While walking to work this morning, my thoughts drifted towards my father’s maternal uncle, whom we all also called Maama, as I was thinking about the quality of news reports and the general standard of writing in a lot of Indian newspapers.
Maama was the family’s newspaperman. He was a newspaper editor in the ‘50’s, 60’s and 70’s, when editors seemed to be mighty men (or women). It seems like it was a time when (Indian) newspapers took pride in their content, their unbiased reporting, and quality writing. A time when people told their kids to read editorials to improve their English. A time when some, like the Indian Express, fearlessly went against government edict (during the Emergency). A time when the pen was still mightier than the gold. Maama was that kind of an editor; upright and forceful, and very “old school”.
In the early eighties (might have been 1984-85 or something), he moved to Bangalore, and came out of semi-retirement. The Times of India (yes, that rag) was going to launch its Bangalore edition, and Maama was to start it up. I met him for the first time then, as a little boy, awed and slightly terrified by his piercing glare (through quintessential horn-rimmed spectacles), and straight, combed-back silver hair. I still remember asking him why he had moved to Bangalore after living in northern and western India for a lifetime.
He said, “I’m going to give Bangaloreans India’s finest English newspaper”. I remember seeing my father nod while standing behind him, and then later (as we were going home) tell my sister that for anyone who grew up in Bombay, news would always remain synonymous with the “Old lady of Boribundar”, the TOI. If it was in the Times, it was good.
I met Maama for the last time some eight years or so ago, just some time before he passed away (he didn’t have to see the present state of the paper). He was in his nicest spirits and asked me what I was up to, and what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to become a good scientist and do research. I also told him that I really enjoyed writing, but didn’t know how to improve my writing skills. He asked me what I liked writing about, and I said I just enjoyed writing. About things that affected me, about things I saw, just “stuff”. I had just read “Video nights in Kathmandu”, and thought that was good “stuff”. I told Maama that, and asked him to suggest how I could improve my writing.
He just smiled and said, “you can only write in your own way.” I wasn’t satisfied, and asked him to give me some little tips. He laughed and said, “Just go take a walk, and come back, and write about what you saw.”
I was extremely dissatisfied with this suggestion. But I took a walk anyway, and looked hard for interesting incidents. I came back to his house half an hour later, sat down, thought about it, and then declared that I hadn’t seen anything worth writing about. I couldn’t see how walking would help writing.
Maama smiled at me again and told me to take another walk.
A few days later I took another walk, thinking about Maama’s words. I looked around for a while, but it was still more of the same. The same shops, the same people, the same houses and the same trees. I came back home, still dissatisfied. But I continued to take a walk along the same route in the evenings when ever I could.
As I continued to walk along the same route every day, I continued to see more of the same. There were the same “Flame of the forest (gul mohur)” trees that were green in autumn, lost their leaves in winter, and were covered in crimson-orange flowers once the fiery month of May arrived. There were the same buffaloes lounging in the street, languidly chewing cud, confident that the street was theirs (irrespective of the vehicle that wanted to go by). There was the same pack of street-dogs that howled every night and kept restless sleepers awake, and fought with each other near the trash-cans, and who all miraculously disappeared the moment dog-catchers arrived in their van, only to return phoenix-like the very next morning. There was the same tender-coconut seller on the street, selling the same coconuts, waving his sickle effortlessly to scythe through the thick green outer shell. There were the same flower-sellers in the market, with bunches of marigold, and roses, and the ever essential mallige, the fragrant jasmine. There were the same fruit sellers, with their loud voices, shouting out bargain prices, with their stacks of yellow bananas, from the delicious but tiny elakki to the giant spotted-yellow bananas that often became my dinner. There were the same shops, thronging with activity in the evenings, and empty in the afternoons. There were the same people (some short and some tall, some dark and some light, some fat and some thin, some rich and some poor, some in cars and some on foot, some miserly and some generous, some in modern clothes and some in traditional attire) who invaded these same shops. There was the same bus I boarded every morning, and there was the same conductor every day who curtly greeted me the same way, and jingled his bag of coins (Aha! But the coins changed every day, though they sounded the same). There was the same temple opposite the same bus stop, where the same priest would chant the same prayers. There was the same……..
It has taken me an awfully long time, and a lot of walks, to even begin to understand what Maama meant by telling me to take a walk. Thank you Maama!
postscript: I may not be online this weekend (through Monday), but hope to be back on Tuesday. Have a good weekend, all.