To Quit Chewing Tobacco, Leave The Country

At 2.00 AM on yet another dismal day in Mumbai (all days are dismal in Mumbai) I took a cab to the international airport. At 5.30 AM, I was on a Turkish Airlines flight to Berlin via Istanbul. In my pocket was a plastic baggie containing five chewing tobacco pouches. It was September 26, 2011, and I was determined that these would be the last that would ever cross my lips.

But I get ahead of myself – first, some background…

Chewing tobacco – you don’t really chew that stuff. In its loose form, you assemble a wad of it in your mouth and park it between your lower gums and lip. With pouches, you do the same, except that you don’t go through the process of wadding it up first. The tobacco releases its nicotine and assorted carcinogens into your bloodstream via the mouth’s mucous membrane.

A new user needs to spit out the fetid fluid every now and then, because swallowing it causes nausea and hiccups. (This is not a problem in India, where democracy exists in such a pure form that folks let fly without notice at any currently unoccupied spot on the road. I have no idea how people manage in less progressive countries.) The more seasoned chewers (I was one of them) have no problems with swallowing the stinking brew and do so it in small amounts at judicious intervals.

Chewing tobacco is the less glamorous cousin of smoking, but it is a hell of a lot more damaging.  For one, it shoots its load of goodies into your body via a small, extremely focused surface area of the mouth. Mouth cancer is most certainly on the agenda sometime in the future.

Also, a load of chewing tobacco has a lot more time to do its work than a cigarette does. You don’t face any of the limitations that smokers do, especially in these dark days when lighting up anywhere but on the road or in your own home lays you open for severe social sanction at best and legal action at worst. This fact makes smoking a bit of a catch-as-you-can undertaking and curtails indulgence even among the jitteriest smokers. Moreover, a cigarette doesn’t last longer than three to four minutes.

A tobacco chewer, on the other hand, pops the stuff into his mouth and it’s business as usual. No elevator rides down to the street or long walks to the office’s designated smoking area.  In other words, anyplace and anytime is good enough. He can last a very long time without having to spit, and the nearest toilet (or, in the case of India, the nearest window) is just fine when he does.

No lighting up. No tapping ash every ten seconds. No outraged health freaks baying for your blood. Just keep your gob shut and do your thing. Veterans (again, yours truly among them) can even drink coffee and eat a meal with tobacco still in place. It takes some very dicey oral acrobatics, but it can be done.  And so, the tobacco chewer is often wired into the deadly load for an hour or two at a time – sometimes even the whole night through. This is seriously bad news, bro.

A note on ‘gutkha’. This is a very lethal variant of chewing tobacco invented in India and enthusiastically consumed all across the country. This shit is a truly deadly combination of betelnut pieces, paraffin, tobacco and lime (yes, the stuff you put on your walls). As far as I know, it is only made and sold in India. Gutkha kills folks maybe twenty times faster than chewing tobacco. For the record, I was hooked to this as well. I’m 47 now – all said and done, I was not counting on seeing age 65. One has to be realistic – you simply don’t do stuff like that to your body and expect to eventually bounce grandchildren on your knee.

How had I gotten on this lethal ride in the first place? Well, I had been a smoker for something like 20 years, and switching to chewing tobacco had been my misguided way of quitting. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d gone from the frying pan into the fire, but it was too late by then. For ten years after that, I needed chewing tobacco and gutkha from within ten minutes of rising in the morning until I went to bed at night. I’d tried quitting like a thousand times, but it never worked.

Okay, so I land at Istanbul Airport with one of my last five tobacco pouches in my gob. I suck it dry, spit it out into a garbage bin and throw in the remaining four, as well. Now I’m in a foreign country where no chewing tobacco exists (at least not on the airport, and as a transit passenger I was not at liberty to waltz off and sample the local souks). I was waiting for a flight to an even more foreign country where the mere mention of chewing tobacco would probably get me fined.

In my haversack were twenty nicotine patches and ten strips of nicotine chewing gum. Cold turkey? Not for this hombre. I am a orderly sort of guy, and willing to believe that needless suffering has its place – but it has no place in my life.

Four hours later, my mother folded me into a hug at Berlin’s Tegel Airport. I was chewing Nicotex and trying to be brave about the ordeal that I thought awaited me over the next ten days. None materialized. I arrived back in Mumbai (yes, it was a dismal day) eleven days later, but did not make a beeline to the nearest tobacco vendor. Five days earlier, I had ditched the nicotine patches and was only on gum now.

So far, so good. It’s been a month now, and I’m switching to a lower dose of nicotine gum soon. No overpowering urge to say “the hell with it” and fall off the wagon has shanghaied me, and I know that I’m rid of the evil shit for good.

Here’s what didn’t work – patches, gum and good intentions while I was still in my comfort zone. By that, I mean a country where chewing tobacco is available even in areas without electricity and drinking water.

Here’s what worked – complete non-availability. Moral of the story? In situations where no other options but doing the right thing exist, even the most degenerate compromisers among us tend to do the right thing.

No, this won’t work for smokers. Contrary to common belief, folks in Germany and probably the rest of Europe are still puffing away for all they’re worth, and fags are available at every street corner. But if you have a chewing tobacco problem and tried every other method to quit and failed, consider leaving the country and heading for Europe for a couple of weeks. The period of forced abstinence will open for you the window of opportunity you need. After that, you’re obviously on your own. But if you’re like me and have felt the tightening noose of doom around your neck for long enough, suddenly being tobacco-free for two weeks may be all that you need.



My valued friend, I am complete
Don’t add to me, or take away
You, who sit in judgment’s seat
On behalf of the moral elite
And think you know a better way.

There’ve been a thousand instances
I’ve faced the Critic’s Crew
I’ve heard each kind of remonstrance
And faced each disapproving glance
Now show me something new…

Don’t ask me what I think of you
I’d only spoil your day
It’s sad, of course – your hot wind blew
When I was trying to stay cool
But hot wind finally blows away.

Hell is full of folks like you
Each one has cursed and died
Go on and curse – there’re blessings too
Maybe you should learn a few
Invest a bit on Heaven’s side……

Let’s thank God for each point of view
This world would be a bore
If we resolved our differences
And united in our nothingness
To agree for evermore…

The God Of Small Things

Ashish D. is not his real name, and this overweight disgrace to my neighborhood could thank me for my discretion in keeping him anonymous.

The man takes his morning walk an hour later than I do. This means that he’s just starting off on his perambulations when I’m on my way back. He’s a regular, just like I am, but I never paid him much attention over the years. You know how it is – we see people, yet their existence registers as more of an abstract concept than an actual fact.

I’ve never so much as exchanged thoughts on the weather with him, and the only thought I ever spared him was an idle wondering…. how can a man walk like that for years and never lose an ounce of that gross flab? And why, if these nominal saunters have proved so utterly futile, has the oozy blighter not done something more constructive about his improbable girth? I mean, he has surely got a clear title deed for a 3BHK flat in Heart Attack Country and he’s bound to take up residence there anytime. Doesn’t that BOTHER him?

Anyway, one day the fact that he does figure on the landscape was driven jarringly home to me. The realization came in the form of a loud, agonized canine yelp. Jerked from my pleasant dawn reverie, I cast about for the source of the sound. A weathered dog was making tracks for the opposite side of the road as fast as three legs would allow it. Three, because the other one was drawn up against its belly in a tortured spasm of muscle and bone.

Ashish D. threw me a brief grin of vicious triumph as he took after the injured animal, brandishing the heavy stick he has picked up to launch the morning’s festivities.

“Saala kidela _____ (worm-raddled %#@>),” he cursed, enjoying every second of it. “Come sniffing at me once more and I’ll……”

He emphasized this sentiment by chasing the dog and giving it another lash of the stick, which caught the hobbled beast squarely on the back. The dog was out of its mind with pain now and was squalling like a bagful of BEST bus brakes during the peak hour crunch.

I was stunned into complete, impotent inaction. D. delivered three more blows to the animal before a window flew open above us and an irate woman leaned out.

“Oye, stop this immediately. My husband can’t sleep!” she screeched in hellish accompaniment to the dog’s vocal efforts. The dog in question used the lull to crawl beneath a paan shop and cower there for dear life.

D. flashed a spitless grin at her, favored me with a fading version of the same and discarded the stick. Then he waddled off, his mind obviously already switching gears to the stock market or some other good-time stuff. The beleaguered mutt crawled out from under the paan shop, scanned the surrounding topography and found it fortuitously bereft of fat middle-management prototypes headed for Stroke City.

Fade to black…

No, of COURSE Ashish D. bears no resemblance to any of us. WE wouldn’t kick a defenseless street dog just because we feel so hugely superior to it, would we? Nor would we tell a street urchin to scram when he or she sucks up for a spare coin just because the sight reminds of too uncomfortably of how our own kids would look if the Powers That Be had not somehow transpired to set them above such a lot, would we? OTHER folks do such stuff, right? Sick folks. Folks like Ashish D. Right? Huh? Right?

What circumstances spawn such moral bottom-feeders in the first place? A desire to rid the city of unsanitary elements such as stray dogs? The trauma of having been bitten in the butt by just such a cur back in childhood? I don’t think so.

I close my eyes and see a different scenario – one littered with bugs that squirm and scamper for the shadows when sunlight hits them. Behind my closed eyes, I see a Ashish D. who is not as secure in his precariously overloaded skin as he pretends.

The economy is see-sawing wildly, inflation has eaten into his once unassailable bank accounts and he may just have to pull his bounder son out of that fancy ‘international’ school next year. His wife, no less bloated on excesses than he is, treats him like the last dirt on earth – just like his dad did before him. His boss has chuckled forlornly every time Ashish has hinted at that promotion. Ashish smells his essential powerlessness over the world he inhabits with every wheezy breath he pulls into his blubber-cased lungs.

He does not like this smell, and he needs to rid himself of it.

What old Ashish therefore does is treat each waking hour as another opportunity to bolster his sagging pride by taking pot-shots at the various hapless targets that the world has placed at his disposal. Therefore, the beggar on the road is cursed and waved away like a leper who has dared to cross the Holy Temple’s threshold. The street kid is treated to a look and words of utter loathing and revulsion. The maid is threatened with sudden unemployment every time she goofs up. And the street doggie gets a kick in his scrawny backside if he is presumptuous enough to make an appearance during Ashish’s fruitless morning waddles.

He does not have what it takes to tell his wife what HE thinks of HER. He doesn’t have the courage to tell his boss to shove his job up the old waste-pipe and look for a better prospects. His dad died of an apocalyptic, ghee-induced stroke years ago and is unavailable for settling scores with.

He is the overgrown schoolyard bully, even now desperately trying to salvage his self-esteem by preying on those who seem weak enough not to put up a fight. And, of course, he’s going to die in un-heroic circumstances before his time; he isn’t man enough to save his own ass. If that isn’t enough to sign the death warrant of every stray dog within kicking distance, what is…?

Pune – Lost in Transformation

From Pensioner’s Paradise to Pseudo Boomtown… Pune’s story of degeneration is being rewritten every year. The city’s infrastructure rocks and reels under the onslaught of reckless urbanization; the town planning authorities dither over where (if at all) to plonk the international airport. Meanwhile, Pune unfolds itself in a sweeping signature of chrome glitz and tinted sheet glass like something out of a bastardized Transformers episode written and directed by Ram Gopal Verma.

Is anyone complaining? Not yet – there’s no time or scope for regret when you’re dancing as fast as you can, after all. However, we do have what the Pentagon would describe as ‘a situation’. We’re talking of major identity theft here. Or should I say identity abandonment?

Pune has sacrificed its human side on the chrome altar of crass commercialization. Traditional youth hangouts like Empress Garden, Sarasbaug and FC Road wear a faded, jaded look as the city’s brand-conscious yuppie crowd heads for the new shopping districts and watering holes to scuttle their call centre and software salaries. Camp’s iconic MG Road barely manages to hold its own.

As the mountains that previously kept Manic Mumbai at bay and Pune’s clement weather in place surrender to the bulldozer of metropolitization, the line that divided Sin City from the Oxford of the East grows hazier. As physical and spiritual distance between the cities reduces, Pune is turning into a cheap Mumbai clone – in appearance, in temperament and in values.

Who cares? I do! Damn it, this city is my foster home, and I love it for a reason!

Sure, I moved to Mumbai to pursue better career options, but with the consolation that nothing and nobody would steal the peth-and-wada culture of Pune from my heart. I would endure the kicked-anthill craziness of Mumbai just as long as I had the option of withdrawing to Pune’s blessed peace, quiet and laid-back laissez faire when I needed to.

My visits to the city are turning into a poor joke – these days, I find myself wondering where Mumbai ends and Pune starts. Kondhwa looks suspiciously like Bandra did a few years ago, before it gave up the human element forever. Kothrud and Karve Nagar bear a doom-laden resemblance to Dadar and Mahim – not the city’s ‘happening’ places, but more of its congested launch points to the glitzier locations. The once proud Puneri is bending over backwards to sound either like a Dharavi tapori or a Nariman Point magnate. I can’t see the ‘misal’ for the McDonald’s anymore!

Hello, Ground Control calling Spaceship Pune – you’re spinning out of control. Return to base before you run out of fuel and crash….

Confessions Of An Absentee Dad

“Can you come down this weekend and attend the inter-school choir festival? She’s taking part in it and would love it if you are there.”

As calls from my ex-wife go, this was one of the more memorable ones. She does occasionally remind me that ‘I still have a daughter despite the divorce’, but the context is not usually this positive. This invitation was very different from the usual guilt ICBMs, and my mind did a quick inventory of the times I had made myself available for such events in the past. The resultant figure made me squirm.

As a chronically unavailable father, I had never made time to be part of my daughter’s school life. I think that I believed, at some level, that paying her fees and incidental expenses covered my burden of obligation on that front.

“I’ll be there,” I said firmly.

That weekend three years ago, I boarded a train to the city I had left behind even before I regained my ‘single’ status in court. During the journey, I came to terms with some unpalatable truths:

• I had effectively abandoned my daughter after the divorce. I had literally thrown the baby out with the bathwater
• In terms of being a real-and-present Dad, I fell short by a mile. Even before the divorce, I had always been preoccupied with only my own affairs. After it, I continued to be – only with a sense of justification attached
• My daughter’s childhood had passed me by. As a result, the thought of how her needs had evolved intimidated me

I had been playing the undemanding role of the archetypal sugar daddy – in town occasionally to shower her with gifts, then breeze out again.

Her face glowed as I picked her up in the hot afternoon sun. She seemed to take special pride in meeting me in her school uniform. The tie was ineptly knotted. I reveled in a strange sense of wholeness as I set it right. I stepped back and examined her.

“You look absolutely beautiful,” I said. She giggled with delight. At thirteen, this lady-in-the-making had just received male approval from her rightful primary provider. In the rickshaw, she snuggled up to me until we reached the school.

Pandemonium at the inter-school choir festival’s venue. Every school in town had its student choir taking part. The scene was a splash of brightly coloured school uniforms.

She was in her element, introducing me to some of her classmates. How had she been handling questions about her father’s whereabouts in the past? I would have been at greater ease in a boardroom full of strange business suits.

Her class’ choir was the second act after the intermission, and we sat together in the audience until then. It was a mind-blowing experience – these kids could sing! This was not just some kiddie-school do that parents sat through with bored, condescending smiles on their faces… this was a genuine musical event.

She threw me a shy grin as she marched down the aisle with her class’ choir group. Moments later, the geriatric MC announced their rendition – ‘Reach For the Stars’, and they were on.

It was a perfectly choreographed rendition of Shirley Bassey’s timeless song of hope and optimism, which had once made it to the #1 slot in the UK charts.

There’s a place waiting just for you
Is a special place where your dreams all come true
Fly away, swim the ocean blue
Drive that open road, leave the past behind you
Don’t stop – gotta keep moving
Your hopes have gotta keep building
Never ever forget that
I’ve got you and you’ve got me, so…

Reach for the stars
Climb every mountain higher
Reach for the stars
Follow your heart’s desire
Reach for the stars
And when that rainbow’s shining over you
That’s when your dreams will all come true…

After the show, we ambled through the dark streets. I held her hand and breathed in the sights and sounds of this peaceful town I’d left behind. We talked of nothing deep, and it was awesome to share this simple, undemanding moment with her. I bought her a soft toy at a store we passed, overwhelmed by the pleasure this seemed to give her. She has it with her to the present day.

We shared a spicy fast food meal and an orange juice further on, and then I dropped her off at her mother’s place again. There was a lump in my throat… maybe a minor throat infection brought on by the cool weather?

I knew that the deeper stuff would eventually come. She was a teenager now. There would be tricky questions – “Why did you and Mummy split?” “Was it something I did wrong?” For the moment, however, we were still safe. God had given me this fleeting moment of real togetherness with my daughter, at the very fag end of her childhood. No tough questions yet – other than the ones I have been asking myself since then. Of course, it’s possible that I’m taking myself far too seriously.

I did learn something for sure that evening – my daughter doesn’t love me for my parenting victories, or hate me for my shortcomings. She loves me because I’m her Dad. My wife (yes, I remarried a couple of years ago – and she’s the light of my life) assures me that children retain their uncanny ability to love unconditionally right up to the moment we teach them to be adults…

Mumbai – A Bohemian Rhapsody?

Kamlesh (not his real name) arrived from Delhi with stars in his eyes and a spring in his step. That had me wondering, since he had a grueling second-class train ride behind him. To land in the blast furnace of Mumbai after a non-AC train ride from the sweltering capital in such ebullient spirits is no mean feat.

I had told my wife that I would spend that Saturday with my Delhi buddy. She had been agreeable to the point of indifference, which probably meant that she had planned to join an extended hen party at our neighbor’s place anyway. Women are never averse to more things to complain about at such events.

Anyway, I helped Kamlesh sort out his luggage at Dadar TT and flagged a taxi to take us home. He asked the driver to stop along the way so that he could pick up a couple of beers, and I once again wondered at this laissez faire on what was supposed to be a company-sponsored business trip.

“Mumbai!!” he exulted when he’s stashed his bottles on the back seat. “Sin City! Man, I’ve always wanted to check out Mumbai, and now I have three whole days for it!”

Sin City?! I mean, sure, there is a lot of shady stuff going on in Mumbai that the media just love hollering about. But that doesn’t make the other metros Abodes of Sanctity either. In fact, if I recall right, some Bollywood offering or the other attempted to showcase the slimier side of Delhi’s ‘social’ circles. I asked him to explain.

“Oh, I know, I know,” he said dismissively. “People who live next to the sea never go swimming. You Mumbaiites are so engrossed with the daily grind that you miss out on all the fun that this city has to offer.”

“Well, I do go to the movies with the family,” I countered defensively. “Not that I want to… it’s a sort of recurring weekly hijack. And I take them to every new mall that blots the landscape, too….”

“Pah!” said Kamlesh. “Movies! Malls! See what I mean? You’re missing out on all the REAL action. But then, you’re married.” He said that as if referring to some unfortunate physical defect. I’m sure that there are folks who would agree with him on that. I’m not one of them, and my dander was up anyway.

“Okay, so what do you hope to do in Mumbai after you’re swilled those beers?” I asked him, mindful of not raising my voice. The taxi driver could not have understood much of the conversation, but he had hear the name of his city spoken in less than reverend tones and was glaring daggers at us through the rearview mirror.

“Have fun,” said Kamlesh smugly.

“You may wish to expand on that,” I said reasonably. “You know nothing of Mumbai and you’ll need some local guidance.”

He pondered this. “True,” he said. “Okay, I want to smoke some good Afghani dope, get hold of one of those bimbos Mumbai is so famous for and generally lose ten years of my life in three days!”

I was taken aback. I had never seen evidence of Kamlesh’s bohemian tendencies before. I believe he pushes magnetized mattresses from Japan on unsuspecting customers in Delhi for a living – I mean, it’s not as if he’s in advertising or anything like that. But that was not the point. He had apparently judged this city as degenerate and was all set to exploit the degeneration.

“I hope you don’t expect to find that particular fun package where I live,” I said, though I suspected he would if he looked hard enough.

“Forget home, then!” he countered passionately. “I’m not interested in wasting these three days in some backwater suburb! Drop me off at a hotel in some happening locality. I mean it, pal… I want to make the most of this trip!!”

“What you have in mind is pretty perilous for someone who hasn’t been in Mumbai before,” I said evenly. “But have it your way. Just let me know before you leave for Delhi again. It’ll be interesting to know if you got what you wanted.”

I got off to take a separate cab home and asked the driver of this one to take Kamlesh to Colaba. I added that he might find it worth his while to help my friend find a hotel there, and to supply some classified information. The man nodded sagely and off they went. My home was deserted when I got back and I resigned myself to watching Oprah or something equally soporific on the telly for the rest of the day.

Next morning, I got a call from Kamlesh while I was at work. He wanted me to bail him out at Kamathipura police station, where he had been taken after he was found high and sozzled at one of the better brothels there. The cops had also retrieved a small amount of hashish from him – thankfully not enough to mark him as a peddler. I took the local to Grant Road and went to the chowky.

Kamlesh’s wallet, gold ring, watch and Ray Ban goggles were gone. His right eye was blackened and his shirt was torn in various places. He himself was a chastened man and none of the effervescence of two days ago was in evidence. Five hundred bucks and a strident lecture from the PSI later, he was out of the chowky. I took him back to his hotel, where he showered and changed. Then he took a taxi to VT, from where he would catch the first available train to Delhi. I didn’t expect to hear from him again too soon.

A hooker glanced a silent question at me as I approached Grant Road station to catch a train back home. I waved at her with weary good cheer and went my way.

Yes, he was right. People who live next to the sea never go swimming… but that’s not all there is to it. In Mumbai, we live with an understanding – supply does not necessarily equal demand. I hope Kamlesh finds his peace with that fact eventually, or else he won’t be safe anywhere at all….

Goa Vacation Survival Guide

So, you’re going on a Goa vacation. You’ve made an online booking in what may be the last of the decently priced hotels in Goa, have your flight tickets in your hand and are raring to go. Goa beach culture – here you come!

Good for you. I salute your prudence and good taste. To be sure, there aren’t many options that compare to a Goa vacation. You’ve made an excellent choice. I love Goa, and recommend it highly over India’s other beach-based tourist destinations. Kerala’s Kovalam? Gimme a break. Mumbai’s Juhu? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. Lakshadweep? Hey, I thought you want to be where the ACTION is!!

So, your plane lands at Dabolim Airport. Or your train pulls into Margaon Station. Or your bus wheezes to a halt a Panjim. Or you’ve survived a self-driven car journey and are trying to figure out if this IS Panjim or just another of those towns with pseudo-Portuguese names that you’ve passed through. Read the hoardings and see what area the joints they advertise are at, dummy. Don’t tell me you can’t see all those Dantesque monstrosities that vie for your attention. Eat that lobster platter. Drink that beer. Take that pleasure cruise down the Mandovi River. Move into that Goa resort, because no other resort even comes NEAR in terms of ‘tropical ambience’, hospitality, facilities, cuisine (don’t bother looking for the room rates, though).

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The Purpose Of Life – Yes, Again!!

Enough has been written on this subject to wallpaper every square inch of the planet if the printouts were laid out edge to edge. The Internet space this material occupies could, if put to more fruitful use, host enough information to the true nature of politics to put that revered business model out of the running forever.

And yet, there are no answers – only vague suppositions, amateur conjecture, the dubious assurances given in the Bible, Koran and Torah, and the impotently dry intellectualism of philosophers and latter-day pop gurus. Nobody has really been able to tell us, with immutable logic and indubitable power of conviction, why we crawl across the planet.

No, I don’t have the answer either – but I have two eyes, a like number of ears and a backside that learns reasonably well from experience. Even with limited knowledge, the power of observation and deduction can carry one pretty far. In fact, because everyone has at least a modicum of these faculties, we all know at least SOME baseline facts about the nature and purpose of human life. The problem is that they’re so unpalatable that we look for better explanations.

The best (and worst) I can do here is to stand on my soapbox and spill these facts out in broad daylight. Nobody will thank me for doing this, and I consider it fortunate that I’m NOT here for gratitude. Now, to the subject.

The last office I worked in had a creaky old lift, traveling in which was always new incentive to reflect on whether one’s life insurance policy was still paid up and current. The walls of this death contraption were generously plastered with stickers, posters and scribbles that promoted some product, service or school of thought or the other. One of these, half torn away but still faintly legible, simply stated:


“WHAT?!?” you scream. “HAPPY?!?! How mercenary! How shallow! How utterly bereft of social spirit! We are here to HELP EACH OTHER!! To make this world a BETTER PLACE TO LIVE IN!!!”

Yeah, right. Okay, your time is up. Gimme my soapbox back.

Let us examine some facts here, shall we? Yes, yes, I know it will hurt, but hey… you can’t expect a perpetual ride through La-La Land, now can you? There have to be way stations, right? Places where we can alight and have a quick cup of hot Realitea before we embark on our cocooned journey again.

Now stop whining. The facts:

* Nobody achieves anything of true universal importance in his or her lifetime
* Suffering achieves no purpose other than to displace happiness
* Nobody’s watching, applauding or preparing a Welcome Cart on the other side
* There IS no other side

I have no real reasons to give you, but I strongly suspect that whoever put that sticker up was right. We are, indeed, here to be happy, simply because being sad is such an inferior option. However, the pursuit of happiness is traditionally equated with hedonism. ‘Hedonist’ is NOT a qualification that most of us would want on our visiting cards. So, even though each of us definitely DOES want more than our share of the good times, we make sure that there’s enough misery in our lives to soothe our uneasy conscience.

Let’s define misery. No, forget the Oxford dictionary, I mean let’s really DEFINE misery here, okay? No farting around with semantics, just the bare bones. Misery is the state in which our wants are not met, and those that were being met before are also compromised. That’s misery. Misery is also other people, but only to the extent that OTHERS get what THEY want and we don’t.

Pretty self-centered, huh?

Did you just mention the bleeding-heart social activist who is miserable because his PEOPLE (or maybe not even HIS people) are being deprived of their rights? Gimme a break. The man may be crazy now, but he wasn’t born that way. He had this harebrained stance implanted into him by his parents, in school or perhaps in the Army. His natural state is as selfish as yours and mine. Anyone whose heart bleeds for others is merely on a sanctified ego trip. And even THIS person is looking for a state of personal happiness, even though he or she erroneously believes that this state is somehow linked with the happiness of others. We are here for ourselves, period.

Closer home, we are often tempted to believe that our purpose on this earth is to serve our family and fulfill their needs. Another ego trip – we just want to get a healthy chomp of the feeling of personal achievement that doing this provides us with. Examined closely, it would logically seem that we would be happier WITHOUT those appendages that we added or were added to us somewhere along the way – if we had never met that doe-eyed beauty, scraped that orphan off the road or taken that doggie home. After all, it’s not as if anyone is desperately UNHAPPY until he/she is married or accepted into the local Lions chapter. It just so happened that we did, thereby inheriting a whole new slew of complications on the final journey towards personal happiness.

Now let’s go to the original model of the human being. No, I don’t mean the protozoa crawling out of the primordial ooze. Not THAT far back, okay? Let’s examine the blighter who recently descended from the trees and found that this cave actually beats that nasty old tree hollow when it rains, shines or freezes over. Did I hear a Christian anti-evolutionist squawk back there? Put a sock in it and read your Bible, okay? We’re talking REAL LIFE here, not your grade of nebulous candy floss. Hey, barkeep, give that poor numbskull a double shot of Holy Water and make him shut up.

I have understandably not met such a recent descendee myself (though I DO get a brief glimpse of him when a traveling relative lands up at my doorstep, asking if he can crash out here for the night.) However, I do believe that the kind of brains going round then were pretty rudimentary, and therefore not too hard to pick. Simple motives.

What did it take to make a caveman happy? No philosophy about the meaning and purpose of life there. Get fed, get laid, keep warm/cold/dry, biff that fuckhead from the next cave on the head if he comes sniffing around your mate, and a swim in the river would go down pretty well, too. Bingo, happiness. Purpose of life achieved in full – let’s file that report! No concerns about the state of the nation, the absence of a red Ferrari or the fact he can’t pay for bambino’s summer camp this year. Just because we’re complicated matters of personal happiness beyond all salvage today doesn’t mean that it is no longer what we want, and what we live for.

Yes, we’re here to be happy, but there is a problem there. Happiness is a highly subjective term, considering that some folks are happiest when someone is whipping their hide to shreds while they’re chained to a post. In fact, some folks are only happy when they’re in the midst of a state that most other humans would pay considerable amounts of moolah to avoid.

Yup, happiness is subjective. By the same coin, so is sadness. Some folks are only sad when they’re in a space that others would equate with happiness. These worthies find the state of being without problems intolerable. If none exist, they bend over backwards and sideways to create problems. You get the picture – happiness and sadness are subjective, and YOUR take on them is by no means the global standard.

Okay, now for your original objection. We are here to help each other, is it? Why are we here to do that? Does our help somehow change the equation? You’re going to die, and so will the dude you’re helping. His life’s purpose is the same as yours – to be happy, period. No more and no less. So now you’re going to fulfill HIS purpose is life, are you?

Even if your help somehow results in him becoming the president of your country some day, everybody in this country is going to die too. You may not have noticed it, but human life comes with a limited shelf life. Whether or not you help someone else or not, that fact will not change. So, what precisely ARE you achieving? Totting up credits in Heaven for yourself? Well, even if that’s the case, you’re still being selfish, aren’t you?

The purpose of human life is to make this world a better place to live in, you say? Playing God again, are we? This planet is going to hell in a handcart. Nobody on it is going to make a dime of a difference in the Universal context. My guess is that in a thousand years or less, it will be no more than a smoldering cinder cluttering up space. Nobody will have got off it long enough to impact any larger scheme of things. The Earth is essentially a doomed, localized infection, of absolutely no significance to God’s plans for the Big Picture.

So, don’t worry and be happy, already. You’re running out of time.

Death – The Final Frontier


Last night, it suddenly occurred to me that I’m 45 years old, and that a lot of people die by the age of 60. I’m not in terribly bad shape, but I’d say that consoling myself with that is sort of like whistling past the graveyard – a lot of shit happens to fit people, too.

The human body is not your precision Swiss watch, where one can account for every tick and tock, replace a single worn out gear and have the whole thing running on again as if nothing had happened. The body is an organic mess of unfathomable complexity, and it keeps throwing up surprises. Pick up any Reader’s Digest and you will read about at least one new radical, hitherto unsuspected process that is making medical scientists skip their lunches and wet their pants in glee. Pick up any metropolitan tabloid and you will read of some poor bastard who went face-down in his lunchroom soup for no apparent reason.

And then there’s Chance – that wild card that the Universe throws on the table just when you thought you had a winning hand. Along comes a drunk driver and runs 200 pounds of steel and rubber all over those gym-toned muscles, calcium-nurtured bones and carefully moisturized skin of yours. There goes your hard-won physical wellbeing. There go those good looks. Here come an instant of incredible torture, gut-wrenching ugliness, the deletion of all your carefully hoarded knowledge and permanent, uncompromising oblivion.

Occasionally, my eyes meet those of someone across the street, at a bus stop or at the local tea vendor and I see a reciprocating flicker of dull knowledge… it’s no use. We strive. We struggle. We set out to win, lose instead, wrench ourselves onto the path again, win for the moment and feel good about ourselves – and all the while, we are only whistling past the graveyard. Death awaits us all somewhere along the line, and the more we add to our lives by ways of victories, experiences, knowledge and possessions, the more terrified and unwilling we will be when the moment comes to give it all up and face annihilation. The luckiest among us will go in an unaware flash – the luckless ones will see it coming and have enough time to be extremely afraid of being utterly, completely erased at the end of at least some degree of mental and physical suffering.

I see knowledge of this in the eyes of someone struck immobile and speechless by a stroke. “I have lived a long and eventful life,” those eyes say. “I have experienced practically everything that can be experienced in the gamut of possible human experiences. Nothing has prepared me for this. Everything I did, everything I learned and everything I strove for was related to life. To enhance the quality, security and durability of life. But I don’t know how to die! Death is not life – death is the End of Everything!! I don’t want to die…!!”

I mention the inevitability of death to some friends over coffee. One laughs nervously, looks away and says, “Sheeeeit, you are such a loser. Order yourself something stronger – that java is not cutting it!’ Another looks at his watch, fumbles for a cigarette and lights up.

The good-looking middle-aged woman at the next table throws me a poisonous look, hurriedly pays her bill and leaves.

Mumbai: Reflections On A Dying City

Sometimes it all gets too much for me, and I have to withdraw. Yes, even from my family and friends. Mumbai’s frenetic pace can mesmerize you into thinking that manic activity is normal. That we have always lived this way. But I guess, deep down where we carry our legacy of freedom encoded in our being, we know that this is a lie. The truth is…

Mumbaiites have not always fought for every square inch of space. We have not always attached a monetary value to every aspect of our lives. We have not always had to feel the do-or-die rush of toxic adrenaline as we gear up each morning and evening to engage in choiceless battle with our fellowmen on platform 2, or automotive anarchy in the rush-hour traffic. We have not always had to walk our streets with wary caution, our bodies clenched like fists to reduce the space we occupy to a bare minimum. We have not always had to have mastered the skill of looking through others as if they don’t exist, hoping only that they will be considerate enough to return the favor. We have not always had to traverse this city with one hand on our wallets and the other one clutching a kerchief to our noses.

I have learned of a saner Mumbai at the feet of Dadasaheb Lohekar, who occasionally holds court at the local park where I live. The man is 91 years old and looks every day of it as he sits there with his decrepit Alsatian. However, his memory is as sharp as a Grant Road pickpocket’s blade and he has some stories to tell of this city. Of course, he’s not old enough to actually remember some of the things he talks about, such as the days when Mumbai’s only inhabitants were the Koli fisher folk. Yeah, the people we resignedly make way for in the locals today as they climb on with their noxious baskets, most of us unaware of the fact that Mumbai is named after their patron goddess Mumbaidevi.)

But Dadasaheb is old enough to talk authoritatively of them and the standards of coexistence they adhered to. He is old enough to remember the Parsi, Gujarati and South Indian Hindu families that lived together peacefully here at one time, when property was not an issue of power and the sharing of resources not restricted to partisan community pockets.

His eyes, already filmy with advancing cataracts, cloud over even further when he regales us with stories of a Mumbai we would never recognize today. I don’t blame him. I get sort of misty-eyed myself. And so, on some nights after the daily struggle to emerge intact from the teeming human anthill, I take off on my old Enfield and look for evidence of Mumbai in the urban apocalypse. I leave my suburb behind, aware of the fact that the bike’s exhaust is not doing much to improve the pollution I often complain about.

I see a different Mumbai emerge after midnight, though the city truly never sleeps. This Mumbai tosses uneasily in its half-awake somnolence, the relative quiet after a day of commercial convulsions probably allowing it to reach back into its memory and remember that another order once existed. For some reason, I always end up staring at Haji Ali bathed in the moonlight, glowing an eerie, timeless green. Its aloofness from the madness of the mainland seems to tell me that one can be part of the chaos and yet be apart from it.

As its walkway disappears under the tide, I understand that I, too, need to occasionally deny the city access to the essential me. The rat race churns on less than a hundred yards away, but Haji Ali finds an island of detached peace just by drawing up the bridge once in a while.

“Do you realize that it’s two in the morning?” grumbles my wife as I sneak in. “You will be late for work again. Each time you do this, I wonder if the police or gundas have finally got you.”

I’m up by seven, my mind already strategizing the commute to work and the uncertain odds of another day in Mumbai. I’m bleary-eyed but ready. The most profound insights of a Mumbai night cannot match swords with the realities of the city by day….