion. It was he who was born from the collective forces of Sky, Earth and Water that used his flames to fuel the new life-nourishing idea called Sun, who would in the due course become the chief of the celestial planets as well as the husband to his two sisters, Dawn and Dusk, the quarrelsome siblings who refused to see eye to eye all their lives. To date, Sun remained one of his eternally grandiose contributions to the wheels of progress.

Now, not counting his original dynamic form, he was already in two of his illustrious apotheosis, Sun and Lightning. The third was due, and to go by the prophesies of the fortunetelling seers, it was to happen in the other world that had no fire- in the land of his mother. This was because it was his essence that was used for the spark inside the mortals sent to that world. That is when the eternal debate started- a debate headed by his twin brother who was already King - to appoint him the messenger between the two worlds. He was unanimously elected. He who by then was assigned to guard the southeast direction, panicked and fled for life. He was unsure about being the channel between two worlds, as the receiver of the sacrifices of the mortals, and having to carry it to the destination amongst the immortals in his realm. It took a great deal from the faceless patrons of his brother to coax him out of his hiding in the womb of the waters. This time, without the protective membrane, he was holed up inside the stalk of a water lily.  But ultimately he agreed to the arrangement- to live in both worlds. That is when they blessed him to be forever youthful, and forever pure no matter what he consumed, and to be the supreme cleanser of all.

The draft of the Chosen One carried him to the other world, to the first wise mortal and the writer of the big book of astrology who chose two sticks to be his new parents. He was born again at the union of these two, but ended up burning them up. The dishonor of having killed his parents at birth clung to his name and refused to leave him ever since. He who was to have countless rebirths at innumerable hearths would kill that many more parents in times to come, but that came with deal. Whoever spoke about it did that behind his back when his second head, turned that way, was not listening. He was the most powerful of them all. So nobody messed with him. Depraved of the celestial nectar at birth, he had an insatiable thirst for it, and apart from the King, he was the heaviest consumer of the elixir in all the worlds, and with his strengths constantly powered by it, he unreservedly rode his ram wherever he wished, leaving his mark as charred trail behind him. He was not just immortal like the others, but was eternally young as well, which is why despite being one of the firstborns he remained youngest of them all. He, the purest of the pure, the first proof of the existence of energy in the universe, related to all three parts of the cosmos, self created and unchanging, could turn into ashes anything at will. Nothing ever created, in any form could render him impure, and despite wanting to, nobody could offend or defeat him as even when directed downwards, he never falls. He, the spirit of fire, in fact, fire itself, had special powers like many others around him, but the shame of many fathers and many births was there to stay, and they never stopped singing about it, but when was the universe a kind place to begin with!
COMMENTARY: In the Hindu pantheon, going by the scriptures, even though Fire-God Agni and the God-King Indra are numerously cited as twins, the details surrounding their births are only dealt with separately, and are associated with different episodes of creation. The polytomic lineage of Agni and the ambiguous parentage of Indra, is united here in a single event involving the separation of the two halves of the golden egg formed by Sky Father, Dyaus Pita, and Earth mother, Prithvi Mata, who are their parents. To enable an easy flow of the story, many such instances, textually jumbled and isolated, are articulated into a single narrative. The sequence of events is also streamlined to fit in those several events that from the texts could sound to have happened at the same time.
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