Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What's Love Got To Do With It?

That is my latest article on the Writers Blend. The theme for this month is 'Human Rights'. An excerpt -

A New Year is around the corner and one of the first western festivals that we will be celebrating in the New Year (apart from New Year’s Day itself) will be Valentine’s Day. Now this has long been the eyesore for a multitude of Indians and they have been worried about immorality and the western concept of love infiltrating our culture. Of course, all Indian love stories are exempt from any compliance with morality (as defined today by the masses – dating included FYI) and are above and beyond all verification. Why don’t we begin with the Mahabharata – the book most Indians will swear by...

Read the whole article here: http://writersblend.blogspot.com/2007/12/whats-love-got-to-do-with-it.html

You can also read my Human Rights article 'Soul On Sale' at the same site: http://writersblend.blogspot.com/2007/12/soul-on-sale_10.html

Keep the faith!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Of Memories And Musicals

Hungama hai kyon barpa, Thodi si jo pi li hai
Daaka toh nahi daala, Chori toh nahi ki hai…

These are lines from a very famous Ghazal by Ustad Ghulam Ali. I don’t remember when was the first time I heard it…but I do remember my father pulling out that Ghulam Ali gramophone record on these Sundays when the household would decide to go on a cleaning spree. After finishing off with the major chunk of furniture, we would pick these small artefacts that needed fabric attention and settle down. That is when he would first lovingly wipe the record with a soft cloth akin to a priceless antique (which is how all the gramophone records at our place are treated, because that is what they are – priceless and antique) and then put it on the record player at 33 ½ rpm. We would proceed with the cleaning, everyone humming along with the mellifluous voice wafting from the speakers. At this point, my mother would be making us all a refreshing (and much needed) cup of tea (probably the second or third in the day). As we took a break from the cleaning to savour the tea, she would tell us the (quite romantic) story about how they acquired that record. My parents were connoisseurs of the Ghazal.

(In retrospection, I think it was rather queer for a South Indian family to be so interested in Urdu Ghazals when some of our clan does not even know such an art form exists. But then, we never behaved like a typical South Indian family (thank Gawd!))

Other memories related to Ghazals are returning home from school or Basketball practice on some evenings and finding either yellow or no lights in the drawing room. Even as I would enter the door Jagjit Singh’s dulcet voice would greet me. Usually something like Woh Kagaz Ki Kashti or Ahista Ahista…my father had an enviable collection of Jagjit Singh’s records that he reserved to be relished on such evenings when he was in a mood for some mellow music. As usual tea would be brewing and hot pakoras could be a bonus as we enjoyed the music. I grew up listening to Ghazals and the maestros lived in our home.

But then my father lost his hearing and the maestros became quiet. Nobody wanted to hear them when my father could not be an audience. After he passed away, those records became painful memories and the Ghazal had no patronage in the house…only in memory.

So when I went to the Jagjit Singh concert in Bangalore on the 1st of December, I was awash with mixed feelings. It was like being back in 1996 or something and hearing his soothing voice welcome me home. I was inundated in the music and the memories for the three hours. I knew most of the songs and it felt like I had found an old friend again. The 2nd of December marked three years since my father passed away and I wanted my attendance at the concert to be a personal tribute to his love for Ghazals…the same love that he infused in me.

The concert was to start at 5:30 PM but they only started letting people into the Koramangala Indoor Stadium a little after 6. There was quite a crowd that had assembled and one was glad to see youngsters in the queue. We entered the stadium too and waited anxiously upon taking our seats…it was close to 7:30 PM. Then Jagjit Singh arrived and transported us to heaven.

The audience regaled in the timeless classics like a parched soul who finds water in the desert. Kiska Chehra, Kal Chaudhvi Ki Raat Thhi, Tera Chehra, Who Kagaz Ki Kashti, Hoshwalon Ko Khabar Kya, Kabhi Yun Bhi Toh Ho, Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi were just some of the pearls that rolled out. Ahista Ahista was conspicuous by its absence though. The last two Ghazals – Jhuki Jhuki Si Nazar and Hothon Se Choo Lo Tum had complete audience participation. And then came the surprise – a bunch of Punjabi folk songs and that was the best part since I saw a completely different aspect of Jagjit Singh’s singing. It was three hours of good music – just like the old times.

I don’t know why I enjoyed the concert so much – because I am a Ghazal fan myself or because there are so many good memories I have about Ghazals. Was it the music or the comfort zone that I was relishing? Why was I able to overlook the obvious unsuitability of the venue, the bad sound arrangements and the utterly ill-mannered crowd (something that would have irked me no end on a normal day) and take away the best from the concert? I am still looking for a rational explanation for it, for the way memories and sentiments have this effect on you that is hard to explain and makes it possible to put up with this planet…but then who wants a rational explanation anyway…I am happier with this heady feeling.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Difference

Between leaders and followers. Between proactive and passive. Between great and good.
We have been stuck with a few issues in a solution that we are implementing at client site for the past 10 days. The solution was developed to cater to a specific business need about 7 years ago by my company in association with the Development guys. And as part of the solution, several standard packages that are a part of specific business modules are called to fulfil specific functions.
Two of the issues we are facing are clearly stated limitations of the solution that the client wants to be handled. The other two are problems with the standard packages that are being called. I have broken my head over those two for the whole of last week and dug into the ultra-extensive code to isolate the exact SELECT statements where the problem is, as pointed out by log files that we have obtained (anyone who has some experience in the software industry will know what it is to look into someone else’s code and then make sense out of it, not to mention that this particular code refers about 1 billion packages!!).
Now we supplied these SELECT statements along with the log files and a detailed problem statement to the Development team so that they could help us figure out what the problem was and look into it if it was a bug in the standard code.
And this is the response we got: Since your company developed the custom code, you should look into it. Kindly tell your own guys to investigate. We cannot provide development bandwidth for this. We can only provide pointers.
Now the response on the limitations and the workarounds provided by the guy who worked on the solution 7 years ago and is much higher up in the hierarchy– he actually looked into the whole problem and took the effort of drafting two vary detailed mails with the reason (as he remembered) why the solution had a particular limitation and what we could do as a workaround. He gave examples with data fished out from some documents he had from the past and explained the whole thing in a nice informal manner. And given this guy’s designation, I can imagine how difficult it is for him to take out the time to revisit something you did ages ago and explain it to someone else.
I am forced to wonder if it is attitude and not a limitation in IQ that is coming in the way of the Development guy seeing that the problem is in the standard code (the exact name of which has been provided to him). Just because the custom code calls a standard package does not mean that it is our responsibility to debug even standard code which was never altered…only used. It is like saying that since the Audi was customized to have a right hand drive in India, Audi has no responsibility of any problems that the engine presents in India; we used the standard code, it was driving the whole solution. But since we wrote the code that calls the standard code, Development is free to wash its hands off the whole thing.
And that is the difference that I am talking about. Owning up to things, no matter what the consequences. We are always on the lookout for ways to shrug responsibility off especially in the face of adversity (considering that our client has actually escalated the fact the Development is not giving the right attention to the bugs that we have raised)…But it takes the heart of a leader to stand up for something.
And it is this difference in attitude, in vision that has gotten the Senior guy where he is today and also the reason why the Development guy remains where he is. He may be good. But he is not great enough. I am appalled at the apathetic behaviour he displayed but I also have learnt a business lesson that will last me in good stead - Own up. Stand up. The more fire you face, the brighter you shine…like Gold.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I Respect GE for 'Imagination At Work'

If you get to enter the GE Office on Cambridge Road in Bangalore, do this – at the ground floor, instead of taking the elevator to wherever you are headed, take the stairs next to the elevator and go to the basement (on the pretext of collecting your Welcome Kit of course…what procedure is this! YOU have to collect YOUR own Welcome Kit? I mean, YOU have to welcome YOURSELF? Well, it is that way in my company too :-) ).

Anyway, get to the basement and right where the stairs end you will see the Mail Room, where all the mail comes (obviously!), where the printer is and from where the Welcome Kit and Coffee Mugs are issued (the latter was really my focus when I got there…I am a software person after all…stimulants have to be second nature to me!). It is more or less the facilities hub of GE.

I don’t know what reputation GE holds in the Indian corporate environment, among the masses and frankly I don’t even care. If they saw what I saw, I am sure it would affect their opinions.

The Mail Room of that GE office is manned by a special person, in the real sense of the word...the Mail Room is manned by a spastic person.
I have no words to express how I felt upon seeing, let’s call this person V, there. As I collected the Welcome Kit, I had the most normal of conversations with V, who sat there in that formal dress with the GE tag around the neck akin to most software employees. There was so much confidence and authority in the way V talked and ordered the office boy about. And it was nice to see that.

GE has set a paramount example in equality by giving V the right to work with them. GE has shown that it looks beyond what meets the eye. GE has embodied its tagline – ‘Imagination At Work’ by going an extra mile, employing V and respecting him.
And I respect them for that.

Friday, October 26, 2007

November Rain...Well, Almost

Well does life get any better
More yesterday than today
How I thought the sun would shine tomorrow
But it rained . . .

One of Parikrama’s most famous songs…But It Rained…Came to mind since it has been raining in Bangalore everyday for the last 10 days…and it is just 5 more days to November…not a time when one would expect rains here…but it rained.

The thing about rain at this time of the year is that it is cold…chilling to the bone…not the nice kind that comes after four blazing months of an Indian Summer and refreshes you…this one is like holding onto a cold steel rail (borrowing the phrase from Pink Floyd…I think it has a nice ring to it)…when the frigid drops lash your face it is as if you were being stung by ice. It almost hurts…

But then because it hurts, because it is so insanely cold, it makes you thankful for warmth…in any form – a lonely blanket to keep you company in a lonely house, a pair of arms you can run into, or just warm words at midnight as you savour a cup of hot milk after being drenched to the bone…it makes you feel good about having a place to call home and come back to, the freedom to make cocoa at midnight and family and friends (who are as nocturnal as you) to warm up a cold night…it is as the Japanese say – one kind word can warm three winter months – you appreciate it all so much more.

Even as I write, there is a familiar pitter-patter outside…I know it is cold…but I am feeling warm already. Because it rained…

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tea and Me

(I know the title is grammatically wrong…please don’t tell me that…the construction has been used for lyrical purposes. So there!)

India’s population drinks 23% of the world's tea! It is staple food for most Indians; they can do without food but not without tea! Withdrawal symptoms at not getting the timely cuppa for more than 20 minutes later include headache, irritability, anxiety and of course drowsiness…tea is what keeps Indians awake…tea is what keeps Indians alive…

My association with tea goes back to when we were school kids – my sister and I (now that is correct grammar!). My parents were brought up in Madhya Pradesh for most part and it showed in their habits – they were more of MP residents than South Indians with a flawless pronunciation of Hindi, a dire need to eat Chapatis everyday (South Indians please note – these Chapatis are what is known as Phulka in South India…not plain Parathas made in oil) and consumption of tea almost thrice a day. So the automatic choice for our evening snack when it was Mom’s teatime was Chai-Roti. I have to agree it tasted very good but we had so much of it that I developed aversion to it. You see, Ati Sarvatra Varjyate

Even after this (long) stint with Chai-Roti was over, I used to have tea off and on in the evenings. I never cared too much about tea…I like coffee better (I guess it’s the South Indian genes). Yet, sometimes custom, ritual at others and plain formality when visiting family friends kept me in touch with the taste of tea. And no my parents did not consider it a criminal offence for children to consume tea or coffee (I am so thankful to them for that…these days we get by with just about whatever is available).

Towards the fag end of schooling when I started to sit up late at nights to study, it was the preferred stimulant I turned to – coffee. And I was deeply disappointed; my system seemed to have become used to the potion and I started to sleep more soundly after drinking coffee in the night. I still don’t understand why coffee does not work on my nerves but that is the sad truth of my life. It ended up becoming more of a recreational beverage while I took refuge with…what else…tea!

And so my present relationship with tea began. All through junior college and Engineering, tea has salvaged my nights from bring sacrificed at the altar of sleep. I would give quite a bit of credit to this concoction for all the scores I netted during college. It became a daily ritual to prepare a cup of steaming tea at 11 in the night and start off with my academic endeavours. I still wouldn’t say that I like the taste much better than coffee’s, yet it was a ritual. I just had to have tea at that hour…well, on most days.

Now I am familiar with more than one way of preparing tea: one with so much milk that it almost tastes like flavoured milk – the kind they love in MP, one with such less milk that it could have fared better being black – the result of economy practiced in Maharashtra, Black Lemon Tea – a life-saver in times of Diarrhoea, and more. And I more or less get by with any of them. I have to confess, by now I may have developed a liking for this beverage also.

I have had tea in fine bone china cups and saucers, in the ubiquitous yet charming-in-their-own-way transparent glasses, in the oh-so-rustic Kulhads in West Bengal and lately in the touted-to-be-hygienic, disposable and disgustingly cardboard-flavoured Styrofoam cups…and I have to say, it is an immensely enjoyable beverage with health benefits to license the consumption.

On a rainy day when a plateful of hot onion-pakoras is served along with piping hot tea and family to share it all with…one feels thankful to even be alive.

Tea Board of India is right…Chai Piyo Mast Jiyo!

Now that the post is done…I am headed for my regular cuppa! Ciao…

Monday, October 22, 2007

Gifts For A Lifetime...Memories From National Science Seminar 1999

It was the 7th of October 1999…

Winter was wiping its feet at the doormat of the year, getting ready to knock and announce its arrival. Sunlight fell into Delhi through the dust raised by brooms sweeping the streets early in the morning (replaced by polluting smoke later in the day). A thin fog rolled onto the grass-covered playground in the premises of the National Bal Bhavan through which a bunch of school kids from across India walked towards a bus to reach the National Science Centre.

32 school children from across India (1 from each state and UT (Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh were yet to be created then)) assembled at the National Science Centre in New Delhi to contribute their two cents on issues concerning Science. 32 children who thought their words would matter; there were thousands of others who came forward – winners in their own right – but these 32 were the ones picked to represent what school children from their state thought of the issue. 32 fragments of India’s diversity came together to make a collage of thoughts and ideas…and a beautiful one at that! 32 children participated in the National Science Seminar (NSS) 1999 that day.

I was one of the 32 pieces of the Jigsaw.

It was an apprehensive morning for some of us, exciting for others and some of us had been there and done that. We hadn’t spoken to each other too much so far and in the previous two days; every one was pre-occupied by preparations for the big day, sizing up competition and trying to ascertain where each of us stood. Typical introductions started with one of us stating our name, state and topic chosen to speak. Typical introductions ended with the other person responding with her name, state and topic chosen to speak. That was it – we had another number to add to the statistic – X + 1 for my topic, more competition.

All that changed at the end of that day. We had made our pitch. The tension had been released and we were so much more vocal and at ease. We spoke about our states, our cultures, the festivals we celebrate even as backstage, the judges decided on our fate. They were to pick 9 second place winners and one winner from among the 32 of us. But that didn’t seem to matter to us anymore. Our previous feelings had been replaced by the excitement of meeting peers from across the Indian sub-continent. If I were to morph the Worldspace tagline – There Was So Much To Know And Share!

We had mingled better by the end of the day and were taken on a tour of Delhi the next day by the organizers. The interaction that happened in this relaxed setting was starkly different from the previous day’s. We laughed, cracked jokes, gossiped (if I may), and at the end of the day, exchanged postal addresses and phone numbers (emails were a tad less common at that point especially for school children). We were parting and it was all coming to an end…

Or so I thought. What followed NSS 1999 was an exchange of letters between my friends and I for over 5 years before the e-mail hijacked our lives. We came to know each other through these pages of naive revelations and practically grew up together in a different sort of way. I discovered a treasure trove filled with the most precious thing life could offer – friends forever. And I am clinging to it like my life depends on it.

This 7th of October marks the completion of 8 years since I have known these angels. A long time, if you ask me, considering that these friendships were more or less kept alive through letters and e-mails. I want to tell each one of them how special he/she is and how they have changed my life in ways they can’t fathom. They are my personal inspirations. And they are – I hope, I wish, I pray – forever.

The gems from the treasure chest: Vineet, Rahul, Nganba, Vinitha, Ravin, Sandeep, Dipto and Sneha.

These guys completely rock and as anyone can see, I adore them. They mean the world to me. A personal post is due for each of them and I will put that up very soon.

The precious ones I lost touch with and I want to desperately find: Dinesh, Madhurima, Sneha Babu and Nisha.

I hope I find them very soon. And then I will string all these pearls in a necklace of memories to wear wherever I go.

We are in different geographies, different time zones, different states of mind…yet there is a common thread. Somewhere I hang on to them, it reminds me of a time when we were innocent, when we were naive and when means were limited yet the joys were not. I want to go back to that time. Not because I have any regrets, just because I loved that period in my life. Just to relive it on a foggy October morning and to receive these gifts of a lifetime all over again.

This one is for those gifts!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day Post - Boycott China!

A friend of mine, who runs Get Off Ur Ass Adventure and Travel, and I were talking the other day and this post is largely credited to him for having propelled the idea.

Boycott China…that’s what the guy says. The reason for more than half of the species in or part of the world being endangered is attributed directly to China, to say nothing of the fact that our National Animal – the Bengal Tiger – is walking the thin line between endangerment and extinction due to the outrageous demand placed on tiger bones by China. And we - the nation of a billion mute and spineless creatures - have nothing to say (what’s new about that – how much respect does India accord to anything other of its national symbols (hockey anyone?) to deviate and start caring about the Tiger?).

The most audacious act on part of China is not taking a stand on the issue (but then that has never been the kind of country that does things for the sake of political correctness), even as so many species continue to be elbowed into extinction. And we merrily continue to consume all things Chinese completely oblivious to what they are doing to our environment (not just the environment, our kids too – going by the recent Mattel discovery about Chinese toys).

Why are we patronizing China in this manner? As Indians, we should be even more wary of it since the Chinese economy directly competes with ours. Is China that invincible? Why is no one raising a voice against her? I believe that each one of our voices makes a difference. So here is mine “Boycott China!” in chorus with my friend’s. Care to join us?

Blog Action Day Post - Convert Public Transport to CNG in Bangalore

Bangalore has been grappling with the issue of mismanagement of vehicular traffic for a while now. And the administration is under great pressure to act on it and act fast. So in such a stressful situation, some of them come up with what they think is an Einstein-like solution – take the private vehicles off the road and lay more stress on use of public transport (reported by the Hindu as discussed by a committee set up by the government to decide upon a strategy to deal with the issue of vehicular traffic and congestion).

The future Mensans don’t realize that they are completely overlooking a familiar territory called ‘Environment’ in the process. Stress on use of public transport?? How do they figure that will help? And this has more aspects to it than just environmental –

The public vehicle drivers in Bangalore are acknowledged to be rash drivers with an utter disregard for traffic rules. They skew the buses across the roads at traffic signals and they meander their auto-rickshaws completely oblivious to the fact that they are not the only ones on the road. The problem of vehicular traffic arises because of such driving and not really due to the volume of vehicles themselves. So the status quo is going nowhere.

Secondly, most of the public vehicles run on diesel barring a few auto-rickshaws that use LPG as fuel. Now, diesel is vastly more polluting than petrol, as is common knowledge, and the vehicles are not regulated for emission norms either. The private vehicles that the administration is looking at taking off the roads are in fact compliant with either Bharat-II or Bharat-III emission norms, not to mention they are smaller in size than the ubiquitous buses. So both the congestion and pollution arguments are in favour of these private vehicles.

The more feasible solution would be to first convert all buses to CNG akin to Delhi and all the autorickshaws to LPG. It is only after this step is achieved that it would make sense to take private vehicles off the roads to ease traffic. Taking such a step now will only give the citizens more space to drive at the cost of their health/life and at the cost of the planet. Ignoring this fact will lead to unrevertable consequences.

The administration needs to realize that only changing the status quo through apparently revolutionary actions is not going to earn them brownie points. The change has to be progressive, not retrogressive. In a bid to outdo each other and create vote banks out of yet another paltry issue, they are going to trample upon the planet in their own way. Is anybody listening?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Take Me Home...Country Road

It has been over a month since I shifted into a 1BHK house from a Paying-Guest accommodation (affectionately called PG in Bangalore). Here’s a chronicle of the journey so far…

The week I moved-in, I had oatmeal for breakfast 3 days in a row before I got fed up of it. So, I started experimenting with the stuff I had around the kitchen. I think I made Upma first and it came out well. The feeling of achievement one gets upon cooking something well is unparalleled…And the truth is, when you cook something as simple as Daal-Chawal yourself and manage to get the proportion of salt right, you enjoy it better than PBM in your favourite restaurant!

Daal-Chawal brings dinnertime adventures. When I used to be in my hometown, once a pressure-cooker had blown up and my aunt had a narrow escape from serious injury. The water inside the cooker had apparently dried-up. Ever since then, I have been very apprehensive about pressure-cookers. In any case, I hate the noise they make. So, a simple act of cooking the staple food of millions of Indians – Daal-Chawal – became an act of immense courage. The first time I put the pressure-cooker on the gas-stove, I made sure there was plenty of water inside (the vessels were practically floating) and I stood peeping from the door waiting for the cooker to whistle. I must have looked so funny…I am glad I was alone at that point :)

Some of the Daal from this first day of cooking was leftover so I decided to make Sambar the next day. I have this cookbook called ‘The Foolproof Cookbook for Brides, Bachelors and Those Who Hate Cooking’ (how apt a title!) that came in handy. Once I got the feel of cooking, I was on my way…I even invited a few of my friends for Sunday lunch in just two weeks (my first guinea-pigs!). My mother had come down the previous week and taught me some of her specialities…that’s what I was practicing that Sunday. Now I have in my arsenal the following – Rasam, Sambar, Dahi-Besan, Chhole, Baingan-Bharta, Alu-Matar Ki Sabzi, Tomato Chutney, Vegetable Pulao, Peas Pulao, Puran-Poli and Chapatis. And I am still building it up!

Cleaning the house is another essential activity when you stay alone. In my opinion, mopping the floor (that is if you are not using a floor-mop with a 5 foot handle attached to it so that your spine doesn’t know any other angle but 180 degrees) is the best form of exercise – you have to bend your knees, bend your waist, spread your fingers wide (if you want the floor cleaned well) and then stretch to cover as much area in as little time as possible. It’s a really cool thing to do! I get totally disgusted about using my hands to pick it up the food gets stuck at the mouth of the kitchen sink pipe (yuck!) so I have this disposable spoon set aside specially for this purpose (Necessity is the mother of invention!) I have a roll of kitchen-tissue in the shelf and I think tissue papers are the greatest invention of mankind – they come in so handy – you can use them to wipe utensils, dry off vegetables, soak oil off fried stuff, clean the kitchen counter…The next best invention in my opinion is the Garbage Bag! (I only wish they were not made of plastic :( ) Of course you have to deal with the stench of stuff rotting in there since 2-3 days while you are tying them closed. And you have to deal with more than stench if you leave them in the balcony for picking up next morning, forget about them and the balcony happens to be frequented by rodents like rats for example!

Rats bring me to the company I have in my home…so all those who think I stay alone may correct themselves. The first visitor (and now resident) was an approximately 3-inch long lizard. It was polite enough to not go beyond the door and waited for me to come home and discover it before it discovered the rest of my house. And then I started finding it everywhere – above the shoe-rack (thank God it’s a closed one…imagine stepping into your shoe in the morning and finding something wiggling under your feet! Gives me the creeps!), near the tube light, inside (yes INSIDE) the kitchen shelf (which is a closed one too btw) behind the box of sugar (I didn’t make myself anything that needed sugar in it for about 2 days)…now it has kind of disappeared…I have driven it out of so many places that it must have got the message.

My mother saw the rat in the balcony first. Since then I started being a little careful about not leaving the door open. But it slipped my mind one day and the rat slipped in. I discovered that when I had just returned from office and was freshening up in the bathroom. I heard a noise and peeped out to see a black object with a tail near the balcony door (which I had closed tightly shut by then). Upon seeing me it darted back to wherever it was hiding. I must have stood at the bathroom door forever contemplating upon the POA. I mustered all my courage and stepped out gradually …listening for sounds of any movement. As I stepped out from behind the washing machine (my worst fear was for it to be right under the washing machine!), I heard rustling from under the refrigerator…poor thing it must have been as scared as I. Anyway, I kept moving one step at a time till I reached the wall and was in it’s line of fire…I had to escape the kitchen before it darted out at me…so I took this huge leap akin to Hanuman…must have been easily 4 feet across and landed directly in the corridor…mission accomplished! I switched off the lights in the kitchen and shut the door tightly.

The fun began when I returned at night with my Uncle, Aunt and two of my cousins – all ready to take over the gigantic 15-inch creature. It was a hilarious sight as my uncle, aunt and I stayed in the living room with our feet carefully kept off the ground and my cousins fought in the battlefield in the kitchen. They returned to announce triumphantly that they had driven the monster out when I asked them if they had checked under the washing machine. When they investigated, that’s where the intruder was found to have taken shelter. The second half of the battle began at the end of which, I am proud to announce, my cousins reclaimed the territory :)

The next unfortunate visitor was a 1-inch long salamander-type of a creature. I found it in the bathroom last week. I was yet to take a bath couldn’t as long as there was another dangerous creature in the bathroom (who knows it might have been poisonous too!). So, as usual I stood at the bathroom door (this time looking in the opposite direction as in the rat episode) wondering about the course of action. I just wanted it to go back to wherever it came from. So in an attempt to irritate it, I diluted some Eucalyptus oil in a cup and threw it at the creature…it started to run amuck…I started throwing a lot of water in that direction to steer it towards the water drain in the bathroom (which is where I presumed it came from)…a few seconds later, I saw it float lifelessly in a stream of water and deposit at the drain…I was a little shocked, I hadn’t meant to kill it at all…I hoped that it had only fainted (lizard?? Faint??) I kept checking on it until I was sure it was dead. I poured some more water in that direction and that thing just went into one of the holes and literally went down the drain (I did this on the 2nd of October…International Non-violence Day!!)…in hindsight, I realize…Eucalyptus Oil is effective at pest control…you could try it too!

Right now, a family of cockroaches is keeping me company. But I have got Mortein Gold – for all kinds of pests (imagine devilish smile). These critters are going to face their nemesis very soon.

Anyway, what also keeps good company is music on the MPS60 Neodymium speakers that came with my recently-bought Sony Ericsson W300i Walkman Phone. These adorable little things pack a lot of punch in any kind of music…even FM – it starts sounding heavenly on those speakers – and I am enjoying the phone thoroughly.

Of course there are books. My house came with an inbuilt showcase in the living room where I can keep (read show-off…if to no-one else then just to myself) all my books.

So, no more waking up to the most sullen face in this part of the galaxy, no eating food cooked by a grossly underpaid and overly exploited cook, no paying extra tax just because our oh-so-civilized owners were interested in evading the tax-guy…a place to call home, a dog that wags its tail as if I was the one it had been looking for since its past birth, my music, my books and a lot of peace (so much so that my ears pop after midnight sometimes!)…getting a place of my own feels like one of the best decisions I have made in a while and I hope it stays that way. As the McDonald’s tagline goes…I’m Lovin’ It!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

84 Charing Cross Road...an address and a memory

A while ago, I had placed a requisition at Landmark for a book – ’84, Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff. I think I almost forgot about it, when one day last month I received a call from the store that they had acquired it…one copy…for me…and they said they would reserve it only for 5 days.
I ran to the store as if they had dug out gold for me. I don’t even know why I felt that way. I had read excerpts from the book in another age in the Reader’s Digest. I remember enjoying it at that point. But the feeling of joy upon re-discovering the book was somehow disproportionate to the feeling of enjoyment I had got then. I figured that it was the same thing as finding an old friend after you had passed out of school or college; you may not have spoken to that person ever while you both saw each other day in day out. Yet, when you meet years later, you want to hold onto that person…to the memory – even is it is of only seeing each other day in and day out. It must have been the same thing with this book.

The book is a series of letters written by Author Helene Hanff (staying in America) to a Marks & Co. located at 84, Charing Cross Road, London. She does not like the cardboard-bound American editions of her favourite books (neither do I) and is, at that point, living by modest means to be able to afford hardbound ones. Marks & Co. are acclaimed for possessing rare books and good clean second hand copies. This proposition of reading good second hand hardbound editions of books suits Miss Helene and the volley (what an inappropriate word…makes it sound like war) of letters between them begins.
Helene garnishes the letters with an acute sense of humour and they are a joy to read. Her comments on some of the books might even act as recommendations, if you are looking for any. Gradually, she starts sending the store presents for Christmas, Easter and other holidays just to show her gratitude for the priceless books they have been sending her – some are bound in leather…others in velvet and it makes me envy her to know that she had them in her hands at some point in life (OK, swagger swagger: I have a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War bound in Silk with Gold (obviously fake) embossing…it is such a treasure! For the record, I have touched it only 5 times…I am scared of ruining it…might buy a paperback sometime so I can get my hands on the priceless wisdom inside…doesn’t look like this silk-bound edition is helping). They start sending presents back and a personal relationship between each of the store’s employees and Helene is formed as they start writing to her independently.
Helene is desperate to see London and employees of Marks and Co. keep wishing for her to pay them a visit. As one reads, one unknowingly becomes united with their desire and every time Helene announces that she is not making it that summer, you go “Oh…not this year either?” for a split second.
The letters continue to be exchanged and for quite a while (I did not pay particular attention to the exact years but my guess is it was easily 15 years or more). The visit never happens. At one point Helene tells her friend that maybe she doesn’t want to visit the store...she is afraid that the cosy idea of a small store with bookshelves made of Oak and lined with invaluable books, smelling musty from the oldness of them all will be destroyed after seeing the bookstore and she will not have anything else to look forward to.
The whole affair ends with Helene receiving a letter from the daughter of a sort of protagonist Frank Doyle (who is an employee of the store and by far the person with whom Helene has communicated the most) that he has passed away. My stomach felt pitless for a moment upon reading that. Somehow, when you are reading something so endearing, you just expect it to last forever (as is the case with all good things and people in life…we just think they are going to be there forever, knowing fully well that it is otherwise. We are so adept at fooling ourselves on purpose and then crying out loud “How could that happen?!”…what else could have happened anyway?).
In the epilogue, Helene asks the daughter (again through a letter) for permission to print these letters and receives a whole-hearted agreement. Thus is born the book that I am writing about now and that is so special to me.
I believe the book was made into a movie by the same name later…it starred Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. I’ll try and catch up on it sometime.
My favourite sentences from the book (not verbatim):
  1. In Helene’s letter to Frank upon receiving and reading a book of unending value – “If all your books were priced at what they are worth, I could never afford them”. So true of so many books…sigh.
  2. In Helene’s letter to Frank while requesting for a copy of a book that she had lent to someone and was never returned – “I do not understand how people who would never think it appropriate to steal anything would think it was alright to steal books” :)
I sign off with a warm feeling that merely thinking about the book has filled me with…maybe I’ll go read it again tonight…as should you…asap.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Laugh Riot: "Loins of Punjab Presents..."

So it’s Friday night again…and it’s been a while since we watched a movie (the last one was the outrageous Sivaji)…so at an impossible 7 pm on a Friday night, we decide to check for movie tickets at PVR (are we ambitious or what!)…who would believe that we actually got tickets!! For Loins of Punjab Presents…now I have not even heard of the movie and it is ‘A’ rated, so naturally I am sceptical. Anyway, I decide to go along with the flow. And we enter Cinema Europa…
The Censor Certificate shows ‘English’ as the language…what a relief (I am very apprehensive of Indian/Hindi movies that are ‘A’ rated(spare me the sleaze please))! The opening scene has a typical secretary enlightening the audience about ‘Loins of Punjab’ – apparently a company that sells pig loins all over the world and has been started by one Mr. Singhal who migrated from India to the US of A. In the background, one sees the crisp-moustached Mr. Singhal posing with a pig at his feet (akin to the portraits of Rajasthani princes with tigers) and one instantly knows – this might not be that bad after all!
The movie is centred around a ‘Desi Idol’ contests that Loins of Punjab is sponsoring. Each of the key contestants is introduced with hilarious punchlines as the movie begins. For instance, Sania Rahman (who is told at another audition that they are looking for someone more Indian) – “Aspiring Indian…Actress”. The action begins and contestants start to check-in to the hotel. Preeti Patel’s lot with his father asking the receptionist to check the reservations for four S’s (pronounced “Four Asses” if you didn’t get the pun) is comical. So is Sania’s (with her appalingly limited knowledge of Hindi) encounter with an Amitabh-fanatic of a future analyst where she accidentally spills food onto his clothes (as also hers) and says “Mujhe Saaf Kardo” instead of “Mujhe Maaf Kardo”. The whole movie offers a generous helping of such dialogues rife with puns and the comedy is mostly situational. There is hardly any point where you are not at least giggling.
The characters are eccentric and yet endearing. There is the socialite Riita Kapoor who wants to win the contest only so she can donate the $25K prize to charity in a bid to outdo another woman and goes about fixing the whole contest for the sake. There is this Sardarji who believes he is THE star and even barges into the semi-finals when he is not even on the list. The future analyst drives you crazy with the statistics but that’s exactly why he gets you laughing also. The apparently naive and demure Preeti Patel who has spoken only 5 sentences in the whole of 90 minutes (except for her singing) bowls you with her matter-of-fact statements made in front of Riita Kapoor. And you love her even more for that. There is of course the non-Desi (and rather cute I have to say) Josh Cohen who is mad about India. And then there is his girlfriend Opama Menon, who is, self-assertively, always right. Throughout the film, one feels as if one is right there, amongst them, witnessing this madness and having the time of one’s life.
There is no point to the movie really, but then who is looking for one anyway! It has been modelled more or less upon a typical Bollywood movie. One of the scenes towards the end where the India-loving contestant Josh Cohen sings the Indian National Anthem because the band does not know the song he has prepared, is as dramatic as it is patriotic. Heartening was the fact that everyone on the audience stood up as he sang the Anthem (although the movie prompted for it). Consequently, he goes on to win the Contest (obviously!!) and All’s Well That Ends Well.
I am glad I watched the movie despite my apprehensions as it is thoroughly enjoyable and light-hearted. Ok this one won’t go down in history as one of the greatest side-splitters of all times, yet it is recommended.

Friday, August 10, 2007

By The River Of Barapole...There We Raft Down

28th of July, 2007:
After a sleepy departure at dawn from Town Hall, we enjoyed a filling South Indian fare at Indradhanush on the Mysore-Bangalore highway. We would remember this morning coffee much later in the day. Presently we continued the journey to Coorg with a brief stopover at Hunsur so we could get our spirits in order…literally. An enchanting drive through the Nagarhole forest and a zig-zag through a multitude of coffee estates brought us to our home stay 'High Falls' in Kutta. The cottages were perfect…tucked away between the towering mountains. We put our bags away proceeded to the river. Another short drive and we were on Birunani road.
With our first glimpse of the river Barapole, we all became excited and even forgot about lunch. John Pollard, the rafting expert from Dandeli joined us for a delectable Coorg lunch by the bridge. A warm-up walk of a kilometre and a half ended at the rafting base inside Ponya Organic Estate. The sounds of the jungle were a relieving change from the noises of the city that our ears had become used to. And the constant gurgle of the river as we arrived at the base camp was all that our tired souls needed to rejuvenate.
Our guides – Muhammed, Ashok, Ranjeet and Rana - had already reached the camp and were ready to take on the river. John gave us the preliminary instructions and left the rest to the guides. We donned our spray jackets, life jackets and helmets and we were ready too…for an afternoon of adventure!
Once the rafts were on the water, our guides familiarized us with the commands and we started our rowing practice in the calm waters near the island. We learnt about white water swimming position – a crtitical skill if one falls off into the river and the team is unable to reach her in time. Then we all jumped into the water one by one to get a feel of the river and it felt like heaven! Every aching muscle felt relaxed. It was like being back into our elements. We swam around for sometime before doing the capsize drill – another critical skill to know if one gets stuck under the raft for some reason.
By this time everybody was comfortable in this new environment and fun began. The rafts clashed with each other and we splashed water at the other rafts. Also, by this time, everybody was keen to take on the rapids and soon we were off.
Among a volley of commands like ‘All Forward’, ‘Left Backward’, ‘Hold On’ etc. we negotiated the curves of the river. The first rapid ‘Morning Coffee’ was the warm-up rapid, like our coffee in the morning, and was meant to brace us for the coming rapids. Next was the ‘Grasshopper’ and our guides took us through that also pretty easily.
Grasshopper was followed by the ‘Wicked Witch’ – a rapid we all decided to check out before taking on. So we parked our rafts by the banks and started to climb the rocks to get a glimpse of the ‘Wicked Witch’. The rocks turned out to be extremely slippery and we were all wading through the water like toddlers who had recently learnt to walk, checking each rock out before stepping on it. After the guides got their strategy in place to conquer the ‘Wicked Witch’ we got back into the rafts and set out. A quick Forward, Relax, Hold-On and Get-Down later, we had shielded the spell of the witch!
The last rapid was the ‘Milk Churner’ and seemed to be the most difficult one on the stretch. After taking a good look at it, strategizing for some time and receiving special instructions to crouch down hard, we headed for the Milk Churner. Despite locking my feet hard and crouching down as much as I could, I got thrown off the raft. But that was a part of the whole adventure and was fun!
While we were having the time of our lives swimming in the water, fighting the current and trying to re-enter the rapids, John was busy capturing it all on camera so we could have as much fun remembering it all as we were having then.
We drove back to base camp in Jeeps and settled down around the fire sipping on hot beverages and discussing the adventure we had just had. An hour later we were relaxing at our home stay with a cup of piping hot coffee each and some Pakoras to go with it. Some time later the bonfire was lit and everybody settled down talking around it. A mix of Hindi and English songs followed but was interrupted by the call for dinner – a sumptuous mix of delectable Coorg specialities. Post dinner the fireside chat continued while the embers died. A drizzle started and began to turn into a pour driving us to the porch. Some people retired at this point while some others got into engaging discussions. The eventful day was drawing to a close and we were squeezing out the best from it.
29th of July, 2007:
Most of the team got up early the next morning and feasted their senses on Coorg’s immensely beautiful landscape. The rest gathered in the porch for a lazy Sunday morning breakfast and Coorg’s tantalizing coffee. That was followed by a walk to Iruppu Falls, which gratified the soul in every way – there was lush greenery everywhere the eye could see and water flowed naughtily over rocks and pebbles taking on a more boisterous form at the falls.
It roared its way down the rocks and grabbed all the attention. It drew everyone to itself and many of us jumped in for another refreshing splash. They got out reluctantly and headed back to the home stay.
Another round of lip-smacking Coorg cuisine and everybody was packing up…to return to the city, the noises and the routine with renewed vigour…away from that paradise that is Coorg and the adventure that is in rafting on the Barapole. This one is not to be missed !

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A descrying DESKription

It is 11 pm on a Tuesday night. I am sitting at the dining table in the common room of our paying guest accommodation. I am attempting to study after precisely one year; the last time was when I was appearing for the final semester exam of my undergraduate course. I am all geared up this time too – I have bought a table lamp, a tablecloth (which is the same shade as my desk at home, I now realize) and I have got my music…Radio Indigo. Yet, last time was different…last time I was at home.

I am craving for tea right now. At home I would religiously make myself some tea at around 11 every night. I don’t even like tea too much, but it had become a sort of ritual. Sometimes, my mother would make it, with all the usual ingredients – water, milk, tea leaves, sugar, ginger and strict reservations…she was a staunch believer in the 8-hour-sleep formula. I think at some point I started enjoying annoying her with my nightly routine.

At around 1 or 2 am, she would come and knock at the door of my room, breaking my academic repartee and reminding me to go to bed. It was agitating. I remember being scared by the sudden knock in the dead of the night more than once. Sometimes, I would have fallen asleep on my desk and she would have to call me repeatedly to elicit a response. I would pretend to be alert when I woke up and use the headphones as an excuse for not hearing her call. Now I don’t know why I had such a problem admitting to such a simple thing although I knew we both knew the truth.

I was dependent on my desk for any kind of job involving reading or writing…reading novels, writing letters…everything. So even in the summer vacations my family would have to visit me at my desk. Summers in Nagpur are blistering hot and my desk used to be an uncomfortable place to work with its Sunmica top and no room-cooler in the room. Every single year and every single summer-day, mother would persuade me to come to the room with the room-cooler. But I wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t function without my desk. The bed or the couch was sure to put me to sleep in less than 5 minutes and then all plans of reading and ‘value addition’ would go to the dogs. Ultimately, they bought a portable cooler on the pretext that the living room was very hot. But often, mother would wheel it to my room while I was busy reading and then she would sleep with her mind at peace.

In the late afternoons, she would make mango-milkshake or bhel and bring it to my desk while my sister would be sprawled in front of the Television. Countless summers have passed with the same routine and I never knew it could be any different…until now.

My desk was also the place where I would have once-in-3-months heart-to-hearts with my sister till the wee hours of the morning. Then there would be a familiar knock on the door. We knew she would be furious if she realized that it was 3 or 4 am. So we would conveniently set our table clock to an hour or two earlier and give each other knowing guilty smiles as we followed her to the other room. What I don’t remember is who would set it back to the right time…at least I never did!

I also remember standing in the balcony of my room after spending a few hours at my desk and gazing at the moon on most nights. I would feel the cool night breeze on my face and experience the silence of the night. It used to feel like heaven!

That was the life – in my 4X10X10 room and at my favourite desk. Today I live out of a 2X3X10 cupboard and on one side of a double bed. Its not like I mind it…in fact I am quite happy this way too. But its on errant nights like these that I want things to change. I want to prepare tea right now. I want my mother to reprimand me for that, to knock at the door even as I write this, I want to annoy her, I want to fool her. I want her to wheel the cooler in to my room (though Bangalore is not half as hot) and I want her mango milkshake. I want all this and more – to read, write letters and to chat with my sister. I am not the least bit homesick but on lovely moonlit nights like these…I want to be home.

Lost in Translation: Mahashweta by Sudha Murthy

It was the summer of 2005. I was preparing for the campus placements that were to take place when the new session began. But I had a job already – a summer job – as an editor. I was helping my teacher from school time to edit the English translation of a Marathi book. Marathi is a beautiful language, as is English. The cosmetic surgery occurs when you try and translate…and more often than not it is for the worse. You make a Plain Jane out of an enchantress. And I reiterate that after reading English translation of Mahashweta – translated by Sudha Murthy, the author of the Kannada original.
I have not read the Kannada version of Mahashweta. But I can say hands down the English version is nowhere close to it. The back cover acknowledges it to be written in ‘deceptively simple style’. I would say ‘appallingly simple’ is more like it. By this time if you have decided that I hate the book, you are wrong.
I love it. For one, I am wondering if the title itself is deliberate. 'Shwet' in Sanskrit means white and the protagonist of the novel gets affected by Leukoderma and gets white patches on her body. Nevertheless, the issue tackled is a sensitive one that is commonplace in our society. Each of the characters has been etched in great detail. Their thoughts have been elaborated well. The end, where the reader almost expects Anupama to get married to Dr. Vasant, is unexpected; she refuses to get married again…to anyone. The way the story comes a full circle when Anupama’s students decide to perform Mahashweta is characteristic of wholesome stories. But such good work begged for better language. I don’t mean Shakespearean…the story has many words and sentences characteristic of Indian English. Certain sentences are so typically film-like in their nature that you wonder if a person of Sudha Murthy’s calibre lacks the imagination to make it sound any better. The story is set in real circumstances and she is talking about real people. Their conversations could also have been that real in nature. It was a failed attempt at introducing fake romanticism in such a sensitive story. An example I can quote is:
As the day of Anand’s departure drew near, Anupama became paler and paler. Her husband was going to an unknown country, and people had been making malicious comments that she could not ignore. ‘One can have a wife here and another there as well. It seems white girls are very aggressive,’ they said.
Anupama was afraid now that something untoward would happen. Anand read her mind and said, “Anu, don’t worry. I’ll count every hour, every minute and every second till you arrive’.
‘Suppose something happens to make you forget?’
‘What a foolish girl you are! Have you heard what they say in a church wedding? “Until death do us part…” And that is my promise to you. We shall always be together. Anu, how can I ever think of anybody other than you?’
Anupama sighed with relief.
Surely, a girl of Anupama’s calibre and intelligence (as she has been portrayed to be) can be trusted not to have such apprehensions. The ‘every hour, minute, second’ thing is almost cheeky and one doesn’t expect such things from a serious and (supposedly introvert) doctor who has his mind on getting a post-graduate degree from England.
Overcome by shyness, Anupama did not lift her head.
‘Anu, the other day you gave me tickets and today I am giving you my heart. Please keep it safe.’
Anupama smiled and dimples appeared on her cheeks.
The analogy between the tickets and the heart almost makes me gag. And the whole statement is uncharacteristic of Dr. Anand, of a mature individual and of a real person.
From a social point of view, the language scores. It is so simple that even people with the most basic English skills will be able to understand it; and that is paramount given that the book has a strong social message to deliver (probably the only reason it was written). And the translation ensures that it reaches a wider web of people. But from a literary point of view, the book disappoints.
All said and done, Mahashweta makes good reading and touches the heart. It dispels false notions about one of nature’s cruelties called Leukoderma. It takes the focus away from the external factors of one’s personality and brings it around to internal factors like what the person stands for. More women should read it to find their foothold in the society and overcome dependence on their families or husbands and find identities as individuals. It is only when others know that you can’t be hurt that they will stop trying.