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.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The Conspiracy Theory

I would like to put forward my “conspiracy theory” involving Indian airport management companies and luggage manufacturers. It is so subtle—the conspiracy, not my theory—that I need your full attention for the next few minutes.

Don’t get me wrong: If you are a seasoned air traveller, you sort of get used to your favourite suitcase acquiring a variety of dents, bumps, cuts, scratches and cracks during the course of your travels. You resign yourself to the fact that your luggage will be thrown around, dropped from heights, crushed under heavier brethren, scanned, wrongly-labelled, misdirected, lost, found, and generally subjected to such extreme punishment and humiliation, that it will break the most iron-willed of men, if applied to human beings.

No. These things you learn to take it in your stride. You learn to accept them as the price you have to pay for acquiring all those frequent flyer miles, fancy lounge cards, and the occasional upgrade to Business Class while your boss sweats it out in Economy.

No. We are talking glue here.

Yes. Glue.

When Airport Security scan your check-in luggage, they slap on a tiny, pre-gummed label or “sticker” on your suitcase.

Initially, when your suitcase is all shiny and brand new, you hasten to take off this offending object off your case at the earliest opportunity, with as much care and consideration as possible. But soon, if you are an indolent chap like me, the stickers accumulate and start completely obliterating the front part of your suitcase: the snap-out openers, the number lock, the keyhole – everything. That is when, on a Sunday morning, you decide to clean up your suitcase, by peeling away the stickers.

Disaster! The stickers will refuse to peel away with any modicum of amiability. The glue used is so bad that part of the sticker will stick to your fingers and part to the suitcase. You try moistening the stickers with water and suddenly the problem becomes worse; everything has turned into a gooey mess. Wherever the stickers have come off, there are black, sticky blotches and all your ten fingers have little pieces of stickers attached to them. In desperation, you get hold of a knife or a screwdriver and start scraping the blasted things off the surface, but it is a losing battle. Your suitcase looks as if it has been in a car crash and now you have knife scratches on the fascia to contend with.

With half your Sunday gone, you are left with no choice but to go out and buy a new suitcase before your next trip.

And here is where my conspiracy theory comes in.

Friday, 20 June 2008


Once every four years, a certain trade fair takes me to the city of Dusseldorf in Germany. Although lagging behind other German cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt in terms of population (actually, it ranks ninth with a population of over 600,000 inhabitants), Dusseldorf is a bustling metropolis and is the centre for the German fashion, advertising, and telecommunications industries. It is a nice, sprawling city, dotted with huge public parks, wooded areas, and wonderful old buildings which include some of the most beautiful and imposing churches you can see anywhere in Europe.

What never ceases to amaze me as I walk along the streets of Dusseldorf is the fact that this city was virtually reduced to rubble during World War II and whatever I am seeing now, has been rebuilt from the ground up afterwards.

It was geography that did Dusseldorf in during the war. During World War II, the Rhine-Ruhr valley was one of the primary targets for aerial bombing by the Allied forces, especially the RAF. After all, most of the steel and armament industries of Hitler’s Germany, which fed the awesome German war machine, were situated within the valley and throughout the war, the Allies targeted the area relentlessly. Dusseldorf, being a city bordering the Rhine-Ruhr valley in the north, bore the brunt almost by default.

History records the city going up in flames on September 10, 1942, after a particularly punishing RAF attack. Again, towards the end of the war, in the spring of 1945, with Germany’s anti-aircraft defences all but destroyed, Dusseldorf faced another massive aerial onslaught. Round-the-clock air attacks for seven long weeks brought the city to its knees with thousands dead and half the city’s residential and industrial areas completely destroyed.

There were of course other German cities in the Ruhr valley which faced even greater damage: Essen, Cologne, Dortmund, Wuppertal...the list is long. I have travelled through or have been in many of these cities; if you didn’t know your history, you will be hard-pressed to believe that they suffered so much damage sixty years ago, such has been the precision and care with which they have been reconstructed.

I sit this evening on the terrace of my hotel by the Rhine, enjoying a glass of beer, watching the families enjoying the weekend getting ready to push their little rowing boats into the river. The children’s excited screams hang in the clear summer air for a moment and vanish.

Hopefully, these children will never grow up to experience the horrors of war, at least, not in their corner of Europe.
Photo Courtesy: Kreuzherreneck's Public Gallery. Picasa Web Albums

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Tag Time

I had gone on an overseas trip and returned after two weeks, Wednesday morning. On a long journey, a big fat book—invariably fiction—is my usual companion. Normally I choose fast-paced, racy thrillers, which move faster than the airplane you are sitting on, if you know what I mean. This time was no exception; the book I chose was Michael Connelly’s “The Overlook.” Timing it to a nicety, I finished the book at Dusseldorf airport, while waiting for my flight to Dubai.

The book comes in handy, now that Ideasmith has ensnared me in a tag that has been going around the blogosphere the past one week. The tag instructs you to:

Pick up the nearest book.
Open to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.
Tag five people, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

As the fifth sentence by itself may not make much sense, I have cheated slightly and started with the second sentence of page 123 and the passage reads something like this:

“The light was just beginning to enter the sky. The marine layer was coming in thick and grey, deepening the shadows in the streets. It made the place look like a city of ghosts and that was fine with Bosch. It matched his outlook…”

A bit clunky, you think? Maybe. But Connelly’s thrillers are generally well-plotted and the main protagonist—Detective Harry Bosch of LAPD—cynical, embittered and yet na├»vely searching for that perfect relationship is an endearing character with all his failings.

Who do I tag? Umm…let’s see.

OK. I tag Meena, Vijay, Amrita, Gypsy and Philip.


Wednesday, 11 June 2008

In praise of the beard

I have been having a beard for over two decades now. Many are the people I have misled into thinking of me as an intelligent, erudite, caring, sensitive human being by the sole virtue of my beard. Likewise, many are the sticky situations I have got out of with Houdini-like adroitness, by simply stroking my beard and looking thoughtful.

The deception came later. Initially at least, the idea was to save valuable time in the morning. A habitual late riser, sharing as I did a 1 BHK apartment with one wash basin and one toilet with three other office-goers, mornings in our little flat were incredibly chaotic. Tempers, like bowel pressure, ran high and irritation ruled the roost. Words were exchanged, doors thumped, and trains missed. That is when I made the pleasant discovery that I could shave off, pun intended, a precious ten minutes from my ‘rush-about’ time, by not shaving.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The feedback from both family and friends were ecstatic. Covering up at least part of my visage with the fuzz they considered an immense act of kindness from my side. The more charitable amongst them said: since your face is certainly not your fortune, any embellishments that you can add on, such as a moustache or a full beard, can definitely not add to the suffering of the beholder; if at all, it can only alleviate the pain.

Looking back, my co-existence with my beard has been a happy one. True, there have been hiccups along the way, like that time in a hotel in London, while helping myself to a generous portion of bacon at breakfast, the Bangladeshi restaurant manager whispering a hoarse warning in my ear, mistaking me for a Muslim. Or, those days immediately following the 9/11 blasts, when airport security at Frankfurt singled out bearded passengers for special checks which was humiliating, to say the least.

Now for the immediate provocation for this post: one of my young blogger friends from Mumbai whose blogs (she has two) I read with a lot of interest, has come up with a post in which she states unequivocally that moustachioed and bearded men are not her cup of tea. ”When it comes to gentlemen professing l’ amour for me, smooth faces get brownie points...” says she. I am aghast. I feel distraught. I hope what she is articulating is not the general trend among young women these days. If such indeed is the case, my heart goes out to the bearded young men of her generation.

Or may be, they can take heart from the bard saying: "He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man."

Friday, 6 June 2008

Nervous Bosses

Nervous and insecure bosses are dangerous. Not only do they try to infect you with their nervousness and insecurity, but when the chips are down or, to put it more delicately, when the shit hits the fan, you will find such bosses are often coated with Teflon: nothing sticks to them and suddenly you find yourself the guilty party with the brown stuff plastered all over you.

Gana was one such boss. A small, dapper man with snow-white hair and a sallow complexion, Gana could be charming when he wanted to, but most times took an unholy delight in making the lives of his subordinates miserable.

Gana’s brow is always furrowed in thought. He is forever calling everyone to his cabin for impromptu meetings and discussions. He smokes incessantly, ‘water-boarding’ his cigarette butts into a huge ashtray half filled with water. His glass-topped table is always full of important-looking files and papers. When he walks out of his cabin, he walks with fast, purposeful strides and has this anxious, anguished expression on his face as if the company’s future hangs on the momentous decisions he is about to make.

Six months into the new job, Gana calls me to his cabin. As usual, his table is piled high with files. He is sitting with a large sheet of paper and is drawing columns and rows with a ruler and a pencil, this being much before the advent of Lotus 1-2-3, Excel and their ilk, of course. My task apparently is to dig into each file and come up with some numbers which he enters faithfully into his spreadsheet. It is boring, repetitive work and not something a Sales Head should be really doing by himself. An hour into this monotony, I can take it no more and start fantasising about women.

I am brought back to earth by someone shouting my name. It is Gana.

“Customer Tejal. You have given me the wrong figures. HOW CAN WE HAVE NEGATIVE COMMISSION?” he screams.

I have no idea what he is talking about. But he has succeeded in making me hopelessly nervous.

“Err...maybe you entered in the wrong column, sir,” I point out helpfully which is a big mistake. Gana is now literally frothing at the mouth.

“SHOW ME...SHOW ME...” he shouts.

I reach out to point out the error and in the process, manage to overturn the entire contents of Gana’s ashtray on to the sheet. The ashtray apparently has not been emptied since the Chinese war of 1962, and a viscous, brownish fluid, smelling in equal parts of tobacco, vomit, and unwashed dishcloth spreads slowly but inexorably onto the beautifully-drawn rows and columns of Gana’s now almost-completed spreadsheet.

I watch in fascination.

Cut to Gana: I am sure the man is dying or at least, having a heart attack. His face has turned an unhealthy crimson. He is trying to shout, but what comes out is a strangled groan. He chokes, he gurgles, and then, with a hand quavering with anger and indignation, wordlessly commands me to get the hell out of his office, which I am extremely happy to do.

They had to keep him under sedation for the next few days.
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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.