Thursday, July 16, 2009


Though I never watched it on a regular basis, I've always loved the show "Overhaulin'" on Discovery Travel & Living. Folks walk into their garage to find their ramshackle old ride missing and a week later are greeted with the slickest machine possible, their old friend in a shiny new avatar. The guys at the Overhaulin' workshop do an incredible job of sprucing up the old pieces of junk, painstakingly reviewing designs, colours and configurations. It's almost theraueptic watching the guys go about their job welding beautifully sculpted body panels into place, bolt in spanking new interiors and re-paint the car in ravishing shades making a drop-dead gorgeous ride out of the nearly discarded wreck. No wonder the owner is so thrilled when his re-furbished car is returned to him at the end of the show. The surprise unlike on other reality shows does not need to be faked.

One thing which strikes me as odd is that when an inanimate object like a car is given a second chance at life, a return to its glory days, the act seems so noble. Yet when transferring the same kind of overhaulin' to a human being, the act reeks of desperation and the failure to accept reality. Going under the plastic surgeon's knife to maintain youthful features more often than causes the subject to attain a plasticized beauty that is so evident that it is almost grotesque. The inherent dignity in growing old and acknowledging it gracefully is lost in this quest for perfection. So mid-life crisis hit people should refrain from drinking of the fountain of youth as it detracts from their poise but their cars are always welcome to do so. I wonder how that logic works? Is human beauty beauty only because it is temporary?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Violent red

Someone in Chattisgarh is real angry - angry enough to kill 30 policemen and an IPS officer by ambushing them in the middle of the forest. They are not fighting for any religion or on behalf of any country. They are fighting the system which they believe to be against their development, against every symbol of the government - its officers, its infrastructure and its rules. Who are these people? Are they insane or do they have reasons to be that desperate? Hundreds of policemen and government functionaries are being murdered in this futile pursuit of an alternate 'people's' rule. It would have been almost funny had it not been for so many deaths, how thousands of uneducated, irredeemably poor people around the nation have fallen prey to this madness called the Naxalite movement who dream of giving birth to a new nation. Driven by the inefficiency and corruption of the government machinery that was put into place to help these people out of their misery, for many of them a revolution brought by the barrel of a gun offers them that only slim chance that their lives will take a turn for the better.

We may always not think of it that way but it is we the privileged educated urbanites who are the focus of their hatred - the spoilt "haves" to their barely surviving "have nots". Even our most basic necessities would seem like the most unnecessary luxuries to these people who have no idea where their next meal might be coming from, if at all. Is there nothing we can do to understand and mitigate the tremendous gap between our lifestyle and theirs? Is there no way to reduce the bitterness that has pervaded the lives of so many of our countrymen. It seems obvious that we are not in any way responsible for their plight, correspondingly it is not our duty to relieve them from it. But can anyone in his right mind ever claim to be that innocent and free of blame? There is a fire raging in our backyard. Can we stay home, pull down the shades and watch TV?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tuesday hazards

Tuesday is the weekly trash collection day for our neighbourhood and residents leave the orange Taunton city council 'approved' trash bags on the street in front of their houses. It wouldn't have meant too much to me if I wasn't prompted by rather cruel comments on social networking sites about the insignificant kilos I have put on to take up running. On Tuesday mornings, I find myself the focus of unwanted attention from all the residents of the 'hood who are really protective of what is the gold and diamonds of their household - the pet dogs and their trash.

Initially it was only the tiny Skye terrier next door who voiced his disapproval of my trying to steal his trash even though I tried to explain to him to the best of my ability that I had no such intention. But he remains thoroughly convinced otherwise and comes tumbling down the stairs of his house to stand guard next to his precious pile of vegetable cuttings and milk containers and chase me as far as his little legs could keep up. As the weeks go by, I discover new security agents. A Dobermann here, a pit bull there, a furry white ball of undistinguishable breed in the house at the end of the street - all bay, woof or growl their warnings as I huff and pant by.

I am really very fond of dogs but I find it rather discomforting when one of them suddenly pelts out of the house compound and escorts me till I am out of the visible range of their home steads. Every Tuesday I begin my run with a prayer that these are dogs whose bark is worse than their bite. Haven't ever been bitten by a dog yet, and I hope that in this case the adage "There is always a first time" doesn't hold true. If it does hold true though I'd prefer the furry white thing over the Dobermann anyday.

Poor little piggy

On the Reuters website, there is an Oddly Enough section reserved for off-beat news stories and for want of more interesting stories they've been running this story for nearly 2 weeks now. It may not dictate the future of world politics but it sure is amusing.

Kabul Zoo has a single pig on exhibit, a gift from China it seems. "Khanzir" is his name, Pashto for pig. A pig is a rare sight in Muslim countries as consumption of pig meat is forbidden in Islam. According to Islam, a pig is the most dirtiest of God's creatures and even though the poor fellow is imprisoned for public viewing, visitors to the zoo turn their faces away from the enclosure of this most 'haraam' of animals. To top all of this, the zoo authorities put the creature away into a small cell for 2 months as protection for visitors against swine flu before someone finally told the authorities that it was a human-to-human transmitted disease and not in any way to be contracted from a pig! And the pig being a pig survived all this mistreatment and oinked his way back to his cage when he was released as if those past couple of months were nothing at all. His return was via an enthusiastic run through a crowd of unsuspecting zoo visitors who didn't take too kindly to being ambushed by a homesick pig. Whether folks wanted to look at him or not, Khanzir was back in his domain grunting and groaning his way through mud and slush, living life piggy style.

Monday, July 13, 2009


It was the 4th of July weekend and as expected DC was spilling over with people - curious tourists like me and the patriotic types bursting into the "Star spangled banner" at the drop of a hat. Every museum on the Mall had huge lines leading into it and it was nothing to seperate one from the other as far as the entry times were concerned. I set my sights on the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and joined the impatient hundreds waiting to get in. It took me about 20 minutes to get in but it was worth the effort with the displays of planes like the SR-71 Blackbird, an exhibit on the early history of human flight and the wonderfully weird equipment for space travel. I didn't really have too much time on my hands with other museums to be seen so I did something of a crash course run through the museum before heading for the exits.

Like the rest of Washington DC, the museum itself was packed with every exhibit being swarmed by human bees and noise levels that would shatter the peace of outer space. Kids, parents, old military types jostled for the few feet of space required to move through the milling crowds. Approaching the exits I saw right in front of me a very young Asian kid maybe 2-3 years old, so obviously lost in the mayhem and the maze of feet walking around him. He walked little baby steps, mouth open in shock bereft of the hands that had brought him into this place looking about in every direction for a familiar face. What was a fun trip into a world of planes and astronauts was turning out to be his worst nightmare. Before I could help him out, a security guard spotted him and gathered him up in her arms, comforting him and telling him that they would find his mom soon. The kid was like a mannequin, silent and static still coming to terms with what this situation could possibly lead to.

Within a few moments, his harried parents came running through the doors worry writ large over their faces searching desperately for their little son. On seeing their son in the security guard's arms, a wave of joy splashed across their faces. Their son on the other hand leaped off the security woman's arms straight into his mom's and let her have a dose of all his pent-up emotions. He screamed and bawled, crying his soul out in a collective feeling of anger at being left behind and relief at being found. I hope that when the kid grows up he will still remember how helpless & lost he felt those few moments in the Museum and how very central were his parents to his existence as indeed they are to most of us during those tender early years of our life. That it is possible to be lost even in the midst of a thousand people without the support of those people who really care for us most.

Sore loser

As far as losers go, I am at the top of the heap. All the comfort mantras that are intended to soothe the pain of defeat like "At least I tried", "There is always a next time", "Will this matter 5 years from now?", "Win as if you are used to it, lose as if you tried it for a change" etc - they form the core of my philosophy of existence. However there is one activity in which my defeat is almost always guaranteed and it never fails to rile me up every single time, that being defeat at chess.

On the face of it, it's just another board game with 16 pieces pitted against each other on a 64 square battlefield and calls for extraordinary presence of mind and common sense (qualities that the powers-that-be have been stingy about while doling out my share). Defeat ordinarily means that the vanquished leaves the table and lets someone better take over. I wonder then why for me every loss feels like someone has sharply kicked me you-know-where. Maybe it's because there is nothing I can attribute my loss to except for a basic lack of intelligence on my part. There is no physical prowess involved here neither is any secret move which cannot be predicted. Every knight being slaughtered, every rook being mowed down, the queen's death - all assume levels of personal tragedies for me. And victory, ah victory, I can't even begin to describe the extreme happiness.

Things have gotten so bad that the only person I would play against was my 7 year old nephew (who was unfortunate enough to come to me one day chess set in hand and request me "Kutush Mama, teach me how to play!") in Calcutta and even overcoming his challenge gave me a thrill. He was getting sharper by the day though, and I am glad that I skipped across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans before the inevitable day when he would say "Checkmate". I am sure in the past one year, he has sharpened his skills and is waiting for his "Shakuni mama" to return so that he can get his vengeance.

My laptop has chess in it but I have played it only once on the lowest level of AI and defeated the computer. Since then, I haven't touched it again for fear of spoiling my perfect win-loss record against my faithful laptop. If someone were graphing my happiness over the past 25 years, a peak point would be in my 3rd year of engineering during a winter evening. I was up against Raveesh and was getting thrashed every single time for maybe 5 games in a row. On the last game before dinner, I was once again left with nothing but my king and Raveesh's troops were moving in for the kill. Then I discovered that I was in a 'stalemate' position where any movement of my lone king would have moved him into a check position thereby earning me a draw. Oh, the joy of not losing that game being in that helpless a position and the smoke coming out of Raveesh's ears as I laughed myself to death - what an incomparable feeling of success. Need I mention that I never challenged Raveesh to a game of chess again!


Too much choice is definitely a bad thing and so is having no choice at all. But the latter situation was a reality in pre-liberalisation Indian TV yet very few thought ill of it (given that most of us weren't aware of any other way of existence). There were only the Sunday morning National Geographic documentaries on TV and the cartoon shows like "The Jungle Book" and "Disney Hour" for us the younger 'uns and we'd find something else to do for the rest of our hyperactive hours before being glared into going to sleep. We had only one TV channel and try as I might I can't figure how we did spend our hours when something interesting was not on, which was like 23.5 hours a day. In fact, even the single channel, the national carrier DD-1 was not on for 24 hours, with the colourful VIBGYOR no program signal staying on for a major portion of the day.

Fortunately there were a few programs which my parents would watch with us and not roll their eyes at. Remember the show "Surabhi" of Siddharth Kak and Renuka Shahane fame, the only window to the strange and exotic places within India? We as a family were devoted to the show, bitten as we were by the travel bug, each and every member. Unfamiliar places came alive within our drawing rooms, like the village where the residents spoke only Sanskrit and other such real life Wonderlands. At the end of each show, they'd put forward a ridiculously simple question the answer to which was to be sent on a 2 rupee 'competition' postcard to an address in Andheri (E). Whatever happened to the competition postcards from which the Postal Services minted a lot of money over those few years? Every week we'd send in the right answer but never would our postcard be pulled up from the golden urn from which the lottery was drawn.

The prize of a 3 day, 2 night holiday package to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary remained an unfulfilled dream for us and especially for me. The images of the elephant wading through Kerala's waters while a tiger watched warily as Siddharth Kak's voice announced the winner's name in the background was a reminder that there were locations in the world like this where the extraordinary was commonplace far removed from the cultivated regularity of the homes where the program was being watched and from the studio where the program was being shot. I have wanted to be in those kind of places ever since those days: in Ranthambore, in the Sunderbans, in Ladakh, in the Serengeti, on the Andes, anywhere whose name causes my heart to skip a beat. Periyar came to be the first name that I associated with an existence more adventurous, the others followed as my ability to retain names and places grew. Today I was sampling a fish pickle bought from an Indian store in Attleboro at lunch and no prizes for guessing where it had been packaged. "Periyar" the name sparked up bright and clear, fizzing with unspent potential and the promise of a life less ordinary.