Saturday, 31 May 2008

Tata Kumar

If you have to travel from the suburb of Andheri in North Mumbai to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Powai, you have to first go through the industrial suburbs of Marol and Saki Naka. Just before the huge campus that houses Larsen & Toubro, you take a left and suddenly the landscape changes: you have the shimmering Powai Lake on one side and fields of verdant green on the other. The scene is almost pastoral in its beauty and even the air seems cooler.

Whoa! Hold on! I hear you say. The picture you are painting–which century does it belong to? There is a lake certainly, but shrunk to pathetic proportions; and on the other side, all we can see are tall, drab residential blocks. The road is in a permanent state of being widened and the excavators kick up a fine red dust that sears our eyes and clogs our nostrils. Traffic piles up even during off-peak hours and the exhaust fumes choke us. Our children have bronchial problems and...

I know. I know.

But this post is not about how Mumbai’s politicians have sold their city’s soul to a cartel of nefarious interests which has resulted in the destruction of the last patches of greenery and led to the creation of charmless, soulless suburbs such as the Powai of today.

This post is about my friend, Tata Kumar.

After finishing his M.Tech, Tata Kumar had shifted to a rented, one-bedroom apartment opposite the IIT campus, where all of us used to get together once in a while. Being intelligent and brainy unlike most of us, Tata would lecture to us relentlessly on Operating Systems and microprocessors and, close to midnight, exhausted by so much gyan, we would all troop into the nearby Udupi joint for some beer and simple vegetarian food. Tata, being a regular, could order stuff not on the menu, alu-jeera fry being one of them.

Tata Kumar was not his real name, of course. When he took up his first job, it was with that reputed industrial house, and he was to stay with them for very many years; his loyalty and admiration to them was so great and overwhelming, that it was Digamber I think, who re-named him as Tata Kumar and the name stuck.

Tata Kumar being a computer specialist, I will use a computer term to describe him: WYSIWYG or What You See Is What You Get. He is a simple, honest soul, totally devoid of guile or deviousness, ever willing to help, listen or advise. Recently, I met up with him in Mumbai after a gap of almost ten years and he was the same Tata Kumar, with his wide open smile and utter lack of pretence.

Tata Kumar, I am happy you are still the same, even though the Powai we knew so well has changed forever.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Bhusawal Blues: 3

I have a cloth bag. I have a beard. I am thin and look emaciated. The Bhusawal cops are convinced I am a naxalite from the forests of Chandrapur.

There follows a long, arduous conversation with the cops questioning me in Marathi and I trying to reply in my faulty, constipated Hindi. I am terrified the cops will haul me off into custody and that will be the last anyone would hear of me. I fish around in my wallet and find a crumpled business card of mine which I proffer, with much humility, to the custodians of the law. I can see they are not impressed.

The senior one switches to Hindi and addresses me in patient, measured tones one normally reserves for the mentally challenged: “You have come by the morning train. You say you have come here to visit your friend. But there is no friend. You don’t have your friend’s address or phone number. Now we find you sleeping here in the station. Does it make any sense to you?”

“No,” I say helpfully, “I am waiting for a train back to Bombay.”

“Where is your ticket?”

“Err...” I stammer, “I was planning to get it, once I woke up.”

Somehow, my interrogator finds this answer unacceptable and utterly irresponsible.

“Which train?” he thunders.

“Varanasi Express,” I say quickly, having already looked it up on the timetable painted on the wall of the railway restaurant.

The cops frog march me to the ticket counter and make sure I purchase a ticket back to Mumbai. Then, with a stern warning of dire consequences if I am ever found in the vicinity once the Varanasi Express has left the station, they slouch off, in search of more interesting victims.

So I return to Mumbai and immediately start planning the murder of Bisque.

Only after a week do I come to know of the real story behind Bisque’s absence in Bhusawal station that morning. Apparently, the previous night, he had been diagnosed as having acute appendicitis and had been admitted to the hospital in great pain. When I was having my little misadventure in the station, Bisque was undergoing emergency surgery for removal of the infected appendix.

I felt like a worm the next few days.

But then, as you might have guessed, Bisque’s surgery was successful and, after a period of convalescence, he recovered completely to become the famous Bisque the Collector, two decades later.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Bhusawal Blues: 2

At Bhusawal station the next morning, I am not in a good mood.

The whole of the previous night I have sat wedged underneath the washbasin of a stinking toilet with five other people. It has been a hot, humid journey in an overcrowded compartment, the predominant impressions of which have been the smell of sweat and urine and a sort of in-your-face intimacy such large number of people in such confined spaces inevitably brings about.

There is no Bisque on the platform.

I splash some water on my face from a public tap, brush my teeth, and go have a cup of tea. Even though it is hardly seven in the morning, one can already feel it is going to be another hot, sultry day. Hours go by and by ten, I conclude something seriously has gone wrong and Bisque is not coming anymore.

I curse the man. I also curse my stupidity. I have no phone number, no address, no way to contact him.

I get out of the station and walk up to the bus stand, with a vague hope of finding a bus that will take me to the Bhusawal power station. The bus stand is milling with people and every bus that turns into the stand releases clouds of fine, red dust that have me running for cover. The heat has by now become unbearable and I beat a hasty retreat back to the cooler confines of the station, ruefully accepting the fact that I am not made of stuff that make for great adventurers!

The silver lining in the cloud comes in the form of golden brown toast done to perfection and a fluffy omelette, with liberal sprinklings of onions, tomatoes and green-chillies, from the station restaurant. Hunger satiated, I walk along the platform and find a comfortable bench under a strategically-hung ceiling fan. It is close to noon and the station is deserted except for stray dogs playing between the tracks and groups of weary porters slumped against the pillars.

I fall asleep only to be rudely awakened an hour later by two belligerent policemen.
Photo Courtesy: Indian Railways

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Bhusawal Blues: 1

The Calcutta Mail is one of the oldest and most prestigious trains of Indian Railways. Every day, she leaves from Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (now renamed Mumbai CST) at 21.25 hours, embarking on a journey that will cover over 2100 kilometres and take close to 38 hours. She will stop at 48 stations in between, before arriving at her final destination in the eastern coast of India. It is a long, dusty haul along the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and now, after the formation of new states, I suspect even Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Sorry for the Paul Theroux impersonation, but I had to give you this information so that you have an idea about the large geographical region that is serviced by this train. As you can imagine, this train is a lifeline for the large migrant population of North and East Indians and even Bangladeshi immigrants living and working in Bombay. Being less expensive than the super fast trains such as the Gitanjali Express which ply the same route, the Calcutta Mail is preferred by the poorer sections of the society and pulls out, every night from Bombay, with every seat and every berth taken and the unreserved compartments literally bursting at the seams or at the welds, if you please.

So I decide one day to take the Calcutta Mail on an overnight journey to Bhusawal in North Maharashtra. Bisque has been working there in a power station for a year now and has invited me to spend a weekend with him. The train reaches Bhusawal early morning the following day and Bisque has promised to pick me up from the station and take me to his quarters, 15 kilometres from the main town.

Three factors combine to make this journey one of the most unforgettable in my life:

I undertake this trip in May, at the height of summer when the mercury in interior Maharashtra can touch a searing 45 degrees Celsius.

Fully confident of Bisque’s ability to carry out a simple task such as picking up a friend from a railway station, I carry neither his address nor his phone number.

In a spirit of reckless adventure, I decide not to book a sleeping berth and travel in the unreserved compartment.

The retribution comes swiftly enough.

Photo Courtesy: Anir's Public Gallery, Picasa web Albums

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Transistor Days

Come to think of it, a tiny device called the Transistor freed us from the tyranny of plugged-in devices such as the vacuum-tube radio and made music portable. The transistor radio became a rage and a status symbol. The early versions came encased in leather and people used to take them everywhere: to parties, to picnics, and while going on a long journey.

The wife has a black and white picture of herself, seated on her mother’s lap while on a picnic, with a transistor radio in the background. If you rummage among old family albums in your attic, chances are that you will find at least one or two such photographs with a transistor lurking somewhere within the frame.

This portability was taken a step further a few years later, by the tape-recorder, the early versions of which were plug-in devices with spool tapes and cumbersome to handle. Then we had the compact and convenient cassette tape and had a compact cassette player to match, which could operate also on batteries. So now, not only was music portable, but we could also choose the kind of music that we wanted to listen to.

This was a mixed blessing, to put it mildly. I remember a car journey from Palghat to Trivandrum, a journey which in those days took close to nine hours, with a family who insisted on playing the same three music tapes they had over and over again. In between, they would also record random snatches of conversations in the car and play it back with much laughter and evident enjoyment, setting my teeth on edge and reducing me to a nervous wreck.

It was but natural and inevitable that the transistor radio and the compact cassette player would combine one day to give you the 2-in-1. When my brother wanted to buy one, we had serious discussions whether to go in for mono or stereo, whether a “Sleep” function was essential or not, whether the “Pause” button was really useful or mere window dressing, and had a host of other questions, most of which I have forgotten now.

The best part was of course that we could jump into our parents’ bed now after dinner with the 2–in-1 having the pride of place, in the middle. Good conversation to the accompaniment of good music with close family and most often, friends or relatives.

It is an enjoyable combination.

Photo Courtesy: Manolo98’s Public Gallery: Picasa Web Albums

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Joshua's Mumbai

My friend Rakesh was so inspired by my post on Ballard Estate, or so I would like to fancy, that he travelled all the way from faraway Mira Road where he lives, to South Mumbai and took some fantastic photographs of a few of the heritage buildings there. With his permission, I am providing here the link for you to view these nice pictures.

Rakesh, by the way, is quite normal, compared to some of my other friends who have populated these blog posts off and on. Granted, there was that brief period in early 1990s when he declared undying allegiance to the state of Israel and started calling himself Joshua. That was when he went to the Israeli consulate in Nariman Point and requested that he be recruited to the Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel. The deputy attaché or whoever it was that met him, discreetly pressed the buzzer underneath his desk signalling the infiltration of a raving lunatic into the consulate premises. The security, with admirable panache and with a kind but firm hand on my friend’s shoulder, escorted him out with no untoward incident.

Surely you would agree these are minor youthful transgressions and something to be glossed over.

To come back to Rakesh of the present: Rakesh hates multiplexes and is of the opinion that they have ruined the cinema-going experience forever with their fancy seats, fancy crowds, and fancy pricing. So he visits only single-screen cinemas like Regal or New Empire in South Mumbai.

My friend is also quite an aficionado of Kingfisher beer and can tip back quite a few pints of the bubbly golden yellow elixir in the company of close friends, yours truly included.

So now you have an idea of how these photographs came about which were taken over a span of several months, several Sundays to be exact. Rakesh lands up in South Mumbai on a Sunday afternoon, catches a movie in Regal or Eros or wherever, knocks back couple of beers in Leopold in Colaba and starts walking the streets, clicking away merrily.

Almost a perfect Sunday that.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Radio Days

Industrial design in the 1950s had a definite predisposition for Bakelite fascias and rounded corners. If you want to see what I mean, just watch one of those black and white movies of that era with James Stewart or Frank Sinatra listening to the radio or playing the gramophone.

We had a radio like that in our house for a very long time. In fact, for the first seventeen years of my life, I think it was the only source of entertainment we had in the house. Finished in dark brown Bakelite with small, protruding knobs for power on/off, volume, band select, and tuning, with a back panel made out of hardboard, it was a sturdy piece of equipment which travelled with us all over Kerala, suffering the ignominy of several cycles of packing, shifting and unpacking.

These radios used vacuum tubes—so once you turned the set on, it took a while before the tubes heated up and the set started functioning. The more advanced models boasted of a “magic eye” which was a thin phosphor strip inside a narrow glass tube, which glowed brightly when the peak signal tuning point was reached.

In our house, the radio was normally switched on mainly for the Hindi and Malayalam film songs. But on certain momentous occasions I remember the entire family crowding around the radio set and listening with bated breath to news of grave importance. The live telecast of Nehru’s funeral procession was one such occasion. Seven years later, during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, we were to suffer the agonies of war and experience the exhilaration of victory through the humble, old radio set.

As a listener, I stuck mostly to the known and familiar confines of MW (Medium Wave) band and listened to the local transmissions. On days when I felt more adventurous, I hit the SW (Short Wave) highway and would continuously work the tuning knob through the entire spectrum, listening to strange snatches of conversation in unknown languages, strange music and an array of electronic noise that spanned a whole gamut from hisses to giggles to high-pitched static screams.

I believed these sounds were created by alien intelligence trying to contact us from outer space.

I still believe so.

Photo Courtesy: Alois'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.