Monday, 23 December 2013

Likhe jo khat tujhe...

Had the man lived, he would have turned 89 today. As it turned out, he died at the relatively young age of 56. Hell, today I myself am a full six years older than he was when he died.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in the 60’s, when melody really reigned as queen in Hindi cinema, playback singers each had their own niche strengths, around which they built their repertoires.  The velvet voiced Talat was the ghazal maestro. The nasal vocals of Mukesh were best suited for pathos. The classically trained Manna Dey dominated the semi classical genre. Kishore was little more than a yodeller who sang the occasional breezy number for Dev Anand. Mahendra Kapoor, when he wasn’t singing those loud patriotic numbers for Manoj Kumar, was basically the poor man’s Rafi.

Why, even the females had their roles clearly cut out – while Lata crooned for the heroines, the more seductive Asha was earmarked for the vamps.

An aside here. It was Talat who indirectly set up my craze for crossword puzzles. When I was barely ten, a crossword in the Sunday ToI (Children’s Section) caught my eye. It was a Bollywood based crossword meant for kids. One of the `Down’ clues was `Singer going up the way he comes down (5)’. The answer, of course, was TALAT, which being a palindrome read the same way up or down! And I was hooked - man, this is so cool!

The only true blue `all rounder’ we had in those glory days was Rafi – the Gary Sobers of playback singing! And his greatness lay in the ease with which he could outdo each of the specialists in their own genre. He sang ghazals better than Talat, he out pathos-ed Mukesh, and clearly matched Manna Dey’s classical virtuosity raag for raag. As for Kishore, since Rafi also provided playback for Kishore the star, that was a no brainer to begin with!

Before diehard fans of these legends go up in arms, allow me to elaborate.

I remember a mellow evening at Jhansi, when we were discussing - over drinks, naturally - the merits and demerits of the Mukesh versus Rafi `sad songs’ argument. Col Mishra was a total Mukesh bhakt, and would have none of my `Rafi-is-the-greatest’ argument. “Ok, sir – the proof of the pudding” I argued, “is in the eating”! I slipped the vinyl LP (those were the vinyl days) out of its jacket. It was an SD Burman record, and had `Bandini’ on one side and `Meri Surat Teri Aankhein’ on the reverse.

I first played Mukesh’s `O jaane wale ho sake toh laut ke aana’ from `Bandini’. Now this is one of Mukesh’s best, and would take some beating. After Col Mishra was done swooning, I flipped the record over. “Now, sir – listen to real pathos” I told him, and played `Tere bin soone nayan hamare’, which is easily the most heart-rending outpouring of a torturous soul wringing in anguish. The songs spoke, or rather sang for themselves.

Manna Dey was, of course, formally trained in Hindustani classical music, so when the two got together to sing a raag based duet for Uday Shankar’s dance epic `Kalpana’ (1960), Manna Dey was expected to totally walk all over Rafi.  The song `Tu hai mera prem devta’ remains a classical gem, and each of the singers performed superbly - but once the recording was over, Dey shook his head ruefully. “For all my classical training, where do I get a voice like his?” he bemoaned.

Much the same thing happened when Talat and Rafi got together to sing `Gham ki andheri raat mein’ from `Sushila’ (1966). The silken vocals of Talat render the pathos so beautifully (Dard hai sari zindagi, jiska koi sila nahin), and when he tapers off his anguish, Rafi simply takes off in his positive note (Subah zarooooor aayegi, subah ka intezaar kar). 

The Kishore-Rafi debate is no debate actually - when you consider that Rafi has actually, on more than one occasion   provided playback for Kishore! I mean, can you imagine Lata providing playback for Noor Jehan? Of course Lata did provide payback for Suraiya, which is why nobody talks on any Lata-Suraiya debate.

The fact that Kishore dominated the 70’s is more of an accident – Dada Burman falling ill half way through `Aradhana’ , handing the mantle over to his less accomplished son RD. This was after he had already recorded two duets with Rafi (I still believe the best song form Aradhana is not Roop tera mastana or Mere sapnon ki rani but the Rafi-Lata duet Gunguna rahe hain bhawrein). This, combined with the phenomenal rise of Rajesh Khanna, laid Rafi low post Aradhana in 1969.

But there is no doubt that this man who had no formal education, this humble, God fearing Muslim was actually the voice of God. Proof? The best bhajans, in or out of movies, have been sung by Rafi – just listen to him sing `Hari Oooom’ the alaap of the mesmerising `Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj’ from `Baiju Bawra’ (1952). Even an agnostic like me turns believer!

Born on 24th December 1924, Mohammed Rafi would have turned 89 today. He now belongs to the ages. Happy Birthday, Rafi saab!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

'Nothing is Written!'...

I was in the 10th Standard when the school took us to see `Lawrence of Arabia’ at the Alaka theatre. As the credits unrolled, all the great names flitted by – Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, and finally – introducing Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia! That evening I anointed Peter O’Toole as the greatest actor EVER!

Today, over four decades later, I stand by my word. Nobody, just nobody has come anywhere near him. Not Brando, not De Niro, not Redford, not Hoffman, not even the back to back Oscar winning Hanks or the triple Oscar winning Day-Lewis!.

Two scenes in the movie left a deep imprint. In the first, Lawrence strikes a match, and then clamps it tight between thumb and forefinger till the flame dies out against his fingers. When Potter tries it, he screams in agony “It bloody well hurts!” “Of course it hurts!” Lawrence tells him. “So what’s the bloody trick?” Potter asks. “The trick, William Potter” Lawrence replies “is not minding that it hurts!”

I lost count of the number of times I burnt my fingers repeating that `trick’ and repeating that dialogue. To date, that remains the best, the only response to pain!

The second scene, and the one I tried to make my motto in life concerned the diehard fatalistic attitude of us Easterners. “It is written, and therefore it shall come to pass.” When crossing the desert on their way to Accaba, Lawrence and his team lose a straggler (played by IS Johar), and consider him to be a goner, as anyone lost in the desert surely is. Lawrence decides to go find him. Sharif tries to dissuade him “It is written that he shall die” he prophesies glumly.

The obdurate Lawrence trudges back, and by the end of the day, he drags a half dead Johar back to the camp. As he collapses himself, he tells Sharif “Nothing is written!” Sharif is overwhelmed. “Truly, Lawrence” he intones “for some men nothing is ever written except what they choose to write themselves!”

Peter O’Toole spent two years and three months making Lawrence. He became so obsessed with the man that he needed psychiatric help later to `come out’ of the character. That would become a staple with him – he lived each part and then needed help to become himself again.

By all accounts, O’Toole should have walked away with the Oscar for Lawrence – he was that good. But he came up against a competent Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in `To Kill A Mockingbird’. Peck was good, but nowhere near O’Toole - but then Peck was an American sweetheart, and he had already lost four times. So O’Toole lost out.

He played Henry II in two films, `Becket (1964)’ and `The Lion in Winter (1968)’. In the latter film, Katherine Hepburn, herself a superb actress, got so unnerved by O’Toole’s performance that she remarked “He’s so bloody life like, he gives me goose bumps!” O’Toole was nominated for both these films, but lost out in what are surely asinine choices.

If in `Becket’ he had any competition, it was from his own co-star in the film Richard Burton. (Imagine a movie in which two leading men are both nominated for Best Actor – the only time this has ever happened!). But both of them lost out to yet another Britisher – Rex Harrison in `My Fair Lady’. I kid you not!

`Becket’ continues to be shown as a training film in the Film Institute as a consummate study on acting. Just watch Burton and O’Toole pitted against each other – such sheer delight! Years later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was to use the same theme, of a hireling turning against his provider, in `Namak Haram’.

In 1969, O’Toole played the whimsical Arthur Chipping in `Goodbye Mr Chips’. Now this was a role which had already fetched an Oscar for Robert Donat in 1939, so it was expected to be a cakewalk for O’Toole. While shooting his farewell speech scene – a long scene done in a single take, by the time he finished the speech, the director forgot to say cut, everyone in the studio was spell bound or in tears, and then there was pin drop silence. Then the applause began and went on and on.

Yet, did he win the Oscar? That year, a cancer stricken and dying John Wayne had finally received a nomination for his role as Rooster Cogburn in `True Grit’. So how could the Academy deny `The Duke', the larger than life American idol?

Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor a record EIGHT times. He remains the most nominated actor never to have won an acting Oscar – Burton was nominated seven times, again without ever winning!

When Puja went abroad for the first time, she asked me what DVDs she should pick up. “Anything with Peter O’Toole” I told her. Today, thanks to her, I have a pretty good collection, and watch them again and again, each time marvelling at this genius.

And if you think he only excelled at serious roles, just pick up `How to Steal a Million’ in which he was paired with the delectable Audrey Hepburn. Or take the Pixar animation `Ratatouille’, and watch him as the voice of the acerbic food critic Anton Ego. Total, absolute pure delight!

Peter O’Toole was the last of the British Hellraisers of the 60’s – along with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. They have all gone now. I know this is as cliched a cliché as they come, but a part of me died with him this weekend. Thanks for the memories, Peter – they don’t make them like you anymore!

Friday, 29 November 2013

America - and The Art of Shaving!

Just off Union Square in SF, I noticed a glitzy showroom with an enticing banner. It said simply `The Art of Shaving’. An entire store dedicated to shaving, I wondered. Puja dragged me away. “It’s far too high end!” she said. Considering that I buy all my shaving needs from the CSD Canteen, `high end’ would probably be an understatement! Still, curious as a cat, I walked in. 

An attendant rushed towards us, all obsequious and salesman like. “Welcome, sir!” he gushed. I noticed the three day stubble on his chin. Seriously? In a store called `The Art of Shaving’? 

He thrust a pamphlet into my hands. `Welcome to the Brotherhood of Shaving’ it said. Now I was really intrigued!  We shavers, hardy men of the world, had got together to form a brotherhood, and no one had seen fit to inform me? “Go on”, I told him “tell me more!”

They not only sold shaving products, they also had a saloon where you could get a shave. A `Royal Shave’ he told me would last 45 minutes, and would set me back by 55 US$. That was around 3,500 bucks! Check out the Youtube video – The Royal Shave @ The Art of Shaving.

“The perfect shave,” he explained “has four elements – the pre-shave, the lather up, the shave and the moisturise.  We start with a hot towel compress that opens up the pores”.  Seeing my incredulous look, he went on “It isn’t called a ROYAL shave for nothing!” For 55 dollars, I thought, my pores would be as wide open as the Grand Canyon I’d been to the previous week!

“That may be so” I reasoned, “but lets say I do spend 45 minutes and 55 dollars today, and guess what, 24 hours later I’ll be back to Square One – I’ll need another shave! So do I come back again for a another round?”

“You shave daily, sir?” It was his turn to be incredulous.

Flashback to January 1971. It’s a freezing winter morning at Dehra Dun, and I’m a first termer at the IMA, standing in my first ever `Pre-muster’ fall-in at about 4:30 am outside the Sergeant’s cabin. He runs his hand over my cheek, and notices a faint hint of stubble. “You haven’t SHAVED??” he roars at me, thrusting his jaw line into my face. “No sir” I reply softly “I don’t shave daily”.  He is apoplectic. In the space of about 15 seconds, he tells me what he thinks of my response, then quickly moves on to my breeding, my upbringing and my worth in life - all the while making wild insinuations about my mother and sisters. 

I figure there’s no point trying to explain that I’m not yet out of my teens, and therefore don’t really need to shave daily, so I quietly fetch my razor and give myself the `dry shave’ he orders me to. My face soon resembles something out of `The Walking Dead’.  And I thought they called it a safety razor because it was supposed to prevent nicks and cuts!

Ever since that bloody experience some 40 odd years ago, I have indeed shaved daily – including Sundays, national holidays and even while travelling by the Indian Railways! On that story, maybe another post – woh kissa phir kabhi!

But back to the present. “Yes”, I assure the attendant “I do shave daily!”

He shakes his head in disbelief. “Before, after or during your shower?” he asks me. During? I swear he wasn’t kidding!

The free samples
The shaving products they sell cost a king’s ransom (50 dollars for a cup soap that costs under ten bucks at the CSD). He then gives us a demonstration of the products, which is dazzling. But I quietly pocket the free samples he offers, and promise to return after trying them out.

I did try them out, but lacked the courage (and the budget) to return. Check out their website It’s an eye opener!

I had actually run out of shaving cream during my trip, and was dismayed to find none in any of the stores – Walgreens, Safeway, Shoprite – they only had gels and foams. The one I saw in one of the In-n-Out stores at gas stations (see – I no longer call them petrol pumps!) cost $7.49, which my quick math converted to around 500 bucks, which my equally quick common sense told me would fetch me ten tubes at the CSD, so I quietly moved on.

I tried the one Sukh uses (Kiehl’s, costing around 25$), but it was non-foaming, and supposedly brushless, ie one had to rub it into the beard using ones finger tips. Strange, I thought. In our day, the best shaving creams were advertised as the ones that produced the maximum foam! Remember Kapil Dev and his `Palmolive da jawab nahin’? 

Foam apparently is passé. The old belief was that foam comprises of millions of miniscule bubbles, and the more the bubbles the denser the foam, and hence the smoother the shave. I remember Godrej advertising their shaving creams as having `x million bubbles per cubic millimetre’, which was twice that of its nearest competitor. Utter nonsense, says America. Bubbles being spherical, the surface area actually in contact with the skin is much less. Hence, non-foaming is better. Non-foaming is IN. My stubble, like me, however is old school, and prefers the good old `jhaag’ any day!

Razorless Shaving
I decided to do some more digging. To my horror, I found that, not only were all American shaving creams foamless and brushless, but some of them were also, I kid you not, razorless! Directions – Wet skin, apply cream to area to be shaved, rinse. Simple! The best way to avoid razor burns, they advertise, is to avoid razors altogether!  I suppose these are just hair removers, a la Anne French!

There was also some form of `Shaving Powder’ which I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what, how and why about. The times, they certainly are a-changin’. 

But back home at the ranch, I’m happy with my jhaag wala shaving cream, and my trusty old double edged razor – maybe I’ll make a Youtube video of MY version of the Royal Shave!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

America - and the way to THIS Puri's heart...

I had all my lists ready – To See, To Do and To Eat. Well begun is half done, they say. So the American trip promised to be really hectic.

Topping the `To Eat’ list was a simple entry – `One cheesecake per day’. Ambitious, I agreed, impossible Puja predicted. American portions, she assured me, were humungous.

The list wasn’t too grand. Chinese take away out of a white cardboard box, a fresh hot dog from a Manhattan cart, ice cream out of a tub, and of course burgers of every description (we have no qualms over meat of any kind – just about anything and everything is kosher).

Having landed at Newark and proceeded to our accomodation at Edison, NJ, we proceeded to tick off the Chinese take away. If Edison wasn’t disappointing enough (one felt one had landed at a Bangalore suburb), the Chinese take away was even worse – it tasted of the cardboard it was packed in, and we had to junk most of it. As starts go, it was inauspicious to say the least.

Off the next morning to Atlantic City. First stop – the world famous Nathan’s Hot Dog. Disappointing. The relish (their version of chutney) lacked punch, and Sowmya wouldn’t permit onions. So bland. The `funnel cake’ – again Sowmya’s recommendation – was just ok, nothing to write home about. American food – where art thou??? The answer lay in Atlantic City’s much touted `White House Sub'. At long last, we were actually tasting America!  

The Philly Cheese steak
Off to Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Cheese steak is world famous, and the one at Jim’s really lived up to its billing. The beef was tender, juicy and the sheer volume of the cheese made my arteries scream in protest! The next morning we tried the `street food’ version – off a cart just outside the Independence Hall, and it was, well, good.

Pork is a meat we generally avoid eating in India. Although the `pulled pork’ burgers we tried at Arby’s were quite good (Sid and Sowmya, do I see you  salivating?), what was really WOW were the prime ribs we had at Jack Fresh at DC, and Home at LA. Tender, juicy and smothered with Barbeque sauce, these were worth walking miles to eat (and with the traffic/transportation scene at LA, we actually did walk miles to eat it!).

Clam chowder soup
Sea food is on my `take it or leave it’ list generally, but the clam chowder soup, served in a bowl made of bread (yes, a huge hard crusted bun with the insides scooped out) at the Fisherman’s Wharf at SF was a definite `TAKE IT’. After a ferry ride, which takes you around the island of Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge, all the while spraying you with the ice cold Pacific, the piping hot clam chowder is a God send!

The iHop Breakfast
The breakfast in America varies from the humble `bagel and cream cheese’ to the king’s ransom that the iHop restaurant dishes out. Philadelphia cream cheese, thankfully, is now also available at Pune (at Dorabjee’s), and am now scouring the local bakeries for a genuine cinnamon-raisin bagel.

Mexican food is a big hit on the West Coast, and the ubiquitous `Chipotle’ is a household name. But it left me quite cold. Imagine taking a roomali roti, and wrapping some rajmah-chawal in it, along with some sauce, some pickles and some greens – boy, these Mexicans must be really famished!

America is sandwich country. They have sandwiches and sandwiches – some even stuffed with, I kid you not, French fries! But the `Ike’s Sandwich Place’ in SF serves some of the most delicious, if messy, sandwiches. They even have a `Meatless Mike’ for the vegans!

Sukh, more on a whim than anything else, has turned vegan. So his frig has loads of `vegan’ sausages, and chunks of `vegan’ chicken. They are said to look and taste `just like the real thing’. But I wasn’t fooled for a moment. They look awful, and as for the taste – it’s like Hugh Jackman says in the Micromax ad - `They’re nothing like anything! 

Have never been much of a pizza man. But the Chicago deep dish pizza at Patxi’s in SF, topped with two farm fresh eggs, was something else!

The sweet tooth of the Puris is legend. To add to that, I am an unabashed ice cream fan. And go ahead and de-friend me if you will, but the classic vanilla is the ONLY real ice cream! Add ons and toppings are a strict no no, except at Cold Stone Creamery.

There, ask for the cookie dough. The attendant takes two generous scoops of French vanilla, tosses them in the air with a flourish, and slams them on to the eponymous `cold stone’ slab. She then adds some cookie dough, some caramel and kneads the creamy mix before scooping the whole thing into a cup (or a cone). That, in short, is heaven in a cup (or a cone).

At San Francisco, there’s an ice cream outlet called `Smitten Ice Cream’. Here, they pour the ice cream mix into a churner, and pass liquid nitrogen through the mix as it churns. Liquid Nitrogen, at an astounding minus 198.5 degrees Celsius, instantly freezes the mix before your eyes. Since the process is instantaneous, there’s no time for crystallisation at all, and what you get is the smoothest, creamiest ice cream you can ever imagine. My choice of flavour? Classic vanilla of course!

The Super-duper burger
The third ice cream that is literally to die for is the `frozen custard’ they serve at Shake Shack. Now if you ever visit New York, you could give the Statue of Liberty a miss, you could skip the Empire State Building, but you cannot, you must not skip the burger at Shake Shack. We went to the outlet off Central Park, and had the juciest, smoothest, melt in the mouth burger imaginable. Despite being stuffed to the gills, we ordered a second round, and my resoundingly vocal `Oohs’ and `Aahs’ almost got me thrown out of the place (I totally ignored the glares of my children). I topped this with the frozen custard, and almost went to heaven!

And lastly, the best, the one single reason I want to migrate to the States – the original New York cheesecake! Walk into any outlet of the Cheesecake Factory, ignore all the other (30 odd) flavours laid out, and go straight for the original – the New York cheesecake. You don’t just want to eat it, you want to marry it, take it home, and make love to it – it’s that good! Oh, how I miss you, sweetheart!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Four Score And Seven Years Ago...

Admittedly, I’m a history buff. So a visit to the United States would have to include (in chronological order) the infamous Boardwalk at Atlantic City, the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall at Philadelphia, the Ford’s Theatre at Washington DC, and the notorious Federal Penitentiary at Alcatraz, off San Francisco.

Also, as a fauji, the not to be missed sites included the battlefield (now a Military Park and Museum) at Gettysburg, the Arlington National Cemetery at Washington, and the 9/11 Memorial at New York.

If you’ve been following the enthralling HBO series `Boardwalk Empire’ as I have, you’ll no doubt understand my keenness to do a Nucky Thompson. In the 1920’s, America, in what proved to be an asinine move, imposed prohibition across the country. This was the genesis of the bootlegging and organised crime empire that sprung up at Atlantic City and Chicago respectively. Enoch Johnson, Al Capone and J Edgar Hoover became household names as they chased each other across the country in an internecine warfare that has been breathtakingly captured in the serial.

The tale of the Founding Fathers, the debates leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (not on 4th July as believed, but sometime in August), the ringing of the Liberty Bell at the then capital of the fledgling nation – Philadelphia. We stood in silence in the very room in which Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin had solemnly debated upon, and finally signed a document that was to define democracy across the globe for centuries to come. (PS - Of course, we also demolished the reputed Philadelphia cheese steak at `Jim’s’ – altogether an unforgettable experience – but of my culinary adventures, wait for another post!)

As a schoolboy, I had had to mug up Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by heart – every comma and full stop in place. To my credit, I still remember most of it. If I’m still around, I plan to make my grand children do the same – even if it totally demolishes Lincoln’s claim that `the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…’

As battles go, Gettysburg may not have turned the tide of the American Civil War (the war continued for a full two years after Gettysburg), but it was definitely a defining moment for the Union, and will forever remain the site where Lincoln articulated what are arguably the most beautiful 272 words of prose ever written.

Of all the characters of history, the one who I grew up admiring the most was Abraham Lincoln. Had he survived to complete his second term, America would have been a different country today. As I gazed at the spot where he had been shot at Ford’s Theatre, then walked across the road to the room where he had breathed his last, I was overcome with a sense of grief, and madness at the way crazed people try and change the course of history through violence.

Arlington provided a sombre reminder of the same sentiment. Kennedy, who had visited the spot just two weeks before Dallas, now lay there forever stilled. Rows upon rows of marble gravestones, from the Great Wars to Afghanistan - such needless deaths!

Arlington became a tourist attraction only after JFK was interred there. But apart from the `celebrities' who lie in repose in those hallowed grounds - I noticed Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber) and Audie Murphy (`To Hell and Back'), among others - the most poignant and for me the most significant, remained the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The solemnity of the Changing of the Guard (only clicking of the heels, no banging of the feet, and the slow march) brought tears to my eyes.

Of course I can never mention Arlington without adding as an aside the American journalist’s description of Islamabad, Pakistan as `half the size of Arlington National Cemetery, and twice as dead!’

New York, of course, cannot – and must not – be seen in the two days that we had at our disposal. The `touristy’ stuff like the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square and of course hot dogs from the redi-wallahs at Manhattan were quickly disposed off. Then came the 9/11 Memorial.

The footprints of the two towers have been converted into breath-takingly beautiful `reflecting pools’. The names of all who perished have been engraved on the walls, and a rose is placed thereon on their birthdays. Surrounded by the tall sky scrapers of Manhattan, this is now an island of tranquility. 

But I was in no mood for sombre reflection. The deep sense of outrage at the perpetrators was overwhelming. To date, I feel the most fitting memorial to the 3000 people who perished in that attack would have been to re-build the towers post haste.

 A female guard at the Memorial shared my frustration, as we spoke wistfully into the setting sun. Will they not come here and gloat, I asked her? Is this not so much a memorial, as an abject surrender? Did they actually consider building a mosque at the site, to rub salt in the wounds of the victims? Well, we did get him in the end, she sighed, more in resignation than any rancour.

Apparently, the families of the victims wanted the ground to be left intact, and a Memorial built. The new World Trade Centre, with seven buildings is coming up around the Memorial – the first building is already up, and stands taller than the Empire State Building. It’s the swankiest structure in New York, I agree – and even though OBL is now feeding fish in the Atlantic, it did little to diminish my anger.

It’s a tribute to the resilience of New York, she said. That’s what gets me – the resilience is better shown by teaching them a lesson, not by quickly getting back to your way of life. Turning the other cheek is NOT an option in my book!

Sadly, as Maxim Gorky said, “Man has learnt to swim like a fish, to fly like a bird, but has still not learnt how to walk on earth like a man!”

Friday, 6 September 2013

Amrita Pritam, Waris Shah - some inputs from Pakistan...

Here are some inputs on Amrita Pritam’s `Ode to Waris Shah’ from across the border.. 

Umar Rafi, who is far more qualified than me in these matters, has this to say…

I have, perhaps, yet to read any single piece of poetry more powerful than this piece by Amrita Pritam by any South Asian poet in any of the languages I can speak. This includes Ghalib, Mir, Faiz, etc. Maybe one or two of Bulleh Shah's philosophical saraiki works would compare, as would Iqbal’s `Shikwa’ and `Jawab-e-shikwa’. Had Amrita Pritam written nothing else besides this one piece, this alone would have been enough to ensure her place in history!

This poetry is in extremely difficult Punjabi, and there is a theme to it. Actually, all of India wasn't really partitioned - only Punjab and Bengal were (and later on kashmir) Not Tamil Nadu nor Sindh etc, which only faced migrations but not complete cultural and social and demographic overhaul. The people who suffered the most, thus, were not Hindus or Muslims, but Sikhs - and Amrtia Pritam was a Sikh(ni)....

There is a theme to this poetry, which needs to be kept in mind to translate it - the poet is linking Punjab's partition violence to the Heer Ranjha story..........and furthermore, stating that while the villains in that story were always villians, now even the heroes in the story have become villains, i.e. those who should be protecting have become aggressors..

sane sej de beriaaN, luddaN dittiaaN rohr,
sane daliaan peengh aj, piplaaN dittii toR

Keeping the theme in mind, this needs to be re-examined. Luddan is not a thing........its a person.....and sej de beriaaN is not a wedding bed.....its a boat with a bed...specifically, Heer's personal boat, which had a bed....Mr. LuddaN (pronounced without the silent N) was Heer's boatman/oarsmen....the person responsible for ensuring the boat doesn't turn over while she slept on her boat bed......

LuddaN dityaan rohr therefore implies that the very person who was to protect Heer (i.e. luddaN) and had, perhaps, always been protecting the partition situation, even he turned against her, and cast away/turned over the boat on which she slept......

Piplaan ditti tor has the same theme....for a long time, the pipal branch, on which the swing was tied, ensured the security of the swing.........not allowing it to partition time, the branch (guardian of the swing), itself broke the swing.......

Historically, Punjab was, generally, a separate country and, of course a separate has its own unique ethnicy, language, boundaries, culture, DNA, stories etc. ....However, Punjabi is, unfortunately, a dying language in Pakistan (where the majority of the world's Punjabi speakers reside)......62% of Pakistanis speak Punjabi/Seraiki as their first language......however, Punjabi is now, more or less, only a spoken language in Pakistan......hardly anyone writes it.....hardly any university teaches it.......or any school.....national education is all in Urdu/English, hence as the literacy rate goes up, Punjabi kids stop speaking Punjabi and start speaking only Urdu.......still there is still a lot of Punjabi speakers, but hardly any writers......soon there will be limited Punjabi speakers also.........Punjabi history is not taught as a separate subject......the one thing keeping Punjabi allive in Pakistan is music and movies.........i think a couple of generations and Punjabi in Pakistan will turn into Urdu.........and with it will die a very old civilization........

The one thing that will, of course, keep Punjabi alive is the Sikh religion; which is in Punjabi.......

Research by Samina Rizwan on Luddan

A final and break-through discovery on Luddan has been made, thereby negating all previous discoveries. Which were apparently all incorrect...........

Luddan who was Heer's ferryman (her chauffer), Heer apparenly had a famous bed in a boat, which Luddan threw away in this poem........

Before her sacrifice for Ranjha, she proved herself to be a very courageous and daring young girl. It is said that Sardar (Chief) Noora from the Sambal community, had a really beautiful boat made and appointed a boatman called Luddan.

Noora was very ruthless with his employees. Due to the ill treatment one day Luddan ran away with the boat and begged Heer for refuge. Heer gave him moral support as well as shelter.

At the third watch of the day, when the sun began to slope to the west, Ranjha reached the bank of the river Chenab. Many travellers were assembled at the ferry waiting for Luddan, the ferryman, to take them across. Ranjha said, “Master ferryman, for the love of God take me across the river!”.

Heer and her girl friends came to the river to bathe. The tinkling of their anklets was heard from afar. They descended on the boatman as a hailstorm sweeps over a field. They ordered the guards to be bound hand and foot. Heer spoke straightaway and said, 'Luddan, you black-faced rogue, why have you defiled my couch? Whom have you allowed to sleep on my bed? Have you no respect for me or fear of God that you have done this thing?'

Luddan lifted his hands and said, 'Spare me, Lady, I am innocent. I did not invite the lad to sleep on your bed. The songs that he sings have cast a spell over our hearts.'

Heer made answer in her anger, 'Does he not know that this is the kingdom of my father Chuchak; I care for no one........."

So a tie-up of Heer, the famous bed the famous boat and Luddan (the ferryman)

In Conclusion...

The revised translation, therefore should be…

sane sej de beriaaN, luddaN dittiaaN rohr,
sane daliaan peengh aj, piplaaN dittii toR

The wedding bed, the boat Luddan has cast away
The Pipal branch, the swing lies broken in disarray

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Amrita Pritam's `Ode to Waris Shah'..

Today (31st August) is Amrita Pritam’s 94th birth anniversary.

Amrita Pritam (1919 - 2005) was one of the most prominent female writers and poets of our time. She published over seventy books - novels, short stories and poems.

Amrita Pritam was born into a Sikh family of Gujranwala. She was the only child of a school teacher and a poet. Her mother died when she was eleven. Amrita married at the age of 16, and divorced in 1960, at the age of 41.

At the time of Partition, in 1947, Amrita migrated to Delhi. After migration, she started writing primarily in Hindi, instead of her native Punjabi. She has authored two autobiographies, titled, `Rasidi Ticket’ and, `Aksharon ke Saaye’. Her novel, `Pinjar’ (Skeleton), about the agonies of Partition riots, was also turned into a movie.

Amrita’s impromptu capturing of the condition of Punjab at the time of partition in her, `Ode to Waris Shah’ makes for compelling reading. Legend has it that Amrita wrote this poem, on her migratory train ride from Gujranwala to Delhi in 1947, deeply moved by the violence she witnessed.

`Ode to Waris Shah’ is a call to the legendary Punjabi poet, Waris Shah (1722 – 1798) whose `Heer' is considered the Bible of Punjabi poetry. It is filled with allusions to Waris Shah’s legendary work. She refers to Heer as the, “daughter of Punjab” (dhii Punjab di), and beseeches Waris Shah to step out of his grave and hear the partition cries of a million Heers. The poem also references many of the main characters of the Heer legend – Ranjha, his brothers, and Qaido (the villainous Uncle), comparing the attitudes of the Punjabis at the time of partition, to the evil acts of later.

My own understanding of pure (`theth’) Punjabi being severely limited, this translation would have been impossible without the inputs from Samina Rizwan, who researched the `Luddan’ reference and came up with a plausible explanation. Also, her brother Umar Rafi who started it all by circulating his own translation, which I have used as a reference point.

Amrita Pritam passed away on 31st Oct 1995 at Delhi.

AN ODE TO WARIS SHAH – by Amrita Pritam

Aaj aakhaN Waris Shah nuuN, kitoN kabraaN vichchoN bol,
te aaj kitab-e ishq daa koii aglaa varkaa phol

Waris Shah, I beseech thee, speak up from your grave
To love’s eternal treatise, please add another leaf

ik roii sii dhii punjaab dii, tuuN likh likh maare vaen,
aaj lakhaaN dhiiaaN rondiaa, tainuN waris shah nuN kahen

A single daughter wept once, you screamed out in protest
Today a million daughters weep and implore you, Waris Shah:

uTh dardmandaaN diaa dardiaa, uth takk apnaa Punjaab
aaj bele lashaaN bichhiaaN te lahu dii bharii chenab

Oh, voice of the anguished Arise, see the plight of your Punjab
The fields are lined with corpses, the Chenab flows red with blood

kise ne panjaN paniaN vichch dittii zahar ralaa
te unhaaN paniiaaN dharat nuuN dittaa paanii laa

Who has stirred this poison into our rivers’ waters?
It is this very water that now irrigates our land
is zarkhez zamiin de luun luun phuttia zaher
gitth gitth charhiaaN laaliaN fuuT fuuT charhiaa kaher

This fertile land sprouts venom, from each and every pore
The sky has now turned crimson, from all these cries of gore

veh valliissii vha pher, van van vaggii jaa,
ohne har ik vans di vanjhalii ditti naag banaa

It’s a terribly ill wind that rages through the woods
Transforming every bamboo-shoot into a deadly snake

pehlaa dang madaariaN, mantar gaye guaach,
dooje dang di lagg gayii, jane khane nuN laag

The very first snake-bite, and the charmer lost his spell
Yet every bite after that addicted them all the more..

laagaaN kiile lok muNh, bus phir dang hi dang,
palo palii punjaab de, neele pae gaye ang

Addicted to these waters, to be bitten again and again
See how the limbs of Punjab have turned blue with pain
gale'oN tutt'e geet phir, takaleon tuttii tand,
trinjanoN tuttiaaN saheliaaN, chaRakhRre ghuukar band

The songs have all been silenced, the cotton threads are snapped
The girls have fled the courtyards, the spinning wheels are mute

sane sej de beriaaN, luddaN dittiaaN rohr,
sane daliaan peengh aj, piplaaN dittii toR

The wedding beds and the boats have all been cast away
And the Pipal branch, the swing lies broken in disarray

jitthe vajdii sii phuuk pyaar dii, ve oh vanjhalii gayii guaach
raanjhe de sab veer aaj, bhul gaye uhadii jaach

The flute that just knew love, has been forever lost
Even Ranjha’s brethren no longer know this art

dhartii te lahoo varsiyaa, kabraaN paiaaN choan,
preet diaaN shaahzaadiaaN, aaj vichch mazaaraaN roan

It’s blood that’s rained on this earth, seeping through the graves
The damsels that lie within them lie weeping in their shrouds

aaj sabbhe 'Qaido' ban gaye, husn ishq de chor
aaj kitthoN liaaiye labbh ke waris shah ik hor

Today there are just Qaidons, looters of beauty, love
Today, where shall we find another Warish Shah?

aaj aakhaN waris shah nuuN, kitoN kabraan vichchoN bol,
te aaj kitaab-e ishq daa, koii aglaa varkaa phol

Waris Shah, I beseech thee, speak up from your grave
To love’s eternal treatise, please add another leaf