London 2012: Farewell, my friend Raj Mongia

Now,  no more,  Raj Singh  Mongia,   as he was three weeks back when I met him in his quarters  at a retirement community in Northwood, England. He died in sleep a couple of days back.

The bloke betrayed no signs of excitement on  seeing me,  a visiting friend from India.  Raj Singh gave us a deadpan look when Nangia and I dropped in on him, unannounced,  on our way to the neighbourhood pub for dinner.  I had expected him to drop whatever he was doing and join us to dinner;  or else,  ask us to drop our plan, and join him for beers at his pad.  He did neither.  We spent 15 meaningless minutes,  making small talk.  The Raj Singh, that  bear-hugger pappe  type sardar that I had known 45 years  back was nowhere  there to be seen,  that day.

For the record,  the   Raj Singh I knew  had beard, a faceful of it and not the goatee he sported (as in Photo) ;  had mischief in his eyes.  He wore turban as the Sikhs do,  lived in a Shepherds Bush bed-sitter,   relished his daily pint at the neighbourhood  pub, and the saag & phulka  made by a generous landlady,  who was Bhenji  to us all.  By  ‘all’,  I mean self  and a couple other bachelor  friends who visited Raj Singh for beer and home-made phulka  on weekends.

Bhenji  is 84,  and still around at her old place.  So I heard from Nangia.  Raj Singh moved on in life,  to work on oil rigs as engineer;  to marry and to divorce;  and then to came and  live in a retirement home, where I met him on a recent visit to London.  Somewhere along the way  he had  his left leg amputated  following   infection  he acquired during  hospitalization  for something else.  Raj Singh was diabetic.

During our 15-minute meeting,  my friend on wheel-chair seemed hard put to make conversation with me –  a long forgotten friend from India.  He seemed uninterested in nostalgic natter.  I withdrew into my shell,  leaving Raj Singh to  ask questions ,  about my London visit, and make small talk about  his life in a  retirement home.  Nangia distracted him by flipping a cigarette-end  out of the window.  ‘He’s incorrigible,’  quipped Raj Singh.  They had known each other from New Delhi  coffee-house days in early 60s.

Nangia,  in a mood to  make amends,  went out to Raj Singh’s  backyard  to retrive the cigarette butt. While he was gone  Raj Singh filled me in on how strict the  matron was .   Raj Singh said she  would fine him if she were to find the discarded butt  outside his window.  We left a few minutes after Nangia returned and restored  the butt to its rightful place – the ash tray on the coffee-table.

Outside,  in the car,  I couldn’t help but  share with Nangia my disappointment on our meeting with Raj Singh. Here I was, all geared up to surprise an old friend  with a visit after four decades and a half;  and all that he could find to talk about was the cigarette butt tossed out into his backyard.  Maybe our visit held him back from watching Olympics.  The TV remained  switched on to the sports channel through our brief visit.

In retrospect , now that Raj Singh is gone,  I reckon I was harsh and went horribly wrong in judging him.  He was deadpan that day because of suffering of some kind;  because he was bottling up  something that nagged him . Though long-time friends, we weren’t, presumably, worthy of his trust so  that Raj Singh could have unburdened whatever it was that weighed  on him, that evening.

Internet is fun, but not on ‘fone’

I thank  IndiBlogger and Vodafone.  For they set me thinking of  god,  saithan,  fun and the Internet,  all  in the same thread.  I think the Internet is  God,  if only because  I don’t understand either.  Moreover ,  the Lord,  they say, works in mysterious ways.  So does the Internet.  Our God,  we believe,  is omnipresent;   so is e-mail network.  And then isn’t  it  a godly attribute to produce miracles ?  By my book,  the dot com can do us  wonders.

It  had me reconnected with a friend I thought I had lost over 50 years back.  The Web facilitated  my  blog-to-blog  dialogue  with T R Kini,   aging  friend ,  ailing,   and living way away on another hemisphere.   In our younger days we  had  spent a couple of years in London of the 60s.   Kini is  now down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  Bound to wheel chair life can be excruciatingly confining.  Kini’s window to the world around  is his  Net connected computer screen.  We blogged about the years we spent together,  about the Swinging Sixties,  our travels overland when hitching rides  was the youth’s preferred mode of cross-country  travel.  My friend Kini, who hitched rides through Pakistan,  Iran, Turkey to Paris and beyond,  wrote of his vintage experiences in our blog-to-blog.

I re-discovered  Irshad via a blogpost I did after watching a movie on TV.  Featured in this German movie  I recognized a friend I had lost way back in 1960s in New Delhi. We used to meet on a daily basis at Janpath coffee-house.  It was quite a thrill, discovering your coffee-house friend on a TV screen.I wanted to get in touch. Googling Irshad Panchatan produced a Wikipedia entry that didn’t help much.So I blogged –  Irshad  Mia, where are you?   It was my way of sending a message in the bottle, hoping my friend,  Net browsing, might happen by my blog.  He didn’t,  but Irshad’s daughter did –  find my message-in-the-bottle and conveyed it to her father in Berlin. Internet can be fun,  even for those uninitiated into live chat, video games,  web streaming and what-have-you.  I read about a Vizag-based web-casting agency that  streams live a wedding in your family.   Sharing a family event live with out-of-town friends and relatives is fun.

Early earthlings  worshiped  the  Sun, the moon,  rain and wind.  Ancient Greeks had god or goddeses for earth and the sky,  beauty and fertility,  war and violence. If we have a  goddess for fun,  we would call her the Internet. Not an unmixed fun,  perhaps.  For the Internet also serves  miliants as an instrument to promote terrorism . Terrorist training manuals in PDF format in German, English and Arabic,  were among the digital documents  they recovered from Osama bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad,  Pakistan. Terror plots relating to Mumbai-style attacks targeting European cities,  and al-Qaeda road map for future operations were found in digital storage device and memory cards.  And mobile phone,  far from being a source of fun,  can be lethal in the hands of terrorists.  Bad guys in movies use cell phone as trigger device to blow up places.

A mobile,  going by promos and Vodafone  commercials,  is no longer used for basic communication  by way of a telephoic talk. Instead,  it is marketed as a fun,  in-thing,  with which you listen to music, take photos, play games,  send  SMS, check mail, and trade missed calls with those you want to avoid talking. Writing on the death of the phone call ,  Clive Thompson reckons this  generation ‘doesn’t make phone calls,  because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways:  texting,  chatting,  and social network messaging’.

Gone are the days when we engaged in conversation the  people we met  at railway platforms  ,  we  made friends on travel.  In buses, during train travel, we find youngsters into their own trip,   meddling with their mobile  to check mail, watch video ,  play games and whatever else they do with that thing in their palms . Even elders on morning walk  nowadays seem to have forgotten the old world  grace of greeting those  walking by,  or  the art of striking a park-bench conversation with strangers.  Instead,  we keep our ears plugged in to mobile music mode.

The internet on mobile  isn’t just a no-fun thing ;  it is unsociable to plug  in  your ears to a  mobile,  utterly unconcerned about the happenings around you.  If  Internet is  fun,  do we need to have it on call,  and round the clock ?  In our addiction to the digital kind we may well be losing out on the fun we  can stumble on,  in real world,  at the park,  on our way to work.    I am all for fun on the Net, but a mobile  shouldn’t be so packed in with  ‘fun’  features that we lose sight of  real  point of a mobile –  to make/take  a call on the move.
The Internet,  in my book,  isn’t fun on any  ‘fone’.   And I wouldn’t fault Vodafone,  if my post is considered off-topic,  for the IndiBlogger contest on  How Internet is fun on your mobile’.

Finding Irshad: A Google-yuga saga

My search for Irshad Panchatan started a couple of years back,  with a blog-post – Irshad Mia, where are you ? –  about a long-lost coffee-house comrade.  We were regulars at New Delhi Janpath coffee house in early 1960s.  It has been so long ago that  Irshad  had remained in my fading memory cells  a forgotten folder , waiting to be retrieved.

This was till a couple of years ago when I happened by on TV a familiar face  in the telecast of  this German movie – Reclaim Your Brain.  The face was that of  Irshad Panchatan,  my coffee-house  friend.  I couldn’t contain my excitement. Of course,  Irshad wasn’t a close pal,  but  sharing a coffee-house table tied us into a biradari (brotherhood).   And then,  it has been over 50 years – time lapse of a yuga,  after which a re-connect triggers excitement of its own. During our lost decades  we   drifted away from New Delhi,  into our separate work life,  and into marriage,  family,  retirement, and now,  ageing .  He must be 80 ;  I am 73.

We now have the Internet,  Facebook,  Linked-in and other social networking tools.  They weren’t of any help in finding Irshad.  Wikipedia entry on him is in German.    I blogged about him – Irshad Mia, where are you ? – in the hope that if Irshad or someone who knew of his current whereabouts were to read my piece in DadiNani ,  he or she would know where to find me.  This was my way of sending a message-in-the-bottle,  tossed out  into cyberspace.

After doing the blog-post I sent the link to  another coffee-house friend S P Dutt  (NDTV Barkha’s dad),  and  he forwarded it to his friends.  Speedy’s (is how friends call S P Dutt) networking  produced a Berlin phone number.  As part of the Janpath coffee-house brotherhood  Speedy got involved in the search for Irshad.  For the next few days the three of us –  Speedy (in New Delhi), Sushil Nangia (in London),  and I (from Mysore) called Berlin. No response.

Stonewalled by unanswering ringtone from the Berlin phone line, we gave up our search.  My wife and I moved base from Mysore to Chennai – this was an  year back.  Irshad lapsed out of mind, till the other day when DadiNani  editor Subodh Mathur    e-mailed, saying,  your message in the bottle made it to Irshad Mia’s daughter.  Rita Sonal Panjatan had left a  comment in my blog post – The message in the bottle has reached, I will forward this to my father.

And within the next two days I get a mail from the man himself –   ‘Your bottle must have touched so many shores of different planets before it was fished by Rita in a German space shore’.  Irshad quoted Firaq to convey his feelings at  hearing from someone he didn’t ever think  he could –   Urdu poets  have a couplet for  every thing,  don’t they.

And then,  added Irshad: I was stunned…your message took me back into the 60s, to beautiful days of our meetings at Delhi Coffee House …. Those meetings played a very important role in my life,….am thankful to my Coffee House friends. Their critique helped me become a Pantomime. You,  RG Anand and Balraj Komal were my main critical guides.  M S Mudder who put me on stage on and on (with whom I’m still in contact) and O P Kohli  (died decades ago) who used to do the lights for me…Two years back,  moderator of German TV show  ‘Weltspiegel’ (World mirror)  Navina Sudarum,  niece of painter Amrita Sher-Gil, sent me the newspaper cutting relating to Dr.Charles Fabri (The Statesman dance critic), who loved and encouraged me as you also know.  It was a lovely and very important time for us all,  that we can never forget.

I left India again in 1971….for Europe, where I stayed, as you know, with Ingrid in Berlin, and later, opened a Pantomime School also. But that I closed in 1995 and after some time also stopped performing. Now from time to time I get offers to act in small roles in German TV and Films.

I am eighty and Ingrid is still beautiful and active. Rita, who did her MA from London School of Economics,lives close to us.

Kabul calling

Mahindra’s   invitation to blog on my life-changing road trip took me back in time ,  to Kabul.  Not to the strife-torn Afghan city,  but a hippie-happy,  ‘wheeling-n-dealing’ Kabul of 1960s.  The place was then a bustling staging post for hippies,  hitch-hikers,  and adventure tourists from Europe,  heading East beyond Khyber Pass.

This was in 1967,  when I was 29,  unattached,  and doing Europe overland.  We were seven – a mixed group,  aged between 10 and 50 – traveling  in a 12-seater van on a London-Delhi run.  Because of a nationality issue with Pakistan,  Kabul turned out to be the end of the road for me.  Denied a visa to transit Pakistan,  I flew from Kabul to Amritsar.  Our tour organiser  Brian,  and two other Brits  in our group took the van through  Khyber Pass to  Peshawar,  Lahore,  crossing the  Wagha  border post into Amritsar.

Alone,  and on loose ends,  I spent four days in Kabul,  waiting for India flight.  Ariana Afghan Airlines  flew to Amritsar twice weekly. Not being a sight-seeing type  (didn’t even own a camera then)  I spent much time in cafes watching host of other young men and women doing the same thing.  Most of them were youth-hostellers on adventure trip,  ready with their back-pack,  hoping to hop on to  the first available vehicle offering a free ride to some place in the general direction they were heading.  Back-packers met in cafes to swap travel experience. Those heading towards Europe,  having done India and Pakistan,  exchanged notes with European hitch-hickers heading East.  Hitch-hicking was a done thing among youths those days.  Passing motorists had no hesitation in picking up back-packers thumbing a lift.  Some made good company,  on long road trips.  Cafes in Kabul town were peopled , besides back-packers,  with hippies,  unshaven,  unshowered,  and lingering over their coffee waiting for hash-dealer or a vacancy in the toilet.

The vehicles parked outside the cafes had European number plates,  and carried windshield placards offering a seat to London for 50 pounds sterling. Vans,  Land-Rovers,  and bigger coaches on their return trip from India usually had seats going.  In our van Brian was the only one doing the return road trip to London. He would have picked up a few fare-paying passengers on his home run to London. Brian,  then on his first trip East,  said he planned doing the trip on a regular basis as an overland tour operator. We were his first customers – two males,  three ladies and a 10-year-old schoolgirl.  And Brian found us through an ad.  he gave in the New Statesman personal column.

Joan,  a middle-aged wife of  Norfolk businessman,  bored with golf and country life,  wanted to do the world overland,  if only to be able to  send picture-postcards home  from exotic-sounding addresses.  Carol,  a student nurse from London,  joined us for ‘some fun and a bumpy ride’ to Bombay, from where she planned to take a ship to Sydney to join her Australian boyfriend. And then we had this young Indian couple,  with a 10-year-old girl,  heading home for a long vacation in Bombay. I believe they were close to the business family that owned the  ‘Parle’  brand of beverges.  Point is, even regular guys took to overland trips those days.  And Kabul of the hippy,  happier days  was  Mecca to road-trippers from all over Europe.  More on my Kabul,  a few paras. later.

To begin at the beginning,  my road trip started, as I mentioned,  with a New Statesman personnel column,  wherein Brian said he wanted to hear from those wanting to do India overland in May, 1967.  I was then a journalist on the staff of The Northern Echo, a daily published in  Darlington,  North-East England.  After three years in the UK  I thought it was time I returned home,  to turn a fresh  leaf in life.   And I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start on  it  than what the New Statesman ad. offered.

Advertiser Brian,  when I got in touch,  cautioned  that his trip was not for those who expected to be  ‘carried’  by others;  or those not prepared to accept some heat and discomfort;  and, definitely,  not for the type that didn’t ‘get along’  with strangers.  Brian bought a 12-seater van, funded,  presumably, through our contribution, as down-payment on a vehicle loan.  I can’t recall how much I paid,  but it was less than 100 pounds. This didn’t include our motel stay en route,  and visa fees for transiting Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia,  Bulgaria, Turkey,  Iran and Afghanistan.

Irony was , such exciting journey  across continent had a pretty pedestrian start,  at the parking lot of  London’s Waterloo station.  It was a Sunday morning, 7ish,  when the parking lot was deserted.  Brian was already there,  and waiting.  So was my friend Sushil Nangia  who had come to see me off.  I was surpised to see him there,  on a Sunday morning.  Besides being a dear friend one had to be bit of a nut to be up and about to see off someone,  so early on Sunday morning , when most of London preferred to stay in bed,  reading their favourite paper – be it the Sunday Times, Observer, The Sunday Express or the now-closed News of the World.  Nangia was, and still remains,  both –  a dear friend,  and bit of the N-word.

Our road trip involved two car-ferry crossings  – Dover-Ostend  on the English Channel,  and across Bosphorus   in Istanbul –  motoring across the Black Forest;   stopping by at picture postcard towns of  Munich, Cologne,  Baden-Baden,  Salzburg;  driving up  Kop Dagi Highland in Turkey;  crossing Iran,  taking in en route  Tehran, Tabriz, Mehshad and many other small towns to make it to the Afghan border post;  and from there to Herat,  through a moonscaped barren expanse to Khandahar and then,  to Kabul.

After four days on loose ends in Kabul, I couldn’t wait to leave town.  As I reached the airport I was told I didn’t have  ‘exit visa’. Immigration official suggested I get my passport stamped at the city police station, some 20 mins.away. He offered to  get me a taxi. I wondered if it was possible to get my passport exit-stamped at the police station and still make it back to the airport in time to catch the flight. The official at the immigration said it was worth a try –  for my flight wasn’t leaving for another hour.  A taxi-driver was ready to take me to the city and back.  And the next flight was three days away.  I had the decision made for me –  to make a dash to the city police station.  And the Kabul cabbie managed to bring me back to the airport some ten minutes before take-off.  As the Afghan Airlines Dakota took to the air with me in the plane,  I couldn’t help wonder if there wasn’t nexus between the airport counter staff and the cabbie.

Talking the walk, Swapna’s Delhi Walk

When  Swapna Liddle’s  Delhi – 14 historic walks   was made available by  BlogAdda for book  review  I grabbed it because I wanted to  ‘re-visit’  Delhi; and because I believe heritage walks are not just for tourists,  but are  also for the likes of me wanting to re-discover Delhi. And here I found a historian with a doctorate in 19th century Delhi  to take me around.

Carrying,  as I do,  an emotional baggage of  having spent my college, and early working life in the city, I admit to reading  Delhi – 14 historic walks with tinted eye-glasses that had weathered 30 Delhi summers (1950-80s).  And if,  in  Liddle’s  290 pages,   I find the  book  leaves something to be desired,  it is because of my rather high expectations.  I expected the author to lead me by the hand while talking the walk,  pointing  things with anecdotes.  I expected a story-teller to bring  alive  the ruins and tombs of nawabs and other nobility with tales,  gossip and myths of their life and times.

I wasn’t totally disappointed, though.  Diwane Khas  at the Red Fort assumed a khasiat (added value) for me after reading Swapna Liddle ,  in the sense  I visualized  the emperor’s special court hall as the  spot where  Shahjahan  suffered the indignity of getting  deposed from the throne by his own son Aurangazeb.  Among other nuggets from history that Liddle weaves in her historic walks was Mehrauli’s  Metcalfe connection.  Sir Thomas Metcalfe,  British agent at the Mughal court in the 1840s, showed up as  bit of a crank in the sense that he converted the first floor of Quila Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli as a retreat.
The Qutab Minar, widely known as symbol of the Turkish conquest of northern India,  was seen by the Muslim faithful as a maznah, from where they gave the call to the faithfuls to come for prayer. Someone who could climb up the Qutab (72.5 m), and still have the stamina to call out to the faithfuls,  must have had super-human lung-power. Hogwash ?  Perhaps,  but it made an interesting read.

The book made me wonder  how Ballimaran got its name ;  I had no occasion to learn, till I read Liddle,  that  Mirza Ghalib lived in a rented haveli that belonged to a neibourhood  hakim.  And that Delhi’s St.Stephen’s College  was initially housed in a modest Chandni Chowk  house in narrow lane called  Katra Kushal Rai.

I wonder if  sarkari tourism  depts.  realise the potentials  of  city walks.  Walking tours are mainly done by  NGOs and through  individual initiatives.  I have read about some city-loving  San Francisco residents devoting their weekends to  taking interested  visitors on neighbourhood walks.  Nearer home, the walks with which I am familiar,  in Mysore and Mylapore (Chennai),  are individual initiatives.  The royal Mysore walks  is the creation of a software techie who got bitten by the walkbug in Singapore. While on assignment abroad Vinay was so taken in by the Singapore city walk  that he chose to return to  native Mysore  to start a heritage walk.  Vinay’s business model has apparantly been  successful  enough for him to start a Mysore bike tour.

I wish his success drives him enough to try out walks for other interest groups –  R K Narayan walk (of his haunts in the city),  the Maharaja’s College walk,  Kukrahalli walk (for bird-watchers),  The Mysore Banyan Walk , Mandi Mohalla or  the Agrahara walk. Speaking  agraharam,  my media friend Vincent D’Souza  has been conducting walks centred on the agraharam in Chennai’s Mylapore. 

INTACH with which the author is associated conducts the walks  she writes about in her book.  Her friend  Surekha Narain,  who acknowledges  Swapna Liddle  as a guiding force, is into conducting  Surekha Walks  devoted to the  Ghalib trail, the Pahargunj bazar, and the 1857 Mutiny walk.  I have a few walks ideas, triggered by my sense of Vintage Delhi. Would  Surekha  consider any of these ?

The Coffee-house walk:  Starts from Janpath where the original coffee-house was located. When the India Coffee Board decided to close  down  its chain of coffee-houses in 60s, their employees, left in the lurch, were backed by the Delhi coffe-house regulars to form a workers’ co-op to take over the Board abandoned coffee-houses. When they  faced eviction from  Janpath, the workers union started the search for an alternative, with  the support of coffee-house regulars –  they included artists,  academics,  poets,  journalists, politicians, lawyers,  insurance agents, and students. Among the regulars were  Inder Gujral and Young Turk  Chandra Shekar.  A joint agitation by coffee-house  regulars and workers  resulted in NDMC  allotment of open space where Thambu coffee-house came to be located .  So called because , the the coffee-house functioned under a tent.  That was the space where  Palika Bazar is now located.  The workers’  coffee-house  eventually moved to Mohan Singh Place,  still in Connaught Place (CP).

Meanwhile,  some  regulars from my time (70s-80s)  drifted away to other C P  locations such as the United Coffee House,  the Tea House in Regal Building. On a Delhi trip a while  back I discovered  a small band of old time regulars meeting  at Connaught Circus Embassy restaurant.  The group of coffee-regulars  is sustained  by my college friend  S P Dutt  (Barkha’s  dad) – we have been coffee-house regulars  since our days together in Hindu College,  till our jobs took us away from  Delhi.  I left New Delhi in early 80s, for good.  SPD, as friends call Dutt, returned to the city,   re-connected with old-time regulars after retirement,  and Embassy is where they meet nowadays.  Out-of-towners ,  like yours truly,  visiting Delhi can catch up with  S P Dutt’s group at Embassy, on weekdays –  ‘make it there,  11ish’,  as SPD would say when you call.

Karolbagh Monday market:  A weekly walk, on Monday,  holiday for  Ajmal Khan Road traders. It is  on Monday pavement hawkers of all type take over the stretch from Pusa Rd. end to the Unani hospital. The pavement close to the Gurudwara Rd. crossing on Ajmal Khan Road  would be of interest for pavement shoppers of used books.

Worship Walk, of 3 histoic temples, a gurudwara and a church. Could start from the Hanuman temple near Rivoli Cinema, Connaught Place;  walk down Irwin Rd. to  Gurdwara Rakhab Gunj;  Continue the walk upto the Gole Post office, where there is a church;  take a turn towards the Bird Rd. Kali Mandir, located on encroached pavement; and make your way to Birla temple on Mandir Marg via the heritage Gole Market.

The Mandir Marg Ridge: This walk could interest alumni of Mandir Marg schools,  notably Harcourt Butler and Madarasi.  Students living in Karolbagh used to walk to school through the ridge,  picking along the way  wild berries with sour-sweet taste,  that grew on thorny bushes.  The back-door ridge was also the escape route, notably for those who had running accounts at the Madarasi  school front  chai-samasa dukhanwala.

Delhi University Walk: For students in my times,  who did cafe-crawling before,  after,  and,  often, during class hours.  University coffee-house,  strategically located near the campus gate bus stop,  was usually the place where students started their day. From here it is a few minutes walk to the Miranda House cafe,  so named because  of its proximity to the noted women’s college hostel. And then there was Wenger’s,  an upscale cafe near the university library, conveniently located for students meeting  for ‘group study’.  After the study session at Wenger’s  day-scholars take a walk with hostellers to catch the bus home,  from the Miranda House stop. The 8 pm bus to Kashmere Gate,  Daryagunj and beyond  that passed by Miranda House was  widely known  among students as Ashiq Special. 8 p m was when the  women’s hostel gate closed for the day.

Coffee-house culture

A bunch of retired men meet twice a week at a New York restaurant to sort out the world. Nowadays Obama is on their agenda every time they meet over cottage cheese and egg-white omelet. According to The New York Times, their all-under-the-sun discussions do not cover, as a rule, talking about grand-children and their sicknesses.

This is what those in the media call a soft-story; done at times when there is not enough hard news to fill newspaper pages. It is a fluff job done to fill a hole in a news page. The NYT retiree story, featured next to the chess notes, below the fold on Page 21, says most members of the Manhattan retirees’ group, 12 when there is full house, have been together at a neighborhood college for continuing education; and it was one of their instructors who had initiated them into the chat group.

I know of a group in New Delhi that dates back to my college days in the late 50s. Its venue has changed, more than once, over decades. So has its composition. Our New Delhi chat group meets nowadays at the Embassy restaurant in Connaught Circus, eleven-ish on week-days. S P Dutt, a retired Air-India executive, is its unelected life-time convener, whose job it is to pick up the bill. Convention is that every member chips in with whatever he thinks is his share of the coffee bill. If the collection falls short, SPD makes up the difference. Usually, contributions from others – Chawla, Mehra, Mahajan and whoever else joins in –  more than makes up for the bill, plus a generous tip; and it is Mr Dutt’s, Speedie to friends, pleasant duty to accept the table waiter’s grateful salaam.

Evolved during our Delhi University days, the chat group has undergone many changes in its composition. After our graduation the venue shifted from the Delhi University Coffee House  to the one at Janpath. With the closure of the Janpath coffee-house we moved to the Tea House in Regal Buildings; and eventually, to the Embassy.

Connaught Place was then  a convenient meeting point for a varied group that included sales and medical reps., insurance agents, journalists, Speedie’s colleagues in Air-India, and university teachers. At times, we were six or more at a table for four. Late-comers simply pulled up a chair from an adjacent table. Many of those in the group, who have moved away to other towns for bread and butter – Nangia, Mongia, Davy or Munshi – make it a point to drop in at the Embassy whenever they visit Delhi. They debate, deliberate and disagree with uninhibited vehemence of a regular. Lapse of time and changed circumstances of the group members – from bachelors to grandpas – haven’t altered their back-slapping terms of endearment.

Most people in my generation have been brought up in the coffee-house culture. Former PMs – Inder Gujral and Chandrashekar – had been coffee-house regulars in Delhi before they assumed the high office. A B Vajpayee, they says, used to frequent Lucknow coffee-house. Photo-journalist T S Satyan, in his book, Alive and Clicking, refers to his meeting with Satyajit Ray in Calcutta, when the film-maker took Mr Satyan to his favourite haunt – the coffee-house.

Cross-posted in SiliconIndia.com