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.

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

Sunday, 13 July 2008


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