When Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls, you do your homework before setting out. I did mine. I watched Omkara, with English subtitles and a Bengali wife. It seems the crash course worked only to a point — “Will Mayawati come to power? Haan ki naa? (pronounced, ‘Haan ki dnaa?’)” becoming my climactic question everywhere.
As the venerable Ashok ji made a pit-stop at the exact midpoint of our Allahabad-Varanasi return journey, I winced recalling some conversational low points. In Phulpur, for instance, I got ‘bahu’ and ‘bhabiji’ mixed up. In Allahabad, veteran Congressman Shyam Surat Upadhyay switched to English, a language that he had difficulty conversing in, as he simply couldn’t handle my attempts at Awadhi Hindi any more.
This is not to forget the not too infrequent phone calls I was making to Delhi, trying to figure out the meaning of words I had phonetically transcribed in my notebook. “You sure it means handicraft? That doesn’t quite make sense. He didn’t say ‘dastkari’ though. He used the word…um, is there a word ‘taskari’, ‘tastakari’…? Bingo, yes, if it means smuggler then it makes perfect sense!” Journalism at its linguistic cutting edge.
Listening on the future
Which is why it made so much more sense to eavesdrop than to converse. In any case, the journalism was purer as I wouldn’t be entering the experiment and ‘corrupting’ it. No matter it wouldn’t make the news pages.
At Courtview the bar at Hotel Kanha Shyam in Allahabad, I found myself placed between two sets of people. On the table on my right were three local entry-level bankers. They seemed straight out of college and were having cola and fruit juice (inside a low-lit seventh floor bar!).
“Forget Mumbai and Delhi. Canada is one place where you can live,” said one of them, picking on the kababs. He clearly knew what he was talking about. “But the place to go to is Europe. Living is not expensive there if you know how to live. They mostly eat bread there. So it’s cheap and you save money if you only have bread and buns and sandwiches. In places like France, the population is ageing so they need young people from wherever they can to work.”
Pretending to be busy watching the soundless England-Australia fixture on TV, I couldn’t help wonder how the young man next to me knew all this about Europe’s ageing economy. Did he, sitting here in Allahabad, subscribe to the same Economist magazine that I do?
On the table on my other side, there was another gaggle of Allahabadi youth. They were a louder lot, wearing printed shirts and kurtas and were drinking beer. Like the banker group planning to migrate to Europe, the future politicos also wielded their latest cellphone models with great frequency.
“When I speak I am heard!” said the leader (also payer of the Rs 846 bill) of this pack. “‘I want to open an account here,’ I told him forcefully after he said he wanted some documents. He told me to wait and went off. Then he came back. It was done, no jhamela!” Guffaws follow.
Two future UPs unravelled to me on a seventh floor bar in Allahabad. Who needs Yogendra Yadav?
Khaike beer Benaras wala
In Varanasi, of course, the option of eavedropping becomes pointless. At the Oak Wood Bar in the Radisson, the Italians are speaking their Italian and the Germans are speaking theirs (called German). So there’s only waiter Nisheet Kumar Singh whom I can listen to.
Nisheet is from Patna and he has spent some two years in Varanasi. So how’s social life in Varanasi for the under-30? I imagined him to have a decent social life. At the Canton Royale Restaurant Beer Bar, very near my dull as a Reliance annual report hotel, the Clark’s, I would find enough young Benarasi babus (and occasional bibis) enjoying their evenings with a little help from their Haywards. Was Nisheet one of those happy youngsters?
“Oh, I try and go to the temples. This is Kashi after all,” he says with a smile as if he was telling me about some nightclub in Vegas. But ‘try’? Did I note the possibility of a pious pose in an otherwise epicurean life. “In fact, I catch the evening aartis with my friends on my off days,” says Nisheet, pouring me a drink and going on to ask me whether I had already visited the Shankatmochan temple.
Feeling that I needed to be outside the gaze of God, I bid Nisheet goodbye after my drink and saunter off to the dependable Canton Beer Bar. Some hours later, I came out wondering why Gujarat prohibits alcohol consumption, while Varanasi, the holiest of the holies, flows with such abandon. Is Gandhinagar really more righteous than Kashi? Lord Shankatmochan provides me the sign at that very point: three friends whom I had seen spending the evening inside, were now fighting at the mouth of the narrow road with their mobikes sprawled on the ground. It’s like a desi Clockwork Orange. Nothing that UP can’t handle.