Friday, March 27, 2009

Drunken conviction

Engineering college saw me earn a certified gold star in drinking capacity. By the end of the fourth year, I was notorious for being a heavy drinker and feats far beyond my human capabilities were being attributed to me. They said that I never went 'out', which was a mostly true assertion because my sozzled state was notably different from anyone else's. While for others, shirts would come off, words would become incoherent and they'd have to literally mopped off the floor, I'd withdraw into my shell, just sit in a corner of the mayhem and watch others fall to pieces. My 'out' state was thus often misconstrued as the much desired stability by most of my drunk-beyond-repair partymates and you can't blame me for not being forthright. The 'tank' reputation was an honour given to only a handful and I wasn't going to be the one who'd surrender it unchallenged. 

There were times however when I'd behave too much like the conventional drunk but somehow it always escaped attracting attention. The worst of these incidents was on the night of Raveesh's job treat. I had fallen asleep early that night but my pal Raveesh nearly took my door down and dragged me to his party a couple of rooms away. The customary protestations and claims of "not being in the mood" were done away with rapidly post the first few beers. It was an especially big night for the hostel party circuit with every floor on every block sustaining at least one party. The hours zoomed by like seconds and the alcohol claimed each and every one slowly but surely. I was definitely not in tip-top condition but owing to my past reputation was assigned the painful duty of delivering the host back to the safety of his room. Raveesh was a heavy guy (Imagine Rafael Nadal without the tennis skills) and my spindly structure would've been in serious trouble even on an ordinary day. Tonight the torture was quadrupled, as I coaxed and cursed my slippery stone of a friend to his room. That he lived on the top floor of one block and I lived on the top floor of another block didn't help matters.

Dumping him into his room and securing his room, I took a deep breath in the corridor just outside his room. And all the alcohol of the night swooped into my head in a final decisive strike. The GPS inside my head went haywire and I decided with iron conviction that I was back on the top floor of my block. I stomped with certainty to 'my' room right in front of the stairs and was shocked to find it locked from the inside! I hammered like crazy on the locked door and shouted out in defiance that I wasn't going to let any random drunk from the party steal my bed. They'd have to get back to their own room and sleep, I claimed. 

Bleary eyed and confused, the real resident of the room Devender opened the door. There was a PC inside the room and I thought to myself that I surely didn't have a PC in my room. Then another cranky bit of me decided that not only had Devender stolen my room in the space of the 5 minutes that had elapsed but that he had also set-up his PC inside in that brief interval. I must admit that Devender was much much more patient in the circumstances than I would have been. To be woken at 3:45 AM and be asked to vacate your own room alongwith his PC by a smashed-beyond-words drunk cannot be the best of experiences. Thank God that he was my classmate and I had developed a more cordial relationship with him when I was in a sober state. In vain, did he try to explain that my room was in a different block altogether. For I was rock-solid in my belief that I'd claim what was rightfully mine. I do not have the faintest memories of how I got back to my room but considering that I had no aches or pains to tend to the following morning, the parting must have been amicable. Next day of course was another party (I forget for what reason) where I was hailed as the great survivor of the previous night's party as always. Now Devender was the early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of person so thankfully he wasn't ever going to tell on me leaving my reputation as the rock sacrosanct.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Match day

Cricket was an inevitability. All through our school years, come what may, the evening game of cricket was not to be missed. I'd have loved to say 365 days a year, but the swamp that our ground turned into during the rainy season negated that possibility. Nonetheless, if there was a ghost of a chance to bring bat to ball, we'd take it. Our arenas on most days would be restricted to within the compounds of our society, Gayatri Flats encircled by not high enough walls and the almost as good as not being there barb-wired fences. We had to spend a lot of time recovering balls hit out of our domain but it was inside that our sporting season flourished.

Then once in a while, someone or the other would feel the itch of competition and propose playing a 'match'. Every local contest was a technically a match on paper, but for us a 'match' meant teaming up against an outside adversary. This was serious business with every team member of our team coughing up 10 bucks (the price of a rubber ball), pooling it and putting it up on the line against the opposing team that did the same. The air was different on those days, and the feeling of a contest really intense. Our arch-enemies so to speak were Sarvesh's team which lived just beyond the boundaries of our society.

Behind our Flats was a mosque with a huge ground in front of it. We never played on it because it was too huge to cover even with 22 players on the field. But match-day always brought out the tiger in us and we'd decide to prowl this ground. Adjacent to the mosque lay Sarvesh's (or more accurately his dad's) convenience store and the semi-slum area where it was housed in. The core of Sarvesh's team was drawn from these houses. Back then, we just looked upon them as available adversaries, not the way their social and economic status would cause us to judge them now.

The funny thing about the whole deal was that it was always their team which had the stumps for the game. We, the supposedly richer kids on the block never had anything more a couple of suspiciously wobbly bats. There was a raw thrill about taking on these guys, as they had in their ranks a posse of fearsome 'chutti' (chuckers) bowlers who'd send the balls hurtling down at a much greater pace than our traditional round-arm action could. We feared being taken to the cleaners by their 'hoodjudiya' (pinch hitters) batsmen as much we enjoyed the feeling of claiming their wickets.

More importantly, we never got to finish a single challenge match. Minutes away from sure defeat, we'd find a striking example of biased umpiring so unbearable that we'd stage a walk-out. The other team would do so likewise in a near-death situation for them and waltz away with their stumps. We were probably too naive back then to know the right swear words to use anyway so every abandoned match just saw a flurry of angry words and looks, but it never really got serious. None of the teams wanted to part with the monumental 110 rupees, money that was worth a month's supply of rubber balls. We'd disperse vowing to never answer/throw a challenge from/to our unsporting opponents ever again. Then on a bright, summer evening usually within a month of the last altercation marred encounter, we'd on the pitch again tossing a coin and finding out who was gonna play chicken this time around on match day.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Khuda Kay Liye

I had been wanting to watch this Pakistani movie for quite some time, and finally managed to see it. Let's get what I hated about it out of the way first and yes, there were some things that really stank in this movie.

The proud dialogue about "We Muslims built the Taj Mahal. We ruled India for a 1000 years. We ruled Spain for 800 years." Bah! STUPID bozos, don't you get it? That's why you'll remain such a pain and a joke when compared to India. Come to the realization that a nation founded on purely religious values is bound to be in a sorry condition as is yours. Look to India and learn what keeping everybody together inspite of your government's devious schemes will result in.

It reminded me of the other day when my blood boiled. After the 20:20 World Cup final, Pakistani cricket captain Shoaib Malik comes up to the mike and says, "We thank all the Muslims of the world for supporting us." **s, get a life. We've got a lot more Muslims than you, and we Indians are not defined by our religion despite what madcaps like the VHP and Bajranj Dal might say. The Taj is as much a Hindu's heritage as it is a Muslim's and we Indians are smart enough to realize that. We as a nation owe a whole lot of gratitude to each and every religion or race that has lived here, be it Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Buddhists and we are not retarded or blind enough to attribute it to just one group of people.

And the acting was easily the worst I have seen in a long, long time. Wow, it was really unbelievable how bad it was. The Mansoor character played by Shaan was in fact quite good especially when he spoke his dialogues in English, but apart from that, new standards were set in how poor acting can be. The saving grace was our very own Indian, the jewel of an actor Naseeruddin Shah in the briefest of roles as the moderate Islamic cleric, one who preaches the true version of Islam. He stole the show and made the other already bad acting almost unbearable.

Moving on to the redeeming factors of the movie. It showed a very real depiction of how a normal Muslim felt when he is targeted totally without justification and the pain that all of them must feel inside. All the Muslims I know personally are of this perfectly normal type and it's most disgraceful that they should've to bear the punishment for the behaviour of some fringe lunatics. The final clash of the interpretations of Islam, one version as preached by the totally devoid of sanity and extremist 'maulvi' and Naseeruddin's practical massacre of the other maulvi's baseless teachings was the clinching piece, a real fightback by the movie script. I loved that bit and that indeed wiped out all the criticisms that I was holding against this movie. I think the line of the movie, a line which holds the most importance in today's ignorant hate-filled world was "Deen mein daadi hai, daadi mein deen nahin!" (The religion requires a beard, but there is absolutely no religion contained in the beard). And no, I am no Pakistan basher and I actually have a few Pakistani pals who are just like any other nationality. Again I do not subscribe to the theory that my friends are the exceptions and everyone else that I haven't met is a slavering fundamentalist. There are a number of things that went wrong leading to the mess that Pakistan is in now and I understand that. I just wish and pray that it somehow gets it's act together really really fast and stop being such a constant irritant for India and the rest of the civilized world.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Paschim permutations

There was no real incentive to get back home for us in RECK except maybe at the end of the first semester. Hostel life with its fully engaging tomfoolery and stifling periods of inactivity had put us into the twilight zone where time had come to a stop. Semesters came and went, but were impossible to tell apart as far our routines went. It was the same carrom, common room, 'khokhaa', party, 'panga', bunked classes schedule that repeated itself through the years and every sem was a minor variant of the past. Going home was something which took us out of this world of irresponsibility and timelessness for a brief vacation.

Gujarat was about 18 hours away by train and despite knowing when our semester would end at least 3 months in advance, none of us guys based in Gujarat would ever take the pains or even had the foresight to book a seat. Given the extreme demand of seats on the Indian Railways, naturally we'd end up with a rather hopeless situation of 1 berth between 8 people or sometimes none at all. We'd prefer to take the Paschim Express from Ambala as it made its way to Bombay running through the parts of South Gujarat where most of us lived.

Bombay was home to the mythical 'maal'(babe) from Bombay and so it was a logical conclusion that at least a dozen of them ought to be on the Paschim Express. Every trip back home or to college would begin in a scouting trip up and down the length of the train for a sighting of this elusive species. Most of the times, the search party would return empty-handed but then the rarity of success led to the thrill of the hunt. In case of the occasional gust of good fortune, the carriage where the sighting had been reported by the forest guide would find itself frequented by a variety of young male college students who'd be passing along the length of the carriage multiple times and without apparent purpose. Being the socially inept engineers that we were (Most of us mechanical engineers too), the closest that anyone would get to a conversation with the Bollywood beauties would be a baritone "Sure" to the squeaky "Excuse me" from her as we stood blocking the passage in her carriage. We almost never had any seats anyways so we were nomads permanently in search of the promised land. Once on the rarest of rare occasions we had a single seat in the midst of some hot architecture girls headed out to Chandigarh from Bombay. We tried to play up the non-existent REC/NIT brandname card with them, an effort which needless to say fell flat on its face. Blank looks and confused smiles met our even more pathetic attempts at further explanations. We could've walked away with a little of our honour intact but that was not to be. Like the usual 'despos', we were quite shameless about our abject failure and felt blessed for at least having had the opportunity.

Night-time would make us feel really unwelcome. The bunks would go up and the day-time smiles would flip around into suspicion filled grimaces. We'd have to keep shuffling about from seat to seat every half an hour which hardly had area enough to park half an **s once the real owner of the berth had done his best to fill up his space. Most of the times, especially in summer time, we'd stand near the door, revelling in the cool night breeze and talk about adventures past or future as the train cantered through little towns and villages long dead and oblivious to its thunderous approach.

It doesn't pay

It's 11:40 at night and I feel a little confessional, so here goes. 

I had got up late that morning.  There was this task in office which I had left unfinished even after working late into the previous night. If there was any way around it, at least I couldn't see it. And I was gonna be late again. I skipped breakfast and jumped into the nearest pair of office formals I could find. I then gunned my bike's engine and after riding for about 5 minutes realized that my cell phone wasn't on me. At the busy Moulali crossing, I pulled over at a ramshackle old STD/PCO to call up my parents on the landline and ask them to look around for the phone at home. It had been only a couple of days before that I had lost a mobile phone and I was feeling really irritated at the possibility of having lost another one. My patience was at the end of it's tether and I was stressed out to the point of explosion. If my worst fears were to be confirmed and my luck was taking the same course as it had during that week, the phone had popped out of my pocket and fallen on the roadside. I needed to confirm or deny that and for that I needed the pay phone to work.

And as fate would have it, the ramshackle STD/PCO's phone was as ramshackle as its shelter. The calls wouldn't go through and the doddering, old man in charge couldn't make it work either. To top it all, the call jumped 3 times and I was supposed to pay for 3 calls which never went through. It was a pressure cooker inside and unfortunately the steam blew up in the old man's direction. I called him in no uncertain terms a 'chor' (thief). His reaction to my accusation makes me feel really guilty now but at that point of time I was too angry to notice. He convulsed, and almost choked saying "Are you calling me a thief? How dare you?" He looked like he was really going to collapse. Another old lady, a customer of his requested me to take my words back. But I was too far gone then. I just slapped the money due on the desk and walked away, leaving the old man sputtering and the old lady spouting a lengthy sermon on the lack of manners in today's generation behind my back.

I could tell from the instant that I had uttered the word 'chor', that this was an honest man with some kind of a glitch on his machine. There was genuine hurt in his voice and pain in his expression. But I had already uncorked my suppressed anger and there was no holding back. That unfortunately seems to be the fate of every honest man. Live through your life holding on to morals or ideals that are so unrewarding to hold on to when there is decay all around and then one day have a young whippersnapper come in and accuse you of what you had held a principled stand against all your life. Many times since that day, I have wanted to stop by and apologize to that old man, but I am not sure whether that'd help heal or cause more heartburn even before I get a chance to open my mouth. 

That essentially is the reality of holding on to your scruples. It's about the Gita's very uninspiring statement "Karm karo, phal ki aashaa mat karo" (Do what is right, but do not expect any return). Because there is hardly ever any return and the need is to soldier on despite that. I also believe that what goes around, comes around. One day when I am old and weak, I'll have someone come and accuse me of a crime so preposterous and baseless that I'd be dumbstruck. And that is how I'll be paid in the same coin for my behaviour that day. Well, I am prepared and thoroughly deserve such a kick in the A, unlike the old gentleman who was the focus of my ire that unfortunate day.


The area in Calcutta where I live was once home to a thriving community of Anglo-Indians. Now only a handful of them remain, most of them having moved to England, Australia or Canada. What they have left behind are a number of Christian institutions and churches which continue to serve Calcutta well. One of them is the Salvation Army hostel which is about two houses away from my house. I haven't had the chance of entering the premises but from what I hear it's where a number of drug addicts and alcoholics find refuge. And given the occasional empty bottle of Royal Stag that comes flying from that building and crash lands into my garden, I suspect the truth is not very different.

I was in a mobile shop trying to get a SIM card for my mom, when another customer decided to strike up a conversation with me. He was about 50 years old, dressed smartly in the dress of an office goer and spoke flawless English. The content of his conversation however was anything but normal. He began with how the mobile service Hutch was trying to cheat him out of his money, and followed it up with how the company he had worked for nearly 24 years with unflinching dedication only to be de-frauded by his scheming boss. Also how about all his relatives had forsaken him and it was only his sister who sent money from Australia each year. It was a sad story all right but something about the anger in his voice was really unnerving. It felt focussed on an alternate reality where the entire world was aligned against him and his life. It felt like he hadn't talked to anyone for a long, long time but the shop owner was rolling his eyes behind the guy's back telling me that this was not too infrequent an occurrence.

My endeavour to offer him a patient hearing took a bigger setback when he himself told that he lived in the Salvation Army hostel. In the most ironic of ways, our conversation ended on a profound, undeniable truth uttered by this supposedly neurotic man. "It's a madhouse, the Salvation Army hostel!", he said, "You know why?... There are no women or children inside that house. Any house without women and children is always a madhouse!"

Run the Marathon

Life is fortunately very full of surprises. Nothing much was scheduled to happen this weekend and so it almost turned out. It was a weekend to lounge away in the luxuries of my aunt's house, and satisfy my palate with food that qualifed under "Very very tasty". Saturday evening introduced me to a family invited by my aunt for dinner. The family comprised of two cute little boys, aged 3 and 5 and their parents, Indians and Bengalis based in Boston to boot. The kids' dad was in charge of handling the boisterousness of two young boys and he seemed quite up to the task. And that's because he was a two time marathoner.

This very atypical Bengali told me that he had taken to running only after coming to the US but he was an avid cyclist when he was in India. I guess that's where his stamina came from helping him to overcome the gruelling 42 km (26 mile) challenge. He had completed the Boston and the New York marathons in years past, and was shooting for the Chicago marathon this year. That'd leave him just the Berlin and London ones to cover amongst the great marathons of the world. The Boston marathon, he said, was flat along most of its distance before the runners come to mile 20-21.5 where there is a tremendous steep incline to take on. No wonder this was appropriately nicknamed "Heartbreak hill". A number of participants falter in this final test so close to the victory flag. The marathon is one race where the "Winning is not everything" maxim can be applied.

I talked to him about my brief flirtation with running. During this unique month of my life while in training at ILP Bhubaneshwar, I had taken up running with a vengeance. I used to jog/run to our gym about 2 km away, work out and then run back. I found that once the pain in the first couple of days of running was put up with, this was the most sensational experience ever. The rhythm of my feet and the quiet calm of the Bhubaneshwar outskirts (near the famous Nandankanan zoo in fact) had got me really addicted. And in the mother of all coincidences, it turned out this was the same road that my recent acquaintance had used while he was preparing for the Boston marathon. He was in Bhubaneshwar on a work assignment and this was the road where he set up the rhythm that'd see him through the distance.

Wow! I am in awe of the mental strength required to do something like long-distance running. A perfect combination of will-power and super-human stamina is called for. It entails the sacrifice of smoking, cultivation of intense discipline and regular practice. It is also the greatest challenge a man can set up for himself and find real satisfaction on achieving. I never really wasn't into any physical exertions too much, but running felt like something special, something primeval when your shoes crunch in a hypnotic beat on the open road. Am I reading way too much into this remarkable co-incidence? Yes, I am but even a fantastic dream never cost anything more than maybe a little wasted time. In due time, leading a life of ascetic discipline for an implausible target, why not? Why not run the marathon?