December 31, 2010

The Social Network

Today is my 24th birthday, and the day is coming to an end. I do realise that it is plain sad to be blogging on one's birthday, but I just thought of something so amazing, it had to be documented somewhere. I like to call it The Social Network. This, however, is not a review of the movie or a commentary on the surprisingly popular networking site. Not to be confused with The Social Network, this is The Social Network. Notice the italics. Notice also how I have added 2 sentences without adding any value to this paragraph.

However, just like the networking site, its origins are complex and mysterious. No one knows who created it and when. But everyone knows why it was created. The options available here are quite similar to the original: Profile, Info, Notes, Friends, Events, even Status updates. It even has almost as many members as the original. Unlike the original however, this was not the work of maverick software developers or gadget-gurus. In fact, most of the members are made uncomfortable by the mere mention of words like "technology" and "gadgets". It is a brave new world based on old-school thinking. Their numbers may be limited, but their determination is unbounded. The tools of their trade are simple---no laptops, Wi-fi, Blackberrys or Android phones. Just a simple diary, BSNL landline and one Reynolds pen. Sometimes, very rarely, maybe e-mail.

Status updates are not very frequent, and are reserved for moments of extreme happiness or pride. "My son just got back from church!". "Hell yeah, my son is off to the Gulf". "Western Union Money Transfer, baby!". "I finally have my own email ID, but I can't seem to remember the password". "Chatted with my son on Skype today". Sometimes, the status update may even take the form of a question. "Can my son see me if I don't have a webcam?". "Can I call my son on Skype if he's offline?". "The DVD player has its own remote?". "Is my microwave 3G compatible?". "Does the fridge have GPS?", and so on.

However, Events are well co-ordinated and organised. "Worship Service@Church. Sunday 9am. Be there, or we'll pray for you". "Bible study, on a rotation basis at the residence of George/Mathew/Abraham/Varghese/Baby/Philip/Chacko. Sunday 5pm. In case you missed the Worship Service". "Wedding reception of my second-cousin's nephew@ Obscenely-expensive-hotel-made-affordable-by-Gulf-money. Sunday 7pm. Valet Parking available". "Family prayer at home. Sunday 9pm. Please respond". "B-grade reality shows on TV. Sunday 10pm. Don't forget to vote".

Any member of this network will also tell you that the primary reason for its establishment was the sharing of Info and Notes, and needless to say, these are taken rather seriously. "Your son studied Nursing at Florence School of Nursing, lmao". "Just saw your son up to no good in some miserable looking but strategically placed chai shop". "Your son still works in TCS, rofl". "My son is 27 years old, but single. Is your daughter still a minor?". "My son is 5'2". Your daughter is a midget, no?". And of course, no social network would be complete without a regularly updated Photos section. Photos are generally exchanged via e-mail, and always seem to have captured the subject at the prime of his/her glory. A brief description normally follows. "My son, when he had hair". "My daughter, without glasses". In the rare case that a decent looking photo of the subject is not available, no effort is wasted in taking several polaroid photos and then remastering them heavily to add hair, remove squints, remove warts and other imperfections, reduce age, and to occasionally mask stupidity. 

However, nothing works quite as well as a straightforward, unbiased, truthful Profile. "My son works for umm, how do you say it, some software company. He is an Electronics Engineer from the 5th best Engineering College in the North-East of Bangalore. He lives in Chicago, USA, but would like to find a born-again Christian wife from Thrissur, Kerala. His favourite books are the King James Bible and the Good News Bible. He is deeply religious and god-fearing, but he would like to poke your daughter." 

So you see, the members of The Social Network are quite well connected. Very little happens without their knowledge or consent. Information is exchanged in the blink of an eye. Events are as predictable and well-planned as a cricket match involving Pakistan. Match-making happens at a rate that would put Sivakasi to shame. Obviously then, as I turn 24, with no heir apparent, and no hair apparently, my deepest, darkest fear is that someday I will find myself on The Social Network, with or without my consent. Mothers, you have been warned. Daughters, you still have a chance.

December 11, 2010

Spoilt for choice

Before I get into the actual content of this post, I would like to point out to the reader that Blogger with its wonderful autosave feature, combined with my excessive usage of Ctrl+Z to strategically replace the crap I normally write with sophisticated, profound and inspiring synonyms, just before publishing, have somehow contrived to delete an entire post that I had been writing for a while and thinking about for even longer. So, I will attempt to recreate from memory the intellectual property that Google stole from me and then deleted. Needless to say, I am furious at this point, so what follows is bound to be more caustic and offensive than what I had originally written. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
This post is being written by a Malayali, raised in Bangalore, who has spent the better part of the past 3 months in Coimbatore and the better part of last night with a bottle of Jägermeister. Now, having been in Bangalore all my life, I, or any Bangalorean could tell you that language in Bangalore has never been a problem. Whatever you say, in whichever language you say it, there is atleast one person who will understand(but occasionally misinterpret) what you are trying to say. In fact, it is widely rumoured that in certain parts of Malleshwaram, Afrikaans and Hebrew are widely spoken and understood.

Which is why, for any person who is forced to go to Tamil Nadu(and Coimbatore in particular), the transition can be a very slow and painful one, because the people here, for some ethnic, social, philosophical, religious, geographic, historic, scientific, economic, mathematical or god-knows-what-other-undiscovered reason, either do not know/plainly refuse to speak either of India's "official languages". Which is not really a problem, since language(or rather, umm, communication) has never been a problem for me. My Hindi impresses Chennaiites, my Kannada impresses Malayalis, my Malayalam impresses Andhrites, my Tamil impresses Biharis, and, last time I checked, my English impresses the Queen. Therefore, even with(or perhaps because of) my moderate knowledge of several Indian languages, I take it upon myself to make the following observations.

I will attempt to do so with the help of a conversation that I overheard at the provisions store just outside my apartment. Disclaimer: The following conversation did actually happen, though the dialogues may be suitably exaggerated for comic effect and the translations may be laughably inaccurate. Close scrutiny will also show that transliteration is not my cup of tea either.

Apartment caretaker, from Orissa(with a poorly concealed bottle of brandy), to shopkeeper from Kerala: Cheta Ji, ek bothul soda dena(Brother sir, please give me a bottle of soda)  
Myself to shopkeeper: Oru boetel Pepsi theraamo, Cheta?(Brother, can I have a bottle of Pepsi?)
Local boy to shopkeeper: Cheta, Cheta, Maggi irukka Cheta?(Uncle, uncle, do you have Maggi, uncle?)
Caretaker to boy: Kyaa cheta, cheta bol rahe ho? Badon ko sammaan nahi hain, kyaa?(Why are you calling him directly by his name? Don't you have respect for your elders? In my home town, they would hang impudent pricks like you upside down and force them to watch every single episode of "How I met you Mother" back to back!!)
Caretaker, aside to me: Aajkal ke bochhe sir!(children these days, I tell you!)
Myself to caretaker: Malayalam mein hum bhaiyya ko cheta hee bolte hai(Cheta is not his name, you idiot!)
Caretaker to boy: Sorry, meri galti hui hai (sorry, my mistake!)
Boy to caretaker: Barrage of South Indian expletives

Now, since Wikipedia assures me that i live in a country that has only 28 states but more than 400 languages, I presume that language-related misunderstandings such as the one above must happen all the time, having been at the receiving end several times, myself. So as I admired the boy's excellent command over South Indian insults that target family and genealogy, the caretaker sought comfort in his brandy, and I walked away with a bottle of Pepsi, sufficiently entertained.

And then, the next day at office, it happened again. Having made it just in time for the breakfast of also-rans, I took some bread and coffee and headed to the nearest table. As it turns out, you will be asked a series of questions before you are allowed to join the others at a table. The questions are straightforward, objective-type, and generally have only one correct answer. Reply in the same language as the question, and you have found favour with them. Reply in any other language, and you will be banished from their presence forever. So if Selvanathan asks you if you have watched Endhiran, and you say that it was only the greatest movie ever made, he will hug you in public and promise you his sister's hand in marriage. Ask him whether Enthiran is that movie in which a ship sinks eventually, and he will beat you into shape. Similarly, if Deshpande comments that the people of Coimbatore have no road sense whatsoever and must all have their licenses revoked simultaneously, you must agree completely, profusely using the word Saala, which, I have come to realise, is perhaps the most versatile word ever invented, and can be used to describe a place, a person, sometimes even an inanimate object, as a substitute for someone's name, to refer to a third person, as an exclamation mark, to express disgust, and most frequently, to join two unrelated sentences--something like a semi-colon in Hindi. Likewise, if Byregowda insists that all the water in Coimbatore comes from the Cauvery, and actually belongs to Karnataka, agree and he will display his affections publicly, disagree, and you might have to display your afflictions publicly. 

The irony of this problem of excessive social, cultural and linguistic protectionism, that can only be described as local racism, is that all of us are working for a German MNC. We are safely housed in a building constructed exclusively with Saint Gobain glass. We use ThyssenKrupp lifts and steal Faber Castell pencils from the office stationery. We use Lenovo PCs and Legrand switches. We have Vodafone connections on our Nokia phones. Dammit, even the pen drives we use are SanDisk. Look around in the office for anything remotely "Indian", and the only thing you will find is an assortment of languages. 

This assortment of languages that are India's pride and joy, are perhaps the reason why the folks who drafted the longest national constitution in the world, could only offer 6 pages regarding the use of "official languages" that, the more you read it, the more confusing it gets; which, perhaps is the intention behind any form of documentation. So, in order to simplify this system, and bring people together by way of a common language, I, in my humble capacity as a non-voter, am suggesting any one of the following as a national language:

a) Hindi(because, it is currently the most widely spoken language in India, and, from experience, it gives us the added advantage of being able to curse at strangers while abroad)
b) C++(because, according to the Census of India 2009, about 97% of our educated population is capable of getting the Hello World output and the first words of about 83% of India's children is #include)
c) English(quite simply because, it is the only language in which I am capable of blogging)

Once a language has been selected from the above list, swallow your pride and learn it. Speak it. Apart from this language, please also feel free to speak the languages you already know: Tamil, Urdu, Bengali, Pig latin, Sign language, Body language, whatever suits your fancy. Just make sure that at the intersection of all these languages, there is a common one.

I guess the point I'm trying to make, without sounding like a member of the RSS, is that we, in India, have a lot of misplaced pride. Pride in our religions, culture, heritage, languages, diversity and monuments. Good roads, public welfare, drinking water, sanitation, education? Thats really not so important, if you think about it. What matters is whether my religion is older than yours, my language is older than yours, my traditions are more ambiguous and unscientific than yours and whether my wife is younger than yours. We are divided on so many fronts and united by precious little. What we really need is to find something that can bring us together. Fast. Could be a common hatred of Bollywood movies. India-Pakistan test matches. Music. Free beer. Strong coffee. Cheap ration. But surely, most crucially, Language. I guess, till then, as someone once famously sang, we're just children of tomorrow, hanging on to yesterday. 
And that, in case you were wondering, is mostly from memory.

November 27, 2010

Long way round

I'm not really sure what has gotten into me, but I seem to be getting all sorts of strange ideas for blog posts these days. Maybe its the new netbook, maybe its all the weekend travelling, maybe its because of too much time spent alone in my room, or perhaps even the questionable levels of chlorine in Coimbatore's drinking water.

Whatever the reason, a couple of days ago, while taking the customary return bus from Coimbatore to Bangalore, I had a lot of time on my hands and very little on my mind. The one thing, however, that had been on my mind for the previous few weeks, was travel, and, as I looked out the window from the vantage of my upper berth, I thought about it long and hard. And then, it hit me, unexpectedly and unmistakably, like beef in a Brahmin's McVeggie burger.

Since I'm feeling lucky, to demonstrate, I will be seeking help from what lately, seems to have become an appendage of my brain--Google. More specifically, I will be using Google Maps--every unemployed, redundant Geography teacher's worst nightmare, and every clueless traveller's best friend. So here goes. Please also be warned that:
  • Since I'm not used to blogging this frequently, I will occasionally resort to the oldest trick in the amateur blogger's book--pictures and bulleted points, designed to make the post seem longer and more interesting than it actually is.
  • It is expected that the reader has a basic knowledge of addition and multiplication, though extensive knowledge of differential calculus and politics in Pakistan would be an added advantage.
  • The following is just a series of facts, no clever wordplay, no shrewd analogies, and may, at times, seem like a useless office presentation.
  • In the pictures that follow:  
    • "A": my house
    • "B": <insert school/college/office name>
Kindergarten-1st standard
Assumption: 150 school days a year
Duration: 2 years
Distance travelled: 150 days*14.2 kms*2 years=4260 kilometres

2nd-12th Standard
Assumption: 150 school days a year
Duration: 11 years 
Distance travelled: 150 days*13.2 kms*11 years=21780 kilometres

Assumption: 150 working days a year
Duration: 4 years 
Distance travelled: 150 days*34.4 kms*4 years=20640 kilometres

Assumption: 230 working days a year
Duration: 2.5 years 
Distance travelled: 230 days*27.8 kms*2.5 years=15985 kilometres

Grand Total: more than 60,000kms over 19.5 years. Thats 10 times the radius of the earth. 1.5 times it circumference. 3000 times up and down Mt. Everest. 20 times from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. 1500 full marathons.

Maybe even 2 seasons of Long Way Round? Thats the dream.

November 26, 2010

Mini me

So, it comes down to this. My Tata Photon Plus is struggling for bandwidth. I am struggling to find inspiration. The person across the hall is struggling to find his room keys. And the alcoholic caretaker is struggling to find his bearings as he brings me my dinner. I feel around thirteen years older than I actually am as I open the steel dabba and smell the sambhar(this is generally the high point of my day). It is dark and gloomy in Coimbatore and I am about to begin the second month of a short deputation here. Coimbatore, with its aggressive motorists, abounding chai shops, life-size cut outs of politicians and meterless autos, is definitely an acquired taste. The movement of vehicles is more random than a squirrel's bowel movement. The weather is consistently in the you'll-be-sweating-bullets range. Trying to find a waiter who speaks Hindi or English is like trying to break the sound barrier on a Scooty Pep. Luckily for me, my exposure to the elements and to scantily-clad, lungi-brandishing rowdy biker dudes is limited to about 10 minutes every day, which is how long it takes me to sprint for the company bus on an empty stomach.

Some minutes ago, my broadband connection decided to take an eternity to load any site which was of any interest to me, with the result that my arm has been twisted into writing this post. I have had a lot on my mind for the past couple of months, and sometimes, joblessness is just the finest catalyst.

2 weeks ago, my parents insisted I go home for the weekend, since they had "forgotten what I looked like". This initially seemed like a trap to ensure that I would go to church with them that Sunday, but I decided to travel anyway, and thanks to some Swedish engineering and South Indian driving skills, the journey was comfortable. Nevertheless, I put on my best I'm-too-tired-to-go-anywhere look as I got off the bus and headed home. This would prove to work, as the next day, my parents quietly slipped away to church, while I slept like a baby. If you're wondering what all of this has to do with my story, the emphatic answer would be nothing.

Since the consumption of sea-food and/or liquor in Coimbatore has been known to induce partial paralysis in humans and bisexuality in rats, it was satisfying to finally eat some good fried fish and taste some good beer in Bangalore. Good beer generally comes at a Premium, they say. Anyway, 2 days later, well-fed and well-rested I had to drag myself back to Coimbatore. A few hours before the bus left, I realised that the only thing that would make life in Coimbatore bearable, if only slightly, would be constant access to social networking, VoIP and video chat. Since I was looking for something cheap, portable, robust and eye-catching, I almost bought Celina Jaitley picked up a HP Mini. I could tell you the model number and the colour and the configuration and so on, but then, I'm afraid I'd have to spend the rest of my life with the overwhelming knowledge that you might buy the same thing.

Quite honestly though, when it comes to this technology business, unlike some famous tyre manufacturers, I am one revolution behind. Which is why, when someone asks me:
"How much RAM maam?", I am itching to say:
    "I don't care, fool", but I quickly correct myself and say:
        "1GB". He somehow interprets my answer as an insult to his manhood, and with a bewildered  look, he asks me again:

"Is that enough?", to which, I am itching to say:
    "Yes. To play Minesweeper and buffer Youtube videos simultaneously, it is enough", but again, for the sake of political correctness, I rephrase to:
        "It is expandable da". By now, he is analysing the configuration to the extent that my computer no longer feels personal.

"What OS is it running", he asks, with a confidence that would put Bill Gates to shame.
    "Do you have a valid birth certificate?", I am about to retort, but I quickly rearrange my thoughts and answer courteously:
        "Windows 7 Starter, mapley". "Oh, Starter. Then its ok", he says, like a traffic cop approving of mildly-drunken driving.

Next, "Is it a 14-inch?" he asks.
    "Wouldn't that be every girl's dream", I am about to say, but once again, so as not to offend him/women all over the world, I quickly formulate a more cultured answer.
        "No da, its a 10-inch screen", to which, the obvious next question is:

"10-inch?! Doesn't that hurt your eyes?"
    "Not unless its thrown directly at my face". Awkward silence.
(The reader may be interested to know that the above conversation is purely fictional and is a feeble attempt at adding lines to a post for which I ran out of ideas a long time ago.)

So, armed with my new netbook and the sudden realisation that I had a bus to catch, I quickly packed my bags and headed towards the nearest auto-stand, in the hope of finding one honest auto-driver who would take me to the bus stand for a reasonable price. However, as any Bangalorean would tell you, our auto-drivers' definiton of "reasonable price" depends on several mutually exclusive factors, such as the time of day, gender of the traveller, nationality of the traveller, land rates at the destination, land rates at the source, distance to the closest police-station, weight of baggage, size of baggage, number of bags, and sometimes, quite simply, how stupid they think you are. This "reasonable price" is known to oscillate between:
  • "meter"+Rs.20/-(when the weather is sunny and the world is at peace)
  • "meter"*1.5 (when 4 people travel together)
  • "meter is not working sir" (when there is no police-station in sight) 
  • "meter"+ firstborn child (anytime after 11pm)
So, as I walked away, I was surprised(since it was around nine in the night) as one auto-driver drove past me, stopped, and without asking me where I wanted to go, simply turned the meter on and said, "get in, boss". Since research has shown that this sort of gesture from an auto-driver is observed more infrequently than Halley's comet, I got in and told him where I needed to go. He was quite a friendly chap by the name of Pasha, and seemed genuine enough for me to ask him why he was charging me only "meter fare". He said that it was against his principles to charge more than meter fare before 10pm. As I recovered from that answer, he pointed out to a glass-building that we drove past and told me(in fluent English) that he used to work in a call-centre there but had lost his job during the "recession". He told me that since he was an under-graduate, he struggled to find another job, and since he had a family to support, he would borrow this rickshaw from a friend every evening and drive people around, in the hope of making some money. Unaware how to respond to that, I just kept quiet(which is generally a very difficult thing for me to do). "Sab achche ke liye hota hai, sir", he said a couple of times, which, I presume is not the easiest thing for a person in his position to say. We then spoke about other things, dignity of labour, politics in India and the plight of our roads. As we reached the destination, I got out and checked the meter. I gave him sixty rupees and he promptly returned seven rupees, in keeping with his principles. I still had some time before my bus arrived, so I asked him if he would have some chai. Over chai, I took his phone number, and promised to get him a "better job", or whatever the Indian interpretation of that phrase is. 

It has taken me a few weeks since that meeting to write this post, but more notably, it has been many years since I've met someone as genuine.

September 18, 2010

Minority rapport

123,Industrial Layout,Hosur Road,Koramangala: in one among the countless glass buildings created by underpaid architects for overpaid engineers, I am being prepared by my manager for what is generally the culmination of a formal education in India, and the primary reason for copious numbers of makeshift engineers drinking copious amounts of coffee from makeshift dispensers, while working makeshift hours at makeshift workstations to please makeshift bosses---a business trip to foreign. For the uninitiated, this offer is generally a turning point in the career of any Indian engineer(subject to a healthy exchange rate for the Euro), and not surprisingly, I agreed to take the first flight out of India.

What followed was around 2 weeks of shopping for things that I didn't really need--a family pack of my trusted Chandrika soap, 2 bottles of Gelusil(in case I accidentally ingested a sulphuric acid factory), 2 bottles each of Parachute oil and Garnier Fructis fall fight, that between them could do nothing to salvage my receding hairline, just enough Maggi to create a mild famine in South-East Asia and a few dozen packets of Tang. Armed with all of the above, and with enough paracetamol in my cabin-baggage to make every germ in my body shudder, I enthusiastically pasted inappropriately large sheets displaying excessive contact information on my check-in baggage. With the bags ready, my parents and I made the long trip to BIAL that normally serves as a proving ground for the feat of engineering that is our Maruti Omni. Most of the journey was spent in silence, as my parents pondered the prospect of a month or so without either of their sons and I pondered over which German beer to try first. I was greeted at the airport by irritable Air France employees, who, by now, had become accustomed to the idea of Indians testing their patience, if not the baggage allowance.

1 chardonnay and 2 Heinekens later(it was a long flight)

Somewhere in the suburbs of Stuttgart, in a cozy little place called Hotel Domino--identified several years ago as a hotel that would satisfy, though not overly impress the average Indian engineer  who made his way onsite from the mayhem of our offshore office, in room number 85, I am forced to watch CNN and the bloody BBC, because everything else on TV is in German. I immediately attempt to fill the gaping hole caused by the absence of televison with the only logical substitute-- 6% v.v. beer and needless to say, the pain is eased. Since the nice folks at my office have planned my deputation in a tiny window between the football world cup and oktoberfest, I do not have much time to acquaint myself with the public transport system or the local biergartens--so I quickly chart out a strict regimen for my stay in Germany.

for(day=1;day<=35;day++)        /*Since laziness has got the better of me and since nine out
                                                                     of ten readers would be more familiar with this                     
                                                                             syntax than the National Anthem*/

6am-8am Completely insulated from a world with TV, Laptops, social networking sites and VOIP, I practise Suryanamaskara and Shavasana to keep myself occupied, and no, my yoga instructor is not paying me to write this. Being the eco-friendly type, I also try my best to restrict my use of the shower to only-when-Nivea-for-men-can-no-longer-mask-my-natural-odour. By word of mouth, I am told about a radio station that plays English music and I am thrilled when 107,7FM(yes. the dot and comma are interchanged in the European decimal format) grinds out AC/DC and The Beatles,

Breakfast is free at our hotel, so I quickly find myself a table, which I am then forced to share with over-enthusiastic Indians, who, through millions of years of evolution, have mastered the art of forming large groups of similar ethnicities while in a foreign country. Hot topics over breakfast include questions regarding the duration of one's stay in Germany, cheap ways to travel, closest countries to visit, loopholes in our company's reimbursement system, and the occasional query regarding the size of one's room. Incidentally, I come from a family that, in keeping with the highest of Malayali traditions, has been encouraged to eat anything that moves, and therefore, an ample breakfast of salami, sausages, scrambled eggs, pudding, yogurt and fruit is the high point of my day, as I mentally scorn the vegetarians around me, who have to make do with corn flakes. Despite a large board that says "Fruit is meant for consumption only in the dining hall", some people feel the need to carry a dozen bananas to office and I, in turn, feel the need to drain the synovial fluid from their joints.

8am-12pm A highly efficient public transport system ensures that I reach office within around 20 minutes. Travel within Germany, and to an extent, within Europe is planned, secure and convenient, although nothing can quite replace the feeling of the rain falling through the jammed BMTC bus window or sitting at the door of a train looking out at paddy fields. The awe is immediately evident on the faces of most Indians in trains, buses and metros, followed by the million-dollar "Why can't  India be like this da?", to which my customary response is a forced smile. A few hours of work generally follow.

12pm-1pm Spoilt for choice, I had to pick between the company canteen, a Turkish kebaphaus and a Chinese restaurant everyday, but the kebaphaus was my regular haunt once I had discovered the dönerkebap. The pretty Turkish lady making them didn't hurt either, and she slowly became used to the sight of me drooling as she packed meat into the döner, like Malayalis into the Kanyakumari Express.

1pm-5pm Digest the döner. If time permits, also do some work.

5pm-11pm Thanks to a flawed attendance monitoring system and the long summer days, I am actually able to enjoy my evenings, generally punctuated by unnecessary visits to an Indian store, fruitless shopping at Metzingen(the Marathahalli of the West) and the mandatory weekly purchase of beer(that, at 3€ for a 4 pack, would test the resolve of even the Dalai Lama). Most of my time is spent in the room, and apart from the German-speaking receptionists and the 2-pin sockets, there are no other signs that I am in a foreign country, as the soothing sounds of pressure cookers and Tamil movies fill the air along with the aroma of overcooked Basmati rice being made by Indian men during an obligatory expedition into the kitchen, MTR ready-to-eat paneer butter masala, and Priya mango pickle. Not surprisingly, I have a plate of perfectly made Maggi on the table and a glass of Weissbier that would prepare me for the monotony of 3 hours of BBC world news.         

11pm Doze off on account of the beer or the BBC, whichever caused a temporary suspension in my consciousness first.

Weekends were spent visiting the Porsche and Mercedes museums that fortunately were within staggering distance of my room, and short Eurotrips that seemed more frequent than the urge to shower. Unfortunately, a detailed description is beyond the scope of this blog and the scope of my long-term memory, so here are a few thousand words to summarize a journey from Hosur Road to Hohensteinstrasse, Banaswadi to Budapest, Indiranagar to Interlaken, Brigade Road to Champs-Élysées and Sevanagar to Salzburg.

June 13, 2010

Free as a Thunderbird

Rather ironic how this post is being pieced together roughly one year after the original. The sequel, however, is set on home soil, in massive airports and well-planned cities, along mighty rivers and amidst snow-capped mountains, in cheap dormitories and expensive suites, in monasteries, temples, mosques and gurudwaras, on SpiceJet flights and Metro rails, day-trains and trauma-causing overnight-buses, on Thunderbirds and cycle-rickshaws, sightseeing buses and river rafts, surrounded by affluence, surrounded by effluents, punctuated with broken Hindi and torn jeans. What follows is what I remember. (I apologize in advance for any discontinuity one might encounter in this post, as it is exceedingly difficult to watch Lionel Messi play football, and type simultaneously.)

Now, my vast legions of readers could probably tell you that I had mustered a few resolutions for 2010. One of them was to make a "long-overdue trip of North India". All that was missing was a reason. Till about 2 months ago, when we(two buddies from work and I) heard that an office acquaintance was getting married in Rajasthan. Shamelessness being the mother of opportunism, we ventured to rekindle the friendship, in the hope of securing, if nothing else, verbal consent to attend the wedding. Within a few days, the friendship had been rekindled, the invitation had been secured, and I began the arduous task of asking some website to make my trip. The task of booking a flight was also compounded by the (then)sudden increase in the number of incidents involving low-cost carriers. A detailed analysis ensued, and, as any South Indian worth his salt should, we eventually struck a balance between discomfort and cost. The outcome: a no-frills round-trip to Delhi that set us back by roughly six grand. With the spade-work done, we had about 2 weeks to come up with an itinerary. 2 weeks of Google maps, weather forecast sites, and Most of it on company time, at that. The weather forecasts, however, were not very heartening, as Jaipur was supposedly reporting maximum temperatures that, if my 7th standard Chemistry serves me right, were sufficient to melt Aluminium. Someone suggested Leh, and, engulfed by "youngistaan ka wow", we all agreed.

May 28
A very hectic day at work, made tolerable only by the thought of our 20:15 departure from BIAL. It should've been pretty straightforward to the airport atleast, but we realized once we had boarded the Volvo, that we were already facing our first cash shortage of the trip. The conductor exchanged a few pleasantries with us; we apologized profusely and promised to pay once we had reached the airport. He agreed to this, and, on arrival, directed us to the closest ATM. Nothing of great significance thereafter, except for our insanely beautiful air hostess(@airhostess: if you are reading this, can we make franship on Facebook?). A few hours later, our flight touched down in Delhi, only to spend fifteen minutes circling the airport, in search of parking, I presume. Fair enough, considering that it is the largest airport in India. We spent that night in a Gurudwara that had been "booked" from Bangalore, and since it was too hot to sleep indoors, we slept on the terrace.

May 29
A distinctly Punjabi breakfast of rotis and dal, followed by lassi, and we were good to go. We took the Metro to a friend's aunt's place, and there, we spent some time trying to get used to the day temperatures in Delhi. The Metro Rail system is extremely impressive, and for the fifteen minutes or so that we spent on the Metro, it was easy to forget that we were in a third-world country. It was soon time to head to the railway station; we had a train to catch. Once in, we took up our customary position at the doors, and were disturbed only occasionally, by vigilant TTs and exiting passengers. We reached Chandigarh before sundown(around 8pm) and we would soon get used to the longer days. Once again, we were all wowed by Chandigarh, with its wholesome women, Sector 17, broad roads and overall hygiene. Our travel, so far had been planned in advance. It was soon to get interesting, as we were told that there were no seats available on any bus to Manali. In the great Indian spirit of making do, we were assigned three seats in the driver's cabin, and soon had two of the driver's buddies for company.

After close to two hours on the road, the driver made a customary halt for dinner, at a rather innocuous looking dhaba. Having spent all of our lives in Bangalore, with our knowledge of dhabas restricted to unhygienic food, cheap liquor, dim lighting, plastic chairs and nightmare-inducing toilets, nothing could have possibly prepared us for this. As the waiter(who also happened to be the owner, chef, manager, accountant and busboy) took our order, we unwound on charpais. What followed was not for the faint of heart. Our butter naans and paneer butter masalas were presented before us--dripping with butter and generous strips of paneer. We wolfed down the naans, and then ordered pulao. A huge slab of butter atop the pulao ensured that my cholesterol was no longer under control. All this was topped off with a large bowl of dahi and sugar; all I needed now was an angioplasty. Note to self: Marry a Punjabi, maybe even two. 

Back on the bus, I learnt one of the most important lessons of my life--that 6 grown men have no business spending the night in a confined space. The overnight journey was scarring, to say the least, but the trauma of a sleepless night and an aching body were instantly erased as we woke up the next morning to find ourselves travelling alongside the Beas. We then began the ascent to Manali; the pleasure of seeing snow-capped mountains for the first time was diluted with the pain of seeing the ladies from Chandigarh for the last time. 

May 30-June 1
Once in Manali, we checked into, what seems in hindsight, like a very expensive room. We got to work right away, with KF premium from a rather conveniently placed wine shop. The rest of the day passed by quite quickly--we spent some time looking for prospective bikes to rent, eating Maggi(which was pretty much the staple food there), making impractical purchases, and the evening culminated with an unfortunate decision to watch Kites. We all woke up the next morning with a severe headache that only an illogical Bollywood movie can cause, and tried to ease the pain with thoughts of Barbara Mori. This worked better than expected, and after a long-overdue shower, we left the comfort of the room and hired a taxi to Solang Valley. This would prove to be the start of a very hectic, but satisfying 3 days for the three of us. Though quite crowded, Solang offered a lot in terms of adventure sports, ski lifts and scintillating landscapes. I bring this up, only to brag about having tried my hand at paragliding here, for the first time. The whole experience was wicked and the thrill of flight is absolutely inexplicable. It would've been a lot easier to explain with a video, but for the moment i suppose this will have to suffice. The person in the picture is me, fyi. Word around Solang was that it had been snowing consistently near Leh for the past few days. We were also told by many locals that the road to Leh had been closed for the same reason. We still continued looking for bikes to rent, and came across all kinds of bikes, from well-maintained but savage Bullets to Pulsars that couldn't be stopped to Apaches that couldn't be accelerated to uncharacterestically unreliable Yamahas. We kept our options open as we returned to the room that night and prepared ourselves for the road trip that would follow the next day.

We woke up early the next morning, did our business, and were soon off to pick up our bikes. We eventually settled on a Thunderbird and an Avenger, and began our ride to Rohtang. The road was decent, in patches, but treacherous for the most part. However, the scintillating beauty of the surrounding mountains and snow took our minds completely off the roads. Rohtang is about 70kms from Manali, but we took almost 4 hours to get there, with frequent stops for fuel, chai, Maggi, the occasional Patel shot and the odd traffic jam caused by swarms of people headed towards Rohtang, on four wheels. However, time spent on the road is always time well spent and the combination of a growling engine, slippery roads and rarified air somehow helped clear my mind. Any wavering thoughts were quickly dispelled by the thump of the Thunderbird. The ride to Rohtang is filled with moments that remind you why you travel--new places, new people, different lifestyles--all combining in some strange proportion to help you forget everything you never needed to know.  

As we went higher, the roads got worse; I felt every bone in my body rattle, as the shock absorbers worked overtime. The entire stretch leading up to Rohtang Pass was littered with several local shops that rented out all sorts of accessories to ensure that you didn't return with frost-bite--from snow suits to leather gloves to mufflers and water-proof boots. We rented out all the essentials and resumed our journey. Soon enough, we reached Rohtang Pass and the initial sense of accomplishment was quickly wiped away once we noticed the massive crowd there. We quickly grabbed a bite to eat, and then set out to test the snow-worthiness of our accessories. One hour flew by, as we lay in the snow, unwinding after a very tiring ride. Then, in a last-ditch attempt to lose the crowd, we got on the bikes and headed a couple of kilometres further from Rohtang. Perhaps the best decision of the entire trip, as we not only managed to lose the crowds, but were also treated to spectacular views of unblemished white mountains and untouched valleys. After another round of Patel shots, we were ready to leave. Keylong beckoned us, but this would mean renting the bikes out for one more day, so we decided against it. The return journey was equally memorable; we would reach Manali shortly before nightfall. We returned the borrowed bikes to a naturally anxious owner and thanked him for the hassle-free bikes. We returned to our room, exhausted, and overcome by an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, we almost ate a Bournville.   

That night, we slept like babies. The next morning, as expected, we got up with sore backs and stiff necks. The ride to Rohtang was pretty much the high point of the trip, quite literally, and the only thing that drove us off the beds was the 12 o'clock check-out. We boarded a bus to a place called Pirdi, which, we had been told, was at the heart of river-rafting in Manali. As is generally the case, we were able to pass off as students, as opposed to lazy, overpaid techies and this helped us in getting an extremely good deal. Once again, we were in for the ride of our lives, as our rafting instructor(who, at 5'2", weighing 55 kilos and in an oversized Google t-shirt, wasn't exactly radiating confidence), gave us a crash course on how not to drown in the Beas. This was followed by basic rowing instructions and Q&A. We then set off on the mighty river, and had only another couple for company. The instructor, as expected, did most of the horse-work, and allowed us to take control of the raft as he stopped to catch his breath. We spent close to two hours on the water, escaping rocks and experiencing rapids. Time flew by, and before we knew it, we were at the end of the rafting trail, soaking wet, from where we were picked up in a van, and taken back for lunch. After lunch, we set out for Kullu, and another overnight journey lay in wait.

June 2,3
The 3 days spent in and around Manali had taken their toll and the rickety government bus that took us to Dharamsala seemed like a lounge that night, as the three of us slept in complete oblivion, unaware that there had been a halt for dinner. We reached Dharamsala around 3 in the morning, and, as the whole of Dharamsala slept, we resumed our sleep in the bus stand. At daybreak, we took the first bus to Mcleodganj, having been told by the locals that there was not much to see or do in Dharamsala. On arrival, we checked into an uninhabited dormitory that, at 500 bucks per night, ensured our transition to economy mode. We spent 2 days there, and quite honestly, apart from a customary visit to the monastery of the Dalai Lama and the spectacular views offered from some of the rooftop restaurants, I have no remembrance of what else happened. But the time spent in Mcleodganj was refreshing and rejuvenating, perhaps due to the wonderful natural settings and the laid-back nature of the locals.

June 4-June 6
The return to Delhi was quite peaceful, apart from an unfortunate throwing-up incident, caused by hairpin bends and the previous afternoon's chana batura. Once in Delhi, we returned to my friend's aunt's place once again--we would spend the last few days of our trip here. That day, for the first time during the entire trip, we felt like tourists, as we took a package tour of Delhi, accompanied, in an air-conditioned bus, by excited, fake-t-shirt-wearing pensioners and over-enthusiastic Andhrites wearing cheap sunglasses, all of whom clearly seemed to be enjoying bachpan at pachpan. We were shown all the customary tourist attractions, out of which, the Lotus temple stands out clearly in memory, as a benchmark for any place of worship. That night, we were to indulge in our last shopping spree of the trip, quite appropriately at Karol Bagh, with its bustling streets, enterprising salesmen and dimly-lit gullies.  The next day, we took the Metro to Noida, but the experience was a hollow and meaningless one, as we wandered about in a massive mall for a while, before settling down with some Zinger burgers and Pepsi.          

The last few days spent in Delhi were a real eye-opener for me atleast, if not for all of us. It was unfortunate to see affluence and poverty, both in equal measure, sharing a forced co-existence that can initially seem very jarring. What was immediately evident was the absence of a (numerically, if nothing else)dominant middle-class, replaced instead by menial workers and BMW-driving businessmen, leading nearly parallel lives. On the other hand, 1 week in North India had done a world of good for my ailing Hindi, that had begun its gradual descent a few milliseconds after my ICSE Hindi exams. That apart, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, I had felt a sense of being Indian, a sense of heritage, a sense of awareness that, let's face it, had not come out of a lifetime spent in Bangalore. Hindi, History and Geography had combined like never before, and the product was irrepressible. If travel does indeed broaden the mind, a toll booth stands in my cranium, as proof of this trip.

May 1, 2010

The League of Extraordinary middle-men

Perhaps it was the mauling that Bangalore suffered in the semis, perhaps the resignation of Shashi Tharoor, perhaps Sanjay Dutt’s stellar performance in an overwhelmingly stupid sequence of Pepsi ads, perhaps allegations of match-fixing, perhaps the imminent sacking of Lalit Modi or quite possibly, even that thing on Harsha Bhogle’s head. Perhaps a combination of all the above factors, in delicate proportion, have me itching to put in my two cents

As the dust begins to settle on a rather eventful past 44 days, smeared with B-grade advertising and IPL nights, tight schedules and even tighter cheerleading outfits, Income Tax irregularities and sweat equity, public displays of affection between the (erstwhile) Minister of State for External Affairs and the (soon-to-be-dismissed) IPL commissioner, the liberal use of stereotyped, scripted jargon by underqualified and overpaid commentators, controversial tweets and proxy ownership, benami holdings and missing bid documents, unduly exuberant corporate prefixing of blimps, time-outs, sixes and catches, ignorant Bollywood imbeciles naïve franchisees and aged cricketers on the comeback trail, purple caps and orange caps, it is my privilege to announce the nominees for the IPL awards 2010.

Least thought out advertisement
Mother of God. Where do I begin? Kudos to the ad agencies responsible for decisively proving to us that sheer brainlessness should not serve as an impediment, but a prerequisite. These were the guys responsible for creating the magic that engulfed our TV screens during time-outs, between overs, after dismissals, and on occasion, between deliveries. I must admit, I’m not quite sure what kind of invertebrate came up with these ideas, but here’s the cream.

Pepsi: Congratulations, sirs, you’ve done it once again. With an irrepressible combination of aerated water, 60-something villains, 20-something heroes, annoying midgets, witless multiple-choice questions and a make-up artist from Hell, is it any wonder that your timeless product finds application primarily as pesticide in rural India? “Youngistaan ka Wow” gives new meaning to the term tag-line, and is a source of great comfort in times of trouble. Some day, I hope to meet the team of nascent baboons that came up with this wonderful concept.

Idea: Abhishek Bachchan and his 2 accomplices perhaps drew inspiration from the Pepsi School of Logic, to unleash upon us the new phenomenon that’s taking the world by storm. It’s called Oongli Cricket(man, have I got an oongli for them) and it is proof of the irreversible degeneration of our society. An Idea can sometimes ruin your life, sirjee. (Aside to Abhishek: curl up in bed with Aishwarya, and pray for public anger to subside)     

Most inconspicuous player
Right. Back to the cricket. This edition of the IPL saw several excellent performances from vastly talented players, but this category caters to the few that were able to maintain their dignity and composure amidst the otherwise chaotic world of T20.

M.S. Dhoni: Thanks for so eloquently describing the lost art of sneaking out unnoticed, on your bike, at night into the “red-light areas” of Chennai and having people come up and speak to you in Tamil. You are, no doubt, wiser from your experiences. You are also, no doubt, the perfect role model for any aspiring cricketer/gigolo in the country. (Aside to Dhoni: Saturday night party ke pogallam, variya?)

Harbhajan Singh: Hearty congratulations, dear Turbanator, on showing us the most appropriate way to fondle the team owner’s wife after a hard-fought win. Recent studies have shown, beyond doubt, that you are missing the where-to-draw-the-line gene. A pat on the back(or, more precisely, perhaps a swift kick in the nuts) from Mr. Ambani is in the offing, for the now infamous public groping. The good news, however, is that Nita aunty is no longer in any doubt as to the meaning of “Youngistaan ka wow”.     

Sreesanth: Words fail me, and that, in itself is probably the greatest tribute to your buffoonery. How someone can get angry with the umpire, after having been no-balled for overstepping is beyond me, and possibly, even beyond the understanding of your ever-decreasing fan base. You, sir, are most definitely God’s own cricketer. This is a new low for you, even by your getting-slapped-by-a-Turbanator-and-bawling-like-a-baby standards.

Thank you, start-up cellphone manufacturers, loss-incurring banks, infrastructure groups and Chennai-based rubber factories, for making life during the IPL a sheer pleasure. Thank you _ _ _, for inspiring us to reach for the stars, by stationing a motionless balloon in the sky. Who am I to question <insert commentator's name>, when he says that you are at the forefront of technology in India? Thank you _ _ _ _ Mobile, for those 2-and-a-half minutes of bliss, at odd and unpredictable stages of each match. Personally, I would recommend a greater investment in telecommunications and a slightly more withdrawn role in corporate gimmicks. Thanks to _ _ _ _ _ _ _ mobiles, for explaining to me the difference between a catch and a _ _ _ _ _ _ _ kamaal. Perhaps someday, I can explain to them the kamaal involved in recovering a _ _ _ _ _ _ _ mobile from the colon of the guy who came up with this idea. _ _ _ _ moment of success. I will never understand how those 4 words got into the same sentence, and neither will the American taxpayer, I’m guessing. And finally, _ _ _ maximum. Which once again, makes no sense whatsoever, but hey, they are the main sponsors of the IPL, so lets give them some “creative” leeway. 

Next IPL commissioner
This is a moment of great uncertainty and turmoil for the IPL. It is becoming increasingly clear that Lalit Modi must go, but finding a replacement for a corrupt, lisping, tweeting Gujju is no mean task. Over the past few days, there has been a lot of speculation as to who would replace Modi, and the following 2 gentlemen are my pick for the next IPL commissioner.
Ravi Shastri: You have clearly made the transition from expert all-rounder to idiot commentator without much fuss. Your commentary is reminiscent of a Winamp playlist in repeat mode and the sight of your flaring nostrils is sufficient to make my blood curdle. However, I firmly believe that cricket administration should be left to former cricketers, and therefore, I am pleased to announce that you are the least of several evils.   

Sharad Pawar: A truly versatile politician, who has shown us that being Agriculture minister, by itself, is not a very time-consuming/challenging job. What, pray tell, was his chiseled silhouette doing as Chairman of the BCCI from 2005 to 2008? With over a billion people to choose from, surely we could’ve done better? Over the past few decades, Mr. Sharad Pawar has proven himself to be a gem of a scoundrel, and this, along with his obesity, charming good-looks, white outfits and blemished record, qualify him to be the next IPL commissioner.

(This section was written well before Modi’s dismissal and Chirayu Amin’s subsequent appointment. Therefore, it pains me to announce that in this category, nobody wins.)  

So there you have it. The nominees for the IPL awards 2010. It has been a wonderful, controversial and exciting past few weeks. Best wishes to Chirayu and his cronies, as they attempt to resurrect the Indian Pensioner’s League.

April 18, 2010

Save our Tigers

Present day 
The author is currently recovering from a rather strenuous past couple of months, studded with swimming classes, football, a bottle of Jack Daniel's, a bout of acute pharyngitis, Victor Wooten in the flesh and a monumental trip to Kanyakumari, interspersed with a few 100 hours at the office. He is sweating bullets as he types feverishly, in a feeble attempt at finishing a post he started about 4 months ago. His posts, it seems, are becoming about as infrequent as an Anil Kumble leg-break or a Toyota that can be stopped. All his energies are focussed on battling the overwhelming urge to sleep.

About 4 months ago
What does a bespectacled, underweight, habitually lethargic and occasionally slothful engineer do on his weekend off, considering that his favourite kind of government holiday(the weekday kind) already gave him a chance to unwind? Well, apart from trying to secure balcony seats(for just under half his daily wages) to watch a trinity of fools, or movies in 3D(not to mention the painfully infrequent blogging), yours truly had not much else to do on a Saturday morning.

So it occurred to me to awake in unison with the sun and travel more than 10kms to engage in a sport that was essentially invented by the British, only to be perfected by everyone but the British. Football. Cricket. Badminton. Hockey. Lawn Tennis. Table Tennis. Snooker. Proof, if any was required, that somewhere off the northwestern coast of continental Europe, a significant number of Caucasian islanders had a significant amount of free time on their hands. A rich history of steady sporting invention, no doubt, matched only by an even richer history of subordination in the sport just invented.

But badminton it was. And as expected, nothing of great consequence happened on court(read: glorious wins against first-timers followed by an inglorious annihilation at the hands of more fancied opposition). Exhausted after more than two hours of much-needed exercise, I summoned all the Gods I knew and notified all the antibodies in my system for what lay ahead. Fresh fruit juice near National Market. I am pleased to say that I survived the ordeal, but the combined effect of vigorous racquet sports and murky watermelon juice on a Saturday afternoon, generally tends to surface early the next morning, as my parents prod me to attend the 7 a.m. mass. Which brings me, rather circuitously, to the subject at hand.

As we guzzled aforesaid fruit juice, I noticed a tiger on the prowl. Its unmistakable features conveyed purpose, but the same features rendered it conspicuous. What it lacked in terms of camouflage, it more than made up with opportunism, speed, cunning and efficiency. For an instant, my heart raced, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that I had taken all the necessary precautions.I also remember noticing that it looked frighteningly famished. All around it, stood unsuspecting, hapless prey---most of them domesticated---varying in form and speed, but unified by the tiger's ruthlessness. The prey had been warned beforehand of the tiger's presence, but they had paid no heed. The tiger seemed to be in a very foul mood that day, devouring everything it came across, sparing only those that had maintained a safe distance. The tiger's body was clothed with innumerable cuts and bruises, that it had presumably sustained from a previous undertaking. Hungry as it was, the tiger seemed to be toying with most of the prey it had snared. Needless to say, several of the helpless victims were severely mutilated and battered before finally being consumed by the rogue tiger. Several owners had noticed their pets being captured, and were trying desperately to rescue it from the tiger's grasp. We witnessed all of this from a distance, with a unique combination of sympathy and sadistic pleasure at the misfortune of the victims. As we were getting ready to leave, we noticed that my friend's pet had also gone missing. It had to be the tiger. After a great deal of inquiry, we eventually managed to locate the tiger's den.

What we saw there was extremely alarming and not for the faint of heart. The carcasses of several hundred victims lay unclaimed outside the den. From the extent of decay it was clear that quite a few of them had been captured many years back. Most of the victims were either dead or maimed for life. The only ones that stood a chance were those that had been captured that day. As we looked around at the carnage, it suddenly became apparent. This could not have been the work of a single savage beast. Closer observation confirmed our fears. There were at least four or five tigers, identical in size, appearance and gluttony, but displaying varying degrees of brazenness. Clearly, these were no ordinary tigers. Perhaps, they were initially reared with the intention of maintaining a healthy respect among erring victims, but with the number of victims exponentially increasing, these tigers had clearly exceeded their authority.

Now, the small matter of wiping them out. Slowly and painfully. How do you stop a group of ravenous, marauding tigers? Stop feeding the bastards---and watch them die.

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