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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

Alex Jr. McQueen, a white American, considers himself a lineaged investigative lawyer. He is the third generation of “McQueen, McQueen & McQueen.” However, at times, he wonders if there would be a fourth-generation McQueen, for, if truth were told, Alex Jr. does not fancy the female of the species. Actually, he fears that he is leaning otherwise.
Presently, the business at his firm is on the upswing thanks to his highly efficient knowledge partner, Sundari Subramanium - an Indian by birth and, particularly, proud of it. Otherwise, she is a complete American. Sundari, also popularly known as Sunshine, is of good height, well groomed, comes to work in smart bespoken western office wear and, above all, is supremely self-assured. Moreover, the sparkling hexagon-shaped diamond studded ring, a family heirloom, she says, that she sports on her finely chiseled nose adds to her stately look. Alex Jr. considers himself lucky to have found her. However, he is unaware that Sundari is as happy to work with him for she believes that he is safe. She does not believe in mixing work with distraction.
It was on November 30, 2011, that McQueen, McQueen & McQueen came into the life of India. A call came from an important TV news anchor of India to their office on the 5th Avenue, New York, asking them to investigate what the anchor called the curious case of petroleum pricing in her country. She gave a brief background of the events in the last few weeks.
The story began on the midnight of November 3, 2011. At that precise moment, the oil marketing companies (OMCs) of India raised, once again, the price of petrol in the country citing the rising prices of imported crude oil and the dropping value of the Indian rupee as the cause of it. The so-called expert analysts unquestioningly bought the argument. Perhaps, sitting in the comfort of air-conditioned TV studios had made them too lazy to do any serious homework.
A couple of days after that, on November 5 to be exact, to lend a sharp edge to the rationale for the increase in the price of petrol, Indian Oil Corporation, the nation’s largest oil firm, came out with its financial performance for the quarter ending September 30, 2011. It reported a net loss of Rs 7,485.55 crore (US$1.5 billion) due to mounting losses on fuel sales.
The scenario turned scarier when the Chairman of Indian Oil Corporation said on November 9, that the borrowings from the banks has almost reached the limits and getting further loans from banks may not be possible after December. At that stage, the corporation may not have money to import crude oil and may have to close down some of its refineries leading to a shortage of petroleum products in the country. Another massive price increase seemed to be in the offing for all petroleum products – petrol, diesel, kerosene, and gas cylinders.
However, in a most dramatic turn around, on November 15, to the disbelief of everyone, the news came that the OMCs had reduced, yes, reduced, the price of petrol by Rupees 2 a litre. It was a theatre of the absurd at its best. And, again on November 30, the price was reduced further by another 78 paise per litre.
It was for this reason that the TV channel had called Alex Jr. McQueen to look into the mystery of the double price reduction considering the heavy losses claimed by the OMCs of India in the past. 
Alex Jr. then called Sundari Subramanium who said that she had overheard the whole story on the extension line and had already started studying the matter. Thanks to the internet, she said she would have the report ready in 30 minutes. She was true to her word.
She began, “Alex, the first thing to be understood is that the petroleum pricing in India is an optical illusion.”
The statement startled Alex Jr. McQueen but recovering quickly he said, “But Sunshine, I was under the impression that India had long given up being known for its rope trick.”
She gave a small smile and continued, “The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) publishes every month, for the benefit of the US consumers, a ‘What We Pay For In A Gallon of Regular Gasoline,’ giving the break-up of cost under four different headings — crude oil, refining, distribution and marketing, and indirect taxes. Indian OMCs could also furnish numbers in the same EIA format. Unfortunately, they will not do it because it would give away their game.”
“Uh, uh that’s interesting.”
After a pause, she continued, “Alex, you would know that the average retail price of petrol in the U.S., for the week ending December 05, 2011, was US$ 3.29 per gallon (an American gallon is equivalent to their 3.79 litres.) Therefore, converted into rupees, even at the rate of Rs.51.75 to a dollar, an American only pays Rs.45 for a litre of petrol at his gas station.”

“And what does an Indian pay?”

“Alex, hold your breath – even after the reduction of Rs.2.78 per litre, he still pays about 50% more per litre.”

Alex Jr. exclaimed, “Oh, my God. You mean to say an Indian pays Rs.68 for his litre of petrol and yet Indian Oil Corporation makes a loss. Gee, that requires some accounting jugglery. Sure, rope trick is still alive in India.”
“Yo, there is still some more to come. If one deducts the indirect taxes of 12% and the gross profit margin of 20% that is charged to an American in the Rs.45 per litre that he pays at the gas station, the total cost of production of petrol would work out to little less than Rs.32.00 a litre in the US. Even granting that the cost of production of petrol is the same in India, a recovery price of Rs.32.00, without taxes, would not entail any loss for the Indian OMCs.”
“Hey Sunshine, since petrol in India is currently being retailed at an average price of Rs.68 a litre, our mission is to trace where the difference of Rs.36.00 per litre is walking off to.”
Sundari Subramanium laughed at the lawyer’s witticism.

Alex Jr. happy at her appreciation, continued, “Seriously speaking, the OMCs can only make a loss if they are recovering less than Rs.32.00 a litre for themselves of the Rs.68 a litre being collected from the retail customer. And, if the OMCs are, indeed, making a loss, then the conclusion is that the various governmental authorities are collecting a hefty amount of indirect taxes - far more than the actual cost of production! And, thereafter, to blame the rising prices of imported crude oil and the dropping value of the Indian rupee is, indeed, smoke and mirrors.” He followed it with a light-hearted guffaw. 

Sundari, tapping her nose ring, a sign that she was in deep thought, finally added, “Alex Jr., there could be a corollary to that. Suppose, if by any chance, the OMCs are recovering more than Rs.32.00 per litre, they should be making a profit. The question then would be how these profits are being turned into losses.”

“Wow that could be a multi- million dollar question!” 

“Sure is. But Alex, there is another interesting story. A former Petroleum Secretary, T.N.R. Rao, speaking on the prices of a LP cooking gas cylinder, said in 2005, “that routine cost-padding and inefficiencies actually hike the per cylinder price by as much as Rs.100!” At that time, the so-called “under recoveries” per cylinder were also put at Rs.100! I suppose the present cost padding must be Rs.246 per cylinder.”

“Hey, how can you say that sitting here?”

“Elementary, dear Alex. The present ‘under recovery,’ hyped by the government is that it is Rs.246 per cylinder.” 

With a loud chuckle, Alex Jr. gave a thumb up sign to Sundari.

Alex, pack your bags, I have some good news. We are leaving for Delhi tonight. I have booked two first class tickets on Jet Airways and the Indian TV channel is putting us up in one of the special suites at the Maurya Sheraton,” and, with a wink, added, “to unravel the rope trick!”

PS: The Math for those inclined.
Reference for USA prices per gallon:

PS 2.  1 US gallon = 3.78541178 liters.

PS 3. Broad Calculation to arrive at the cost of production:

US price at the retail outlet                                    Rs.45.00 per litre

Less 12% indirect Federal and State Taxes        Rs.  5.40 per litre

Less 20% Gross Profit Margin                              Rs.  7.92 per litre

Cost of production at American prices              Rs.31.68 per litre.

Rounded up                                                                Rs.32.00 per litre

Friday, November 11, 2011

Flirting with Anna ji

My husband is the strong, silent type and speaks only to the point. His favorite piece of conversation with me after marriage was, “Sweetheart, tea, coffee or me.”  And my reply used to thrill him. After all I am a Punjabi kudi. Although we are happily married, I am very different from him.

I do not mind confessing that I am a chatterbox and was always one. As I tell him quite often “After you, I love gossiping the most.” However, these days, the Gujarati chchora is little doubtful about my loyalty – he thinks that ever since I joined the new kitty group, he is no more numero uno. But, I must say, he has some justification for it.

Recently, a scandal broke out in our kitty group. A young married female member from my new kitty group got involved with the husband of another member. I was waiting anxiously to know if this would turn into a relationship. Naturally, I had to keep in constant touch with my friends to know the latest developments. The suspense to find out how far they had gone with each other, in real time, was killing me.

It was during one of such late night, yummy and mouth-watering exchange of text messages between the members of our kitty group on the emerging situation, dear husband came up with the same old request. I told him to wait. He sulked and went to sleep. When I joined him, after about a couple of hours, I saw he was having a restless sleep. I did not disturb him for I had far more important matters on my mind.

After a few days, the news came that she had gone back to her husband (oh, no) but my husband continued to be in a huff with me. Therefore, when I came to know that our club was organizing a qawwali programme, I decided to surprise him. He is very fond of Indian music and could not say no to my bait.

We reached the club in good time and met a few friends. The first half of the qawwali programme was disappointing – it was quite thanda. I love the masti and dhamaka in a qawwali programme especially the muqabbla, which generally takes place between the male and female qawwals. However, my husband enjoyed the session. He likes his qawwalis a little differently. He partakes the lutf from the allegorical references of the sufi renditions. But, being a Gujju, many a times he had to refer to me to understand the subtle connotations of the Urdu words. Other than that, he still maintained his distance from me at the programme.

But the qawwali troupe promised that the second half would be livelier. True to their word, the second half started a little differently. Each accompanying instrumentalist was given an opportunity to give a small solo performance before the main qawwali resumed. The final solo turn was of the tabla player. He started with the slower rhythm but soon went on to the faster beats. After a time, the beats started getting faster and faster and the tabla maestro’s fingers were flying as if in a blur. Mischievously, I got up from the seat next to my husband and moved one row back. I then started drumming on my husband’s back in unison with the tabla player. The ice was broken, as I could make out that hubby was enjoying the touch and the fast beat. The tabla play ended with a crescendo followed by a loud applause.  

As the orchestra was getting tuned for the next number, I saw a well dressed and an attractive middle-aged lady walk down with great poise on stilettos towards the row where my husband was sitting in sole splendour. She inquired of my husband, with her eyes, if the seats next to him were vacant. She then gestured to the man behind her, who looked like a henpecked husband, to follow her. To my amazement, he was extremely well dressed too. He was wearing a red shirt with snug fitting beige trousers. He looked dapper but what really made him stand out was the printed silk cravat that was tucked inside the shirt. I thought that he, obviously, was a vain person for even his thinning hair seemed to have been placed with great care to cover as much area as possible of the pate underneath.

When the qawwal started singing the turbo-charged Runa Laila number Dama Dum, Mast Qalandar,” I too joined in and started swaying  to it. And when he came to the fiery “Dama dam mast kalandar, ali da pehla number,” I gave a hard thump on my husband’s back, which made him say a loud, “Ouch.” That made the gentleman in the red shirt turn around to have look at the person who made my husband say, “ouch,” and I could not help blushing at my impetuosity.

The gentleman turned out to be rather bold. With a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes he said, “Young lady, has anyone told you before that you very much resemble Sonam Kapoor.” I was floored by his compliment but, also, rather amused by it. I started laughing on an  impulse  

After I recovered from my laughter, I told him, “I wish I could say, with a straight face, that you look like Shahid Kapur” and burst into more laughter.

He knew I was mocking at him but recovered quickly with a self- deprecating repartee, “Shahid Kapur toh raha dar kinare, these days people think I look more like Anna Hazare.”

Oh, ho that was too funny, I thought – Anna Hazare with a cravat.

Later my husband wanted to go out for some snacks, so I softly asked, “Anna ji, could I get you and your wife some coffee.”

Again, with the same smile and gleam in his eyes, he put on a husky voice and said, ““Sonam ji if you insist, how can I say no to you?”

Wow, that line had so many layers of meaning in it besides saying yes to the coffee. It also came wrapped in a suggestive proposition. In admiration, I patted him lightly on his shoulder and said, “Anna ji, you are just too much.” 

Later, whilst having coffee, I innocently told him, ““Anna ji, we must keep in touch.”

He immediately changed the meaning of my words by giving it a literal slant when he replied, “Sure. I always like to be in touch with good looking ladies. Closer the better.” And, there again was the evocative pass.

Once more, I could not suppress my laughter.

We parted after exchanging telephone numbers. Anna ji only has a landline telephone and does not carry a cell phone. He said he could not afford one.   

After returning home, I tantalizingly told my husband, “Tea, coffee” and before I could complete my sentence, he sealed my lips. Thereafter, everything became as it used to be. All waz well.

Next morning, I looked closely at myself in the mirror and did think Anna ji had a point. I did resemble Sonam in a few departments – like the eyes and the smile. I was also slim and tall like her. Hats off to Anna ji for his discerning eye. What my husband did not see in me in so many years of marriage, Anna ji saw it at the first glance.

After a week, I called him on his landline number. I recognized his voice the moment he said, “Hullo.”

Coyly, I said, “May I speak to Anna Hazare ji?” 

Imitating an older person’s voice and with a slight tremble in his tone asked, “Aap kaun bhenji bol rahi ho?”

Brazenly, with a laugh, I said, “Tumhari Sonam,” hoping to throw him off balance.

But he turned out to be a poorana khiladi. Substituting “Sonam” for “Sanam,” he gave a totally new meaning to the lines, as he crooned softly in the receiver a la Sunil Dutt in Sujata.

                        “Aaajaa Sonam  …. madhur chandni mein,
Agar Hum Tum mile to wirane mein bhi aa jayegi bahaar.” 

That “wirane mein bhi aa jayegi bahaar” I thought was extremely hilarious. I went into an uncontrollable laugh imagining poor Anna ji’s plight as he portrayed it.

Between a few more laughs, we chatted for some further time before disconnecting.

Let us see what the future holds. But for the present, Kya Karoon haye, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tumhari Sonam


 Qawwali is of the dhoom dhadaka variant in the pantheon of Indian music. Qawwalis are loud, to the point of being deafening, boisterous, to the point of being raucous but, it has to be granted, once the live qawwalis get going, they can lift you into the stratosphere. The asli mazaa in a mehfil-e-qawwali, is to let yourself go and participate uninhibitedly with the flow.

I, being of an unadventurous nature, therefore, do not fancy qawwalis too much. Hence, I was slightly reluctant to go to this programme of qawwali organized by our club recently. However, at the persuasion of my wife and friends, I agreed to give them the pleasure of my company.

My mind went back to the first qawalli programme I attended as a gangly fifteen year old in the company of a shaukeen uncle. My mother, after strictly warning my uncle to take good care of me, also decided that I should wear my new churidar along with the embroidered silk kurta to the function. After donning it, I preened myself in front of the mirror and, in a moment of fantasy, thought that I had a faint resemblance to Dev Anand of that time. Uncle and nephew started for the venue but not before receiving a few more last minute instructions from my mother.

The event was being held in a school hall and it was fairly packed, with an all male crowd, by the time we reached there. Everyone was sitting cross-legged on the mattresses placed on the floor and the last row had come almost close to the entrance but my uncle was determined to sit right up in the front row. So, we started navigating towards the front row by parting people who had arrived much before us and then stepping across the breach. When we were half-way in our mission, the lady qawwal started singing,

“Koi Rangeela, sapano main aake,
                                 Ek Nazar ka khel rachake,
Pyar ka jaadu hum pe chala ke…
                                 Yalla yalla dil legaya”

to the great delight of the listeners. I suppose on seeing me, she went on to improvise by crooning, 

                      “Koi rangeela,
                       Reshmi kurta, choost pajama pehney,
                       Pyar ka jaadu hum pe chala ke...
                       Yalla yalla dil legaya”

followed by an uproar from the audience. As I was wearing the attire she was referring to, I looked up and the lady qawwal did an aadab to me to another huge appreciation from the audience. I did not know what had hit me but I just stood transfixed. Luckily, my uncle patted me on the shoulder and I sat down with my eyes bonded to the floor.

The lady qawwal had struck a gold mine to work the crowd at my expense. She sang many stanzas from the song but the punch lines would always be: 

“Koi rangeela, reshmi kurta, choost pajama pehney,
Pyar ka jaadu hum pe chala ke (gesticulating that a dagger had pierced her heart)...
Yalla yalla dil legaya.”

I started enjoying the masti too but could not hold eye contact with her for long because she would keep on embarrassing me, either with a flying kiss or a coy, but sensuous, gesture of pulling down the diaphanous duppatta to cover her face. All the same, it was incredible how the audience would cheer her every time for this play-acting. It has to be admitted that this interactive atmosphere added to the pleasure of the programme. So, it was not surprising that at the interval, a lot of people came up to me and, in good humour, said, “Kya jadoo chalaee aapne Zeenat Bano pey.”    

Decades have passed since that experience and I did not believe that, wittingly or unwittingly, I could become a centre of attraction at the qawwali programme we were going to at the club. But fate had a surprise for me.

When our group reached the hall, it was nearly full. For a change, it was a mixed gender crowd comprising mostly of Gujaratis and Marwaris. The seating arrangement in the hall was of chairs, perhaps, in deference to the graying tribe of the members of the club, including me.

The programme began to the cacophony of an orchestra that could have awakened a comatose person. Thereafter, the first half was dedicated more to devotional songs and slow film numbers and as a fellow member pithily said, “Mehfil mein rang nahi aa raha hai.” Thus, at the intermission, almost two-thirds of the crowd melted away. However, the ones that remained were obviously hard-core lovers of qawwalli.

The second half started with a bang with the popular qawwalli number of Mughal-e-Azam, “Teri mehfil mein kismet azmakar hum bhi dekhenge” and the ladies in the audience spontaneously joined the chorus of the stylized rhythmic hand-clapping along with the swaying from side to side – qawwalli style. This was the trigger needed to charge the spectators.

We were sitting in a row where the aisle chair was occupied by a quiet young man and I was sitting next to him followed by my wife. As the music started for the next number, the listeners could identify that it was the evergreen super fast-paced, “Dama Dum, Mast Qalandar,” first popularized by Runa Laila, and when the lead qawwal opened with “Oh ho, oh ho ho” the crowd started singing along with him. The mood was almost delirious as the qawwali proceeded and when he recited the punch lines “Dama dam mast kalandar, ali da pehla number,” the audience went into a frenzy except that my young neighbour shouted ‘Ouch.’

It so happened that his wife, who was sitting behind him, was apparently drumming with her fingers on his back and when the qawwal sang the line “Dama dam mast kalandar, ali da pehla number,” with full josh, she thumped his back with equal vigour.    

I turned around to have a look at this percussionist and found her to be an extremely good looking woman and the flush of embarrassment on her face made her look even more attractive. She gave me a shy but broad smile and I could not refrain myself from complimenting her beauty and said with a smile, “Young lady, has anyone told you before that you very much resemble Sonam Kapoor.”

She was taken by surprise but as the impact of the comment hit her, she put her head down and started laughing softly and then slowly raised her head and tried to suppress her laugh by covering her mouth with one hand. Still laughing, she leaned towards me and said, “I wish I could say, with a straight face, that you look like Shahid Kapur” and burst into another round of laughter.

I conceded and said, “Shahid Kapur toh raha dar kinare, these days people think I look more like Anna Hazare.” Once again she thought it was a funny remark and laughed a little more loudly and that attracted the attention of the qawwal too. Looking at the age difference between the young lady and me, he started singing with great fervour,

“Khuda sawal karega agar qayamat mein,
To hum bhi kah denge hum lut gaye sharafat mein,
Hamen to loot liya mil ke husn walon ne,
Kaale kaale balon ne gore gore gaalon ne.”

The import of the song made me straighten back to my original position in a hurry. But the lines evoked great boisterousness – clapping, foot-tapping and pumping the air - in the crowd that could have matched any in a rock concert.

After a few minutes, the young man next to me got up to leave and I thought, with some sadness, that this was, perhaps, the last of Sonam that I would be seeing. Just then, I heard a soft conspiratorial whisper from the back saying, “Anna ji, could I get you and your wife some coffee.”

I smiled at her and, with the practice of some many years, said in a flirting tone, “Sonam ji if you insist, how can I say no to you?”

She gave a light pat on my shoulder and said, “Anna ji, you are incorrigible.” 

The only person not enjoying this was my wife. She hissed, “It doesn’t suit your age to say such dialogues to a young girl.”

But I was on a high and dismissed her concern with a flippant, “Ah ha, what you should actually admire is that even at this age, I can charm young ladies especially if they happen to be slim and trim.”

Coffee arrived and the young lady sat next to me in the chair vacated by her husband. She said, “Anna ji, we must keep in touch.”

“Sure. I always like to be in touch with good looking ladies. Closer the better.”

Again, the remark caught her off-guard and this time she had to put both her hands to her mouth to silence her laugh. We exchanged telephone numbers but with the condition that she would make the first call and not me.

The story would have normally ended here if there had been no follow-up.

But after a week, Sonam called me on my landline. Chirpily her opening lines were, “May I speak to Anna Hazare ji?” 

In a playful but serious tone I replied, “Aap kaun bhenji bol rahi ho?”

And she laughingly said, “Tumhari Sonam”

Seizing the opportunity, I broke into a song,

“Aaajaa Sonam  …. madhur chandni mein,
Agar Hum Tum mile to wirane mein bhi aa jayegi bahaar.”

And the “virane mein bhi aa jayegi bahar,” set her off again.

After ten minutes of such nok jhok, we disconnected.

Ab dekhein agay agay hota hai kya. But for the present, wife has gone on a crash diet. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Lover's Tiff

 “I just don’t understand what you see in that guy?”

”Darling it was just harmless socialising.” 

“Just get lost.”

“Sweetheart it’s not good to take anger to the bedroom.”

 “You brought it on.”

 “Okay I am ending it. Honey, Kuchh meetha ho jaye.”

“Ooh, ooh your bite is hurting, maan” said he turning over.