Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pit stop Uttar Pradesh

Just back from a short trip of Kanpur-Lucknow-Delhi-Mumbai. Normally, I'd be reluctant to draw inferences from fleeting interactions and the odd encounters. But, I find, even journalists tend to to do that and pass it off as ground reports. Therefore, thought of jotting down my quick impressions on - what else but the coming elections.

In Central UP (tho Kanapur-Lucknow is regarded more East than Centre) the pro-BJP mood is palpable in the air. The Samajwadi Party rule of Akhilesh Yadav has been an unmitigated disaster - people regret pinning their hopes on the young politician, who they thought will bring a new vision to a state that has languished for such a long time due to poor governance. Even if these are not state elections - people see a new hope in Modi, not just at the Centre but one that will have a positive rub-off on UP's fortunes as well.

I for one was always skeptical - even till a couple of years ago - about Modi's acceptability in the "Hindi Heartland" ( or the "Cow-belt as one would call it colloquially). But, its amazing how he has captured the imagination of the whole nation. One can argue if that's due entirely to his magnetic charisma or the pits of despair the UPA and Congress have thrown the country in its 10 years of misrule. I had traveled through UP on a road trip - in January 1977 immediately after my school Class 10 (ICSE ) exams. I would compare the "anti-Congress" mood then in many ways to what I saw now. So, if you don't call this a wave - what else is ? 

Still questions remain on how much of this enthusiasm will translate into seats. Local BJP politicians, of course, see this as an opportunity of a life-time. They know if BJP doesn't make it this time - then regaining the same momentum would be near impossible in the foreseeable future. By, then the party itself may well disintegrate without the glue of power to hold it together. So, everyone wants to jump into the band-wagon - leaders both young and old, locals and paratroopers who wish to cash-in by exercising their seniority in the party (the likes of Murli Manohar Joshi). Therefore, there are bound to be disaffection on ticket distribution. But, how much of this will lead to under-cutting of votes due to internal factionalism or the overwhelming swing will sail the candidates through is a matter of conjecture.

Modi, of course, is carrying the battle almost singly on his shoulders. Everyone else seems to be riding under his shadow - knowing the limits of their influence. Therefore, much would depend on what the grass-root organisation of BJP and RSS are able to deliver. Realizing that - Modi has placed his trusted aide Amit Shah in-charge of UP. So, if BJP makes a turn-around in UP - as many expect them to - much of the credit shoul go to Amit-bhai.

In one of his rallies in Maharashtra today, Modi remarked - usually in an election one sees political forces realigning against the incumbent government. This time, it seems everyone is rallying together with the sole objective of keeping Modi out (and, tho he didn't say it, that would include some of his own party-men). I would suspect that it's not just politicians and other parties - even other forces inimical to India would be nervous about the ascent of Modi. It is incredible - how this man has been battling against such tremendous opposition to carry forward his mission practically on his own. It is this that makes me say - India hasn't seen another "political phenomenon" like Modi, perhaps, since independence. 

This brings me to Delhi and, where else, than the holy dipping point of political pundits - the IIC Bar. While I can understand - the antagonism of politicians towards Modi and BJP, also the near pathological dislike of the fashionable left-liberal intellectual set - I still fail to entirely fathom the hostility of the main-stream media for Modi. The argument that they are under the "pay" of the ruling party is too glib. If they were, indeed, so easily "purchasable" - the Modi's alleged 'big business' backers could have easily 'bought' their support. Yet, their objections doesn't seem to be so much ideological as political - sometimes even personal. 

Therefore, sipping my 100 Pipers perched on the bar-stool, it's intriguing to hear senior journalists trying to build up arguments against Modi and BJP. At the risk of sounding specious, sometimes I think these people find it difficult to accept Modi after having vilified him for so many years. Therefore, they curiously sound as if they're arguing against themselves.

Another point probably deserves mention. Swapan Dasgupta had written in an article how Modi is an outsider to Lutyen's Delhi (unlike a Vajpayee - who had even co-opted himself into the Club by choosing someone like Brajesh Mishra as his aide). But - equally Modi is alien to the Chanakyapuri circuit. It's well-known the BJP of yore had its benefactors in the foreign diplomatic club - who have their own formidable sphere of influence. "Well-wishers of India" like Strobe Talbott had no hesitation in acknowledging Minister Jaswant Singh as a "friend" at whose invitation he spent a weekend in Jodhpur. Despite the recent thawing of relationship with the US and EU Missions - Modi is still viewed with suspicion by the West - not to mention our immediate neighbours who have greater reasons to be wary of him. And, this is not something that can be wished away.

Despite all these  odds- if Modi still makes it as the next Prime Minister of India - as many of us wish - it will be nothing short of a miracle.

But, borrowing from Paul Coelho.."when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it".

Sunday, March 23, 2014

'Vote Bank Politics' has come here to stay in West Bengal

A news item in 'Ei Samay' the Bengali paper of the TOI Group (Read here) says, the assessment of the West Bengal State Intelligence Bureau indicates, the #BJP will pay a decisive role in 9 out of 42 constituencies of West Bengal in the Lok-Sabha Elections 2014. This is a significant development for Bengal - where BJP has been an almost non-existent party.

According to another report, Mamata Banerjee herself has cautioned her party-workers about the rise of BJP in the state (click here to read). She, of course, refers to BJP as "communal forces" - which is the fashionable political euphemism for the Saffron party.

Historically, West Bengal has, arguably, voted largely on 'secular' lines. Cast also had little role to play in Bengal politics. (Perhaps, an influence of Communism and literacy - also a reflection of society). Equally the Bengali Muslim has, traditionally, been influenced more by political - rather than religious - considerations. All this seemed to change perceptively in the last Lok Sabha elections - when a sizeable chunk of the "Muslim Vote" moved en-masse to the Trinamool Congress. Since then, political parties - have started looking at them as a distinct "vote-bank" - quite similar to what happens in other parts of the country. So, what has changed ?

First, it is the influx of across the border in districts adjacent to Bangladesh. They have brought with them a culture and mind-set, which is very different from the traditional Bengali Muslim community who have been well integrated into the society over nearly 2 centuries. Political parties have indulged them as low hanging electoral fruit - legitimizing their illegal migration and allowed them to spread their tentacles across the community, often by exercising both money and muscle power. 

While the eastern districts of the state have seen infiltration from Bangladesh, the western borders have seen influx from other neighbouring states of Bihar and Jharkhand - who have themselves been afflicted by economic plight.

Simultaneously, as industry has shrunk in the state - trading has been the life-line. The business averse mentality of Bengalis is well known. Therefore, it's no surprise that the dominant trading community are "Non-Bengali", to use a pet term. In a surprising statistics, published a few years back showed nearly 60% of the population of the greater Calcutta and Howrah areas in of "non-Bengali" origin.

In this backdrop - dismissing BJP as a "communal party" - will only contribute towards greater polarisation of the people - which will over a longer term upset the electoral and social dynamics of the state. After that, the answer to that eternal question - which / who came first - the chicken or the egg - will only be of academic interest.

But, it seems "vote bank" politics has finally arrived and come to stay in Bengal. Sad - but true and, probably also, unavoidable.

(Also read: Is Eastern India an important developing Hindu Vote-Bank ?)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lunch, Tea and Dinner

Went for the much hyped – “The Lunchbox” last Sunday morning. Charming film. It’s beauty lies in understatement. Understated script, understated dialogue, understated acting. Everything minimalistic. One doesn’t expect anything less than competent from Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddique. But, Nirmat Kaur is the real find. Hope she doesn’t get type-cast to do de-glam roles. Yet, I think the movie been  trifle over-rated.   The Karan Johar and Anurag Kashyap connection does help in getting PR – as indeed does the Sony Picture Classics banner. Still, it didn’t manage to become India’s official entry for the Oscars as widely expected in the social media. The Gujarati – The Good Road was the unanimous choice of the selection committee. Nandini Ramnath has a good explanation why the critics voted for The Good Road over The Lunchbox in Mint  (click here to read)

Goutam Ghose – the Chairman of the Jury spoke in 2 voices.  First, while announcing the choice of the ‘The Good Road’ he said it was a unanimous decision of the jury. Later, he told the media, ‘The Lunchbox’ was his personal favourite (click here to read) thus fanning an unwarranted controversy.


Haven’t been exercising much in the past one year. Never a morning person – don’t find the time for walks even in the evening. Didn’t swim this entire season. The punishing travel routine becomes a convenient excuse for not doing anything. Foreigners always manage to pack in a gym schedule or a jog even when they are on the road. My yoga teacher has given up on me. I keep two Books on Yoga next to my bed – perhaps, in the hope they’d be working on the subconscious mind – a new form of Transcendental Yoga one might say J. But, in reality – I know this is unpardonable at my age. It goes much beyond simple laziness – perhaps, bordering on incipient depression.

The only form of physical activity – I enjoy these days are my Sunday evening walks through the alleys and by-lanes of South Calcutta, the locality where I grew up. It’s amazing how little has changed in this area over the years – barring many of the old bungalows turned into small apartment blocks, the new saree boutiques and cafes. But, beyond that it remains just the same – a grim reminder of the economic stagnation of the city. The tea stalls on the pavement, phuchka-wallahs at street junctions – dimly lit and with pathetic hygiene and road-side snack take-aways selling the most unhealthy  Fish fry, cutlets, chops and rolls.

But, there is a charm in travelling back in time. So, I make each of these walks a destination outing. My favourite being a tea-stop at Radu-Babu’s Hotel next to Lake Market. I’m amazed at the incredible prices – he still keeps. It requires a lot of will-power to resist the special Chicken Kobiraji. But, his speciality is the Bong-style ‘Roasted Chicken’ available only on Thursdays for a limited period. A whole-spring chicken at a princely Rs 96 is hard to digest. But, don’t know how he manages it even in this day and age. I suspect it’s a ‘loss-leader’ – a reward of sorts for his loyal customers.

Burnt-garlic Squid

When I started going to the Mangalorean restaurants in the Fort area in the early 80s – you could still have a meal at Mahesh Lunch Home for Rs 25, the lunch allowance for many offices on PM Road (those were days before Sodexo and Ticket Restaurants) – Citibank, HTA (Hindustan Thompson) and Liptons. Since, they were discovered by Imran Khan and Lonely Planet – Trishna, Mahesh, Bharat (Excellensea) and even Apoorva, have turned high-end specialty sea-food restaurant . But, there’s one treasure – yet to be discovered by Mumbai’s Page 3 crowd – Pratap lunch Home, tucked away in the lane next to the Fort Parsi Agiari. Had an outstanding Burnt Garlic Squid and authentic Mangalorean Crab Sukka with Neer Dosa – the other day. A watering-hole in the evenings for the “janata”  of nearby office goers it still remains affordable and unpretentious. Strongly recommended for the mildly adventurous and the less snooty.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A tiptoed comeback...

Daughter is back in Calcutta for her college after spending the last 6 years of school at Boarding in Pune and Bangalore. Major cultural change for her – from the protected environment of Krishnamurty Foundation (KFI) Schools to a basic (‘pati’ – as we would say in Bengali) Government College – though she seems to be having a ball with all her new found independence. Travelling on packed Metro-trains and auto-rickshaws or ‘bussing’ it across the city for “outdoors” – are thrills she is just beginning to discover and the charm hasn’t worn off yet. Then having “lemon tea” in plastic cups (that have replaced the earthen “bhaars” of our times) and ghugni by the road side are another level of education.

There are different dynamics playing at home between the mother and daughter – sharply contrasted with my recollections of the father-son tensions of my late adolescence and early youth. That both are undergoing hormonal changes of their respective ages don't help matters surely.

I am going through my umpteenth bout of professional ‘burn-out’ and the idea of retirement teases as seductively as ever. But, a cursory look at the Bank Statements and Credit Card Bills is enough to shatter any idle reverie – and one shudders at the thought of the unpaid Home Loan EMI like hearing the sound of crash on Dalal Street.  Getting out of Calcutta remains my biggest challenge. The city sends me into throes of despair. All the Prozac in the world can’t cure me of the depression that Calcutta brings over me.

So, the best I could do for the time being was take another one of our standard therapeutic break in the Nilgiris, as we have been doing for years - whenever the blues become unbearable. This was a trip of sinful laziness – with the spouse’ leg impaired by a medical condition (synovitis) and my sagging spirits badly needing to be propped up by some real stuff (Beefeater Gin in the afternoons and Glenlivet in the evenings – to be precise). Had a lifetime’s quota of fresh cream – with an assortment of pies and pastries – as fitting finale to loads of red meet (no rubbery chicken or the tasteless scavenger Bassa for me, please). Coonoor Avocados and Acres Wild Cheeses (from Mansoor Khan’s farm)  were at the healthier end of the food-chain. To hell with Cholesterol and Diabetes !!

Read this review of ShovonChowdhury’s maiden novel  The Competent Authority. Promises to be a good read. Knew Shovon briefly – when he was in advertising (Bates-Clarion, Delhi). Good to know he has made this successful transition to writing. Looking forward to the book.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A foodie at rest

Much as I love Mumbai, in my book Delhi is the Food capital of India. For sure this is going to upset the Foodie elite of  some other cities. But, none can beat Delhi for its sheer range and variety. From Street Food to Dhabas, Canteens and Eateries, Cafes and Stand-alone restaurants  to Specialty Fine Dining at 5 Stars  - no other  city offers as much choice and options as Delhi. For all their faults , let’s admit it, Punjabis understand food – more importantly, are willing to shell out money for eating out.

more style than substance

Bombay's food scene really started changing in the '90s with  the discovery and subsequent up-market transformation of Mangalorean  Sea-Food joints like Trishna and Mahesh. Next to arrive were western food  restaurants like Rahul Akerkar's Indigo (successor of Cafe uner the Over)  and A.D. Singh's Olive Kitchen & Bar. Much later came, Moshe's, Basilico, Salt Water Cafe and, more recently, Smoke House Deli and LPQ.  Many chic places have sprung-up since in mid-town (Lower Parel area) and the suburbs - most notably, Bandra, such as the Pali CafĂ©, but most of them are more style than substance –  feast for the eyes and wallet rather than the palate. The coming of age of Malwani eateries has added a new ethnic dimension at the budget end - but Street food in Mumbai has a limited variety -  largely restricted to the old Mill-workers’ staples. Mumbai doesn't have any real Dhabas. The old Irani Cafes have all but disappeared. Few people go to Sion Koliwada these days other than residents of the area. Muslim food  generally available around the city (not specific quarters like the Bohri Mohalla and  Mohammed Ali Road ) , as typified by Bade Miyan in Colaba or Jafferbhai’s Delhi Durbar, - is unexciting for those initiated into the finer traditions of  Mughlai / Nizami cuisine of Delhi, Lucknow or Hyderabad. Parsi and Irani food are difficult to come by and now exist only for the die-hards. After the demise of City Kitchen – New Martin’s remains the last flag-bearer of authentic  Goan fare.  I am not a great fan of GujjuFood – so won’t enter into a debate on the intricacies of Gujarat nu Jaman here (though you can now get it in Delhi too with Branches of Rajdhani  all over).  But, finally, at the top end, the F & B outlets at 5 Stars in Mumbai are miles behind  those of Delhi.

trying too hard

Like in many other aspects of cosmopolitan living  – Bangalore also tries hard on Food, but is yet to get there totally . Chennai is still too regional – barring the odd exception.  Calcutta – unfortunately, like in everything else -  has been out of  the race for quite some time now (ultimately it all boils down to a function of disposable income).

walled city to world city

What makes Delhi stand-out from other cities is – apart from  the original Mughlai, Punjabi and North Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) cuisine  – you can get food from practically all over India and also a wide international variety that is now available in the city. The last is thanks not only to the presence of a large expatriate population and  diplomatic corps, foreign tourists and business travelers but also a size-able section of the more discerning, well-traveled and well-heeled Delhiites - who believe in , to use the local parlance, a culture of "wining and dining". So, Delhi can now boast of some of the finest Italian, Western Grills, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and specialty Chinese restaurants and, mind you, not all of them at 5 Stars. Even Cafes like Big Chill or Turtle and boutique restaurants such as Basil & Thyme offer great quality and value. It's difficult to beat the ambience of some like Magic in the Garden of 5 senses (Mehrauli) or the restaurant in Lodi Gardens.  Borrowing a line from an old Times of India campaign, Delhi has - at least in culinary terms -  transformed itself from a "walled city" to a truly "world city".

intimations of mortality

As I turn older and intimations of mortality get louder by the day – I am trying to pare down choices to a few  favourites – knowing that time is running out. This applies to as much to people and relationships as it does to places  I visit, things I like and restaurants  I frequent.  On eating out I now feel an aversion to experiment  unless it comes  with very strong recommendation from people whose judgment I intrinsically trust.

selective binging

Now that I don’t travel to Delhi as often – I have become even more selective. For me – the food map of Delhi begins at Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk Area and restricted to the boundaries of the outer Ring Road. So the Haryanvi frontiers of Gurgaon  - which has its own gastronomical universe - are definitely outside my beat.  But, within this limited geography I am able to get my fill from both ends of the spectrum. These are my top 10 ‘do not miss’ picks for Delhi . Connoisseurs may not approve of the list and the true-blue Dilli-wala may dismiss the selections as far from being the representative best.  I too have been to and known better places. But this is all I have the time, inclination or budget for these days - when I'm feeling adventurous and energetic enough to step out from the IIC Bar:

  1. Karim’s Jama Masjid: Sheermal, Seekh Kebab (2 pcs) , Mutton Burra (1/2 portion), Roomali Roti with Chicken Korma (Breast piece) and Mutton Biriyani (1/2 plate) 
  2. National Dhaba, Connaught Place : Sag-Mutton, Gurda-Kaleji, Chicken Curry (Breast Piece) and Tandoori Roti;
  3. Taipan – The Oberoi : Dim Sums and  Roast Peking Duck –  Full Meal ( of Pancake Rolls; Duck-Meat in Black-bean sauce with Steamed Rice and Clear Duck-Soup)
  4. Tamura (Japanese) Green Park – Sushi, Sashimi, Pork Spare-Ribs, Agedashi Tofu; Omlette Rice
  5. The Goong (Korean) Green Park: BBQ Pork Belly and Kimchi 
  6.  La Piazza, The Hyatt : Almost everything – but never miss the Carpaccio;
  7.  India International Centre  (Main Dining Hall) : Roast Mutton and Ginger Pudding;
  8.  Chaat  Wala (Behind UPSC ) Shahzahan Road 
  9.  Andhra Bhavan , Ashoka Road: Veg Thali plus Mutton Fry and Chicken Curry; Chicken Biriyani for Sunday lunch.   
  10. Rick’s (Bar) – The Taj Mansingh;

the last stop before heaven

My last stop on every trip – before leaving for the airport is Jorbagh Market.  Smoked Chicken and Smoked Leg of Ham from Pigpo; Masala Sausages and Cheeses from The Steakhouse. While Pigpo, as the name suggests, is probably the best Pork Products shop in the country – The Steakhouse is one of its kind grocery store, which no Wal-Mart will ever be able to match. 

While Bombay has a rocking night-life, the food-scene in Delhi really rocks. But, I am a retired foodie - at rest now - so don't take me too seriously.