Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Farewell - Ravi Baswani

There are many people in this World who come into public focus for a brief period of time, and then fade away - only to be remembered when they pass on...

Ravi Baswani, Bollywood comedy actor, was one such personality. He died of a massive heart attack in Haldwani. Most people survive a heart attack, but Ravi was unlucky. His attack was massive, and he died before a Doctor could get to him

The first realization that surprised me about Ravi's life, was that he was 64 years old ! Had I not read the news report about his death, I couldn't have imagined he was so old.

Ravi Baswani belonged to that generation of actors, who were tremendously talented. He belonged to the same pedigree as Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapur, Om Puri and many others who honed their acting skills through formal training at reputed institutions like the National School of Drama (NSD) or the Film and Television Institute of India. They then set foot in Bollywood, with a dream - to become film stars one day.

Many of Ravi's class got lucky. But life was rough to many others, including Ravi. It was a long struggle but not a lost battle against many odds. Ravi and others got their first break in movies by the time they were well past the prime of their youth. They started their career very late in the day.

Ravis' two most memorable performances were in movies of my generation - "Chashme Buddor" in which he played the role of 'road side Romeo' while living with friends (Faroukh Sheikh and Rakesh Bedi). At the end of the movie, everyone was in splits, and Ravi had established himself as a comedian.

"Jaane bhi do Yaaron" followed and two films later, Ravi seemed to have got it made. But strange things happened in Bollywood. Ravi disappeared from the scene almost as soon as he had arrived. He did feature in some more movies none of which were either successful or can be remembered today.

Ravi also dabbled in television. But by then it had become sadly clear, that it was almost the end of the road for this bundle of talent.

It is sad that people like Ravi Baswani are taken for granted. No one remembered him when he was alive. I didn't too. But he did make us laugh when I went to see "Chashme Buddor" and "Jaane bhi do yaaron", and we admired him at that time....

Ravi's life and more importantly his death, should be a lesson for all of us - to remember and forever be grateful for all those who were part of the 'showbiz' world, and who in their own special way, made us feel good, even though for a few moments.

Monday, July 19, 2010

China Garden - A Place where you'd like to eat..

A common like amongst the four of us in the family - is 'Chinese' food. Well - the 'Indian Chinese' or the usual 'hakka noodles' 'fried rice' stuff and nothing more authentic. But for the discerning consumer, a place where even this usual stuff is found to be good, is difficult in Delhi in today's times. All restaurants seem to go through a cycle. The 'Fuyiya'and 'Chopsticks' - once the most happening place for this type of cuisine, now serve food which can be rated at best as 'ordinary'. Once upon a time, I could swear by them. But today I wouldn't waste my time and money there.

There was however one restaurant nicely 'tucked' away in a 5 star hotel, which not many people seemed to know of. This was the 'Jewel of the East' in the 'Ashoka' in Delhi. We discovered this and instantly got hooked on to it. For many reasons.

One, they had the luxury of a huge amount of space. And finding a real spacious restaurant, with a 'respectable' distance' between tables, IS a luxury in Delhi. Second - they had a live band and a dance floor. Well -we aren't exactly looking for places were we can dance. But the kids enjoyed the music. Because to them, listening to a live band, seeing musicians actually play instruments - some of them that they themselves were learning - like the guitar or drums, and most importantly - sending requests which the band promptly obliged with, were the attractions.

Service was very efficient. But the most important aspect of that experience was that the food was really, really good.

We visited that restaurant definitely on occasions like birthdays, wedding anniversary, or taking someone special, some cousin or relative visiting etc. And in between these occasions, there would be one or two of those visits which were normal family lunch or dinner.

Then one day, we discovered that the name of the restaurant changed to 'China Town' The only thing that changed apart from the name was the prices went up somewhat, on the menu. But we didn't mind. The visits continued with regularity. My family and the restaurant staff became very familiar faces to each other.

One evening, we landed up at the 'China Town' to find the place closed, and a sign telling us that they were closed for renovation. A missed opportunity to enjoy an evening was disappointing enough, but I wondered how long the closure would last.

And then a few months ago, we saw to our surprise one of those 'Page 3' or 'Page 5' articles, announcing the re-opening of the restaurant.

Once again, it had a new name ! This time it was called "China Garden" I was very very keen to visit China Garden. That fact that it was closed for more than a year, left me wondering about the magnitude of change.

Yesterday, we visited China Garden, after a long, long gap. And we were pleasantly surprised to see that the place had undergone a transformation. The huge wide area used for seating space had been cut down to size, and the number of tables reduced. There was however still a respectable distance between tables, to provide adequate privacy. The band and the dance floor regretably had been done away with. The extra space thus created had been used for installing statues and other objects to create the theme - that of a China Garden. I noticed that there were many statues of Buddha.

A lot of space was also used to create a rather nice looking bar, and a 'serving station' And of course all furniture and upholstery was new.

What surprise us most however, was the food, which in my mind, had never tasted that good before. And all for a price - that hadn't really changed since the last visit almost one year ago. That was one of the most pleasant observations to be honest. Because one could now continue to visit this eating place which is new, the food great and one which is still very much affordable. The only thing remaining the same from the last few years was the ever smiling and friendly manager and his assistant.

Going back to 'China Garden' (China Town and Jewel of the East, in the past), at the Ashoka, was like home coming - in more ways than one.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Tribute to Manohari Singh

I didn't know Manohari Singh till a few days back. But when I did get to know who he was, the feeling in my heart was of intense respect and admiration. Now Manohari Singh is no more. He passed away on 13th July 2010, due to a cardiac arrest. He was 79.

This blog post is a humble tribute to a man who most of us didn't know on the one hand, but actually knew him on the other.

Three weeks ago, while flicking channels on TV, I 'ran' into a music reality show called Indian Idol. And since music is so ingrained into me, I couldn't help stopping right there, and listening to the rather melodious voice of the aspirant.

The theme of that episode was 'RD Burman' or Pancham Da, as he was popularly known. It was in keeping with things that Asha Bhonsle was the chief guest and the honorary judge. I knew I was in for a treat -listening to old songs that were Pancham's compositions.

What surprised me completely was that the orchestra accompanying the vocalists, was also Pancham's old orchestra ! The team that played for the recording of most of his compositions throughout his career. Long after Pancham had gone, this team of musicians had come to pay their tribute to the legendary composer, in their own way - playing his old songs while the competitors sang them

Leading this team was Manohari Singh. This was my first introduction to Manohari or Manohari Da, as he was called. The second fact that I learnt on that TV show, was that Manohari specialised in playing the saxophone. I also learnt that he played what is called the 'Selmer Alto Sax'. Once on a tour to the West Indies and the US along with Kishore Kumar, Manohari purchased this saxophone - a golden coloured shiny instrument. And he fell in love with it at once. Musicians being in love with their instruments is not unusual. Manohari's love for his saxophone was legendary. Before the sax Manohari has specialised in the key flute the mandolin and the clarinet - he had played each of these in some Hindi movie song. But once he played the sax, he stuck with it.

What I also got to admire about him, was his utter devotion and loyalty to Pancham. Manohari had played with many other composers. He started his career with SD Burman, and played with Laximkant Pyarelal and Kalyanji Anandji. But he remained loyal to Pancham Da till the day the famous composer passed away. Manohari was also the music arranger for most RD Burman compositions in Hindi films.

Even afterwards, Manohari often played in shows and musical nights and performances all over the World, playing only RD Burman compositions.

To know Manohari's talent you only have to rewind some of the musical compositions that RD became famous for. Each of those songs was a gem.

Just go back, rewind and listen to these songs - 'Roop Tera Mastana' from Aradhana, Mehbooba o mehbooba' from Sholay, "Huyi Shaam Unka' from "Mere Humdum mere dost' 'Gaata rahe mera dil' from "Guide" When you hear the melodious sound of that instrument you will realize that the magic was the result of Manohari's sheer genius in handling the musical notes.

I salute Manohari Singh - in return for his contribution to the absolutely melodious and 'immortal' songs that RD Burman composed. And I salute Manohari Singh for his loyalty and faithfulness that he demonstrated towards his mentor RD Burman, even after the latter left this World. For me Manohari's life is about talent, hard work, fame and strength of character.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The thin line between courage and foolhardiness

We all know that. However, one day, I did put this 'saying' to test. The very thought of that incident 26 years ago, sends 'goose pimples' all over....!

The year was 1984. the movie 'Coolie' had just been released. I was living in the St. Stephen's College hostel that year. A group of us were having dinner in the mess at about 8 pm. Suddenly an idea struck one of us - why not hit the night show of Coolie which was running at 'Batra' a cinema hall not very far from College. Normally most programs especially the 'after dinner' ones were made in the same manner - 'on the spot' - without much advance planning.

So it was decided that those that had finished dinner would move as an 'advance party' and arrange for tickets, and the rest who were still having dinner would follow. Availability of tickets was going to be an issue, since the movie had been released less than a week ago, and was running full houses. I was to be a part of the second lot to reach the cinema hall.

When we reached Batra, we met the first group with long faces that told us all about the tickets. There was no chance they said. One of us suggested we meet the manager of the hall. But why would be manager go out of his way to help us? (The seven of us were amongst the hundreds hanging around outside the hall without tickets...)

At that moment, something that shouldn't have happened, happened. An idea struck me. Without explaining anything, I just announced that I am going to meet the manager. Some of the friends' hopes rose. It was a blind shot in the dark, but what was the harm in trying? Others bore the same dejected expression, perhaps wise in the knowledge that nothing was to come out of my attempt.

When I reached the Manager's cabin, a guard tried to stop me. That was his job, and also his brief, at a time when many people like me would try to meet the manager with the same request for tickets.

From this moment on, whatever I did, was in complete contrast to my own personality. I was a known simple docile guy in College, who probably would have stood along with the group of friends who were feeling dejected on not getting tickets and were preparing to return to the Hostel anyway. What made me behave in the manner I did, even I cannot explain.

On encountering the guard, I simple pushed him aside, and with a couple of confident steps, swung open the manager's door and walked in. The manager was surprised too, because his 'security' arrangements weren't working after all !

He looked up and asked "Yes?"

Then, in the most confident manner, and putting on my most decent and dignified appearance, I replied (in English) " I am the President of the St. Stephen's College Students' Union. I have a request to make. I need seven tickets for this show".

The manager's facial expressions changed, as he tried to assimilate whatever he had heard. And there were many 'meaningful' words which an intelligent man could ill afford to ignore. For instance - St. Stephen's College. A name that invoked immediate respect within the University circles and around. Then - 'Students' Union'. That was a term that anyone who was remotely connected to the University, would be scared of. And to top it all , I was looking like the President of the Students' Union of St. Stephen's College, with that look of confidence and dignity. Also the College blazer I was wearing with the College crest completed the make up and costume.

The manager asked " Oh ! So you are the President of the Union??"
For the first time, I thought that he had caught on. Because he sounded very very sarcastic. My personality suddenly changed from that confident but 'fraud' Union President, to the same timid, docile me. But I held on.

"Yes" I answered, trying to act like a College Union President in every possible way.

"Of St. Stephen's College??" he reconfirmed.

"Yes" I answered again. But my mono syllable responses must have sounded weaker and less and less convincing...

The manager took about 5 seconds, nodded his head as if he had concluded something that was to have horrible consequences for me, and rang a bell from his table.

I am sure that my heart had stopped beating then. My own take was that he was convinced I was 'frauding' and now he was calling more security staff to arrange for me to have a 'bashing' of my life. I also imagined being locked up in the 'Shakti Nagar' police station for the night....

The same guard came running in, and was already offering an explanation in his defence for his conduct in having allowed an 'extraneous' element in. The manager cut his off half way, and said " Inko Arora ke paas le jao aur saat (7) ticket dilwa do"

Five minutes later, I had seven tickets, and we were on our way to see 'Coolie'

The manager wasn't that smart after all. And he obviously did not know much about Stephen's - else he would have known that the Stephen's Union is actually the 'Students' Union Society' which is nothing to be scared of. It's only agenda for the year was to organise a cultural festival called "Winterfest" And the Union members? Well I was one (and that's a fact - not a fraud) - and all members were like me - very decent and timid! The manager didn't know that the St. Stephen's College Union members weren't scary at all !

But the manager was scared of Unions and trouble. So he relented - without resistance, arguments etc. And I became a hero amongst my 7 friends.

I still shudder to think what would have happened, if the 'Batra' manager had caught on...

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The past and the present. A transformation...

Today I received a mail from a friend that talked about the good old days, when our generation was much younger. The mail showed all the TV serials we saw as teenagers, on Doordarshan. It talked about how life and times then were much simpler....

I read the mail and it suddenly struck my mind, that ours must be a unique generation. Unique in the sense that it is this generation that would have seen the biggest change in the World, in one lifetime. And by change in the World I mean change in the way the World around us was, as early as, say, when we were born, and the way life and the World is for us, today, when we are somewhere near middle age.

Our elders could contest that. The logic being, that every generation sees a huge amount of change in a span of 60-70 years. Be that as it may. Without comparing, I would still consider my generation to be lucky to have seen such a transformation in the way we live our lives.

One of the aspects of life that immediately impacts us is technology. And I believe that amongst all types of technological changes, the one area that saw the most significant progress and transformation, is telecommunications.

Consider this...

When I was about 10 years of age, there typically was one TV set in the entire colony. (It was Black & White transmission till as late as 1982 when color TV started, coinciding with the Asiad held in Delhi). The rest of the residents of the colony helped themselves to three to four hours of TV entertainment at that neighbour's home. The neighbour's convenience or enthusiasm about hosting thirty to forty people in his home every evening was not a consideration. Like my friend said in her mail - those WERE real friends, weren't they?

About Doordarshan, many might not recall - that the Sunday movie long back was actually shown in two installments - the first half on Saturday evening, and the rest on Sunday !

Technology was poor, and I am sure we all lost count of the number of times we saw on the screen the "Rukawat ke kiye khed hai" message...And every now and then, one had to go up to the terrace, to re-align the antenna, because the picture had become blurred.

Then there was radio which more stations, so more choice. There was 'Vivid Bharati" Delhi 'A' /'B' etc. And for those that could spend sometime patiently trying to tune in their sets, there was Radio Ceylon on short wave...

A telephone connection was a luxury. My memory is fairly clear up to a time, when telephone numbers in Delhi were of 5 digits, against the 8 now. Getting a telephone connection was a long, long wait. In 1979, the Tis Hazari telephone exchange in Delhi, had a waiting list of 19 years! To talk to a relative in another city, one had to book a 'trunk call" and wait sometimes up to 4-5 hours, till one's turn came. And one had to be happy with a poor connection, wherein the voice at the other end was barely audible.

When I started my career selling computers, as late as in 1987, the Personal Computer or the PC, was an alien concept to Indians. I knocked doors, but no one seemed to figure out the need to invest huge amounts to buy a machine which they were not familiar with. By the way a PC AT model in 1987 cost Rs 1 lac.

Those were days, when you had to submit proof of your antecedents to open a savings account in a Bank. Seems ridiculuous now because YOU were giving YOUR money to be kept in safe custody, so it should have been you asking for some security from the Bankers. Likewise a Bank would do you a big favor by granting you a loan for a house or a car, or issuing you a credit card. That too, after pages and pages of declarations, affidavits and attachments.

There were two makes of cars and two makes of scooters available in India. Fiat and Ambassador, and Bajaj (earlier Vespa) and Lambretta. The choice really was - new or second hand? And by the way -there was no A/C or a stereo in the cars...

And consider where we are now. More than a hundred channels on TV? Two maybe three sets in each home? FM radio.

In 1987 when we lamented the state of telephone exchanges and long waits for connections, our proud relatives in the US would boast about a telephone connection being installed in their homes in a matter of hours....That is a reality in good old India - a sure transformations from a seemingly a hopeless state twenty years ago.

Today when telephone callers pester us for loans, credit cards etc. we curse them, abuse them and hang up. And we do this from our mobile phones (which incidentally are also our computers), sitting in air conditioned luxury of our Hondas, Toyotas, Skodas, and what not. These cars that we came to own, the minute we signed some papers, on our first or second visit to the car dealer. We sit in the comfort of our homes, and pay all our bills - electricity, phones etc. with a 'click' of our mouse, on our computers. Computers that run hundred times faster and cost one fifth. All of us have computers, and a person who doesn't know how to use one - doesn't exist !

So how's that? Isn't that transformation? I am sure our parents cannot boast about a similar experience in their life time.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Rewind into the past - the story about the frog's leg...

As soon as I reached home from Office yesterday, Manoj Lal, a friend since School called up. Always the one to take the initiative to get old school buddies reunited, he once again had a surprise in store. He had invited Rajesh Chopra and Vivek Sanyal , both School mates, and wanted to know if I could join...

My mind went back into the past, 32 years ago. The year was 1978. Rajesh and I were the only two students of the class who appeared for the NDA examination to join the 60th course starting July 1978. I was medically rejected, and Rajesh made it. He left School and that was the last time I saw him.

We met up about an hour later, at the restaurant owned by Manoj. We talked about old times, enquired about other friends especially those in the 'fauj'. We also talked about the present and future. About families, children careers - almost everything. There was so much to catch up on in such a short time.

Rajesh now - Colonel Rajesh Chopra - and soon to be called Brigadier Rajesh Chopra, became famously or infamously well known by that one single act that he performed in the Biology lab one day during practicals. And this was to become the folk lore amongst the present School kids as well as Alumni.

Here's what happened.

The class was learning to dissect frogs. One of us who wanted to have fun at Rajesh's cost, challenged him to cut off a frog's leg, put it in his mouth, chew it and basically eat it ! And the bet was for Rs. 10/- a somewhat princely sum thirty years ago. The bet money was obviously collected as contribution from all those who wanted to watch the show. No one was worried about the money going anywhere, because Rajesh wasn't going to eat a frog's leg....

And then - he did it ! He cut off a nice long leg from one frog. The skin had already been removed. And then, to every one's horror, he put the frog's leg in his mouth. While everyone stared at him in shock, he seemed to enjoy biting into the meat, chewing the leg and finally swallowing it..(After all, frog's legs are a delicacy in some parts of the World aren't they ?).

To cut a long and 'sickening' story short, Rajesh walked away with the ten rupees, and his body had some extra protein that day.

Thirty years later, when our classmates reunite and try to jog their memory and recall who Rajesh was, the one clue that works without fail is - "the guy who ate the frog's leg"

And thirty years later, I am still wondering -how did he do it...?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Lt. General Inderjit Singh Gill - PVSM, MC

I have often wondered how easy - or hard it is to 'compress' an entire life of this soldier and General, into a few hundred words. This is a humble attempt - to pay tribute to one of India's finest soldiers - a distinguished General, leader and trainer, about whom very few outside the Army circles know..

Inderjit Singh Gill was born to a Sikh father and and English mother in 1919, in Chennai. His father was a Royal Medical Corps Doctor and Inder was one of four sons. After finishing School in Chennai, Inder went to England to complete his studies. It was because of the fact that he was half English biologically, and spent a good part of his life in England, that Inder was more of an Englishman, and less of a 'Sardar' That explained his clipped English accent, and absence of a turban and beard. Inder was a 'gora sa'ab' in more ways than one.

Inder finished School in 1939 and had good enough grades to pursue Engineering at Edinburgh University. He however enlisted with the famous 'Black Watch' - a Scottish Regiment, in 1941, shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

Soon after, in 1942, Inder got involved in what came to be known as the 'Harling Mission' - which was to thwart the Axis strength in Greece and in the Mediterranean region through undercover operations. Inder was part of the team that destroyed the Gorgopotamos Bridge in Greece in November 1942.

Soon after the War was over, Inder decided to give up his commission in the British Army, and joined the Indian Army in January 1948. What followed was a distinguished career in the Army that consisted of a variety of command and staff appointments. He passed 'Staff College' in 1954 Inder got his command - that of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, or more commonly known as '1 Para' in 1955. This was followed by Brigade and Division level commands. Inder was then appointed Director Military Training.

During the 1971 Bangladesh war Inder was the officiating Director of Military Operations, where he played a pivotal role in coordinating operations that ultimately led to India's victory. After the war, Inder commanded a Corps and finally was appointed GOC-in-C, Western Command, before he retired in 1979.

Inder Gill's career record might not be different from that of any other General who rose to that rank. But he demonstrated exceptional qualities because of which he stood out.

One of the foremost things for which Inder was admired by not only the men he commanded but also his seniors was the depth of professional knowledge, and clarity of thinking. And because of this quality, Inder proved to be an exceptional instructor. As Commandant of the Defence Services Staff College Brigadier (later General) Manekshaw assessed Inder as "a first class instructor, credit to the Army and 'should be considered for accelerated promotion'

Inder was also known to work hard and party hard. His capacity to put in hard work was also folklore in the Army. There were many a time, when he would party hard till the wee hours, return home sit down to work, and by the opening hours of Office, produce multiple pages of neat handwritten accounts of war plans, strategy tactics and so on.

His propensity to party hard, and his weakness for 'the bottle' also did not escape the attention of his seniors many of whom made it a point to make a mention of his nuisance value once he got drunk, in his Confidential Reports. Many appraisers felt that an otherwise brilliant officer would lose out due to his fondness of alcohol. Inder was to prove all of them wrong, right through his career.

So confident was he of his professional capabilities, that he had the moral courage to stand upright in front of any senior - be it an Officer, or as was proved in some cases, even politicians.Once during the 1971 war, as Director of Military Operations, Inder was to give a briefing to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram. Everyone gathered in the room but the chatter did not cease. After waiting for several minutes Inder turned to Sam Manekshaw the Army Chief and said " Sam, there's a war going on and I better see how it's progressing. Why don't you take over?" And he walked out.

During the war Inder was at the helm of affairs as Director of Military Operations. Rumor has it that he did not go home for 14 days, and remained in his operational headquarters. But despite the tension, he was unflappable even then. One story goes that Inder was on his desk, trying to catch a quick nap when the Vice Chief rang up and wanted to know the status at various war fronts. 'I was dreaming of my wife. I 'll let you know if anything exciting happens' Inder said, and hung up.

After war Inder played an equally important role in delineating the line of control that divided the northern disputed Kashmir state between the rival claimants, India and Pakistan.

Long after the war was over, Inder kept the Operations Directorate busy, with formulation and documentation of 'after action' reports, lessons learnt and so on.

Inder went on to command a Corps in the East before being appointed the Army Commander of the Western Command. It was here that Inder having got provoked by a controversial newspaper article, acted without discretion, and shot off an angry response to the editor, in his official capacity. His letter was published the next day, and this became a huge controversy, with the opposition en cashing upon the situation, and the Government facing embarrassment.

Inder who with his exceptional career record and a long string of medals including 7 of them from other Countries, the PVSM and the Padma Bhushan, was undoubtedly in line for the top position of the Chief of Army Staff.

Whether he missed the opportunity due to the fact that he shot himself in the foot with the letter to the editor, or something else went wrong, will never be known. But it is clear that Inder not becoming the Indian Army Chief was the loss of the Army, the Government and the Nation.

Because officers like Inder don't come along so easily.

Inputs from:

2. 'Born to Dare' (The LIfe of Lt. Gen. Inderjit Singh Gill PVSM MC by S. Muthiah (Penguin Viking)