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Archive for December, 2007

Musings On Language and Food

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world – Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are two languages that I speak fluently (at least, I think I do) – English and my mother tongue, Hmar. I speak enough Hindi to make myself understood in office, and to get around any place where Hindi is understood. To my eternal shame, I don’t speak Meitei, except for a few words that enable me to eat and buy the bare essentials – even though I did my graduation from DM College in Imphal. In my defence I can only say that my roommate was Achet, an Ao Naga from Mokokchung, Nagaland and all the guys I used to hang out with in college were Nagas. Since Achet knew even less Meitei than me we would all converse in English. But, I am ashamed to say that by the time we graduated, Achet had picked up more Meitei than me. I was the only one stuck in something like a time warp – after my more than two years’ stay in Imphal, I never progressed beyond ‘Chak cha bara’ and ‘Si kaya ra?

I remember an incident when I went looking for eggs to buy. Those were the days when PLA and PREPAK had just started making their presence felt and all shops would close down along with the sun. Since it was already dark all the ‘vai/mayang’ shops had long closed down and the only shop open was a Meitei shop. It was a provision shop also selling fresh vegetables and looked like a shop that would stock eggs. I entered and looked around. Either the shop didn’t sell eggs, or they were kept well out of sight because I could not spot any eggs that would have enabled me to point to them and say in my perfect Meitei, ‘Si kaya ra?’ Since I didn’t know the word for eggs in Meitei, I could not even ask for them. I felt too ashamed to ask ‘Anda lei bara?’ because I was so obviously a local, so I bought a kilo of potatoes and told my roommate that they didn’t have eggs. I later on learned the word for eggs in Meitei, which I have never forgotten. I returned to the shop a few days later and with my newfound knowledge, asked for eggs. They appeared magically from beneath the counter and we could finally make omelets.

Having matriculated from JN Model School, Churachandpur, I could also speak Paite quite fluently by the time we were in Class 10. I still more or less fully understand Paite, but it has been more than 20-25 years since I last used the dialect, and I am now unable to use it like I used to. Like anyone else who has grown up in Churachandpur, I can also understand most of the dialects spoken by the greater ‘Zohnathlak’ community such as Vaiphei, Thado-Kuki, Gangte, etc. Being a Darngawn and having been exposed to Lusei/Mizo, also known as ‘Darngawn-Sâptong’, since childhood, I read, enjoy and fully understand any novel, book, newspaper, or magazine in Mizo. But I find myself tongue-tied and somehow unable (or unwilling?) to actually speak in Lusei/Mizo, even though I have absolutely no problem in understanding the language. Having spent more than three years each in Morocco, Italy and Mozambique, I have also picked up a smattering of French, Italian and Portuguese – enough to at least tell the difference when someone speaks in any of these languages.

There are people who pick up and speak a language within a few months. Because I am most certainly not one of them, I admire and envy this capacity of theirs to absorb and speak a new language within no time. I greatly admire multi-linguists – people who can switch from one language to another with effortless ease. The multi-linguists I have known have all been extroverts, generally above average in intelligence, and good conversationalists. They are usually the talkative type, innately curious by nature and easily make friends. As an introvert and someone who rarely opens his mouth unless absolutely necessary or unavoidable, I suppose whether I am a multi-linguist or not would hardly make any difference!

The best way to really understand and appreciate any culture is to first learn its language. Language is an intrinsic part of culture and is the medium through which all the characteristics, traits and ethos of a people or society find expression. We are usually more inclined to learn the language of a people or society we admire. Which probably explains why most of the drunks during my childhood, especially the really drunk ones, used to speak in gibberish, which was supposed to be ‘English’.

Then there are societies and people like the French who only speak their language and look on other languages with disdain. Things may have changed since August 1989 when I first stepped foot in Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport, Paris, enroute to Morocco as a naïve, newly married young man. The Air India flight touched down in Paris late, as usual, long after most of the airlines had closed their counters. We were supposed to catch a connecting flight the next morning and had been booked into some hotel by Air India. By the time we got down from the plane and collected our baggage, the Air India counter had closed and most of our co-passengers had left.

Stranded and all alone in a strange city with a new wife, apart from it being the first time we were traveling abroad, I roamed around the big terminal looking for some counter or anyone speaking English whom I could ask for assistance in getting to whichever hotel we were booked so we could at least rest for the next few hours. I spoke to a few well-groomed Frenchmen none of whom spoke English, or maybe refused to speak English.

Growing up in a remote corner of India where our exposure to the wider world, especially the West, was through the few English movies that occasionally showed in the one cinema hall in town, or the magazines and newspapers that usually arrived a few days late to the only news agent in town. In those days even just going to the cinema was considered as something only ‘bad’ boys and girls did, and, apart from saving the coins and occasional one rupee notes from our pocket money to be able to afford the Rs. 1.50 ‘middle’ tickets, one went at the risk of being found out. Apart from the ‘middle’ class tickets being basically the only tickets we could afford, there was the question of buying some snacks during the intervals which also cost as much as the tickets. The choice was usually between sitting in the ‘middle’ class and having some chanas during the interval or sitting in the ‘balcony’ seats without any chana. From the perspective and the situation and the time we grew up in, we thought that all Westerners spoke English. Even now, after having lived in non-English speaking countries for several years, it still feels somewhat strange and surreal to find Westerners, especially whites/Europeans, unable to speak English at all.

Perhaps those Frenchmen really did not understand English, but I had the feeling that they fully understood what I was saying. The only reply I received to all my pleas for some information and assistance was in French. The only French I knew at that time was the numbers 1 to 10 and ‘Comment allez-vous?which, obviously, were not of much help. Coming from a society where people go out of the way to try and help strangers, the cold and aloof attitude of the French people (at least the ones I met that night) was a real shocker. After going round the terminal a few more times and unable to find anyone speaking English, we ultimately spent the night sleeping in the airport lounge with our suitcases for pillows.

I know that the few people I met that night do not in any way represent Paris or France (they probably were just fellow travelers passing through), but my impression of Paris and its inhabitants remains that of a cold, unwelcoming and pretentious city. We passed through Paris three more times during our three years’ posting in Morocco. But they were only to catch the next flight either to Rabat or to Delhi and we never got to see anything of Paris. Though I can say that we saw the Eiffel Tower, but from a distance, for about five or ten minutes, from the window of the airport shuttle bus that we had to take from Orly to CDG to catch our connecting flight. Also, we did not have to sleep in the terminal the next time we had to spend a night before our next flight. Fully prepared and properly briefed, we managed to find our way to our hotel, which turned out to be the Paris Hilton. I suppose it was some compensation for our last botched overnight stay in Paris – and I can say that I have stayed at the Paris Hilton.

It was also the first time I tried sushi – I still remember the unexpected taste of raw fish on my tongue as I looked around for ways to unobtrusively spit it out. With memories of our somewhat humiliating sleepover in the CDG terminal in mind and finding no suitable way to spit it out without offending others in the restaurant, I somehow managed to swallow it. Though they are not on my list of favorites, I have since eaten more sushi and come to like or at least tolerate the taste. The first time I ate raw jellyfish at a Korean friend’s house in Maputo over dinner, I remembered my first sushi. But having become a little bit wiser to the ways of the world and strange foods, I knew what to expect and even had more helpings as it was prepared with a lot of Korean spices and red chilli powder, which gave it a somewhat kimchi-like appearance, and the raw fish smell was suitably camouflaged by the spices.

The worst food I have tasted has to be the raw oyster (supposed to be good for the libido, according to Italians) at a friend’s New Year party in Milan. The fresh lemon juice that was supposed to hide the extremely strong raw fish smell and taste only seemed to make it worse and I can say with all certainty that it was the first and last time I will ever eat raw oyster again. Whether it did any good to my libido, I don’t know. Those were the days before Viagra and I’m sure quite a few Italians must still be thanking Pfizer.



A Royal Interlude

[Just finished dinner and I have this feeling that I should update my blog. I sit down, thinking I should put in something about the White Christmas that never was. But the words just don’t come. Maybe its the post-Christmas blues. Then I suddenly recall the African Christmas song presented by our African brothers at the Christmas eve service at our church the day before yesterday. Memories of Mozambique flood my mind. I remember a piece I wrote for DT about Swaziland and me meeting with King Mswati III, Africa and the world’s last and only ruling monarch – and the time this very hands shook hands with real royalty. The Indian Embassy in Maputo, where I was posted at that time, was concurrently accredited to the Kingdom of Swaziland and we had accompanied our High Commissioner when he presented his credentials to the king. I know I’ve put that piece somewhere in this computer of mine. Sure enough, its still there. I highlight the piece, copy it, open my blog, and paste it. So easy. Why wrack the brain while there’s something to cut and paste :)]

He exuded an aura of confidence, his handshake firm and strong, as one would expect a king’s handshake to be. Maybe a touch challenging, as if daring you to squeeze back. I also had a sneaky feeling that it was a deliberately strong grip, perhaps practiced over the years, to show who was the boss. I imagined pictures of the king as a young lad practicing his handshake with his minions – of course no one dared squeeze back, at least not too hard. I had a sudden impulse to squeeze back, even as wild pictures of the king and me hand-locked and testing our strengths briefly came to my mind. And then it was all over, a quick bow, much like the Japanese do when they greet each other, and the protocol officer quickly herded me into line next to my colleagues.

The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur, as our High Commissioner presented his credentials to the king, made the obligatory speech recalling the good relations so happily existing between India and the Kingdom of Swaziland and conveyed best wishes for the personal well-being of the king and the people of Swaziland from the President of India. After the formal ceremony of handing over and acceptance of the High Commissioner’s credentials, came the photo-op with flashbulbs going off in all directions as we posed with the king. Even as the TV crews juggled for space along with the cameramen, the king signaled an end to the formalities with a nod to one of his courtiers and then proceeded to the next hall, accompanied by our High Commissioner. As the protocol officer herded us out of the hall, and we followed in the wake of the royal entourage, I breathed a sigh of relief that everything had gone off smoothly.

The hall into which we followed the royal entourage was a bit smaller than the main hall where the presentation of credentials had just taken place. It was lined with spacious and comfortable sofas lined up on either side from the entrance, with two ornate chairs on the far wall directly facing the entrance. One could immediately discern that the furniture and furnishings from the sofas and chairs to the carpets and long-flowing curtains were meant to impress, to convey a feeling of royalty. The ornately carved tables and other furniture in the hall were all painted in gold. Garish, in a way, and I remember briefly thinking how it all looked very much like my idea of what the living room of a typically neo-rich Punjabi house in one of the posh new colonies in Delhi would look like. Retaining the natural colours of the ornately carved wooden furniture would, to me, have made the whole room and décor more royal and impressive. But then, to each his own taste, I thought. As the king took his rightful place in one of the ornate chairs, with our High Commissioner to his right, the protocol officer dutifully seated us on the sofas, next to our High Commissioner while the king’s courtiers and his Foreign Minister sat to his left, facing our small delegation. As we sat in rapt attention listening to the king speaking of some of his dreams for his kingdom and his people, I could see from the corner of my eyes some of his courtiers stifling what looked suspiciously like yawns, obviously having heard their king making the same speech innumerable times.

His advisers had obviously briefed him well as the king went on to praise India’s emergence as an IT giant in recent times and made all the right polite comments. Our High Commissioner too made all the right polite comments, showing his years of experience wading through the quagmire that international diplomacy can sometimes be, promising all within his power to better bilateral relations. No embarrassing questions asked about the king’s 12 wives, or his recent selection of his 13th bride-to-be – a 16-year old former Miss Swaziland and legally still a minor, or the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland, which recently replaced Botswana as the country with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world in terms of percentage, at over 38.6%. No embarrassing comments or questions regarding recent highly racist reports in the Swazi press about Indians in Swaziland mistreating their local employees and becoming a ‘security threat’, threatening to swamp the Swazis with their small shops and hijacking the local economy and livelihood with their tight-fisted lifestyle – milking the locals dry while sending all their savings and profits to banks outside the country, never investing it back, but just exploiting the gullible natives. All hunky-dory as the king indicated an end to our audience with him, and we left his august presence after another royal handshake and a bow.

A more informal gathering awaited us as we were taken to the officers’ club next to the audience hall. The kingdom’s chiefs of the armed forces and other officials rose as we entered, with the Foreign Minister preceding the High Commissioner. We went through the usual diplomatic formality of the Foreign Minister raising a toast to the President of India, while our High Commissioner raised a toast to the Queen Mother and the King. Formalities completed, we could at last relax as we chatted with our nearest neighbours, exchanging cards and making the usual empty promises to call or look them up when we next came to town, all the time knowing perfectly well that we would probably never meet again and even if we did, who cared? Out of sight, out of mind.

Driving through the beautiful Swazi countryside on our way back, I couldn’t help but reflect on my childhood and my origin, and how a small tribal from a largely unknown tribe in a godforsaken corner of India had gotten to shake hands with real royalty, however obscure and unknown to the larger world. Pictures of the idyllic world of my childhood flashed before my eyes – a world now long gone, replaced by guns and terror and peopled by the ‘living dead’. I recalled the times spent ‘hunting’ birds with our home-made saihlis/catapults, fishing in the small stream that ran besides our village which still had enough fish to catch then to somewhat justify the many times spent escaping various household chores. I recalled my first ‘kill’, a small harmless bird that had had the misfortune of sitting on that particular branch on that particular time and place, somehow managing to stop my ‘saihlum’. I must have been about 6 or 7, still too small to make my own catapult, but old enough to kill a small harmless bird and feel the thrill of a hunter making a ‘kill’ with no remorse. Perhaps the blood of my ‘headhunting’ forefathers still running in my blood? Because, I’m ashamed to admit, whenever I see a bird just sitting there, I still get the urge to take my old trusty catapult and have a try at it. In my mind I’m back to the good old days, lining up for my shot, the bird lined up in my sight, my ‘saihlum’ nicely ensconced within the small leather strip attached to the two rubber strips tied to the catapult frame, the rubber stretched to its limits, expecting to hear the satisfying thud of a direct hit when I let go. Even now! More than 20-25 years since I last wielded my ‘weapon’ and ‘terrorized’ the neighbourhood birds and small creatures, though I suspect some of the birds probably died more of fright than any direct hit from my catapult, because I always was the worse ‘hunter’ among my friends, usually coming home empty handed each and every time. But mother would always be there, always welcoming the hunter home from his hunt. It was enough that we had ‘hunted’ to our heart’s content, and we were back home safe and sound for the night. There never was any of the pressure to study, study, think of your future, think of being the top boy in class, etc. etc. that I now subject my kids to. The ‘real’ world and the rat race that even I would eventually join was still far away. I mentally thanked my parents for giving me a real childhood, which I’m afraid I may not have been able to give my kids who have grown up in an entirely different world and circumstances that were beyond even my wildest imagination or dreams while growing up in that idyllic world where we felt so safe, secure and loved.

As I unwillingly awoke from my reverie and looked out my window, I pictured Swaziland as the world that could have been ours. Often called the ‘Switzerland of Africa’ for its natural beauty, we swept through its rolling hills and verdant farmlands, passing roadsigns indicating directions for major towns with names like Piggs Peak, Big Bend, occasionally slowing down as we passed markets on the roadside and small villages with quaint names like ‘Hlenehlene’ and even a town which sported the sign ‘Happy Valley Motel’, reminding me of Shillong. Moving on highways comparable to any in the West, where you could be fined for obstructing traffic if you drive at speeds of less than 100-120 kmph, we passed through the Royal Hlane National Park, crossing the 25 km stretch of highway running through the Park in about 10 minutes. In the distance I saw blue mountains stretching into the horizon, reminding me once again of my beloved home. As we crossed acres and acres of sugarcane fields, with the last hilly road before we crossed the border into Mozambique approaching fast, I could not but compare our own hill roads with theirs. Despite the many curves, the highway snaking through the hills maintained its dignity, its well-maintained surface allowing us to maintain speeds unimaginable even on the best roads back home. Memories of tortuous climbs through badly maintained hill roads, going home for the holidays flooded my mind – only the final destination and the thought of loved ones waiting at the end making the trips bearable.

(Maputo Aug 2004)

Disjointed pre-Christmas Ramblings

21 Dec: Some colleagues came over last night for dinner and we slept a little late. Thought I’d sleep late because today is a holiday. Switched off the 6AM alarm in my mobile but didn’t know how to switch off my body’s internal alarm and at 6AM I was wide awake, as usual. My family tells me its because I’m an old man (as if I needed reminding). Got up, looked outside and saw that it was still dark. Decided to open the computer and check my mail. Nothing new, except for the usual spam. Mostly the same ones selling Viagra and various methods of increasing ‘sizes’. Dunno where they got the idea that I needed their products 🙂 As usual, I do a quick scan to make sure there are no friendly mails that have been directed there and then immediately delete them. My mailbox says ‘Hooray! No more spams’ or words to that effect. (I checked in an hour or so later and I again see the same offers making themselves at home in my spam box. I briefly wonder if, indeed, there’s a message here somewhere telling me that I do need these products. I shake my head and delete them again.)

I sense the dawn creeping up behind me from the window and go out to our balcony to stretch and say hello to another day. It’s freezing out there. Not a cloud in sight and the sun’s coming out in the horizon. I look to my left and I see Mt. Fuji in the distance, snowcapped and shining in the distance, silently beckoning me. I looked around and sense something different. I can’t place what it is immediately. Then I look at the parked cars below our balcony and notice that all their windows are covered in white. I look at the roofs and see a fine cover of white, starting to reflect the rising sun. We are going to have a white Christmas, after all, I think, my hopes suddenly rising.

My watch says its 7AM now. I go in, put on my jogging shoes, my track pant and jacket. I step out into the bright, chilly morning. I turn left from our gate and begin my usual morning jog. I decide to take my ‘weekend route’ which goes up a steep 200m incline before leveling off at a crossing which offers three directions. I turn left and continue, my breathing now labored and hard from the invigorating climb, the level road a welcome change from the steep incline. I feel my heavy breathing starting to stabilize and my body and feet starting to get into the rhythm, as I get into ‘the zone’. I look at my watch. 10 minutes have passed. I see the left turn ahead where the road goes down an incline which will take me to a right turn and another stretch of level road. I welcome the downhill jog, less demanding but equally invigorating in a different way.

I pass by old men and women taking out their trash or going for their morning walks. The fact that its only the oldies who are up so early crosses my mind. I jog pass them, invigorated by the fresh morning air, feeling young and energized. I notice that my steps become firmer and faster as I pass them and I suddenly realize that I am subconsciously showing off. I imagine them thinking ‘what a jackass and a showoff!’ and slow down a little. Then I realize that I am hardly a specimen of youth and fitness with my slight paunch and thinning crowning glory. I see the next incline ahead and realize that I am sweating now, despite the chill in the air. I wipe the sweat off my forehead and concentrate on the climb and next stretch of level road which will take me to another downhill stretch before I wind my way back home.

Without a cloud in sight, the sun reveals itself in all its glory, reflecting light from the white frost still clinging to the roofs of the small, typical Japanese houses that I pass by. I reach my destination – the bridge over a small river with crystal clear water happily gurgling its way to join the slightly bigger Tama river that marks the boundary between the Tokyo suburb where we now stay and the city of Kawasaki. I do some stretching exercises near the riverside as I stop to catch my breath. I look at the many fish swimming in the river and clearly visible in the crystal clear water. Some of the fish are at least one foot long, just daring me or anyone to catch them, and I feel my hands itch for the bamboo pole fishing rods we used to make and fish with when we were kids. I remind myself once again that I must really go and buy myself a fishing rod. I look at my watch. 25 minutes have passed. I decide to jog back.

I look around, invigorated by the jog and the morning chill, the natural beauty of my surroundings, the clear blue sky, the promise of snow in the air, a wonderful wife and family (still comfortably in bed on this chilly winter morning) and I know that I am blessed. And I thank God who has always been there for me.

I jog back, pass the small gardens growing winter vegetables some of which still retain the white cover of white frost now slowly disappearing in the early morning sunshine. My mind jogs back to the first ‘White Christmas’ we had in Milan more than 10 years ago. Memories of that Christmas which was made more wonderful and magical because it was ‘white’ have remained. I finally learned the real meaning of the song ‘White Christmas’ and every time I hear the song during this season, I can now dream and wish along with the singer for a ‘white Christmas…..just like the ones I used to know…’ I jog on, smiling because the chilly morning air tells me that we will be having a white Christmas this year.

So here’s wishing everyone the best and happiest Christmas this year.

Hard Rock On My Mind

I don’t headbang. I’m too old for that. I regularly get up with a crick in the neck just from sleeping, and I shudder to think what all that headbanging would do to my neck. But, mentally and in my mind, it’s a different thing. And I think I understand what makes some people want to headbang.

Classics like ‘Highway Star’ or ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple automatically make my head bob up and down, a tuai version of headbanging, I suppose. My air guitar immediately comes into my hands as Ritchie Blackmore’s lead guitar announces ‘Smoke on the Water’, quickly accompanied by Nick Simper’s bass. By the time Ian Paice’s drums get into the act, I have become Deep Purple, alternating between Blackmore, Simper, Paice and Jon Lord on his organ. At least in my mind. Even if I’m driving, my fingers play the guitar riffs, and I’m lost to the world. David Gilmour’s guitar riff on ‘Another Brick In The Wall Part II’, the great Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’, the one and only Mark Knopffler’s unique and unmistakable guitar riffs on ‘Sultans of Swing’, etc. with Dire Straits as well as his solo albums, especially his collaboration with country great Chet Atkins, and so many other greats make life so much more worth living. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Sabbath, CCR and all the other ‘real’ great bands, to me, still represent real music, real rock. Now most of what we get to hear are synthesized, artificial, studio-produced music, masquerading as rock. Some of them are OK, even good, but I wonder if anyone will remember them 10 years down the line. Though some of the new kids on the block, like Greenday, are really good, especially their latest ‘American Idiot’ of which ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, to me, is already a classic.

Strangely, I find all these ‘hard’ stuff really relaxing – specially after a hard days’ work. There’s nothing like coming home, relaxing, with good friends for company, drinks in hand, Deep Purple on the stereo…. The only problem is that it’s mostly the other way round now. I suppose all my good friends have become mellow, and if at all there is music on the stereo, it is turned down so low that you have to strain your ears to even make out what’s playing. Unless the mood takes, and everyone’s bopping around to ‘Aw di, ka ngai em che’. But that’s another story for some other time.


Giorgio and I

The year was 1996. For the life of me, I can’t recall whether it was summer or winter. I remember wearing my black suit. Which is not of much help as a clue because one had to wear a suit at any formal do, no matter the weather. But if I had to stake my life on it, I would bet that it was in one of the summer months because I do not remember wearing an overcoat. Winters in Milan tend to get quite cold, and an overcoat is usually a must in the evenings. Unless one has already put on an ‘inner blanket’, if you know what I mean. But then I clearly recall that it was around 7 or 8 in the evening – too early to have put on any ‘inner blanket’, at least not thick enough to go out without an overcoat! Anyway, the exact month or season is not the important thing or what I want to share here.

It was the European premiere of the film ‘Kundun’ – the Dalai Lama’s story from his childhood in Tibet till the time he was forced into exile and had to flee to India. I was there with my friend CP, courtesy a special invite from another friend Karma, one of the top Tibetan activists in Italy and Europe along with her Italian husband. My being in the Indian Consulate also obviously helped.

It was the first, and last, premiere that I have ever attended. As we walked the red carpet into the theatre, I saw Karma waving at us from near the entrance. As we were ushered into the first row of the VIP seats in the theatre, she told us that we would be sitting among the stars. It was the first time I have ever been watched by so many blue Italian eyes, or any eyes for that matter, as we made our way to the front and took our seats. That must have been the most disappointed pairs of blue Italian eyes in Italy that evening, but it made us feel like stars walking the red carpet at the Oscars – if only for a few seconds. As we sat down, two seats remained empty on our left while on our right and behind, the seats were being filled by what I suppose were the crème de la crème of Milan society. It was a surreal and dream-like experience for someone from a small town in a godforsaken corner of India. Sitting in those unaccustomed but obviously privileged seats, I felt a tinge of embarrassment and a sense that everyone was staring at my back, thinking they should be in my seat. Such is the human ego that I adjusted my seat, straightened my back and tried my best to sit like a star, crossing my legs in an imperious manner. Reflecting on that night later, I have a feeling that I must have made a pathetic figure. But I had the satisfaction of feeling like a star, if only for a few moments. I did not recognize a single person from the few surreptitious sidelong glances that I managed to make around my seat. But they were obviously the beautiful people of Milan. We must have been an eyesore in such company.

Suddenly there was a commotion as the ushers escorted two black-clad men in, one a dignified looking man with white hair and the other a handsome young man who looked like a model. Apart from their being seated right next to CP, there was no way we could ignore their presence because the moment they were seated, the flashbulbs started popping like crazy and everyone turned to stare. For a few minutes, we became unwitting participants in a media circus as the paparazzi bombarded the man in black with questions in Italian while the flashbulbs continued popping. It was only then I realized that the man was Giorgio Armani himself, making his presence felt and doing his bit for the Tibetan cause. Clad in his trademark black shirt and with his white hair, he presented a picture of confidence and quite dignity as he shot off a string of answers to the paparazzi questions. His confidence and poise was admirable as his replies elicited a round of applause and sometimes laughter from the paparazzi themselves as well as those near enough to listen in. The ushers soon ushered the paparazzi out, as the show began.

The film began soon enough and we sat in the darkness of the theatre, always aware that we were sitting right next to a person many consider a legend in the fashion world. We never spoke though, as we sat together watching a film that was as far removed from where we were as anything could be. Even CP, one of my more polite and talkative friends, sat unusually silent right next to the man himself, overawed by his unexpected situation. While the peculiar sense of being in a totally different and surreal surrounding remained, I gradually found myself absorbed by the drama unfolding on the screen of how the Dalai Lama was forced to flee his beloved Tibet.

The film ended soon and we left without exchanging a single word with the great Armani and we returned to our humdrum existence. But I still occasionally recall the night I sat next to Giorgio Armani as an equal, at least as far as seats go. We never spoke and, maybe, we lost a golden opportunity that night. But I like to think that even Giorgio himself might have thought about starting a conversation with us, if only for a moment. He himself might still occasionally recall that night, thinking he had missed an opportunity to strike up a conversation, which could have led to something. Who knows.

Delhi, 16 Sept 2006

My Place of Refuge

I have a place where I spend at least an hour a day. It is probably the only place that I can call exclusively mine. The stereo, which is the centerpiece of this place of mine, starts the moment I enter and sit down. I keep it stocked with all my favorite songs, which I keep within easy reach from where I always sit. From Deep Purple to Guns N’ Roses, Emmylou Harris to Jim Reeves, Mozart to Vivaldi, Youssou N’dour to James Blunt, Coldplay to Greenday, Bob Dylan to U2, Zaituokung to Daduhi – they are all there, just waiting to keep me company. It is the one and only place where I am the Boss, and anyone entering the place listens to what I play – and yours truly normally does not do requests – except for my daughter who has me wrapped around her fingers. In any case, with me, she doesn’t request – she just goes ahead and puts in whatever it is she wants to hear. I’m happy listening to what she wants to hear, as long as I have her for company.

I have the place to myself on weekdays. After a hard day’s work, I rush in to relax and find comfort in my music. I am often found lingering there more than necessary, especially after a tiring day at work, or when a particularly good piece is playing on the stereo. Friends and my better half occasionally drop in on weekends. They have all come to accept that listening to whatever music I play is a part of the price they have to pay to enter this place of mine – because the music simply never stops as long as I am there. Even the more religious minded have been serenaded by the likes of Jewel, Tracy Chapman or Cyndi Lauper in this place of mine. Depending on my mood, I am known to occasionally do some requests, or turn down the volume. The volume, though, usually returns to its original level after some time. I have perfected the art of returning the volume to its original level little by little by fiddling with the volume control whenever the person is not looking.

The place has all the comforts of modern life including an air conditioner, which is switched on only when my better half comes calling – for me it does not matter one way or the other, as long as the stereo is there and my collection within easy reach from my seat. The Delhi heat and my humdrum existence fade away as soon as the stereo starts, and I’m transported into another world.

If you happen to pass by Motibagh Crossing around 9:30 in the morning or 6:00 in the evening on any weekday, you will find me comfortably ensconced in this place of mine. It shouldn’t be difficult to spot me – I’ll be the one drumming my finger on the steering wheel, listening to my music, as I patiently wait for the lights to turn green along with the other drivers.

Delhi, 3 Sept 2006

Gentleman Jim

Jim Reeves would have celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday, had his plane not crashed on that fateful 31st day of July, 1964, just 20 days short of his 41st birthday. He was deeply mourned by those who knew him, personally and through his legacy of some 38 albums, 17 of which were released posthumously by his widow, Mary Reeves, who combined unreleased tracks with re-recorded previous releases by mixing updated instrumentals alongside Jim Reeves’ original vocals.

Driving home from church yesterday with our own balladeer extraordinaire Pu L.Keivom, I mentioned that 20th August was Jim Reeves’ birth anniversary. His mind went back instantly to that day 42 years ago when, as a student in Gauhati University, he heard about Jim Reeves’ untimely death. Pu Keivom told me that he skipped dinner that day, to mourn the passing away of one of the greatest voices of the last century.

So, who was this man who, more than half a century ago, captured the imagination and hearts of a whole generation in faraway NE India? It was a time when, just before my generation was born, our people and society found themselves at the crossroads, the future before them. There was hope in the air as our first graduates and future leaders returned home from far-off places such as Gauhati, Calcutta, Allahabad and even the UK and USA, having completed their studies. I imagine them in my mind – bright, starry-eyed, young men from our society, the first to reap the fruits of our fledgling Mission-driven education system and legacy left behind by the white missionaries. Even though rumblings of the coming implosion in our society and church may have been sensed by some of the more discerning, our people and society were still more or less organized under one umbrella and worshiped together in the same church on a Sunday morning.

Arriving into the scene after the implosion in our society and church in the late 60s and 70s, I remember listening to great bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Beatles, Slade, Tony Orlando, Elvis, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and, of course, Jim Reeves, whenever we visited my grandparents both in Old Churachand (Mission Compound) and Muolvaiphei. In Lamka, old timers like the late Pu Jeff Biekthang, Pu Mawia Khawlum were busy playing their adaptation of the Beatles’ ‘Obladi-Oblada’ which went ‘In rock shoes, beatles shoes hai bun raw…..boys, kawng bawng rakin inher raw…’ Much to my loss, I never had the privilege of hearing them live. I was still too young – but I remember this particular song being sung by those who were a little older than us. If I’m not mistaken, it was also recorded by AIR Imphal and used to be played on the Hmar Programme on radio.

On the gospel music scene, my uncles were at the height of their own popularity as members of the ‘Mission Compound Quartet’. I remember preening with pride whenever people commented on how good their voices blended together. Songs like ‘On the Jericho Road’, ‘Lily of the Valley’, come to mind whenever I think of that era. This may not be true of everyone of that era, but in the privileged circle of western music lovers that I was a part of during my wonder years, thanks to my music loving extended family from both my parents’ sides, country legends like Skeeter Davis, Freddy Fender, et al formed a big part of our lives. I remember upcoming young stars like Olivia Newton-John on whose ‘Banks of the Ohio’ I learned to play the guitar. Unfortunately, my guitar playing ability never progressed beyond that particular song which, by the way, could be played just by interchanging three chords.

Above and beyond all these great singers, was Jim Reeves. His 1962 gospel classic ‘We Thank Thee’ remains THE gospel album of all time to me, and, I’m sure to each and every one of us from that era. To hear him croon ‘Never Grow Old’, ‘Across The Bridge’, ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’, ‘This World Is Not My Home’ is to be transported to another world and, perhaps, the closest one can come to experiencing real heaven on earth. His 1963 Christmas album, ‘Twelve Songs of Christmas’ which include perennial favourites like ‘Silver Bells’, Blue Christmas’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘An Old Christmas Card’ also remains THE Christmas album for me. I don’t remember any Christmas when I’ve not listened to this classic. To a great extent, the album defines the spirit of Christmas for me. From ‘…silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city….soon it will be Christmas Day’ (Silver Bells), to ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ and ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ Christmas would simply be not Christmas without this great Jim Reeves album.

His warm, velvety, rich and light baritone voice immediately transported you to another world where you either pined for a lost love or reveled in the warm embrace of a loved one. Poignancy is redefined when one hears ‘I Missed Me’, ‘Rosa Rio’, ‘Is It Really Over’, ‘Distant Drums’ while one experiences what warm, everlasting and true love should be when one hears ‘I Love You Because’, ‘Anna Marie’, ‘I Won’t Forget You’ or ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’. Then there are songs like ‘Bimbo’, Mexican Joe’, ‘Yonder Comes a Sucker’ which transport you to a world of innocence and light-hearted banter. That he was a part of our lives was amply demonstrated by the fact that no wedding was complete without Jim Reeves being played on the PA system. In fact, if someone asked ‘When will you be playing Jim Reeves?’, it meant ‘When are you going to get married’. Seventeen years, two months and twelve days ago, we played our Jim Reeves. I still have the ‘Hitachi’ cassette in which I recorded the songs we played that Day. Though it remains a treasured part of my music collection, I don’t play it anymore. My Jim Reeves now does his stuff from CDs I’ve collected through the years.

So, here’s to Gentleman Jim. Happy Birthday, wherever you are. Forty two years after you left us, the world you created remains, and I thank you for welcoming me into that world.

Delhi, 21 Aug 2006

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