Sunday, 24 March 2013

Mother Serious, Come Soon

The Annual Technical Inspection of the Unit was due, and we had to host a visiting General for dinner at the Officers’ Mess. Imagine my horror when the Mess Secretary informed me that the only mess cook we had, had proceeded on leave.

“He received a telegram, sir – mother serious!” Major Vikas intoned lugubriously.

All our mothers are serious, Vikas” I spluttered in disbelief “you think mine is joking??”

In the age of the sms, the BBM, the iMessage and Viber, how many of us remember that vile, obnoxious and utterly despicable messaging system that went by the name of `TELEGRAM’ or, as it was colloquially called, the `TAAR’? Delivered by diminutive postmen in khaki, generally in the dead of the night – oh, what manner of horrors that midnight knock held! And those postmen were such past masters, with expressions that ranged from mournful hangdog to Cheshire cat grin, depending upon whether the news he was carrying was that of a death or a birth in the family! For him, it was the baksheesh that counted!

Personally, my animosity towards the telegram was well founded. My daughter was born in Bhubaneswar while I happened to be in Poona. Those were pre STD days, and we didn’t even have a land-line connection. Also, my father in law, Lord rest his soul, was a great one for sending telegrams. Even in his letters, he’d often stress on the urgency/gravity of what he was saying by adding an acerbic `Khat ko taar samjho!’.

So naturally he sent me a telegram. Now the ability to properly draft a telegram is directly proportional to two factors - the amount of money in your pocket, and the number of words in your vocabulary. Being severely challenged on both counts, the old man wrote `GIRL BORN SERIOUS OPERATION COME SOON’. I rushed as fast as I could, or as fast as one could rush from Poona to Bhubaneswar in those halcyon days of the Indian Railways, when such an enterprise entailed train changes and longish halts at Secunderabad, Vijaywada and Waltair. I reached two days later. The `serious operation’ turned out to be no more than a normal C-section, and both mother and daughter were in the pink. 

When my son was born a few years later in Mhow, I had to trudge all the way from the MH to the single ramshackle post office that served as the nerve centre of that sleepy station. The sole employee there also doubled as Post Master, stamp dispenser, telegraphist, chowkidar and pretty much everything. His only link to the outside world was a single telegraph line to Indore.  He first sat at the counter, accepted my telegram, handed me back my change, then waddled over to an ancient key console that was a true museum piece, and laboriously keyed the message to his counterpart in Indore. Click-click, click-click, and hey presto – the birth of Siddharth Puri was announced to the world at large!  And even though his birth too was via a C-section, no alarm bells were generated!

In the Army, a telegram was considered a pre-requisite, almost a sin qua non, for any jawan seeking leave. It was quite common to find telegrams (WIFE/MOTHER SERIOUS COME SOON) stapled on to their leave applications. As Commanding Officer, I made it a point to junk all such applications, while rewarding the other `non telegram’ ones. Would you guess it - within a month of my taking over, telegrams to my unit mysteriously stopped altogether!

The fauji equivalent of the telegram used to be the SIGNAL, which we Signallers had to process and clear. Those of us who performed DSO (Duty Signal Officer) duties in shifts as subalterns will recall just how intricate it was to correctly route a signal from, say Bengdubi in the North East to Pattan in J&K!

An apocryphal story on Army Signals bears repeating. A GOC was to visit a remote location. A signal was sent from his Headquarters –


Now the operator at the sending end, probably towards the end of a long shift, omitted one vital word, and the signal went as


The CO Signals was naturally furious, and ordered the DSO on duty to immediately send an amendment. The young guy, fresh from his Young Officers’ Course, sent this gem  


Do they still have telegrams, I wonder? Is the Indian Postal Service still in business? What became of that `All-in-One’ superhero at Mhow PO?

Maybe it wasn’t all that bad, the lack of communication had plenty of silver linings.

Fast forward to the present.

A guy carelessly leaves his cell phone lying around. Of course guys, being guys, are totally sloppy and/or overly sentimental, and never delete those lovey-dovey messages, they like to read them again and again. And of course wives, being wives, will make a grab for the phone at the first opportunity, and feverishly browse through the Message Inbox.

End of story? You’re kidding, right?? Oh, for the days of yore….

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Times, They Are A'Changin!

My daughter Puja and I were at the Command CSD Canteen, and I was lamenting the non availability of `Imperial Leather’, my preferred bathing soap.

“You still use SOAP?” she cried incredulously, making the word `soap’ sound like a four letter word (I know it is, but you know what I mean). “Pa, who uses SOAP (there again, the same sound) these days?”

I glanced around the aisle, ran my eye over the three whole shelf rows choc-a-bloc full of the offending item, and was just about to answer “Well, just about everybody”, when she yanked my arm and dragged me to another counter.

“Here!” she said, grabbing a fancy looking tube from another counter, “use this!”

The label on the collapsible tube said `Shower Gel', and I wondered how on earth it could replace a healthy bar of soap which one could (and did) vigorously rub all over one’s torso. At the risk of sounding an ignoramus, I asked her how one used the stuff. She rolled her eyes heavenwards, and gave me the look one normally reserves for mentally challenged six year olds, and sighed “With a loofa, pa!” 

The shower gel, she explained, was not for the face – for that she picked up another smaller tube called a `face wash’. It was my turn to roll my eyes skywards.

As kids, all we had at home were two basic soaps – a hefty red `Lifebuoy’ bar for bathing, and an even bigger yellow one for washing clothes. The richer kids used Lux, the `soap of the film stars’, which accounted for the fact that they always smelt (or so we thought) a bit like pansies. The Lifebuoy, on the other hand, smelt exactly like what it was billed as – a germicidal. I finally gave up on it only when I saw it being used as a hand wash in the Zoology lab in College, and all the girls (the ones that mattered anyway) crinkling up their noses in disgust at its offensive presence in their lives.

We Army guys, our preferred brands of toiletries (disparagingly referred to as `saaboon-tel’) is normally limited to whatever is available in the CSD Canteen! After Lifebouy, I tried all sorts, including the Karen Lunal inspired Liril. Check out the ad – the sight of the bikini clad Karen cavorting under a waterfall sold me quite a few cakes of Liril in the 80’s. Had to give it up hastily when a pretty young thing asked me why I always reeked so strongly of nimbu pani!

Call me archaic, but I still shave with an old fashioned double-edged razor blade, till recently used a cup soap - migrated to shaving cream after my brother complained that my bathroom smelt like a barber shop, and regularly use talcum powder. Yes, TALCUM POWDER – kar lo jo karna hai!

My son, on the other hand, alternates between shaving gels and foams, uses a Gillette Fusion razor, and has a set of colognes, after shaves, perfumes and deodorants that would be the envy of Priyanka Chopra! To be fair, he is way way too conservative when compared to my son in law, who takes the cake, icing et al. Being metro sexual is one thing, but Sukh is just a product or two short of having his own show in Vegas!

Shampoo entered my life just a couple of years ago – earlier it was plain Shikakai soap. The kids have separate shampoos, conditioners and hair products even your hair didn’t know existed! Sukh has now come upon an `All-in-one’ - shampoo, conditioner, face wash and shower gel – which he can use from head to toe. Of course, you can watch the entire season of `Homeland’ by the time he emerges from the shower!

My nephew Rohit was much the same. After a shower, he’d sprinkle an entire can of talcum powder over his expansive frame, and would then stomp all over the house leaving his trademark Size-11 footprints in stark white in every room. We called his showers `maha mast abhishekams’, and I once seriously suggested he use milk instead of water!

We are a nation of washers, not wipers – which is our biggest bane during our trips abroad. Here too, times have changed. The brass `lota’ gave way to the `mugga’ once we entered the age of plastic, and then of course the hygiene faucet (inexplicably called the `muslim shower’ in some quarters) caused a paradigm shift in our morning rituals. What a cataclysmic change that was!

And post the act, like Macbeth, when we need to wash the `guilt’ off our hands, we now have an obscene range of liquid hand washes to choose from - of all fragrances, colours and viscosities. Not for me, however, the ghastly `hand sanitisers’ that the modern lass carries in her handbag (along with pepper spray and a .22 pistol, if she happens to be in Delhi). I tried one once, and found I needed to wash my hands immediately after, since the sanitiser left my hands feeling gooey (`chip-chip’ if you know what I mean)!

The ubiquitous yellow `shining cloth’ we used to brasso our stars and shine our ammunition boots with is now passé. We have separate micro fiber cleaning cloths for every surface - laptop screens, glassware, and even for spectacle lenses! But believe me, if you really want a sparkling shine on any surface, nothing, just nothing beats an old baniyan!

As a kid, I had to hide my Brylcreem from a dad who insisted on `khopre-ka-tel’. Now, I guess I’ll have to hide a bar of soap from my daughter in favour of a tube of shower gel! 

For years, it was our parents who dictated our choices. Now it is our children. The times, sure, they are a changin’!

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Abhi toh main jawan hoon...

Have been trying to translate Hafeez Jalandhari's seminal work `Abhi toh main jawan hoon' into English for some time now. To those of us who love, cherish and swear by those lines, the monumental difficulty of the task is apparent. To translate into straightforward prose, all one needs is a good Urdu to English dictionary. The real challenge is to translate it into poetry that can stand on its own. Poetry that retains the essence of the original, yet is not quite a literal translation. Here is my humble effort. Any comments or suggestions towards improving this effort would be more than welcome.

The fragrance wafts o’er the dew
As flowers bloom, in every hue
A thousand melodies fill the air
As spring is here, in bridal wear

It’s time for cheer, bring out the wine
Come back, the moment is divine

Come fill the cup, don’t turn away
Do not demur, do not delay
Do cast your eye upon the spring
The scene’s a dream upon a wing

As evening falls, dark clouds appear
Across the skies, from far and near
Wine lovers will always have their say
As to the taverns, they wend their way

Off with the skeptic look, my man
For I’m not naïve, nor weak nor van
Heaven can wait, as can piety
For I’m still young, so let me be.

Yes, there’s talk of God, of fear
Of salvation that’s never near
Redemption, and the need to know
The after life, where souls will go

But man of God, do hark my word
Is not your contention absurd
Tell me dear man, hand on heart
Can love and beauty stand apart?

When joy and fragrance fill the air
And lissome beauties, tall and fair
Bewitching smiles, do lie in wait
How can our passions ever abate

Sensuous glances, full of grace
Entice one into their embrace
Guiles of love, and passion’s sway
Can mere mortals then stay away?

Okay, to cut the story short
Your point of view, your kindly thought
I may agree with, I may see
But I’m still young, so let me be..

To walk along the mountain side
Or trek the streams at eventide
To hear the nightingales in song
And blooming roses, all along

And then to chance upon your love
And see all worries, gloom dissolve
I guess it’s written in our stars
Tears or joy, what shall be ours..

These tales of love, these songs of yore
Are ones we have all heard before
Some speak of youths, full of flair
And others may merely be hot air

These skies, these meadows evergreen
Are scenes that no one has ever seen
Bounty in joy, calming in strife
They are the essence of our life

A life that’s short, that’s so finite
And so every breath holds delight

But is the end ever so nigh
No, no, not now, how can I die
I’ve long to go, I’ve much to see
For I’m still young, so let me be..

No bondage, nor freedom shall remain
No rise, no fall, no wax nor wane
No past, no present, no despair
No vows, no promises, no care

Hope and despair, both beguiled
With past and future reconciled
All sense, all logic shall now depart
There’s just the wine, and the heart

Come let the wine flow, let’s rejoice
Oh nightingale, where is your voice
Do sing of joy, draw out our pain
Let just the cup, the ale remain..

Let every voice sing out as one
Drink on, the joy has just begun
A drink, a drink, don’t you see
For I’m still young, so let me be… 

Here is the version immortalised by the mother-daughter duo of Malika Pukhraj and Tahira Syed - whom I liken to the finest single malt and blended Scotch respectively.

And here is the original version in Roman Urdu...

Hawaa bhii khushagawaar hai,
Gulon pe bhi nikhaar hai
Tarannumein hazaar hai,
Bahaar purbahaar hai

Kahaan chalaa hai saaqiyaa,
idhar to laut idhar to aa
Arey, yeh dekhtaa hai kya?
Uthaa subuu, subuu uthaa

Subuu uthaa, piyaalaa bhar,
Piyaalaa bhar ke de idhar
Chaman ki simt kar nazar,
Samaa to dekh bekhabar

Woh kaali kaali badliyaan,
Ufaq peH ho gayi ayaan
Woh ik hajum-e-maikashaan,
Hai su-e-maikadaa ravaan

Yeh kyaa gumaan hai badgumaan,
Samajh na mujh ko naatavaa
Kayaal-e-zuhad abhi kahaan?
Abhi to main jawaan hoon

Ibaadaton ka zikr hai,
Nijaat ki bhi fikr hai
Junoon hai sawaab ka,
Khayaal hai azaab kaa

Magar suno to sheikh ji,
Ajeeb shai hain aap bhi
Bhalaa shabaab-o-aashiqui!,
Alag huay bhi hain kabhi?

Hasiin jalwaa raiz hon,
Adaaein fitanaa khaiz hon
Havaaein itr baiz hon,
Toh shauq kyun na taiz hon?

Nigaah haai fitanaa gar,
Koi idhar koi udhar
Ubhaarate hon aish par,
Toh kyaa karey koi bashar?

Chalo ji qissaa muktasar,
Tumhaaraa nuqtaa-e-nazar
Durust hai to ho magar,
Abhi to main jawaan hoon

YeH gasht kohsaar ki,
YeH sair ju-e-waar ki
YeH bulbulon ke chahchahey,
YeH gulrukHon ke qah-qahey

Kissi sey mail ho gayaa,
Toh ranj-o-fikr kho gayaa
Kabhi jo waqt so gayaa,
Yeh hans gayaa who ro gayaa

Yeh ishq kii kahaaniyaan,
Yeh ras bhari jawaaniyaan
Udhar sey meharbaaniyaan,
Idhar sey lantaraaniyaan

Yeh aasmaan yeh zameen,
Unhey hayaat aafareen,
Bhalaa main chhorh doon yahin

Hai maut is qadar qarib,
Mujhey na aayegaa yaqin
Nahin nahin, abhi nahin,
Nahin-nahin abhi nahin

Na gham kashood-o-bast ka,
Baland ka na past ka
Na bood ka naH hast ka,
Na vaadaa-e-alast ka

Ummid aur yaas gum,
Havaas gum qayaas gum
Nazar sey aas-paas gum,
Hamaa, bajuz gilaas gum

Na mai mein kuchh kami rahey,
Gadaah sey hamdami rahey
Nashist yeh jami rahey,
Yahi hama hami rahey

Who raag chheRh mutribaa,
Tarab-fizaa, alam-rubaa
Asar sadaa-e-saaz ka,
Jigar meiN aag de lagaa

Har ik lab pe ho sadaa,
Na haath rok saaqiyaa
Pilaaye jaa pilaaye jaa,
Abhi to maiN jawaan hoon


Friday, 8 March 2013

Main pal do pal ka shayar hun...

Born as Abdul Hayee in Karimpura, Ludhiana 92 years to the day, on 8th March 1921, he would single-handedly ignite my love for Urdu poetry, and ensure that I also learned the intricate Urdu script entirely on my own. I was in college in the late 60’s, and Abdul Hayee had by then metamorphosed into Sahir Ludhianvi.

Being in our teens, it was naturally the intensity of romantic poetry that really drove us. At Fergusson College, we had formed a society much like the Dead Poet’s Society of the Robin Williams film. Ayn Rand’s highly rightist literature, the intensity of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s verses, and the sheer passion of Sahir Ludhianvi – these were animatedly discussed and shared in the college amphitheatre, or over dosas and coffee at Vaishali.

The greats – Ghalib, Meer, Iqbal and Faiz were far too obtuse, and would come much later. It was Sahir and Kaifi Azmi and Balraj Sahni of the Indian People’s Theatre Association and the Progressive Writer’s Association who were our soldier heroes of the day.

In 1969, the Ghalib Centenary was being observed/celebrated all over India, and there was a mushiara being held at Bal Gandharva Theatre, Poona. Sahir was to attend. We managed to wrangle our way into the theatre, and seeing the great Sahir stride into the auditorium was the highlight of my college years (yes, dad – I know, that’s the reason I didn’t do too well, and had to settle for a career in the Army!)

Whereas every other poet on the dais recited glowing eulogies to Ghalib, Sahir stunned the audience by reciting his nazm `Who toh Urdu zubaan thi’ which lambasted the step-motherly treatment given to Urdu, while deifying Ghalib.

Ghalib jisay kehtay hain Urdu hi ka shaayar tha
Urdu pay sitam dhaa kar Ghalib pe karam kyu’n ho

 The hall was aghast, and the moderator Ali Sardar Jaffri got into an open tiff with Sahir, right there on the stage! It was scandalous, and of course raised Sahir’s stature to that of a demi-God in our eyes!

Those were pre Internet days, there wasn’t even TV in Poona – so all we had was books. And woe betide me, Sahir’s poetry collection `Talkhiyan’ was available only in the Urdu script! I grabbed it, and got either my father or my brother-in-law to read it out while I furiously copied the verses in Devanagri. Since my father obviously considered this a total waste of time, and since my brother-in-law was based in Bombay, the exercise was frustrating in the extreme. So I said, hell with it, I’m going to learn the Urdu script!

Sahir was an out and out communist. Even in the Johnie Walker song in `Naya Daur’ he says `Aaya hun main bandhu Roos aur Cheen mein ja ke, kaam ki baat bata di, main ne comedy gana gaa ke!’ Or in this fabulous parody of Iqbal’s Tarana-e-Hind – `Cheen-o-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara, rehne ko ghar nahin hai, sara jahaan hamara’ from `Phir Subah Hogi’. Note the rueful shrug as Raj Kapoor waves at the beat constable, calling him `woh santri hamara, who paasbaan hamara..'

An avowed atheist, Sahir wrote bhajans like `Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam’ (Hum Dono), and in the days when it was fashionable to be super patriotic, he wrote `Jinhe naaz hai Hind par who kahan hai’ (Pyaasa).

Sahir’s contribution to Hindustani cinema was colossal. Take away Sahir Ludhianvi, and what is left of `Pyaasa’? His poetry, of course, outlives him, and still stirs passions. Listen to the soulful `Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabi ban jayein hum dono’, or what became my anthem in life `Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya’ – and you just marvel at the sheer genius of the man!   

For himself, he just shrugged it all off, and modestly wrote in his introduction to `Talkhiyan’…

Duniya ne tajurbaat-o-hafadiz ki shakl mein
Jo kuch mujhe diya hai, lauta raha hun main…