Thursday, August 21, 2008

Salvation through chicken

It would be one of those dreary winter evenings of Kurukshetra. I would be ambling my way through the brick passages to the mess as slowly as possible. That's because I knew that the dreadful combo of oily sticky 'bature' and paltry 'chole' awaited me. Then I would catch a glimpse of Suman a.k.a Baba-ji emerge out of the darkness into the patch of light cast by the volleyball floodlights clutching a plate topped with masala from the mess. That'd bring an extraordinary spark of life in me. That'd mean "Chicken night".

You see, Baba, my pal and Mechanical batchmate from Nepal was our resident chicken expert. Indeed he was probably the only one in our college gang that could tell a knife from a frying pan. We were indebted to him for the infinite number of times that he had saved us from death by inconceivably bad mess food.

I'd follow him, a rat to his Pied Piper, right to his room and find the rest of the gang already salivating at the prospects of what was to come. I wouldn't even be pissed off at their not informing me, because there was an unwritten rule : "Where there is chicken, there is Roy" and so they'd know that there was no way I was going to miss any event that involved chicken. In all fairness, I was the only guy who'd actually lend a helping hand to Baba, unlike the others who used all the time in which the chicken was cooking to take pot-shots at Baba for his "inner woman" and stuff on those lines. There was a solid reason why he was called Baba. It was because like the weather of the Himalayan kingdom from where he had descended unto Kurukshetra, he was always ice cool and impervious to the multiple prongs that my gang tried to poke him with.

As the chicken slowly absorbed the taste of the masala and gained its fiery character stoking the furnaces of our hunger, we'd beg Baba to go easy on the spices. We even managed to swiftly deposit half of his estimated chicken masala outside in the bushes once or twice for the sake of our young lives. But Baba had to have his own way of getting back, so he'd always end up making something that would literally smoke our brains out. We took what we got and we loved it huffing and puffing though we might be.

The top competitors for the title of "Prize hog" would be me, the skinny rag from India and Rajeev, the chicken incinerating monster from the Pacific nation of Fiji, thoughtfully nicknamed "Fiji"! All possible damage done, the gang would sneak out onto to the two chairs and beds kept outside in the common verandah. There we'd sit passing a measly Navy Cut or two around and gaze at the stars in silence. Not that any of us was in a poetic mood at all, it was just that we were stuffed to the gills with chicken and rice and our thought processes were already stewed in Baba's masalas. Now that all of us are thrown out to the farthest corners of the world, we do fall back on the memories of these nights as the epitome of what college was to us. Back then we were just a bunch of guys stuck in the moment, stuck in it together, not exercising their minds at all and therefore intensely at peace with the world.

A curiously happy day

Never ever thought that I would write such a post, but I have to speak of the first time that I actually liked a day of work at the office and that day is today. The day starts normally enough with the cab impatiently honking its horn in front of my apartment buliding as I curse myself for the umpteenth time for not being ready on time. I stagger into office crushed under the weight of the long list of jobs that I have to get done both in and outside the office before the day is through. By the time, I have blundered my way only through about 2-3 of them, it is time to head out of office to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Taunton to apply for my American driving license. For a change, the cab comes right on call, an indication that things are looking up. I land up in the RMV office and the documentation process goes like a breeze. That is one big furrow off my forehead. I am one step closer to my simple wish of renting a truly American car like a Mustang or a Jeep, and driving down these smooth, broad roads that seem to pepper America which are absolutely begging to be driven on and fast.

Next stop is the manager's office for the apartment where I live. There are a number of legal agreements which needed to signed and the fellow has shown no inclination of picking up the phone. So I have to skip out of office to deal with him in person as my office hours are the same as his, and I couldn't hope to find him on an holiday. Turns out that the fellow's office is locked, and just when things were about to get sour, I call an alternate number to find my problems solved on the phone itself. The sunshine seems brighter by the minute. As I wait for the cab to show up again, I sneak into my flat and fix myself a peg of rum with sausages. Now I am really happy.

A hurriedly sipped peg of rum later, the cab shows up and zips me back to office on an empty road. I catch no traffic at all! That's a good omen again. I get down from the cab to run into the prettiest blonde in our office hanging around outside the entrance to the building. She's all alone and seems bemusedly tolerant of my gaze. The peg of rum may have had something to do about it, but when a pretty girl doesn't cold shoulder your insistent stare or feel uncomfortable about it, it makes you feel good. And so good I felt!

Then into office, and from meeting to meeting, job to job, everything falls into place. Every appointment kept and significant progress made on each of them. A trip out to the back of the building with the regulars for a smoke turns out to be a laugh riot, and I re-enter with an unnatural pleasantness on my face. By the end of the day, I have accomplished more out of what would be a 4-5 hour workday than in the past 10-12 hour workdays that I had put in. I am astounded at my efficiency of my performance and at the satisfaction that I feel at this accomplishment. Maybe the mid-day peg of rum is actually an unnecessarily derided solution for success and happy office days!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The agony and the ecstasy

It was a Monday morning somewhere in March 2008 when I was awake at 5:00 in the morning. Mondays are never the most auspicious of days to begin something but "The Telegraph" was holding a short story writing contest and that day happened to be the last day for submission of entries. I was at my writing desk forcing myself to do something that I had consciously avoided for years now. The effort was on to write fiction and the last time I had tried that was in class 2 or 3 when I wrote a story about an elephant and a monkey. On further inspection, I found rather striking similarities between my story and the famous lion-mouse fable. I was bitterly disappointed with my effort and that put paid to any intentions of my writing fiction for the next 15 years or so. Any story that I put down seemed to ring too much of this movie or that novel for my liking.

Now in the course of working my dreary office job, I realized that fiction was still a wonderful outlet for the cobwebbed imagination. It would be impossible to shake off the influences as they defined who I was and how I thought but I could at least focus on minimizing their effect. Writing fiction would be playing God in the confines of my mind. Now that's fun! I would imagine multiple situations and characters as I walked around town day-dreaming but I could never find a strong enough reason to actually get going until then. So with the pressure of the impending deadline on my mind, I set to work with a pen and a notebook aiming to wind up before setting out to office.
With a couple of hours of work, I was thrilled with what I came up with. A story about the loneliness that engulfed an employee when he was the last person to leave office on a daily basis, was on the paper. It was a situation that I had had a personal experience of multiple times and for the first time in my life, I was really pleased with what had turned out on the page. Everything about the story seemed to be perfect; the tone, the compact length and the focus on the protaganist's state of mind. There was a spring in my step as I entered office and a cheerful mood enveloped me through the day. I planned on sending it out by e-mail in the evening from the office itself, once I was done with my office stuff.

It was already late evening when I first felt the shock. I felt my shirt pocket for the folded sheet of paper on which my story was penned and my fingers found nothing! It had probably fallen out in the canteen during lunchtime when I had pulled out my handkerchief to wipe my face. I abandoned all work and searched for it like a madman, even taking a sly peek into the dustbin at the washroom in the desperate hope to find it. But it was gone! The truest piece of writing that I had ever penned down was now in some trash can rotting with the garbage.

I had the story all mapped out in my mind so I could've put it down on paper all over again, but I was heart-broken. My shoulders sagged and a bitter taste invaded my mouth. I know from personal experience that authors think that every story that they have written is a literary masterpiece until it is reviewed by a more unbiased reader than its creator. However, in this case, it was not even about winning the prize. It was about bringing this great expression of my thoughts (at least I thought so) out onto the world irrespective of whether it was liked or not. It probably wouldn't have won the prize anyway considering the odd faux sounding stories that did eventually win. But the disappearance of something that I had created with so much intensity, hurt like never before. The joy that I felt at its inception was being paid for equally in measures of pain. Now whenever I sit down to take another shot at fiction, I find myself haunted by what had happened the last time I had tried it. But I know I will return that way again if only for the sweet feeling of satisfaction while the piece of paper was still in my pocket. No matter how many times the paper falls out of my pocket.

Now that is a similarity shared with the game of emotions called love. Stub your toe; curse and lament and swear against indulging in it with all your might. But you'll return time and again with the indefatigable enthusiasm that this time it's really true and this time it'll really last.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From sunrise to sunset: Prologue

India is not a small country by any standards. When you are talking about traversing the width of India from the east coast to the west, in a heavily populated nation like ours, it is more variety than anyone can stomach. Fortunately we are here to discuss only two varieties of consequence today. One is the Gujarati variety that originated in the west of India and have since has thrived around the whole of India, and the Bengali variety that has originated on the east of India and has done likewise. And those are the parties involved in another Roy family marriage spectacular, the marriage of my very own cute but exasperatingly domineering sister called Riti/Chadni. On why it took me this long to get going, please consult the paragraph "About me" to the right of this blog. Suffice to say that I have at least begun and barring another severe attack of laziness, I hope to wind it up too within a few short episodes.
Like I said, you would have to follow the sun across India as it shone down upon my sleepy eyes in Calcutta to the curiously blue Arabian Sea near Dwarka where the story ends to be able to follow this marriage. A love story spanning exams, cities and states awaits the attention of my keyboard. In starring roles apart from the guilty couple of Abhijeet and my sister are good samaritans like Dada's buddy, Shiladitya and Rahul, my college buddy who shouldered the burden of a sister's marriage pretty handsomely. I, in the meantime, had a jolly good time putting my already specialized outsourcing skills to good use. I was always there for the photo-ops but that's about it. Marriages are always epic occasions and great fodder for the casual, observant mind. Before I begin, a big thanks to everybody involved for helping me to slip through the one marriage I was really supposed to work for, in a similar fashion.

Good, clean fun

Anyone reading my posts on my hostel times could be forgiven for thinking that all we did in college was to slosh ourselves out and stumble our way through. Drinking was an unavoidable pastime mainly due to Aristotle's age old declaration that "Man is a social animal". Consequently when a friend felt that a peg or two would help his cause of celebration or despair, it was absolutely rude to not join in. But all things put in perspective, it was only a minute portion of the fun in hostel life. Most of it was only childish fun initiated by blokes who were tasting their first, juicy morsels of freedom.

Carrom in the common room was a social hub as on-the-spot teams waited their turn on the single carrom board while taking jibes at the skills of the playing parties. There was no point in being gracious about your rival's shortcomings because there was no way on earth that your favour was going to be returned when bad times came calling for you. No sir, under the yellow lights over the board which mountains of powder could not smoothen, it was every man for himself alternating between being part of the jeering mob or being the victim of it. I speak from personal experience of having committed the most sensational fouls at the most critical times in RECK carrom history and the memories of all the reactions around me are hardly nostalgia inducing. The audience always wanted their bit of fun, by hook or by crook. But the malice was never intentional, it was a way of life at the RECK carrom boards.

Rumours especially of the previous semesters results being out were another way of stirring up a quiet night. Sometimes an actual surreptitiously printed Word document from the Hostel I-Net centre complete with marks and roll numbers would find its way on the walls of E-Block, while sweaty browed toppers and borderline cases (Read the rest of the world) would bring the house down on their verification pilgrimages to the site of crime. Powercuts just after or during dinner hours at the mess were when the boys hostels would really swing into life with the hum of a thousand unseen voices jabbering away in the night. The jokes would then seem funnier and the laughter had to be louder.

Infinite hours would be spent on the torn netted chairs at the 'khokhas' during and after class hours mulling over a cup of tea and the rare feast of kings, Maggi-half fry (basically a Maggi with a poached egg on top) with the stimulating company of a smelly buffalo and the flies buzzing over its dung. The cool darkness of the room would conceal a dozen odd eternally single guys lusting after the pretty heroine on the PC screen (Ahem! In keeping with the topic of this post, I speak right now of good, clean popular movies. Hey, they have pretty heroines too, and don't tell me that we didn't see enough of these movies too!) Swear words would be shouted across verandahs in the most jovial of spirits and news of a big action movie playing on the common room TV would bring crowds of all varieties and spirits tumbling into the chairs fanned by very effective coolers.

It was a weird world that we lived in for 4 years and there are countless other tales that would illustrate our paradoxical existence. It was complicated and rough, yet not at all unpleasant. We hated that life then as much as we loved it. I for one could never decide which emotion to stick to!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Top dog

There isn't much about India that I miss right now. I like the infinite freedom that leading a hostel like existence in a place literally a few continents away from home offers me. I was to pinpoint just one thing, I would say that I really miss the feeling of my bike rides through Calcutta. Sure, the Harleys and the Suzukis that I see here could eat my poor Pulsar 180 for breakfast, but just because it's my ride I love its capabilities as they are, limited though they may be.

Calcutta's streets are definitely not any biker's dream come true. Apart from a few sections on the EM Bypass, the Park Circus flyover and the Fort William/Victoria Memorial area, the roads are nightmares packed with deadly tram-lines, protruding manhole covers and spine shattering potholes. Not to forget the infinite variety of slow moving traffic consisting of wheezing trams, killer buses and taxis/auto-rickshaws operating under the mistaken impression that they had Ferrari engines under their bonnet (An impression that I take special pleasure in correcting, whenever I am astride my bike).

All these irritations not withstanding there is always the thrill that urban bike riding has to offer, not only in Calcutta but in the traffic of any other city roads of the world. The thrill that I speak of is of an impromptu anonymous duel. The duel may have roots in an innocuous growl of the engine at the red light, signalling a challenge to fellow motorists waiting for the green light, or it may be the little gust of wind as a biker hurries on his way to his destination overtaking a fellow two-wheeler who hither to was taking it easy. All other traffic, obstructions and people on the road become non-entities from there on in. All the focus is then on just putting that guy who had just passed you in your rear-view mirror. It's not just the young who catch this rash of aggression. I have seen middle aged men loaded with vegetables from the market take up the challenge of my Pulsar on their puny CD-100s and Max-Rs. A biker's pride is a powerful thing and in the vagaries of the traffic on a Calcutta road with local knowledge of the roads a vital advantage, as much as I hate to admit it, there've been times when my rivals have beaten me to the next flagpost.

Then there are days when you feel that the bike is an extension of yourself; especially on days when the office hours have been really long and home is where you want to be. A positive sense of buoyancy levitates you and the bike feels like a blade smoothly scything through the entangled mess of the traffic of Calcutta. These days are appropriately rare and that is why I savour them even more. On occasions like this, even the elder brothers of my bike like the bigger Pulsars (the 200 and 220) and Karizmas have had to face the ignominy of defeat. The adrenalin surge as competitors fall away in a quick drag race with all the manoeuvering that is necessitated by other traffic on the road can't be surpassed by any other.

Bikers seem to live for the thrill of the moment, for the impulsive twist of the throttle. You win some and you lose some, but never ever do you want to drop out of the game. There is something primitive about such a race, with a rival you do not know and do not care to know. It'll probably be the last time you match your wheels against his before he is swallowed up by the churning traffic of the city; he going on to his destination and you onto yours. It's a power struggle out there on the streets of Calcutta amongst its engine powered denizens and in a dog-eat-dog world, you'd always want to be top dog.

[Do not be foolish enough to consider everything stated above as an incentive to speed. Drive and ride safe. Reach home. Alive. With all limbs in their respective places. Let others on the road do so too. Please.]

Of cabs and dogs

Taunton is a really quiet town. On the outskirts of this already sleepy town is the apartment where I stay, so no prizes for guessing that it is not the most happening place on earth. By way of activity, I step out for a walk on Route 44 which passes right outside the compound of our apartments. This period now is a beautiful season in Massachusetts and the dainty little houses that line the roads are the only eye-candy around. Funnily enough, no one seems to live inside these perfectly maintained houses with manicured lawns. Only the occasional possessive dog comes barging at me from the inside to warn me against entering his area of influence. Not that I mind, it reassures me that these aren't some kind of ghost houses.

The neighbours in my apartment are really engrossed in their own worlds. Apartments are hardly the place to stay in this relatively posh little town. Most of them are strugglers trying to make their way out to private houses. I still can't explain the few Ford Mustangs and the amazing bikes that are parked in our lot though. I wonder who owns them? Probably someone like me who is hare-brained enough to blow all of his savings on that dream motorbike or car! In the early morning and late evening, dog owners come to walk their pooches on the lawns of our "Dogs allowed" apartment. They are a fun lot to watch, both the dogs and their cranky owners.

There is hardly any evidence of my neighbours knowing each other or even wanting to. There's the guy upstairs who won't let his dog Parker come sniffing near me and strike up a friendship, even though I've told him a million times that I like dogs. There was once a false fire alarm and even the alarms were shrieking for almost half an hour, no one came out of our entirely wooden building except for the Indian guy who stays above me, Parker the dog along with his owner and me. Fire it seems was the least of the other people's worries.

The silence around here is really deafening for me after the eternal chaos of Calcutta. Sometimes the only conversation I have apart from the office hours of 5 to 8 is with the cab drivers who get me to and from office, and I have come to know all of them. The women as usual are incessantly talkative, while the guys are a healthy mix of cheerful and grumpy. Who wants a cheery "What's happening, dude!" kind of cab driver when you've had a bad day at office. I rather like the company of the tight-lipped, sour faced ones then. They go well with my mood.
Today on my way back from a Walmart expedition, a cab driver asked me if I was looking for to buy a German Shepherd pup because he had one! Imagine that, here I am living a mercenary like lifestyle out of my little apartment and I would want to take over the responsibilities of raising an Alsatian pup. I must admit though that I was a bit flattered by the offer. Without ever mentioning to this fella about my liking for dogs, he was offering me what must be a very precious asset to him as if he trusted me enough to take proper care of it. There are times like this, rare and fleeting, that make me consider that settling down in life and having some kind of a home base might have a point or two in its favour.