Monday, May 29, 2006

Thiru Vi Ka Poonga...

Poonga means Park in Tamil.

Pretty fluffy, well-rounded and easy-going word I would say. Anyway, this park, perfectly circular in cross-section lies almost three kilometers [two miles] from my place. Nearly every morning, after a soul uplifting coffee at Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, I keep meandering through the lanes of Anna Nagar East and take a full circle of the park with all intentions of sitting on one of the benches and watching the world go trickling by.

That has neve happened. The walk makes me hanker for one more cup of the huge kick-giving coffee and a copy The Hindu [which they local populace calls Dee Indu, meaning the egg in Gujarati]... the limitations of the Tamil script send me into a tizzy now and then...

I mean Baank in place of bank is fine, but Oot-lent in place of Woodland recoils me in horror... the first prize goes to Bilibus. Guess what name is that? Phillips, good old lighter up of homes and breaker of deathly silences and thrower of moving images plus the hoi polloi that must follow. I'm glad I taught myself how to read Tamil by comparing the ubiquitous signboards mostly written both in English language and Tamil script. Decades before Madras became Chennai, I had been reading that name as Sennai [since they seem to have a single letter for both 's' and 'ch' sound...].
Joining the consonants is hell for them, Piribakaran is what the name reads -the one we know as Prabhakaran.

Long before reaching my coffee place or Thiru ['Shri'] Vi Ka [both initials] Poonga [Park as we saw] I have to watch a hundred neighbouring houses with strangely tilted compound walls. This fascinated me no end, most likely reason could have been an earthquake or two... however, over the weeks, I noticed none of the new houses like ours, had tilted compound walls, competing with Pisa's leaning tower, but all the old ones did have sometimes cracked and partially tumbling down compound walls. The day I realized it was the tall palm trees -that seemed to grow all wonky, seeking sunshine due to taller houses all around, which were exerting pressure on to the walls... one old palm tree or coconut tree, whatever, fell down two buildings away. I was a little startled to see the tree across the road, taking down telephone wires and electrical cables along with it. As I neared the spot where it had fallen on the road, I was a little more startled. There was a spot of blood, most probably human blood, in a spot that spanned nearly six inches. Somebody got hit on the head, I presumed. I didn't ask Kaka who would have come out of his Dog House to do the song and dance routine to tell me what happened. Sometimes that hits me like a door in the dark, this routine, especially without a cup of coffee in the morning.

The merciless sun by six thirty, truly an ungodly hour, has climbed up in the sky so high, that it would be nine o'clock in Pune or Mumbai.

Back to the Poonga, it's sheer fun to see the local early morning walkers and joggers jostle in the park. I have at least a dozen favourites. There is this old old man who walks crisply throwing his arms up forwards and backwards marching to his own tune... there is this extraordinarily funny young man with a walkman plugged into his ears and his hands dancing in a choreography none of us can ever figure out... and the various ladies with generously proportioned behinds, that wiggle and waggle with a life all their own.

Another favourite is the Yoga class teacher at whose command nearly a hundred souls lie flat on the ground as if dead, or contort themselves into rubbery mutilated postures that seem to scream with pain... or breathe in and out noisily. The fact that he controls a crowd of nearly 200 persons early in the morning, makes me jealous. I hurry over to the next part, rather than watch them. He uses a public address system with a huge microphone stand like a political leader.

There are many more... we shall examine them later.

(c) Max Babi

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Man In The Dog House

We call him Kaka.

Reminds me of the cowboy (may even be a redneck variety)joke. When a newspaper reporter asked an oldie, did he always call his wife honey? Naaah, he said, been doin' that only for five years -eversince I forgot her name.

Kaka is a big burly man. Sort of a de-clawed tiger. In spite of huge frame and a dead pan expression, he seems very soft at heart. He has probably looked after my landlady's kids in various roles, gatekeeper, watchman, babysitter, vegetable buyer, kitchen help, even a bulldog.

One day I went looking for him to tell him a pipe leaked in my bathroom. Couldn't find him anywhere... the entire ground floor block usually remains open -I am amazed, with hardly an occupant around. I thought of going in to the Dog House. There he was. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, eating rice and his meal... at eleven in the morning. Probably a throwback to his farming days in the village they all come from, eight hours journey from Chennai. Early to rise, early meals, early winding up and hitting the sack circa eight in the evening.

That odd construction, sort of an architectural miscarriage if you take a hard look at it, seems like a giant dog house, not a sentry's cabin. It is built at the farthest end of the huge house, not in the front, which gives is a secondary importance in the scheme of things. The architect God bless his soul, has put sort of tiled roofs, turning every window into an ornamental object, and this Dog House has one too. The overall effect has been ruined, quite unintentionally.

Kaka knows as little English, as I do Tamil. I can count up to ten. So telling time when someone (and ten persons do that every day) ask me yenda mani? I confidently round up the hour to the nearest figure and say anja mani (five o'clock it is is quarter to or past five) or moonu mani (three) so on and so forth. Both of us need to deal with each other daily and the sign language comes to our rescue, causing ceaseless comedy... to his relief and my chagrin. Things don't get done if one of us misunderstands.

He asked me once to start paying him two hundred rupees to wash the car daily. My tomato red old Beast, is positively a magnet for dirt, dry leaves, birdshit and worse. The first day he did it with a vim and vigour that surprised me, and he gave me a wonky smile, many of his tobacco teeth have parted company with him for good, and I said nalla nalla [good good]. He disappeared for the next five days, to my horror and disappointment.

We both would have gone through our wordless song and dance routine to explain his absence, me asking and he replying, but a casual remark from the landlady's son who is the only person speaking English in four families staying around me, said Kaka had gone to his 'native place'. So I tried to think kindly of him, instead of mentally conjoining him with the outlaw and brigand Veerappan. So many people have taken me for a ride, I am becoming distrustful of the populace.

The battery finally died, as it is the air-conditioner was drawing lifeblood from it so I had stopped using that... usually the late afternoons are breezy and one doesn't need the AC. I left it at the service station and walked some distance to catch one of these ugly "Meter Taxis". They do carry fare meters that are as redundant as nipples on a man, and even the fare is quixotic. Not according to kilometres but according to your state of exhaustion and need.

The nearest thing I have experience to using a vibrator is an electrical etching tool for marking metals. So I can imagine the effect of the other variety used for physical stimulation...but oh boy. A Meter Taxi is a whole vibrator itself, you go right inside, and it stimulates every inch of your skin, muscle and tickles the bones too. It shudders, judders, throbs and rattles... when I got off after twenty minutes, the whole body was was itching as if I had been given a powerful massage.

The car's battery didn't charge up as expected so next day also I had to resort to the use of three wheeled auto rickshaws. A friend, God bless her soul, asked me to come for dinner, and I caught an auto to reach early. Getting off, I gave the driver a hundred rupee note, plus a ten rupee note and he returned a fifty rupee note. Instead of sixty he charged me seventy, which was not bad. After walking for five minutes I realized the single note in my wallet had been a five hundred rupee note... so I had paid the driver 470/- rupees instead of 70/-.

Sigh, I do have suicidal tendencies.

(c) Max Babi

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Pending Connection

I am about to get myself a laptop, so that the lonely hours I spend at home in the evening, can be put better use than reading novels, lying under the fan, sweating half my body mass off... but that needs a landline and broadband connection too, to be able to surf the net….

About ten days ago, instead of going in for the government-owned service providers who gave me hell in Pune, I went for a private company. The salesman turned up sooner, much sooner than I had imagined. Yes, their office was five minutes' walk from my place.
He made me fill up a simple form, asked for a minimum number of documents and those silly 'proofs' of my existence and took a small cheque. Free broadband with the I was on cloud nine when he left. Minimum five day, maximum seven days.

Today it's the eleventh day.

He rang me up and said his people had come to fix the phone line, but I was not at home.
Didn't you remember, I asked him, that I am staying alone? How do your people expect anyone excepts ghosts to be here at eleven o'clock when I leave at nine thirty?
Sir, sir sir... listen sir..
Don't you also remember I had asked you to give me a ring before coming here?
But my people came -
What use is coming here when you know I am not there...
But sir...
You said five days, remember? At the most seven days...
But sir...
What is your excuse for this delay, Mahesh?
We will give it to you in two days.
I don't trust your word, my man. Stop playing games.
But sir, listen sir...
Give me a date, my man. Two days will stretch to two months, I am beginning to know you guys very well, that's how things work here...
Mahesh did you hear me? I was a date. Say four days from now, but don't come back to me with lame duck excuses like your people came...
Saturday sir. Honestly I promise.

I knew it in my bones that he was lying. The honeyed manner in which these young salemen talk when they want your money or have taken your money and are at fault, gives them away.

I thought I'll give him a scare.
Mahesh, do you know I am from Gujarat.
Yes sir, NO sir... I mean yesssah.
Do you know I used to play marbles with your managing director?
Yes sir.. I mean glad to-
Half your company executives know me.
Yes sir...
If you don't install the phone on Saturday, Mahesh, start looking for a new job.
Oh no..
Oh yes. I mean it.

I cut him off. I recalled his office was being shifted to some place near Thiruvanmiyur, that's one and hour's drive from here.

Now I have to sweat it out till Saturday.

© Max Babi, 052506

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Domani never comes !

When I was at school, Radio Ceylon [Sri Lanka now] used to broadcast popular songs for six hours in the morning and six hours in the evening. Now when I sit with the Chennai map, wow, most of the names of the areas seem so familiar though I have never visited them, because the requests for songs used to come from Royapettah, Mylapore, Egmore, Parry's, Triplicane... places I have whizzed through without knowing them.

Domani never comes! Or tomorrow never comes, was a very popular songs with all those saddlesore Sinatras, as the lovers of country music were called by the real cowboys in US. Amazingly the largest body of popular music in India then was country music. So I grew up listening to heart-broken melodies by Hank Locklin, Dean Martin, Don Williams, Slim Dusty, Neil Sedaka, Patty Page... and hundreds of singers from the 1950s and '60s.

This is what my supplier of AC tells me. I booked an air conditioner on 8th May, selecting him since he is well known to our organisation. It was to be delivered on 12th. Today is 22nd, and I have produced I think no less than three tubfuls of sweat, cursing him in four languages I know fluently. Every time I remind him, he says he is sending it tomorrow...

That fateful day when I jumped into an auto rickshaw to reach T.Nagar, a lady on the phone gave me very precise directions. She made a subtle mistake that cost me dearly. She said I have to reach Natesan Park, after some Dakshinamoorthy temple, and then their office is 'inside' on the left hand side. I did that, and no one out of a hundred souls I stopped and asked new where Park Street was. Thank God, no wag told me it was in London, I was ready to climb up the nearest tree and yell my head off like Tarzan after three pulls on a loaded cigarette.

It's right here, someone told, misleading me away from the actual site, like a lapwing does. That's one helluva smart bird. It goes on screaming Did You Do It? away from its own nest, so that you end up far away from the target. The same thing happened to me. After an hour of searching, I seemed to have walked three sides of a rectangle, several kilometres in all, and finally in a dizzying moment, asked the AC supplier to get me picked up. I had almost reached his office, five more minutes of walk... though from the opposite side.

The formalities took an hour. So on the way back the auto-rickshawallahs here direct descendents of Veerappan, quote astronomical figures. I kicked myself for having left the car at home. Had to pay through the nose, and coming home found every single restaurant closed. Except a fishy looking place that specializes in Arabian delicaces. They had only roasted chicken left, which turned out to be a delight indeed. Had been hearing rave reviews about 'poshte moorg' from my foodie father, though had my own doubts, since the chicken skin is usually for the cat to eat, at home. Incredibly tasty, indeed.

This rhino-hide wearing seller of ACs, made me wait from three in the afternoon to eight in the night, on the fateful day when his driver with my AC and a carpenter were coming. The next day, I rang him up, he had fled the city and the poor lady who answers the phone most unfortunately got the high temperature blast from me. I could visualize her throwing up her hands in the air and implying it's the boss, it's the boss.. tell him.

He doesn't look at the calendar this seller of ACs, and he doesn't realize that I have been reading the newspapers and they tell me there is an acute shortage of ACs in this blessed town. My colleague who recommended him, was tres cool. If I had ordered a split AC, he put it logically, clinically with a sickening precision, I would have got it the next day. What wisdom in hindsight.

Today also the AC didn't come.
Domani never comes.
And yes, amongst my more morose schoolmates, a guy named Wilson whose mother tongue was Tamil and who found English a tough nut to crack, used to sing this song.
"The money never comes..." how right you are, my dad with his wonky sense of humour would pat his back. Quite a philosopher young fella ! Whatever you do, the money never comes...

(c) Max Babi, 052306.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors

There's tiny restaurant at a busy junction, about fifteen or twenty minutes walk from my place.

I've been waking up around six o'clock in the morning and since I have decided against having a gas stove or an electric hot plate at home (as these lead to much more complication like buying a fridge to keep milk from fermenting, pots and pans and the whole hassle of cleaning up...) I have to hunt for tea or coffee. A sort of madness descends on me, if I am without a stimulant in the morning for more than ten minutes. The highly aromatic coffee they feed is out of this world, all the Cafe Coffee Days and its avatars pale in comparison.

It's sheer fun to sit and watch the giant, lets call him Naikanappan, who standing tall with his back to me, puts a ridiculously small amount of coffee powder in a glass [not those stainless steel pair of one wide pot and one narrow one which singes my fingers] and then adds scolding hot milk (plus water) to it. Then he "stretches" the brew by transferring from a brass pot with a handle to my glass, this is an expression I learn from Charlie Kattampally -how I love that name, it rolls on your tongue and comes out with a small explosion... He was a wag whom I had as a neighbour and colleague in Baroda. He was a chemist and his explanation for coffee being heavenly in South, was this "stretching" which causes rampant oxidation of the brew... there is some solid argument here. More later.

The nearly six feet tall giant, stretches it three times, banging that brass cup on the granite base of his work table, turn around dramatically and hands the glass to me in a threatening manner. I've never seen this Frankenstein's creation smile once, though he's fed me more than sixty cups till now. I didn't hear him speak for weeks, till the time he got mad at the hunchback... ahem, now you're getting suspicious about the title, eh what, dear reader?

Well I sit at least six feet away from Naikanappan whose fierce movements strike terror in my heart, early in the morning when I'm busy gathering my wits and hankering for coffee. This distance, is covered by the Hunchback, a tiny boy, God alone knows he may even be a midget, whose croaking voice lends a shiver to my hands, whenever he croaks. Whatever tumbles out is gibberish to me, and usually we all communicate with a few words of English. The boy, unless he is a dwarfed man, brings the cup to me, giving me those voodoo looks which I avoid so early in the day.

The third character I suspect is the owner, who comes nearly half an hour later, with four white horizontal stripes and a red sun in the middle, painted on his deep coffee brown forehead. His eyes seem all artificial, as if made of opaque glass with a black circle painted on them. He looks through me, never cares to hear what I have said, and like those two he usually keeps staring at my dainty little feet, shoeless and without socks. The morning heats up obscenely within minutes so I go around wearing my old jeans cut off at the knees to fashion Bermudas. The rest of my body has developed brown shades, but my feet are nearly translucent. Their English and my Tamil are too inadequate to discuss this foot fetish they all seem to possess in plenty. They keep trying to figure out where I am from... no doubt about that.

The fourth character, nearly as large and looming as Naiakappan, is probably related to the silent giant. The same build, the same negroid complexion, the same penetrating eyes... I call him the vada man... he refuses to serve me anything, if I don't say coffee, automatically bringing two vadas floating in sambhar. I have found this practice abhorrent -but three radical changes have occurred glacially in my own persona.

One, I have started having only coffee.. one day the giant didn't turn up and a puny little guy trying to mimic his original style in a gauche manner, produced a glass of tea and banged in front of drowsy old me. One sip and I nearly choked. My decades of tea sipping first thing in the morning are a thing of the past. Second, I have discovered, instead of spitting out the black pepper, I am crushing it with my ageing molars and relishing the damned thing. I used to hate that particular group of spices. Third, as hinted above, I am enjoying the crisp fresh vadas swimming in an ocean of sambhar. By now I am a slave to this habit. Two vadas with two coffees.

And yes, one day when the giant spoke -his voice gave me goose bumps, and a coughing fit too. He sounded like an eight year old schoolgirl, lost in a forest with some evil spirit chasing her.

What a motley crowd pulls the blanket of sleep off my eyes every morning !

(c) Max Babi, 052026

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Incredible Intransigence -Episode Two

I had been using a particular mobile phone service for nearly five years at Pune. We all tend to stick to the same brand be it a product or a service.

Like a wise guy I thought I will discontinue my Pune-based service that was costing me an arm and a leg here, and then apply for a local one. It takes two days to get a connection, my knowledgeable colleagues reassured me.

When I tried locating the local branch of that service, it took me half a day to go through the phone book and the yellow pages...ultimately an assistant helped me find it. Not very far from the hotel where I was staying, so I went there with a song on my lips and a positive spring in the step. Little did I know...

The office was being raided by half the population of this city. Three pert young things snappily dressed and fluently speaking English, tried to help me. None could grasp the complexity of my problem. Giving up Pune connection, and getting a new connection. They passed the buck for half an hour, asking me to sit in one of those ultra-modern chairs that ruin your back though they seem so attractive. One particular lady, slightly more senior to the trio, kept reassuring me that I would be attended to in 20 minutes. She did, actually did. She just took a blank form and made me sign for a new connection. She asked me to come back again after my return from Pune, where I was to be for four days.

When I came back the young lady had either left the job or had got transferred, so the trio of those greenhorns with their ready answers and zero knowledge of the job, confronted me. I showed them the paper and they went into a solidarity-strengthening huddle. Emerging triumphantly, the sharpest of them, master of dodging and finding excuses, said they could not help.

The sky seemed to be falling down. I had requested disconnection, and in a couple of days I would be without a cellphone service... I felt like my car when it runs out of diesel, the faithful Beast. A youngish executive, more snappily dressed than all the females, with a broad tie and a broader smile, snatched the application out of the pretty young thing's hand... and asked rudely : " What's the problem."

She made a botch, a total complete and thorough botch of explaining the problem, so I had to intervene and tell him the facts. There ensued the very familiar dialogue, that I had faced on three earlier occasions, the worst being at the bank.

" Sir," said the slimy manager smiling unctuously, " do you have a ration card?"
" Yes, but at Pune." He made a face that revolted me.
" Residence proof? Phone bill? Electricity Bill? Gas connection?"
" Dear sir," I said testily, knowing well that he had heard me talking to the young girl," I am new. I have no home here, am staying in a hotel."
" Voter Identity card?"
" Who will issue that to me, I am a visitor here."
" Driving license?" I happily produced mine. He seemed more doubtful than before.
" Ahem. The address is not Chennai. It is Pune!" He seemed horrified.
" I have been explaining to you and your assistants that I am a visitor."
" Sir, how can we issue a connection?"
I reminded him that the lady who used to sit earlier where he was sitting, had told me it was possible, easy and would be done as soon as I apply.
" Any other proof?" He wanted the proof of my existence. I suddenly felt like Caspar the friendly ghost. Couldn't harm him though I could easily go through him.

In total desperation I gave him my freshly printed visiting card.
" Sorry sir, we cannot issue an individual connection to you."
I was speechless.
" So what option do I have?"
" Go for a corporate connection."
" Hey I don't own the company, I have to consult a number of departmental heads..."
" But it says Chief Executive on your card."
I realized that my proof of existence had gone against me. He wanted a bigger kill.
Must be trying hard to meet monthly targets, despite the thronging, milling mobs.

Resigned and fatigued, I left the office in disgust.
It took me nearly three weeks to get a corporate connection, so many channels had to be plodded through.

(c) Max Babi 052006

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Incredible Intransigence

Dictionaries define this favourite word of mine as :
" Refusing to moderate a position, especially an extreme position; uncompromising."

There are times in one's life when one seems to feel one's hanging by the end of the rope... and one feels like roaring like a gorilla and...

I must share two such experiences here. The first one happened at an internet cafe, near the Thirumangalam circle. One look at the old man, quietly manning the counter and I knew he thought I was trouble. The feeling's mutual boss, I felt like telling him but he pretended to be checking his register. Hardly a few lines in there, I spied into his record and convinced myself, he's a Big Pretender.

Name? I gave him.
Address? I wrote Room 101, So-and-so Hotel.
Can't you give a proper address?
Well, I am staying in a hotel, am new, looking for a house...
Give me a house number, street number, road number -
It's not possible, sir. It's like asking a bachelor the name of his future bride.
Look here, I am serious.
So am I sir.
The police are strict with us. Times are not good.
Okay sir, I know that...but I don't have a 'pucca' adress how can I-
Give me a proper address.
I don't have one-
I am sorry but-
I know-
Law is law,it does not bend nor-
Look here, my address is what I have written -
Why don't you give me proper address like House no.:420, 22nd Street, Anna Nagar...
You mean to say I invent an address, and-
NO! I didn't say nor mean-
Then how can I produce an address that I don't have?
My dear sir, try and understand my position -
I do, I do sir.
So give me an address...
I don't have one.
Everyone has a proper address-
I am from Pune, shall I give you that address-
I want your local address -
I don't have, I have just come here last week, have not found a proper house as yet-
Why don't you try and understand sir?
That the police will catch me.
Do I look like a terrorist, a hacker, an embezzler, or an enemy of the state?
Did I say so?
You implied so, dear sir.
Why don't you give me a proper address and finish it off?

At this point I thought either he was insane,stark staring raving drooling mad or I was. One of us was.

I just went and started surfing the net. The young boy who usually mans the counter, spluttered unable to control guffaws that were racking his chest. Tears rolled from his eyes.

That's your Tamil bureacracy for you. Employ the scrap from government, at cheap labour rates and get your customers rattled nice and thoroughly.

I never stepped into that particular cyber cafe ever -after having told him so.

(c) Max Babi 051706

Monday, May 15, 2006

Reaching Home, Via Koyembedu

When good old Ramaswami selected a bus, I was so overjoyed, I forgot to read the signboard... which bus number destination what.

The breeze felt heavenly, when the bus finally moved after loading half of Chennai into its belly. The driver, must have been suffering from piles or fistula, since he kept honking uselessly at an hour approaching midnight. People can see the huge glare of the headlights, but he would honk shrilly, get madder and swear at them. One tanker in front broke down, our driver leaned on the horn for something like seven minutes which seemed like seven lifetimes to me. I wanted to go and strangle him with my bare hands, this sort of intransigence is common with the Puneites, deliberately becoming a pain in the ass. They seem to be doing it here too.

After a small eternity, whilst I tried reading Tamil signboards when passing through areas I didn't know, Ramaswami kept staring at one point in far off space, thinking heavily, so heavily I didn't have the heart to make small talk. The bus finally stopped. He had gotten off long before me, having explained patiently that his destination was something like 20 minutes before the last stop of this bus. He told me repeatedly to keep sitting till the bus finally reached its last stop. It did, and to my great relief, the stop was a stone's throw from Koyembedu from where my bus to Pondy had started in the morning. I was overjoyed. I wanted to sing and dance, but unfortunately my sugar level seemed dangerously low and the toffees in my jeans pockets had been consumed long back.

I caught hold of an unwilling auto-rickshaw driver who wanted roughly fifty percent higher charge to take me back exactly where I had started from. Haggling didn't help, he would lapse into Tamil, make faces, act out some emotional scenes that I couldn't interpret... finally I agreed and he dropped me near Roundtana, within walking distance of my place. The only place open for eating at nearly midnight was Arabian Delight, a small shop with a huge oven that remains like all through the evening. There was no choice in the menu. Only grilled chicken, so had one, couldn't finish half of it. My father used to rave about 'posht-e-moorgh' or the skin of the chicken, usually we feed that to our cat. The damned thing turned out to be terribly tasty.

Trudged home and collapsed.
(c) Max Babi, 051506.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Lecturing On Jazz

Purnima, a neighbour and my mentor in matters related to Chennai and more specifically my area, rather our area since she's an oldhand at solving local problems, asked me once if I could lecture a group of her club on Jazz.

I said I would, and prepared myself for the task with a powerpoint presentation, using utmost loving care to ensure no major genres or styles and giants of Jazz were left out. She gave me just two days notice, which usually suffices for me, since I have often been asked to do impromptu things too.

One of the most mortifying moments in my jazz lecturing career happened about two years ago when I was to speak on a rather specialized subject, heavily advertised with posters and advertisements in papers, in Mumbai. The Influence Of The Blues On Jazz... lots of friends I had called over, two of my nieces who happened to be in Mumbai were asked to travel by bus for nearly two hours and be present. They did.

I sat up the whole night, since things were very tight with my work at the factory and I had been postponing the preparations till the last night. I remember I was working on the presentation, running into two CDs, till half an hour before the bus departure. I hurriedly had a bath, breakfast and ran to catch the bus. Getting off at Dadar, as I boarded the train to VT to reach Planet M, suddenly the realization struck me, I had forgotten both the CDs at home.

Two options stared at me, a] chickening out and taking the train back to Dadar en route to Pune, thus making over fifty of my best jazz pals enemies for life, or b] to get up and talk. I may make mistakes, leave out portions, may fumble, may get stuck, may get booed or jeered, but I would save my neck.

I chose the latter option.

Reaching Planet M, I explained the quandary to one of the shop assistants who said the whole store is yours, go and select any number of CDs, man. You can speak, we know it. So I went around, and that day none of the show organizers had shown up except Ashok Gulati of Jazz India who is very supportive.

The lecture went of smoothly. One jazzman and musicologist Jason Beaster-Jones from some university in US was present. He came up to congratulate me when my heart had stopped fluttering and fibrillating... he said he had a couple of bones to pick with me on technical points but when Jehangir, the owner of Jehangir Hospital and Jehangir Art Gallery said I had forgotten the CDs, he not only forgave me the inaccuracies, he thought the job was greatly executed.

Well, Purnima drove me to the Club, we had a grand lunch in style, her air-conditioned car took the edge off the beastly heat in Chennai and I had not withered away by the time we reached Egmore. I finally got up, she had wired her laptop to the LCD projector and I started defining jazz, giving names of styles/genres and the jazz giants.

I distinctly got the feeling I lost them. The crowd seemed to be listening patiently, trying to understand. It seemed as if they were trying to lip read me rather than listen to me... as if I were talking in Kirghizi or Armenian. Half way through the lecture my heart sank down to somewhere near my ankles. Purnima sat in the front row, giving me encouraging nods and interested looks. It was a total disaster, and a big let-down. I had thought a metropolis like this would have lots and lots of people who were knowledgeable about Jazz. Here I was, facing the crème de la crème and none one single soul could understand me. The only name that clicked was Louis Armstrong.

On the way back she told me, my lecture was too high flying, which it was not. The obvious problem was unfamiliarity of the crowd with the chosen topic. Food for thought indeed.

(c) Max Babi, 21st May 2006

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Return To Chennai -Getting Lost in Tambaram...

One gets used to any infernal situation, indeed.
I soon forgot how crowded the so-called luxury bus was, how smelly were my neighbours pressing on to me mercilessly, how slowly the time crept on...

The bus was going to Tambaram and not Koyambedu from where I had started. My new friend the village school-teacherish fellow, one with the mono-syllabic answers,
allowed a shade of deep doubt on his face whenever I asked him if Tambaram was very far from Anna Nagar. He's open his mouth, like a fish pulled out of water, make some piteous faces, mumble something and then clam shut. I gave up, and went on watching the perilous traffic on the road. Suicidal maniacs seemed to be aiming at our bus and miraculously missing us by a hair-breadth all the time.

After what seemed like a mini-eternity the bus offloaded us at Tambaram... aha, I said to myself, the place seems familiar. Only a few years back, wasn't it this place from where I had caught a bus to far-off Shollingnur? Yes, it was. The same huge bus-terminus, the same amoebic clusters of worried looking people forming, deforming, reforming their clusters and suddenly parting when a maniac on a two wheeler or inside a four wheeler came speeding onto them.

I religiously toed the line, for my silent companion was rambling around like a lost soul, very obviously searching for something. From a safe distance I could see he wanted a payphone. He found one, punched a number and after a while put the receiver down, shaking his head ruefully. As if his only son had turned out to be a really bad egg. He looked devastated. I thought of helping him, after all he had been my lifeline to sanity.

"Phoning up your family?" In this class of people, you don't say wife, you say family, I have learnt. They feel we are being obscene by mentioning the relationship. Sigh, classes ! Well, I punched the numbers he recited very patiently. I couldn't get through.
"Network congestion." I said dutifully and he smiled laconically, like he knew the connection would not come through.
" Bus number 18M will take you to somewhere near Anna Nagar," he spoke to no one in particular and I gathered he meant the missile to hit me. Wayward one, but it did hit me. I welcomed it, Anna Nagar, the name itself sounded like Chicken Biryani to someone who has been fasting for long.
We both loitered along, snaking our way through lost-looking outsiders and slimy looking local ones. He would very dedicatedly read the dim-lit signboards on the buses, always in Tamil, and tell me where the bus would be going.
" Somewhere near Anna Nagar?" I would anxiously look at my watch and ask like a moron. With the patience of a teacher who has been a guardian to a mentally retarded child he would cautiously explain it was some other route.
Up and down, up and down we walked. My low sugar symptoms reared their ugly head, my head was spinning, my vision had blurred, my legs started imitating those Paris supermodels who put right foot in front of left and vice versa, mimicking the poor cat. To someone else, I may have seemed drunk or on drugs. But I knew what it was. I would be passing out soon. That fear got me hurrying to nearest fruit stalls. Apples are the best remedy for low sugar, and depression. Both had been straddling my back like a pack of wolves, digging into my sparse flesh in an fiendish manner.
The fruit seller refused to sell me one apple, though he seemed to be lording over tonnes of apples. He wouldn't listen to me at all. I went to another -then, another and finally a Hindi-speaking fellow sold me one at an exorbitant price. I munched on it and my guide refused it when I showed it to him. As he looked much more worried, I retrieved my cell-phone and re-dialed his home number, this must have been the thirtieth time. Some lady spoke and I pushed the phone onto his left hear.
"Just talk.." I said, making him confused.
He did talk and a cloud lifted from his face. He seemed as if that brief case with a million rupees he had dropped somewhere had been returned by me. He had a very brief talk like much-married men will have with their wives and gratefully returned the phone to me. By now about a hundred buses had gone by, none of them 18M. About three fourths of them were M18, going to some weird sounding place.
Just when I stopped cursing no one in particular, for I was hopping mad at the whole world, not only my shirt but my jeans were completely soaked with sweat by now. What a muggy day...
" Do you speak Hindi?" A woebegone face materialized in front of me, carrying a suitcase on his head. I said yes, nodding my head.
" We are from Maharashtra," he began his much-practised tale, " we lost our suitcase with money..." I excused myself and he chased me, " we don't want money sir..."
But I lost myself in the maze of sweaty bodies so quick, because my head was splitting with worries, and I had just asked an auto-rickshaw driver how much it would cost to reach Anna Nagar.
"Three hundred rupees, saar." He said without batting an eyelid. I made an obscene face and asked him to go home and sleep.
Thus I joined my good friend Ramaswami, I like giving names to faces, and waited.
(c) Max Babi, 13th May 2006.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Pondy - The Infernal Return Journey...

Whilst boarding the bus, my fatigued mind had coolly overlooked the newly acquired piece of wisdom that there were two types of buses. One taking the ECR -East Coast Road, and the other going through a maze of villages. I obviously got into the less crowded bus, without bothering to check.

" Will this bus go to Chennai?" I had asked the driver, an ageing man with thick glasses who said ama ama... yes, yes, very enthusiastically.

I settled down on an aisle seat right in the middle of the bus where the jumping motion usually is less. There were the usual drowsy, tired and bored faces all around me. The only person I noticed, with a different cool aura about him sat across the aisle on a seat behind our row. Cool, calm and collected -seemingly a school teacher with decades of experience, I surmised. Someone you could trust.

When the bus started stopping at every possible village on the way, after giving the picturesque ECR a miss, only after ten kilometres of actual travel, it made me wonder. Two guys would get out and twenty would fight their way in. Mentally I imagined the bus as a highly pregnant fish, with a burgeoning middle. Ten thousand eggs would spew out... if the middle burst.

Sending and receiving SMS messages,I settled down comfortably, watching the monontony of Tamil Nadu villages, now nearly cities of small size. About 100 KMs from Chennai, in a perfectly nowhere place, there was an onslaught of something like 50 person, but the bus remained stationary. Usually the driver would be in a tearing hurry, but this time the bus wouldn't leave. Tempers rose, cackling and yelping increased. The freshly inducted standees who had no hopes of getting seats, took our leave. When the bus was nearly empty, the thick glasses wearing schoolteacher got up with a very determined air. I meekly followed him, for no one seemed to be heeding my queries and please including the blessed driver.

"Brakes failed." Said the cool calm and collected neighbour when I tugged at his sleeve. He waited outside with a thousand others, for the bus to Chennai. In ten minutes' time he had become rather restless, some of his cool exterior having been chipped off like crushed ice by the constant hustle and bustle which failed to affect me. I had this wild hope another bus would come and we would be restored our dignity. I found out he could speak. Very good English too. So I pestered him no end, trying to reassure myself.
“ There will be another bus? “
“ Yes.”
“ Any alternative transport?”
“ No.”
“ Will auto-rickshaws come to Chennai, if we both share the expense?”
“ No.” Here he raised his eyebrows as if I had made an indecent proposal.
“ Will we reach Chennai before nine thirty?”
“ God alone knows.

Nearly forty minutes we spent together on that nameless road. Walking up and down, checking each of the hundred odd buses that came and went away without taking us in. The driver of the abandoned bus turned to be so pigheaded, he tried fixing the 'failed' brakes sitting at the steering wheel and pumping the pedals. I told my new friend, that it seemed like a doctor was trying to cure a case of piles, by hitting someone of the head. He chuckled mirthlessly. Decidedly a man of few words, with a dry sense of humour. I shut up.

Luckily, the bus that arrived finally was what is euphemistically called here, a 'luxury' bus, with better quality of body building, better seats, less congestion in spacing of seats and garish colours splashed in gay abandon all around. I trooped in with my humourless friend. I stood near the door, for nearly thirty odd souls had been traveling in the painful standing mode already. One very determined looking young woman, buxom and stylish for a villager, strode in and place a huge bag crushing all my toes. The more I wiggled, the more she stared and glared at me as if I had been tickling her open midriff.

I thought I would die, with ten kilogrammes of dead weight on my toes, and this slow slow journey ahead, cramped between profusely sweating bodies. I twisted and turned, I changed my grips from the upper holding rods to the seats handles for support. I slanted my body, I squirmed and turned. Nothing helped. The buxom young lady, yelled at me for having kicked her bag which appeared to have been filled with cast iron slugs. It was so infernally heavy.

Finally, I had to stretch my body and look up in the fashion of dog howling at the moon, to get a breath of fresh air. It was all right when the bus moved. When it stopped, two guys disembarked and twenty more got in. Yes I know I am repeating myself. But that's what happened. I nearly had a panic attack. I wanted to jump out of the bus and walk the rest of the distance, hitch-hike, do whatever possible, go to a farm and sleep the night off... but not this.

However the saner part of my big brain did take over and I started to breath easy. Low sugar, low sugar, low sugar my brain told me, and juggling my hands to keep standing, I removed a toffee and sucked. In minutes, sanity prevailed. More later. (c) Max Babi, May 2006.

Looking At The Positive Side...

Mimi, my daughter sent me a 'positive' poem by SMS today morning. Obviously meant for children, but it has a message for us forever-grumbling adults.

A little birdie in the sky,
You look up and it shits in your eye.
You don't mind, you don't cry,
You only thank God that cows don't fly.
- Anon.

Well, well well -these 'bluesy' lyrics came in handy because only yesterday I was fuming with indignation after a foolish purchase. Walking around in the shopping areas around the Second Avenue in Anna Nagar, close to the Roundtana [what a fascinating name for a traffic circle... a friend told me it is the Tamil version of 'Round Turn' -the last consonant gets stretched here with every last word in each sentence].

Setting up home is a heavenly pastime for young women, less so for married and frequently relocated women. But for most men it is a RPIA. A royal pain in the arse. I bought two buckets for the bathroom when the taps started going dry without a warning usually around midnight in my new house -as if a ghostly housekeeper was watching me rub soap all over, and then whoooosh, no water. With soap on your face and eyes tightly shut, you can't even remember where the god-damned towel is. I shiver to recall three such incidents before I bought the bucket to store emergency water.

Taps in Chennai, give off blood. And I am sober right now. The first day, I left my dirty hankie in the wash basin, and remembering some errand, left the tap slightly, ever so slightly leaking that it would not make any sound. When I came back, horror of horrors, my spankingly new white spotless hankie had a red sun in the middle. Printed by some amateur lithographer high on marijuana or stronger stuff. Approaching it as a booby trap, very cautiously, as cautiously as a male hedgehog would approach the female in heat, I lifted a corner. The blood red spot remained, mind you the lights in the bathroom were not on, a streak of faint light was coming from the other room. I touched the bloodied spot. No spooks sprang up, no vampire came flying through the window. I thanked God Chennai does not have gekkos that go tchut tchut with a loud croak in the bathroom. Had that happened I would have screamed...

The bloodied spot vanished when washed with water. I surmised, there must be dirt in the olden plumbing. It has to be rust, for the reddish colour matched the colour of my beard. Purnima, my email friend and now a neighbour, who has been helping me like a local guide, had warned me there is too much iron in the water. Don't ever drink. Yeah, do drink bathroom tap water, being highly disorganized, and feeling thirsty in the middle of the night. But iron meant iron oxide, the metallurgist in me protested.

So I had to march to the store selling plastic goods, a huge store with at least six or seven young girls who insist on talking in rapid fire Tamil, and I bought myself a dull pinkish coloured translucent plastic mug for those forlorn buckets holding enough water for two baths. Pouring the whole bucket seems so uncivilised... I saw a heap of plastic shopping baskets, which one finds in all shopping malls. Meant for helping you carry your knick-knacks, those you purchased.

The Tamil-insisting girl, came like a mouse sensing cheese, snatched the basket, and got me a matching pink coloured basket instead. She beamed, I beamed right back, and put my things in the basket. The Tamil-insisting girl at the counter billed me, I paid up and she got a huge laundry basket type plastic bag, stuffed my purchases and bade me goodbye.

At home I discovered to my horror, she had billed me for the pink basket too. I am being very careful with my purchases, and I didn't want to waste money nor stuff my new small flat with useless items. My blood pressure would have burst the manometer glass bulb, and I was fuming from my ears. The sun shone fiercely outside, my feet were more than warm, nearly impossibly warm and they ached. So I took a royal bath instead, a wash really, without soap, just to cool off.

Looking at the positive side, I patted my back. It was a good purchase. I had been buying apples and oranges for a quick midnight bite, and they had been rolling off the dining table, off the bed, as if they were automatons impersonating fruits. Now, ahem, I could imprison them in this lovely pink basket with big slits to air them and keep them fresh.

One lives and learns, I guess.

(c) Max Babi, May 2006.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Pondychery -Sizzling Breezily...

It was a huge relief to pay up and slip out from the de Bussy bar.

The politically charged youngsters had left long before me, but to my utter horor the incompetent waitors had turned up the volume of the near-sleaze channel showing nonstop Tamil film hits. That is songs, or videos, if you like. This Tamil torture is too mind-numbing for words, so lets leave it.

My sense of direction took me to the seaface in hardly ten minutes of leisurely walking around, reading the romantic streetnames and trying to memorize them too. Quai de Guinchy, was an offshoot from the Rue de Bussy, but I strode on. Pretty soon the sky sparkled with a whitish hue, as it does over any large water body. I hit the esplanade suddenly without a warning, and the clean seaface with benches liberally strewn around seemed just like what the doctor would have ordered. Walking in the sun, I avoided by choosing to walk in the shade of the buildings.

It had been a tiring day so far. Within minutes, I chose a bench near the Tourism office, took of my shoes and socks -and overcoming the innate fear that my pink toes and soles will attract unnecessary attention, sparking off conversation, I lay myself gently down and throwing all caution to the wind, went to sleep.

There was very little traffic, just a few stragglers who seemed tourists like me, passed me at all. The sea presented an awesome view. The feeling of sheer endlessness, timelessness, a glimpse into eternity is what hits me every time whenever I sit near a beach. This was even more effective. The cool breeze nullfied the sun's nearly put-on act of being fierce, and it lulled me into a snooze all right.

When I came to, pestilential clerk, a tall and hefty guy with Keralite features -big white teeth that sparkled when he smiled, tooth brush mustache, wavy hair, was loitering up and down the part of the pavement where my bench was located. Every thirty seconds he would go and try to crack a joke or ask a question to some people in a seemingly emptly plot. Obviously there must be a young and pretty girl amongst the labourers sitting and cooking there. He returned at least fifteen times to make comments, and laugh a forced life, his eyes fixed on someone. Finally when I got up, I took a small walk to see what was so fascinating about the vacant plot. There was a gaggle of labourers, with just one young and pretty girl amongst them. She had an electric smile, which she flashed at me too. So the clerk was abdicating his duty, returning to them every half a minute, and making small talk.

Whilst I was tying my shoelaces, three local fellows dressed in spotless white mundus passed by. The one in the middle, seemed like some political agent from the polished tone of his voice, came and held both my hands reverently. There ensued a monologue with an intimacy that may have been the scene of a Tamil film being shot with me in the leading role. Perhaps he was mildly sozzled, like me, and wanted to treat every fella as a long lost brother. Perhaps he was mistaking me for some French professor who have tutored his kids. Perhaps he was just a politician asking me as an old well-established citizen of Pondy to vote for his nefarious party... he waved his hand with five fingers separated. Meaning, he will expect me to see him at five o'clock. Or attend his political rally at five.

As soon as the highly charged trio left, I walked a bit more towards the auto-rickshaw stand and caught one to take me to the bus stand. I never suspected what excitement lay in store for me, in the coming journey.

(c) Max Babi, May 2006.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Velachery to Thiruvanmiyur

Hans managed to talk to me despite one child bawling for its feed, and the other one, wow what a kid he is, Nandham, tugging at his sleeve.

Barely four years old, with ears wiggling forwards like an ET -the professorial kind, if you please, and using a vocabulary in fluent English that could put even politicians [or orators] to shame. He tried to get me interested in whatever was the most exciting project in his mind, whilst I was trying my best to squeeze nuggets of gossip about common friends from Hans.

I got very peculiar looks from Hans's scholarly looking father, three generations with thick spectacles, I noticed, and his bespectacled mother too. His father was gracious enough to end my curiosity about them being curious. It was my name, they chorused -Max Babi. His mother thought it was Mahes Babi [the 'sh' sound is conspicuously missing here from most names. The famous actress Shridevi used to insist her name was Sridevi -guess it sounds much more cute with the softer sound.

The boy with the gleaming spectacles, reminding me strongly of Calvin of the Calvin and Hobbes fame, finally brought his toys and upturned the school bag seemingly chockfull with a library of toys. Turning to me with the solemn look of an undertaker, or a Bishop with acute stomach ache, he said : " I am going to make a dinosaur that flies."

Well well well, both I and Hans thought this was a creative thought. He asked his free-wheeling intellect holder boy what he meant, how could he make that? The boy replied with redoubled seriousness, quickly putting four pieces of Lego to make a huge rectangular block and putting two curving pieces on sides. It looked like a huge bird gone all wrong during conception or gestation -ah, mutation is the word escaping my fatigue mind. But we both said the project was tremendous.

In five minutes the boy, adjusting his spectacles as if they were a pince-nez, suddenly turned to me and asked me urgently : " When will you go?" I found this query delicious. Only a child can be so disarmingly frank with you. I told him I could leave there and then itself, but had things to talk over. His mother, blushing furiously, unable to hide her scandalized expression explained : " Your papa and his friend are meeting after twenty years!"

I think the time span was too huge for that tiny brain to comprehend. I told Kaveri so. He didn't look impressed in the least. Disregarding her as a senile old woman, though she seemed to be in her late twenties or early thirties, he again came close to me :" But when will you go?"

To evade him I said half an hour. I drew a blank with Hans, my old friend. Almost all our common friends were out of touch with him. He was up to his ears in theatre and related activities... like a digital alarm, the boy rang out :
" You said you were going to leave in half an hour...why aren't you leaving?"

I laughed him off whilst the parents yelled. Much later, Hans, being the superior IQ chap that he always was, whisperingly explained that they all had been watching Lion King, CD 1 and now that a guest had been taking up time, the boy was desperate to start CD 2. Well, I didn't have the heart to break his smaller heart... so I rang up my friend Dr. Rodriguez at Valmiki Nagar. He was reaching home in half an hour.

Taking my leave I asked him how far was Valmiki Nagar, he said six or seven kilometres and she said three or four. A sense of deja vu struck me. The same discordant replies ! Husband and wife had disagreed at my earlier visit, and now the same disagreement here too...

Hans explained :" As the crow flies it is right there, but you have to go around quite a bit." He came down to see me off and promised me to keep abreast of the theatrical happenings. I drove off to my journey of discovery, finding Thiruvanmiyur with its road leading to Mahabalipuram onwards to Pondichery.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Last Mile...Deliciously Difficult.

I managed to find Velachery and due to the mad rush of thin traffic -actually traffic always is madder when fewer vehicles are rushing to nowhere... I managed to miss the signboard announcing the existence of the Regal Palm Gardens.

Now my overworked mind often plays tricks on me, especially with the sun fiercely shining outside and the car's air-conditioning behaving like a demoralized army. So I was asking for a Royal Palm Gardens, and searching for one. The local populace seems such sticklers for precision; they refused the existence of the locality giving me Goosebumps.

Was I in the wrong place? The damned place was right there under my bulbous nose, but it was not registering on my mind. Hah. So I overshot the famous RPG area and drove like mad to a flyover on the western side of which seemed to be a huge project with arches built with truly gay abandon. Reminded me of similar projects in banana republics under utterly despotic tin pot rulers. God knows what it was, a railway station? A super-duper factory with avant-garde architecture or a special new project for the moneybags returning to India? On asking some vegetable vendors, they said I had overshot the RPG project indeed, so I made a U-turn and stopped finally where I should have earlier.

Ameeta's locality turned out to be a superb clutch of condos, as our American friends would call them. All nicely designed, built with quality material, and most of all, with wide open spaces in-between. A very breezy place too. It was like a township, a small city on its own. Her husband, a non-writer and rather a non-asserting executive in the corporate world, opened the door, expecting me to turn up the appointed hour, and we gaffed on for half an hour. She was delayed I gathered.

Sandeep, with his peculiarly mellow facial features and a sardonic smile strongly reminded me of someone. I am lousy at remembering faces, however, and when it comes to remembering an old half obliterated face from my overcrowded memories, the exercise becomes a royal pain. For that matter, even Ameeta seemed very familiar, rather like a cousin of mine, but her husband, soft-spoken and very genteel person, bothered me with his familiar face for hours.

It struck me, long after I had parted, the fact that he reminded me of my schooldays buddy Gautam Desai of Baroda. Quite a character he was -rather is, since I met him recently to trade stories. Now this weakness of mine bothers my better half no end. She can never figure out how I manage to remember ten digit cell phone numbers of hundreds of friends, or complete postal addresses of thousands of business associates, and email ids of countless others... even landline numbers. I can never explain that. I have a photographic memory for trivia, perhaps, but when it comes to faces, I do incredible things.

Once I refused to recognize my own brother in law, married to a dear cousin. He sensed it, and expertly maneuvered me into confessing I didn't recall who he was... and then he went on torturing me with this lapse for years. That's one helluva low spot in familial networking, which thankfully has been dwindling down for years, now that I keep away from all sorts of relatives, and travel much more. Having gray hair, is a good excuse to tell someone I have forgotten his or her name [not likely in the least, but in reality I have forgotten the visage.] I am very gallantly forgiven every time.

The lunch was nice, and after a little more socializing I left since Hans Kaushik my theatre-struck friend was waiting in the wings as it were. His flat was within walking distance, and I found him sitting behind a screen, nursing an infant daughter.
"Come, come," he yelled and I hesitantly entered. Like a one-way mirror the cared wood screen prevented outsiders from peeping in, whilst he had a gala time watching the world outside. The whole building is one great commune, I could see, it has a round cross section. From any point you can look into anyone else's place. This principle is probably borrowed from the Bombay chawls that used to have a rectangular cross section. Some Hindi films have used that; I guess some small screen serials have also dwelled on this topic. I had the good fortune of living for a few days amidst such communes, in the heart of chawl-land, Pydhonie -the place where the Paav bhaaji of Mumbai was invented in the late 1970s. My the-then boss took me; Jayant Amin now deceased, to the particular laari [handcart], which used to appear like a ghostly apparition only around midnight. With a reverent look on his pleasantly drunken face, he showed me the hallowed precincts where the nightlife began so late, and the revered cast of three over-busy bhaiyas [guys from Eastern U.P.] who had invented this rare delicacy.

Families have been ruined by the love of paav bhaaji, and courting couples have smashed crockery on each other's heads, if one is to believe the urban legends floating around in Mumbai. PB, is a hot topic, and a fertile one -so fecund that the folklore seems to burgeon with new stories with every passing year. The other PB was Parveen Babi, another source of endless myths and fabricated stories, my poor cousin who died rich in wealth and dreadfully poor from the social angle. I guess I am digressing too much, so ciao!

More later.

A Little Less Merry Version Of Goa...

This title I have borrowed from my creative-minded friend Jhumur Ghosh, who exchanged some SMS messages, as I sat ogling at the blue ocean on the Pondichery esplanade very recently.

She's very right too, for the city of Pondy as it is called here, has the same laidback colonial ambience, the same profusion of bars and pubs, the same romantic names of streets... but the overwhelming Tamil influence acts as a moderating effect too. It is a less merry version of Goa, lets make no doubt about that.

On a sunday morning, with monday off too, I decided to take a bus from Koyembedu -which to my surprise turned out to be CMBT -central moffusil bus terminus, not far from Anna Nagar where I live. I leisurely walked around, wondering if my writer friend at Pondy may respond to my request to meet her or not. Soon I discovered there were at least six different buses going to Pondy.

One oft-repeated description was ECR -sounding rather like some electronic acronym but it exposed itself to a much less romantic East Coast Road, euphemistically called a beachway too. For most part, the beach remained invisible, except in some occasional saucy glimpse here and there when the road swerved and lurched, snaking its way past Mahabalipuram and Chingleput onwards to Pondy. Saucy glimpse, like a thundering thigh from a slit skirt that was more than ample to cover evey inch. In another post my past experiences at M and C above, for memories have got triggered inside me, would need airing. But for now lets focus on this less merry Goa visit.

The bus I chose was nearly full when I boarded, and a very gentle looking youngster, lanky and simply dressed without any filmy airs about him, turned sideways to let me sidle into the window seat, within whispering distance to the driver. The road all through is really excellent, and my companion hesitantly started helping me. I knew, dressed in fading jeans and a knitted T-shirt, he had taken me for a foreigner. Every second person here does that. I had nothing to carry, not even a book nor a plastic bag with eatables. Since the temperature had crossed 40 degrees C already, I had just a water bottle with me.

This solitary piece of luggage started coming to life, very soon. It would topple over, slip away, roll away and do other cartoonish mischief mongering acts, and our man would offer to hold it. Whenever an SMS message arrived and I had to retrieve my glasses, our man would offer to hold the bottle. How very sweet, I thought and smiled at him like an indulgent grandpa. For some inexplicable reason, he wouldn't look me in the eye nor smile directly and make small talk. He would just do sweet things like holding the bottlen or retrieving it when it slid down finally.

But after Mahabalipuram -nearly an hour's drive, he tentatively put out his fluffy tentacles and asked me where I was from. This simple question always rattles me, and I am always tempted to say " I don't know" -which is a fact, too bizarre for simpleminded man on the streets. So I said Gujarat, which is right too since I was born and lived for forty years there...and the language is like my mother tongue, almost. He looked very doubtful. I assured him I was not pulling his leg and said my ancestors came from Afghanistan, and that we had been intermarrying like the Parsis.

From the uncertain smile flickering on and off on his face I could easily make out he didn't digest this piece of trivia at all. Small talk followed, and before he got off some fifty KMs before Pondy, he finally said what was struggling inside him like a huge python without finding the right outlet. He said " Your face-cut and dress is like a foreigner." Now these are Indianisms, which imply that my jawline or the overall shape of the face was un-Indian, something I can't really come to grips with because half the time people are mistaking me for a Punjabi, a Sindhi, or even a Pathan -the last one is closest to the truth but I am not six feet tall and not built like King Kong either. With that filmy sounding parting shot he waved and ambled off into his village. Sweet boy, Sankar, something. Doing his Master's in linguistics.

The bus offloaded us all, at the Pondy bus station, and I found my knees had jammed. Sitting in a cramped position for four unending hours is not good for ageing joints, and for half a KM I had to hobble along like a man in his late nineties. After nearly half an hour, I found an internet cafe on Rue de Bussy, wow, what a name for a non-descript Tamil-like street rather startlingly similar to hundreds of them in Chennai. The name must have been changed to Lal Bahadur Shastri street, but it didn't stick.

The outside temperature seemed six to seven degrees lower than the boiling Chennai I had left far behind. Walking in the shade made sense, though in some places without tall trees, I had to hurry up. My writer friend had probably not accessed her email or didn't want to contact me, thus I decided to walk around, have a beer and lunch and spend some time at the Esplanade. I casually checked my emails, and after an hour, resumed my ramble. By then I was ravenously hungry.

The nearest bar was De Bussy, quite predictably so since half the street seemed to belong to M. de Bussy whoever he was. Or is. Rather disconcertingly, the bar had a huge sign outside announcing it was closed from 13th April to 12th May due to elections. This bad news seared through me like a gentle streak of lightening, and I walked out without opening its door. Within minutes of leaving the bar, I saw a gang of youngsters, six or more, seemingly rich men's sons with nothing better to do, pushing open the same door and trooping in. So I too returned and was startled to see forty or fifty males inside, cackling like mad hens and arguing over politics. I guess it was politics with the election fever in the air. It could have been anything.

To sip a beer for an hour is difficult, but I managed to do that since the waiters were either dumb or deaf or disorganized. Three of them took the same order and vanished into the air as if they were Harry Potter clones. The fourth one took pity on me thinking I was a French professor with my red beard, and got me the beer with some peanuts. To kill time, this combination is unbeatable. You can chew on one piece of nut and take a miniscule sip and let the whole world go to hell.

More in the next part... coming up soon.
Ciao !

Monday, May 01, 2006

Venturing Out Finally...

Driving a big car like The Beast, Tata Sierra, in a city like Chennai is more a psychological burden than anything else. Will the danged thing stop in time, will I hit someone on the side, and there are half a million kamikaze two wheeler riders who usually overtake me brazenly from the wrong side, and my heart jumps into my mouth like a frightened pup. Will I crush someone under its wide wheels? Some drunken driver ram into me from behind? In fact I have hit the car in the front on three occasions, no serious damage, so the drivers came out each time, inspected and went back with no sign of aggression. You do that in Pune, and you can't reach home in one piece.

By the third Sunday in Chennai, I was a total wreck, mentally, emotionally and psychologically. I had promised two friends, no sorry, three friends, at the other end of the city, to taste their hospitality. Ameeta, one of the more active Caferati writers, had given me perfect instructions and with eyes closed I had conjured up an infernal picture of poor old me getting lost in the maze of roads with narrow lanes that would get choked with The Beast crawling like an unhurried elephant through them. Human mind is a genius at slapping up mountains of improbable fears, isn't it?

By saturday night, I had decided -no taking wild risks, I'd rather jump into that crowded looking bus which starts from Ambattur, and trundles along till it hits Anna Nagar -it looked like a true saviour to me, for its long and winding route ends at Velachery. The magical name of the place I had never been to, and which seemed to lay at the very bottom of the roadmap that one of these yellow pages book that the thick-glasses wearing manager of the hotel had very kindly sent up. The more I studied it, the more my confidence eroded. The distance seemed to burgeon into an impossible magnitude... almost a light year.

By sunday morning, a nice sleep preceded with some beer and fried fish had bolstered my sagging nerves spectacularly. I decided to drive come what may. Ameeta in the mean time rang up asking me if I could come to her place at one o'clock instead of eleven thirty... I agreed. It seemed sensible to start out rather late, so that morning rush would have petered out. Accordingly I pushed the other two appointments, one with Hans Kaushik a full-time theatre personality and the other Dr. Rodriguez, ex-head of a nuclear research facility and a jazzhead to boot. They both said fine, to the postponement. Now driving through Anna Nagar onto Vadapalani and Ashok Nagar [both places where I had stayed in more fancy hotels on earlier visits] was easy.

Following the clues provided by Ameeta, I did emerge onto the Anna Salai and Saidpet area too. However on hitting the Guindy area, some no-entry or diversion made me emerge not near the Raj Bhavan but heading towards the airport. I had to ask a couple of cops about the road to Velachery. It seemed near enough. By then the sun had become too fierce, past noon, and the air-conditioning of the big car was becoming less effective. One of my dreams, like that about meeting Bill Gates and pestering him about some fundamental flaws in almost every programme we all use, is to meet the Tata motors design team. They've done some incredible moronic tomfoolery with this car.

You leave it in the Chennai sun, and the thick steering wheel becomes a darker version of red hot coals. I cannot hold it for a second. I keep doing a jig with the hands, and patting like a potter it instead of manipulating it. Okay there may be solutions. But for this funny air-conditioning, no apology will hold water. Some cars, smaller ones, make the head of the driver ache with cold, whilst the lower body is drenched in sweat. This car being massive, does a weirder thing. After half an hour of half-hearted cooling, it makes the steering wheel frozen, you fear frostbite. The rest of the body mind you, is teetering on the sweating thresh-hold. Makes one very uncomfortable. God help the others sitting with you. I don't want to make this a very long post... so readers, please take a break and come back for more ! The journey will continue...