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Mumbai Diary

In the monsoon, that old journalistic idiom--dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is news--changes to man fells tree is not news, tree fells man is news.

Mumbai Diary
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Flash Floods and Baseball Bats

In the monsoon, that old journalistic idiom—dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is news—changes into man fells tree is not news, tree fells man is news. It’s a news report that appears with sickening regularity: large branches suddenly break off and fall, wrecking parked cars (which can be repaired) or a passing pedestrian (who can’t). A conservationist tells me that this can occur with even the first rain because while trees in a real jungle get all the nutrients they need from the soil, those rooted in our concrete jungle do not.

But Bombayites and Mumbaikars nonchalantly soldier on, the former in their chauffeur-driven cars and the latter in the suburban trains so densely packed that even sardines couldn’t get in. These two varieties of city-dwellers come together in low-lying areas when mini-floods stall cars and Mumbaikars show Bombayites that man-power is superior to horsepower. It makes one think back to 26/7, six years ago, when the skies opened up and the city roads became raging rivers in a matter of minutes. Motorists scrambled out of their cars and sought shelter in nearby slums. And those were the lucky ones. Others found that the water had made their cars’ electrical circuits go bust, locking them in with no chance of even opening their windows. Many died, gasping for breath.

“Carry a hammer,” the traffic chief had then advised us, so we could break car windows if the situation cropped up again. I wonder how many people do. I know someone carries a baseball bat though (a baseball bat!). I saw him at a traffic light, jumping out of his shiny new Accord which had been scraped by a rickety Tempo. As the lights changed, I saw the baseball bat up in the air, ready to strike.


Frankenstein’s Monster is Slumming It

Being cooped up inside while it’s coming down outside isn’t such a bad thing, especially if inside refers to the cosy confines of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). The place is abuzz with excitement; orchestral music, dance, plays, and even an odd opera or two. Their latest initiative is a tie-up with Britain’s revered National Theatre to show special screenings of current productions.

The first screening was a play you can’t get tickets to for love or money in London. Frankenstein is such a hot ticket that friends in England were envious when I told them that I had seen it in Bombay. The play has been adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel by Nick Dear and is directed by Danny Boyle. Because of the Slumdog Millionaire connection, the NCPA asked Anil Kapoor to inaugurate the screening. He strode in, clad in a smart jacket, and read out a really well-crafted speech. Having already heard Amitabh Bachchan and Naseeruddin Shah deliver their respective addresses, one realises that behind that actor’s swagger hide some pretty brainy people.

Boyle’s Frankenstein is beyond brilliant. The script is a complete departure from the iconic Boris Karloff film. In Boyle’s version, the ‘monster’ is altogether more human, both in form as well as in its emotions. Our sympathy, therefore, shifts to ‘it’. This is more so because Dr Frankenstein himself is so focused on his scientific achievement that he cannot see the enormity of what he has done—playing God.


The Talking Book At The Mic

The rains may stop people from venturing out for more trivial pursuits, but book readings continue to enjoy packed houses, especially if the writer is someone as well known as Amitav Ghosh. As his photographs show, Amitav has a boyish, unlined face. His hair, in startling contrast, is all white as if someone has poured a can of silver paint on his head. He is sunny and has a ready laugh; not for him the careworn look of so many writers.

At the release of his River of Smoke, I did a ‘Conversation’ (Q&A session) with him. When he had finished his reading, I commented, “You read as well as you write.” He looked uncertain. “How do I take that?” he said, “No one has said that to me before!” I, of course, had meant it as a compliment.

Our conversation flowed freely because Amitav takes your lead quickly and gives his answers with easy erudition. With some writers, you feel quite redundant on stage because they get into an intense love affair with the microphone, and there is no separating them. But that’s still better than the ‘Author Who Will Not Speak’. The late lamented Dom Moraes did that to me once. I’d ask him a question and he’d answer ‘Yes’ and clam up. For variety’s sake, he’d occasionally say ‘No’. I was ready to tear out my hair.


Rainchecking on Dinner Dates

Bombayites are notoriously late for dinner engagements and the monsoon provides them with a ready-made excuse for daily use. But come the National Day reception at a foreign consulate and everyone troops in on time. This also holds true for small get-togethers at foreigners’ houses. A German friend would invite us to his home for dinner, tongue-in-cheek, at 7.37 p.m. By 7.40, all the guests would have arrived. If it’s a local host, the first arrivals clock in at 9.15 p.m., and they are apologetic for being so early.

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