Life is good but the day climaxes at 9am.
Every morning a man comes home to teach me to sing. His name is Govind Rotti and the gharana is Kirana (what other for a Gujarati?). We use an app called iTablaPro, reviewed earlier by fellow Lounge columnist Shubha Mudgal, which I play through a SoundDock 10. I turn it on before he comes, and the study is filled with plucked tanpuras.
The manner of teaching is more old-fashioned, through imitation. He sings a line and I follow. We sing Bhairav, and have been for 16 months. He’s the real thing, from the Dharwad tradition, and even if I don’t become a performer, I have the pleasure of listening to him for as many hours as I have.
Am I the only Indian who makes money from Pakistan? I think so. I’ve been writing a column there for a long time, and though the money isn’t much, it totals up over the years. I’m still waiting for the police or RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) to come by and ask why it is that thousands of dollars have been transferred to my account from Lahore and Karachi.
Meanwhile I retired from business on 31 March, when I thought I had made enough money, thanks to my partner, the brilliant Rajesh Tahil, to now only do things I like. So life is dedicated to the pursuit of reading, writing and drinking (at the moment drinking has taken an early lead).
Every year, I try and understand the history of a period through reading its primary texts. This year it was the Mughals and their successors. One problem with this approach is running into difficult material. When I read the Greeks, it was Aristotle. It is his notes alone, and not his finished books, that have come down to us for the most part, from Arab translators. In the case of the Mughals, it was Abul Fazl, who wrote 6,000 pages, many unreadable, on Akbar, including 100 just on his horoscope.
Anyway, here’s what I learnt of the personalities. Aurangzeb: tough, detail-oriented, patient and thorough (I like him more than when I had not read about him). Jahangir: soft, unambitious, scientifically minded, fond of drink (love him). Shah Jahan: secretive, a great projects man, poor at battle, became emperor only because of his father-in-law’s cleverness (don’t like). Humayun: childish, lazy, no pride. Babur: cultured, literary and of great spirit.
Of Akbar I can tell you that he loved the physical life. He wrestles a stag and has his testicles gored by an antler. Abul Fazl applies balm to them and writes about it proudly. And why not? He’s the only man ever to have had Mughal-e-Azam by his balls.
In March, a quick three-day trip to London to view exhibitions by David Hockney and Lucian Freud. Hockney’s is nice, Freud’s is very moving. Entry costs £8 (around Rs.700 now) to one and £15 for the other. Both are absolutely full of Europeans on holiday. No Indians (or blacks or coloured people of any shade) at either place. Culture isn’t our thing. There’s no escaping desis in Selfridges and Harrods, of course. Mullah ki daud masjid tak.
I musn’t gripe about this too much, and one of the bad things about leaving India on holiday is running into Indians abroad. One afternoon, in a small north Thailand village, I was in a silk factory when I heard shouting from its showroom. Sure enough, it was an Indian aunty shrieking at the sales staff. I slunk out in shame.
In April, a two-week holiday in Japan, a magical place. In the town of Takayama, we walked one night into a bar where there were two other customers, one an elderly man with silver hair wearing an elegant jacket. We poured one other many drinks and he made us promise we would come back the next evening, which we were happy to do. He didn’t like the Chinese and for some reason was fond of India. He said his English was scratchy because he learnt it during the war. “I was born,” he added casually, “in 1907.”
Annual invite to The Times of India Literary Carnival (no money but a business-class ticket and stay at the Trident) in December managed by friends Bachi Karkaria and Namita Devidayal. This year, it is again in Bandra’s Mehboob Studios, which is appropriate. As with all things associated with The Times of India, it’s more carnival than literary. I have been given two gigs. First, moderating Santosh Desai, Gurcharan Das and Ashwin Sanghi. A friend says: “Moderate? You’re extreme.” Anyway, the session, titled “The ease of being bad”, is a flop. Das is pompous, Desai is vague. I am awful. Sanghi tries hard to entertain but it’s dull going. The audience begins to flee midway and, sweat breaking on my brow, I can see why.
The second session with Abhijit Banerjee, author of Poor Economics, is a hit. He is superb, with plenty of material on how the poor behave and what a ghastly place India is. Buy the book.
This year, I began translating Saadat Hasan Manto’s non-fiction as a series for Firstpost.com. Here are a few things I’ve learnt. Manto was not really educated. He reveals he could pass out of school only after failing three times (in Urdu!) and failed another couple of times before being expelled from Aligarh for having tuberculosis. His non-fiction reveals this lack of education. His perspective is basic and his views, though they are held passionately, unoriginal. When he writes of Bombay, he is, of course, very good. The essays have never been translated before, unlike his fiction, and I hope a publisher is interested in the collection as a book.
A week-long trip to South Africa. It is beautiful and cold, and we catch the last whales before they set off to return to Antarctica. Oysters and Chablis in the day, drams of Macallan and ice at night. I enjoy the company of the man who drives our minibus for five days along the Western Cape, a 33-year-old named Khotso. He has educated himself after 20, now has a degree and is looking for a white-collar job. He is not bitter about apartheid and his concern is how he can raise himself to a higher standard. What struck me is how superbly the white man has developed the country and with what patience the black man awaits his prosperity. Khotso is surprised to learn I’m Gujarati. Had he met others? Plenty of Jain groups, he says, “always saying ‘Chalo-chalo-chalo!’”
I am entering my fifth year as a Lounge columnist. It is the single most important thing I do, especially now that I am published every week. I am grateful to the editor who commissioned me, and to the paper’s readers. You are a most discerning and civilized audience, and I could not have written what I have here anywhere else. The fact is that I’ve asked that I not be sent feedback, whether praise or reproach, because writers should be insulated. The line at the end of this column was rephrased a few years ago from “send your feedback to Aakar”. To those who have written and got no response from me, an apology.
October: After many years of declining to come on television, I agree this year and am broadcast from home. Most of TV appearance, I realize, is awaiting your turn to speak. In his autobiography, the BBC’s Andrew Marr recounts an old hand’s advice on what to do when one wasn’t talking: “Just keep looking into the camera, old boy.” That’s what I do, staring in studied concentration at the lens. After an hour-long appearance on Arnab Goswami’s show (in which I speak 35 seconds), I wonder if I was on screen the whole time. I ask the wife. “Yes,” she says, “you looked demented.”
November: To Goa for a wedding. We’re booked at The Park in Candolim which is, on cold consideration, the worst hotel I have ever stayed in. Here’s an objective list of its faults: No parking on the premises and no valets, unventilated toilets not partitioned from the room, neighbour’s house is 16ft from your window, no carpeting and poor soundproofing means hearing the corridor action, the next room’s conversations and the reception phone go off all night. Avoid.
December: In Delhi for the Gujarat elections on Rajdeep Sardesai’s CNN-IBN. It’s a great panel including Lord Meghnad Desai, Yogendra Yadav and old friend Kumar Ketkar. I’m surprised by the number of people (Swapan Dasgupta, Manini Chatterjee) wearing sacred threads. On the 20th, we are on air from 7am-11pm and the amazing thing is how energetic Rajdeep and Sagarika Ghose are through the day. Not possible unless you love your work.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns