Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Word Artist

My friend Chandramohan (Chand) sends me an email, congratulating me for starting a blog. Apparently, he has read all the posts meticulously, because he had some good suggestions how to make them more interesting.

Chand works for a software company in Chennai. If you ask me, he is wasted in that industry. Chand should have been a writer. He would also make an excellent blogger. One, he can write beautifully. Two, he has a fantastic sense of humor; and three, he has a wide range of interests that span the full spectrum from sports to literature to world affairs!

Here is an excerpt from another e-mail he sent me recently:

I came across a news item recently which made me take a nostalgic trip to the Trivandrum of the 1970s. The news was regarding the imminent closure of the British Council. I used to look forward to going to the Council. In those days, before one had the television invasion into one's homes, the library was a welcome window into the outside world. The newspapers used to be a week old, but everything in life being relative, they still had an immediacy which was appealing……

The only irritant at the library used to be the rather overbearing attitude of the staff especially when it came to examining returned books and magazines. Possibly they thought the writ of the Raj still held or maybe it was just the behavior of some of my fellow members who were prone to demonstrating their surgical skills using an ordinary razor blade - evidenced by the absence of some of the more colorful pictures in the photography magazines.

Well those were the days when one went in search of news whereas today we are bombarded with information from all conceivable channels…

Hopefully, this post will encourage Chand and a number of my friends who are also readers of this blog, to start blogs of their own.

The more the merrier!

Sunday, 24 February 2008

The Missing Passport

Picture this.

It is well past midnight and all inmates of our bachelors’ pad in Vile Parle are fast asleep. An alarm goes off, but is quickly smothered after the first ring itself. My friend Moni gets up reluctantly and tiptoes softly to the toilet. Silently he finishes his shave, showers, sprays an expensive deodorant all over his body, gets into a freshly-laundered pair of trousers and puts on a spotless, white shirt. With practiced ease, he loops a tie around his neck and effortlessly fashions a perfect knot that he nudges into place. He selects a blue jacket on a hanger from the wardrobe and hooks it up against the door handle, ready for use.

All preparations thus completed, Moni goes back to his bed, slowly eases himself into a rigid, horizontal position and placing both hands in the middle of his chest as if in prayer, goes to sleep again.

If you were a newcomer to our flat and happened to wake up at that moment and switch on the light, say for a drink of water, and see Moni in that position, believe me, you would have died instantly, screaming in terror.

Moni was a flight steward with Air India. Lying down fully dressed and catching those precious five minutes of extra sleep before the transport arrived, was very important for him.

Thus on a New Year’s Eve, Moni sits with us nursing a watered down whiskey the whole evening, while the rest of us are celebrating. Well into the party, the flat is looking like a war-zone with empty beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays, scattered magazines and comatose men. Ram does a quick cleaning up so that the more embattled souls can be rolled into bed and the others can at least stretch their aching backs.

Lights off. Blissful darkness. Silence . Sleep comes easily to all the alcohol-infused souls.

Around 4 am, there is a major commotion. The normally considerate Moni is frantically waking up a snoring Ram! Apparently, Moni cannot find his passport anywhere and could it be that Ram has kept it safely somewhere when he did his last-minute cleaning operation?

Thinking through the alcoholic haze, Ram manages a moment of clarity. Yes, he says, he distinctly remembers dumping a passport and some other stuff into the waste-paper basket under the kitchen sink!

Moni wordlessly picks up his passport from the kuchra basket and goes out to the waiting transport, softly closing the door behind him.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Cooking Matters!

I love to cook and admire people who can whip up a simple meal at short notice.

We were three guys sharing a furnished apartment in Vile Parle. Eating out every day was not an option, considering our paltry salaries those days. Fortunately, our kitchen was in great shape with a gas connection, cooking vessels and crockery. The other two guys could cook a bit as well. So it came to pass that I joined the group initially as a modest helper, cutting vegetables and laying the table, and gradually moving up the “value chain” to become a cook of sorts!

I used to come back from my summer holidays in Kerala with ruled pages torn out of old exercise books, in which my aunt would have laboriously written out recipes in her schoolgirl scrawl. The recipes would be tried out by the three of us, often with interesting and sometimes inedible results.

Meena is a better cook than I ever will be. She is one of those slow, methodical cooks who take their time first assembling all the ingredients and then sequentially following each step, right up to its final completion. The results are always predictable and, rarely if ever, disappointing.

The problem however, is that she hates cooking.

According to Meena, it is easy for men to say they love cooking, for they do it maybe once or twice in a month and that too, when they are in the mood. It is different for a woman, because you are forced to cook virtually every day and thus it becomes just another chore and hence, boring and monotonous.

Maybe she has a point. Maybe.

Anu, bless her young soul, loves cooking. She is also very creative and is not afraid to experiment. Sometimes we print out a recipe from the Internet and both of us get into the kitchen to try something daringly different, sprinkling rasam powder on Maggi noodles, for example. Of course, we are creative souls who by nature, tend to leave the kitchen in one big mess by the time we are done, which is frowned upon and acidly commented about, by the mother!

We have learned to take it in our stride.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

A Pune Visit: Part 2

Ram and I are sitting on the verandah in front of our hotel room in Pune, sipping our drinks. It is a cool, pleasant night and except for the usual nocturnal sounds, relatively quiet. In the far distance, we can see the lights of Pune railway station.

The day has been uneventful. The demo has gone well and the customer and his daughter have gone back to Pune.

We have chanced upon this hotel quite by accident. It is an old colonial mansion converted into a boarding house. Set amidst a spacious but rundown garden full of fruit trees, the hotel could well be mistaken for a government guest house somewhere in deep country.

We do not talk much. We have been in high school together and also went to the same engineering college. We have been friends for almost a decade now. It is a relaxed camaraderie that puts no pressure on us to fill the natural breaks in conversation with unnecessary words. We sit and drink in companionable silence.

Next day, after a late breakfast, we set about exploring the city. Our wanderings finally take us to Koregaon Park and to the imposing gates of Rajneesh Ashram. We loiter about but feel inhibited to go in.

This is the time when Pune is awash in saffron. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (he was yet to become “Osho” then,) is in residence and the city is full of his foreign devotees in ochre or saffron robes of various hues. There are bearded men with shaven heads, women with marigolds in their hair and beads around their necks, walking, cycling, or zipping past in motorcycles.

Hardly a year later, I will get the opportunity to visit the ashram again, but that visit deserves a post of its own, hence I will not talk about it now.

We take a taxi back in the evening. It is sunset in the Western Ghats and the hills are aflame in an orange afterglow.

It reminds me of Rajneesh’s followers.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

A Pune Visit: Part 1

It was my first official assignment: accompany a Chennai based customer from Bombay to Pune and show him a machine demonstration. The customer will be accompanied by his daughter.

Since the visit is supposed to take place on a Saturday, I ask myself: why not stay on in Pune on Sunday and make a weekend of it? I have never been to Pune before and this will be a great opportunity to do some sight-seeing.

I want my friend Ram to come with me but it is difficult to convince him. Ram is an easy-going, laid-back kind of person who would rather listen to music or try out South Indian ragas on his guitar during the week-end, than haul himself off to Pune.

Finally I hit upon an idea.

“The customer’s daughter is also with him and she is a real stunner,” I say.

“Have you seen her?” Ram is naturally suspicious.

I give my imagination free rein and describe to Ram, in minute detail, a girl I have never seen before. He brightens up considerably during the narration and agrees to come along.

Thus we find ourselves at 6 am the next day, near the Dadar Post Office, from where you get share taxis to Pune. It is a chilly December morning and we huddle against the wall of the taxi stand and wait.

Finally a car arrives and stops in front of the taxi stand. The customer gets down from the front and, as Ram and I hold our breath in mounting anticipation, the daughter emerges from the back.

The first thing we notice is that she has too much talcum powder on her face and neck. The effect is that of a whitewashed face. She is a tall, gawky lady in a sari and looks very formidable. Introductions are made. It is obvious the lady does not think much of both of us. She scowls and says nothing.

Ram flashes me a murderous look and goes and sits in the front seat of the Pune taxi that is waiting for us and does not talk a word during the entire journey.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Mr. Belhman

I had the good fortune to work in Ballard Estate for almost more than a decade and they were happy days.

Originally, the building was called Wavell House and the road was called Graham Road, but they had replaced both the original names with unimaginative Indian names which sounded a bit dull and boring. It was a handsome, well-maintained four-storied building, with a quaint, old lift that took a full two minutes to climb up to the third floor which housed our office.

There was no fancy interior decoration, just a large hall with standard issue green Godrej chairs and tables with an assortment of side tables, open shelves and cupboards. There was no air-conditioning, either. Not that we felt the need for it except during the hottest of summer days. Otherwise, the old stone walls kept the office cool and pleasant, aided by the slow moving ceiling fans which were kept squeaky clean by, what I called, Belhman’s army.

Belhman was the office administrator. A dark-complexioned, short, stocky man with facial features that resembled a bulldog in a permanent snarl, Belhman was a terror among the white-uniformed peons and the cleaning boys in khaki shorts, who were always seen either mopping the floor or cleaning the fans or dusting the tables in a permanent state of nervous apprehension. A speck of dust or an accidental spillage of the cleaning fluid was enough for Belhman to fly into a rage and scream curses and threats at his hapless victims and bring the entire office to a standstill.

Although Belhman had a face only his mother could love, it never stood in the way of his always being in a state of sartorial elegance: smartly pressed trousers with matching half-sleeved shirt, tie knotted to perfection and of course, shoes polished to a fine gloss. A freshly laundered handkerchief liberally sprinkled with some awful perfume, completed the picture. Whenever the man took out his handkerchief to wipe his brow or blow his nose, which was often, the entire office would be hit by waves and waves of overpowering perfume that made us giddy and light-headed.

Belhman was a bachelor and fancied himself to be a lady’s man. Prior to my first official trip abroad, Belhman calls me to his table and with the aid of wicked grins and knowing winks, hints at the pleasures that can be had at a price, at a certain suburb called Pigalle, in Paris.

I smile weakly and almost faint.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Ballard Estate - 1

Let us start with a short history lesson.

In 1914, the Bombay Port Trust starts dredging the Alexandra Docks to make it wider and deeper to facilitate bigger vessels to berth and unload cargo. The exercise lasts for over four years and the excavated material is used to reclaim 22 acres of land. Enter a Scotsman, then 40 years of age, who is given the task of converting the reclaimed land into a business district. Imposing a uniformity of style and design through the use of classical European facades, he designs and builds a series of buildings that even today, have the ability to take your breath away.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Ballard Estate, even now, one of the most sought after business destinations in this bustling metropolis.

If you find the despairing geometry of Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade too much to bear, and cannot tolerate the sterile glass and chrome towers that have erupted like a rash all across the city, maybe you should head towards Ballard Estate, look around and stand still for a moment in remembrance of George Wittet, the architect responsible for its creation.

George Wittet incidentally, was no ordinary architect. He is today credited as one of the initial proponents of what is now called the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. Some of Wittet’s buildings are among the most well-known of Bombay’s landmarks – the Prince of Wales Museum, the Gateway of India, the Institute of Science and the General Post Office, to name a few.

To come back to Ballard Estate: Wittet laid out his buildings in loose but elegant rectangles at the same time making clever use of the natural topography of the landfill. The venerable Grand Hotel is an example of this elegant dove-tailing of architecture with its environment, an art which is rarely seen in practice these days.

Barely few years after the completion of Ballard Estate, Wittet passed away in 1926. He was only 48. History records his death as “due to acute dysentery”, a common malady of those times. Just imagine! If mankind had a cure for dysentery at the beginning of the 20th century, it is quite possible Bombay would have been richer by a few more buildings and monuments designed by this brilliant architect!

It is a sobering thought.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Nandan 1

Nandan writes to me from Dubai, pointing out several mistakes in my posts and reminding me not so gently, “a blog is in public domain, so please maintain a minimum quality in syntax and spelling and also, style!”

Nandan, he of the acerbic tongue and caustic wit, is my cousin. In his past life, he was a journalist in Delhi. Editors of some of the leading newspapers in India and the Middle East live in terror of receiving his stern missives, roundly chastising them for their abject editorial practices, and lowering what according to him are already, pathetic journalistic standards.

Many years ago in September, I was in Delhi. I come back to Hotel Ranjith after a hard day’s work and take off my shoes. The phone rings and it is from Kerala, with the news of my mother’s death. She had been ailing for quite a while, so it was not a shock really, but suddenly I was this little boy who had lost his mother.

The last plane to Kerala had already left hours ago.

Krishnan comes around to offer his condolences. Then Nandan comes and stays with me the whole night. Nandan is not good at consoling. Like me, he comes off as clumsy and embarrassed in such situations. We lie in adjacent beds and the silence is choking. Finally, I get up around four in the morning, get dressed and take a taxi to the airport.

Nandan also asks: Do you have it in you to continue this blog, day after day, week after week? The answer is: I don’t know. One thing is for sure. I will not allow the blog to control my life. I will not put pressure on myself by setting up deadlines I have no intention of meeting. But with encouraging feedback from all of you, who knows, we can keep it going for a while!

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Asaf Ali Road

I have always thought of Asaf Ali Road as a kind of picket line, groaning under the strain of keeping the absolute chaos of the Old City from spilling over into the broad avenues of New Delhi.

Even as far back as in 1982, it was a losing battle.

The road is a mess. Permanently gridlocked with every conceivable vehicle battling for space. There are contract buses, old Ambassador taxis, autorickshaws, two wheelers, hand carts. You get down from your rickshaw, cautiously negotiating the puddles of dirty water and the two wheelers parked haphazardly by the kerb and you are hit by a melange of sounds and smells. Drivers shouting, diesel exhausts, samosa frying, hawkers' cries, unwashed bodies, stray dogs.

Finally, you are in front of the dilapidated Delite Cinema with its peeling plaster walls and huge billboards of Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha locked in a sultry embrace. You climb up the stairs to the first floor to reach the office. But the narrow passageway leading upto the stairwell is stinking of urine and vomit. Obviously, some of the viewers of yesterday's late night show of Mr. Natwarlal have been using it as a toilet.

The office is out of a 1950's movie. Old wooden desks piled high with dusty files. Sad looking men sipping chai and reading the newspaper. Unsmiling women tapping away on old Remingtons.

You plonk down on a chair and are grateful for the cup of tea offered by Krishnan. Only when you go to take a leak half an hour later, do you notice that the pantry is located virtually inside the gents' toilet.

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