Saturday, May 29, 2010

Welcome to my world

I keep getting these snail mail letters posted by Google's AdSense department every two months to "use the power of Google to attract new customers", all thanks to the little advertising bar which appears on the right of my blog page. They seem to be obsessed with the idea that my website is selling something which needs more buyers and therefore more visitors. A part of me finds that amusing and the other makes me curious, really really curious. What if my blog were indeed a real life shop? What if I had a 40,000 square foot of air-conditioned space to showcase my 'products'?

Keeping with that logic, that would make my thoughts the items for sale lining up the shelves of my shop and all the readers who stumble across my block of virtual real estate my 'customers'.

So how can I can help you today? Would you like this mildly humour inducing product, ma'm? Click on it and it'll tell you all about my pet bird, my dear Tweety, of how she literally fell from the sky and into my life.

There are lots more animal stories for you if you liked this one and have grown up addicted to Discovery and NGC!

Ok, maybe not. Perhaps then, you'd like this serious, nostalgia powered product on how wonderfully sad yet beautiful my last day in college was or maybe even yours was.

More funny/sad college stories then?

No, you say! You want them in red, the colour of romance?!! How about a poem then? Surely you'd like a poem about a grey day at work turning into a bright and sunny one! Here we go.

Oh, all right. I now see that you are the serious type. Then you'd love to know how much I hate corruption.

Just in case, you are feeling a little patriotic...

What? Too serious for you, you say. Hmm, let's see. Try this one then. No one seems to have noticed this one before even though it remains one of my personal favourites. Maybe you'll like it too. Inside info all of this, I tell you.

Or how about you, sir? Do you need something really really unique? Does a poem about my motorcycle qualify?

If you are as car crazy as I am, sire...

You say you need a cure from the travel bug bite. Sorry, I don't have a cure yet but here's a solid product which will tell you why you shouldn't be looking for medicine. All of this is this salesman's humble opinion, of course...

Day-dreaming of travel ain't so bad, eh? :)

Sky diving might just do the trick for you, wouldn't it?
No! :(

Childhood! Come on. Don't tell you didn't love your childhood! Sample this product, a tale of infantile naughtiness? I am sure you have many of your own too.

Want to go back to school? Sorry, I am no plastic surgeon or time travelling scientist but I do have a few recordings of my version of those golden days.

Sheesh! Nothing to your liking yet. You need some more time to think and analyze, you say? Wow, you ARE very difficult to please. But somehow that inspires me to work even more on my shop. Be my guest. Feel free to roam this huge collection of the most random thoughts you'll probably come across. I sincerely pray that you'll like something. The floor, all of it, is yours.

My shop is still a work in progress and it may never be complete. Some items may be on repeat display while some a one-off custom creation; some may be yawn inducing while others may be thrilling but they all are copyrighted products of my unnecessarily crowded imagination. So if you did not find anything of interest, please do come back. You see, I have a warehouse too and some folk call it my mind saying that I am always out of my warehouse. But I do venture into it once in a while, to capture, coax or drag out a stowed away thought or two. Welcome to my world. I hope you enjoy your stay whether you be here for business or pleasure!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

India needs fast bowlers

As a kid on every trip to Delhi, we always used to head to a house in Greater Kailash where one of my dad's aunts stays. Just above her in the same house, stay another aged couple who may or may not be remotely related to me but they did qualify as another grandfather-grandmother pair and as kids forever hankering for attention, that didn't hurt us. Buchu Dadu of Greater Kailash was equivalent to any other grandfather and had been a leading scientist of India in his time, probably a physicist. I was elated at every opportunity to meet him as my aim in life then was to pursue a career in science. To my dismay however, whenever I talked to him the first topic of discussion would never be science. It was always cricket. Not that I hated cricket but I was more obsessed with science.

At that stage of my life, I was tall for my age and lanky. The first question from his end would always be "Kid, do you play cricket?". Upon my enthusiastic nod, he would enquire further "What is your role in the team?". I would puff my chest up and say "Opening batsman!" and then play a solid defensive stroke in thin air to put emphasis on my role as a batsman in the technically perfect Rahul Dravid mould though it was highly difficult to play a sheet anchor role in a 6-8 over match which I frequently did! He would just shrug and say, "You are tall. You should try fast bowling. Promise me that you will be a fast bowler. India needs fast bowlers!". This would put me up at the crossroads again. I was desperate to be in the good books of this one man who was the role model that I looked up to for my future as a scientist and yet this was the man who was intent on sending me down the path of fast bowling greatness. To top it all, the future of my country was at stake. All this choice making was too much for my immature mind to handle so I would nod my head in subdued agreement and hope that he would jump to discussing science which he did once in a while. Wanting me to be a fast bowler however was part of every single conversation that I had with him. But being a fast bowler cum scientist was too much of a dream for me to aspire to even then at that tender age when nothing seems impossible.

15 years down the line, I am (as expected) neither a scientist nor a fast bowler though I do my best to follow the latest science and cricket stories. India still needs both scientists & fast bowlers and Buchu Dadu with his genius mind was prophetic on at least one count. On the scientist front, I know a couple of scientists in my own family who have come back from labs in Harvard to do their bit for India. It's been more than 10 years since I met Buchu Dadu last but I do know what the topic of conversation will be if I meet him. The question being flung at me at 155 kmph is definitely going to be "Where are the fast bowlers?"

The joker

Arjeplog is a town in northern Sweden on the Arctic circle. According to an article in Top Gear I was reading recently, 7 months in a year it remains ice and snow-bound which is why it serves as the icy terrain testing capital for car manufacturers around the world. Rolls Royce, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Ferrari - all use the almost completely frozen lakes around Arjeplog to test their mean mechanical beasts in winter conditions. What a sight it must be to see a Ferrari, a Porsche, a Rolls Royce or a big SUV slide its way across vast stretches of endless ice, being tested at the limits of their design parameters and speed. Everyone has their own versions of heaven and I think I now have a fair idea of what mine is going to look like. Kilometres worth of frozen open space and a very fast car to race and skid across it! So used to icy conditions is this corner of the woods that even civilians can parallel park their car in one single spin. Talk about cool!

Besides putting Arjeplog on the "Must-go-places-before-I-die" list for me, reading the article re-awakened a cold fear in me. "Parallel parking" is a combination of words which never fails to cause me to gulp a couple of times before triggering sad memories of innumerable failed attempts to squeeze my car in that available spot between two available cars no matter how large the space was. 99 out of 100 times, I would turn to look around, then look through the rear view mirror and then turn around again, put my car in reverse and then find myself in a position where half of the city's traffic was stuck behind me and my car was in a position which was sure to invite a ticket from a policeman or the attention of a tow truck. I would quietly get down and ask a friend to parallel park my car for me to my great shame and accompanying sense of failure. I can drive a car for thousands of miles without fatigue because I love driving on open, empty roads but tell me to parallel park my car and the sour expression on my face will tell you what exactly I think of you.

This is why the one of the few times that I managed to parallel park correctly was amongst the greatest days of my life. It was during my road test for a Massachusetts driving license and that is a certification which made me happier than earning my engineering degree had made me such was the intense performance anxiety that overcame me. Driving license tests have a way of doing that. I had already been driving around in the USA for close to 6 months by then using my Indian driving license which was valid for a year from my arrival in Boston. But an urge to save on insurance money forced me to get my driving skills re-certified for an American license. Despite having thousands of driving miles under my belt, in India and the USA, on the day of the test, it feels like the first day at a new school. The same steering wheel, brake and accelerator all seem strangely hostile when a driving inspector is sitting next to you with a clipboard and a pen looking every bit like he was hell-bent on failing you. Clearing the road test carried no value in the office conversation amongst your friends but God forbid if you fail the road test, then the joke would be on you for years to come.

It was early in February 2009 when my chosen date for the road test arrived. It was snowing on that day as it had the day before and the roads were covered with a thin layer of freshly fallen snow while the stuff from yesterday was piled high in snow walls on both sides of the road by the snow plows. I was moving ahead with extra caution going easy on the accelerator as spinning the car with the co-passenger being the old guy in charge of evaluating my driving capabilities would surely have spelt my doom. I got sharply reprimanded by him for holding up the traffic though and so I had to step on the gas to keep him happy. I exercised extra caution and stopped well behind the line at a red light on the test route but then my invigilator gave me a look which said he wasn't too impressed with my safe attitude. Hand signals and the three point turn followed but none of them seemed to bring the remotest smile to his face. At this point of time, I was on the verge of losing it as the tension of not being able to match up to his idealistic standards was getting to me. That's when he asked me to pull up on an empty street and said the two words which were the real reason for my unrest "Parallel park!"

He added "Be careful, son. I don't want to touch the snow...". So, here I was, already taxed by the momentous responsibility of parallel parking between an ice cream van and a red Ford Taurus, even without the don't-touch-snow clause. The snow was piled 2-3 feet high on the side of the kerb such that even the kerb was not visible. The snow was to be my line of reference to put my car in position. A more picture-perfect horror scenario I couldn't have imagined for myself! My mouth ran dry and I twisted around in my seat like it was an electric chair while putting my car into reverse. I looked around, checked around in all human ways possible before turning the steering all the way in one direction and then in the other. Like magic, my car had pushed itself into position or so I thought. My driving inspector was still as silent as a rock.

I drove into the parking lot 0f 10, Washington Street where the Taunton Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) is located. I sat quiet as a mouse as the inspector popped open the lock of his door. On his way out of the car, he leant back, that grumpy old man of the last 20 minutes smiled at me and said "Son, congratulations. You have just become eligible to drive in the State of Massachusetts!" I breathed a sigh of relief and he added with another meaningful smile, "I was never going to fail you. I give you credit for giving the test in all this snow!" It seemed that all his seriousness was a put-on act to have a little entertainment at my nervous expense. I was still too happy then to have parallel parked successfully and earned my driving wings, on the one occasion that it really mattered, to tell him aloud what was going through my mind. I was smiling too but my eyes might have leaked the words that were on the tip of my tongue "Bl***y joker!!!".

Pull your weight

Calcutta is a city of paradoxes. Some uncharitable critics would even accuse it of reeking double standards. On one hand, the city prides itself on its artistic history and a culture of humaneness and on the other hand, it is the only city in the world where hand-pulled rickshaws are even allowed to operate. To a certain extent it is understandable when the rickshaw-wallahs are taking little kids to school or old ladies to the market through Calcutta's serpentine lanes but what makes my blood boil is when I see perfectly healthy guys of my age sitting pretty on a rickshaw with an umbrella in their hands while a 40-50 year skeleton of a man pulls them along. It's a great relief to know that no more new licenses are being issued for hand pulled rickshaws by the West Bengal government and after this current generation of rickshaw pullers, the abominable practice of hitching a ride on the same road that is being walked by another guy dragging you along shall come to an end.

In my childhood, whenever I used to come to Calcutta for the summer holidays, the rickshaw-wallah with his little hand held brass bell (which he used as some kind of a horn), torn vest, sweaty face and the gamchaa (towel) thrown across his frail shoulders was one of the key defining images of Calcutta. I used to look forward to trips to New Market which is only a short walk from my house simply because I loved the precarious weightlessness and fragile balance that comes in a hand-pulled rickshaw ride as it negotiated the madness of Calcutta traffic. I saw nothing obscene about the idea of being rich enough to pay off a poor man to walk a distance which I could have walked by myself and then actually rely on that underprivileged man's legs to do the walking for me. My only consolation is that I was a kid back then and didn't weigh as much!

For most of people born and brought up in Central Calcutta, employing the hand-pulled rickshaw is a way of life as much as say devouring 'mishti doi' (sweetened curd) or riding the rickety old trams which add to the messy state of affairs on the roads. In a way, I do understand the logic behind their patronage of the rickshaw-wallahs too. Jug Suraiya, the famous columnist once wrote about how he had asked a rickshaw-wallah if he could pay him for the ride and walk alongside to interview him (as Jug was understandably queasy about taking a ride on one). The rickshaw-wallah replied with something to the effect of, "Saheb, we may only be rickshaw-wallahs but we are hard workers, not beggars. If you pay me, then I'll have to ask you to take your seat on the rickshaw."

That is indeed a very true assessment of the situation. Here are men desperately poor, who had left their villages years ago in the hope of finding a better life in the big city, a dream which was not to be. Today they still sleep in open tin sheds at night huddled together by the dozens, the meagre amounts of money that they make unable to provide for anything more luxurious. Come 5'o'clock in the morning and they are out on the street again waiting for their passengers. They could have so easily not chosen this path of inhuman hardship. Disgruntled by the horrifying unfairness of urban society, they could have easily opted for a life of crime instead where there was at least fear-induced respect from the masses, shady glamour and potloads of easy money. The honest, moral, humble, hard working ethic couldn't have found a better personification. Unfortunately all the attention always seem to be on the guys who cheat on government taxes and regulations for years, have crores of bad debt on bank loans but who still manage give their darling wives a personal jumbo jet on their birthdays. On bitter dark days when optimism is out on long leave, it does feel like the fate of the rickshaw-wallah is the fate of the honest man.

In an alternative take on the rickshaw-wallahs' life, is it likely that we are overthinking this? Do they feel as sorry for themselves as others feel for them? Is it at all possible that man is both poor and honest, but still happy within his limited universe? Are the rickshaw-wallahs deserving of our pity or is their simple, uncomplicated existence worthy of our respect?

I let the rain wash over all these thoughts as I watch the Hurricane Laila's remnants splash itself down on Calcutta from the safety of my verandah. The thunder is rumbling and the showers play a steady fast beat on nearby roofs as a hand-pulled rickshaw pulls up in front of the house across the lane from mine. I see that the tarpaulin roof and curtain have protected the passenger from the onslaught of water until now. Now that the destination is reached, the rickshaw-wallah slowly lowers the rickshaw and moves the curtain to reveal a 10-11 old boy returning from school. As the boy dashes for the cover of his house, looking thrilled at being caught in the rain, the rickshaw wallah picks his school bag and follows his little passenger towards his home. The boy is obviously a regular customer as a few seconds later, the rickshaw wallah returns having collected his fare from whoever it was who was waiting to receive the boy. I strain my eyes trying to decipher the expression on his face but it is difficult to define through the driving sheets of water. It is definitely not sadness but then again it is not happiness too. It does not look like pride but it is also not one of meek surrender too. Some questions in life will always remain difficult to answer. For all I could see, it was only a rickshaw in the rain.