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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Sunday Long Reads: The extraordinary career of CR Rao, Delhi in lockdown, life before COVID-19, and more

Here is your Sunday reading list.

New Delhi | September 20, 2020 10:45:21 am
Life before coronavirus. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

What do ordinary Indians remember of their last normal day before COVID-19?

‘No one smells the books now’

Srimanta Ghosh (Vicky), 45

Pavement bookseller, Mumbai

COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic, lockdown, national lockdown, sunday eye, eye2020, indianexpress Visitors to Vicky’s stall are fewer and he tries to deliver books home 

Mumbai’s book lovers know Srimanta Ghosh and his pavement bookstall well. The 45-year-old bookseller, known to his friends and customers as Vicky, was often sought out for back issues of coveted magazines and art catalogues. For 25 years, Vicky has arranged copies of The New Yorker, Sight & Sound, Harvard Business Review from junk dealers and publishing houses — and sold them at heavily discounted rates. On the evening of March 17, civic corporation officials and the police came by Fort’s roadside bookstalls, asking them to shut shop early. That day, Vicky had walked to work from his house near Colaba fish market, arranged his wares in towering stacks, and got ready for the day’s business, planning to stay open till 10 pm.

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Ivan Ayr’s Meel Patthar is a poignant, lyrical look at the life of a truck driver

Long and lonely road: A still from Meel Patthar

Anyone familiar with Indian highways recognises the distinctive rumble of a truck. It’s a vehicle that seems made for these endless roads, drawing ever closer in the rear-view mirror, shuddering-juddering under its load, and flashing past, leaving a trail of exhaust mixed with dust and, sometimes, a message inscribed on the number plate: buri nazar waaley, tera moonh kala.

There’s no such glib bumper-sticker philosophy in Meel Patthar, an apt name for a film which finds poetry in the prosaic life of a truck driver. It’s no coincidence that the protagonist is called Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), and his reluctant assistant is Pash (Lakshvir Saran): the former has middle age and a persistent backache creeping upon him; the latter, a wet-behind-the-ears fellow, is his eager apprentice.

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Why Baba Azmi’s Mee Raqsam is a tribute to his father, the poet Kaifi Azmi

Mee Raqsam is not about the pros and cons of religion and its believers.

In his first feature film as director, Mee Raqsam (2020), Baba Azmi shows the same strength that can be found in his photographic direction of such iconic Bollywood songs as Ek do teen (Tezaab, 1988), Hawa Hawaii (Mr India, 1987) and Dhak dhak (Beta, 1992). Songs that turned actors like Madhuri Dixit into stars.

Coming a year after the centennial of Kaifi Azmi’s birth, Mee Raqsam is a fitting tribute to the legendary poet. I could have listened to Shabana Azmi speak of her and Baba’s father for days on end. In fact, I, who am always most grateful to the stars that gave me my birth in the household of my parents, found myself jealous of Baba and Shabana Azmi’s good fortune. This, despite the fact that my parents and family never had me wanting for anything at all. This, despite my believing my parents to be the most exemplary parents I could have dreamt of, even in my most dreamy dream. What I was jealous of was the poet that they had access to, the artists (Kaifi and his wife Shaukat) whom they got to wake up to and listen to last before they went to bed.

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As the great statistician, CR Rao turns 100, a look at his extraordinary career

The eighth of 10 children, Rao was born in September, 1920, in Huvinna Hadagali, a town in what was then the Madras Presidency of British India. (Photo: Tejaswini Rao)

In the mathematical community, a CR Rao anecdote is a staple, but the one that crops up most often is from the celebrated statistician’s visit to Iran for a conference. On that trip to Tehran, Rao’s suitcase got misplaced on the flight. The airlines assured him that they would trace it and deliver it to his hotel at the earliest. True to their word, the next day, Rao received a call: “Mr Cramér Rao, we found your bag.” Despite Rao’s attempts to explain to the woman on the line that he was only one half of Harald Cramér and CR Rao, the statistical giants who independently arrived at the famous Cramér-Rao lower bound theory, the airline employee remained undeterred. The Iranian student entrusted with showing Rao around had impressed upon her the stature of the guest and she was having none of Rao’s modesty.

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Why does the mongoose always beat the snake?

Fearless warriors: There’s no dearth of courage in the mongoose (Ranjit Lal)

I’ve never been a huge fan of the mongoose: there’s something about its in-your-face-protuberant eyes and sharp quivering snout that reminds me of someone sniffing for a scandal. Of course, this is hugely subjective. Mongooses took the centre stage in India with Kipling’s famous story ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ (The Jungle Book, 1894) where the hero was a mongoose and the villains, the cobras Nag and Nagaina. The mongoose has a legendary reputation as a cobra killer: decades ago when I was in school in Chennai, a snake catcher was summoned to catch a cobra that had been seen in the enormous, rambling playground. He turned up and produced a mongoose from his basket, and, sure enough, the animal flushed the snake out.

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Photographer Parul Sharma’s photographs capture the strange beauty of Delhi under lockdown

Covid Care Unit at AIIMS. (Photo: Parul Sharma)

When photographer Parul Sharma first hit the Delhi roads on April 3, almost a week after the Prime Minister announced the nationwide lockdown in the wake of COVID-19, she found “sheer beauty” in its stillness. Accustomed to the hustle-bustle of the metropolis, the empty roads she found only made “the aura of absence” more pronounced. “Our connections with ourselves, our people and our cities were very different at a time like this when everything came to a halt, everything was silent, and, in a limbo. I realised that I wanted to reconnect with the architectural spaces that I had always been drawn to but never experienced,” says Sharma.

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How building better neighbourhoods will help us build better cities

Desai’s project in Pune turned the neighbourhood into an all-access area (Source: Prasanna Desai Architects)

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, cutting us from the usual networks that sustain us, the importance of enriching our neighbourhoods has become evident. The C40 Cities, an international network constituted by mayors and urban planners from across the world, adopted the idea of the “15-minute city” in July, to make our cities more liveable, healthy and whole. In the 15-minute city, everything that an individual needs – workplace, shops, hospital and schools – would be within 15 minutes of their home. This isn’t a new idea, as most of us have memories of having lived in such neighbourhoods.

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