Thursday, 30 April 2009

Casino Nights in Kathmandu

I am at the roulette table and I am winning.

Not bad considering that I am entering a casino for the first time. Not bad considering that this is the first time I am seeing a real roulette wheel.

There are three of us: Henrik, Ranga and I, the three-member team that has been deputed to Kathmandu to check out the facilities and infrastructure of the company’s dealer in Nepal. We have arrived that evening by a flight from Delhi which offered stunning views of the Himalayan mountain peaks bathed in subtle shades of orange, pink and grey. It is an awe-inspiring sight and we are still talking about it on our way to the hotel.

We check into the Soaltee Oberoi (it is now the Soaltee Crowne Plaza), the most luxurious 5-star property in Kathmandu. We freshen up and meet in the lobby after half an hour and Henrik announces that we are going to eat Italian that night, at the Al Fresco restaurant by the poolside. We have a nice, cosy meal, washed down by some excellent Chianti which Henrik orders with much pomp and ceremony after scrutinising the wine list in excruciating detail.

After dinner, we decide to try out the complimentary coupons for “Casino Nepal” the hotel has given us during check in. The casino is in the same compound as the hotel and is hardly a minute’s walk from the restaurant.

I walk in with trepidation because whatever little I know of casinos is what I have gleaned from watching James Bond movies: Dashing young men in spotless white dress shirts with bow-ties and jackets; glamorous babes in elaborate gowns showing off their equally elaborate cleavages; vodka and dry martinis; urbane croupiers and stony-eyed bouncers.

But when we walk into the casino, most of the faces that we come across are Indian and the large gaming room seems straight out of a crowded Indian supermarket with pot-bellied, safari-suited businessmen and large women in saris jostling for space around the various gaming tables. The three of us head for the roulette as it seems to be simpler and more straightforward compared to the esoteric complexities of Blackjack or Baccarat.

Henrik and Ranga lose their “free money” almost instantly, but I start winning to our collective consternation. Initially I am playing safe, placing bets on odd and even numbers, red and black and so on, but egged on by my two colleagues on both sides, I start playing riskier, but somehow manage to win most of the time. By midnight, there is almost NPR 20,000 worth of chips lined up in front of me. Henrik advises me to quit after couple of rounds of losses, but when I finally encash the chips, there is still enough money to buy ourselves several rounds of the most expensive cognac at the hotel bar.

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Tuesday, 21 April 2009


Herman was the big boss of the Industrial Products (IP) division. A tall, dark man, sporting an eternal scowl, his presence could be forbidding, to say the least. I was not reporting to him; we were just colleagues sharing adjacent tables and that was all right. Herman treated a junior colleague like me with an air of faint but acceptable tolerance. Relations between us, one could say, were cordial.

So one day, when Herman announced that he was getting an assistant, I was curious. Would it be somebody like Herman, cold, humourless, and unapproachable or would it be somebody younger and more fun to be with?

Subbudu turned out to be neither. He was a short, round man in his thirties, eager to please and, as I was to realise later, full of his own importance that made him act in a grave and ponderous matter. We became friends and Subbudu told me that he did not smoke and was a vegetarian and a teetotaller. He had also elaborate plans to revamp the entire IP department and confided in me that Herman was on old geezer far behind his times.

I said nothing.

Shortly afterwards, IP department gets a visitor from England and Herman, Subbudu and Tim Robinson go to an exclusive five star restaurant for dinner. As I was not present, Herman told me the next day about that memorable evening.

The drinks menu is passed around and Subbudu first orders orange juice. Seeing the others order scotch and soda, he changes his mind and asks the waiter to bring Chivas Regal because “he has heard so much about it.” By the time the others have barely finished the first round, our man is onto his third drink and showing alarming signs of inebriation.

The food menu is circulated and Subbudu opts for vegetarian. Conversation happens in fits and starts because both Herman and Tim are keeping half a wary eye on our man who is periodically nodding his head and smiling vacantly into space.

The food arrives. Subbudu finds the “Pork Loin chops in Apple Cream” ordered by Tim to be much more visually appealing than the Indian vegetarian dish ordered by him. He makes a grab for Tim’s plate without so much as a by your leave. While a mortified Herman looks on helplessly, Subbudu starts attacking the pork chops ferociously and untidily, splattering the gravy liberally on his face and shirt front.

A normally reticent Herman all but sobbed on my shoulder the next day. “I tell you Rada, I wish the earth had opened up and swallowed me that minute,” Herman said. “I have never been so embarrassed in my life!”

Needless to add, Subbudu did not work for Herman long.

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Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Weeping Carrots

A hot, sultry evening in 1997. It is the annual day of the pre-primary section of the school. The auditorium is packed with proud parents watching indulgently as their children parade their skills in singing, dancing, and story-telling. The pièce de résistance is a pantomime put up by the kids, in which they act out the part of various vegetables.

Each vegetable is supposed to come dancing to the stage, introduce itself, and extol its virtues; I am full of carbohydrates, I am good for the eyes, for protein you have to eat me, and so on. Finally, all the vegetables come together holding hands and dance in a circle, emphasising how all of them are equally important for proper nourishment and good health.

The pantomime begins and the four-year-olds suddenly find themselves the centre of attention. While some take to their new-found celebrity status like ducks to water, a few are standing rooted to their spots, paralyzed by fear. There are sprightly tomatoes and terrified cabbages. Confident aubergines and sulking pumpkins. Prancing okras and stricken shallots. Potatoes disoriented by the powerful stage lights and teary-eyed beans wilting in the heat.

Two carrots come on stage, a boy and a girl. The girl carrot, already a nervous wreck, sees her parents and grandparents seated in the front row, forgets her lines and promptly breaks into tears. “Appa...” she cries, holding out both hands and beseeching her father to rescue her from this terrible situation. Some of the other vegetables, already on stage, snigger wickedly, especially the yam and the snake gourd. The drumstick and the bitter gourd are also equally mean and the situation is rapidly spinning out of control.

It is left to the boy carrot to save the situation. Showing admirable panache for one so young, he comes up to the mike and putting up both hands on his hips, looks at his fellow-carrot and the audience in turn and announces with a regret-tinged smile: “Arey, yeh gaajar to ro rahi hai!

The entire audience collapses in helpless laughter.

Yesterday. A hot sultry evening and we are sitting in the same auditorium waiting for the function to begin. It is the farewell function for the outgoing Class 10 students. The carrots and the beans and the other vegetables have all grown up to become self-confident, personable young men and women and it is such a pleasure to just look at them. Most of the batch has managed to stay in the same school and have grown together and the ties of friendship and camaraderie that bind them together seem even stronger than ever before.

I sigh and wonder how quickly time passes.

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