Sunday, July 31, 2005

The splash

Rain. It was early, 5:15, and while squeezing my trousers dry at the bus depot, in this maddening silence I realised that it was the absence of human sounds that made this moment eerie. With some dialogue our attention and fears would have turned away momentarily from the brooding clouds that we could not see. But by saying nothing, and with glinting eyes everywhere in the darkness revealing that most were awake, pressure built. Heavy drops burst on aluminum roofs, creating a loud hollow noise. Hitting the ground with heavy slaps they sounded more powerful. Then the wind blew through the rain like a whistle. In the black stranglehold, this painted a frightening picture of how thick the downpour was. It was cold and wet and miserable. Was it like this in England, I wondered?

What if there was a yelp and a loud plop in this darkness? Like someone sucked out of sight? What would we think? Manhole? Would we rescue him? Would I run and try to find someone when I could not see a few feet ahead of me? Perhaps I would pretend that nothing had happened. That I had heard nothing. But even if we did try, where would we look? There was only one candle on the inquiry desk, barely an inch left, beside a useless phone. No electricity. No torches. Would headlights help? Would he have gone by now? What was the point? One life. Everybody needed to look after themselves. Especially now, when it rained viciously. Would we care for the next man? Would I?

One more trip

This time it's with Harry Potter.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Blue rooms

Why would anyone paint their room blue? Especially government office blue? Everywhere I went this was the colour of choice. Is it because it is inexpensive? Is it because someone actually likes this shade? In that case I recommend art appreciation classes for the entire country.


To leave Bombay was to escape it without knowing what lay beyond the moat. Books and guides advised romantic getaways and historic forts, which is what instant travel books do, I suppose. But these were outlines. I needed texture. What did the fishermen of Alibag do when it rained? Was white sand really white? Was life in the countryside a romantic notion? Some questions were obvious but I needed to know first hand, rather than hear incomplete experiences and vivid descriptions of glorious mountain peaks and nothing about their bases. India, we see when we step back from its shining glory, is a testing country where helplessness can be a persistent companion. It is not a place of romance or mystery but of eternal struggle, which is not to say that romance cannot be found in its appearance and characters. But this struggle is between moving forward against holding back.

I brooded over many things between destinations as the landscapes changed from lush flatlands to curvy green and reddish-green mountains, but mostly about why progress was this limited. In the fields laborers picked at the soil. Why? How much did they earn? Over and over for two weeks I wondered about opportunity and its absence for so many. And it scared me because after a fortnight on the road, traveling and talking to people of different castes from different religions, the most lasting impression was one of a silent battle for survival. I found myself in that struggle, breaking out of a claustrophobic cocoon because there was no alternative. To not fight would mean resigning to fate, a terrible choice, and forever living a life wondering what if? Where would we end up if we resigned to fate? And yet it is what so many give themselves up to everyday. At times it felt as if the only way out of trouble was to live with a sense of urgency. At times it felt as if nothing but a cool bed and warm meals mattered. At times it felt as if money and nothing else mattered. At times there was abject misery and desperate loneliness and a feeling of being uprooted and being thrown into a strange country. I longed for the India I knew. But everyday the India I knew changed a little more, and everyday I changed a little with it.

It's been a fascinating and frustrating two weeks on the road. In a few days I'll put up a log of the adventure.

Friday, July 29, 2005

A thought on resilience

Most cities are resilient. Most people are resilient. But only when the tools to rebuild already exist.

Home, dry

Sweet, sweet home.

Last night, after walking out of a net cafe in Belgaum, a stranger asked why I looked frazzled. I said to him that trying to reach home from two states thrice in two days was tiresome. He smiled and asked me to wait while he called someone over. A person whose crooked teeth somehow described this situation appeared from a mass of farmers milling around the bus stand across the street. 'Banglorebanglorebanglorepatnapatnapatna?' he asked or said to me over and over while he crossed the busy road. It was the strangest proposition by a tout so far this trip. I corrected him. 'Yesyes, there is Bombay bus also. Where you want to go?'

His blue-washed office contained a desk, a phone, and a large laminated photograph of the bus. It was what is referred to as a Volvo, in the way that all photocopies are called Xeroxes. To be called a Volvo, the bus needs to be air conditioned, have a television, and have comfortable seats. The tout said to me quietly that this bus would try a different route tonight, and it would take us to Bombay in nine hours. His whisper hinted that we'd be running guns and drugs. Remembering my struggle in the dark at Ratnagiri, I considered sleeping in at Belgaum and reading in the morning papers a report of a missing Volvo bus. But the tout burst my thought bubble with, 'Tell me now. Seats are getting full.'

Not long after, the bus left. After initial scuffles over seats, which forced the driver to stop the vehicle three times and personally threaten the participants with ejection on the desolate highway, a restfulness settled on the passengers, all of who had battled the unforgiving weather and wearisome state transport officials. Soundproofed, the bus was quiet inside but for the engine's faint hum and the rustle of a plastic packet. Even a potentially punishing traveler - the omnipresent baby - cooed and was then silent. Then, with admirable timing and considerable volume, the movie 'Fida' came alive on the television down the aisle and the speakers above. The alarmed baby began to wail, a middle-aged Gujarati wolf-whistled, a phone rang, someone stepped on a villager sleeping in the aisle, and Shahid Kapoor tilted his head and smiled.

The lullaby was inappropriate, but the wake up call was incomparable. The driver roused us with lovelorn melodies from classics. Suhani raat dhal chuki, naa jane tum kab aaogey; Bindiya chamkegi, chudi khankegi, neend ud jaye to udney do. There were giggles when the theme became apparent. The person beside me sang a whole song with his eyes shut.

Then Bombay appeared.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

All routes are busy. Please try again later

Roads: blocked. Rail: blocked.

The kind of rumours that spread! A quick call to Goa and a private operator assures us that the routes from Panjim are open. Word spreads like wildfire. But where's the bus to Goa? It's not here! Where is it? It's stuck in Goa, a transport official says irritably, where it's been since noon because it can't get out. What about the Kolhapur route? That's open, he says. We run to the Kolhapur bus, which is now a Jhumritaliya bus because, the conductor tells us, there have been landslides and no one can get to Kolhapur. When can we go then? He chews his tobacco slowly and says he can't help. We race from bus to bus, asking "Bombay? Goa? Kolhapur?" Everyone's got a suggestion, but no one has a clue. One helpful man suggested we catch a bus from further south, closer to Bangalore, or a train at Bangalore. Most of us refused, wondering what would happen if there was another slide and we couldn't even return to Belgaum. This way we'd paint ourselves into a corner in Sri Lanka.

A call to the station in Goa tells us there are trains leaving but no buses, because the route is blocked. A call to the station in Belgaum reveals there will be no trains to Maharashtra because all the routes are blocked in some way. Progress will surely be made tomorrow, the optimist on the line says. Now I doubt it's as bad as this, but it gives a fair idea of how lost everybody is. The news says one thing but around here, when you're running from one bus to the next, from one state to the next, the situation is quite another.

And it's now pouring here. I guess it's the hotel room and remixes for the next few days.

Random stat

Well not so random. 1010 kilometers covered since leaving Ratnagiri day before yesterday. All in state transport buses. So that's like, what, 5 gazillion miles or something. With a sore bum.

Road to nowhere

Two days ago I prepared to leave my Ratnagiri hotel at 5am to catch a bus to Goa and onwards to Gokarna. At precisely that moment, the lights of the entire town went out, and it began pouring. It was so dark that had I shut my ears, I would not have known it was raining. Luckily a passing milkman on a scooter gave me a short lift, leaving me to the only road with a streetlamp on. I wish it wasn't. On both sides were gutters overflowing with excrete which slid downhill during the torrent. There was so much of it that it didn't make sense to tiptoe around it. But at last I reached the end of the street where (and this was a day for great timing, really.) the streetlights went out, plunging absolutely everything into darkness. The kind of black darkness that is suffocating because it is so claustrophobic. It is a scary darkness because you can't hear a single other sound than rain, and you expect to be mugged or fall into a manhole, or be run over by a car. And then there's the rain which is so heavy you can barely see passing cars.

Fortuately I literally bumped into a rickshaw, whose driver left me at a bus station. At 6am, wet and itchy, a busload of passengers left for Goa, just as it fell even harder. On the way to Goa the skies brightened several times, but it became gray rather quickly, and there would be moments when visibility in the day was so low, the bus had to crawl on the highway. Bridges were on the verge of being submerged as we passed them.

I later found out that a few hours after I left, Ratnagiri was swamped completely. It's been madness. Travel to Gokarna, travel back to Goa, spend the night at the station, go to north goa to catch a bus to bombay, then travel all the way back to Karnataka on a hunch and an assurance from State Transport staff in Goa that buses leave from Belgaum to Bombay. And then be told in Belgaum that first one must go to Kolhapur in Maharashtra to travel forward to Bombay. No one knows what's open or what's closed. The trains aren't running. The systems are down. There are people panicking in bus stands in Goa and Karnataka and Kolhapur and, like ants, are trying to reach their destination by retreating and approaching from different angles. It can be fun, but is very very frustrating to travel 200 kilometers in the wrong direction and then be told where you were last was the right place to be.

I have this niggling feeling that's growing by the hour: it isn't Bombay that's isolated, it's the rest of the country that's isolated from Bombay.

More later. I'm pooped. This travel business can make you wish you were a computer programmer at times.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Cow ear

Early morning an ST bus leaves Ratnagiri for Panjim. Sometime later that day another bus might leave from Panjim to the Karnataka coast. That's what this trip has been like: a whole bunch of maybes and what ifs (what if I visit the snakes, not the beach?). If I get to Karnataka, finding Gokarna might be easy. Two things, though. There's a flood watch in Goa, and Gokarna might not have a working internet connection, as was the case at Mahabaleshwar, Alibag, Ganapatipule and other places. Some places people looked all funny and repeated 'internet' like it was a disagreeable animal. Anyway.

Oh, so probably no more crazy blogging until Bombay. And Gokarna is 'cow ear'.

A thousand cuts

5pm to 7pm daily. Anytime between 9am and 7pm. Anytime from 12am to 11.59pm. Take your chances, and avoid escalators, roller coasters and blogging directly in the Blogger interface during this time. The electricity is moody here, plunging towns into darkness.

We in Bombay are so lucky. No electricity even for a few hours inconveniences you in ways you can only begin to comprehend. If not directly, then certainly indirectly. You grow patient, and resign to fate. The pace slows, expectations begin to lower gradually. Bit by bit you are eroded until you fall in line.

Power empowers. No power, well, and you're in the dark.

The scarecow

It used to moo once, that I'm sure of. It looks real enough from this distance, but it's not so far that there could be any mistake. That's a head alright. And it's in the fields where cows should be, so that's alright. But from there it's looking here, which is spooky. How often do you see a cow skull on a stick? It's petrifying. It's not a maa. It's an evil step-maa.

Update: Or an evil step-moo.

The drop

The first drop tingled, and echoed a coolness through his body until he could no longer stand. His bones melted and shapelessly he fell to the parched soil; the drop had eroded worry. Laying there, he watched a seed crack, take root, push through the mud toward the sky. Land multiplied, green grew, and his children traveled in the plane that flew by above every afternoon. Then they returned to claim their land, marking lines in the shifting soil, breaking everything in half. He heaved for sons, land, and wealth that did not exist. Wiping away tears he looked upward to a sky that belonged entirely to the blazing sun. And he cried again, not only over that drop, if it had indeed fallen, but also for he now knew that every hunger could be momentarily sated by a cruelly generous imagination.

The plunge

I would not have grudged him peering into the valleys below when the slim road curved around the mountains, but he was the bus driver. Perhaps his peripheral vision alerted him to danger because he brought it to a stop many times this way, seconds away from newspaper headlines.

When there are headlines we might dig out a truth reached by consensus, or blame a wet road or faulty brakes. But the driver? No, he is safe, for who would believe he was looking the other way?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Nagin - The Deception

I am in a rickety bus whose windows slip open even after repeated attempts to slam them shut. On closer inspection I discover it is not the windows that are sliding open, it is the skeleton of the bus that is rocking as the bus hurtles along the side of the Western Ghats in blinding rain. The bus left Ratnagiri long ago, and it seems to halt just as it starts, to pick up drenched villagers. The path runs beside a brown river that gushes and swirls angrily, like a temper about to burst. The runners above the windows that collect rainwater and spray it on to the road are utterly ineffective; they drag water into the bus instead. This ruins the serenity in watching the glistening Indian countryside scroll by. After an age we arrive at the final stop, where topless middle-aged men run about in ankle-high water and foolishly kick it at each other, but it is lost in the rain. Then one stops to chant, punching the air, and the others follow. He repeats this, and more join in, and this continues until just about everybody has abandoned their pursuits to chant. This is Marleshwar, where I am uncertain who is worshiped. I came to see the snakes.

The first time I heard the name was yesterday, as I eavesdropped, and nearly kicked myself for not knowing there was a snake-filled temple in Mahabaleshwar, where I had spent three days. Anyway, at present there are stairs leading up a mountain. Religion makes you work hard. The stairs just go on and on until they disappear and I have this sinking feeling there are many more. Perhaps what lies at the end of this will be worth it. What people say lies there is a temple filled with snakes that don't bite. They live in harmony with the chanting priests. I am of course curious, and want to see and touch snakes and talk to the priests about them and see where they live. But first the stairs. Not easy, these stairs. Like a test or punishment, rain falls harder now than at any time during the trip. Wet denims are not ideal, for they triple in weight. After the first bend, there are more steps. I contemplate giving up, but I left at 8am and it is now noon. One by one, the steps are tackled.

And then, the top. It is anticlimactic, for there is a viewing platform, and nothing more. Where is the temple? There are people looking happy and taking pictures, but not one snake. Then someone points me to a hole in a mountain wall. It is a cave, from which a dim light emerges. Inside, it takes a moment to readjust to the darkness. Then it all becomes clear. Horribly so. I see pandits and more pandits and pandits blessing people and ringing bells, but no slithering, slimy reptiles curled up on the floor. Frothing inside, I politely ask a pandit if the snakes are elsewhere. He looks surprised and peers about a bit before a memory returns. He says with a smile, "It is not their season. They will come in September."

All the pent-up dreams of fame and recognition for a path-breaking story on the snakes of Marleshwar crumble. Violins play in my head. The clouds are black. The steps down are slick with oil. The river below surges over its banks, sweeping me away with the topless men. It's going to be a long three hours back.

Lost stories

No one knew where the forts of Chaul were. The residents shook their head and directed me to the next resident, who fared little better. As consolation, alternatives at Alibag, from where I had arrived, and Murud were offered. It could have been frustrating, but their lack of knowledge was reward for having come this far. If they did not know of the forts, how many did? Discovery, even rediscovery, would be cherished, for each new sight adds value. This hope, with its natural companions, despair and loneliness, had already become my palette.

Further inquiries about the Portuguese and their churches pulled me to Revdanda, a neighboring town that had succeeded in sweeping away the finer memories of its past. Blue- and green-eyed fishermen went about their task with an interest in the present, speaking in Portuguese Creole, whose century-old cracks were filled with Marathi and English. A watchtower across the bay from the nearby steel factory was ruined, its turrets having fallen in. Rusting cannons four centuries old were scattered among shrubs and fallen bricks and a tree grew on the broken arch above the entrance. A crushing stone ball rest on the bones of invaders, and centuries of dust rest on it. The dead spoke in the wind’s whispers. Spectral soldiers slept under open skies. Grandeur’s fate also is to ultimately be forgotten. And what greater opponent than a fading memory?

Here we were, the Catholic policeman and I, remembering memories, no, stealing them, seeking concealed tunnels and ammunition stores, cutting a swathe through walls of living green, hoping each step forward took us back. His was a curiosity forged by the tales that had been forgotten: who were his ancestors; how did they live? He had never strayed this far before, he muttered in the middle of pushing away a bush, and he had not known so much before. Could stories that had been lost one day be found here, he asked. If they are, they will be dusted and possibly unrecognizable, having none of the gloss applied by each successive storyteller.

When we saw the tunnels, they had already been discovered, covered with paint marks that hinted at a local religion. But neither noticed the marks. He leapt with the energy of discovery, and I sat down to comprehend what lay beyond.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The evil park bench

Simon Mills writes in the Guardian about his jaunt in Palermo, and realises something Indians - and young adults in Bombay - are only too aware of: the freedom that isn't theirs to enjoy. Luckliy, there's a happy ending.

What I really liked about Palermo, what made me feel rather sad for my
passing youth and innocence, was the way that this poor city was positively
affluent with young love. Everywhere you looked pretty girls and boys were
tangled up in each others' arms. Miss Sixty get-ups were wrapped around England
football shirts (a bizarre new fashion for teenage Sicilians - no idea why) or
clinging on to one another astride Vespas. Or kissing and canoodling in
alleyways and on park benches. You know why this is, of course; young Sicilians,
who still live with their parents well into their 20s usually, have no where
else to go so they rely on mobile phones (did you know, by the way, that there
are more cellular phones in Italy than land-line ones?) and the streets for
their private affairs.

But not everyone is as happy with their wandering hands as your foolishly
romantic reporter. Some fuddy-duddy locals reckon that the kids take their
public displays of affection to an obscene and indecent level, and a few years
ago Palermo's civic administrators decided to take action against the young
lovers who hung out in the Via Belmonte shopping street. Their solution,
typically Sicilian in its swingeing, radical and histrionic mood, was to remove
all the benches lining the street. The entertainingly curmudgeonly decision even
made the national news. Needless, to say, the benches are now back and the amore
Here's the whole piece.

For those annoying religious problems...

At Ganapatipule earlier today, a priest told me about the famous temple's history. It was over 450 years old, though the shrine was relatively new, having been built by Shivaji, the king. Like most origins, this was a vague one as well. Apparently a cow owner found out that his cow, which otherwise gave no milk, would walk over to a rock in the woods everyday and douse it with milk. That night, in a dream, Ganapati told him that he, the god, lived in that rock.

Presently, that red rock had milk poured over it by young priests, as had been the case daily for over four centuries. It was garlanded, had reliious markings over it, and was narrow at the top and thick at its base, which gave it a vague resemblance to Ganapati. The priests advised that if I took a round of the hill behind the temple, where the rock was located, all my dreams would come true. So with time to kill before the next bus to nowhere rattled along, I walked up the paved path that rang around the hill. The faithful were scattered along the path sweeping, mopping, and cleaning as penance. Then, just as I could take no more - as I carried a considerably weighty backpack - a man in a hut asked me to offer my prayers. On the hut floor - and this was what the fuss was about - was a rock shaped vaguely like an elephant trunk. There were bells and religious markings and more bells and money spread about it. The man demanded a payment before leaving.

Down the hill, a coconut seller sat mournfully at the empty bus stand. It was the off season. I asked him if the priest's words about dreams coming true was true. A man translated this into marathi. The seller closed his eyes and made a clicking sound. No, was the translation, it's just a story they tell people. The translator and I then got talking about what we were doing here. He was a government health inspector taking blood samples, he said. For what? Elephantiasis.

Coming out of the closet

At Mahabaleshwar I struck up a rapport with a local restaurant hotel owner. It was based on economics and convenience: I needed a place to eat and write, and he had a customer who kept the register ringing throughout the day in the off-season. The conversation was good. We watched a cricket match together, spoke about competition in Mahabaleshwar - "Makes things better," he approved - and talked about visiting places.

Our conversation veered towards temples in Kanyakumari. I asked if he knew anyone there who I could direct a few questions at. "No," he replied, "but anyway, the temple is by the RSS." He grinned through his french beard, and I wondered why. "It is by the RSS," he repeated and shook his head. "I am an RSS man." There was something I should have said, but didn't know how to respond to this sudden turn. "I am an RSS man like my father." More nods from both of us.

Then, folding his hands and allowing some seriousness into his expression, he announced, "I am a communist." Now I was truly flummoxed but tried not to let him see that. Inside, I screamed for help with this conversation, outside I was unaffected. Several things confused me: one, the abrupt turn of this conversation, two, did competition of this kind and communism go hand in hand? Meanwhile, he nodded and once again his lips parted in a smile that then seemed sheepish. And somewhere, in my mind, I saw this in a different light: that shy smile, by this tiny man, was like that of a person emerging from a closet to reveal his true sexual orientation. It was shy, I believed then, and felt a swell of warmth and sympathy in my chest. Carried away with this feeling, without pausing to think, I consoled, "It's okay to be a communist, really!"

His smile pretty much disappeared, and he turned off the cricket to wath a saas-bahu serial.

Roach motel

The first night was terrible. Large noisy insects buzzed about the blue room, so I left the light on for them to race into and knock themselves out. But then it was impossible to sleep with the bright bulb illuminating the entire room. I pulled the ragged sheet over my head, and off my feet. This was bad because between the foot of the bed and the wall was a cavity where light did not penetrate and, in a place like this, there was every likelihood that something crawly lived there. To accomodate both head and feet I curled into a ball. This raised the temperature by several degrees but I was now completely covered. It would take great effort for them to bite me.

Every now and then, I recall now, a buzz would sound close by my ear and then it would stop abruptly. Then itches and lumps would form in various places. I resolved to not scratch or react. Four hours had passed since I first lay down, and I fell asleep wondering if the entire trip would be like this. Whether my entire life would be like this: the sound of something whizzing by followed by lumps and bruises.

It was late - the television in the hallway was no longer audible - and I woke up in a wet bed. So was the blanket and everything in between. That's because the electricity was cut. Fed up - I did not care what bit me; even Dracula was fine - I pushed at the closed windows, which budged an inch but not more. A giant spider scurried inside. Really. Why. Was. This. Not. Surprising. Anymore. ?. !. I gave up and fell onto the bed, which was bad because it was a sheet on a block of hard wood. It was also bad because my foot slipped into the cavity between the wall and the bed. Inevitably, something scampered up my trousers. I stayed awake, writing, until the birds began to sing.

At daybreak I rushed down the corridor to the communal shower. That's what the sign outside said. Inside was a Silk Smita porn set. A red bulb. A tap. And a cracked window from where mosquitoes poured in, overjoyed at this massive early morning meal. We fenced. But there were too many. Watching this were the spiders hanging from the ceiling.

As I left, a guesthouse employee asked whether I'd be staying longer. Apparently he had heard something from his mates. There were things that could have been said. There were things that could have been done. But I just said no. It took a lot of restraint.

The monologue in the ice cream parlour

It was hot in Alibag and I was feverish. So feverishly I set about to find an establishment with an air conitioner or a big enough meat freezer for me to rest my feverish self in. Maddeningly, there wasn't a single air conditioner I saw. Most were tantalisingly close (on the first floor) and turned the wrong way around. But there were ice cream shops. Or shoppes. So I found a cool enough one and ordered a large ice cream. Just then, someone tapped my shoulder.

"Good morning sir," said a well-turned out man with shiny hair neatly parted down the center, at 3:35pm. With a flourish he pulled out a box of sweets and indicated that I should help myself. Wondering why I was doing so, I did so. With a warm smile he withdrew from the shoppe,down the street, and out of sight. Too hot to be anywhere else, I read a book below the fan. Outside, the town had begun to wake up from its siesta and take its place behind the counters of grocery stores. A gang of weekenders appeared and cussed their way through the flavours menu until they were satisfied. Appeased, they licked their ice creams silently in a corner. This quiet was preferable for reading, so I reopened my Pankaj Mishra book.

"What do they think?" came a roar from somewhere just above me, a foot away and, going by the spittle bubbling and bursting on the pages of my book, directed at me. It was not a question. Not that kind that could be answered, anyway. Slowly, with every fevered neck muscle straining, I looked up to see the friendly sweet-man had come to collect his due. His arm, violent in its rigidity, stretched outwards, pointing toward a shrub outside the shop. He spoke with a vehemence that was rousing, hypnotic, and barely sensible. His eyes, black with (Fury? Humour? Angst? Calculation?)...(perhaps they were just black)... in any case, he held my gaze, and only when he blinked did I look elsewhere for help, first to the shop keeper and then to the group, who were admittely licking their ice cream very slowly with eyes wide open. He kept talking, shouting, motioning and thrusting his body at someone who wasn't there, and had he been there his quota of lives would have been up. He offered me a jack knife first and later a sword to help cut open the gangsters (there was a sizeable underworld involvement), and then he offered to do it all himself; land was stolen; it involved chipped plaster and moisture in the paint. It was a great monologue, fearless in its intent, unpredictable, and utterly physical so there were no questions about the violence involved. Not a word was spoken by anyone else.

And then, having reached a pitch that stopped passersby, he stopped. His eyes were wet. No one asked a question, no one said a thing. His shoulders fell, and he turned around and slowly walked through the path left vacant by the crowd outside. The departure left a doubting silence. The watchers turned to one another and then slowly dispersed. Madness would have been an easy diagnosis, but a good monologue can be convincing.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


The bus halted at Alibag at 9am today morning, and the aged gentleman who was my companion for the three-hour journey from Bombay asked in surprise, "Leaving already?" We had grown close in that time, and for that we had to thank the State Transport bus. We held on to each other for support as the bus banked both ways along the rolling hills, and rose off our seats as the bus hurtled over speed bumps, and braced the other as much for them as ourselves as we crashed back on to wooden seats. Our sore behinds bonded us.

We said goodbye, and I never saw him again.

A little later, after examining a room in a shady hotel (walls painted blue, spy camera behind mirror, etc.), I had a brief chat with a restaurant owner. Before he got talking about the forts and the beaches and the Birla temple, I asked him what he did for fun. He looked around helplessly until his eyes met his father's. "We do the same things that you do in the city," his father announced. "We come to work, we work, we go home from work." A quick thanks and I headed off to do some touristy things. Somehow I stumbled into a village and had another chat about corruption (why are all my conversations in obscure places about corruption?) with a Koli fisherman, whose friends - by screaming until I realised that there was more to their calls than a request for photographs - prevented me from walking into a pack of wild dogs.

In the distance, going by what the fishermen say, I can see the silhouette of one of the ruined forts at Chaul. It seems to be on a hill, and is visible enough to evoke memories of fairytales. That's where I'll be tomorrow.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Baskervilles are out, but beware of the hound

A writer takes his children to Dartmoor for a little visit and, soon after they arrive, a fog settles. They hear unearthly sounds by what could be ferocious beasts, and imagine a man disappearing into the fog and never emerging again. And then there's the escaped convict, whose legend grows as years pass.

This is a nifty bit of travel writing about the place where The Hound of the Baskervilles was set.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Big Friendly Writer

In his puckered-up faces (like a dog's bottom) I saw my own teachers; his savage giants were my school bus bullies. And in his world of candy I saw myself. Here's Roald Dahl:
“Every now and again, a plain grey cardboard box was dished out to each boy in our House,” Dahl writes in “Boy.” Inside were eleven chocolate bars—aspirants to the Cadbury line. Dahl and the other boys got to rate the candy, and they took their task very seriously. (“Too subtle for the common palate” was one of Dahl’s assessments.) He later recalled this as the first time that he thought of chocolate bars as something concocted—the product of a laboratory setting—and the thought stayed with him until he invented his own crazy factory.
It's a good profile: of his good and bad and the reasons behind his decisions. (Hat-tip to Menaka, who'd do well to blog more often.)

Seeking Atlantis

Ian Jack, writing the introduction to the Granta Book of Travel, has an interesting thing to say about the kind of writers now putting down their experiences. Briefly, what Jack says is that before the second World War the means to travel far were uncommon and inconvenient. Writers did not travel to write. Travel writing was something they did beside their main field of study, such as botany or archaeology. Since then, however, it became easier to traverse the world, which led to writers of all sorts traveling to a destination for the sole purpose of writing about travel. These included writers of fiction.

At a dinner last night I offered to send a Goan native friend an essay on her home state by a favourite travel writer. I secretly reveled in the thought that she would be touched by this thoughtful, well-written article which included dialogues with a resident who knew her Goa. It transpired that not only had she read this, but the dialogues with the Goan – the other protagonist of the piece besides the state itself – were concocted. The resident had turned out to be the Goan friend’s aunt, and she denied having said much of the dialogue eventually attributed to her in the writer’s essay.

The conversations were harmless, for they did not have the potential to create trouble, but they were fictitious. And yet, though a certain trust was breached – he is after all a travel writer – it did not bother me as much as it could or should have.

I guess it is part of the travel writer's makeup; to add elements so your story flows smoothly. Also, when there is a delay between the incident and the writing of it, the mind fills in spaces. As a writer you might recall, as you sit down to write, the furtive eyes of a man expecting trouble. In reality, however, he may have been nervous and had something to hide, and though he didn't really have furtive eyes, the reader could use the detail to picture the man. So it seems that just as fiction requires some traveling in the imagination, travel writing requires some fiction.

I do not agree with this, because if it did not happen, you cannot say it happened. But at times the journey becomes more important than the details, as it happens often with this author's books. There may have been other made-up details, but all I recall is a general sense of well-being as I completed his books and returned to my world.

Is that a cloud?

Where'd the rain go? It's been hot. Skin, roads and minds spoilt by a cooler clime are parched and cracking. Dryness hangs in the air like death.

Come back rain. All's forgiven.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Drip trip

"It's such a romantic journey," a friend said. "Who are you going with?"

"No one. Just me."

"Okay. Just don't get mugged then."

Right. I'm off down the Konkan coast for two weeks, starting Sunday. Two hill stations (not part of the coast) and six beach villages, which are, are on the plan. I don't know what kind of writing will come of it, but it could resemble a travelogue. That's if I don't get mugged.

Life is calling

Life is calling. It is a tag line for an alcohol advertisement. A boy approaches his window with trepidation and curiosity while a crowd of flame throwers, cheerleaders, horsemen and assorted interesting people gather several storeys below, looking up at his window expectantly, encouraging him to emerge from his room and see the world. Life is calling. I like that.

Windows. Sometimes you're inside, looking out. Sometimes outside, looking in at a life you'd like to have. Paintings in motion. They greet you with your changing life. Outside, over time it becomes hot, then cool, then cold, then warm, then it rains, and you know you've become older. Outside you see a building constructed painstakingly, watch the floors rise, and remember when there was nothing there. In the distance there is a golf course where once were mangroves. But I think more and more that over time the window frame disappears and you see age in everything.

These days there are pigeons outside windows, doing the things that pigeons do. The males dance, sometimes launching themselves at the ladies as they land on the parapet. The alarmed females do not take to the immediate acquaintance kindly and take flight, leaving the males confused. The colours outside have changed, too. No longer are shadows dark and defined, and naturally dark surfaces shimmer. In the distance there are dark gray hills with pointy peaks from where black specks appear every afternoon and circle the skies in search of food. They leave a few hours later with their beaks, claws and bellies full. Jets fly overhead and vanish into puffs of white. Below, a shiny autorickshaw chugs along the center of a narrow road. Dogs laze about, raising their heads and then themselves out of danger's way.

Pigeons become more than crapping machines, kites evoke awe when they glide by at an arm's length away, and planes take us with them. The objects in the painting become larger, more open to scrutiny, like an art history criticism course which applies to real life.

'Life is calling' is nice, but a comfortable simplification of a larger idea. No cheerleaders or flame throwers here. Just a dog, a few birds, and a plane. Figure out what you will.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Great. Just great.

At about 3:15pm today, a friend wrote in with information about books I was looking for. It was a comprehensive list of researched studies and observations and whatnot, but as for original manuscripts, she said, I would have to learn Sanskrit.

Learning new languages is fun, but Sanskrit might be more that I can take on.

Free trade and the Portuguese

Amongst [the factors that contributed to the growing instability of the Vijayanagar kingdom] was the new Portuguese presence...According to one authority, 'the Portuguese have the dubious distinction of introducing politics into the [Indian] ocean.' Maritime trade had hitherto been considered as open to all and subject only to competitive pressures and local incentives. The Muslim traders and Islamic shipping interests had gained a near-monopoly of the sea-routes to the west and to the east had not therefore been cause for alarm. But as of the early sixteenth century the freedom of the seas and of the monsoon winds was called into question. Thanks to developments in navigation and naval gunnery, oceanic trade was suddenly revealed as susceptible to state direction and subject to military control. By demonstrating that maritime empire was a paying and practical proposition, the Portuguese had indeed politicised the Indian Ocean. Land-based empires which in any way depended on overseas trade would have to come to terms with it.

From India: A History, by John Keay.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Such a long journey

It is certainly morning, but not a very good one. It's beginning to look that way, because some comedian has hit every button in the elevator. Or it seems that way because the numbers change awfully slowly on the display indicating which floor the elevator is on now. If it takes seven seconds for the doors to open and shut on every floor, and another seven seconds to travel between floors, that's roughly 14 seconds per floor. There are 21 floors and a basement. 21 x 14 = 294 seconds = 4 minutes and 54 seconds. That's a long time to wait for an elevator. Pacing up and down the narrow corridor, I jab at the up and down buttons until my fingers hurt, and instill (first) mild amusement, (then) some alarm, (and last of all) chaos and a flurry of feathers among the pigeons nesting outside a small window. No more one-eyed stares and head shakes from them for a while. Then it arrives with a little ding and the doors open; what makes it more maddening is there is no one inside who I can glare at and mentally blame for the glowing buttons.

It jerks slightly when the doors close and hums on the way down. There is a breeze blowing around my ankles where mosquitoes are having a party. Like Bond, they just don't die. Kicking and waving of hands makes you appear lunatic but does nothing to the little beasts. They hang on. To compound the problem the elevator has now slowed - which I can feel - and come to a stop on the seventh floor. It slides open to a scene of inactivity. Whoever decided to summon the lift changed their mind and took the stairs or - I hope - has taken the quickest way down; out their balcony. The doors shut and it slowly descends to the fifth floor, where a fat schoolgirl with two unbecoming ponytails starts to walk in but halts upon noticing me, and retraces her steps. I wonder what her mum told her. Never get into an elevator if there's no lady there, she must have advised. This little girl is going to create problems for boys her own age later, torn between what she wants to do and what the little voice in her head is telling her.

Remarkably, there are no more stops on the way down to the basement, where open bags of cement and seepage from the drainage have mixed to form something that looks like modern Indian art. It will prove just as hard to get rid of. There are flies. And more mosquitoes. And spiders that have spun a web at just about the very place I walk by every morning. Ever walked through one of these? It's like you've got hair in your mouth for the rest of the day. Finally I find the car and shoo away the bloodsuckers stuck to the windows. Why do mosquitoes like windows? And if they like them so much, why don't the critters go near an open one when they're inside the car? Of course there are more inside. What monsoon season would be complete without mosquitoes buzzing around your ears while you drive?

Starting the car, I head out with thoughts of zooming down the new road outside my building, but the gates are shut. A guard is asleep in his watchroom. One tiny parp. Nothing happens. Another honk. He stirs, looks about, sees me, and his head falls back and he goes back to sleep. I open the damn thing myself, get back in, and realise that I forgot to shut the door. So in precisely ten seconds, half of Andheri's winged insects are my travel companions.

Outside, there is water everywhere. All those headlines (99% of Bombay's drains are clear!, Aamchi Mumbai no longer chi-chi!) float by face-down, dead in the knee-high water outside. A green abandoned truck is leaning against a building compound wall at a degree we didn't attempt driving a Landcruiser on sand dunes in Dubai. The driver was obviously new to the wonders of Andheri roadscapes, oblivious to the two-feet deep trenches on either side. No one mills about the truck. They walk by, lifting their kurtas and saris and pants, declining offers of a lift. Good. The car starts to make a funny drinking noise and I pray to the car god (Ferrari?) that it won't stop now. Then we reach high land and the funny drinking noise stops, instead making a clearing its throat kind of sound.

It is still morning, really early morning, and the sky is gray. But is it so gray that the driver heading in my direction has to flash his fog lights and ensure I can't see him or my own steering wheel momentarily? As punishment I drive directly at him with my fog lights on until he slows down and honks and waves his fist as he passes by. The drive to the end of the road is uneventful, though. No anger, no sounds, nothing. Then I screech to a halt, recalling the nasty policeman who always lies waiting for me around the corner. He's caught me without my seat belt so many times, he actually smiles and nods appreciatively at other times. Seat belt on, I continue down the empty road. Then a bus appears out of nowhere in an almighty cacophony of unserviced engine and overserviced horn. You may not be impeding the bus path, or could be three lanes away from it in a stationary car, but a bus driver will always let you know he's there. Heart beating at twice the normal rate, I continue in a heightened state of alertness. Reaching the red light at the end of it, I stop, imagining this one act of lawful conduct will have a domino effect and inspire an entire nation into sticking to their lines and not crossing the white line at signals. Then a few cars whizz by and, after sticking to my guns some more, I join in.

Across the junction is a gate blocked by a driverless green truck. There is nothing wrong with this truck because there is no ditch to fall into. There is just no driver. It is important that I get past this truck. Why? Because there is one other gate, but the uniformed watchman informs me that no one can use it to come in because it is an exit gate. He points to the sign. Exit. But there is no one here, I tell him. He won't lose his job if he lets me in. Sorry, he says in hindi, boss's orders. This is how random acts of violence happen at 7:30am on a Saturday. But I'll help you get through the legal gate, he says, and produces the driver of the green truck while I sit by and listen to punjabi hiphop and hindi remixes on the radio.

I drive around the empty parking lot to dock the car in a slot by the building entrance and then slowly turn off the vehicle. I turn off the air conditioner, shift the gear, lift the hand brake, remove the stereo, pack it in a protective box, open the glove compartment, put it in, close the glove compartment, remove my seatbelt, pick up my bag, check for pens and random books, and step out the car, shut the door, turn on the electronic locking system, and walk to the entrance when I hear a shrill whistle. The security guard holds his hand up and approaches with a look of deep regret. It takes him a while to get here. I wonder if he's injured in some way, but on closer inspection it's the kind of walk some develop in the city. He arrives several years later and says I can't park there because it's somebody else's parking spot. Will this somebody come today, I ask? He might, he says. Does he usually come here on the weekend? No, he says.

We reach an agreement. I'll park somewhere else if he agrees to walk faster next time. Everybody is satisfied. I get out and walk to the office entrance again. There is another whistle. The senior guard this time, gesticulating wildly and shouting, "You owl, he can't park there!" All this before work has even begun.


That's how much William Dalrymple made it to Xanadu and back in.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The treadmill

It lies there, asking you all sorts of questions. How much do you weigh, for how long do you want to keep it up, how much resistance do you want from me?

This is not meant to sound like it does right now.

Anyway, it lies there and asks you questions. And once you get on, you wonder if there's any joy in this. Could a repetitive motion be any more boring? You think of more joyful ways of achieving the same result. Like a sport for example. Or wading in a pool. But now you're here to stay, walking in one place, watching the calories burn and the odometer tell you how far you've come. That is perhaps a treadmill's only redeeming feature. Nothing else can save it.

Okay, rant over. I have to make peace with it for we'll be back together tomorrow.

Lessons from the gym

Gym trainers will always offer women help, leaving the men for dead in the chest abductor. Or the lateral compound trainer. Or whatever these muscle-building things are called.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Keeping the peace

With some sadness I watched LK Advani on television today after the attack at Ayodhya. Only a few hours had passed since the incident and already he was politicising it, calling it an issue every hindu should be concerned about. The attention, until then, was on what a good job the security forces had done. And then, according to Sonia Gandhi, it became an issue of India's respect and sovereignty.

There's some disconnect here. Respect? Sovereignty? What kind of crackpots run this country? If they say militants are trying to cause communal disharmony, they need to take a pretty good look at themselves because it's my belief that a relationship between communities is like a relationship between people, putting it simply. If you keep reinforcing it, it won't split. But if you try to keep their relationship on a knife edge, it'll snap when a terrorist comes along. If they stopped practicing the kind of politics they do, we'd live in a peace that isn't uneasy.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Tour de Andheri

We tuned in to the Tour de France for the first time ever today, and couldn't take our eyes off the screen. Not because this stage was riveting, but because the country is so damn beautiful. Flat streets were lined with trees. Pavements looked like they belonged. There were grassy banks on both sides. The paint on these roads seemed fresh. The roundabouts were round. And the houses, jeepers, the huts and chalets (or are those only found on mountain tops?) were right out of a fairytale. The roads were these quaint two-lane things that spoke of a different time - there's something about two-lane roads surrounded by streams and grassy landscapes. Sigh. Nothing, absolutely nothing could beat that in the 'oh take me away from Andheri' department.

And I will drive by some more axed trees on my way to work tomorrow. Joy.

I can't wait for the next stage to begin.

A teeny blogging break

Twas a break. Now repaired. Blogging to follow.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Cultural differences

Outside the employment office at Pratt one morning, I noticed a poster with visual depictions. It showed a hand with a circle made of the index finger and the thumb, while the other three digits pointed to the sky. In some cultures, this sign meant fantastic or delicious, in some other cultures it said you're useless, and in some spanish-speaking countries, it was a strong suggestion to go screw yourself. I decided to retire this sign during my time at university because there were just too many cultures around to explain this to.

Now there's this. Mexico releases some stamps featuring Memin Pinguin, a character loved by Mexicans for no reason other than the fact that he's damn cute, and the US expresses displeasure because its a racist icon in the states. Black and Hispanic leaders weren't too happy about the stamps, and asked the president of the US to express how mad everyone was about this.

Whatever happened to context? The possibility that an action could mean one thing in one culture and something different in another? Why the uproar and the offence? To me, at least, it had nothing to do with racism. It was an adorable cartoon. Why apply standards of one culture to another?

Which reminds me. I don't quite like the way New Yorkers sit far away from me on an empty train. I'm a Bombayite used to having people press up against me on empty trains. Which head of state should I complain to?

With opening lines like these... know you're going to love the story:

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."

The story is titled 'Fat Girls in Des Moines', by Bill Bryson. It's one of 21 stories in the Granta Book of Travel, a marvelous book on different places and experiences. Think of the finest travel writers; they're all in here, though Pico Iyer and William Dalrymple aren't. When you find it, weigh it in your hands, and feel your pleasure double. It's distributed by Rupa. Easily available if you ask.