Friday, 26 December 2008

Masala Dosa, Mexican Style!


When it came to spicy food, my friend Peter was more Indian than many Indians themselves.

Peter was German by birth. While still in his early 20s, he moved to Mexico, fell in love with a lovely Mexican girl, married her and stayed on there for close to two decades. When I first met him, he had already moved to the US and acquired an American accent. But that was about all: the drooping moustache, the colourful shirts, the easy charm, the laid-back approach to life and the passionate fondness for spicy food proclaimed him to be a true-blue Mexicano at heart.

Whenever Peter visited India on work, I used to travel with him to all the major metros including Hyderabad. After working-hours, it was the unwritten agreement that we go out for dinner together and I introduce Peter to the local cuisine, the spicier the better. Peter was unfazed at whatever I threw at him, whether it was a piping hot Rasam in Chennai, fiery Kozhi Varutha Curry in Mysore, or Chicken Kolhapuri in Mumbai which would have easily cauterized the taste buds of a lesser mortal. Peter enjoyed every meal and held forth at length on how similar, yet different, were the cuisines of India and Mexico; he had this strange thesis that Indian spices affected the inside of the mouth whereas the Mexican chilli peppers gave you a burning sensation around the lips.

Once we are in Bangalore and Peter expresses a wish to have a typical South Indian breakfast. We have been on the road for almost a week and I have been getting rather tired of the “orange juice-toast-fried eggs” routine. Happily acceding to his request, I take him the next day morning to a very popular South Indian restaurant.

It is seven-thirty in the morning and not very crowded. We start with idlis which I tutor him how to have, with chutney, sambar and other accompaniments. Peter takes to idlis with gusto, breaking off large pieces and dipping them alternatively in chutney or sambar and plopping them into his mouth with obvious relish. Four plates of idlis go down the hatch pretty quickly when I, still on my first plate, order for Masala Dosas.

The Masala Dosas when they come are a treat to the senses, golden-brown, crisply folded, and exuding a heavenly aroma that brings tears to my eyes. Peter takes his first mouthful, closes his eyes in intense concentration, opens them and beckons the waiter. He dismisses my wordless query with a gentle, dismissive wave and asks the waiter for a plate of cut green-chillies.

As I watch in consternation, Peter opens the flap of the Masala Dosa and empties the entire bowl of finely chopped green chillies into the filling, replaces the flap and calmly resumes eating.

“It tastes even better now,” he says laconically.
Photo Courtesy: www.gourmetindia.com

Friday, 19 December 2008

Requiem for a friend


In the normal case, he would have left the office shortly after 5 pm. But just before closing time, a machine breakdown had been reported and he was assigned the call. The problem was a knotty one and took a long time to fix. By the time he got the service report signed, washed, and changed from his work clothes to normal office attire, it was past 11 pm.

It took a while to wave down a taxi. And finally a long wait at Bandra station for the Harbour Line local that will take him to his wife and two kids and his home in Mazgaon.

There were only a handful of commuters in the first-class compartment at that late hour and by the time the train left Wadala station, he found that he was all alone. Not that he was afraid. He was a Mazgaon boy, born and brought up in Bombay and knew the area well. As the train rattled through the night, past the dilapidated industrial shantytown of Sewri and the long-abandoned warehouses of Cotton Green, he fell into an uneasy, fitful slumber.

They came for him at Reay Road.

One look at the three youths that towered over him in a half circle and he knew he was in trouble. Half-crazed with drugs and armed with switchblades, he guessed them to be members of one of the many gangs that operated in the eastern dockland area. He knew better than put up a fight and willingly parted with his wallet, watch and his gold chain.

They wanted his ring as well but try as he might, he could not get it off his finger, which for the stoned youth seemed like deliberate delaying tactics. So they pulled him up roughly to his feet, stabbed him once and jumped out of the train which was slowing down for its stop at Dockyard Road station.

Bleeding profusely but still conscious, he staggered out of the train and managed to drag himself to the stationmaster’s room. Still thinking lucidly, he described what had happened and gave the stationmaster his name, address, and office phone number. By the time the stationmaster with the help of a few good Samaritans got him to a hospital, he had lost much blood and slipped into a coma.

He died two days later.

It took us weeks to recover from the death of a colleague who was liked as much for his easy charm as for his quaint, Goan-accented English. What we found hard to reconcile ourselves to, was the irrationality of it all; how a number of seemingly insignificant factors conspired to come together on that particular night to bring him in front of an assassin’s knife.
Photo Courtesy: www.protectmystaff.co.uk

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Biscuit tin Rider


During the summer vacation months of April and May, the buses which plied the route from Bombay to Mangalore ran full. Without booking at least a month in advance, it was impossible to get a seat on any of them.

One hot summer day in May, I find myself stranded in Mangalore without a ticket to Bombay. Lugging my suitcase, with sweat trickling down my spine, I visit the tiny offices of all the major bus operators for a seat on a bus leaving that night, only to be turned away every time. No seats are available. All buses are totally booked out.

Finally, the booking clerk in one of the offices offers me a biscuit tin.

“Sorry?” I don’t understand what the man is talking about.

The booking clerk patiently explains to me since the bus is completely full, he cannot offer me a seat of course, but he can place a tall biscuit tin in the aisle, provided I was willing to undertake the 24 hours travel sitting on top of that biscuit tin. Normal charges would apply, he adds for good measure.

Such was my desperation that I agreed and forked out the money.

Only when I boarded the bus did I realise that I was not the only “biscuit tin rider” on the bus. The intrepid bus operator had ensnared three other unfortunate souls besides me and there was not one, but four biscuit tins in the aisle, placed at strategic intervals.

Although years have passed, even today I can think of that journey only as a metaphor for sheer physical agony. By the time the bus stopped in a roadside restaurant in Kundapur for a short break a few hours later, my back was on fire. Somewhere along that long night, I guess I became inured to the pain but the pangs of regret and jealousy I had felt seeing the other passengers leaned back in their seats in quiet slumber, were enough to keep me awake the whole night.

Talk about the kindness of strangers, relief came the next day morning when a passenger offered to exchange his seat with me for the biscuit tin for an hour. I was touched by this gesture and told him I couldn’t possibly accept his generous offer. Fortunately he insisted and very soon my protestations sounded too feeble even to myself.

Ah! The sheer pleasure of sinking into a proper seat and allowing your inflamed back some much-needed succour!

Believe me, it is in moments such as these one starts contemplating the possibility of God and such other weighty philosophical issues.
Photo Courtesy: www.columbuspolarity.com

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Video Nights in Belgaum

The other attraction in taking a “luxury coach” from Bombay to Mangalore was that most of these buses had a video player and colour television and showed at least three movies during the journey. This was during the early ’80s, when most middle-class Indian households had not even a colour TV to boast of, let alone a video player. So there was something incredibly satisfying and romantic at the prospect of leaning back in your seat and watching a movie as the bus negotiated the dangerous hairpin curves of Bor Ghat or as it sped swiftly through the deepening night along the Konkan coast.

The videotapes were invariably pirated camera prints of the latest Hindi film releases. Since the whole process of making a camera print involves someone sitting with a clandestine video camera in a projection room, most likely with the connivance of the projectionist, or even in some undetected corner of the movie hall, and videotaping a movie when it is actually being screened in a theatre, one could hear applause and catcalls in the background and see the back of some of the viewers’ heads as they got up from their seats and made their way across the aisle for a smoke or a toilet break.

The prints were grainy and the colours were awful. The soundtrack, often stepped up for maximum volume for the benefit of the viewers at the back of the bus, screeched painfully and reverberated within the confines of the bus, making sleep nearly impossible.

The passengers took these minor inconveniences in their stride and grumbled good-naturedly and without malice and sat stoically through the movies.

Not that there was no respite, of course. The movie timings were more or less fixed and rest of the time you could sleep or daydream or look out of the window. The first movie started once the bus had left the choked suburbs of Sion and Chembur behind and got onto the Eastern Express Highway to Pune and beyond. The second movie was put on around 3 pm which got over nicely in time for Belgaum and Hotel Ramdev. The third and final movie, which I seldom got around to watching for obvious reasons, was screened around 9 pm and finished close to midnight.

Sometimes you were lucky enough to catch a really good movie from an original print instead of a pirated one. One such movie which I saw on such a bus journey was Mere Apne, which also marked the directorial debut of a man called Gulzar.

Photo Courtesy: bp1.blogger.com

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

A Bus to Mangalore

Not exactly the right time for a light-hearted post, but God knows, all of us deserve a break from the sustained grief and melancholy of the past few days. Forgive me, if you find the levity of this post inappropriate.

There was a time when I used to travel quite frequently between Bombay and Mangalore. This was before the Konkan Railway had opened, when trains from western India had to make their way down south close to Madras, go transverse, and then loop back up along the Kerala coastline, to reach Mangalore. It was a journey that took close to 48 hours and was guaranteed to test your patience and physical endurance.

A quicker alternative was to take one of the so-called “luxury coaches” from Bombay to Mangalore. It was less comfortable than the train, confined as you were to your cramped seat for a whole day and night, but had the advantage that it cut the journey time by almost half.

There were many operators plying this commercially-lucrative route and, I suspect, they continue to flourish even today. Most services from Bombay were either early in the evening or late at night. But I preferred the morning buses for a particular reason and it was called Hotel Ramdev.

The morning buses reached the half-way point of Belgaum around seven in the evening and halted at that excellent hotel for a whole hour. Now Ramdev, catering as they did to the weary traveller, had a well-stocked bar; the quality of food served was also quite good. So the more experienced and enterprising travellers, knowing that time-management was of utmost essence here, jumped out of the bus even before it entered the parking lot, quickly freshened themselves up and headed straight to the bar to tip back a couple. Once blood circulation returned to the tired limbs and aching backs, they tipped back a couple more and trooped to the restaurant to feast on the food they had pre-ordered at the bar itself.

When the bus pulled out of the parking lot, these gentlemen came out of the restaurant a bit unsteady on the legs, but none the worse for wear, and clambered onto the moving vehicle with a smile on their lips and a song in their hearts.

Never once did they miss the bus.

Photo Courtesy: http://travelbyvolvo.blogspot.com

Friday, 28 November 2008

In Mourning

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”


-W.B. Yeats

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Turned On by Sardars


A recent post by Santosh about a Sardarji’s valiant quest for Nestle yoghurt in Trivandrum transported me back to the Trivandrum of the ’70s where I grew up as a teenager and where my nephew D caused considerable embarrassment to his parents with his infatuation with Sardars.

Before you start doubting the sexual orientation of D, let me hasten to tell you he was hardly three years old at that time.

We lived close to the military camp and Sardars were a common sight. In the evenings, little D would watch with admiration when young Sikh military officers with the wives riding pillion, with one kid standing up in front and the other wedged between the parents, zoomed past in their scooters towards the city. “Sardarji!” he will yell gleefully and the look on his face at that time would be one of sheer beatitude.

Very soon young D learned role play. He will take a thin handloom towel (thorthu in Malayalam) and ask his mother to wrap it around his head. Since it was a small child’s face, the thorthu had to go round several times before the trailing edge could be tucked in, to D’s satisfaction. The imaginary beard in place, D would then seek out his father’s helmet (my brother rode a two wheeler those days) and place it on head. The helmet would come down to his forehead and almost cover his eyes and it was also quite heavy. D would then walk slowly and rather precariously towards his tricycle.

The tricycle, meanwhile, has been miraculously transformed into a scooter and our young hero could be seen for the next five minutes laboriously working the kick-starter. This again was an elaborate ritual where he muttered dark words of frustration, tilted the tri-cycle to the side a few times to flood the carburettor, and looked at his imaginary watch in dismay. Finally with a great roar, the scooter started and D climbed on it with much satisfaction and rode off at high speed, his small hands furiously mimicking the clutch and accelerator controls, while the entire family looked on in amused indulgence.

Then happens the incident at the supermarket.

My brother and sister-in-law are shopping for groceries with D in tow. He is his usual placid self until a Sardar walks into the supermarket and D loses it completely.

“Sardarji!” yells D and frees himself from his mother’s grasp. He runs to the Sardar and embraces him from behind and bites his bum for good measure, before the startled Sardar can even start to realise what is happening.

Frankly this final part I find hard to believe considering the difference in height between the Sardar and the three-year-old. It is quite possible my sister-in-law embellished the incident somewhat to enhance its recountability.

What the hell! It is still quite a good story and the family in its usual kind and considerate manner never fails to remind D of this incident at least once a year.

D’s response:-

The shopping story is true, though I don't recall biting the man. Another highlight was coming to Delhi for a wedding when I was around three and a half. Compared to Kerala, it was turban heaven, every conceivable colour you could think of.

Even last month, when I was up in Mohali covering a game, we were talking in the ABC commentary box about the colourful turbans and the effort it must take to tie one every morning. Not a task for those who wake up, jump in the shower and wolf down some breakfast before rushing to the stadium!

I don't think I've tried a turban since those long-ago days, but I do now live with a Sikh. After that kind of childhood and all those Sikh-and-ice cube jokes to rile a friend when I was in college, I guess it was almost inevitable that I'd end up with a Sardarni.

Nice description of me trying to start my bike. It was a pretty lengthy procedure and I'm often reminded of it when I watch my nephew repairing his bike
.
Image Courtesy: www.sikhlink.net

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Adventures in Copywriting: 2


One day Prasad comes with an urgent but vague brief from his advertising agency: The customer is a small-scale manufacturer of lighting fixtures. The visual has already been chosen and is a picture of a sunrise with a few palm fronds in the foreground and in silhouette. Prepare a suitable headline and present it tomorrow. There will not be any body copy. Pictures of sample fixtures in small square boxes with brief descriptions will be placed in a row underneath the main picture.

We hit our heads against the wall. How does one connect sunrise, palm fronds, and lighting fixtures? What is the logic?

“Maybe the picture was taken by the owner’s daughter,” says Prasad matter-of-factly. “Let’s get on with it.”

A brainstorming session follows with several bottles of beer consumed in the process, at the end of which, we are nowhere near a solution. Ideas are discussed and discarded; improbable headlines are proposed, scribbled on paper, only to be clumped into balls and thrown across the room. After hours of this futile exercise I say in resignation: “Let there be light!”

Next day Prasad presents his list of 10 alternatives, all more pathetic than the other, to the agency.

“Let there be light!” exclaims the agency head. “This is brilliant! I’m sure our customer would love this headline!” And so he did, because the ad finally saw the light of the day with that headline!

But the campaign which gave our perverted minds the most creative satisfaction was for a line of women’s innerwear called “Love”.

“Cover your intimate secrets in love,” I propose grandly.

“That is disgusting,” says Prasad. “Most women will get turned off by a line like that.”

“Underneath, she is full of love,” suggests Moni, who has dropped in during our brainstorming session.

Prasad looks at both of us with something bordering on pity and says nothing.

“Love yourself in the right places,” I say. Moni looks at me and both of us start howling with laughter. One crazy line after the other follows, each more preposterous than the previous one. Very soon other room-mates join in and we have total pandemonium.

Prasad, who takes his work seriously, is not amused at all and beseeches us to get serious.

Finally, when the advertisement appeared in the newspapers, the headline was pure kitsch.

“She is in love every day of the week.”

To this day, I do not remember which one of us contributed that line.

Photo Courtesy: www.searchenginegenie.com

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Adventures in Copywriting: 1


When I look at a print advertisement, the first thing I look at is the copy. Is it short, succinct, and well-written? Does it communicate to the reader? Does it bring out the salient functions, features, and benefits of the product it is trying to sell? Does the copy integrate well with the visual or graphic that is holding the ad in place? Does the copy make you smile or even better, does it make you chuckle?

During my bachelor days in Bombay I used to help my friend Prasad with some copywriting. Prasad held a temporary job as a lecturer in a management institute and tried to supplement his income by working as a freelance copywriter in a small advertising agency which could not afford a full-time copywriter on their rolls. It was handsome pocket money which we invariably blew up on beer.

We were novices but worked hard to deliver the perfect headline and the perfect body copy. Prasad borrowed books on Advertising and Copywriting from the institute’s library which we devoured with fiendish intensity. We pored over famous international print advertisements, analysed them in minute detail, and poured scorn over what was masquerading as copywriting in India. We felt very superior.

But we realised rather quickly that the agency and its customers, mostly small manufacturing companies, had a totally different aesthetic viewpoint when it came to what was and what was not, good copywriting. When we strived for simplicity and clarity, often what was needed by the customer was exaggeration and hyperbole. When we said humour should be elegant and understated, our agency and its customers were seriously upset. Sometimes, we will go with ten alternatives for a headline, arranging them in our own order of preference and would be chastened and embarrassed when the customer complimented us on our wonderful effort and chose No. 9.

In hindsight, I have to admit the agency and its customers were right. They knew their end customers, we did not. By trying to impose our own sensibilities, received wisdom, and pre-conceived notions on what constituted good copy, we were forgetting that one cardinal rule of good copywriting which is to first understand who you are trying to communicate to.

But some of the copy that we wrote during that time and some of the headlines that found their way to print, were truly hilarious. And just to tease you (Cynic, are you listening?) I will defer narrating them until my next post!
Photo Courtesy: www.a-ofsalt.com

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Aisle Seat Pitfalls


One of my colleagues met with an accident recently. He had stopped his car on a residential street and had come around to open the boot of the car and take out his laptop when a van reversed into him, flinging him onto his own car. He hit his head against the sharp corner of the boot lid, resulting in a deep gash. A lot of bleeding ensued and he had to be taken to the hospital and have the wound stitched up. He is all right now and should be back in action after couple of days.

Something similar happened to me a few years ago.

On flights, I normally prefer aisle seats. You feel less crammed, getting in and out is easier, and you can be assured of at least one armrest all for yourself, without the guy next to you elbowing you out. Once ensconced thus, I ask for a pillow and a blanket and happily go to sleep most of the time.

Once, I am on a late evening flight from Chennai to Mumbai. It is a fairly uneventful journey, most of which I spent dozing. The problem happens when the flight has touched down and is taxiing to its final parking position. Before the aircraft comes to a complete stop, some impatient worthy behind me leans over and opens the overhead bin right above me. A heavy suitcase tumbles out and the corner hits me on the forehead, just above the hairline.

For a moment I am dazed and too shocked to react. By the time I gather my senses and turn around to face the perpetrator of the outrage, I am bleeding profusely and my shirtfront is soaked in blood. While the other passengers cluck sympathetically and move up the aisle to disembark, the stewardesses gather around me trying to stem the bleeding. An ice pack is pressed firmly against the wound and the crew call for the airport doctor.

The airport doctor turns out to be an elderly sari-clad matron. She examines the wound and declares the position of the wound as inappropriate for suturing. Fortunately, by this time the bleeding has stopped. She dresses the wound and ties a gauze bandage around my head. The girls giggle in relief. They say I look like an invader from outer space. The doctor advises me to take some paracetamol tablets in case I feel any pain at night; the airlines drop me in their car to the hotel.

Just before going to bed, the realisation struck me: in the confusion, I never found out who was the guy whose rash act had landed me in this mess. He had quietly slunk out in the mêlée with his suitcase, having not even the courtesy to offer an apology.

Such is life, I suppose.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Remembering Ramnath


Ramnath was the best stenographer in the company.

A small-made man with a prominent nose and wiry, steel grey hair, Ramanth lived in Mulund and had to take the overcrowded and notoriously unreliable Central Line every day to reach the office in Ballard Estate. Ramnath also acted as the de facto personal assistant to my boss Gana and lived in mortal fear of Gana catching him arriving late to work, which was often, due to the unpredictability of the suburban railway system.

Humble, honest, and always happy to be of help, Ramnath could be depended on to deliver a neat, flawless letter every time and was in great demand among the managers. He rarely used a whitener, never typed over a mistake and abhorred carbon smudges and greasy thumb marks.

Ramnath harboured a cynical disdain for those managers whose working knowledge of English was poor or whose dictating skills were not up to scratch, even though he was careful not to show such feelings in public. I must have shown some promise in both departments because very soon Ramnath took me under his wing and patiently chiselled away and smoothened whatever rough edges I had, when it came to official, written communication in English. He freely edited my drafts, sometimes replacing words or even whole sentences and often, playing around with entire paragraphs. I did not mind this at all because every time, the final result was much superior to my original draft.

A few years later, I knew I had passed the test when Ramnath stopped editing my drafts.

I will conclude this post with this interesting story: One day Ramnath is on leave and another stenographer called Sathe is forced to take dictation from Gana. Sathe is terrified of the great man who dictates in a clipped accent at breakneck speed because when he goes back to his typewriter and looks at his own shorthand, he can comprehend nothing. Finally after several attempts and with a little help from fellow stenographers, he completes the letter and places it reverentially in front of Gana.

There is a moment of silence as Gana scans the letter before signing. Suddenly he sucks his breath in sharply and screams: “Sathe! What do you mean by this? Please check your piles? Please check your piles?”

Sathe realised only too late that he should have typed, “Please check your prices”!

Sathe never took dictation from Gana again.

Friday, 24 October 2008

In Praise of the Stenographer


If you look back over the last 15 years or so, the stenographer as a species has totally vanished from the office scene. You do not see him anymore. The advent of the PC and the laptop, word-processing programmes with spell check features and the unblinking focus companies have brought to bear on headcount-related costs have all played their part in vanishing what was once the constant in any organisation chart.

One of the skills which I had to master quickly, when I started my career almost 25 years ago, was that of dictating a letter. It is a skill which forces you to think clearly, logically, and in paragraphs, for, it is not enough to just reel off what you want to say, you have to also call out the punctuation marks and the paragraph breaks to the stenographer as you dictate.

The dictionary definition of stenography is “the art or process of writing in shorthand”, but good stenographers did much more than just convert your words into little strokes and squiggles in their shorthand pad and reconstruct them without mistakes on their faithful Remington typewriters. The better stenographers could improve on your original draft by correcting grammatical mistakes and errors in syntax and by ruthlessly editing out verbiage and clumsy usage.

Right from the days of the British Raj I suspect, the monopoly for good stenography was held by the South Indian Brahmins of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. During the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of them, after passing their matriculation from small towns such as Kumbakonam and Palghat boarded trains to Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, and other cities afar to make a living. What they had in addition to the matriculation certificate was a working knowledge of typewriting and shorthand learned at the friendly neighbourhood typewriting institute. Most of them found jobs in government and in large trading houses of that time and a good percentage of them rose up through the hierarchy by dint of their hard work and dedication and went on to occupy key positions in the very same organisations they first joined as a humble stenographer decades ago.

In the company I first joined, they had a “stenographers’ pool” which was almost fully populated by South Indian Brahmins. I still have fond memories of these colleagues finishing their home-cooked sambar rice or curd rice in double quick time and spending the next 50 minutes of the lunch time in quiet slumber in their chairs under the slowly-revolving ceiling fans.
Photo Courtesy: Roberrt's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Searching for the Invisible Light Switch

My friend Hemant loves to crack jokes. Some of his jokes are so convoluted, only he understands the punch line. But then, you don’t mind. Watching Hemant narrate the joke itself is a performance to be enjoyed.

Like all great raconteurs, Hemant dead-pans when he builds up the story and only the occasional mischievous twinkle in his eyes gives him away. The narration is deliberately slow, with long pauses, and programmed to heighten your anticipation and increase your impatience. And finally when the joke is out, his whole body seems to sag helplessly and he is convulsed in quiet laughter, one shoulder more hunched than the other, face tilted to one side; suddenly you also find yourself infected with the same crazy virus of helpless merriment.

This is a story Hemant related to me about an incident that happened when I was on an extended overseas trip and thus away from the office.

It is Neils Moltzen’s first day in office. Moltzen has taken charge as the new General Manager. Moltzen with his round, plump visage and round glasses is a mild, soft-speaking individual with a perpetually confused look. The poor man has absolutely no idea what a devilish practical joker Hemant can be when he catches the mood. Hemant, being responsible for office administration, takes Moltzen around, introducing him to other colleagues, showing him where the photocopier and the fax machine are located and how to operate the coffee machine. The tour ends in Moltzen’s cabin which Hemant opens for him with a flourish; after which, Hemant walks back to his cabin.

Moltzen is very soon back in Hemant’s cabin asking where the light switch is. He has looked everywhere but cannot locate the light switch.

Hemant looks at Moltzen for a moment as if he hasn’t understood the question. Then he suddenly brightens up and says: “Ah! The light switch! It is sound activated. Just go back to your room and clap your hands. One clap for on and one clap for off.”

Moltzen trots off dutifully back to his cabin and, to the utter astonishment of the rest of the office, starts clapping his hands inside his cabin. No lights get turned on. In frustration, the poor man runs back to Hemant.

Hemant looks at him sternly. “You would not have clapped loud enough,” he says. “Clap more loudly. One clap for on and one clap for off.”

This time around, Moltzen’s claps are like gunshots and pretty soon the entire office is standing outside his cabin laughing their heads off with Hemant looking mournful and serious in the background.

It took Moltzen weeks to recover from the trauma.

“You are joking!” I tell Hemant when he narrates this story for the first time. “You are just making this whole story up, aren’t you?”

I get no reply from Hemant. He has dissolved into a jelly and is quietly laughing himself silly into his glass of beer.
Photo Courtesy: Kate's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Whistling Wiles of Ramani

According to the wife, my blog posts of late have degenerated into little more than stories of uncouth middle-aged men getting drunk and making silly fools of themselves. So let me give my readers advance notice that this post too, is in the same genre, but with minor variations.

Except that Ramani was neither middle-aged nor uncouth. When I first met him he was already in his early-fifties and surprisingly fit and in great shape for his age. As a colleague, when I got to know him better, he divulged to me the secret behind his glowing health and vitality, which was the practice of yoga for an hour every day.

Ramani was not overly fond of alcohol, unlike my friend Ravan. Ramani imbibed rarely and always restricted himself to a glass or two of beer, which he pronounced like most South Indians the way it is spelt, rhyming with Indian words like vir or kheer or mir.

One evening we are at the rooftop restaurant of The Savera hotel called Minar which was pretty new at that time and apart from offering authentic Mughlai cuisine, offered magnificent night-time vistas of Madras city. A blind musician accompanied by a sparse orchestra is singing soulful ghazals of Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali. We are a fairly large group, maybe ten or twelve in all, and it is a very relaxed, long drawn-out dinner. The food, the music and the overall ambience have made all of us loose-limbed and languorous. We are ready pay the bill and call it a night when suddenly Ramani who uncharacteristically has been drinking whisky instead of his usual beer, gets up from his seat and walks unsteadily across and whispers something to the orchestra.


Before we know what is happening, Ramani has grabbed the mike and introduced himself. He is an enthusiast of Carnatic Music, he says. He is also a good whistler. So, if the audience does not mind, he would like to whistle a few popular kritis set in such ageless ragas such as Kalyani, Todi, and Shankarabharanam to entertain the diners.

Without further ado, Ramani launches into his repertoire and for the next 10 minutes we are treated to the extremely difficult art of bringing out the finer nuances of complex Carnatic ragas through the simple act of whistling. Despite his inebriated state, Ramani does an excellent job and finishes his performance to enthusiastic applause.

Recently, the Minar restaurant celebrated its 25th anniversary as part of which, they conducted a week-long kebab festival. One evening I went there for dinner with a small group of family and friends and felt extremely nostalgic. True, the restaurant has undergone some renovation but the ambience was the same. The quality of food was still very good. The service was as attentive as I remembered it to be. To my surprise, even Syed Laiq Ahamed, the blind singer, was there in the designated corner with his haunting ghazals.

I missed Ramani though.

Image Courtesy: www.siskiyous.edu

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Camera Capers: 2


My second SLR was a Minolta 3xi and a gift from my brother-in-law.

Compared to the humble Yashica FX-3, this one was packed with awesome automation, at least so it seemed at that time. The 3xi came with a power-assisted, wide-angle zoom that was a delight to operate. The focusing was automatic. You could play with different priority modes and could even operate it in manual mode, though not so elegantly. It was lightweight, compact, and took beautiful pictures. I was very happy with that camera.

But somewhere along the line, I lost interest in photography. To start with I was never a very creative photographer and considered myself, at best, efficient or workmanlike in my approach to the craft. I could be counted on to take a decent picture, but never a great one, if you know what I mean.

I believe that to be a good photographer, you have to see beyond what you see within the confines of the viewfinder and search for a certain truth, a certain essence that the others either ignore or cannot see. In great photographers, this happens automatically and without conscious effort and everything else—subject, framing, composition, lighting, colour—automatically falls into place. This is why Raghu Rai and you can stand side by side and take pictures of the same landscape and when you look at the final results, yours is just a nice photograph while his is imbued with a certain spiritual aura and speaks to someone deep inside you.

No. I did not stop taking pictures because they were not “great” or because they lacked a “spiritual aura”. I stopped taking pictures because I was getting tired of opening the camera bag, taking the camera out, removing the lens cap, looking through the viewfinder, composing, shooting... the whole process. I also started feeling that photography and the whole paraphernalia associated with it somehow distracted me from the act of simple observation. The camera was getting in the way of that beautiful sunset or that magnificent monument silhouetted against the fading light.

Or, maybe these are all noble excuses and the real reason could be something as mundane as sheer laziness!

Anyway, these days I carry no SLR. My present camera is a Sony Cybershot T10 which is slim enough to fit in my shirt pocket and on those occasions when I have to be the family chronicler of get-togethers and birthdays, it is such a relief to put it in “auto” and click on mindlessly.

The pictures turn out invariably to be surprisingly decent.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Camera Capers: 1

Recently a fellow blogger wrote about her new Olympus E-510 camera and the fun she was having trying out its manual controls. Suddenly, I remembered Ram and me shopping for my first SLR in Singapore, very many years ago.

The Yashica FX-3 was a fully manual camera with none of the snazzy features that you see in present-day cameras. Focusing was manual and so was the metering. You had to decide what aperture/shutter speed combination to use and a very simple 3-LED system gave you basic feedback whether your picture was likely to be under-exposed or over-exposed. It was an ideal camera for picking up the basics of SLR photography.

“The smaller the aperture, the larger the depth-of-field, which means more things within the frame will be in focus,” says Ram, “ideal for landscapes.”

“Err...umm,” I say brightly.

“But if you want only the subject to be in focus and the immediate background to be deliberately hazy, what aperture will you choose?”

“Err...umm,” I hedge my bets.

“Correct. You will choose a larger aperture, say a F4 or a F5.6,” Ram goes on relentlessly, oblivious to the fact that his dim-witted pupil was having a hard time catching up with all this gushing gyan. “Now let us take shutter speed...”

Ram was a good teacher and I was never to forget the basics of photography that he drilled into me in that hotel room in Orchard Road in Singapore. The FX-3 was also to remain with me for over 15 years, ever reliable, letting me down not even once. Finally what did give away was not the optics, but the leatherette exterior cladding which started disintegrating and coming off in my hands. That was when I sadly made the decision to retire the old faithful.

In my more nostalgic moments, I still think of that first SLR--the aperture ring that clicked into position so perfectly; the tiny shutter-speed dial that one learned over time to manipulate with the thumb and forefinger; the reassuring whirr and click when the focal plane shutter came down and the entire camera seemed to shudder within your grip.

They don’t make cameras like that anymore and this, I state with due apologies to the Olympus E-510.
Photo Courtesy: Lens' Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Language Tangle


The peculiarities of the English language can prove to be a challenge for the best of us. To my friend Joymon, it was even more a daunting task, having studied in a Malayalam medium school in Kerala. Conversational English especially, was something he struggled with every day.

To his credit, Joymon never gave up and refused to be discouraged when his colleagues took pot shots at his Malayalam-accented English. He was not afraid to make mistakes nor was he ashamed to ask and clear his doubts on the correct usage of the language. Within a year he became sufficiently proficient in English and could navigate the treacherous linguistic by-lanes with a fair amount of felicity.

One day, all of us get invited to the Big Boss’s house party. Big B lives in a palatial beachside bungalow in Juhu. This is an annual event normally scheduled to coincide with the visit of the members of the senior management from Germany.

That year I have to miss the party as the date clashed with an official trip to Bangalore which had been planned weeks ago. I bump into Joymon in the corridor the following Monday and casually ask him whether he enjoyed the party at Big B’s place on Saturday night.
Joymon beams.

“Fantastic party,” Joymon says. “Big B lives in this fantastic house with a huge garden. There is even a swimming pool!”

“So, good food? Great Music?”

“Wonderful,” says Joymon. “Really enjoyed myself.”

“Great!” I am about to move on when Joymon says: “And Mrs Big B...”

“What about her?”

“Such a hostile lady,” Joymon says.

“What?” I am puzzled. I cannot co-relate Joymon’s bright smile as he uttered the sentence with the kind of antipathy one normally associates with the word “hostile”.

“She was taking care of each and every guest,” Joymon explains, “making sure everyone had enough to eat and drink and going round and chatting to even the junior managers. So hostile.”

Suddenly the coin drops. “Hospitable,” I say. “Hospitable is the word you want, Joymon. Hostile means just the opposite, like, being rude and unfriendly!”

Joymon listens intently and vows never to repeat the mistake. He also reassures me that while bidding good-bye, he had not mentioned to Mrs. Big B what a “hostile” hostess she had been!
Photo Courtesy: Woman-with-a-lens Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Friday, 19 September 2008

Ravan and the Cable Guy


It was 1993 and, as an aftermath of the infamous Mumbai blasts, anti-Pakistan sentiment was at an all-time high. Even though Pakistani serials were very popular those days, many cable TV operators had withdrawn such programmes from their channel-bouquet, bowing to the prevailing sentiment.

However, the cable operator in my area continued to beam the Pakistani TV channel (PTV) in spite of repeated representations from jingoistic viewers to take it off.

One day, casually over lunch, I mention this to Ravan Singh and he flies into a rage. “How can you tolerate this,” Ravan thunders. “We have to put a stop to this nonsense immediately! The fellow should be put behind bars for treason!”

“It is futile,” I say. “The cable guy is an arrogant fellow with political connections and does pretty much as he chooses.”

“We will see about that,” glowers Ravan. He pulls a telephone directory off the rack, finds the number of the service provider, and starts dialling. A lady comes on the line and Ravan asks her to put him through to the owner immediately. When she enquires who she should say is calling, he says with ominous calm: “Tell him this is Inspector Parulkar from Palton Road police station.”

When the owner comes on line, Ravan starts slowly, almost gently: “I have received a complaint that you are beaming PTV programmes in your cable network. As you know very well, this is against the law. Your viewers have requested you not to telecast these programmes, but you continue to do so. What have you to say about this?”

Perhaps Ravan’s conciliatory tone lulls the owner into a false sense of security. He is rather nonchalant in his response, saying that PTV programmes are popular and he is only catering to customers’ needs and many cable operators are beaming them anyway, so what’s the big deal?

Ravan explodes from his chair, draws himself to his full height and unships a few choice epithets in Hindi and Marathi, outlining the cable owner’s doubtful paternity, his unsavoury relationship with his sister, and his abject inability to satisfy his wife in bed.

“Do you know who you are talking to?” Inspector Parulkar shouts. “Do you know I can come with a posse of policemen in the next fifteen minutes and put you inside so fast that no one will ever even know where you are for the next fifteen years? Or should I make it easier for you by arranging a police encounter where a carefully-aimed shot is all that it takes to put an end to your miserable life?”

I can see, like all great actors, Ravan has merged with the character he is playing. At this moment he believes himself to be the tough, angry cop bullying the stuffing out of the criminal who has had the effrontery to talk back to him.

After fifteen minutes of this tirade, at the other end of the line, the cable TV owner is an abject mass of quivering jelly, tripping over words, profusely apologetic, and declaring his undying loyalty to his motherland. “PTV will be taken off immediately sir,” says the broken man. “You will have no further cause for complaint.”

“I give you exactly one hour,” says Inspector Parulkar, back to his deep, soothing voice. “After that, I come for you.”

And sure enough, the owner kept his promise.
Photo Courtesy: Chin Wu's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Introducing Ravan Singh

I think it is time I introduced Ravan Singh to the readers of my blog.

Ravan was a tall and well-built man with a scraggly beard that he deliberately left untrimmed. He could have passed off as handsome, if only a prominently protruding paunch had not spoilt the overall effect. Ravan had a voracious appetite for food; could drink anybody under the table; and fancied himself quite a ladies’ man.

Ravan and I were colleagues for over a decade during which we became very good friends. Looking back, this was rather strange for, both in appearance and temperament, we were like chalk and cheese. Ravan was the hearty, back-slapping type while I was painfully introverted. Ravan could be impulsive and rash while I was methodical and boring. Ravan was always the life and soul of the party while I generally had a tendency to blend in with the woodwork.

Ravan had a reputation for becoming very boisterous after a few drinks; during office parties the task of keeping him under control or some semblance of it, always fell on me. When he was sloshed, the only person he listened to was me and his obedience on such occasions was implicit and childlike. But there were couple of occasions when things went horribly wrong.

One such was at the Ambassador Hotel in Bombay where we are holding a reception for customers. The business part of the evening is over and those who imbibe have made a beeline for the bar. We circulate among customers, clinking our glasses and making polite small talk. Suddenly someone tugs urgently at my sleeve. It is Ravan.

“I don’t like the way Customer S is behaving,” he says in a hoarse whisper. “He is talking ill of our service, the worm! I think I will pull his toupée off.”

“What?” I am distracted. “What toupée?”

“Everyone knows S wears a toupée,” he says reasonably.” I’m going to yank it off.”

“You shall do no such thing,” I say firmly. “Just ignore the guy and go slow on the whisky, will you?”

Ravan disappears and I forget about the conversation. The evening winds down peacefully and after couple of hours, most customers have had their dinner and have left. So have the top bosses of the company. There are a few stragglers in the bar and I can see Ravan and S having a heated argument. Suddenly, in front of everyone’s stupefied eyes, Ravan yanks the toupée off S!


All hell breaks loose. Ravan is swaying on his legs and guffawing while the hapless S, shorn of his hairpiece and dignity, is screaming and weeping and lunging feebly for the toupée which Ravan holds aloft like a trophy.

No, Ravan did not lose his job. Probably, if the incident had happened an hour earlier when the party was in full swing, he most definitely would have. The next day, Ravan visited S and offered his profuse and unconditional apology for his boorish behaviour.

The customer forgave him and, I suspect, they had a drink together afterwards!

Photo Courtesy: boomSlang's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Kerala and Hindi Film Music: Part 3

Curiously enough, by mid-1960s, Malayalam film music began to give its Hindi brethren a stiff fight, mainly thanks to a slender young man in whites who came from the suburbs of Cochin and whose mesmerising voice, impeccable diction, and outstanding tonal range took Kerala by storm. K. J. Yesudas transformed Malayalam film music and took it to new heights of glory like no other singer before or after him, ably supported by poets-turned-lyricists like Vayalar Rama Varma and P. Bhaskaran and immensely-gifted music directors like M.S. Baburaj, G. Devarajan and V. Dakshinamurthy.

But the Malayali was not to forsake Hindi film music which, in the 1970s, re-invented itself thanks to another precocious talent called R.D. Burman. Trained in Hindustani classical music, Burman was also in touch with musical trends from all over the world and had this uncanny knack of connecting with both young and old alike. Thus in Kerala, he was appreciated as much for the lilting and melodious “Chingari koi bhadke” in Amar Prem as for the jazzy acoustical arrangement of “Dum Maro Dum” in “Hare Rama Hare Krishna”.

What should not be forgotten here, of course, is the fact that the 70s saw the re-emergence of the versatile Kishore Kumar as a credible singing force. Kishore could be soulful or mischievous, romantic or funny as the situation demanded, and was the perfect foil for Burman’s genius. Burman’s success was also, in no small measure, due to Asha Bhonsle and her sensuous and melodious voice which he was able to deploy in a manner that no other composer before him, with the exception of O. P. Nayyar perhaps, had been able to do.

And thus the Malayali’s love affair with Hindi film music continued to flourish, in the absence of other distractions such as television, cable TV and the Internet.

The 1980s were not a good time for Hindi film music in general, the focus having shifted to action dramas which had little scope or inclination to showcase music. The 1990s did show some marginal improvement but the old masters were either no more or retired from the scene. Crass commercial interests had taken over and the newcomers like Kumar Sanu and Abhijeet found themselves unfavourably compared to their legendary predecessors. But what about today? Are the present-day singers like Shaan, Naresh Iyer and Rashid Ali or music directors like Himesh Reshammiya and Pritam as popular in Kerala as they are in the North?

Perhaps, some young blogger living in Kerala now should write the concluding part of this post!

(Concluded)

Friday, 5 September 2008

Kerala and Hindi Film Music: 2

Vividh Bharati service of All India Radio (AIR), started operations in 1957 and was designed around a format that gave importance to music, predominantly Hindi film music. This was not surprising, considering it was put together in the first place to stave off the challenge of Radio Ceylon and its extremely popular “Binaca Geet Mala”.

Radio Ceylon played the latest film music no doubt, but transmitted in the Short Wave (SW) metre band which called for a more expensive SW receiver. The reception quality was also inconsistent as the signal waxed and waned depending on the atmospheric conditions. Vividh Bharati on the other hand, beamed its programs from a series of linked transmitters installed in major cities and towns and that too, in the Medium Wave (MW) spectrum. Reception quality was excellent and the signal could be picked up from a low-cost, single-band receiver. Even from the sheer variety of film-music based programming that it offered, the new entrant scored, with specific time-slots targeted at youth, housewives, elders, jawans and so on.

But to come back to the Hindi film music of that era: while the songs were full of touching melody and meaningful as well soulful lyrics, it was still steeped in the traditions of Hindustani classical music and were sometimes heavy, ponderous, and overtly sentimental. It took the music director duo of Shankar-Jaikishan, a maverick composer called O.P. Nayyar and an upcoming actor called Shammi Kapoor to rewrite the prevailing rules of the game and in the process, save Hindi film music from its own excesses.

Shankar-Jaikishan and O. P. Nayyar lightened up Hindi film music considerably by giving it a racy beat and experimenting with a western style orchestra. Borrowing as they did from western music styles such as jazz, swing and rock ’n’ roll, they infused a robustness and vigour in their music, faithfully portrayed on screen by the inimitably-animated Shammi Kapoor. But, for many Keralites of that generation, the music of Shankar-Jaikishan or Nayyar was just a door-opener. Once they entered the marvellously diverse world of Hindi film music, they encountered the varied but distinct composing styles of such talented composers as Naushad, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Salil Chowdhury and were hooked forever.

Within a very short time, Vividh Bharati broadcasts became a rage and became the most preferred radio channel in every Kerala household.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Kerala and Hindi Film Music: 1

When I wrote about Mohammed Rafi few weeks ago, a friend from Mumbai called me and wanted to know the connection between Kerala and Hindi film music. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, he knew, shared a common border with Maharashtra and both states had sizable Hindi-speaking population. Tamil Nadu was rabidly anti-Hindi, especially during ‘60s and ‘70s when Hindi film music was at its peak and thus hardly could be expected to nurture a culture that bred aficionados of Hindi film music. But in Kerala, the southern state farthest from Mumbai, Hindi film music thrived and flourished to such an extent that you had fan clubs of Mohammed Rafi and Talat Mahmood in places like Kozhikode and Cochin. How did this come about?

It is an intriguing question and I certainly am no social scientist who has all the answers but the history of Indian cinema throws up some interesting facts.

The first Indian talkie was in Hindi. Alam Ara of Ardeshir Irani was released in Mumbai in 1931. From 1935 onwards, great singers like K. L. Saigal and Pankaj Mullick were singing playback for Hindi movies and very soon built up a pan-Indian fan following including in Kerala. Around the same time, the first Tamil talkies were seeing the light of day and Tamil singers such as M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar also became extremely popular in Kerala.

But Malayalam cinema itself was a late bloomer. True, the first Malayalam talkie came out in 1938, but the movies were being made in what was then Madras and in very small numbers. The numbers acquired a modicum of dignity only after 1947, when Udaya Studios opened its doors in Alappuzha and movies started getting made in Kerala. But the industry still moved in fits and starts and had to wait another four years for its major box-office hit, which was Jeevithanaouka, released in 1951.

So it could well be that Hindi cinema, and through it Hindi film music, insinuated itself into the Malayali psyche during that crucial period from 1935 to 1951 when there was tremendous interest in this new entertainment medium, but not many locally-produced movies to cater to this passion. Thus Bharat Bhushan and Ashok Kumar and, later on, the triumvirate of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand became household names in Kerala, at least among the urban, educated youth.

A happy conspiracy of circumstances helped carry this momentum forward to the 1960s. One was, of course, the fact that Hindi film music was moving towards the pinnacle of its glory at this time thanks to the confluence of such great music directors like C. Ramchandra and S.D. Burman, wonderful lyricists of the calibre of Sahir Ludhianvi and Hasrat Jaipuri and singers of such immense talent and range such as the Mangeshkar sisters, Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey.

The other was a phenomenon called Vividh Bharati.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Carol and the Old Monk: Part 2

Carol gives me a wan smile.

The problem, she says with commendable detachment, is with her head. It weighs a ton. It also hurts very badly. But the real problem, she says staring straight ahead, is that she cannot move her head to the left or to the right. If she does, dazzling flashes of lightning seem to dance before her eyes and it is awful...

“You have a bad hangover,” says Russ, uncharitably stating the obvious.

I look at my watch which shows 9 am. The first customers would start arriving in the next 45 minutes or so.

Carol gulps down couple of tablets of paracetamol and empties half a bottle of mineral water. “You guys wait down in the lobby,” she says, “I will be down in fifteen minutes.”

True to her word, Carol joins us fifteen minutes later. I can see that she has brushed and combed her hair and put on some make-up. She looks definitely better than the ‘victim-of-train wreck’ I saw some time ago. She pats my hand and says everything is going to be all right.

“I shall sit and operate the console,” Carol says. “But I cannot turn around and look at the customers who will be sitting in a circle behind us. If I turn my head, it hurts real bad. So I cannot smile at them. Neither can I answer their questions. The three of you have to manage all that.”

“They will think you are a rude lady,” says Russ, not very helpfully.

“Never mind that,” I say. “Let us do as she says.”

That day Carol excels herself. She sits like a statue in front of the console from 10 am to 6 pm and operates the console flawlessly, neither looking to the right nor to the left, staring straight ahead. She continuously drinks water from a glass and declines lunch. Bob and I try to shield her from questions but when customers ask her a direct question, she answers them looking straight ahead. Fortunately, nobody notices anything amiss and the demos are a grand success.

After a hard day’s work, the entire team goes back to the Taj and my boss says: “C’mon guys! That was fantastic! Let us have a drink at the Harbour Bar!”

Carol shudders visibly, excuses herself and walks up to the lift, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but straight ahead.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Carol and the Old Monk: Part 1

Carol sits in a sofa looking down, cupping her face with both hands. And when she raises her head to speak to me, I can see she is bleary-eyed and her face is white as a sheet. She is shivering a bit. Her voice is dry and cracked. She looks terrible.

And terrible is the quandary I find myself in.

Bob, Carol, and Russ are the threesome who has come from the US to help us with the new product launch. Russ is responsible for hardware maintenance. Bob is the Presenter and Carol, the Applications Specialist. For the past two days we have been rehearsing the demo and it has been coming along nicely. Bob and Carol do a finely-nuanced Punch & Judy show where, as Bob prattles on about each function and feature, Carol’s dextrous fingers bring up the necessary applet on the monitor.

They are a diverse lot: Russ, short and stocky, with a round, mournful face and careful to drink nothing but Coke. Bob, bespectacled, tall and thin like a reed, looks more like a nerdy college professor. And Carol, sincere and serious, working hard to ensure that the demos go off without a hitch.

Today is D-Day. The demos are to take place at the Grand Hotel in Ballard Estate. The hall has been booked. The hardware is installed and tested and ready. VIP customers have been invited at one-hour intervals, starting at 10 am. We are ready to roll!

When I reach the Taj Mahal Hotel at 8.30 am to pick up the contingent, a nervous Bob meets me at the foyer and says we have a problem. Carol is very sick and can I please come upstairs to her room?

I cannot understand it. Carol was perfectly fine when I dropped them off in the hotel the previous night at 9 pm. Could it be something she had for dinner that had caused her to fall sick? A bout of food-poisoning, perhaps?

Slowly, hesitantly Bob and Russ come out with the story. Apparently, after I dropped them off yesterday, they had gone for a short walk along Colaba when they “chanced” upon a liquor store. While standing in front of the store, they suddenly remembered this excellent dark rum their friend Rada had introduced them to the previous night and also his secret recipe for a cocktail that had equal amounts of cola and soda in it with a twist of lime. So without further ado, they had grabbed couple of bottles of this excellent spirit only to come back to the room and begin to consume it forthwith.

“S***!” I howl. “You guys polished off two bottles of rum between the three of you?”

All three nod in silent misery.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A Man and His Music


Mumbai.

July 30, 2008. 6 pm.

It has been raining quite heavily the whole day. Traffic is at standstill and we have reached only Dadar. I anxiously glance at my watch. My flight to Chennai takes off in one hour and I am not at all sure we are going to make it.

“Shall I put on some music?” asks Siraj.

I say yes, half-expecting to be bombarded with the high-decibel dance beat of the latest Bollywood hit. But suddenly the soft, mellifluous voice of Mohammed Rafi fills the inside of the car.

Yaad na jaaye beete dinon ki, Rafi Saab sings.

“They have been playing his songs whole day long,” says Siraj. “Tomorrow is Rafi Saab’s death anniversary.”

“I know,” I say simply. I do not add that it is a date no one needs to remind me about.

Traffic starts moving slowly. I look out of the window. It is grey and overcast. I feel depressed.

The RJ, a young girl, talking rapid-fire, English-accented Hindi from a prepared script, mouths inanities about the legendary singer and his honeyed voice. She puts on another song.

Tum jo mil gaye ho to ye lagtaa hai...

“Do you like old Hindi film songs?” Siraj asks.

Just to needle him, I say: “Yes, I can even tell you which film this song is from and who the music director is!”

But Siraj seems lost in thought and does not seem to be interested in taking up my childish challenge. He carefully negotiates the traffic at Sion circle and inches his Ford Ikon through the fringes of Dharavi.

“You know,” Siraj says, “I have given my shoulder to Rafi Saab’s coffin.” He uses the Hindi term, kandha milana.

“How did that come about?” I ask, interested.

“I was ten or eleven at that time. I had gone with my father to the Bandra mosque for the evening namaaz. When we came out, Rafi Saab’s funeral cortege was just entering the compound... well, in the pushing and shoving that followed, I managed...to put my shoulder to...”Siraj’s voice trails away.

We are both quiet for a long time. I think about a singer who died 28 years ago and how his voice and his songs unite a Malayali Hindu and a Bandra Muslim in the small confines of a car on a wet, miserable day in Mumbai, to share a common memory, sacred to both.

The car picks up speed once it enters the Western Express Highway. I feel reasonably confident about catching that flight now.

The song changes again. It is one of my favourites. Another priceless composition from the composer, Madan Mohan.

Tu mere samne hai, teri zulfein hai khuli...

We have reached the airport. Heaving my laptop and overnight case out of the boot, I say good-bye to Siraj.

Khuda Hafiz,” says Siraj, and drives away.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Soren's Poor Jokes

This post by a fellow-blogger suddenly made me recollect an incident that happened several years ago.

Pankaj had recently joined the company. He was a very sincere, hard-working young man with a ready smile and a cheerful demeanour. Being new, Pankaj was in that phase of constantly trying to ingratiate himself with all his colleagues and charm them with his social graces.

Soren was an expatriate who worked for our company at that time. A tall, heavily-built man with deep-set blue eyes and a blond, scraggly beard, Soren always reminded me of the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk. He smiled often, but the smile, rarely if ever, seemed to reach his eyes. Soren could be blunt, irascible, and was prone to such severe mood-swings that his colleagues normally tried to avoid him as much as possible.

Not Pankaj. Every day morning, Pankaj would go across to Soren’s seat and the following conversation would ensue with minor variations:

Pankaj: How are you Soren?

Soren: I’m fine thanks. How’re you Pankaj?

Pankaj: I am also fine, Soren. How’s the family?

Soren: Fine, thanks.

Pankaj: Have a good day, Soren.

Soren: Thanks, you too, Pankaj.

The whole office would listen to this exchange with good-natured tolerance, suppress a smile or two, and go on with their work.

One day Soren is late. Pankaj faithfully wishes everyone else a cheery Good Morning and starts preparing to go out on a sales visit. He is busy cramming his briefcase with price lists and brochures when Soren walks in. Instead of going to his seat, Soren makes a beeline for where Pankaj is sitting and plonks himself on Pankaj’s table. A startled Pankaj looks up from what he is doing and offers a helpful smile.

“How are you, Pankaj?” Soren asks loudly, making sure everyone is listening.

“I am fine, Soren,” says Pankaj, ‘how are you?”

Soren, delighted that Pankaj has fallen neatly into the trap set for him, replies in clear, ringing tones: “I am fine, Pankaj. In fact, I couldn’t be better. You see, I woke up at 5 O’clock, went for a jog, had a shower, f*- ed the wife who had just got up, had breakfast and here I am! I tell you man, I’m feeling good!”

Soren looks around expectantly. The whole office is frozen in silence. Nobody laughs. No one even looks at him.

From that day onwards, Pankaj stopped wishing Soren in the mornings.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Snow in the Mountains


That winter in Switzerland throws up a lot of memories, most of them amusing.

On the first day, there is a welcome dinner to which I go in casual wear. To my horror I find I am the odd man out with everyone else attired in formal suits.

Heinz Lehman takes me out for lunch to a posh restaurant in Zurich. As a starter, I order a “Crisp Californian Salad” from the menu and get a small, lovely cabbage cut in half with an elegant dollop of white sauce on the side.

In Frauenfeld, I walk into a bar after purchasing a Rubik’s Cube, which was a rage those days. Sipping a beer, I take out the undisturbed cube, turning it around in my hand, admiring the smooth finish and reluctant to start rotating the panel. Suddenly I find myself surrounded by excited people who look at me admiringly and ask me to demonstrate the solution to the puzzle.

Then travelling by train to Engelberg and taking several ski-lifts to arrive on top of Mount Titlis to be greeted by the Sri Lankan in the souvenir shop with: “Vanakkam saar, neengal Tamizha?” (Welcome sir, Are you a Tamilian?).

Schmick giving me a short lecture on how to drink beer: The first beer should never be sipped, but gulped down in one shot or maximum two. That is the only way the beer can hit your sweet spot, he says with utmost seriousness.

Lucerne. The picturesque lake nestling under the majestic gaze of snow-capped Mount Pilatus. The famous wooden bridge across the river Reuss before it was partially destroyed by fire in 1993.

Snow. Miles and miles of it. Enchanting to behold. Exhilarating to touch, to feel, to hold in your hands.

I was seeing snow for the first time in my life.

On the last day, there is a farewell dinner to which I wear a tie and a jacket only to find I have got it wrong this time also.

Everyone else is in casuals!

Photo Courtesy: Abhishek's Public Gallery, Picasa Wb Albums

Monday, 28 July 2008

The Serbs' Dilemma

At six in the evening, the bells of the St. Mauritius Church in Zofingen start tolling. Being winter, it is already pitch-dark outside and it is eerie and depressing to sit inside your room and listen to the heavy, sonorous sound of the church bells.

Not that there is much you can do outside. The tour of the entire town, consisting of the church, a cinema, a few shops, two hotels and three restaurants including a pizzeria can be completed in less than ten minutes and I have already done it twice.

In an alcove near the hotel reception, I come across a small cache of German and French paperbacks and amongst them, a historical romance in English which I take up to my room and try to read. It is heavy, ponderous stuff and combines well with my travel fatigue to act as an excellent sedative. I fall asleep.

The two Serbians check in the next day morning. They are to attend the same training as I and we travel together to the office of the Swiss company who is hosting us. The Serbs speak little English and are taciturn to the point of being rude when I try to make conversation with them. They chain-smoke and look unsmilingly out of the car window at the snow-blanketed countryside flashing past. They look depressed.

For the next four days life follows a fixed, familiar routine where we are in training from 8 am to 4 pm and dropped back to the hotel by 4.30 pm. Once we reach the hotel, for the rest of the evening the Serbs disappear only to manifest themselves at the breakfast table the next day, looking like death.

On Friday evening, the Serbs ask Rolf, our trainer, about night life in Zofingen.

Rolf, a cheerful young man with a fine physique tells them there is no night life in Zofingen. “You guys should take the train and go to Zurich,” he says.

The Serbs smile, showing yellowed, tobacco-stained teeth: “Yes, we went to Zurich... last four nights,” they say.

Rolf shrugs his shoulders and tells them maybe they should try Zurich tonight also, this being a Friday evening.

There is a long silence when one of the Serbs speaks up.

“What about the bar lady in Hotel Garni?” he asks Rolf, “She is very friendly.”

Rolf looks at the Serbs for a moment but his expression does not change: “The bar lady at Hotel Garni is the sister of my best friend,” he says evenly. “If you guys so much as try to act fresh with her, I’ll mash you both up into a Rosti”.

The silence this time lasts even longer.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Hotel Management in Switzerland


I land up at the entrance of Hotel Garni in Zofingen on a Sunday morning. It is winter and bitterly cold. The streets are eerily quiet and not a soul is in sight. There must have been heavy snowfall the previous night, for the few cars parked on the street are blanketed in white.

I lug my suitcase in and look around. The Reception is empty. I press the small buzzer affixed to the Reception desk and wait.

Zofingen is a small town, about 60 kilometres from Zurich. For the next three weeks, this hotel is going to be my home. I am cold, hungry, tired after a nine-hour flight from Bombay, and want nothing more than to get into the relative warmth of a room, have a shower, have some breakfast and sleep for as long as I can.

After what seems like a very long time, an old lady appears who introduces herself as Mrs. Schmitt. She seems bright, chirpy and in excellent spirits the reason for which was to dawn on me within the next thirty minutes. She checks me in and we take the slow, ancient lift to the third floor. She opens the door of room number 31 and ushers me in.

It is a small room with just enough space for a single bed, a table and two chairs. There is an equally small TV, placed on a bracket fixed on the wall. There is no English transmission though, she informs me sadly. Only German and French.

Acceding to Mrs. Schmitt’s suggestion, I have a quick shower and go down to the breakfast room adjacent to the Reception. To my surprise, I find her dressed in outdoor gear, car keys in one hand and an overcoat in the other. She quickly shows me the kitchen, the pantry, and the fridge and asks me to help myself to whatever I need: there are eggs, sausages, butter, cheese, marmalade, milk. There is a grill, cooking range, the works. Before I can get over my bewilderment, she informs me cheerfully that she is about to go on a short holiday and will be back only next week, but don’t worry, her replacement shall be at the counter sharp at 6 am on the morrow.

But what about the other inmates? I ask.

You are the only guest we have this Sunday, she says. Then, thrusting a bunch of keys in my hand which includes that of the main door, with a wave and a bye, Mrs. Schmitt walks out of the door.

And thus it came to pass that I managed a Swiss hotel all by myself for almost 24 hours, without causing any mishaps to life or property.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Monsoon Madness


"In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes," said Benjamin Franklin. If you are living in Mumbai, you will doubtlessly add one more to the list: the certainty that Mumbai will be paralysed, with all public transport including BEST buses and suburban trains suspended, for at least couple of days during every monsoon. So it was 25 years ago; so it is now.

Some of the most delightful recollections I have about Mumbai are waking up to the noise of a heavy downpour and quickly making the decision to snuggle under my blanket and go back to sleep, because one instinctively knew the train services will be off and there was no point in slogging it to the station anyway.

But it is a nightmare when the skies open up in the afternoon and the train system closes down just before the offices close. The buses are jam-packed and trying to flag down a speeding taxi is an exercise in futility. Wet, hungry, and tired, you are lucky if you manage to reach your home in the distant suburbs by midnight.

One such day, Katara and I decide to go against the grain and not go home. With most of our colleagues milling about in the lobby discussing various means of transport to reach home, we wait for a lull in the raging thunderstorm and make a quick dash to the cosy and warm interiors of Grand Hotel nearby. We sit in the near-empty bar and start drinking slowly and methodically, munching on the delightful finger-food the barman keeps replenishing, listening to the storm raging outside and talking about nothing in particular.

Close to 11 pm, we walk back in the drizzle, none too steadily, to the office which is empty save for the watchman, who informs us the train services are still down and finding transport home at this time of the night will be difficult. We nod cheerfully and walk towards the conference room. Rearranging the furniture, we spread newspapers on the soft, two-inch thick carpet, set the thermostat of the air-conditioner to a comfortable 25 degrees and are out like a light, almost instantaneously.

Next day morning, when I reach my apartment, there is a surprise. Sunitaben exhibits some real emotion seeing me back safe and sound and comes up with a hot, steaming cup of tea followed by a real, sumptuous breakfast.

Happiness!
Photo Courtesy: Sakura's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Uptightji

What type of garment do you wear to bed?

Depending on which part of the world you are coming from, I’m sure the answer would vary. Talking specifically of India, if you are a man and coming from the southern part of India, chances are you would wear an old dhoti and singlet to bed. A variation to this nocturnal sartorial ensemble could be a lungi and a half-sleeve ‘banian’. If you are from North India, a set of soft kurta-pyjamas could be your night dress. If you are a lady, probably you change into a loose and comfortable nightie before retiring for the night or maybe a worn-out top and skirt.

To see what is the common thread running through all these different attire, one needs only look at the adjectives used to describe nightwear generally: Soft, Comfortable, Old, Loose... all attesting to a certain high degree of informality, relaxation, and cosiness.

Introducing Uptightji.

A deeply religious person and a strict vegetarian, Uptightji followed an unfailing routine every day. Once he reached home in the evening from office, he took a shower and with the wet towel wrapped round his waist, lit a lamp at the small shrine by his bedside. Then leaving the upper torso bare, he changed into a dhoti and lounged about the apartment reading the newspaper or watching TV till bedtime, the epitome of informality and relaxation.

The transformation took place just before bedtime when Uptightji changed again, this time into a pair of trousers. The trousers were obviously old but stitched at a time when the waist size of Uptightji was at least an inch smaller than what it was now and he had to literally hold his breath and pull in his stomach before the waist of the trousers could be brought together and buttoned properly.

When quizzed about this strange behaviour, Uptightji once explained to me that he was horrified at the thought of someone finding him in an undignified posture while sleeping. For a moment, the thought of Uptightji sleeping in a dhoti and carelessly turning over in his sleep with the dhoti astray and exposing his crown jewels almost made me double up with laughter.

But I controlled myself just in time. Uptightji was several years elder to me and a very nice human being and would have been deeply hurt if he thought I was laughing at him.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The Lovedale Station Master

Nandu is one of those lucky ones who can escape the scorching summers of Kerala every year, by going up the mountains. His paternal grandparents live near the famous south Indian hill resort of Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills in the Western Ghats, in the beautiful valley near Lovedale.

As train enthusiasts all over the world know, there is a metre gauge railway service that snakes it way up from the plains, starting from the town of Mettupalayam, all the way up to Ootacamund, or Ooty as it is popularly known. The little “Toy Train,” much loved by tourists and Bollywood alike, takes more than four hours to traverse a distance of 46 kilometres, but then, this is not a train you take for reaching some place in a hurry, but for the magnificent views that it offers, as it chugs its languorous way through lush valleys, sublime meadows, and neatly laid-out tea gardens.

Lovedale has a tiny little station and Nandu, ever the train enthusiast, spends most of the day there, watching the trains go by. Very soon, he becomes the close friend and confidante of the station master, following him around as the elderly gentleman goes about his daily chores.

One day, he finds his friend, the stationmaster, in a depressed mood. He has been transferred to a remote station, somewhere in the plains.

Young Nandu is sympathetic: “To which station have you been transferred?” he asks.

“Some godforsaken place,” says the stationmaster. “A place called Dasampatti. I don’t even know where on the earth this wretched place is.”

The ten-year old does not miss a beat. “Oh! Dasampatti!” he says with absolute certainty, “comes between Samalpatti and Doddampatti. In the Salem-Jolarpet sector.”

Unfortunately, no camera was at hand to record the expression on the stationmaster’s face for posterity.

Nandu is now past thirty and works in the IT/Insurance sector. He continues to be passionate about trains, loves receiving or seeing off people at Chennai Central and, needless to add, prefers train journeys to any other mode of transport. His knowledge of the trains of the Indian Railways has become even more formidable and encyclopaedic now, a fact he smiles off with characteristic modesty. When it comes to train timings, cancellation rules, Tatkal schemes or booking tickets through the Internet, our family consults no timetable or looks up no reference guide.

We just ask Nandu.

Photo Courtesy: Shiraz's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Friday, 4 July 2008

Nandu and the Indian Railways

Nandu has been in love with trains ever since he was a little boy.

During summer vacations when his cousins retire to the cooler confines of the house and play board games, waiting for the hot afternoon to ease off till it was cool enough to go out and play, Nandu purposefully strides out to the ground in front of his house. There, under the blazing sun, he draws up a huge rectangle on the hard earth with his big toe. Standing on one corner of the rectangle, with great pomp and ceremony, he proclaims himself to be a certain train, say the Mangalore-Madras Mail, and starts running.

Nandu the train, eases out of the platform slowly, gradually picking up speed, accelerating gracefully and very soon is shrieking past minor stations and sundry level crossings, deep gorges, and dry riverbeds, dilapidated temple tanks and bustling market places, oblivious to the verdant countryside flashing past. He runs and runs, to the consternation of the elders in the house, and slows down only when the next ‘station’ approaches.

Stories about his obsession with trains abound, most of them not apocryphal. His mother takes him on a night train and he refuses to sleep, getting up at each station to note down the name of the station in his little diary. One of his uncles is leaving for Calcutta and young Nandu requests him to bring back the timetable of Eastern Railway as a gift!

On yet another journey, the train stops at a particular station and remains there for a very long time. It is summer and quite hot and uncomfortable inside the compartment. The passengers become listless. One of the passengers comments that maybe the train is waiting to give way for the Malabar Express, coming from the opposite direction.

Nandu, with no touch of self-consciousness, earnestly assures the passenger that this cannot be. The Malabar Express has already crossed them fifteen minutes ago. As there are no trains scheduled to reach this particular station at this particular time, the only reasonable conclusion that can be is that they are waiting for a freighter train to pass.

Sure enough, five minutes later, a “goods” train trundles past in the opposite direction.

But the story I like the most is about Nandu and the station master of Lovedale station, which is the second part of this post.

Picture Courtesy: Bill Gracey's Public Gallery. Picasa Web Albums

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Paying Guest Woes

It is past 11 pm. I approach the door with trepidation and knock softly. After what seems like an eternity, a light clicks on inside, the door opens a crack and Sunitaben’s unsmiling face comes into view. It is obvious she does not approve. Without a word she opens the door fully and lets me in. I quickly tiptoe across the hall, eager to reach the privacy of my room and escape her accusing gaze.

The lease on our flat in Vile Parle has finally expired and we have moved out. The Beatles Fan Club stands temporarily disbanded. Ram has found a job with an oil prospecting company and has shifted to Indonesia. Bisque, after a stint in Bhusawal and a briefer one in Mumbai, has gone back to Kerala. So has Digamber, after suffering several nervous breakdowns. Moni has disappeared and is reported to be living somewhere in Four Bungalows.

I am staying at Sunitaben’s place in Andheri as a paying guest. My room-mate is Prasad, who has a doctorate in English literature. Prasad is a quiet, thoughtful man who normally starts talking only after couple of beers.

After living in a fully furnished apartment with your close friends, to live as a paying guest is hugely restrictive. Sunitaben doesn’t make it any easier. She is a stern-faced Gujarati widow who lives with her ten year old son, Suraj. She teaches Hindi in the nearby school and decides from the first day onwards to impose a certain discipline and control on us which teachers normally reserve for particularly unruly students.

House rules are strict: There is no separate entrance. There is no separate key either. You get a cup of tea in the morning if she is in a good mood. Most mornings, she is not in a good mood. At night, you have to be back in your room by 10.30 pm. Later than that, and you have to make arrangements to stay at a friend’s place.

Two months of this and Prasad and I are nervous wrecks. One night, Moni lands up from nowhere and we go out to celebrate a much-awaited reunion. Prasad has one beer too many and suddenly keels over and is out like a light. We splash water on his face and he recovers but is unsteady and can hardly walk. We are terrified of taking him in that state to Sunitaben’s house.

Moni, ever the Good Samaritan, bundles Prasad into a taxi and takes him to his place in Four Bungalows.

I walk back alone.
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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.