Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Little Cheating

Ismael is one of those faceless room-boys or bell-boys who throng the place I live at, in their multitudes to the point sometimes you have to shoo them off from your tiny room. He particularly hangs around uselessly, of course he leaves on greasing his palm with small change.

It took me weeks to realize he was talking to me in Hindi. Another Hindi freak in this Tamil land? Yes, his Hindi is totally unintelligible. And his machine gun staccato rapid fire delivery makes it all the more hard to catch. For all I know he may be shooting a hundred Tamil words a minute at me, with a dolefully small dose of Hindi words here and there... usually I get the meaning.

I know the context, and there are very few things I need from his erratic services. So we get along fabulously. I started noticing, lately, he would chop off the bill. Now that's like a lady kicking off her shoe and using her dainty toes, tickling your shin. The possibilities are immense, the implications mind-boggling, provided one follows the clues. It may all end there and then itself. So Ismael giving me hints without using Hindi nor Tamil, led me up the garden path indeed.

One day after a three course meal he produced only one item on the bill, plain salad. I got the hint and paid him a tip that must have been ten times larger. His smile, spanning his dark face from ear to ear, wouldn't go away... actually I was more worried about his not going away, since there were things happening in the evening news on the TV. If he goes away, so does that idiotic smile too, I logically analyzed the situation. So I waved him off and he reluctantly parted from me.

A little cheating goes a long way in establishing a relationship, so said my idol John Steinbeck, writing in his inimitable style, in his memoirs [sort of] " Travels With Charlie" -where there is no human male with such a name accompanying him, but his canine friend. It inspired me to write a collection of short stories that I have called " Travels With Zakir" where the human male companion, my driver Zakir who once drove me over 44,000 KMs in south India, taking minimal breaks, over four whole months... and it's a sort of journal full of every kind of comic to tragic happenings, including car breakdowns in middle of nowhere...some times in jungles with nearest city being a hundred KMs off.

The denouement to L'Affaire Ismael would have been he would have cheated his employers blind, and then expected an unreal, astronomical amount from me, as I could guess. Actually, I timed the whole experience so well, that before such a thing could happen, one day I upped and vanished. I had found accommodation. I moved out suddenly, leaving him high and dry with his dreams of illbegotten riches...
(c) Max Babi april 2006.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Thin Thread

Communication has attained gargantuan proportions in our lives.

The daily grind without emails, SMS messages, phone calls and whatnot, would suddenly look like a TV set with its antenna connection pulled out, I suspect. I can't stand those black and white worms crawling up and down the TV screen, it has something to do with a recurring nightmare I used to have in my teens. I would imagine myself as a spaceship, either part of it or the damned thing seemed to have grown around it, hurtling at unimaginable speeds through what seemed like a never-ending cosmos. I used to wake up screaming and incoherent. They say Elvis Presley's favourite pastime was shooting bullets into innocent TV screens. With those worms doing their own thing, I wouldn't mind shooting a bazooka into one.

Pune to Chennai and back to Pune, and back again to Chennai. The Pune-based cell phone company gave me a special privileged status with my orgiastic SMS messaging and calls too. They were so reluctant to see me go, they went on dilly-dallying for three long weeks. My bills went on mounting but who cares. Twice they rang up to request me to transfer it to some relative. I emphatically said No. Finally I got the dreaded message "SIM inactive". One week of frustrating suffocation, one whole week of total peace... my friends had crossed the 460 mark, and it was a struggle to keep in touch with all. So the lull after the continuous storm came as total bliss.

This thin thread of communication is all so important, now I have realized. It's almost like depending upon the car to take me around in this huge city. Without it, I am totally at the mercy of the erratic auto-rickshaw drivers who refuse to come or charge you astronomically. The buses I have not tried due to time constraints, but the idea of getting sandwiched between sweaty bodies for kilometres with the badly maintained buses, is nothing short of a nightmare either. So the cell phone becomes a lifeline under all circumstances. One hears heart-rending stories about people caught up in situations and the cell phone coming in handy, like in life-threatening accident cases, highway robberies and worse. One also hears how the cell phones were used wildly during the long and tormenting days of riots in Gujarat in 2002. Every technical advance, brings its own horrors with it.

Having worked in the plasma technology for more than three decades I used feel proud that this is one branch of science where no misuses seem possible. Not any more. The Russians are rumoured to have developed electro-static guns which shoot bullets that have a 100 times worse impact than ordinary guns. The laser-beam based huge guns they also have are said to be able to create an acoustic resonance in the atomic structure of a metallic object so effectively the whole piece disintegrates into powder. If they aim this gun at an aircraft... use your imagination. Stuff for horrid science fiction is becoming real life now.

Were it not for the cell phone, I shiver, my visits to all my new friends in Chennai would have been several times more torturous indeed. Weirdly true, one thing about these right-angled streets is that the human mind finds them much more confusing than the older, chaotic streets with their individual identities. It's so much easier to ring up the friend and get spoon-fed about the left or right turns, huge landmarks and then like a trained paratrooper land right there where you intended to. Wonderful !

Ciao for today, winding up early tonight.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Killing An Omen

It was as soon as I shifted to Room no.:101 after four or five days of my arrival, that I noticed a soothing greenish flash from a plastic socket on the ceiling located right behind the fan. The glow was really soft and green as I said, and simply impossible to miss. A firefly!

My mind raced back immediately to the early 1970s, to the highly verdant campus of IIT, Powai, Mumbai [Bombay] where I had been to console two classmates. Funnily, only two guys out of the 32 graduates in the very first batch of metallurgical engineering produced by the department of metallurgical engineering, Maharaja Sayajirao University, of Vadodara [Baroda] had made it to the IIT for their Master's. Both were miserable. Some of us jobless engineers who had relatives in Mumbai, would pop over to provide solace to them.

Once I happend to be staying with my late cousin Khush-hal baaji in her cozy flat opposite the Bhavan's College campus in Andheri for a couple of days and on an impulse decided to visit my suffering friends at IIT -being within affordable distance. These two youthful scholars away from home for the first time ever, were so painfully homesick, they wouldn't let me return to my sister's place long after dinner. Deven Bhavsar knew me more intimately so he was aware of my passion for music.

Now IIT Powai with its famous Mood Indigo Rock Festival [where I was to judge a national contest for instrumental music in 2003 -how future plays tricks on us!] used to have a sophisticated music system installed in each hostel, in their common room. I was easily trapped by the sly Bhavsar who showed me a stack of LPs, including one by Carlos Santana. That did it. I stayed back. Music was fun, so was coffee.

But well past midnight when I returned to Bhavsar's room, the sum effect was that I became so excited, I couldn't fall asleep. The hostel was on the shores of Vihar Lake, with a huge forest extending towards the Borivali region, the forest sounds of crickets and other insects plus the water slapping the banks lulled me into a trance. Bhavsar was snoring in minutes, having been solaced enough by his ex-partner in college, we used to be paired up for ‘practicals in every lab, and I thought I heard the roar of a leopard too. These beasts often’ prowl about in the college campus too, and after about ten at night the human movement on the streets or roads dwindles down to precious nothing.

A firefly wandered in, when my mind was busy recounting the exciting events of the day. Having grown up in dry regions of Gujarat I had rarely seen a firefly inside a room... only on long journeys I had seen flocks of these green flashes in bushes, in other parts. At the ripe old age of twenty two, this was the first experience for me to see it upclose. The glow worm, lurching and swerving drunkenly like a new pilot who has just taken a solo flight and veered away from the hawk like eyes of the instructor, the insect seemed to be having pure fun. I kept watching it with mounting excitement. Once it came as close as a few inches from my wide open eyes, and the flashes were so quick from under its gossamer wings, I couldn't get a clear view but the sight was unforgettable. My imagination went if a miniature flying saucer from some other galactic civilization had been sent to talk to me... there were delicious possibilities bubbling in my sci-fi riddled mind. It flitted away as whimsically as it had come.

The same scene was going to be repeated here at Chennai, where I doubt there exist fireflies at all, that too in this weather when only Englishmen and Mad Dogs go out in the mid-day sun. Without the air-conditioner even the night remains warm and humid, temperatures as high as nearly 37 during the day and 26 at night. A long career in hi-tech science and engineering has taught me to be highly sceptical -so the whirring mind got down to routine analysis : - What was a firefly doing here in an air conditioned room on the second floor? - Did it wander in got trapped inside this carefully sealed room? - How did it survive, what did it feed upon? - Did it drink water? From where? From my glass lying open on the table? For several nights I watched the friendly firefly carefully for hours. It stayed glued to the same spot. On nights when I had returned from the pub having imbibed a controlled quantity of no more than 750 ml of strong beer, it seemed to dance.

Disturbingly, it started fading off after three or four days. Poor thing, I consoled myself, it not only keeps pining for its consort who never shows up, it's starving itself to death. Like the lady on TV protesting against the Gujarat state government fighting for increase in height of the Narmada river dam. She seemed to be ageing by years in the fourteen or fifteen days that she fasted and the wily cameramen kept showing us harrowing facial features, worsening day by day. In between I had to leave for Pune and return in about four days.

Again I returned by an evening flight and the same professorial-glasses wearing male receptionist was in charge. Miraculously he gave me the same room. I was itching to check up on my silent friend the firefly. It must have died, I kept telling myself. No insect can live as long as that without food and water. Hadn't it been glowing less and less before I vacated the room? In an email to a friend, a rather idealistic romantic poet in Lucknow, Natasha, I had mentioned about the firefly. Don't you believe in omens? She had shot back. No, I said, is that a good or bad omen? It is a good omen, very good, you dummy, she had implied though not in so many words. Like astrology and zodiac signs, omens have given me a total pass like the wild wild girls used to do to me when in college.

After an evening namaaz, I happened to look up, the same day. The firefly seemed not only dead, but seemed 'stuck' with some powerful glue to the spot. That was weird. It was flashing weakly, but when it went blank the dark colour spoke of approaching death. Finally I climbed up, wrapping up my namaaz and the musallah or the janemaaz. I stood on the bed, having switched off the fan. The truth dawned on me, hitting me like a sand-filled sock. It was the flashing LED [light emitting diode] attached to a sensor inside the plastic holder. Obviously a temperature sensor for the auto-shut off for the a/c to save power. I felt sheepish. I had just killed a mythical omen. A good one.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Meals Ready

I like these cryptic signs in English here. Most restaurants have such a signboard hanging outside, or painted on a prominent place inside. Meals usually are ready. My wife Nino at Pune must be thrilled that I am turning into a rice-eater. I was so rabidly anti-rice most of my life, that I have never learnt how to eat rice. I need a spoon, and some people find that very amusing. Apoorva's Sangeetha is a fancy restaurant in our Ambattur Industrial Estate. This whole industrial belt strongly resembles a bombed out place. Or like a time-machine trip back to the seventeenth century, complete with bullock carts, stray animals hogging the road whilst buses and trucks are driven with maniacal speed. Motor-cyclists here, if sent to Grand Prix, could put Valentino Rossi into early retirement, ruing the day when he saw the devil riders. Thank God, the roads are bad and the infrastructure creaking at the seams. That helps in controlling the speed maniacs. AS is a fancy one in the sense it is nicely done up, not run down, dark and dingy like most other rivals in its neighbourhood. The owner is so ambitious, he has installed two automatic taps for the largish wash basin near the toilet. You put your hands underneath and within two or three seconds, water spurts out hissing like a snake, giving you a startling jolt. Pull away your hand and like a genie returning to the bottle, the hissing gush disappears... wonderful. One may see these gizmos in five star hotels, not here in this humble 'Meals Ready' joint. Due to the run-down image in my mind, the first day I lifted the conical platic cap right off, which seems to be some sort of magnetic device complete with sensors and all. The water didn't come. I went to the third wash basin meant for drinking water and with a guilt feeling gnawing inside, washed my hands and gargled there. Next day without thinking I put my hand underneath the auto tap and it worked. Most men here seem to find this terribly amusing, they keep playing with the device, till one of the half a million serving boys comes and yells a stream of what I suspect are obscenities in Tamil. The fun part is, this modernity business ends as soon as the meals are ready for serving. Up comes a whole banana leaf, you have to sprinkle some drinking water and wipe it clean with your palm thoroughly or else a stream of Tamil instructions comes to rattle you. Then you must make a mound of white rice [ to which I am allergic, give me yellow, brown, green any colour but not white] about three times larger than what you can hope to finish and a guy carrying four types of sambhars or its cousins, comes rushing like a mouse on having sensed cheese. He goes on dumping eatables that I have no names for -must learn these fast- and if you do not stop him a trickle can sneak into you lap in seconds only. The lime pickle is heavenly, and the appam -fried paapad, nearly the same. They give one single mirchi [green pepper] deeply fried. The rest of the food is eminently health food. I hope I got the names right. Look at the Tamilians, most of them are so slim ! So said a friend who is Konkani, from the Mangalore side, so very different from the local unsmiling ladies. She is right too, most of them are slim, and the obese variety of youngsters is something new to me. I have never seen so many sweet shops, cake shops, shops selling junkfood any time as I am seeing here now. The new generation, the couch potatoes with their gizmos, are almost like rhinos growing up with lean goats like they have in Kutch region of Gujarat. Slim and fit. Tamil food no doubt is healthy, though dosas and idlis are fried. However this fried stuff seems to be having an antidote in the form of various green, yellow or brown chutneys that come every morning. The taste of these snacks in incredibly good, for this is the original dosa land... or idli land. All the imitators elsewhere pale in comparison. I quite like these snacks, and the best thing is you don't belch or burp like a beerhead gorging on gluttonous meals. You don't feel heavy or lazy either. The ant-like local fellow goes bustling about because of this sensible food, I suspect. And the heat which keeps everyone on their toes. Have tried out many places in the industrial area, but Apoorva's seems like the best deal. Efficient, clean, cheap and usually well-managed. One enjoys the meals there as one should. For the industrial workers, a light lunch is always good, and that's what comes my way everyday.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Midnight Knock...

So far I have been writing in an orderly fashion, day by day, so as to keep close to the reality that comes like an ugly hag and emerges like a supermodel in Paris after my special treatment.

Today, I have an uglier reality to face. Last night there was a knock on the door well past midnight. Insistent ringing of the bell, as if someone was in a tearing hurry. I felt befuddled to a degree that is possible only when the brain is addled by lack of sleep.

Fumbling with the lock, I opened my room door. The receptionist, the male receptionist with professorial glasses and a ready smile was standing there as if he had grave news. Half a million possibilities flashed through my mind in a few milliseconds. Bad news from home? Or from some close friends who do have this hotel number? But before my drowsy brain could finish the logical analysis, my eyes perceived six cops, standing there a little coyly like school-girls rehearsing a play.

Watching me carefully, was the leader, a dark faced man, who had not smiled in years. He had his gun ready in his pocket. Being a fulltime cop's son, I didn't miss the bulge there.

"Checking sir." Someone said, and added as an afterthought, "just general checking." You don't wake up people at 2.45 in the morning, for 'general checking' I wanted to tell him. Something forced me to hold my tongue. Cops can be hellishly nasty when they choose. At an ungodly hour like this even the night duty fellas get touchy, so I smiled and said : "Please come in." The boss with the ugly expression rushed in.
" Where are you from?" " Pune."
" How long been here?"
" Three weeks, may be more..."
" What are you doing here?" Now deliciously witty answers surfaced in my fatigued brain, broiling and sizzling but I held my tongue once again.

I could have said I love getting half-fried without oil, in my own sweat....waiting to get boiled when the weather turns better...

" I am working with a company at Ambattur." The answer seemed to interest him.

" What's in there?" he pointed his baton to my briefcase. I opened it and he saw jazz CDs, a book, a shaving kit that is useless for me, my passport, and knick-knacks. A whole gamut of facial expressions streaked past, on the dark side of the moon that his face seemed to me.

" And in there?" he pointed the baton to my shoulder strap bag.

" Books" I said, opening those compartments that had technical magazines and books only. By now the cop was ready to believe anything I said, because books seemed to be emerging from where pistols and ammunition should have. Or whatever he wanted to see. Drugs or banned aphrodisiacs or...

" And in there?" now he pointed to the fat bulging suitcase, with one whole month's clothes making it look fatter, like a well-fed cat lying on the sofa.

" Clothes." I said with an equipoise and nonchalance that was getting on everyone's nerves, except his.

" No need to open..." he said softening. So I left the bag alone.
" What are you doing here?" again his query sounded like an affront. But I held my peace, cops can be really merciless if wisecracks are used by a suspect, I knew that for sure, too.

" Working for a company in Ambattur." I repeated parrot-like. The paralyzed receptionist bubbled to life. He had been sleeping in upright position like a horse. He gave the name of the company, probably its postal address too.

" Hmmmm." Said the serious faced cop, reminding me of the unamused spokespersons from the ministry of foreign affairs who never smile. They give us pieces of wisdom, as if reading obituaries.

" Is the company yours?" he asked softly. Implying that I must be cat's whiskers, owning several companies and living in hotels for months. Sigh...
" No sir." I said, giving him a piercing look.
" Okay, goodnight." Going out, rather straggling out, he gave me one last interested look and said :
" Dhanyavaad."
That came as a jolt. I suddenly realized the solemn-faced cop had been talking to me in good Hindi all along. This fact was more bizarre than the whole interview. That 'dhayavaad' gave the game away, I thought, closing the door.

The word means thanks in chaste Hindi. It is never used by common folks who say Thank You all over India. But if you have learnt Hindi through books, or through some impractical teacher who has never crossed India's northern regions, or you've been watching Hindi news on TV, you will use that rare phrase. May be they had been watching me, and the Beast too. My luxurious beard, the huge car big enough to smuggle in God knows how many automatic rifles, my unusual disappearances, my lack of communication with locals... they must have been watching.

Till Muthukurppan [ I like to give faces, arbitrary names] came on the scene and said let me talk to him. Itching to try out his shuddha Hindi on a North Indian. May be Muthu dear wanted to play-act and feel like a supercop he must have seen in five hundred Bollywood films throughout his lack-lustre life. Sighing in resignation, I switched on the TV to watch FashionTV where the catwalk and the drowsy models doing the same stuff over and over again, acts like a sleeping pill on me. Once again it did.
(c) Max Babi, April 2006.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Beast Rolls Out...

After good ole Manikandan gestured wildly to me, I stopped trying the ignition. He had discovered, after opening the huge bonnet [the hood for the non-British] of the car that one cable had been disconnected. He got some workers and got that fixed. Even then the long-dead Beast lay dead, like a drunk elephant. Promising a lot of fun, but not even twitching.

When nothing works the brute method works. I was told by a computer engineer that some of the mini-computers which preceded the micro-computer, the one I am writing on and you are reading on, or PC in the parlance, used to come with elaborate instructions for re-starting if it failed. There was this mysterious 'KO' choice which only the maintenance guys knew about. One day when the mini comp failed to start whirring, my friend heard the service engineer mumbling, ' ah the KO!'. It started when the engineer gave it fat kick. The 'kicking option' it was.

Well, shove came to push, and M/n hollered to the security staff to come and push the damned thing out. Diesel engines are incredibly easy to start when you push the vehicle. I remember having pushed a huge Mataor 16-seater mini bus myself, all by myself, right here in Chennai when it had stalled at a junction on Mount Road. It started easily. The Beast rolled out in style, I coud imagine its eyes popping open and taking in the scenario. There were these ant-like creatures all around, to be crushed, and there were these noisy three wheeled insects darting in and out of the narrow strip of road that lay just ahead. In its throbbing leaps, I could feel its impatience to go around crushing things with abandon.

Using the clutch pedal, which required real strength, I allowed the engine to roar but controlled the speed of the car to nearly that of a bullock cart with a limping animal pulling it. The first traffic junction barely half a kilometre away was the fire test. The green light takes an eternity to turn on, and the fast-moving buses, trucks and two-wheelers make a dash for it. I was surrounded on all sides by all manner of self-propelled vehicles under control of speed maniacs. So I kept the engine running, knowing the battery was nearly dead. I cursed the design engineers since the controls were as hard as a truck's. The spacing between the clutch pedal and the brake was ridiculousl small, making me sit -rather forcing me to sit like a prim old lady with her thighs tightly shut. But the accelerator pedal was too far off to the right and at a ridiculous 40 degress angle. I felt goofy, with right foot going wonky and the left one straight.

The green light came on, and I rolled away. The vehicles all around me were clamouring like undisciplined children in a sweet shop. When I honked, the sound was so shrill and loud I very nearly jumped out of my skjn. On hearing my horn, a delicate looking lady doctor in the small car in front gave me looks that could have motlen a steel bar. How did I know she was a lady doc? There was the big red cross sign on her rear window. I smiled at her fatuously, but she wouldn't smile back. Not only because my horn had ripped through her existence, but also because I realized later, local ladies do not ever smile at strangers. I have to watch out for my ever-ready smile. In this confusion the green light had turned amber, and before I could make it, amber had turned red. The traffic cop didn't like all this cavalier attitude and creeping huge cars. He gave me a stern look, higher in voltage than the lady's. I just sped away, waving at him like a buddy.

The Sierra's seat was adjusted for a person perhaps 4 to 6 inches taller than me - I kept on pushing it forward it refused to budge like a pig being dragged by its captors. This necessity to stretch my body and drive, as if I were inside one of those go-carts, albeit huge in size, irritated me no end. But my attention was focused on keeping the damned engine going, so I tried to get used to the position. After one kilometre of trying out three gears, the damned car has five, I took a leisurely U-turn to see how sharply it turns. It turns like a rhino. Very good at going straight ahead but awkward when you try to turn it. You need a huge circle.

I came back to the same mad rush at the over-busy traffic signal with two cops struggling to manage the chaos that seemed awfully scary. Before actually reaching the signal, the car stalled for some reason, precisely as I had feared. Desparate honking by a small car, a white Indica behind me, nor the cops' shrill and frenized whistling helped maters whilst the green turned amber to red to amber to green. I allowed the car to roll backwards as thee was a slight gradient in the road, but some damned fool or the other was always sniffing the Beast's behind. Too close for comfort. The lights turned green three times and I remained glued like an adamant, rogue elephant blocking the path of all and sundry. I expected to see one of the cops come scurrying to me, but that was not to happen.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Trying Out The Beast

Though Assam produces helluva lot of tea, the largest consumption is attributed to Gujarat. No wonder then, I get this tea craving every hour. So when the next attack came, I sneaked right outside the factory, and walked into a shabby little dhaba [a lean-to sort of teashop]. There were six or seven guys, mostly unwashed urchins, catering to only three customers. These top-heavy management type dhabas entail long delays. Everybody thinks somebody is helping the guy at the first table, poring laboriously over the tattered Tamil newspaper. No one moves till the lone customer gets really restless, and makes the right noises. Got my super-syrupy tea, fearing my blood sugar will hit the ceiling -what the heck, I slurped right down to last dregs. Almost everyone can speak English in Chennai, and when the urchins fail to catch your accent, there is always a kindly soul around who not only intervenes, but ensures that your about-to-be-shaken-up faith in humanity is gloriously restored. More of that Good Samaritan stuff later.

I was to take the tomato red Tata Sierra for a spin, as the boss suggested to get used to it before plunging into the suicidal traffic that chokes the Ambattur Industrial Estate on almost every road, right up to Anna Nagar. He had ominously added, 'Before the traffic starts'. Yes indeed around six thirty in the evening all hell breaks loose here. Nasty surprises awaited me round the corner. Armed with a sandfilled sock in their hands.

If I do not descibe my on-going struggles with The Beast, my blog would remain a mere 2-D skeletal caricature of real life. So lets see how the situation developed. After getting the keys to the sinister looking SUV, I went and rather confidently opened the door. I climbed into the high seat, nearly several inches higher than all the cars I have driven so far. I figured out the controls, and the auto-winding feature of the windows was working all right. The stuffy air moved out. The indicators were all lit up at the dashboard on turning the ignition key, and there were two keys to fox me. The smaller one was the turning ON key, whilst the big one was the real ignition key. However the battery seemed dead, for the car made no noise on giving ignition.

Manikandan, the man for all seasons, who had been helping me in house hunting, materialized from nowhere. How he senses someone is facing trouble anywhere in the office or the factory , and how he turns up at the right time everytime is a blessed mystery. He is a shadowy entity, lurking everywhere all the time. He reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's tiny automatons that keep flying in the air, turning up to help the hero or heroine in distress. After materializing, he asks all the right questions, provides all the right solutions, in a jiffy. An amazing Man Friday for me.

I had already figured out most things before the apparition arrived. The battery seemed dead, I indicated to him. The thought that The Beast will roar into life any morment, casused a bunch of butterflies dancing in my tummy orgiastically. The vehicle is a truck in car's clothing, I reminded myself, for the controls seemed very hard indeed. I sat wondering, whilst M/n fiddled with the car, that driving a huge vehicle is double-edged problem : (a) it takes a long time to spatially absorb its size i.e. how wide and long the damned thing is, and (b) you have to wrestle with it physically. Little wonder then, having wrestled with the Sierra, next day I found my legs and thighs cramped and aching.

A lot of coaxing was required before The Beast could roar to life.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Into The Thick Of Things

The auto-rickshaw driver despite his dissipated looks drove like a maniac on sleeping pills. His driving was as furious as that of Schumacher in his Ferrari, but with a somnambulistic touch to it... he was letting the vehicle carry us forward, like a starship with a brain of its own. To slow him down, and to give my overworked bladder a respite I asked him to stop. I raised the pinky of my right hand, to tell him I wanted to take a leak. His face wreathed in an unlikely smile, he veered off from the fast lane into the slow one, and to my horror, didn't stop for many more kilometres.

When he ultimately did, raising his chin to show me a vacant plot, where another huge industrial estate could have been built, just at the tip of our own Ambattur estate, I got the point. There was a break in the wall, and five or six auto-rickshawwallas lolled about looking as vacant and bored as only they can be on a hot morning with the traffic shooting past them in the opposite direction. My driver pointed to a bush lurking behind the broken wall, indicating it to be a safe spot to take a leak at. I did. Urinals and stray cats are invisible in Chennai. Mighty weird thing, indeed. Once I walked fifteen kilometres without finding a single urinal. Not a single stray cat sighted once in three weeks so far...

There was a tepid welcome at the factory. The boss grunted and mumbled -the sidekick was more forthcoming though. But what's boss if he can't surprise you. When we were walking around the factory, he pulled the keys to a tomato red Tata Sierra car, lying parked in the lot meant for vehicles. Handing the keys he mumbled
' Use this Max, whilst you are here...'
I loved the idea of being mobile but the layer of dust on the car, an SUV [sports utility vehicle, spoke of long disuse, which sank my heart. Old cars can be terribly temperamental. The dull tomato red colour is an eyesore too.

The presence of a diabetic in a massive cluster of sugar-lovers is always a source of ripples. Somewhat like a dying rhinoceros submerged in a shallow pool. Every time the animal shifts, ripples stream out in all directions. Every time I get craving for tea or coffee, the whole office comes to know. In the first two days that I spent here, I tried everything to get myself a proper hot brew. And I have fallen flat on my face every time.

There is a fancily done up visitor's room on the ground floor with plush sofas, a fan, an air-conditioner. Magazines, books, even a computer. There is spotless white and black machine for brewing your own coffee and a white and red machine for brewing chai [tea]. Well, after trying out different combinations, I decided the tea tasted like heated dishwater [Tetley of UK, meant for the hoity toity and not the hoi polloi] Certainly not for poor old me, addicted to tea, overboiled and strong made by urchins at dhabas, the roadside lean-to type tea-shops. The coffee comes out terribly weird. It is strong enough to give me a kick that sends me scurrying upstairs to work at wrong speeds, but fails to satisfy. Two or three cups result in severe acidity adding to my woes.

Morning and post-lunch tea arrives via an unwashed-looking urchin with penetrating black eyes, there's something voodoo about him. He seems terribly averse to simple mathematics. If there are four persons in my biggish office. where the CAD-CAM geeks work orgiastically, the boy gets only three cups. If there are three guys, he gets only two cups. However, Kishore my design assistant, yelled at the boy using a torrential stream of Tamil admonition [ I go by the tone, not knowing a word of the language] and he conjured up yet another plastic cup with lukewarm, terribly sugar-laced tea. I had to have it once and the aftertaste lingered on threatening to last till Kingdom come. He was yelled at again, and asked to bring one cup of tea without sugar. Giving me a piercing look, muttering under his breath the boy vanished for the day. No more tea for me.

So I ran back later to the visitor's room, hoping to try out one more cup of coffee. I brightly figured, I should allow the water to boil more. The white and black machine hissed and got into a bout of vicious gurgling. The sound emanated from somewhere, impossible to pinpoint the source, as if there were live creatures inside it. If I had caught hold of a stone-age primitive from the Andaman Islands, he'd have prostrated in front of this glass-walled apparatus housing a hundred invisible gods at war. The boss turned up accidentally, just as I was turning to the tea maker instead. He caught on, and very patiently explained the whole sequence to me, showing me each delicately carved wooden chest with consummables, all prettily hand-carved and tastefully arranged. Tea bags, whitener, sugar etc. Since someone called him on the phone, he abandoned me with my tentative attempts to brew myself a cup of tea.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

My First Day

Anna Nagar in western parts of Chennai is probably the decent most colony beyond which depressingly endless areas begin. My hotel happens to be one of those low-brow establishment with pretensions, perhaps delusions of grandeur. It was designed and built to be a replica of a star hotel but something somewhere went terribly wrong. It’s like a failed Bollywood starlet who dreamt big but ended up as a discreet call girl –ageing, decrepit and silently desperate. A three level lift covers four floors, thus one has to either walk up or down half a set of stairs to reach a particular floor. The black and white uniformed room boys or bell-boys take you to the 3rd floor and then make you climb down half a floor to reach room number 204 on the 2nd floor. There’s a pub on the top floor, in the open terrace, which the room boys avoid as if they are mortally scared of fraternizing with the enemy. The same applies to the two restaurants on the ground floor –the ever-changing male receptionist flatly denies the existence of the restaurants. In spite of that you do see people sitting, eating, and drinking too. They perhaps call these ‘Permit Rooms’, a leftover from the semi-dry era when drinking needed a permit, a health permit as it was euphemistically called. One restaurant is in the permanent state of repairs and interior decor re-work. The only logical explanation may be, I wondered idly sipping coffee in my room, that the owner has hived off both the restaurants, and perhaps also the pub open to the sky. A sudden and catastrophic loss, as if lost in gambling overnight. Worse still, there may have been several brothers who cannibalized the father’s property as soon as he kicked the bucket. People turn to fantasy when mildly drunk, for me, good old coffee does the trick. So I couldn’t suppress a guffaw, when I remembered a famous Gujarati anecdote rather resembling these circumstances. It’s about a 90 year old bully, the unquestionable patriarch of a Marwari [Rajasthani traders] family who lay comatose on his death-bed, eyes fixedly staring at the courtyard. He’d shiver uncontrollably in a rage if someone blocked his view. ‘ Father has buried a treasure in the courtyard!’ Up went the cry, ‘ Or else why would he stare ouside like that?’ The eldest son philosophized. The younger ones equally greedy, agreed. None of them wanted hard work, just easy money. A doctor was summoned who finished all his testing meticulously and grimly proclaimed : ’ The old man’s vital organs are all very nearly gone. He’ll die any moment now.’ A chorus of wild protest went up. The sons said the old man can’t just up and leave then without telling them where the treasure was buried. ‘ I can revive him just for five seconds, with this hugely potent injection. But it will cost you Rs.35,000/-' said the wise doc. They all cried that it was daylight robbery, and tried haggling just as the old man would have. The doc got up, buttoning up his coat and zipping up his medico briefcase. ‘Okay, okay,’ said the sons, now that the meagre chance of unearthing the treasure was also melting away. The medicine man gave the injection to the old trader. Within seconds he opened his eyes, searched out a place in the courtyard, and yelled, half getting up : ‘Bakri jhadoo khay chhe!’ [The goat is chewing up our broom.] Then he collapsed and died. Well back on terra firma, I made the mistake of asking the boss if he would be sending me a car. I recall I was sitting on the throne, talking to him before pulling the flush –had just impulsively rung him up. He probably smelt the offensive odours and hissed, ‘ Max, you’d better get used to managing on your own. Take an auto or something.’ The Chennai heat had not begun, and it took me nearly half an hour to search out an honest looking auto-rickshaw driver who would take me to Ambattur. One fatigued looking fellow volunteered, and took me there.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

My Lodgings

Hotel Sky Park, unlike my previous two temporary abodes, turned out to be a quiet place, a bungalow turned into a hotel with limited rooms.

I recall the weather was warm but not at all beastly as it turned into, slowly, over the weeks. Right now after a little more than two weeks, Chennai alternates between virtually a hot plate where I feel like a fish being fried without oil, and when it's cloudy, I feel like being inside a pressure cooker with ten million souls to keep me dubious company. The two wheeler riders here can beat the crazy Puneites hollow in purely kamikaze style of stunt-riding.

It was a Sunday, and late afternoon. Not having to report to work, I eased up and watched the umpteen channels on TV most of them making no sense to me. The news channels in English these days have lost their originality to the extent each one seems to be going overboard be it the flash fire in a trade fair that claimed two thousand lives or more, or creatively bankrupt politicos riding their Raths [chariots] to whip up hatred between communities.

It gets very depressing to see seven views of the same thing happening at all the channels, sigh, copycat channels seem to be the order of the day. The first surprise was a musical one. I had completely forgotten that I was in Mecca of Carnatic music -something I have loved intensely since schooldays. North Indians are as a rule allergic to this great art form, and though I owe allegiance to my own father, dear Abbajan whose exquisite tastes percolated down my childlike conscience like filtered coffee -well, I used to resent his contempt for this noble genre of music.

The only exception he used to make was, the redoubtable M.S. Subbuluxmi whose Meera bhajans have been unparalleled in music history. He would ask me to play them every morning, and oh boy, what a day it would be when I got my batteries charged by this angel of a singer, always putting her heart and soul into whatever she sang.

The surprise then, was two youngsters sitting soberly facing the camera. One played the violin, nearly every second person here seems to be a virtuoso on that difficult instrument and the other one was playing a slide guitar like a country star from Texas. Seemed rather odd to me, and my reaction was, as if I had suddenly seen two matronly ladies from South sporting mini skirts or hot pants or worse... but the music was divine.

It just enveloped me like a well-meaning miasma, lifted my soul to heights unsuspected and let me float around where even eagles won't dare. The raag sounded very similar to Kirwani, which in the Hindustani stream has been borrowed from the Carnatic stream I believe. The violinist seemed to be playing his instrument with much practised ease, and the slide guitarist gave him solid support.

When I spied notes of Bhairavi [can't remember the Carnatic name] I squirmed. After a few minutes, I thought there were strains of Piloo, even Khamach... and then I lost track. It was a raagmala, a medley or raags... but there were more jolts to come. When I heard the unmistakable strains of Mozart's symphony number 40 in D minor, my heart skipped a bit.

Before I could gather my jaw by now lolling at my feet on the floor, I heard Für Elise by Beethoven, one that my pianist daughter Mimi keeps playing daily. There were plenty more blasphemies to come creeping in, and though I am not at all a conservative, I felt violated for some mysterious reason.

There were credits in what appeared like Telugu script to me [ I go by the visuals of bird flying, sitting, looking up, or lying dead with feet up in the air, that's what the characters look like] it was a sort of clue for me to see the English alphabets USA in their names. So the youngsters were NRIs trying out their own brand of fusion. Went for a long walk, had a good dinner, watched more sickening news and went off to sleep long before midnight, something unusual for me -the night creature who hates sleep.
(c) Max Babi, April 2006.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

At The Airport....

I reached Pune airport something like three hours before the scheduled flight, the second one, in the morning. I like doing that. Sit watching people and the free drama that most of them put up for my assessment.

The security staff, the bumbling cops, the lazy young men and women 'manning' the counters and flirting outright, the highly unhelpful ground staff, the over-important officials [increasingly fat ladies are now becoming that species], the VIPs with their twisted sense of importance, the nouveau riche with their standard regulation baggage on wheels, the carefree teenagers who show their derriere cleavage when they bend, the always-fighting cleaning ladies.... amazing assortment. The same everywhere in India.

The flight was delayed. So that meant lots of waiting. Tired of sending sms messages of goodbye to many friends, I climbed up to the lonely restaurant to restore myself with a beer and some French Fries. It helped. The overcrowding of the skies reflected itself on the rotten street like scenes at the airport lounge too. There were these small airlines potting up portable kiosks, like the bank guys setting up shops right next to smelly urinals [what logic drives them?], and noisily quarreling with one another or the clients, which is worse. Well, after an indifferent flight, ruined by a fat Tamilian who snored and leaned on me for support, with me jerking him straight every five minutes, I landed in Chennai. I lumbered out with my huge suitcase plus two brief cases was catching the sight of a banner, with six inch high letters proclaiming MAX BABI.

The driver told me his car was far off in the parking lot, so why don't I walk up the passage and he will retrieve the car. I walked up. I waited, and he didn’t turn up for nearly ten minutes. I got to watching traffic cops hauling up taxis stopping on this passage way and allowing passengers to embark. One cop, driver of a tow away van was yelling feverishly in his mike to ask drivers to move or get towed. Drivers shouted back at him. I wanted to tell my taxi driver, we never look cops in the eye, just ignore them and they don't do a thing. If you look a Pune cop in the eye he slaps you with Rs.500/- fine, finding weird things wrong in your papers, or totally missing papers.

Getting more and amused I watched the well oiled team catch drivers and get them booked. Suddenly a small car slowed down, a grayish Indica with a taxi type yellow number plate. The driver smiled at me, and his dark complexion his toothbrush mustaches, seemed very familiar. Thinking my guilty feeling driver is back, I hopped on to his vehicle, whilst he frantically gathered my bags and stuffed them in his small boot. We were driving away but car wouldn’t move. Two guys had swooped down and put a huge lock on the front right wheel. A huge calliper shaped like and same in size as garden shears... the driver coaxed and cajoled, all to no avail. He yelled, honked, beat his fists on his steering wheel and they moved away to the next car. The driver of the tow away truck smirked ominously.

The driver jumped out and went to whisper sweet nothings in to the ears of other cops. He came bounding back like a fox being hunted. Give me six rupees saaar... he said. I fished out a tenner and asked him to keep it. Fifty more, Sixty-aaa he yelled. So I gave him a hundred. He ran out and brought the small emaciated urchin who was going around locking more cars. We were free to go. Suddenly after going ten metres, he screeched to a halt. An ambassador car had come to intercept us. The white uniformed driver, was dancing up and down and knocking on my closed window. When nothing worked, he took out a crumbled note from his pocket and unfurled it in my face. It said, MAX BABI.

Holy shit, I had got into a wrong taxi. We quickly swapped taxis, and before we could say Puratchi Talavi Jaylalitha, the towing truck had come latched onto this taxi too. Whilst my official driver yelled at the cops, the other driver, took out my last bag and sped away. With the balance forty rupees, in other words I had paid for his short sojourn at the passage way. End of Day One.
(c) Max Babi March 2006.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Max Tracks....

My good friend John Mathew the writer and poet, active at Caferati, Sulekha and Shakespeare & Co. once suggested that I should write a blog entitled Max Tracks...since I travel a lot.

Here it is, John.

Max In Chennai is a humble beginning to what seems like an attractive way of penning my thoughts, reactions and reflections when in an alien culture and climate.

Due to errors made in floating my own blog -I have several others which are botched attempts, and the Big Brother sitting somewhere watching me canoodle and freak with controls has whammed me into a pit of confusion. Lets not dwell on that. This blog seems to be behaving, for whatever mumbo jumbo the IT guys would sell me.

I propose to write my Chennai Diary here. Today is probably my 20th day in Chennai, haven't bothered to keep track -but two weeks to absorb the local conditions seem decent to me.

This is a test introduction. My next post will be more juicy. So hang around and make copious comments, dear reader.

Ciao !