Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kachra Re : revisited

This is a repost from 2007. Thought it was relevant to post it now. Happy new Year !

Over the new year and immediately preceding it, the papers and magazines have been full of various so called "attractive deals" offered by hotels and restaurants. Special weekend deals, baskets of fruit, locations next to the beach, gastronomic excesses of the highest magnitude, and monetary excesses of even a higher kind. "Just "seven thousand" rupees for a grand new years eve dinner. (If you stay on for breakfast its extra; two thousand "only"). Some guys in white uniforms and caps, do their kadhai stuff behind see through glass enclosures, arrange the miniscule dish (of the non-miniscule price) in an artistic way on the dish, decorate it with sprigs of green stuff placed at startegic angles , and suddenly , its "fine dining"......

I've realised its all marketing. Taste buds have nothing to do with it. The whole idea is to make something look so attractive, that young people and yuppie types will throng, and yes, empty their pockets.

Maybe, circa 2010, we will witness some of the following ads?

"CRUSH 2010" :

"Spend the new years eve in the midst of the throng, pulsating to the throbbing beat, standing room only, most popular locations, all across mumbai. Subsidised Seng and Channa available throughout the evening at all locations. Enjoy yourself on a moving stage, and get off when you feel like it to have a cutting chai or a subsidised shoe polish (in case too many have syepped on your shoes in the frenzy). Get into the mood with limbupani and kala khatta. Native music on innovative instruments a definite plus. Cant forget the almighty , can we ? Special bhajan "karo...ok" sessions in selected locations. Those staying till 1 am, will get special transport to visit Titwala and get the Lord's blessings for the new year........"

"The MOO Year Special"

Like the Beatles sang " Get Back, Get Back, to where you belong..." The call of the wild, the green of the earth, and its a wonderful new year eve nestled amongst the sylvan surroundings of Gobarnagar, the new special "Earth Info park" created outside Mumbai (ISO 10001 certfied) , by the thousands of tabelas that shifted from Goregaon on instructions from the World Bank. . Get away from the glaring blaring mumbai lifestyle, and enjoy a new years eve lassi as you relax on a satranji , leaning against a tree trunk. Exciting greenery everywhere you look, and even more excitement on sudden encounters of the bovine kind. Meet your own buffalo, and admire its resemblance to several famous people as it chews the cud in style , circa 2010. Get drunk on the smells of the earth, mixed with other aromatic materials , obtained free, courtsey the buffaloes. Bhakris and Zunkaas available on order , and red chillies will be on the house.Special dawn conveyance for everyone , upto the Gobarnagar entrance. We throw in FREE Puncture Nikal training during this ride . Rush. Seats are limited . Like everywhere else. Rs 1000 per couple. 50% off instantly to those who can MOO in style. Decisions of the buffaloes will be final....

Kachra Re ! New Year Shindig.

Dance to the latest version of the song immortalised by Alisha Chinai , and enacted in 2006 by members of the Bachchan Family . Bring in the new year as you sink your feet into the studded sands of the Yahoo beach in Mumbai; home to scintillating bhelpuri, dripping panipuri, burning vadapav, and tingling chinese.....Experience the latest USE AND THROW technology imported specially for the occasion from Bihar. If the heat gets to you, we have special stalls supplying mumbai's answer to pepsi/coke and assorted mnc types; those not brave enough can enjoy kapi from mobile cycle coffee bars , India's answer to Starbucks...Take part in a dummy film shooting - ride horses on the beach and rescue unwilling random damsels, whether they are in distress or not! Stay on to watch the dawn, as Mumbai's glitterati get into their Reeboks and Nikes and jog around you, their X-category security following in their steps, to the beat of Kachra Re ......

And finally.

The BEST of it all !

The Nachos BEST

Can anything beat ringing out the old and ringing in the new, to the exciting sound of brakes and clutches ? Join us for a no holds barred ride across the length and/or/breadth of Mumbai. Travel on the only 5 remaining double decker buses in the BEST fleet, (ever since they banned them after one bus threatened to lean over a flyover). Special ragtag honking music in specially designated areas like Parel , Dadar(TT and BB; central and western to you modern types), Mahim, SV Rd Bandra, Malad, Sion, Mulund, Borivli, Kandivli and so on. You dont need to know how to dance ! Just hold on to the world-class-recently-installed hangers in the central bar, and the bus driver will take care of the rest. Enjoy the thrilling acceleration, the disdainful "sneezing" attitude when changing gears, and the unique bus-stopping mechanism recently perfected by the drivers, that involves all standees in a set of fourier series sinosoidal movements , culminating in a deadly action dance . Yes, Nachos! Its not just the "nach". Drawing inspiration from the mexican nachos chips, the BEST canteen has been, for the last several years converting left-over chapaties into nachos chips. These will be offered , "on the bus" , to all those who grace the BEST with their presence between 11pm and 2 am. Buses plying through Parel and Borivli will get complementary pickle, and lasoon chutney.

The mind boggles at the stuff on offer....

And you STILL want to attend the Taj ,Oberoi, and the H-H-Hy...att (sneeze)... stuff ?

Green. With Envy. Andaman -3.

Meeting people in new places in exciting. Particularly in a place like the Andaman Islands, about which you have no clue.

True to its character, Mumbai had reasonable traffic, cars honking and overtaking, desperate to reach somewhere , even at 4 am. En route to the domestic airport. The subsidized white elephant airlines have access to the posher terminal, with aerobridges and stuff. While those who fly the other successful airlines, traipse around in buses and stuff to reach planes parked far away from the departure gate. Our flight to Chennai spent more time standing in line, for takeoff than , maybe flying to Chennai. Maybe I am exaggerating, but that's how it felt. The onward flight to Port Blair , consequently, had to be caught on the run, and we were ably helped by a wonderful staff chap of Kingfisher Airlines, who was moving around with a portable , belt clipped , boarding card generator, which he utilised for us , once he confirmed we were genuine tourist types. This ability to avoid the queues was an inspiring beginning , for someone, whose life is inextricably liked with standing in queues.

Our hotel in Port Blair was actually the only one that had vacancies when I was researching the places. And its location in the city proper, yet not in the thick of the things, was what was nice. I have a basic distrust of resort types, 'n' miles out of town, where you are forced to order coffee in a bone china cup for Rs 50/-, and rickshaws are considered heavily inferior to private taxis that fleece you. Our hotel was on a sort of ring road that went around the city, undulating with the hilly terrain, and there was a mom-and-pop seafood restaurant near by , with some decent utility shops of the medical and kirana types. There was a high school and church a bit further up, and it being Christmas eve, things were in a state of excitement.

In all the days, I did not see a single issue of Times of India, and the main paper of Port Blair seemed to be a 2 page thing called "the Telegram", the name a misfit, for a place with a nice comfortable pace of life. Only the first page had news, the inner pages filled with Tender notices, schedules of ship sailings between islands, and obituaries and stuff.

A typical rickshaw ride here was almost always Rs 15/-. Occasionally the driver would quote more, but didn't realize he was tangling with veterans of rickshaw haggling from the country's rickshaw capital. We met a rickshaw driver the first evening, returning from the Cellular Jail at night. He , without any prodding whatsoever, pointed out various places to us on the way back, and even guided us to decent places for meals. We got talking, and asked him if he would show us the city sights two days later, after our return from the harbor trip. He quoted a price eminently acceptable for us, and promised to turn up at 9 am. Just like that. Because he had given his word. No cell phone numbers. No confirmations.

And we had a great day trip, zooming up and down, stopping at various museums, beaches, emporiums, special parks, old saw mills and stuff. Zooming down from a high point above the runway, (in a rickshaw), folks urgently felt a need for a cuppa. And wondered if he knew a place we could stop. He kept shaking his head thinking we were looking for a proper sit down restaurant. When he heard cries of delight on seeing one of those small chai tapris by the roadside, he knew these were different folk. Many such tapris in Port Blair seemed to be managed and operated by women. And so the tea was extra nice.

He had the names of his sisters written at the back of his rickshaw; I knew that because it was in English and I asked. Then there was something written on the front windscreen, in what I thought was Tamil.

He mentioned a name that sounded like Mariamma, and I asked if that was the mother of Jesus, thinking that he was a Christian.

"No, No,", he said ,"its a Goddess"...... Things were getting curiouser and curiouser.

"Is it the fighting Goddess, the knowledge Goddess, or the wealth Goddess ? " I asked, referring to the Goddesses Kali, Saraswati and Lakshmi respectively. The rest of the family rolled their eyes and gave each other glances, listening to these classifications.

The rickshawallah suddenly smiled. He knew I understood.

"Knowledge, amma. You know. Saraswati . " He was earning to send his sisters to school. And so he dedicated his rickshaw work to the Goddess of Knowledge , Saraswati. I felt good about contributing to his sisters' education. We rode back to our hotel, his sisters' names shining brightly at the back of his rickshaw.

The harbour day trip was another meeting point. This was a two tier boat , with benches and seats below, tables and chairs on the terrace above, and a swarthy, mustachioed , stout individual was the driver. He had a bunch of very well trained assistants, who would appropriately throw ropes across giant iron poles, anchors into the sea, and at certain points, draw buckets of water from the sea and pour it into something in a room. The fellows would also shout at people who threw plastic into the sea, and those who blocked windows and leaned out dangerously.

After a day of sitting with the family, the husband felt a need to go and walk in some fresh air, and went up into the terrace area , on the return trip to Port Blair. He likes to observe the engines and technologies used , and got talking with the boss, who he called Captain. His name was Raja, and he was thrilled to bits to be called Captain Raja. I guess no one really thought about the boat driver amidst all that island swimming and snorkeling and sightseeing hoopla. These two got talking, and the husband got to ride back to Port Blair in the driver's enclosure, where the big wheel and the horn was.

"How old are you, Sir?" he asks, sighting the snow white silver hair. "And what do you do ?"

"64. And I teach. Engineering. In Mumbai. I admire the way you control this boat, with so many distractions and tourist boat traffic close to the city quay. How many years have you done this ?"

"Ah, You don't look 64. There is handsomeness . (!) As for me, I am 55, have been in this profession since 30, but i have had this diabetes for the last 5 years, and I don't like it at all. All those pills to take. And I run this boat 6 days a week. 50 litres of diesel consumed every 8 hour day trip. "

"Where do you keep the boat?"

"No one ever asked me that." he said . "Funny you ask. But you teach about machines. See, I understand. It all depends upon the season of the wind. Easterly or Westerly. When its an East wind, parking at Ross island across from Port Blair gives a great shelter. Other times , I park right here in Port Blair jetty. Having a drink late in the evening with my boat people used to be fun, but this diabetes is a big pain. Restricts everything ", and he pulled out a towel from the recesses of his driver's cubicle, and wiped his tired face.

The Jetty was approaching and we climbed up to the upper base to disembark. Captain Raja, had already skipped out on to the jetty, trying to get his land legs, as his assistants did the helping of passengers, and tying of ropes here and there, and loosening of various things.

He saw us disembark. Sailor or not, he maintained his distance from the ladies. Before we left, the husband looked for him, went and shook hands with him, introduced us, and we thanked him for the trip. I saw his face glow when he was introduced to us as Captain Raja. It probably made his day, the troublesome diabetes notwithstanding.

Soon it was time to return, and the last day was dedicated to packing, checking timings and communicating with the hotel desk. This was a family run hotel Started by the father, now attended to by the son, Biju, in his twenties.

I always enjoy reading the newspapers of new places, regardless of the importance of the news. Who decides what is important anyway ? One of the Obituary entries mentioned a memorial service for a lady , 100 years of age, who had died a few days before Chiristmas. That was Biju's grandmother. ( I saw his name below, and knew it in full from his email communications).

The hotel business was in its busiest season now, and nothing could shut down. The work must go on, and so Biju attended the hotel work every single day, as his family coped with the various formalities, condolences, and church services. I offered my condolences to him quietly at the desk, and complimented him on the way he went about his work. He was surprised how I knew, till I pointed at the newspapers. He very formally thanked me on his family's behalf.

The hotel had said they would drop as at the airport. We got our stuff together and arrived at the front door. The young man asked if we were ready to leave, and asked an assistant to take the bags.

It wasn't a taxi, or a minibus. It was a brand new model Maruti car, parked to the side, the plastic still on the seats, Biju himself came and opened the doors. He had bought a new car this Christmas, his first. His grandma was thrilled when he decided to buy one. Unfortunately, she didn't live to see it and take a ride in it. He himself would be driving us to the airport in his brand new car.

We couldn't be more honored. This was such a wonderful end to an even more wonderful trip. We talked about his city, how we liked the hotel, and the Andamans, where his family hailed from (Andhra), and soon we were at the airport.

A few handshakes, a few namaskars, and he drove off with a flourish, his car having done its first customer related trip. We turned , lugging our bags, to enter the departure formalities area.

The Andamans are fairly far away from the Indian Mainland. Vegetables and fruits are very expensive here. Always. Almost double the price of Mumbai. Everything is shipped in. Fish in plenty, however, of the choicest kind. Had this been the mainland there would have been massive migration. But leaving the Andamans costs. Forbidden travel costs. So the young men become tour guides, boat assistants, drivers of tourist cars, that zip around at alarming speeds, but magically stop when needed. I didn't see a single slum, or a beggar. Even outside places of worship. Villages that we passed on our island trips, had well organized schools and agricultural stations for farmers. Every house had coconut and supari plantations.

The overriding sense was a sense of green. The Emerald Islands.

The Captain of the plane announced descent into Mumbai, in an accent that would have made the British in Port Blair proud.

I shut my eyes as we approached Mumbai. I didn't feel like seeing anything.

It was time to be green myself.

With Envy.

For a wonderful land.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Shame : Andamans -2

I have often wondered what brought the British to the Andaman Islands. You don't decide on a whim to colonize something, smack in the middle of the ocean. But back in the days of the Opium trade with China, it is possible that these islands provided a berthing opportunity for British commercial ships moving around their colonies. And so, Andamans became part of the British empire.

Fond as they are of creating penal settlements in far flung islands, the British decided to have a jail built for all those considered enemies of the state. Natural resources on the islands were plenty, the wood was highly seasoned, and top class, and the "native prisoners" were considered appropriate labour for the purpose.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857, when the soldiers first rose against their British superiors, resulted in thousands of people being sent to hang, several hundreds blown through the mouths of cannons, and around 200 were banished to the Andamans for life. The uprisings continued , and it suited the British to keep transporting the prisoners. Not only were they prisoners, but they were considered cheap labour for constructing prisons, and were forced to work in chain gangs, under gun and bayonet happy British supervisors. You slogged to build your own prison, the harbour and the offices, as well as the rulers homes and offices. And the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, was started in 1896 and completed in 1906. This was one of the murkiest chapters during the rule of the British in India.

The Cellular Jail today holds no prisoners. But the various structures are witness to the atrocities committed on the prisoners. They were served low quality insufficient food, often given solitary confinement. Manual oil seed crushers normally powered by cattle, were installed and the prisoners made to run pushing the lever, with implausible targets of coconut oil to be produced everyday.

Failure to meet this resulted in whippings on racks, and worse abuse of the physical kind. Refusal to do anything meant inordinate mental and physical torture, often resulting in death and an ignominious end at sea. This punishment at the Andamans was considered the worst and was often referred to as Kala Pani or Black Water, signifying the traversing of the choppy black seas, never to return. One of Maharashtra's brilliant freedom fighters, Savarkar, was imprisoned there, along with hundreds of freedom fighters from all the states of India.

Those wishing to buy tickets for a wonderful Sound and Light show in the evening are supposed to get tickets around 5:15 pm. The lines started forming before 5 itself. Strangely, there was a pushy crowd of youths with currency notes at the locked counter door. People kept coming by with money, and passing these people notes. As usual, I was the last to find out what was happening. Along with some other ladies, I stood in line. And watched with growing horror as the crowd became unruly and pushy. Suddenly someone signalled to the ladies to form a separate line. And we promptly complied.

I looked around and spied the rules. There were no entry fees for the armed forces personnel and the disabled. For a jail, there certainly seemed to be a law and order problem developing here.

Suddenly , a fellow in an army Jawan's uniform comes by, breaks our line, and crosses over smilingly to the chaotic men's line. He uses his height to pass some money to someone and stands there like he owns the place.

And some angry neurons made their presence felt in my head.

"Excuse me, aap armywale hai ? (=are you army ?)" Me.

He looks at me and grins. No answer. My voice rises half an octave.

" You don't need tickets. Why are you here, and then , why not in the queue ?" Me. Then suddenly there is some pushing in the men's line, and some of them fall into our line. The army man still has no answer for me. The others are watching the fun. There are also some in the audience, being vastly entertained by this riveting episode of Old Lady vs the Army Jawan/Disobedient men.

Suddenly the ticket window in-charge appears. I ask him what this is all about. He says each of the guys can get ONLY 10 tickets. Officially. I can too, except we are 3. Something needs to be done.

Inspired, I suddenly feel taller than my 5' 5". In my best umbrella based-monsoon-bus-entry style, I hold out a hand with a huge purse , to stop some lawless desperate chaps on the left, from approaching the window, and the lady in front of me goes ahead towards the ticket window. Some guys yell at me in Tamil. I don't know what they say, but I warn them to behave, in Hindi. Lots of push-push-shove-shove.

All the Mumbai practice in trains and buses helps. The ladies behind me are supportive. Now they too have started yelling at the chaps.

"Is this the way they treat women in the islands ? Please move aside ." I look up at the stationary army man. He hasn't moved an inch. Maybe he is deaf. He is hell bent on buying tickets, possibly to sell them at a profit.

And then, sometimes, anger gives your voice a booming quality.

"Your rank and serial number please." Me doing my best imitation of God knows who. "I will report you to the C-in-C . " It is clear, that reading names and positions of fancy British bungalow occupants , while travelling in rickshaws across Port Blair, helps.

Its like thunder has struck. The man was never deaf. The army man slinks away. The path to the ticket window is now improved. But the fellows are wary. They let us ladies get our tickets, and I return, clutching mine, seeking some welcome fresh air, as I search for the worried family.

We go in and tour the barracks, see the amazing metal locks on each door that go through thick walls. The bare rooms, the high windows. If at all you managed, you just saw the open choppy grey sea. There were the gallows with rooms underground for the bodies to fall. We toured the oil seeds crushing set up, and tried to move the lever. We couldn't. And they were expected to run with it, and whipped if they didn't.

Some died from such sustained beatings, exhaustion and starvation. At one point the prisoners rebelled and went on a hunger strike to demand human level facilities.

Several prison staff would then be ordered to catch hold of and force feed the prisoner through a tube and he would often gag to death. There were whippings on the rack, as the sadistic supervisor watched from a special chair. The Savarkar Park outside the jail has statues of various prominent prisoners in fetters and hand cuffs who died like this, and sometimes went insane due to torture. The stories are inscribed in stone.

And this makes me think.

We just had a terrorist attack in Mumbai a year ago. A fellow was caught alive in action, in real time, and as befits a good democracy, was being given a court trial. The country provides him with a lawyer as per rules. In keeping with proper court procedure where there are always two sides to anything, he is questioned and asked.

This guy, Ajmal Kasab, demands Urdu newspapers, translators, fancy spicy food and cribs about the police. He tells lies in court complaining of his health. Makes a mockery of everything by claiming to be a star struck Pakistani, out to join Bollywood, and says he isn't who we think he is.

And the judge listens. Because the rules say that Ajmal gets to talk.

I am sure there is an element of coercion in all confessions, everywhere , across the world. Police tactics always play a part. They always have. But we are a democracy, and while most citizens must prove innocence at all times, Ajmal Kasab , the caught-on-film terrorist, is innocent until proven guilty. And the guy complains about torture, after gunning down innocents and patriotic officers, simply because someone fooled him into thinking this was the way to Paradise.

What a contrast.

Young freedom fighters, fired by a zeal, protesting against centuries of intolerant and cruel foreign rule, summarily banished to the Andamans on a life sentence, simply on a suspicion. Tortured, killed without reason on a whim, and thrown into the sea. No explanations. After making them slog for you. Building your facilities.

And a shameless, cunning, mind trained terrorist, exploiting the trappings of democracy, something his own country has been unable to achieve. His country became independent the same time we did, and was created by the British because it fitted in with their philosophy of divide and rule. Trials going on for a year, hundreds of witnesses examined. Special constructions outside the court for security reasons, all done by the government, as Ajmal Kasab lies in his room, smiling to himself.

History could have been different.

Freedom fighters escaping the gallows and avoiding being blown from the mouths of cannons, could have got a lengthy trial, with proper lawyers. After all, our laws are roughly based on British laws. (Neha ? comments ?). Some older parents would have seen their children again.

And Kasab , the terrorist, should have been sent to the Cellular Jail, and made to do the oil crushing and masonry work. After all, there doesn't appear to be a family waiting for him, or a country.

But such are the ironies of life.

At the end of the visit , I felt like apologizing to the souls of those killed at the Cellular Jail. They died horrible deaths, so we could be an independent nation one day.

More than 60 years of independence. Is it time to look at our laws once again ? Or do we continue to pamper the likes of Kasab, in the name of democracy ? While several innocents like Ruchika die young , because someone in power acted like the Cellular Jail bosses ?

Sons and Soils : Andamans -1

Just back from the Andaman islands.

These are actually supposed to be the top of huge land masses/mountains that got pushed up due to earth movements in the Bay of Bengal, aeons ago. For a Mumbai based, concrete-ravaged, traffic dodging person in the senior age category, it is totally stunning, to see islands after islands, just completely bursting with rain-forest greenery, with slivers of beaches here and there, and sensible levels of traffic moving in small cities, as your plane descends to the airport.

Our arrival was greeted on the tarmac with guys in uniforms and rifles/guns , surrounding the flummoxed motley groups of old people, young couples, cool couples, grandparents with entire families, wailing kids, and children who wanted to just run around. Turns out that we had a Union Minister coming to inaugurate their first computerized Post Office set up in the Andamans and he had some fancy security. His entire set of in-laws(many of them married to British folks), had come along to spend Christmas in the Andamans. The in laws hailed from Kashmir, so that was understandable. And so we duly dodged some smart uniforms, tinted cars with flags and sirens, and hot footed it to the arrivals , where, surprise, surprise, the hotel vehicle awaited us !

The islands depend on tourists for their economy the year round, except for 2 monsoon months of July and August. The Armed forces of the country understandably have a significant presence here in the Bay of Bengal, which also creates a lot of civilian jobs. And so we have Port Blair, with wide, non-potholed(hurrah!) roads, undulating over the hilly landscape. There are a lot of Tata Sumos, and Maruti Omnis charging around with tourists. Then there are the local buses, that seem to have sensible levels of crowds, that bring succour to my Mumbai eyes, and yes, they have rickshaws. Except they paint Gods and Goddeses' names on them, unlike Mumbai, where a rickshawallah thinks nothing of advertising the latest movie "The Three Idiots" by painting at the back of his vehicle , "Capacity : 3 idiots". And to hell with the actual customers sitting inside.

Very noticeable, across the islands as a whole. is a respect for trees and greenery and preservation of the same. The Forest department here seems to know the value of what they have, and take great pains to preserve it. On a far off island of Baratang, 100 miles away, reachable by ferry and then an arduous drive to a mud volcano, the Forest department even displayed its literary talents with this sign.

The tourists come from all across India, with predominance of people from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Orissa and West Bengal. We did run into a Naval architect from Maharashtra (when I stopped his little running daughter from banging into a table at dinner), but he wasn't a tourist, he worked there for the Navy.

We would often run into the same people again and again on our trips, and I was very intrigued by a Sardarji (=Sikh) family, which seemed to be in a huge group with elderly parents, assorted cousins and nephews, and wife and children. The head of the group seemed to be a strapping six foot Sardar , the type you see riding a horse in the President's bodyguard' parade in Delhi. These folks appeared to be, a prosperous farmer family from Punjab; not the build-a-farmhouse-type, but more a Punjab-ki-mitti, relax-on-a-charpoy, and enjoy-the-lassi-ji type.

On a whole day harbour trip in a ship, we would get off at various islands and tour the place which had excellent directions. On one of these, Ross Island, relics from the days when the British set up garrisons, and townships, they now displayed ruins complete with the commandant's house, church, bakery, power station, swimming pools, hospitals, "subordinates" center , armoury, and so on.

Surprisingly, thousands of miles from my house, we noticed , carved on a rusted boiler in the ruins of an old power plant, the names of my children ! The couple who thought it mandatory to carve themselves on a rusting boiler on Ross Island, possibly years ago, didn't realize that rust crumbles eventually. But we were certainly thunderstruck to see these names, particularly since one member of our family had not been able to make it on this trip.

Mr S., the Sardar, would stride purposefully, at the head of his family group, a sense of history and pride on his face, urging the others along, and announce things to his children and parents, carefully explaining things. He always had questions for the guide, and listened attentively to him.

Of all the folks one encountered, there was sense of pride in these people that was difficult to ignore. There was an urge to learn. As responsible citizens. His aged parents, would follow behind, with Mrs S. beaming and following, ensuring every now and then that they had adequate water and rest, with the younger children rushing off to get water bottles filled etc. Occasionally the younger kids would want to take photos, and Mr S, would pose with his arms around his father/mother/wife,amidst the ruins. Very friendly folks, there would always be a smile whenever we ran into each other during the trips.

There was sense of non-flamboyant joie de vivre when they were around, and much of it very apparent when we all got off the tour ship, into small motorboats to observe undersea corals , and then go swimming and snorkeling at the North Islands. The entire family was in the water, and the last to leave it, as we went back up into the ship an hour later. The aged parents were helped into the motor boats which was a bit of an acrobatic manoeuvre. Every body knew about the tsunami , and the coral flung by the waves way up the beach-front was indicative of the angry force of the waves. Many of us collected the corals, and I saw Mr S. holding it in his hand and touching his forehead with them as he closed his eyes. Something very earthy and nationalistic in the person's gestures drew our attention.

One of the things the British excelled at, throughout history is setting up Penal settlements in far flung islands, and using the prisoners as labour. Right from the Indian war of independence in 1857, (Sepoy Mutiny etc), they had started building a regular jail for them in Port Blair (more about that in Part-2), and those who were labelled as "difficult" had something worse in store. They used a very remote, heavily forested, non inhabited island called Viper island to hang who they considered "treacherous folk" and we considered freedom fighters. The structure was force-built by prisoners in fetters, and there was a gallows at the top, visible to every one.

Sher Ali, a Pathan , was condemned to die for murdering Lord Mayo during the freedom struggle, and the guide gave a very stirring speech about his last days at this monument. The speciality of the British was not just cruel hanging, but shocking mental and physical torture and injury prior to that, and the story of Sher Ali's last days brought shivers . Prisoners who died were often thrown into the deep sea, to avoid explaining the torture marks. Not that anyone asked.

There was silence as the story ended. Everyone turned to return to the ship.

And we saw Mr S, sit down on his knees, close his eyes, and say a little prayer from his religion, for the hanged man's soul. Two centuries ago, he must have been Mr S.'s age, with aged parents and a family, hailing from roughly the same geographical area as S. He must have thrown himself into the freedom struggle, got caught and then his family probably never saw him again, till his shocking end at Viper island.

Today Mr S. could travel around and succeed in life, a free individual, because of the sacrifices of freedom fighters like Sher Ali, and he had to acknowledge that. When he got up from the ground, he touched a bit of soil to his forehead. His mother patted his arm as he came up to the group. His father, understandably stoic, as old people often are, got the grandchildren together. They had observed their father, and heard the stories. He would talk to them later about it. And they slowly made their way back to the ship.

There was something to learn, here , for me.

This man was a real son of the soil. He lived the soil as he tilled it . He connected to it as a son of an immense land, India, for which his forefathers fought. He strode it with a sense of visible pride. He was interested to see how the British, the erstwhile enemy post 1857, used the land and developed it. Today, as an independent Indian, he observed the different technologies he could glean from the ruins at Ross island. He wanted his kids to learn about how various folks in history , across India , participated in the freedom movement And his mind cried for the soul of the brave Pathan who went to the gallows swearing on Independence to India, unmindful of the atrocities perpetrated on him..

Not for him the pseudo loyalties of regional states in India. That was for the free loaders, the politicians, who made sons of the soil an election issue, and later on forgot the sons and the soil, as they clung to the trees of power, their scruples lost in the wind.

His attitude towards the land was akin to his attitude towards his parents. As folks who were possibly fairly less "educated " by today's standards, his parents had really brought him up well. That Sher Ali Pathan was a Moslem didn't matter. He lived to unite, not to divide. And regardless of how you prayed , it all reached the same God .

We all sing the National Anthem many times. The words come automatically. The regions. The rivers. Have done so since school. At various flag hoistings, and watched it on television on momentous national occasions.

And yet, we continue to agitate for independent states, dictated by greed. Of natural resources. And unnatural amounts of money. Some even kill.

The National Anthem . I just wonder how often we understand the meaning.

And do we even try.

I thought S. , the Sardar, actually lived it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Return of the Googlees

And no, this is not a cricket blog.

I started looking at my blog with a new vision, after my first exposure to the Googlees : the search terms, used by Googlers, on Google, to land up on my blog.

The sheer breadth of keywords was intimidating, and some of the phrases found then, like "Soapy massage ", (that too in various Indian cities), "hip hop notaries to big bilder", "what colors should an 80 year old lady wear on her birthday", "x-fight 2nd carving info", and "google ground shove", made me wonder if there was some "Rangeela"(=colorful,casanova) element in Google Analytics at Mountain View.

That was 8 months ago.

One expects, Googlers, Google and my blog to change for the better, as we all grow older. Maybe , evolve is a better word.

While I am totally at a loss to figure out what someone in the US Capital, looking for ""where to find indian sarees in child sizes in the d.c. area?" found on my blog, there was also someone from London looking for "bride with oiled hair".

Of course, in the currently violent environment where eminent country leaders are bombarded with footwear and statues, I was a alarmed to find someone from Osaka, landing up on my blog searching for
"president bush" kyoto "take off boots" . Very very direct. No ifs and buts.

I was always aware that anatomically we are all a mess inside, and only medical types would recognize a vagus nerve if they met one, but obviously there is a lot more going on there inside, particularly in the neck; this person from Chambersberg, PA, USA, came to me searching for "enlarge thyroid pinching vagus nerve". Ouch.

Someone from Forest Park, GA,USA, knocked on my blog doors, while searching for
"how to measure a sari blouse online", though I wish they had met up with the worthy from Clifton park, NY, who did a search on "online tailors to stitch blouses", and desperately came upon my blog .

Again and again, those puzzling "soapy massage" keywords refuse to dissolve into the ether. Maybe as an indication of globalization, those folks searching for these massages in Bangalore, Mumbai and Chennai, now have fellow searchers in Sydney. I guess some kind of word is getting around. All these visits are New, and one visitor has spent 13 minutes , searching , God alone knows, for what, on my blog !

Away from such dicey situations, it totally intrigues me as to why someone from Dublin, Ireland, would search for
"how to retain self esteem with husband and in laws", and then come hit on my blog; but if someone wants to suddenly improve, who am I to stand in their path.

On a lighter note, I once did a post on Ukhanes, a rhyming couplet in which the , the bride and groom weave each others names, as part my community's wedding customs. Someone searching for "Ukhanes English Groom" landed up there. Fine.

But I have a difficult time imagining a stiff upper lip person in a top hat and tuxedo, raising his brolly, nodding at the guests and mouthing the rhyming couplet, as ladies in nine yard sarees avidly watch.

For a long time I used to think that "hr" has something to do with a watch/time . However, subsequent to lunching with what are called blogging corporate HR types, when I saw a search term "
"how hr of the company identify the given educational marksheet is true or bogus" , I suddenly had a new respect for what these folks did. And I'd love to know how they detect bogus marksheets. But please. Why did it lead the Googler to my blog ? HELP!

Overall, Googlers appear to be getting more sedate. The number of folks simply looking for Gappa, Gappa blog, Ugich, Ugich Konitari, and Ugich Gappa, make up a large portion. Some folks searching for a place in Pennsylvania, called Gap, often land up on my blog, and I must say that I would find it very disturbing if I had to say I lived in a Gap, PA.

Notwithstanding the fact that things appear to be improving, I think Google Analytics, have some fun loving programmer involved in working on the system.

Why else would someone from Ludhiana, Punjab, looking for
"fancy dress pertaining to h1n1 virus" arrive on my blog with a pandemic thud ? And what has he seen that the National Institutes of Health in Washington, the CDC in Atlanta, and assorted places have been unable to trace?

In case all that mirth is giving you a calorie deficit, what would you say if I told you that someone from Lahore, Pakistan, typed in "u idiot open the recipe of gol gappas but in urdu language", and the folks from Mountain View, in one of their Rangeela moments, pointed him to my blog ?

I give up. Maybe you should just enjoy the Gol Gappas. ......

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wonderful Wednesdays !!

Flying on a broom with a rolling pin/belan/cricket bat , raised high, has its pros and cons, I suppose. Besides exercising my triceps in my old age, its a nice place from where to get a 'bai' eye-view of the bai-gone years.

I've always been told I talk too much.

Sometimes indulgently. Sometimes with a laugh. Sometimes with a resigned look. And frequently with a sheer look of undisguised disgust. :-)

And so in the summer of 2006, one took to blogging. Taking inspiration from someone in the family's generation-next, who already did so, on "serious" subjects like cricket, its silly points, deep fine legs, and other weird names.

The nice part was one could "talk" as much as one liked. Write on whatever one wanted. In any form of English. Prose or verse. Even art.

And those who said mean things to you, could be, theoretically deleted. Disagreements , OK. Abuse, No.

Luckily I have not had to deal with any negativity on the blog. Ever. Possibly due to the very middle-of-the-road paths followed while I traipsed through the various potholed roads of Life.

Having reached the magical peak of 60 years ,gives me a new perspective of the old days. So many things I took for granted, now appear special, in their archived state. And I love to write about them. And my forays into the modern world. With an old world attitude. Kamala Bai meets Britney Spears.

So it was with a sense of shock that I saw my blog nominated in the Best Humanities Indiblog category a few weeks ago. Those nominated along with me were some great names I have admired. Some for their brilliance, some for their empathy, some for the rigour, some for their analytic skills, some for their immense versatility, and some for their heartfelt attitude....

Imagine burrowing through a crowd , lugging your sling bag and vada-pav, straight into the first row, straightening up a hurting back, and finding yourself looking at captains of industry, divas of fashion, and various Excellencies and Honors. And no police lathis to chase you away.

The thrill blinds you. You close your eyes and wait.

I did. And when I opened them yesterday night, I had a message from someone in Boise, Idaho congratulating me on a win in my category ! (They had themselves won in one category, and were like runners-up in others).

One duly rushed over to Indibloggies to confirm.

Gappa was the winner in the Best Humanities Indiblog category.

You know, Gappa means Gupshup, or Random Chitchat. There is a lot of virtual ribbing, backslapping, winking, nodding. Sometimes even serious faces. Sometimes we even meet in real life, and then report virtually.

Its been wonderful. And fun. I have made tons of friends. Of all ages. From 25 to 85. Across the world. Shared in their good times and bad. They have encouraged me to write verse and draw, all in the blogosphere.

Like I said, I've always been told I talk too much.

I have yet to hear someone say I write too much.

And as for the aforementioned looks of undisguised disgust, there is that little key with D.

Thank you for voting and this wonderful news.....

Monday, December 14, 2009

Upgrading with Grace

I often look skeptically at types who always talk about flying somewhere and how they got an upgrade to some business class or whatever. Of course , those who routinely travel business class , and get upgrades to first, are out of my league.

None of my relatives are employed by airlines. I don't belong to big industrial houses that are special customers and frequent fliers. Though , I should think, that I stand a decent chance of a rare upgrade , if they allow standees in Business Class. Given the rare occasions when I condescend to fly, that is.

My considerable experience in Mumbai's buses should stand me in good stead, handling all the subsequent turbulence. In the air . And in the seats.

Its not as my travelling life never had upgrades.

I have had the pleasure of being bodily lifted and pushed into the door of a suburban train ladies compartment, which was really a very surprising upgrade. And a trifle alarming. Such upgrades often indicate a complete downgrade in the contents of your handbag, thanks to some nimble fingers in the crowd.

Another time, after 3 unsuccessful attempts to get into a bus door, fighting with about 15 terribly agile folks, a bus inspector in blue who saw this state of war, quietly signalled that I should enter the next bus from the front door. Meant for senior citizens. Quite an upgrade , that.

Sometimes, though, upgrades have nothing to do with space.

They have, a lot to do with grace.

A few years ago, at the fag end of my working life (I took voluntary retirement out of concern for my employer), along with many others in my category, I qualified for a bonus . Payment, that is.

It is one of the supreme ironies of governmental rules, that one may get one's salary by cheque, but one must line up at a counter to receive the bonus, in cash. The bonus is often a certain factor of your salary, and the exalted officer category above a certain level of basic salary, and no recordable working hours, is deemed not to require a bonus. The proletariat category, who actually has working hours, and signing in procedures, then spends long hours standing in queues for such payments.

I was the last one to find out about this bonus stuff, and it happened to be the last day for receiving it. I went looking for the counter in question, and found a long line of sweeper/janitorial staff ahead of me. I got in line.

A few moments later, the elderly sweeper ahead of me, turned to call out to someone, and was flabbergasted to see me there. He occasionally cleaned our lab, and there was much smiling and nodding whenever we stood up to leave our PC's to stand outside the room, while he cleaned the premises. A totally uneducated chap, he had somehow developed an expertise for recognising papers of value. Whenever he emptied the huge trash can in the lab, he would glance to see if there were any receipts and stuff that could have inadvertently thrown there along with useless paper. He would come show these to us, and confirm before classifying them as trash.

" Ma'am , how come you're here ?" Loudly. A few fellows and ladies ahead of him turned.

"Like you. To collect my bonus." Me.

"Ma'am, you need not wait. Please go ahead. You can get your payment immediately." And the folks ahead of him sort of nodded all around. Gesturing to me to move.

"No. No. So many people have lined up much before me. I will await my turn. Really, don't worry, its OK". Me.

A look on the old man's face . Something disturbed him.

This was getting embarrassing. I was prepared to await my turn. There was nothing that said that my time was more valuable than theirs or that my needs were more important. This whole thing was gathering attention from passers by in the corridors of the administration building. People off to the canteen for chai. People just walking around. Ladies on a post tea, trip to the loo, leisurely chatting aboou just expiring saree sales somewhere. Someone rushing to some office after getting a summons.

I knew some of the ladies, having trained them in some software usage. And they stopped by to ask what I was doing there. Full well knowing the answer. Standing in line with the sweepers was not done, by anyone addressable as Ma'am.

"Ayya, you're here ? Didnt think it was you ! " , this from someone who was in a permanently upgraded state, regardless of work, which was often non existent.

"What the hell ! Just go to the front of the queue." she said, and gave all the sweepers a look.

I just shrugged and continued to shuffle ahead with the crowd. Mumbai trains you for such eventualities. Queueing. I grew up in the non-IT age. Nothing was done on-line. You stood in snaking queues for everything, your eyes and ears attuned to sudden gate crashers, who were loudly berated with words like "Oye, do you think we are stupid to stand in queues like this ? " or "If its so urgent, why don't you fly?", often causing them to quietly get in line.

Suddenly, I saw the old sweeper ahead of me return from somewhere. In all the waving and conversations with people I knew passing in the corridors, I had not realized that he had left his place.

I saw a bunch of ladies exiting the queue.

"Ma'am, please go to the other counter. There is another queue only for ladies there. " he said. And he gestured for me to follow the sweeper ladies who were lining up there, a much much shorter queue.

It seemed sensible to go. I went and awaited my turn. Collected my stuff, and bent to sign the revenue stamp in a huge muster that was turned around so I could sign. After so many years, and associating with them during training them in their systems, I knew most of the staff.

The old gentleman behind the counter smiled at me. Starting and closing extra counters was usual for them.

"He came to us all agitated, saying, there is a ma'am waiting in line with us all, and she won't come ahead. We don't feel nice about it. Do something. " he told me. "And he suggested that we start a "ladies line". I was sure you wouldn't mind joining the queue here. A few more minutes and we will not need to keep this counter open. But a whole bunch of sweeper ladies will get a quicker bonus, and get home in time. "

I walked back to my office, after seeking out the old man, still standing faithfully in his queue, and thanking him with a namaskar.

He had a look on his face, as if he had righted some huge wrong. He was aware that I wouldn't like being singled out and so had resorted to this suggestion of a ladies line. In a life where his bonus would probably be spent paying off some incurred debts, in an increasingly difficult economic situation, he actually worried about me.

I am not sure such things should happen. Preferential treatments for higher earners, and perceived superior status, that is. Public rules for everyone need to be identical. And honest work, regardless of its description and sophistication, must be all regarded the same.

Maybe I shouldn't have agreed to go to the other queue. Maybe I should have stayed put where I was. But slowly , the attention was shifting , to what was observed as my stubbornness, and the emphasis was shifting from orderly procedures to personalities.

It was imperative to find a mean.

And the old man managed that.

In a world, where upgrades often happen as a quid pro quid , the old man had just done something, maybe airlines could learn.

Upgrade with grace.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Technology and Parking

When I started school, in 1955, it was one of the few English medium schools in Pune. The textbooks prescribed were totally anglicized. And somewhere in the first or second standard, I remember seeing maths books with symbols of pounds, shillings, pence, rupees, annas and pice. On a scale, of various levels of imprisonments, ranging from rigorous imprisonment, to a suspended fine, this was like the former compared to what today's students' learn, which is akin to the latter.....

For one thing, life was not decimalized. 20 shillings made a pound, 12 pence was a shilling. Emulating the Raj, India had 4 pice making an anna, 16 annas making a rupee. And so arithmetic was like someone taking vengeance on you as you calculated the cost of stuff. The only good consequence of all this was that we were motivated to learn our tables well. Calculators were non existent. We, were the calculators.

By and by , in 1957, India switched over to the decimal system, 100 paise to a rupee, and I cannot tell you the ecstasy with which one enjoyed putting a decimal point to figures. It looked like the days of agonizing over outrageous arithmetic, to buy simple things like pens, stationery and compass boxes, , were over.

So I thought.

Turns out that some people in Britain have a thing about equations in daily life. Most people across the world have equations with other people. There is this academic who has equations with cars.

Prof Blackburn from the University of London's Royal Holloway College has developed a foolproof formula for parking your car.

"...use the radius of a car's turning circle and the distance between the vehicle's front and back wheels.

Then, using the length of the car's nose and the width of an adjacent car the formula can tell exactly how big a space needs to be for your car to fit.

By applying this to basic parking guidelines, one can work out exactly when to turn the steering wheel to slide in perfectly...."

I fervently hope he keeps this formula a secret, despite the Telegraph publishing as above.

Mumbai has just got a new mayor. The last mayor did 17 overseas trips in one year. To " study " facilities. In other cities. And how they solve problems.

This might be a golden opportunity for the current mayor. To get the "parking solution", and of course assorted photo opportunities in the UK , with the Lord mayor etc, doing her thing for the parking problems of Mumbai .

Methinks the formula will need a bit of tweaking and approximations.

What happens, when a cow is established in a parking space, shaking its head, and swiping its tail around, occasionally standing and issuing a kick ? How does your car assume a size of the adjacent car ?

When cars with drivers are double parked all over , with the drivers in reclining bucket seats listening to Hindi movie hit songs, which car do you consider as adjacent?

What happens when a motorcycle person zooms in after taking a wild U turn from the opposite side, when you are doing the calculation, and takes up the space ?

Some cars are not blessed with power steering. Ulnar and radial nerves have occasionally been stretched to the limit, as cars do the back and forth dance to fit into a parking space, only to have an adjoining car go, and a huge one replace it, making it impossible for you to come out.

What happens, when there is a deep wide groove between the footpath and the road, and there is all kinds of suspect water flowing there ? Does the formula provide for time dependent permanent dangerous obstacles in the immediate vicinity of the car?

Does the formula have an olfactory correction for situations where heaps of trash occupy a place meant for a car ?

Are cars going to come with a built in robot calculator that senses all this and automatically does the steering stuff at the press of a button ?

And will the British be willing to install certain additions to Indianize the contraption ?

Like , some old trendy music like, "Baboo, samjho ishare, horn pukare, pum , pum, pum " playing through the blinking headlights as the calculations happen inside ?

Or, on seeing a cop approaching (who earlier promised to turn a blind eye), a perfect rendition of " Jo Vaada Kiya Woh Nibhaana Padega " emanating through the exhaust pipe.

And of course, permanently playing in the background, the popular Govinda hit, "Mai raste pe ja raha tha...."

A successful parking would result in a sudden rendition of "Thing is King, thing is King" based on the recent hit "Singh is King", which of course, is as apolitical as it gets. And Parliament will debate and have opposition walkouts when the ruling party refuses to allow "Jai Ho" as the successful parking song instead

I can see the government appointing a committee to study this proposal. Depending upon who gets included from which political party as part of the mayor's entourage on an all expenses paid trip to the UK, , the proposal will pass. Then , the government, in a typical move, will say that the first implementation will be in South Mumbai. The Police Commissioner, will asks for several evaluation tests to be carried out at secret locations.

Some newspaper will receive a well designed leak regarding this. Page 3 types will rush to buy these contraptions, for each of their cars. There will be a rush, and the stuff will disappear from the market. Mukesh Ambani will give interviews saying he is getting one fitted on his helicopter, sorry helicopters. You never know who is trying to park their helicopter on your helipad.

Chinese imitations with 3 days warranty will appear immediately in the market. Some enterprising entrepreneur from Noida, Ludhiana, or Kolhapur, will come up with car attachments that increase the virtual length of cars as sensed by this parking robot, to keep pesky cars from parking nearby. Someone else may design some electronic wheel installation operatable with a click, that misleads the wheels of an adjoining car trying to park.

After a year the mayor will change. Possibly his relative will have an agency for this contraption.

The new mayor will go on a new trip. This time to check out bus parking robots.

Professor, this whole thing boggles the mind. An innocent well meaning calculation to solve the parking woes of the British public can have international repercussions.

But maybe there is a ray of hope. In keeping with Britain's friendship and special relations with the US of A.

Maybe , in the UK, they can start driving on the right side of the road.

That way the mayors can be told to wait for the lefty version, when they arrive.......

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The richest meal ever....

There are magazines who make it their life's mission to calculate someones riches, and prepare lists of the richest people in the world. These are declared every year, and avidly commented upon, by various print and electronic media , who are, at least in India, fed up with reporting grown men doing the fisticuffs in Parliament, various wardrobe malfunctions, by folks who make a living out of exposing more skin than cloth, fake interviews given between two urgent trips to Europe by people with size zero whatever, and political expressions of austerity by some wordy worthies, while actually enjoying dedicated rooms and loos at a five star , for free.

This same magazine, has now done a list of the Worlds most extravagant meals.

Makes me wonder. I mean, the food ingredients used world wide are finite, the human stomach has finite capabilities, and size, methods of cooking are finite. The only thing not finite seems to be an urge, to be seen , as having infinite amount of money, and the infinite ability of restaurateurs to fool the rich folks.

Why else , would millionaire types pay $100,000, through their (false ) teeth, to have dinner in a giant dangling crane (of German innovation) above a cathedral in France, to eat vegetables, grown by the chef at his own farm 90 minutes outside Paris ? At Daniel Boulds Caviar in NY City, you can pretend you are slumming at $205 a meal, unless of course you have caviar starters at $805 for 50 gms. Flying to Russia to steal the fish eggs for less maybe an option. Nino's Bellissima Pizza, in the same city , fools folks with a $1000 pizza studded with the same stolen fish eggs. Out West, if you are dying to eat in a Laundry, the French Laundry in Napa Valley, will present you with 2 menus of $240, with unique ingredients that are not repeated. In Istanbul, at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, you can eat a $1000 cake made of French wheat, Jamaican rum , dry fruits, Polynesian vanilla, and finally sprinkled with Turkish gold dust, just in case you wonder whats Turkish about it. And then again, something called the Fleur Burger , with some ancient wine, for $5000, all this, appropriately, in Las Vegas, where money flows out of machines and card tables.

So does the sugar taste any sweeter, or the wine any tarter, because your account is debited more ? Does your digestive system find itself wallowing in floods of pepsin and renin of some special superior quality ? Does the hydrochloric acid in your stomach get an upgrade in view of receiving 50 gms of fish eggs stolen from Russian fish ?

They say having food is a state of mind. A mind, happy in wonderful company, removed of all anxieties, gets satiated with the simplest foods, which , far from debiting your life, credit your body in the most wonderful way.

Forty years ago, girls going to the US at 19 for graduate school was considered total madness on the part of parents. Once there, people wondered about the red dot on your forehead, admired your grasp of English, it was not usual to see thousands of Indian students wandering about on campus, and stores that sold Indian groceries were there only in big metros.

She was a vegetarian, knew how to cook the basic stuff, and had a wonderful American roommate, who undertook to make her initiation into America , a very enjoyable venture. The roommate would go ga-ga over potato subji, and dal and rice, but doing the chappaties (=fresh tortillas) was not a frequent occurrence due to a busy schedule at college, and the habit of always having had them hot off the griddle at home.

A year passed and she got a call from some folks she knew in Los Angeles . They were like 10 years older to her, just had had a baby, and the baby's maternal grandma was visiting to help with the first six months . Grandma knew she was at the University almost an hour away, and wanted to meet her, as she knew her folks back home. Would she like to come one weekend ?

She certainly would :-)

"Tell me what you feel like having when you are here and we'll try " grandma said, and urged her to let her know in advance so she could source the ingredients , if she didn't already have them.

The young girl really didn't have to think much. Visions of early winter mornings in Pune, the sun streaming in amidst jamun trees and mango trees shading the windows, and someone sitting at a table, amidst an aroma of burning coal, water boiling in copper vessels, rubbing her hands, eyeing a plate, as a fresh fragrant jowar bhakri slid on to it, wallowing in that little dollop of white butter , melting indulgently on it, winking at the fresh green chutney on the side, with besan pithla and spliced chilies to spice things up.

Grandma laughed. She didn't really expect this. But then she too was a Pune lady. So was her daughter. She understood the yearning. All those ready to cook tortillas and stuff were no match at all, but were OK for a daily rushed schedule.

"Let me try", she said ," I have seen some Mexican flour here that resembles Jowar flour. I'll figure out something. You come for sure ...."

The following weekend saw the young girl land up in LosAngeles mid morning, carrying some gifts for the baby, and a lot of anticipation . Grandma wanted a few things picked up before lunch, and she went out with the young couple while grandma attended to the baby . When they returned, cooking was on, the tawa(griddle) was on the stove, and there were a bunch of plates on a table in the kitchen with a lot of fresh vegetable mustardy pickles in bowls alongside.

"Wash your hands and come eat " she said, flipping a bhakri on the griddle, as she watched it puff up. It was just like a piece of home.

And so she sat , face to face with grandma's daughter (the son -in -law , a wonderful person, offered to entertain baby) , and the two of them , with blissful expressions, one even sitting crosslegged on the chair, kept getting layered bhakris in their plates, with the white butter, and the pithla and the chutneys and pickles.

No words were spoken for some time, as plates shone bright with all the stuff being wiped clean by the hot bhakrees. Hot and sweet lemon pickle, garlic chutney, fresh vegetable pickle of the type made here in winters.

And then grandma poured us some tall glasses of thin buttermilk, lightly flavoured with coriander, ginger, black salt and lemon, the type that is called "mattha" and is still served in some traditional Pune weddings.

The son in law watched, not terribly surprised at the gluttony of the girls, looking at his own daughter, and wondering what she would be like, at that age, born and brought up in the US . Of course he himself ate like a glutton when it was his turn, with his indulgent mother-in-law urging him to have a little more , but he , the epitome of good manners and bringing up, shook himself out of this food reverie and insisted that grandma join him in the eating, now that the girls were done with their Bhakri attack.

To this day, that is the richest meal I can recall. No fancy ingredients, implements, ladders, hanging from cranes, stealing from fish, sprinkling of golden dusts, and pouring of liquids from ancient cellars with controlled temperatures.

Just a comfortably cluttered kitchen, two wide eyed Pune girls ecstatic about the stuff coming of the tawa, a smiling grandmother, saree tucked in at the waist, turning over the bhakri on the tawa, with her bare hands, and then stirring coriander into the pithla on the stove alongside, getting it slightly burning brown at the edges.

And all the while, the young new father, waited his turn , looked once at his daughter, and once at his wife, shook his head indulgently at the visiting young girl, and looked for the TV remote to check out the latest football game.

We are not on the world's rich list.

However, should Forbes ever condescend to value this meal, it will find itself regretting its inability to find numbers , high enough, to allocate.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Out to lunch ....

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Thank you for voting .....!

British physicist Tim Berners-Lee, commenting on the Web, is supposed to have said :

Anyone who has lost track of time when using a computer knows the propensity to dream, the urge to make dreams come true and the tendency to miss lunch.

He may be right about the dreaming. Obviously he was never part of blogger lunches. In Mumbai.

Blogger lunches, like everything else , are getting more and more entertaining

The least of the complications, is the fact that people don't know how the person they have come to meet , looks. Since this was an anniversary lunch meet for us bloggers (the first one was in Dec 2008), many of us were aware of how the others manifested themselves. But this time we would have two new additions. Of the younger generation. And as is customary in situations where the modern generation participates with such ease, these folks were joining in from places hundreds of kilometers away.

The venue, by popular demand, was the same, as that for the immediately previous lunch; a wooded place on the banks of a crocodile infested lake. It may not be out of place to say a this point that we've had leopard warnings in the last 2 days. Maybe they heard about the lunch. Leopard blogs could be next. Who knows.

One of the bloggers, the eldest , was hotfooting it to the venue as she stayed the closest , when she suddenly got a message saying , "I have arrived!". A number, not a name. Wondering who it could be, she kind of accelerated on foot a bit, (no power brakes, no power steering, just some nice windscreen facility of the nearsighted type and limited by a bag she was lugging with her.).

Turns out that the person who had arrived was the second eldest. He had recently retired, and possibly drove faster than his old company driver.

This is the wedding season in India, choc-a-bloc with "auspicious days; this place was adjacent to a wedding venue, and the possibility of guests veering to the restaurant couldn't be ignored. There was a lot of "movement" all around, prompting them both to rush to the restaurant and reserve a table. They came down soon, to anticipate the next arrival.

To their immense surprise, a cavalcade of official looking cars , all in a hurry, drove in. Red beacons on top, police security escort jeeps, guys sitting stiffly in front, with "eyes -front"; one suspiciously tinted ancient Ambassador car, and a bunch of slightly modern cars, just accompanying them ,all driving just outside unposted but specified speed limits, just because they were powerful and free. Could be a Minister, or an MP. Whoever.

Bloggers don't make such drastically grand entries. But there is certainly more variety and grace in their entries. Well, at least in some entries. And some of us look like we don't need any security as such.

While this Director General of some very powerful official security set up zoomed around for some hi-fi conference, he was followed in solitary splendour by one of our most peaceful bloggers, as her car floated in noiselessly, and came to a stop on spotting the two older bloggers. When you follow blogs, you worry when the frequency drops. She had been unwell for sometime, and they were very pleased to see her fine again.

They went up and waited at their table. The other five would shortly appear. Waiters hovering with menus were intentionally ignored. One of them almost tripped over the bag belonging to the eldest, and then prudently stayed away for sometime. Spilling something over senior citizens isn't the done thing. You never know what they would blog about.

Phones rang, folks on their way, stuck in traffic jams, kept mentioning their coordinates. The others glued their eyes to the door.

All of a sudden, a shadow loomed across the table.

It was the marathon HR type. All that jogging and exercising probably gave him a light tread, and they realized his arrival only when the shadow of the abs and clavicles fell across the table. He looked a bit preoccupied. Almost wistful. They let him be. Maybe fried eggs were not a patch on idlis. And pancakes never stood a chance versus dosas. Never mind.

All this while, the last time's virtual blogger, and founder-member of these lunches, who had earned the wrath of his better half when he called us then from Pune (so he could be there in spirit), was in reality, today, on the last leg of his arrival path, through the obstacle path that is Mumbai roads. His lateness could be excused. He was travelling with luggage and after lunch, would go 200 kilometers straight home directly, to have a wonderful dinner with his wife.

For the first time, now, the phone presented disturbing news. One of the bloggers was being held captive at work. By an ad agency which should know better. They were working on ads for Food Courts. And they didn't realize that they were keeping her away from her best inspiration. It was one thing to be considered talented, and quite another to be denied a decent Saturday lunch.

She called to apologize. Maybe the guys in her office need to learn how to value HR . Particularly female. Maybe the recently retired HR type could tell them a thing or two. But bloggers lunches apart, keeping her away from her young daughters on a weekend was totally inexcusable. Not done.

We awaited the new arrivals . Didn't know how they looked. And every time a young lady would saunter by, 5 pairs of eyes would follow. The young ladies continued unperturbed. And no one could find phone numbers. The waiters, decided they had waited enough, and slipped in with the menu lists. Fancy food wasn't really on anyone's mind. Normal traditional food was ordered, and "starters" were quickly refused.

And while the food cooked, slowly the packages came out , with little gifts for everyone. This has always been a fun feature of all the previous blogger lunches too.

Just then a young girl in a sunny yellow top, came up to the table, widely smiling. She had been asked to look for a bunch of elder types with a marathoner on the side, and she hit bull's eye. One of the new bloggers at the lunch, she immediately won over everyone by whipping out of her bag, a traditional mango delicacy from Pune from where she had just arrived. While they enjoyed this stuff, and worried as to the whereabouts of the remaining blogger, it was noticed that the marathoner's hand was slowly inching towards the mango stuff.

But they let him be. He could afford the calories. Maybe it was comfort food. He was very quiet. And contemplating about things. Absent and present.

Lunch appeared, and was dug into by the hungry folks. No sign of the remaining blogger. But Eureka ! the young recent arrival had her contact number, and as everyone dug into their assorted parathas, veggies, dal, rice and raitas, the missing blogger, maneuvered herself in a rickshaw through various northern suburbs of Mumbai, dug up roads, interesting potholes, all leading to the lunch.

Even the waiters were sympathetic. They were almost apologetic asking about the dessert, and were actually relieved when told that that would have to wait till the remaining member arrived.

The planets must have changed configuration, because soon enough , she called in from the building garden, to say that she was on her way up. She arrived , beaming, the Nuest member , finally there. The quorum was complete.

This particular blogger, strangely, is often "First !" on many blogs while commenting. The eldest blogger had once offered to celebrate that with "pedhas"(= milk based celebratory traditional sweets), and was actually carrying a little box of those, which was presented to her. Maybe she had had a late brunch, maybe it was the sudden shock and joy (maybe awe), of seeing the other bloggers, hitherto seen as pages on an LCD screen, but she didn't want lunch. Desserts were ordered and demolished.

The absent blogger, who normally presided, ratified, and divided the bill was sorely missed. They shortly left and descended into a cool cloudy afternoon with a gentle breeze. The new folks would enjoy the lakefront and they walked over leisurely across the slope.

The old banyan tree, which had made light of the swinging marathoner the last time around, looked a bit older. It seemed to have lost a few of its ravishing roots. It looked expectantly at the motley crowd sauntering by. . Hopefully, the heavyweights wouldn't want to swing. Trees had limits even if people didn't.

The marathoner looked wryly at the tree, as the rest proceeded further, to enjoy the lake shore. Glistening waters, hazy shores, some willful hyacinth floating on the lake, and the sudden turn of breeze inspired the marathoner into taking some photographs. There was something inspiring in the clump of trees protectively covering the Devi temple, as it jutted into the lake on a promontory of sorts. Unchanged, unfazed, and constant over more than half a century.

It was soon time to leave. The two newest members, left. One rushed to her folks, to visit someone 25 years junior to her; someone who appears on her own blog, toothlessly smiling at the world. And the other to take a flight 500 miles away. Back into her family's fold, but with a good chance of returning to Mumbai again, professionally. The others walked back to their cars the long way, chatting away.

The smile was returning back on the face of the marathoner. Maybe he remembered someone. Maybe he remembered something. Maybe he received a funny tweet.

Then they saw the box of the sweet mango candy from Pune. Safely and firmly ensconced in his hands.

Sort of ideal for popping pieces into your mouth, while you typed your blog, as someone arrived with a steaming cup of hot filter coffee of the South Indian kind ....

Its been an interesting year. With interesting folks, And its amazing, how the persona that a blog implies matches up with the actual person so well. Which is why whenever they meet, most of these blogging types get along like a house on fire. ........

Soon it was time to go. They all smiled at each other, waved and left. Some to their homes, and some to catch a nice snooze in an airconditioned bus on its way to Pune, 200 kilometres away.

One year over. Many more blogger lunches to plan. Who knows where everyone will be. Some may move house. Some may move jobs.

But the banyan tree will be there, like it has, for the last 80 years.


For someone to come, and swing on it and blog about it again.