A hammer icon about to strike an icon of a graduation cap

The School of Hard Knocks

Over the Diwali holidays, I had had some repairs done in the woodworks department. However, a couple of days later, a couple of items had gone back to working inefficiently. So, this time, I made sure I was standing close to the action as the carpenters – a middle-aged man and a young lad – went about the fixes. However, because the action was taking a while and I didn’t really have any action there, I decided to make small talk.

I asked the older guy if the younger guy, who seemed to be an assistant or an apprentice, was just a colleague or a relative, for these folk typically have their relatives work alongside them. My electrician does.

Not looking away from his work, he replied, a knowing smile in his voice, “No, not a relative.” He continued, with the same knowing smiling feeling, “Vyaapaar mein rishtedaar kahaan chaltaa hai… Gair ko hee rakhnaa chaahiye.” (Business and relatives don’t mix. In business, you should have only a stranger.) He ended by reasoning that it’s easier having a commercial transaction and conversation with someone who isn’t close to you.

I couldn’t agree more. In the two-three years I have been working on my own, I too have learnt: Freelance and friends don’t mix. If they do, the result is volatile.

The bathroom door done, he moved on to the sliding door in the living room. This was an easier job: just the bolt. Again, his eyes fixed on his task, he told me that gently should do it for the door from now on – no need to bang it. I assured him that I was gentle enough after he had fixed it the last time, but my maid must have slammed it as earlier and thus ruined it again in the process.

Again, he spoke knowingly, “That one… She speaks a bit rough…”

I first wondered if she was there when he had come the last time and then wondered if she had said anything then for him to notice anything about her. Yes, on both counts.

I responded, commenting rather than defending her, “Yes, she does speak a bit dry…” I added, again in comment and not defence, “But her work is good…”

He responded pat, “Yes, that’s why she speaks rough…”

This guy has all the answers, doesn’t he?

I wondered what other woodwork needed fixing.

A man cycling on a path through fields with transmission towers in the background against a reddish-orange sky

Sing Me a Sunset

Sleeper, non-AC. Window seat, in the direction the train is going. About 5.30 in the evening.

The sun is slowly moving behind the trees and the hills, washing the sky pink and orange as it retreats. Cowherds are making their way back with their cattle. Birds are doing the same, just with a bit more intensity. Intermittent vehicles slowly put on their lights. Other vehicles honk sporadically in the distance. The mild breeze is welcome. You run your hand through your hair and find yourself sighing softly. You are closer to your destination, and yet some distance to go. The birds, cows, cowherds, vehicles, drivers know this day over, but the next is not too far away. There is a sense of satisfaction in the air, as well as a mild disquiet.

A B&W photo of Hemant Kumar with his chin resting on his palmHemant Kumar’s voice is something like this – a bit of sweet sorrow. It’s like he had swallowed a sunset, or better still, all the sights, sounds and scenes of sunset. And just like at sunset, you feel immensely fulfilled on hearing him, and yet yearning for more.

A composite image created from a still from Chaudhvin ka Chand, with the the second image having a grainy effect

Loving and Loathing Guru Dutt

People think I am crazy about Guru Dutt. (Well, I do call myself Guru Nutt – you know, a Guru Dutt nut.) They think I like (“love”) GD – his films and the man himself – to infinity and beyond. I do, on both counts. And also to irfinity; check out how much I have blogged about him ever since becoming a nutt.

But what people don’t know is that I also hate the guy. Lots. Here’s why, how and how much.

I hate GD for having raised my cinematic bar so high that I’m now not able to watch or like too many other films or filmmakers.

 I hate that he was involved with so few films, because he needed to direct, produce, act in and song-picturize those films.

 I hate that he was so brilliant at directing that few saw how brilliant he also was at acting.

 I hate that he won no awards for his direction, despite being known so much for it.

I hate that he was recognized first by the Western world, then in India. Like is always the case.

 I hate that he was recognized more after he passed away.

I hate that he passed away before time.

 I hate that he passed away before my time.

 I hate that he passed away. Period. He should have been around, setting benchmarks for the way films should be made and the way idealistic creative souls should thrive, or at least, survive.

 Really, I hate GD so much that when I get to heaven (if there is such a place, if I land up there and if he is there too; only the last I am sure of), I plan to deliver one tight one across his face. A peck.

Written on the occasion of Guru Dutt’s death anniversary, a date I hate. The man and his films, obviously, I heart.

Writer Venita Coelho

Adventure, She Writes

Her first book, Dungeon Tales, was Arabian Nightsesque. Her second, The Washer of the Dead, a collection of ghost stories centred around women, was humanistic rather than scary. Her next, Soap! Writing and Surviving Television in India, a handbook for people writing for the cash-rich but quality-strapped Indian TV industry, drew upon her years of experience in the space. She then wrote a three-book animal fiction series on the trot. Her most recent, Boy No. 32, is about a boy in an orphanage with the name, or rather, number Battees (32). That is, the boy is named 32, not the orphanage, because orphans apparently don’t deserve any better. But his life and luck may be about to change when the orphanage is inadvertently brought crashing down, letting him and his mates loose on the pathways of Mumbai and setting off a series of adventures, rendezvous and discoveries.

Somewhere, Venita Coelho’s life is as varied, adventurous, unconventional and humanistic as the books she writes and the themes she explores. She was born in Dehradun, grew up in then Calcutta, worked in then Bombay, lived in Coimbatore (which she considers home) and presently lives in Goa. She is a single mother to an adopted girl of 10, whom she home-schools and has started taking off with on tours across India in a customized caravan, because she feels that’s the best way to learn geography and history. She also loves animals, due to which she turned vegetarian 20 years ago.

Cover of Soap: Writing and Surviving Television in IndiaVenita started off writing for TV, in the early days of satellite TV, and worked there the longest, before giving it up when the saas-bahu “poison” took over. She returned to front Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, but left TV for the second and final time when she saw Jassi too going saas-bahu mode. She wrote a few films, but took a break when none of the three scripts she penned turned out as envisaged. She switched her attention full-fledged to books, and has been quite prolific: seven books in 11 years, with about as many at various stages. She has started looking at films anew and is also interested in the rapid-rising space of web series. And somewhere in the midst of all this action, she has engaged in activism too, being a part of Goa Bachao Abhiyan and having taken on a celebrated writer and a well-known minister (both male) in different forums over different causes.

Irfan Syed spoke to the author whose life reads like one of her books, about her works and her writing motivations and inspirations. Excerpts:

You have written across mediums and genres…

Actually, I’m not a writer – I’m a storyteller. It’s allowed me the freedom of adapting, learning and going from genre to genre, medium to medium.

How easy or difficult is it writing across mediums?

TV is easy. TV is very formula. Once you’ve cracked the formula – 24 minutes, 12 scenes, ad breaks – it’s very easy to write… Film is the most difficult. In film, the universe you create has to be very credible. It takes many minds. It’s also very collaborative – and we as writers tend to be solitary… Easiest is books, because with books, you are the sole person in charge.

Cover of the book Boy No. 32 by Venita CoelhoIt seems the inspiration for Boy No. 32 came from the times you spent with street kids when waiting for the last train back from work during your TV days…

I was always on that last train back to the hostel. All the odds and ends would be on that train: hijras, fisherwomen, some urchin or the other… Because this train was empty, these kids would come and chat. I would have these absolutely fantastic conversations… They would also entertain me. They’d catch those handholds on top and swing from them and do acrobatics… I thought they deserved a book. I thought they deserved for people to look at them as more than just beggars. I wanted people to see them as children.

Were there any other motivations for writing the book?

Boy No. 32 is also about family. That’s what he is looking for. He’s never had family. It also came out of the conversations I had with my daughter about family, because by definition, we are not your standard family: single mom with adopted kid. The fondest, deepest, most loving family can be the family that you choose.

Cover of Dungeon Tales by Venita CoelhoThe book seems to have influences of Salman Rushdie: the telepathic communication between the kids and the various elements of fantastic adventure. You seem to be a Rushdie fan – also evident in your first book, Dungeon Tales. If so, do the similarities creep in subconsciously?

I picked up my first Rushdie when I was in college. I just fell into Midnight’s Children. Not as much for the storytelling, but for that the first time I read a book and said, ‘Oh my god, we can tell our stories and people will take us seriously.’ There was Rushdie using Bambaiya… accents… And he tells a truly Indian story. I was like: ‘I can admire an Indian author – and the world admires him as well.’ So, that’s why, for me, always at the back of all my writing is Papa Rushdie sitting there as inspiration.

The book could so easily make a movie. In fact, many of your books can. Is that your TV and film writing at play?

All the books are the movies that will never be made! Look at my animal rights series – climaxes that involve 250 tigers! So, that’s how I use my books. Because in films, you are trying to write stuff that will get made. But in books, you can write stuff that doesn’t have to ever be made – you can just go mad.

 Most of your books are aimed at children. Do you find it easier to write for children than adults?

Adults have a whole lot of opinions and prejudices that they might not openly show. And a whole lot of thoughts about what is good reading and bad reading. Kids haven’t done that at all. As long as you are telling a good story and in a funny way, they listen to you.

Front cover of Venita Coelho's first animal-fiction book, Tiger by the TailHow did the animal series books come about?

I got so sick of the way people are treating animals. Also because I fell in love with animals. In our family, animals are treated very much as beloved members of family. And I looked around at what we are doing in the world of animals. I said, ‘Animals have nobody to speak for them.’ I said I’m going to do it. And then I decided to talk to kids again – I’m going to tell them great fun stories, and those stories are going to teach them about animal rights, cruelty to animals, the space that animals have in the world and respecting that.

In Soap!, you’ve also talked about the physical problems you had while writing so much, which eventually receded through yoga. Is that you how keep fit and manage to write?

Totally. It saved my life. There is no problem I’ve had that yoga has not fixed.

You don’t intend to return to TV. But any plans to take up a web series, as they seem to be the flavour of the day and are also not saas-bahu?

I hope to do a web series. But what I discovered when I looked at the series that are really popular right now was, I felt I was a bit old and didn’t understand that kind of thinking or – well, not that kind of thinking – that kind of pitch. So, I’ve taken some time off and am just looking at the whole thing: at stuff that’s popular, at youngsters and what they are interested in, at pitch and sur, how it should be different… For me, it’s one more new genre to learn.

Finally, will you be writing on your pan-India trips?

I’ve got all these kinds of offers. ‘Take a camera and shoot it.’ ‘Do a blog.’ ‘Do a series.’ I said no to everything. I said I want to do something just for the fun of it for once. We are doing our tours, meeting people, seeing sights – and eventually I’m sure it will influence my writing. Any kind of adventure you have just deepens you, enriches you and feeds back into your work.

I wrote this piece for the magazine Harmony – Celebrate Age for this month’s issue. Here’s the piece online.



Close-up of a silhouetted hand swiping on a phone

Rites of Love

They swipe right. They swipe right again. They swipe right some more. They keep swiping right. Some only swipe right. That’s the only way to do it, to play the game.

They call it Tinder. It’s the new way of finding love.

And here you thought love was meant to be tender.