Thursday, June 17, 2010


I feel restless. I feel happy. Can those two things mean the same thing? In fact, I am feeling so disinterested in my day-to-day work that I took a day off from it to sit at home and do nothing. Nothing means thumbing through detailed road maps of Indian states, reading names of small unknown places whose very existence I'll forget once I close the map. Nothing means imagining how those little places must be, towns like Bharuch with no special identity except for those people who live and breathe in them. For them, it means the world. For a car speeding through the highway which is their lifeline, they are just markers, check points which indicate that the direction chosen to get it from Gujarat to Calcutta is correct. Nothing means feeling that inexpressible feeling in my stomach as something totally great or something totally ordinary may lie in wait for me as I venture outside the trials and tribulations of my regular schedule and life. 

The promises of new experiences - mostly bland, sometimes exciting but definitely one of a kind, hang around me like a haze of never ending mystery. I feel mildly pleased but not overly so that very soon I'll be at the wheels of our car driving for endless kilometres through the aforementioned nameless, nondescript places with the wind blowing in through the side windows of our non A/C car. It's a bit like meditation, a deep soul searching experience at 80 km/hr; it maybe deep but is hardly exciting... on the face of it. Yet I feel contentment, content despite knowing that I'll be driving away from what has been my base for almost all my life, the fun & the punishments, the friendships & the rivalries, all of it with the sun and the rain. Maybe it's wrong to feel content... wrong to feel lethargic when there is so much left to be achieved in my life. All I know is that I am in love with this restless feeling of contentment (See the inherent paradox?) that overcomes me whenever there is a trip on my mental horizon, especially a trip which I have never made before and it is not really of consequence whether I am making this trip all alone or with fellow travellers (my parents and dog in this case) as both have their own ways of making life on the road memorable. They have a word for it in the English/German language and I have previously confessed of my infatuation with it ( Wanderlust... sometimes being fidgety is the same as being truly happy.

City of kings and zoos

Baroda (Vadodara for all official purposes) is only an hour away from Bharuch by train but many worlds apart. Back when we were really young (Say class 1, 2 and 3), the school picnic meant only one thing - the Kamati Bagh Zoo in Baroda. We would all troop into the matador or bus, all excited even though we had all been to the zoo multiple times before with our parents. Long lines of children marshalled by teachers at both ends and in between are still a very common sight in the zoo compound. The zoo set upon the royal property of the Gaekwads (the erstwhile royal family of Baroda) came to be the defining image of Baroda for me. There were palace like enclosures where tigers and lions roared, and green, moss covered pools which were studied with great interest for one fleeting glimpse of the resident crocodile. There was the Fatehsingh museum too with its dark, cool display corridors which I visited with great enthusiasm to be awestruck by the massive whale skeleton, Egyptian mummy and the stuffed animals on display every single time.

Baroda is a city with all amenities which can almost be called a large town and I think that is where its charm lies. The Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) with its sprawling campus and set up in palaces (with huge domes) donated by the royals is the first thing that catches the eye emerging from the station. My brother's engineering years at MSU and my sister's architecture degree offered me ample time to get familiar with the events and hang-outs of the University and offered me my first tantalizing glimpse of college life and the promise it held. In Kurukshetra, where I would eventually go to earn my engineering degree, a unique but nonetheless enjoyable variation of 'the college life' was in store for me but my brother's Tech campus, the MSU Fine Arts fair and all the extra-curricular programmes which seemed to take up more time than academics did fill me with anticipation and positive energy about leaving school and moving onto degree college.

Even beyond MSU, the city was very much like Calcutta in that, this was a city obsessed with the arts - be it the performing arts and the fine arts and everything in between. The Crossword book shop in Alkapuri which was within walking distance of the station was a favourite haunt. At one point of time, escorting my sister as she attended architecture entrance preparatory drawing classes in Baroda was an excuse, as me and Jha(attending school, so he had at least half a day of real official work) daily took the Gujarat Queen train to Baroda in the morning just to spend the entire day exploring the bookshop. The little shops right next to the station where second hand novels could be bought and 'rented' were a prime attraction of Baroda too. My brother's buddy, Dibyendu Da who has an excellent voice singing "We will rock you" in chorus with a packed MSU auditorium was quite so very inspiring as I witnessed in person the true power of a rock-star. All the knick-knacks bought from the Fine Arts fair and all the dramas, skits, choreographies and some downright zany things on display there served to make my bonding with this city even stronger, appealing to me because I found that there were people whose thoughts were even stranger than mine! And the crazy fun of living and surviving in a boy's hostel was brought to light when I ventured into my brother's hastily cleaned (probably a minute or two before my family marched in) MSU hostel room!

Then there were so many people, my own siblings, friends from school and from college who had grown up in or shifted to the city causing me to know the city a little bit better every time I visited them: the Bird Circle with the Gupta brothers when Utsav and me had a super-enjoyable overnight stay in Baroda with their parents away in Nashik; the Chandan Multiplex and the long drive to the outskirts of the city to catch a movie there with Srinath; the Inox cinema area and the Goodies eatery in Fatehgunj; the older parts of the city thanks to all the weird stuff that my sister needed to buy for her architecture projects; the buildings of the newly set-up Vidyani Vidyalaya where students who had shifted over from the more well-established Navrachna School (its sister CBSE board school) compared the two experiences; the Railway colony, its well endowed library and my brother's big apartment overlooking the lush green Railway cricket stadium; the games of 12th floor terrace cricket played on the roof of Roy Kaku's flat where hitting the ball outside the 'ground' meant taking a long ride on the lift down to go buy a new ball after a failed frustating search in the parking lot - the images of all these people and places do come rushing up when I think of Baroda.

But what comes to mind first is the memory of the endless boundary walls of the royal palace interspersed with a huge gate (which was not to be photographed, the gate guard said) here and there, with glimpses of the tree tops and the woods behind them so that no one could see the actual palace centred in between them from the road. People said that that there were deer which roamed inside the compound. In my imagination, there also roamed within those compounds, maybe a pet tiger or two. Baroda - the city of kings and zoos!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bharuch reloaded

As I go ahead and get super-nostalgic about the Bharuch chapter of my life for it draws to a close very soon, I want to write about everything and anything that I enjoyed in that little town. And I sheepishly realize that I have already been nostalgic about those things long before the actual date of our moving out of Bharuch was looming on the horizon. Here are some of my favourites amongst the many blog posts that I wrote on the town and my childhood spent in it. Hope that they strike a chord within you too about your hometown in some way or the other.

Here's one on the most precious portion of the steel almirah shared by my brother, sister and me

This one on a physically violent and violently funny incident at recess time in school

About the experiences in and around a local movie theatre, a much frequented haunt for me and my buddies

Of those wonderful cycling trips we friends made around town early on holiday mornings

A little detail on the role of the tamarind tree that stood behind our flat in shaping our childhood 

Of wonderful evenings, days, weeks and months spent on designing paper planes which would fly the farthest

About an unrecognized moment of footballing glory in my severely limited school sporting career

An admission of guilt to the scheming child I was...

I could write all of these posts all over again, gladly... such is the complicated feeling that overwhelms me whenever I think that after the end of June 2010, there will be no more inspiration for new Bharuch stories. All I'll have after that are these memoirs to fall back on and smile at the thought that they really happened.

Langur tamashaas

A uniquely Bharuch experience is that of the visiting troops of langurs which thrived in the abundant tree population of the town though of late, the number of trees have been reduced drastically due to the various signs of 'development' thereby reducing the appearance of our simian neighbours as their super-highway of a continuous network of trees connecting woods to human residences has been broken up into seperate sections. By 'langurs', I mean not the small but aggressive furry plain monkeys that you see in most Indian temples but the silver/golden hued, black faced human child sized creatures that let out a scary 'hoop hoop' sound to announce their arrival, crashing and swinging through the trees before landing up in our flat's verandah or in the garden of the house we used to live in earlier. The Bengali word for 'langur' is Hanuman, the monkey-god of Ramayana fame and the behaviour of these creatures is so human like that the mythical stories of Jambuvan and Sugriva do not seem too far from reality.

From the bedroom window of the fourth floor flat where we used to stay earlier, there was visible and audible a Bhatiji Maharaj (Don't know the details of this Godman. Sorry!) temple. Audible because the devotees there had a tendency to break out into cacophonous devotional songs every evening sometimes going through the night and to our chagrin, the devotion was expressed through a very loud microphone arrangement. On the roof of the aforementioned Bhatiji Maharaj temple was where the langur troop would first set up base camp before exploring our neighbourhood. The leader of the troop would be easily identifiable from the outset. He would be the biggest in the group and the least frivolous. He distinguished himself by assuming a central position casting a stern glance around on all the females of his troupe while they tended to the mischievous baby monkeys which clung to them as if glued and then at the younger males who would take a momentary break from their rough-and-tumble games when the patriarch's eyes fell on them. After all, he was the alpha male and no one wanted to get in his way. Fights would break out between other members, teeth baring and chattering noises included while some of them seemed just too happy at being born a monkey. The carefree running, jumping, swinging and hooping that characterized their movements embodied a philosophy that you don't need no money, no car and no house, when you can scale multi-storey buildings for a joke.

The reaction of people in our neighbourhood to their primate (that word encompasses ape/monkey or ape-like/monkey-like animals for those who aren't clued into Discovery Channel lingo) guests ranged from the nonchalantly ignorant to screams worthy of the Zee Horror show especially when a langur thought nothing of taking a stroll through a human household, sitting on a dinner table and eating a banana from the ones on display. The moment the hooping sound of the approaching langurs was heard, a symphony of slamming verandah doors gave indications as to in which houses the army of Hanuman was not welcome. In fact, one of these langurs managed to make a heavy contribution in breaking my sister's toe. My sister and me were engaged in the usual brother-sister skirmish when she landed a solid blow in between my shoulder blades and ran out of the flat to the roof just above our floor. Blood boiling for revenge, I followed suit but halfway up the stairs, I saw a big langur sitting casually on the stairs and enjoying the show. "Baador![Bengali for monkey]" I shouted to my sister already on the terrace and rushed back to the safety of our flat. My sister came down the stairs on hearing the warning and halfway down the stairs came face to face with Mr. Akshay Kumar (as we nick-named the creature in retrospect, my sister's then favourite hero). She screamed out loud and Akshay Kumar decided to jump onto her shoulder to allay her fears. Turned out that it wasn't a good move to make to impress a girl and my sister out of sheer terror jumped down a flight of 12 stairs in a single monkey like leap with Akshay still hanging on. Her notions about being a langur were a little off the mark though and as she landed on her toe, it was promptly fractured. Akshay meanwhile ran off deciding that this was definitely not his Twinkle.

Not all the langurs were this eager to expand human-langur brotherhood though and most of the time would just sit around on the trees surrounding our flat complex or up on the water tank, watching us play cricket. Jeff  Corwin had told us innumerable times on Discovery Channel that one should never stare into the eyes of a primate as in their language it is interpreted as a sign of aggression. We did try once or twice eliciting a fierce, teeth gnashing reaction from the subject of our testing and came to a mutual agreement that this was not the way to go. The langurs lived happily in their own world of shaky water pipes, precarious window ledges, "I'll eat your ticks and you can eat mine!", multiple feet leaps from tree branches to buildings and vice versa, and if their and our own worlds intersected then it was best to look away and they'd just bound away looking upon us as inconvenient but harmless subjects of their kingdom.

Once in a while, like their human counterparts, there turned up a psycho case. After a first few attacks and bites on unsuspecting people, the word would be be sent out all through town of the mad monkey. When the 'monkey man' scare about a half-monkey, half-man creature throwing people off roofs happened in Delhi and all news channels covered the story, a guy driving a white Maruti van in a very residential neighbourhood in Bharuch, Gujarat was cornered by a mob for being THE "monkey man". Why should people who share space with real langurs think that a human being driving a Maruti van is the guilty runaway 'monkey man' from Delhi is totally beyond logic but it is just an illustration of how much news of a mad monkey (no matter that it was seen a 1000 kilometres further north in Delhi) affected the psyche of Bharuch's townspeople. For us kids, it was especially terrifying. Cages with all sorts of monkey enticing goodies would be set up around the society to trap the aggressor and most of the time end up catching greedy but completely sane monkeys (if there is such a category). Until the main suspect was apprehended, we would walk around with our eyes scanning the surroundings in 3-D. Think of the situation as one where you need to be on the guard from a mad dog that can climb trees or swing down from electricity poles to give you a rabid bite and then you get the idea.

But these rare periods of concern apart, it was mildly exciting and tremendously entertaining whenever the tribe of our ancestors showed up. The crunching sound of sheet metal as the bigger, heavier ones bounded over parked cars chased futilely by barking street dog gangs made for an exciting entry. Kids and even some adults gathered and enjoyed with a broad smile on their faces, the antics which we ourselves might have revelled in were we born a few million years ago.

Always Anthony, sometimes Ajooba

[My posts in the next few days may seem a little monotonous with the repetitive theme of my time spent in Bharuch. But considering that it has been my base station for almost 22 years in my 25 years of existence, that is the least that I can do for a place which we'll be leaving forever quite soon.]

When we first moved to Bharuch, we stayed in a remote village of Bharuch district called Valia where the factory and colony of my dad's company was located. It was a beautiful yet mysterious place (vast lawns to play around in the daytime and the blood curdling laughing of hyenas which roamed just outside the boundaries of our colony in the night) and it forms the nucleus of my earliest memories (I was just about 3 years old then). But since I have already written about it once (, I will return to it at a later point of time. From Roopnagar (As the colony in Valia was called), we moved for a short period to the flat complex, Gayatri Flats where we presently stay but to a different building and flat than our present one. That short period too was a significant one and deserves a separate post because the friends I had made in that time became even closer friends on our second and very long stay (till present day) and were at the core of my fun filled stay there. Another interesting bit of childhood history was the time in between our two stays at Gayatri Flats, at the bungalow with the garden in Pritam-I society which I will now proceed to get nostalgic about.

Like every other house where I have stayed early on in my life, I have more vivid memories of what was just outside the house than inside it. I remember the roof where I used to play 'tag' with Anima Didi and from where I could see the house in which for a very short time in its very early days our school also ran its operations. This was long before we had moved into the house and by then my school had already shifted its premises to the village of Vadadla on NH-8, its location as of today. I was thrilled with the idea that someone could actually walk to their school and always wished that our school would move back to its old building. I also remember that on one rainy day when I was trying to run really fast to avoiding getting 'tagged' by Anima Didi, I slipped and fell with a massive thud completely on my own, thanks to the green slimy moss that forms in the rainy season. Anima Didi started laughing hysterically and I was so enraged at this that I went downstairs and tearfully complained to Mom that Anima Di had pushed me and caused my fall! Mom of course was well aware of spiteful child tantrums with me being her third experiment at motherhood. She proceeded to give me a consoling talk and a hug as was the need of the hour and waited for my pseudo-crying to end before stressing the point well and proper with a twist to the ear that it was wrong to lie about people just because you were angry at them. So much for motherly sympathy!

Then there were the peacocks which would fly into in our garden from neighbouring woodlands with their harem of pea-hens, while I would watch them from the window which looked out onto the garden. It was a privilege to have such a beautiful visitor, the national bird of the country after all and I didn't want to scare them away as they explored our garden for their kind of tasty snacks. Dad used to say that they hunt snakes and that made me respect the brilliantly hued birds even more. Not only were they good looking but brave too! On a few occasions, as the sky turned cloudy, we were lucky to watch it open out its eye-catching tail in a fan and dance to welcome the rain. That is such an awe-inspiring sight, one which can never be forgotten.  

What was really the grandest feature of that house in my opinion was the rectangular grassy patch of land where the front door opened out into. Yes, there were flowers and colourful shrubs at the borders of the garden, but what mattered to me was the unobstructed space in between - a grassy cricket pitch with well defined boundary walls. It was tiny compared to even the smallest cricket ground but it was big enough for our fledging cricketing abilities. In the house opposite to mine lived my greatest buddies of all time, all 8-9 years of it, the brothers Pratik and Akshat Gupta. Not only were they of the ideal age group, Pratik a year older to me, Akshat a year younger than me, we also went to the same school, shared the same taste in board games, picture books and casual cricket, and got along with each other perfectly well much to the relief of Gupta Aunty and my Mom as in putting three guys of that age together, there is always a tendency to get into minor tussles if left unattended. 

Fighting was just not us though! Come 4:00 in the afternoon and I would march out to the road in between our houses and holler "Pratik! Akshat!" No further specification was necessary as there was only thing to do on a hot summer or cold winter afternoon and any doubts on the mission would be further resolved when a sleepy eyed Akshat would stumble out to the verandah of their second floor house and get a look at the bat on my shoulders. Then would come his standard reply, unchanged, word for word, every single time I had called the brothers out to play cricket "Not now, yaar. I am sleeping!" How anyone could be sleeping while he was shouting back at me after coming out to the verandah was never really apparent, so we'd always end up playing cricket in my house's lawn. Their pet pomeranian Fluffy would also join us in once in a while, making her the most enthusiastic fielder on the field but being the crazy creatures that dogs are, she would just run around in zig zag fashion as we desperately tried to recover our ball and resume our game.

A real fun trip would be to the Shalimar Hotel in Ankleshwar when Gupta Aunty, a doctor by profession (incidentally a child specialist, so our doctor too) would make a visit to Bharuch's sister town across the river Narmada. She owned an old style red Maruti 800 and she is, hands down, the quickest car driver I have ever seen, man or woman! Two out of our trio would get to sit in the dickey of the hatchback car with our backs to the rear seat and looking at the world outside through the large glassed rear window. It's hard to imagine a time when I could fit into the dickey of a Maruti 800 but yes, there was a time like that too and I still have clear memories of how great the world looked from there as it fell behind us while Gupta Aunty zipped past everything else on the road. Once when we were crossing the Narmada road bridge into Ankleshwar for another trip to the Shalimar, I watched and cheered with breathless excitement, as an express train on the parallel railway bridge fell behind surrendering to Gupta Aunty and her incredible machine. As she went on to do her doctor thing in the city, she dropped us off at the hotel where we spent the rest of the day on the slides, swings and turn-tables of its kid's section seeking the shelter of the hotel only for lunch. A little while after lunch, Gupta Aunty would return, her job done and take us back to our home cricket ground of Bharuch.

The favourite memories I have of our stay at Pritam Society are those of 'Gajar kaa halwaa' and VCR movies at Pratik-Akshat's house. Gupta Aunty makes awesome 'Gajar kaa halwaa' and her child specialist sense told her that the best time to serve it was when we were watching our favourite video cassettes for the 1000th time over. "Tom & Jerry" videos and "Famous Five" videos were standard fare, always enjoyable but at the top of the all time list for us were two Amitabh movies, "Ajooba" and "Amar Akbar Anthony". We could never grow tired of these two movies and the immediate aftermath of watching them was that we would engage in play acting of the lead characters. 

"Ajooba" is a really corny super-hero movie starring Amitabh Bacchan, Amrish Puri and a rather funny looking 'murderous' monster, in a Alladin meets Superman mish-mash genre. We loved it then though and I suspect we'll love it even today just for the happy memories it brings back. "Ajooba" was a tough one to allot roles for, because only one of us could be the hero Amitabh a.k.a Ajooba, while the other two had to share the roles of Amrish Puri, the scheming villain and the giant ugly monster. So everytime we acted out Ajooba's story, the roles were cycled around for the purpose of maintaining peace and harmony. No one wanted to play the losing villainous guys more than once!

"Amar Akbar Anthony" was an easy allotment though with the 3 separated-in-childhood brothers in the film like us differentiated by age. Pratik, by virtue of being the eldest amongst us always got Amar (the honest cop), and Akshat the youngest always got Akbar (the kid and the most innocent). That left me no option but to be Anthony Gonsalves, the brother in the middle, the hard drinking, likable ruffian, the adopted son of a priest. I hated acting out the bit where Anthony gets clobbered by his elder brother Amar but I was putting up with it for the sake of the beautiful Parveen Babi on whom I had developed a big crush further enhanced by the number of times that we had watched the movie. Like that improbable movie, our favourite Manmohan Desai creation, where despite the tragedy of arrested fathers, blind mothers and long lost siblings, things finally come together and you know that every good guy goes home happy, so too was that period of time in our lives, truly madly "feel good"!