Saturday, October 18, 2008

Into the blue

There is something special about standing in the bow of a boat as it heads out into the ocean. You may be freezing your butt off but the feeling of bravado that it provides is unbelievable. Yes, there can be only one captain on the ship but you sure as hell feel like one when up at the very front of the vessel with nothing but the limitless ocean in front of you. On the day that I landed in San Francisco, I took the Bay Cruise but it was so darn foggy that we actually passed under the Golden Gate Bridge but only got the faintest of faint glimpse of it. Everyone else was safe and snug inside the cabin while I was the only person out on the bow braving the cold and the fog off the Pacific.

Last Saturday, I found myself in a similar situation but this time the day was a very bright and sunny day and lots of people were on the decks. This time I was out on a whale watching trip out of Boston harbour and the ocean was the Atlantic. That of course didn't deter me from doing my Long John Silver thing as I hogged the maximum time at the front of the catamaran we were in, only letting people who gave me the evil eye a chance to come up right to the front. It was a really fast ride, the "Aurora" and she chugged 400 passengers along as if there were only 4. I know it's not much but she is the largest water-going vessel I've ever been on and most definitely the fastest. The wind cut like ice into the face but like old sea-dogs I took it all like a man. 

I kept my eyes peeled for the monsters that I had come to see. I had wanted to be the first to spot that famous spout but a keener pair of eyes beat me to it. A collective rush of excitement ran through the boat as all of us ran to the starboard side. There she was, the first real whale that I had ever seen, a huge 50 footer by the name of "Scratch". And what she seemed to be doing was waving at us tourists with her 15 foot flipper. "Flippering" as the behaviour is known was strange to say the least. She kept slapping the water with her flipper as she floated side-on. She kept up this show for quite some time before plunging back into the deep with the trademark flourish of the tail. We then moved on to a couple of mother-calf pairs who swam gracefully in synchronization far above the capability of what you'd expect from such massive beings. We hung around for almost a hour and saw their mild antics though I was dying to see them to do the whole clear of the water jump that humpbacks are famous for. No such luck for us that day!

I thought of our situation there. There we were in the midst of the vast ocean far away from anything even close to inhabited land. We were in the kingdom of these breathtakingly huge creatures that made the vastness of the oceans their home. Indeed they wouldn't be suited for anything smaller. 400 odd of our species, animals that had colonized and dominated this planet for about 4000 odd years now out here surrounded by never ending waters to experience exactly what our ancestors had set out to conquer thousands of years ago. Away from our cloistered existence and interdependent lives, we were all there to hear even if only for an hour, the call of the wild.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Indian connection

Most people in the States think of India as some sort of extension to Arabia. They think of it as a land of harems and camels and that is a fact that used to bug me a lot during my early days here. Now I am somewhat used to the colossal levels of ignorance that is regularly on exhibit here about what lies outside the borders of the USA. The concept of India is such a vast topic that I do not even dare to venture into the finer details of the various languages, religions and regionalities with my American pals here. I usually make do with just "No, we are a completely different nation from the Gulf nations."

But I really enjoy being the window to India for people who are really interested in finding out about India. I recently talked to the son of an American colleague of mine who had chanced across a story from the Mahabharata and was really interested in it. I recommended a few books on the epic and simplified the concept for him equating it to the comic-book superheroes that he was more used to. In a nutshell, I told him, these are our comic superheroes with a religious twist to them. He was amazed and I was even more so at being able to explain the idea behind the epic in such a way! I'd never really thought of the Mahabharata that way until I had to explain it to a foreigner.

Then there is another guy who is really into martial arts and surprised me one day with questions on "Kalaripayattu". I gave the information that I had about this obscure Kerala martial art which didn't amount to much of course. But it was interesting to explain to someone what Kerala is and of the infinite identities that reside within the framework of India. 

One evening after office, I received a call from a call centre promoting some educational course or the other. The accent was Indian and the guy on the other end of the phone didn't try to fake any other. Upon asking I found that they were based in Ambala. Ambala being just half an hour from my college days in Kurukshetra, it was like a call from home. The guy on the phone with me was in fact a fresher just out of Mullana engineering college, Ambala waiting for Accenture to live up to the promise that it had given to him on campus. He was on the call-centre job for some extra pocket money while Accenture delayed his joining date. His voice was full of hope for his future as he discussed the courses he was taking to further his career and my opinion on them. Given the economic downturn, I am not very sure when the company will finally call them in but I hope for his sake that they do so soon. 

On my trip to San Francisco, I had missed my 6:00 AM flight out to San Fran thanks to oversleeping (No surprises there). As my taxi sped on towards Logan and my watch said 6:05 AM, my call went through to the United Airlines helpdesk in India. What was supposed to a $580 ticket (I had missed my flight and was calling after the flight had taken off, so technically my first ticket was already void) got to me free. And I have no doubts in my mind that this was only because the girl at the other end recognized an Indian voice at this end and did her best to save my ***. I was on the phone for 20 minutes as she frantically tried to set me up and in the end, she did get me in on the 8:30 AM flight in place of a last minute cancellation. I have always been proud to be an Indian but on that day, I was just glad that I was an Indian.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Video game weekends

As usual we were holding on to the tail-coats of a trend, never really the first to catch on! Video games were in vogue by the time we were in class 2 or thereabouts but it would take at least 2-3 years more for my group of friends to catch up with the frenzy. We had an occasional game of Mario all right but it was always second choice over GI Joe warfare or terrace cricket.

The real explosion of popularity for pitched virtual battles began with the arrival of Santosh, the 'professional' gamer from Hyderabad into our school. We were small town boys and our experience of games was limited to the first 3 worlds of Mario or the 5th level of Contra. But suddenly amongst us was a guy who had the largest possible library of those 8-bit adventure games and he had finished them all! Santosh rapidly gained demi-god status amongst us novice gamers as he taught us all the cheats and tricks that went into overcoming the seemingly invincible boss character. The weekend became the centre of our existence as hordes of us gathered around one TV screen alternately cheering and jeering as the creations of Japanese programmers ran riot on the screen. Nintendo was the magic word that opened into the most enthralling technicolored stories. 

Recent research seems to indicate that video-games promote social ineptitude but at least for our school group it was the binding glue. The afternoon spent gaming would carry on to a evening of cricket and the rare game of real football. Our lives were filled with the anticipation of getting together again for a hearty laugh at the mess-ups and a shared sense of victory when the credits for another finished video game story rolled out. It was being part of history in the making even though the game controller may not have been in your own hands. Joining in on the enthusiastic high-fives being thrown around, it was a special pleasure to claim to the sullen faced absentees from last evening's successes in school next day, "I was there!"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My roommate in 333

Third year had just begun with the luxury of single rooms and me & Malladi had gladly taken a common verandah equipped pair of rooms. We figured that this was the best way to avoid drawing attention to the obscure topics that we so enthusiastically discussed much to the chagrin of our other pals. But fate had different plans in mind and a persistently dripping roof forced me to abandon that comfy little room that I had in the corner of the hostel's C-Block, the equivalent of Tibet in our hostel's not-so-peaceful environs.

The MMCA found me a room on the top floor of B-Block, a block that was blessed with the zest that the C-Block sorely lacked and cursed with the mayhem that was inevitable when the year's most unstable elements got together in the same set of 3 floors. So off I went, bedding and all, to my new abode of room 333. I was calculating the number of unannounced parties that I'd miss out on by not being Malladi's verandah partner any longer, and ruing my decision.

When I shifted to my new room, I wasn't in the pink of health with the fickle weather causing some kind of congestion in my chest and thereby inviting my old friend asthma. My pals often wonder how I manage to stay calm in certain situations where everyone else is tearing up their hair. Truth is, it's only because I know very well how it feels when even something so natural and subconscious as taking a breath becomes an activity you need to out all your focus on. An asthma attack is the worst you can possibly feel and in comparison, every other woe in the world is just child's play.

The room was vacated just a week ago by Rishabh Kalra who probably couldn't bear the thought of being 2 staircases apart from his bosom buddies and thereby landed in the kitty of rain affected people like me. The windows were all covered by black paper, whether the handiwork of Kalra or someone before him I don't know. But it was dark and gloomy when I first entered the room, not the most welcoming room in the hostel. I am a creature of the light but I was too ill then to think about taking the dark paper off. I dropped into bed and slept right through the afternoon and the evening. 

Both the doors were latched and the light from the windows papered out so I couldn't really tell the time when I woke up. It must've been after midnight, and I decided to get myself a drink of water. But I found that I couldn't move. I have the habit of sleeping on my stomach and hard as I tried I could not budge. What was even more terrifying was the reason that I couldn't move! It was like someone or something was pressing down hard on my shoulders and was just outside the range of my eyes as I strained my neck in vain to turn around and discover the source of this force. My mouth went dry and couldn't produce anything more than a very feeble hoarse sound. I struggled for a few minutes more but all in vain. The next thing I knew it was morning again and it was a normal college day ahead. I figured it was just a bad dream and let it go by.

But on my second night in the room, the same thing happened again! The same crushing force pinned me to the bed at an odd hour of the night as I fought with all my strength to obtain the same unsuccessful result. I broke into a cold sweat and yet again it was morning when I woke up. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how I managed to go to sleep again every time. Maybe only a person like me was capable of going back to sleep even after such an incident occurred.

The hostel is so obviously not the place to discuss such paranoid stories. A couple of years ago, we had one of our year-mates undergo psychiatric treatment for such experiences and I wasn't quite ready to join his gang yet. I put these experiences down to my asthma and tried to forget about it. But a host of chilling thoughts crossed my mind. In which room did the guy who fell/jumped to his death from the hostel roof 12 years ago live? Was there some story that was not known to me?

And for the first 4-5 nights in a row, this apparition continued to recur to me with the same intensity. I tried to sleep on my back but somewhere in the night I'd turn onto my stomach and then the unknown entity would reappear making its presence felt. I was really scared by now and didn't really know who to confide to. So I decided to try something on my own. I gave up trying to turn around and find out who or what it was. The next night I felt the same force, I eased my shoulders and didn't do anything at all. The source of the force also eased up and then it was gone much quicker than before. For the first time since I had moved into the room I was able to turn myself around and saw what I expected to see. Nothing! The next couple of nights I did the same thing and the visits grew shorter. Within another 3-4 days, the presence was only fleeting and thereafter it was gone. Whatever it was, it had a feeling that I was there to overpower it and once it became aware that that was no such intention on my part, it left me in peace.

Room no.333 in Hostel No.5 was my personal fiefdom. I had personalized it to the greatest extent possible over the course of the 2 years that I stayed there. We had everything in there : great 'addas', serious discussions, emergency study meetings and all the ingredients that go into making a hostel room a 'hostel room'. And the real reason why it felt like my very own universe was that I had to share it with a rather creepy roommate for 2 weeks before it left me for good for reasons best known to itself.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I was catching up with a classmate of mine in Boston after more than 6 years. Being old schoolmates, we decided to give another very old school (as old as 1636) in the neighbourhood a visit! 

Getting off at the subway stop for Harvard Square, we came out to find a man with a pronounced foreign accent spray on the footpath painting landscapes for paying tourists. With his big playlist of Beatles songs, he was right out of the 60s. A short walk led us to the first red brick building of Harvard, the John F. Kennedy Institute of Political Research. Then we managed to find our way out to the edges of the campus while we were actually aiming for the centre of the campus. A very irate policeman sent us back on the right path. We found our way to the statue of John Harvard in the heart of the campus very popular with all tourists as we found out. Touching the golden shoe on his statue is supposed to boost up intelligence but I sure as hell didn't feel really smart while I was doing so. Mostly it is a problem of needing something to boost to start with! Anyway I did touch the shoe, because you never know! Just in case...

The campus is as prim and proper as you would expect of what is definitely the richest university in the world if not the most prestigious. The maple tree-lined avenues and the fading evening light in the New England fall season are pretty enough by themselves and there was the entire hallowed halls of glory feel to the part of the campus we were in. We also got starring roles in an arts students 'art installation' on "Voyeurism". Apparently the girl's project was to approach complete strangers and ask them to smile into a video camera for 40 seconds. She planned to keep running these images in an infinite loop as part of whatever she was upto. We did our parts and hoped that she wouldn't end up changing the title to "Deranged smiles". We also ran across a cello playing street artiste in the Harvard subway station who in keeping with the tradition of the place sounded like a genius to my untrained ear.

Well, that is all I have to say about my first trip to the Harvard campus. No, I did not make it to the Business School and Law School and you are going to call me a fool for that. But I've three more months here so I hope to fill up that gap sooner or later. But like I said, it was a picturesque campus with all those Aston Martins and Porsches parked by the dozens telling the story of the level of success that this place breeds in a much better way than anything I could ever tell you.