Friday, December 26

The fizzy and the still

Leaving Birmingham for good was harder than I expected. The city did not offer much apart from the University, visits to Walmart and the Indian food store. Life in the apartment with my roommates was not extraordinary. And yet, I had a hard time fighting back tears as I made my way to the airport.

2008 was a year of travel for me. I was in India in January, the U.S in February, Cambodia in May, India in October and the U.S in December. I've sat waiting for flights at a mind-numbing list of airports in that time; Bombay, Zurich, Hong Kong, Phnom Penh, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, Houston, Cincinnati, Raleigh, New York and Birmingham. Simply reading back on what I've typed just now makes me tired thinking about all that flying and transit time. It's not glamorous in the least, let me assure you.

Stating the obvious here, I like routine. It takes time and a lot of emotional investment to settle somewhere, make friends, get some sort of purpose and order to existence... have some reason to get up in the morning, let's say. And of course, having said this, I have no answer to why I've moved around so much. While each place I've stayed in brought it's share of stress, it took me the length of that ride from my house to the airport yesterday to realize that this is the palette of life - annoying people that I cannot help but like, infuriating experiences that have taught me to take things as they come, solitary times bringing insights that were just waiting for me to think and listen.

In many respects, the guy who arrived in Birmingham at 6:30pm on 19th August 2006 is not the same person who left the city at 9:05 am on 24th December 2008. It is no small measure of comfort to admit that he left Birmingham, a better person. To admit that it was coming to Birmingham, living, fighting and laughing with people, that is the catalyst for change.

I'm not quite sure what is in store for me now. I have stepped out of one room, one life and opened the door to another, no longer at the threshold.

Growing up, thankfully, is ignorant of birthdays.

Song for the moment: Beyond the Horizon - Bob Dylan

Wednesday, December 17

Don't hold your breath

Applying and interviewing for a job is hard enough in this day and age of recession, cutbacks and pink slips. Having received an offer letter, I suppose I should have thanked my guardian angel, quietly accepted the terms and got a move on. Heaven knows the geezers made me sweat for an inordinately long time after saying the magical words "We'll let you know".

But no. I chose to figuratively clear my throat at what I thought was an unethical stunt on their part. This latest exchange of pleasantries, by phone last Friday morning IST ended with "I'll let you know by email as soon as possible... by the end of the day, if I can".

The long and short of it ?

Copyright: Bill Watterson

P.S: Substitute beanie with word consistent with the scheme of above post.

Song for the moment: Simple man - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Saturday, December 13

Brand new day

Graduation day has dawned & after 2 days of grey skies and relentless rain, today is bright and sunny with the diamond-clear skies seemingly kicking off the celebrations. In this atmosphere, there is a powerful urge to write something charged, something inspirational and soul-stirring. Not that this is a portent or anything...

Today's early morning hustle and bustle brings back memories of childhood and visiting faraway places in South India for weddings and other celebrations. As children, we had very little say in which social occasion we were gracing. Then again, being children, we did not really care as being woken up early was equated with being considered an adult and the resultant puff of pride had us strutting around a little more dandily. I seem to recall my only concern was running around huge halls & labyrinths of rooms with my cousins, playing chaotic games. We had competition from the ladies of the house who would also be moving around, balancing trays of food, filter coffee, utensils or flowers and woe betide the poor unfortunate who obstructed them.

At times we kids would pause, congregate at the water drum and watch the women in awe as they practically danced around everyone else, their colourful 9 and 12 yard saris creating a kaleidoscope of indescribable beauty. The menfolk would be dressed in full-shirts and spotless white lungis, the older ones sporting the customary handlebar moustache. They roles were simple; sit in groups seriously discussing family fortunes or sit in groups raucously playing cards. Either of these activities was accompanied by filter coffee, the need for that heady brew practically hardwired into their genes.

For me, those days are gone and the magical, timeless quality of those occasions have drifted away. As I write this piece, a different moment of gathering has arrived. Even though I am not taking the 'walk', some of my friends are. Watching them nervously struggle into their formal clothes, half-strangle themselves attempting to wear ties and stomp around with with purposeless enthusiasm in black shoes, I can chuckle. Especially at their formal graduation robes that are the same hue as Kermit the Frog.

Having lived with these jokers for 2 years, thinking back to many moments we have shared...

It is another day of celebration with a different kind of family.

Song for the moment: Rock you like a hurricane - Scorpions

Tuesday, December 9

Devil's got a new disguise

I went by the Graduate School today and to be told that I would be graduating this weekend. A smart decision on their part as I certainly had no plans of registering for another semester of somnambulism. Don't get me wrong; there were some classes I liked attending. On the whole though, the charm of academia has faded with a resounding finality.

To ensure no f**kups regarding my exit, I had to endure a pretty torrid first week. All my doing of course. The price of procrastination, let's say. I know not of too many acquaintances who are not devotees of working frantically at the last minute. Right through college (and considering I've been in college, collecting degrees for about 7 years now, I speak from some serious experience) the tendency has been to dawdle everytime something substantial needed to be done. On cue, beer and the meaning of life and everything in between became a lot more fascinating than the work at hand. The end result, at least for me, was to view the shambles that I faithfully passed off as assignments, projects, reports, theses etcetra. with a hint of disappointment; telling myself that I was capable of better sounded hollow since there really was no personal point of reference for that mythic level of quality.

This last project however, put the cap on it. Let's face it... yours truly is not getting any younger, so it should have been no surprise, really that the phrase 'by the skin of my teeth' is being bandied about. Landing in the U.S after 60 hours of travel did nothing positive for my system and yet, did I do the logical thing and fall asleep ? No. Thanks to my marked reluctance to work on the paper at any point of time over the last 7 months, I pulled an all-nighter (this after 2 beers and a round of cards) and wrote it in one go, last Sunday. The first instinct was to congratulate myself on another herculean feat pulled off but I found that I could not. Right then and there, I told myself that procrastination, much as I love it, has to be cut down before it costs me. You see, people tend to pat you on the back & all is joy, jollity and song when the close shaves occur. When you are 'effed however, you stand alone and mirth-inducing themes such as 'things could be worse' and 'we are like this only' don't exactly have you breaking out into ready guffaws. The 'I be bambooed' experience is not on my list of must-do's before I make my way back to the pavillion.

At this juncture, let me touch upon something I've noticed over the past year. Call it a subconscious trend, but one apparently is not allowed to bitch, whine, crib or engage in any similar emotion, in the company of one's peers. It's just not done. If some poor unfortunate does vent, s/he is told to pipe down in no uncertain terms, either with the help of generous measures of alcohol or some handy maxim. If neither of these work, the venter is accorded the status generally reserved for plague and a subtle pattern of avoidance begins. Since when we became all Victorian and stoic, I don't know. I could be wrong about all this, but if it is something you've also noticed, reader, I'd like to know.

In any case, I'm now on the verge of pulling my usual stunt i.e. doing the unexpected and leaving the U.S right after completing my degree. To say the local populace (my friends / roommates) are nonplussed would be an understatement. While most of them are subscribing to the 'Its your funeral' theory of life, there are some here who fancy themselves quite the Agony Aunt. To hear them go on about what's best for me would induce some serious thoughts of homicide were it not for the fact that I'm resigned to no one understanding anything I do.

It would be nice to think of returning to India to work, with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart and all that jazz, but life has thrown its regular googly. I should have been used to this, but I'm not. That's not such a bad thing, now that I think of it.

Song for the moment: On the road again - Willie Nelson

Monday, December 1

Night of the long knives

Readers, there are no doubt a number of incidents in your lives that provoke the sentiment – ‘One day, I’ll look back on this and chuckle’. If you have kept up with the tales told on this blog, you may have noticed a somewhat similar pattern in some of the posts herein. Yes, it is a praiseworthy & pleasant luxury to be able to laugh at yourself if you hark back to various potentially titanic-type incidents.

Still, be it ever so narrow, a line is required somewhere; a marker separating the hilarious-in-hindsight from the why-me ones. So, considering how much I did not want to come back to the U.S, it is fitting that this trip will quite likely rule the latter charts for ages to come. At least, for my health and sanity, you lot should join me in praying that nothing else comes along to top it. Just reading this, you cannot understand how close the camel has come to having his back broken.

Saturday morning, at 7.30 am, in a somnambulistic state, I made my way onto the Cathay Pacific flight taking me from Bombay to Hong Kong. I had left from Pune on Friday night at 9.00 pm, so I was a bit tired. Having found my seat, I dozed off, mentally prepared to be woken up by some suitably fetching stewardess announcing breakfast a few hours later. At 9.30 am, yawning and hungry, I awoke. To find that the plane was still in the exact same spot on the tarmac. Ahem…

See, the thing with making a long-haul trip anywhere is the delightful concept of the connecting flight. Those blessed by fate have never had to face the possibility of missing one of these. On the other hand, the fate’s whipping boys club frequently deals with missed connections, lost luggage, missing boarding passes, expired passports or visas & so on and so forth. Being a proud life member of the latter association, I generally expect the worst and am frequently proved correct. Admittedly, I have never had to suffer that holy of holies – dealing with the Air India customer service. For that I am thankful. And yet, this trip… as I said, Ahem…

The domino effect danced its tandav – I missed the Hong Kong to L.A connection – waited 7 hours for the next available flight & then sat thru a 12 hour jaunt. Missed the L.A to Chicago connection – waited 4 hours before making that 4 hour outing. Missed not one but two Chicago to Birmingham flights – waited for 9 hours, then sat in the plane as it decided to top things off by stubbornly staying on the tarmac for over an hour.

Yes, I know. Words ought to have failed me by now, since I am certain it has, you. And yet, dear janata, I have managed to write so far without having to refer to my handy-dandy thesaurus of expletives - English, Hindi or Marathi.

Still, the next time I hear statements even remotely tinged with envy about how I am lucky enough to travel or the exotic airports I may have seen… well, as the shilling-shockers say, we anticipate. I think the forces of the universe are prodding me toward a truth – that it will be indescribably delicious to say “Random-U.S-airport to Bombay – One way”.

Song for the moment: All along the watchtower - Bob Dylan

Saturday, November 29

To come of age

This post is being written, irritatingly enough, from Hong Kong airport where I seem to be spending half my travel time over the past year. Before I began to type, I looked up the last post written from here and that was on 8th May. Only 6 months ago and yet, it seems like a lifetime of events have washed over me, leaving me reeling & blindly reaching for a fixed point of perspective. Since that last post I have lived... a breath at a time, it almost seems. And yet, I have just been woken up from a delightful dream, to find myself back at this airport.

Living in Cambodia changed me, it's as simple as that. I found out something of who I am but more importantly, what I want. Want - a simple word, attached to so much meaning. It is important to want, but more so to want something with a calming certainty. Like a bite of perfect chocolate mousse at the end of the evening. Having it fits... it completes. And for me, rudderless as I was, plodding through one degree after another, it brings a measure of comfort.

I thought I was a world-citizen, willing and able to live anywhere, and do it happily. I cannot. I am happy in India. I sleep like a baby there, the blanket of my country's and my city's essence cocooning me in my dreams, like the rhythm of the train speeding through the black night. I appreciate what my life in other countries has taught me, but cannot, do not, want to experience that ache accompanying me from the moment I take any mode of transportation to the airport. To Bombay.

I cannot add anything to the outpouring concerning the events of the last few days in the city of my birth. A helpless sadness, no doubt shared by others, is what I have to offer. Sadness undoubtedly for death, but the helplessness for my conviction that those handed the responsibility for India, for Bombay, will do practically nothing. For once, I'd liked to be proved wrong.

I hate pontificating about what life is and so on and so forth... all I know is about my life and the direction I want it to take. And the people I want to be with. To share a laugh with. To float in the comfortable silences with. To grow old and not wonder too much how things could have, would have been. The day, the moment, is fast approaching when I will stop walking and face that fork in the road. Always, I seem to have taken the road less travelled (to borrow a cliché) with a lot of apprehension. I want to take the next one in peace... if lucky, a smile and damn the consequences. And return home.

To live fully, rather than in half-breaths. Half-lives.

The airport is a lonely place and I have a long way to go still... so I will end this by thinking back to a few of the brighter moments of the last 2 months... family and friends, a motorcycle trip, a wedding trip, a dear old friend met, other friendships ended, the first note I played on my saxophone, a dinner that may or may not mean anything...

C'est la vie.

Song for the moment: Jaane Kyun - Dostana

Monday, November 17

A matter of feeling

My house in under some heavy renovation... the kind guaranteed to bring us, the residents (yes, we are actually still staying in the house) to an anatomical position similar to that of the Thinker. Fervent mutters of "it'll all be worth it, you'll see" do the rounds and maybe it will. But if anyone back in Birmingham says something about me enjoying my holidays, well... never mind.

In the midst of the dust and plaster chunks, I happen to look out the window. It frames grey skies, a gentle drizzle and that soul-enticing smell of moist earth. I pause, purposefully head out to the balcony with my chai and step out of everything for a while. The chai is hot. I stir slowly... the delicate tang of ginger & wisps of steam lazily intertwine with the heady bouquet outside, drifting away. I watch, smell, hear, see... feel, lost to everything else.

I have to run an errand, taking me out of the house. My Kinetic starts almost instantly and we are off, slipstreaming through the breeze. Not too many people are on the streets and that lets me ride a little fast... a little recklessly... catch the scent of unknown flowers from the rickshaw passing by... my city has gifted me a moment close to perfection.

There are things I need to think about, things I want to say, emotions I need to keep feeling but all of these have to be shelved for the time being. In 2 weeks, I must go back to the States and an ominous restlessness is already growing in the pit of my stomach. No reassurances from anyone will make a difference at the moment. They never have but we all knew that, no ?

Too many Whys...

A solitary When...

Song for the moment: Chup tum raho, chup hum rahein - Is Raat ki Subah Nahi

Monday, November 3

Running out of days

In a team packed to the gills with personalities to adulate over, he was the one I did. His sporting highs are many, unique and in all probability, will never be bettered. For you see, being bettered implies the presence of a better man, a better player. Which I know there never will be.

It's slightly hilarious that the term Fab 5 has been applied to those five individuals who would relate least to the show-baazi. Each brought something magical to the team, standing tall and in many ways, aloof. But no other five players of the modern game individually and collectively epitomize a dignified agression fuelling their desire to win.

Good luck to Captain Marvel. From the 2nd of November 2008, his eyes cannot search the field for the one individual who will willingly step up, readily and calmly twirl the ball, take a half-step, then 5 strides and...

Step forward Mr. 5-for on debut. If you play with half the ferocity, sportsmanship and even double the taciturnity, you will be a very good bowler.

But you will not be him.

For he stands not for what is just good or great about the game...

But is the game.

Song for the moment: And further on - Jethro Tull

Monday, October 13

Love and Happiness

The year was 1950. Having missed a prestigious Government position in Delhi by the proverbial hair's breath, a 24 year old youth from the south of India began to look for work elsewhere. In this land, destinies were & are made in Bombay. Fate decreed that this boy, called K, had been gallivanting around the backwaters long enough and directed him to the city caressed by the Arabian Sea.

Once he'd begun to work, his family wanted to check off the next thing on the list - a bride. K bluntly told his father that he was not interested in an arranged marriage, practically scandalizing everyone in the vicinity and a few ancestors for good measure. Predictably enough, his wishes were ignored and the hunt for a suitable girl began in earnest, culminating in a small town in Tamil Nadu. K was tersely informed about his upcoming nuptials and although furious, he acquiesced. Which should come as no surprise, really, as young men and women do so even today.

The bride-to-be was 20ish... birth records were not exactly reliable in pre-Independence India and much less so in the villages and towns. It was K's good fortune that she was a real looker... and a very capable cook. Having lost her mother at an early age, A had shouldered the responsibilities of house and home and done so ably.

Some time in April 1953, the wedding took place and the Iyer family, totalling 2, made their way back to the heat and humidity of Bombay. They made an interesting pair; him with his bright hazel eyes, sternly disciplined approach & brusque manner and her with the classical good looks and shy demeanour hiding a core of stubbornness and determination. Although he had agreed to the marriage, K vowed not to speak to his father and did not do so till the birth of his first child a year later.

In April 2008, A realized that she had been married for 55 years. She had lived in Bombay for 55 years. Always a delicate looking woman, the passage of time had seen that change into frailty. She looked tired, as elders are wont to do but it was her eyes that spoke volumes about the depth of her weariness. Mother to 3 and grandmother to 5, she had seen, heard and experienced a lot in the 5 decades gone by and the conflicts and tragedies had taken their toll. At times she felt that the almighty was singling her out for misfortune and this confused her... was she not sincerely devout ? Had she not prayed selflessly for her family's well-being, putting herself last ? What more could she do ?

Through the years, K had been there, her husband, providing unflinching support... but even he was mortal after all. At first, there were only murmurs from family... he had begun to make mistakes in keeping his daily accounts... he was misplacing things more often than could be attributed to absent-mindedness... he could not remember things and events that had taken place less than an hour ago... and it went on and on, his memory deteriorating steadily. His eyes, once bright with wit and intelligence, now looked worried and unsure. He withdrew from most conversations, preferring to focus on the wall-clock... the one thing that answered his unspoken questions with unerring accuracy. Without passing judgement.

The two of them bickered constantly; she because of her frustration at the world and he because the world was now a strange and unfriendly place. Family members could and did do very little because both K and A were still fiercely independent in many respects. On rare occasions, an ancient look flashed in their eyes. A look that still left one cowering. Their first-born grandson, about the same age as when his grandfather had been married, sometimes wondered how they stood each other. He was from a more cynical generation; as nonchalant about marriage as he was about the possibility of divorce & he wondered whether there was any vestige left of the feelings K and A would have had for each other all those years ago. Did they even think of concepts like anniversaries and celebrations ?

One afternoon, the grandfather and grandson were playing cards, while the grandmother was making coffee in the kitchen. The grandfather looked at the cards in his hand, paused and looked again... not at the cards, but around the room, making sure no one else was within earshot.

In his perfect Tamil... in a low voice, K told his grandson, " She is the only person I have... I cannot live without her". He then smiled and went back to looking at the cards.

There was silence in the kitchen... A, who had just been about to enter the room with the coffee, stood still. And also smiled.

Song for the moment: Here comes the sun - The Beatles

Monday, October 6

Celebration Day

Inevitably, your statement elicits the question 'why' accompanied by looks ranging from puzzlement to horror. You think about it. Sincerely ponder on the whole gamut; possible reasons, theories, answers, clever retorts...

You seriously consider replying with 'Because', pause (wisely, in this day and age) & then gently shake your head and stay mute, hoping that the zen-like expression on your face will suffice as an answer, explanation or whatever else. If they had to ask, then nothing you could say would ever satisfy. Ergo, you silently thank your guardian angel that no real melodrama ensued.

Kshitij and I left from home at 6:20 am, knowing we had a long ride ahead. There was a hint of anxiety in the air because the most important component of this trip (apart from ourselves) was the motorbike... the TVS Star DLX that had never been further than Lonavala, a distance of about 50 km from Pune. On the 1st of October 2008, the very same bike was going to be ridden roughly 470 km... to Goa.

It was Ashish's idea that I meet him in Kolhapur and that he & I continue onward from there to Panaji. It was my idea to not tell him that Kshitij was also going to be coming along and it was Kshitij's idea that we might as well bike it. Everyone was having great ideas, as it were. Ashish, being an experienced biker & on a Bullet to boot, made it all the way from Bangalore to Kolhapur by about 10:00 am, still under the impression that I was plodding along by bus. He may also have been helped in that impression by the thoughtful hourly messages I was sending him describing the non-existent bus driver's antics. This was Kshitij's first long-distance bike trip and I will take this opportunity to tip my helmet to his riding skills and stamina.

The NH 4 is a delightfully well-constructed road, although its ease and proximity to small villages and towns does take the edge of the solitary motorbiker mystique, somewhat. Besides, after about 12 hours of riding, only the fanatic would be put off by the comfort of the NH 4. At 11:45 am, turning off the highway into the Loksatta Gates and into Kolhapur, my cell-phone began to ring. Knowing it may have been a by now rather irate Ashish on the line, I chose to ignore it. Spotting him standing by the side of the road with a less than welcoming expression on his face may also have played a part, I don't know. He looked quite puzzled when a TVS Star DLX stopped next to him and the guy riding pillion jumped off, greeting him very cheerfully. Puzzled, because that pillion rider was expected to be hopping off a bus, not a bike.

The expression on his face was priceless as he realized that not only had I not reached by bus, but that Kshitij had also come along. And we'd done so by motorbike. Questions may have followed, but 'why' was not one of them. See, like I said before, if you have to ask...

Ashish will not.

Gagan Bhavda Ghat
From Kolhapur, we rode onward to Panaji via the Gagan Bhavda Ghat. We made it to the border by 5:50 pm and with a whoop of joy, crossed into Goa about 10 minutes later. It had rained earlier that afternoon and so, 3 pleasantly exhausted guys on motorbikes skimmed across the road to Calangute. I had the luxury of being able to look around and am therefore able to describe the following scene:

The sun sinking rapidly, the western sky was awash in golden evening light. A fading rainbow framed the horizon to the east. The air seemed heavy with the promise of some indescribably delicious joy as our tired eyes were soothed by the combination of dark-red earth & emerald-green hills.

K & A

Welcome to Goa...

Song for the moment:
Holiday - Greenday

Tuesday, September 30

Life is a long song

Can you imagine us
Years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy.
Old friends,
Memory brushes the same years
Silently sharing the same fears

Simon and Garfunkel

I cannot say whether I will make 70.
I do not know whether friendships last that long, in this day and age.
But life is for the living and memories, good & bad, will teach us... make us smile at the most inappropriate times and leave us wondering how ancient scars can still hurt sometimes.

To step forward, I look back... and without effort (and thankfully, no grief), this exercise effortlessly conjures up countless images. Heaven help us if our respective folks ever found out how three greenhorns actually made their way on motorcycles from Pune to Panaji... or somewhere in the vicinity. And back, of course.

See, the thing with being a greenhorn is that most knowledge is theoretical and quite a bit of the bravado is churning furiously with apprehension. And when it came to this motorcycle trip, we showed that inexperience by packing enough luggage to comfortably stay in Goa for 3 months. Trouble was, our not-so-creaky backs would be hauling those bags. Enough said, methinks.

Only 2 other people in the world truly know why that trip was special. 2 out of 6.6 billion. Can't get any more exclusive than that so I will not bore you with descriptions that you will not really relate to anyway. Here are a few things I remember, regardless...

Watching the world unfold as the sun rose steadily... it promised to be a beautiful day.

Stopping the bikes in the middle of absolutely nowhere on our way to Kolhapur. Not a soul in sight in either direction as we gratefully parked under the shade of the trees for a minute's rest. Suddenly, out of that absolutely nowhere I mentioned, a chap selling kulfi pops up and is duly in business.

Admiring the greenery and road conditions as we made our way to Ratnagiri from Kolhapur. Yes, Ratnagiri. Yes, we were supposed to be heading to Goa. Yes, we were going the wrong way. Took our collective subconscious about 3 hours to realize our mistake.

Watching the same sun set over the hills... I even remember the time; 6:46 pm. Then seeing a sign that said 'Panaji - 750 km and having our hearts join the sun in the sinking manoeuvre.

Pitch dark highway. The only things we could see were silhouttes of trees on both sides of the road. The only thing we did want to see was the solitary headlight of the motorcycle behind us.

See, it's pointless to go on about it here.

Anyway, on the morrow, 2 of the 3 are meeting up in Kolhapur to reride that first wild shindig. We are 5 years older, slightly more phlegmatic but not really pragmatic.

Like I said earlier, if nothing else, more memories will be chalked up. That's about the least we can ask for.

In tipping our hats to the third rider, who sang it repeatedly on that trip...

Song for the moment: Wherever I may roam - Metallica

Saturday, September 27

Enough Space

Imagine if you will, a strip of greyish tarmac 34 * 18 yards in dimension. One side of this area is taken up by metal gates. Facing them, on the other side is a large, oft-painted water tank. This being India, time and again the wall of that tank has had a set of three lines scratched or painted onto it. Buildings tower over the remaining two sides of this area. If at any point in your life you have played cricket in Kumar Classics Housing Society, your mind's eye will have conjured up an image of the pitch.

Kumar Classics or KC for short, is one of the older societies in Aundh. At some point of time in the misty past (or about 20 years, give or take), KC was the first set of buildings you would see if you were making your way from Bombay to Pune. Only a blind man could miss it because the buildings were painted in an interesting combination of pink and white. Keeping with the trend of the 80's, the builders did not make any provisions for a club-house, pool or any of the other la-di-da amenities being desperately hawked today. There were a few patches of land that might or might not pass off as the 'garden area' but KC gave you the unmistakable impression that it was a society for people who would rather reside than live.

Kids, being the resourcful lot that they are (or rather were... I get the feeling dumbness is no longer a malady and has taken on the proportions of a full-blown epidemic where tiny-tots are concerned. But that's another story), did not let the lack of any specific playing area deter them. We simply went ahead and designated suitable empty spaces in the society for various sports. Ergo, the space between G & H buildings was reserved for 5-a-side football or games of cricket with very few people. The area between C2 and D buildings took on the role of our tennis court. The parking lot of C2 was used for baseball. That between C1 and C2, the badminton court. The last available space, between the B and C1 buildings, we used for cricket.

That patch of land was destined for cricket. From the water tank, we measured out 22 yards and found that we still had enough space left over for even the most ambitious, Thommo-type runups. Of course, the presence of cars and house windows was a problem. Every day, without fail, irate aunties and raging uncles would beseech or threaten us to stop putting their property at risk. We would nod our heads, despondently slink away and then resume play after a respectful period of time had passed... generally about 20 minutes. To curb the pinch-hitters amongst our motley group, we came up with strict rules of play. The ball hitting the buildings, 1st floor and up, was out. Hitting a car directly was out. Hitting outside the gates was either out or a 6, depending on how adventurous we were feeling. If by now you are wondering exactly where we managed to get our runs from, all I can say is, you had to have been here to understand.

Many summers and Diwali vacations were devoted to playing cricket on that pitch. Evenings, weekends, the odd national holiday... each instance saw us congregate without fail and play. Long-suffering residents in the vicinity marked the passage of months and years by cringing at the increasingly colourful cusses that emanated from that spot. Often passers-by would find only 2 people playing... honing skills by faithfully taking turns at bat and bowl. A certain left-hander and I spent many an hour just playing and talking, caught up in both the discussion of ideas and the emotions associated with a bad ball bowled, a beautiful hit or the deception of the bat with that perfect Jaffa.

Some moments and memories are frozen in time; watching a 6 being hit where the ball arched over the 4 floors of C1... hitting the winning run off the last ball in near-darkness and having that incredulous joy flood over limbs knowing you have pulled off the impossible... scoring 3 runs to win on a pitch where 3s are unheard of... bowling that perfect leg-spinner to pick up the one wicket that mattered...

Those were just my personal memories and I know that others, many of whom have moved out of KC, out of the city and out of the country, will have their own precious moments. Childhood was not easy... home-life was not easy... school was not easy... but in those fervent times on the pitch, yelling ourselves hoarse, we forgot everything else. And played the game.

The years are drifting by and we have grown up and moved on. Our cricket pitch, our tennis & badminton courts, our baseball field... stand empty and forlorn. If we strain our imaginations, perhaps we can hear the echoes... of victory cheers and anguished howls of defeat. And sometimes, no imagination is needed because a passer-by stops by the gate to see two scruffy-looking men in their late 20s spend a Saturday morning revisiting the past. The two men look at it differently...

They never left.

Song for the moment: Carry on my wayward son - Kansas

Wednesday, September 24

Let it be

After a few days of hanging around at home and in Aundh, I ventured past University Circle (yes, yes, you may not see a circle, but screw your objections) today. I wish I had not.

9 months after leaving, I come back to find more changes in Pune. Now, honestly, I'm okay with change. It's natural and in some cases needed. But the pace here is ruthless, relentless and has claimed some victims that leave me with a dull ache in the vicinity of the old ticker. I could and can do nothing about it so there's no use flailing arms or bitching. At the most, a cursory tsk-tsk.

It's almost as surreal when I visited my school yesterday. In more ways than one, I went back. Nothing like talking to your teachers from Std. 5 to ensure that you feel 12 again. The really odd part is snapping out of the self-induced hypnosis or whathaveyou to realize that you are discussing your future (theoritical) marriage plans... with someone with whom the only previous discussion you can recall concerned topics from geography and your appaling disciplinary record in class.

I wonder though... in 25 years time, when I want to sit at Roopali with friends and reminisce, will Roopali (never mind the places we would be referring to) be around ? How much of our past will have faded away, to live only in cerebral nooks and crannies ?

Every time I see yet another familiar landmark gone, I cannot help but think that some part of me has faded away as well... lost forever to change. Almost like the laughter, the tears and the conversations never happened.

Maybe I am glorifying the memories... but right now, everything is bittersweet and there's no escaping it.

Returning from Deccan, I crossed University circle and hit Ganeshkhind road. Revved up the Kinetic and streaked through the traffic, instinctively knowing where some dip in the tarmac needed to be avoided and revelling in feeling the wind on my face the rushing speed of the bike.

Right then, at that moment, I could not help it... I grinned. For the past and for the present.

The future can sort itself out.

Song for the moment: Raindrops keep falling on my head - B. J Thomas

Wednesday, September 17

Ride the lightning

The closer I get to leaving, the stronger the urge becomes to bitch-slap a few noted worthies in the vicinity... as a last hurrah. For good measure, colourful comic-songs to provide the perfect background score....

Life, I tell you...

Song for the moment: If wishes were horses - Spin Doctors

Friday, September 12

My one and only love

I honestly never thought this day would come.

I've thought of a 100 ways to start this post. To say just that one sentence. Words will not come and I'll take that as a blessing because there is nothing to say. Not any more.

To those who know me... or if not me, then my obsessive 10-year journey to this day.

The Amati Kraslich Alto Saxophone

Song for the moment: Dream On - Aerosmith

Wednesday, September 10

One foot out the door

I've lived away from home for a little over 2 years now. In that time, I've come across in interesting type of non-resident Punekar. Without fail, 99 % of this mob, on discovering our common bond, will switch to Marathi from whatever language they were attempting to slaughter. They will then proceed to badmouth all and sundry in the vicinity. Gradually, the chatter will begin to noticeably lose steam. Enthusiasm will be replaced by uncertainty. Eyes will proceed to narrow at the less-than-satisfactory quality of Marathi being intermittently offered by moi'. Questions concerning heritage will be bandied about and the hiss of indrawn breaths will rent the air when no relation to long-departed Maratha worthies on my side is evinced. The social death knell will most likely be the discovery that I speak Tamil.

Further events will depend on how vindictive I'm feeling at the time. I confess that I do sympatize with this lot. After all, they can hardly be blamed for the fact that their ancestors' sexual proclivities favoured the local beasts of burden. One cannot fight one's genes, no ? When I read the dailies and see articles devoted to MNS rhetoric and activity, especially in Pune... well, let us just say that the rest of this post is dedicated to the remaining 1 %.

"I am going home". I say these words to myself a few times a day; sometimes out loud, sometimes not and often the words and individual letters dance around in my head of their own accord. I should be happy. I am happy. But it's not the happiness I felt in December 2007. I could not encapsulate that joy into words even if I were a good writer.

Yes, I know... it cannot be the same as last time. But, I'm going home to Pune & I know I should feel something more. I've brought it down to one of two possibilities. Uno - I've begun to accept the fact that I will be coming back home only on holiday for some time to come. Dos - I look at myself & and wonder how much I have achieved or changed for the better since the last time I said goodbye.

Those of us, who have loved the city and left, take with us something that is intensely personal and buried deep. Something the ravages of time cannot touch. We need that 'something' because there will be moments; as we attend lectures in classrooms, or whilst pretending to work in offices, maybe even while hanging around in unnamed pubs or walking unknown streets... a thousand places in a million cities. The moment will always preceded by something innocuous. The ghost of an image, a haunting scent, a tantalizing aftertaste, a dying note... and we will not be able to help it. Our heads will tilt just a fraction. An unfathomable gleam will drift across our eyes. The hint of an upward curl will appear at the corner of our mouths. Time will be of no consequence. We will be dreaming of home.

Of black road and blue sky, sepia-stained scenes of people & places... private moments locked in defining images that we cannot remember capturing but hold on to, regardless. A helpless sigh will escape. A numbing tiredness will threaten to overwhelm. The reverie will fade like the last delicious vestige of sleep on a late winter afternoon. Then we will grin.

Because something will not have changed... will never change.

And with that thought in mind, we will go on living.

I'm still unsure of my feelings, but hey... I'm going home.

Song for the moment: Everybody's Talkin' - Harry Nilsson

Tuesday, September 9

New kid in town

It was a lovely evening... and standing across the road from the Independence Monument, he wished it had not been.

He had hoped for lousy weather... anything that Nature could and often had thrown at him, from broiling 40 degree heat & sapping humidity to a bone-drenching torrential downpour. Anything except what it was now... late evening sun painting the sky golden and a gentle breeze that wafted in from the Bassac River on the horizon. Unbearable weather would have made leaving bearable, but the Fates were being their usual sadistic self.

Rivulets of cars, motorbikes and cycle-rickshaws made their way past him toward Sisowath Quay and the Riverside. He became hypnotized by their monotonous rhythm, became one with the bikes weaving through the line of Lexus' & Toyotas, barely shaving past them. He'd been here 5 months, a drop in the the ocean, but it felt like a lifetime. His thougths wandered back to a similar evening in April, in another city, on another continent. In another world, it seemed.

He was meeting with his Graduate Adviser and the mostly one-sided conversation concerned a decision he'd need to make very soon. He ranted about destiny, forks in the road, choices & consequences and every other damn-all metaphor and simile he could think of. Beating around the bush and making a hash of it. His adviser's chair faced the window and she pensively watched the the early evening bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling on University Boulevard toward the interstate. He went on... he wanted sympathy. He needed help. He needed advice.

He needed the decision made for him.

She interrupted his diatribe with one sentence. "Trust your instincts". Three simple words that he needed to hear but not what he wanted to. He shrugged... he was out of words. She was right; it was his choice alone. His eyes met his adviser's and he smiled because the decision was made. It had been made for quite a while.

A blaring horn snapped him out of his reverie. 10 minutes had slipped by. Independence Monument was now lit up for the night and for the nth time he absently muttered something about the striking effect of plain white light on blood-red stone. To no one in particular, of course. That had been the price he'd paid for being who he was, where he was... alone in a very real sense for the first time in his life. Although he'd fought it for a while, the vicious combination of insomnia and silence had eventually forced him to stop running and face his demons. For too long he'd manage to evade them with the help of a 'birds of a feather...' attitude, booze and false bonhomie.

The city had stripped him of company and the beginning of a double chin had curbed his drinking somewhat. Bonhomie had not really stood a chance. He'd begun to ask questions of himself... hard questions that he was unable to answer to his own satisfaction. He accepted that. It was better than living lies. Disappointingly perhaps, there was no dramatic change because of his self-dissection. No epiphany. That sort of thing was for the movies, accompanied no doubt, by a rousing and soul-stirring musical score. No such convenience in his life, real life, where the only music was contributed by the selection on his laptop. 'Dil dhoondta hai, phir wahi, fursat ke raat-din' was a very moving song and all that but it did not have any sort of ridiculous galvanizing effect. He'd continue to live but he would try to make changes. Before it was too late.

As he made his way on to Rue Pasteur from Sihanouk Boulevard, a man walking past him gave a smile of recognition. For an instant it left him nonplussed and then he smiled back and waved. The wave was returned and they moved on. The idea that his barber had recognized him on the street made him smile.

No longer a tourist.

He was one of a million. Chuckling to himself whenever he saw firangs being ripped off by the taxi-drivers... bargaining in rudimentary Khmer over the price of fruit... knowing that even the daily rains kept to a schedule.

He lived here. He belonged.

And he was leaving.

Song for the moment: Lily was here - Dave Steward feat. Candy Dulfer

Tuesday, September 2

New way home

Naturally, I'm counting down.

17 days to go.

Then I pack my bags, say my goodbyes to people and places and begin the drudgery of airport-hopping & thumb-twiddling at transit lounges.

Drowsily stare at the orange-yellow glow struggling to make it's presence felt through the smog.

Stretch my legs, yawn & stumble across the downward-sloping gangway.

Imagine it a fraction of a second before I smell it - phenyl.

Feet involuntarily move faster as the babble of languages, none of them English, wash over me.

Pray that I can spot my bags on the conveyor belt.

Brood about the prospect of the corpulent Customs chaps hassling me without reason.

Grin uncontrollably as I step out into the sultry night air of Bombay.



Song for the moment: Baker Street - Gerry Rafferty

Monday, August 11

A different kind of blue

It is the easiest thing in the world to slip into a routine. Almost unbeknownst-like, with a cunning only the weird would attribute to it, Time tends to just slip away even when fun is nowhere on the menu.

It had been almost 3 months since I started working in Phnom Penh and it struck me that I had not yet gone on a holiday. Sure, there were rare weekend jaunts around Phnom but when one lives in a city 1/3rd the size of Pune, those jaunts teeter on the verge of becoming extinct. And so, I woke up one Monday morning to the disturbing thought that I'd been at work every day (including the weekends) for over a month. Something drastic was called for. Having alienated myself from all prospective companions quite some time ago, the farther destinations were out of the question. Apart from the fact that travelling alone is not something I care to do, the rural hinterlands of Cambodia are not to be risked even by the zaniest of people. So, I went to visit Angkor Wat.

Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor, would have had a very different and dubious claim to fame had it not been fortuitous enough to have located itself where it did. In the 3 days that I was there, I saw more lizards per square inch than I have ever seen before and possibly will again. For unknown reasons, this bustling and whimsically charming tourist town attracts specimens, possibly of the Hemidactylus garnotii and Hemidactylus frenatus in disturbing numbers. The Carlsbad of the reptile world, as it were. Speaking of disruption, two worthy members of that family spent their nights reminding me rather loudly that I was only a guest in that hotel room while they were the undisputed permanent residents. It's one thing to 'chuck' loudly at frequent intervals but another to decide that my bed is their playground. Needless to say, I slept or rather attempted to sleep, with the lights on.

Inevitably, once the routine had been broken I found myself involved in plans to go to other places. This weekend, we were to go to Preah Vihear but the weather chose to intervene and that was out. Sihanoukville and it's beaches and watering holes were also out thanks to the rains. I was rescued from the jolly prospect of another weekend of television by my office colleague who invited us (moi and the other intern) to join her family for an outing to a local picnic spot. I'm glad we went because it was one of those precious few days that can truly be called idyllic.

Gently swinging in a hammock, a cold beer to help things along...
Somewhere in that borderland between sleep and wakefulness...
Only hearing busy chatter & laughter...
Eyes opening to the sight of freshly cut fruit...

We rounded off the trip by visiting temple ruins dating older than Angkor Wat, making them about 1100 years old. Came home to a soothing shower and went out for a soul-mellowing, spicy meal followed by chocolate ice cream. Slept off listening to old Kishor songs.

There are days & then there are days.

Oh yea... if you are sharp enough to not ask why I haven't rhapsodised about Angkor, À votre bon coeur !.

Oh yea 2... While Man U scrape through and win another one, India do not disappoint. Or do, depending on your view. 

Song for the moment: 2AM - Anna Nalick

Tuesday, July 15

One life's enough

In 1 week's time, the Indian Test team will commence battle in Sri Lanka. I specify 'test' team because the plethora of players in the Indian Cricket merry-go-round forces me to do so. I do not see any point in adding my two-paisa's worth to the debate on changing cricket trends. That literary heap has long surpassed the molehill to mountain route and does not indicate a pause in growth any time soon. Neither does the popularity of 20-20, for that matter. Or the money involved in it. That spectacle and everything associated with it is only being mentioned in passing. The focus here is Test cricket, of which I am a fan.

There are some who maintain that publicly favouring test cricket in this day and age will only result in pointed remarks about Puritanism, being old-fashioned, behind the times or anything else in the thesaurus that is in similar vein. Vulgar verbal brawls concerning which version of cricket is better are tiring and distasteful so I'll avoid anything like that. Instead, I'd simply like to point out the fact that I'm looking forward to what I think is the only true test of technique and strategy in the game. The prospect of a five-day game is likely to induce more yawns than interest, but it fascinates me. Assuredly, there are places in the world (coincidentally enough, Sri Lanka) where the pitiless heat and somnambulistic nature of the pitch can reduce the player to wonder whether the money is worth this experience. The spectator, all jolly and enthusiastic during the first hour of the first day's play, begins to throw longing glances at the exit as the day progresses. Certainly, when faced with evidence involving a 952 run inning over 4 days, I have no option but to shrug.

But these are one-off incidents, even if draws are not. I choose not to think of them. Instead, I like to remember the 1st day of a test in England. It was cloudy and windy. The pitch definitely had plenty of life in it and England had 4 bowlers who can never be described as slow. India had pulled the usual card trick and shuffled the openers, fielding a new pair. Predictably enough, the established opener, becoming rather attached to the comforts of the pavilion, departed early leaving the greenhorn to face the music in the company of someone who's career I was privileged enough to follow. At 15 for 1, anything was possible.

What did happen was the stringing together of a superb 170 run partnership for the 2nd wicket. Followed by a 150 run jaunt for the 3rd. Faithfully trumped by a 249 run trip for the 4th. At one point in the late evening, when Messrs. Tendulkar and Ganguly were gleefully dispatching the cherry to all parts of the ground, Boycott in the commentary box dryly described the proceedings as Agatha Christie's next book – Murder in the Dark. There has to be some pity for the English bowlers, I have to admit. You get Sehwag early, only to see Dravid walk in and proceed to gracefully slaughter you. Bangar's wicket sees Tendulkar make his way to the middle. Dravid's wicket has Ganguly saunter in. He heads back to the pavilion only to cross paths with Laxman waltzing by. No wonder the umpires took pity on England and ended the day's play after Ganguly's wicket. The sight of Laxman grinning as he came out to bat no doubt tipped things in England's favour. Does the result even matter?

I remember India being made to follow on by Australia. You know the one I'm talking about… Eden Gardens. The Series. Even the die-hard optimists among the Indian fans must have contemplated agony when Laxman and Dravid walked back to the dressing room at the end of day 3. I remember day 4 alright. Remember it, not because Laxman and Dravid walked out in the morning and did not feel the need to part company for the whole day. No, why I remember that day so vividly is because we did not have lights and/or cable the whole day. Thank heavens for the radio is all I can say now.

I have some amazing memories of test matches. India winning at Adelaide, winning at Perth, losing at Sydney (2007), losing in Madras, winning in South Africa, winning a series in the West Indies and England… the list can go on. Is there any way to erase the memories of two two-crushing yorkers delivered at searing pace by a rookie resulting in the wickets of two titans? How could one ignore performances like Kumble's perfect 10 or his bowling with a broken jaw? Laxman's 281 or his 167, Dravid's 4 centuries in a row, Ganguly's captain's-inning century at Adelaide… again, an endless list.

The series about to be played in Sri Lanka is of great interest to me because I want to see Ajanta Mendis come up against Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman. I desperately want to see this supposed spin-sensation bowl against what can only be adequately called a batting juggernaut. I want to see them gently remind Mr. Mendis that the Asia Cup final was played against batsmen of undoubtedly inferior technique. A test match exposes faults and weaknesses with absolute ruthlessness and without mercy. Kumble as captain of the team is probably the first remotely intelligent thing the BCCI has done in a while. The number of tests the Fab Five of India has collectively played stands at 590. Mendis is making his debut.

In passing, does any one else get the feeling that we are and were incredibly lucky to be growing up watching the cricket and cricketers of our time?

LOI's and even shorter formats of the game thrill the majority of the watching public today. The stadiums and coffers are filled because of these games. That is undeniable. I rejoiced with the rest when India were crowned as the best in the world, simply because I've followed the game long enough to recognize a praiseworthy feat when I see one, no matter who's playing and what.

But I'm happiest when a test match is on. There is nothing quite like the first ball of a match. The umpire yells "Play", the batsman takes his final stance, the bowler charges in, the roar of the crowd swells and…

Song for the moment: Acres Wild - Jethro Tull

Friday, July 11

The man who sold the world

All this history.
All this commitment.
All these wonderful personalities.

And now, one has to be subjected to the melodrama surrounding :

Read comments about 'slavery' from a doddering old has-been ?

And have this one-season wonder concur ?

Really ?

Do the fans a favour. Stop pottering around, beating around the bush and whatnot. If you want to leave that badly, well...

Even you should have figured out where the exit is by now.

Song for the moment:
Disposable Heroes - Metallica

Wednesday, July 9

Travelin' light

In the midst of this hermity existence, I have been involved in incidents that have left me bemused and muttering "Only in Cambodia can...". One such act in the drama or rather the chorus in this comedic opera is the process of exchanging traveller's cheques.

In my defence I have to point out that I was hot-footing it to this part of the world for a considerable period of time. A little over 4 months of living (and more importantly, dining) must and does call for a considerable outlay of doubloons. Thankfully, the issue I was facing on the 1st of May (a portent, perhaps ?) involved the transfer of required moolah rather than it's procurement. I did not fancy the prospect of making the journey with thick wads of dollar notes stuffed in my pockets. Apart from the fact that I'd probably look like I was afflicted with some horrible medical condition, this sort of appearance practically begs to be waylaid and robbed. Judicious placement of the money among assorted clothes and paraphernalia in the suitcases was out of the question because of the distinct possibility that I'd land in Phnom Penh while some lucky sod would be going through my luggage in Timbuktu. The only option left was Traveller's cheques.

Now, as far as I know, TCs are prefectly safe and convenient as long as you are headed to a place where they are accepted. Looking it up on the internet, I verified that they were not treated like pariahs in Cambodia. Problem solved then, right ? Right.

I got the first inkling of the Govinda film-style hoopla that was about to ensue when I visited the local branch of Acleda Bank, located at the intersection of Monivong & Mao Tse Tung Boulevards. I was dressed respectably enough that morning but got the distinct impression that I was being given the old microscopic treatment... you know, the ones exclusively reserved for the more dubious specimen of West Nile virus. After a while, one of the cashiers reluctantly asked me what I wanted. When I mentioned tc's, she smiled in the way that was probably Dracula's wont. Or the lions, the day Daniel came calling. I was directed to one of the numbered booths where another employee proceeded to display the pearly-whites and asked me for the cheques.

I was then treated to an exhibition of paper-molestation. There really is no other adequate phrase to describe how each of the cheques was touched, rubbed, peered at, smelled (I kid you not!!) and generally roughed up. The Gestapo could have taken some pointers that day. After the above ritual, they were handed back to me for my signature after which I handed them back for further scrutiny. Apparently they were under the impression that I could very well have pulled some unsavoury stunt while signing them. After doing practically all that was doable to a 3x6 bit of paper, I was asked to provide some other information while the money was being counted. And recounted. And counted again. And again. They counted that money 6 times and each time, the amount obstinately remained the same.

I'd handed over 5 cheques for $100 each. The dollar bills I was about to be given certainly did not seem to add up to $500. I noticed a 10, a 5 and even a few 1's and wondered what was going on and was to find out presently. Ahem... apparently, the local practice in Cambodia (about which the blasted websites conveniently remained reticent) is to charge 2% on such transactions. Even with my admittedly poor math skills, I calculated that there would be $10 missing from the pile that I was being handed over. The cashier also helpfully reminded me that this would happen every time I wanted to exchange tc's and was a common practice carried out by every bank in the city. I expect that molesting the cheques required time, effort and extensive training and therfore carried a service charge.

Even though they recognise me by now, I go through the same 45 minute ritual every time I want to exchange tc's & am faithfully and efficiently short-changed for committing that heinous sin.

Like I said, only in Cambodia...

Song for the moment: Money for nothing - Dire Straits

Monday, July 7

Wait and see

The mango tree in the verandah at work has been loaded with fruit for the past 3 months. Nothing diabolical or sinister, if you think about the fact that it is, or rather, was the correct season for such activity anyway.

The reason I drag that fact into this post is because the mangoes that were a brilliant shade of green in May have obstinately remained the same colour till today. Got me thinking about how my time here so far, parallels the mangoes rather nicely. Sure, work goes on every day and when I leave Cambodia, I'll no doubt come up with the right phrases for the curriculum vitae... you know, the kind of spin that will leave the reader in no doubt that I was personal advisor to the UN Secretary-General, or something in the vicinity of that idea.

So far though, I do not feel like I've seen or experienced anything new. Culturally, of course. No matter how much I kid myself, I cannot help but think about how similar this country is to India. It robs me of any culture shock that may have existed. Initially, I resented it. Now, I've come around to the idea that maybe I was a tad mentally over-prepared to welcome new experiences. I blame the internet, where I read plenty about this country without pausing to consider that the literary soliloquies and/or condemnations were being written by people from the West. To them, Cambodia, with it's chaotic traffic, street stalls, colourful local markets and streets swarming with an eclectic mix of people, animals and vehicles, probably is an 'experience'. It is diametrically opposite to everything they have known about the world. To me, these factors are not new. And I'm still working on whether it's a good or a bad thing.

One thing I have come to realize is that I'm thankful for the people I consider friends. Someone I know maintains that there's a cut-off time by which we find the people who will be important in our lives... as family or as friends. I'd say that the cut-off exists for us identifying what qualities we value in people. Either way, there have been way too many days here where I have found myself in a battle of wills with the television in my room. I'd rather not depend on it for entertainment, but the kind of people I'd like to meet are in extremely short supply. Not being the chatty type & an introvert also contributes to my seemingly monastic lifestyle, I'll admit. But, I'd rather be me and live with it. I've now got a taste of what one babu went through in Boston and empathise.

Like India, Cambodia has superb potential as a country to be seen exclusively by motorbike. Unlike India, it seems a bit hard for me work even a short trip somewhere into the schedule. And I'd like to do that, if just for the insanely hilarious motorbike laws they have in this country. For various, extremely pertinent reasons though, I will not. Chief reason - the idea of biking it across this place alone is not appealing. For another, Mammon generally halts my flights of fancy by clearing his throat rather disapprovingly and pointing out the various similarities between moi and the proverbial church-mouse.

However, I will be travelling in a few weeks time... Angkor Wat is on the agenda. So is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. As for the rest... well, you've seen one beach, you've seen them all. Or so I like to tell myself. I'll say this for Cambodia though. It's a great place to visit for 2 - 3 weeks. The people are generally friendly, the food is relatively cheap and the alcohol, definitely so. In 3 weeks, you can see all there is to be seen here. After that, you just might feel jaded. A feeling I'm definitely feeling.

Yet, during my Mexican stand-offs with the tv, I've come to grips with a few ideas. Firstly, I'm way more nonchalant about things and events that would have come under the 'catastrophe' category some years ago. Secondly, I now know that there is a difference between being a true traveller and being fond of the idea of travelling. People in the former category actually do so & those in the latter one... well, they subscribe 'exclusively' to the idea of perusing the Lonely Planet and working with Google Earth. Thirdly, even with all it's crap, there's no place like home. And if I am one of the lucky people out of 1.6 billion who can afford to say that, well...

Even a mango, given enough time, begins to get the idea.

Song for the moment: It's good to be king - Tom Petty

Friday, June 20

Note to the reader

To anyone who does visit this blog:

I have taken the time and trouble to link the 'Song for the moment' to the appropriate site so that you may listen to the song as you read the post. Some songs are not available as videos and have been linked to a site that hosts lyrics and lets you listen to the song there.

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Hope you enjoy the experience and continue to visit. Comments are appreciated and encouraged.

Morning glory

Among friends, acquaintances and dubious well-wishers, I have this reputation for... umm... masochism. I think that's unfair and have denied it vigourously time and again, no no avail. Personally, I think that if there is some sort of divine whathaveyou hovering around the place, he/she/it is out to get me. The number of times I've been left with no recourse but to shrug, direct a few choice phrases toward providence and march on was already teetering on the edge of scandalous but today... today, let's just say that my guardian angel and I have some urgent contract negotations to discuss. I shall elaborate...

I'm in the bath this morning and have just gotten past the soaping stage when the lights go off. Ordinarily, this should not hinder anyone from bathing but the electricity and water here have a delightful relationship - no lights, no water. I don't forsee a problem however, because our building has a generator. So I wait.

45 minutes later, still covered in soap, the "I've been bamboo-ed again" & similar ideas begin to make the rounds. Left with no option but to dry-towel myself, I proceed to do so. I then hot-foot it to the landlady's place (fully clothed, mind you) to politely enquire as to why the &^@#@ generator has not been started yet. The lady smiles, mumbles something about getting to it immediately and I return home. About 10 minutes later, there's tentative knocking on my door. It's the landlady, who, still smiling, tells me "generator no work... sorry, no light. But there water". I grit my teeth and coldly point out that the taps are giving their best 'simoon-area' performance. She says "no water? Okay". And leaves, still smiling.

Act 1, Scene 3: Enter stage left- the shrug, the...

Go on, laugh. I think it's hilarious too.

Song for the moment: Thande, thande paani se nahana chahiye - Mahendra Kapoor & Asha Bhosale (Pati, Patni aur Woh, 1978)

Tuesday, June 17

Electric blues

You know the scenario... there you are, sauntering along the street, minding your own business and whistling tunelessly. Maybe the sun isn't shining. Birds may not be chirping away in the trees. All may not be joy, jollity and song. But, things are not gloom and doom either. While there isn't a spring in your step, there definitely isn't a droop in your shoulders either. Maybe... err, I suppose you do get it. Anyway, like I said, you are sauntering. Then, it happens. Of course it does. You either walk into a lamp-post or fall down an open manhole.

I contemplated leaving my laptop in Birmingham. It made sense to do so, considering my destination. Apart from the numerous horrible and highly imaginative tragedies that could have befallen it, that laptop is very heavy and I was not looking forward to giving my best Quasimodo impression as I lugged it all over. I discussed the matter with Grandpa. It was one of the days the neurons were firing in that cranium because he eventually convinced me that it'd come of some use over here. Besides, there was a slight lack of enthusiasm among the crew when it came to shouldering responsibility for my laptop. Just a tad, mind you, but it was there.

It came in use alright. The first day I came to work, I was politely directed to a dusty pile of boxes and wires. On closer inspection, that eye-catching arrangement proved to be the computer assigned to me and a keener ocular inspection confirmed my initial fears. Rather than bore you with details, let me put it succinctly - I would not have been surprised to discover that you needed to use punch cards to feed in data into that antediluvian piece. Pinnacle of technology, it was not. Enter the laptop.

After I was assigned or rather cobbled together a much better PC, the laptop stayed home. Not having the internet back in my excuse for an apartment (trust me, a good-sized Godrej cupboard can compete rather well with the floor space I live in), it was used mainly for music and whatever work I needed to bring home. Like I said before... sauntering along.

Yesterday, it refused to start. It got to the introductory screen cheerily reminding me that it was a Dell product. About 15 minutes later, the same screen was leering at me rather triumphantly. Now I don't claim to be an expert at gizmos, but it is a fact that I'm rather good at repairing them. One of the less dubious talents, you might say. But the laptop defeated me. Short of going at it with a hammer, I tried everything. At about 11:30 pm, finding myself absently pleading with the screen, I had to admit defeat. And then I wondered where in this city I'd find a capable comp-tech chap.

Our office technician, on examining it today for about 20 minutes, turns to me and remarks rather brightly that the system seems stuck. I kid you not. This enlightening bit of 'nollij' was delivered after he'd turned the computer on and off about 7 times, mind you. While I struggled to decide between laughing helplessly and swearing colourfully, he suggested we take it to his office and have another crack at it. About an hour later, another bright bean at the aforementioned techno-temple calmly tells me it's a hardware problem and that they'll let me know the verdict tomorrow. Nature, wanting to get in on the fun, decides to pick that moment to announce itself with thunder and rain-showers. Very umm... poetic.

Unexpectedly, a few hours later, I get a phone call from the very same bright bean who monotonously announces that they have found the problem. The culprit is the cd-rom drive which has become corrupt. Thankfully, it is the one part of the laptop I barely ever use, which now that I think of it, may be the reason for the revolt. In protest, as it were.

Anyway, since it couldn't be repaired, the chaps, thoroughly helpful to the end, removed the cd drive. Leaving the laptop with a gaping hole on the side, covered by cello tape.

It could be worse, I suppose...

Song for the moment: Fixing a hole - The Beatles

Monday, June 9

Dancing in the Dark

A few epiphanies have made their presence felt over the past week. Here goes:
  • You come prepared to face gale-force winds and sheets of rain and are instead greeted with 38 degree C heat and 91 % humidity. Every day. For 3 weeks, to date !! To say you feel cheated would be an understatement.
  • You may be open-minded about different cuisines but the dish that makes you genuinely happy is the saada-dosa. Of course, you realize that the fantastic Udupi restaurant you discovered only in week 3 is right next to the Thai place you have been manfully frequenting. Hidden by a cunningly-placed potted plant, mind you.
  • Your colleagues and boss are smokers and you are not. Ergo, your chances of receiving any pertinent information as regards the workplace are dead in the water. And it does not make an iota of difference giving any of them the cold cod eye as they discuss things to death since they can't see a damn thing through the nicotine cloud anyway.
  • You are anti-social. Quite likely schizoid. When coupled with the epiphany above, you never really stood a chance of passing off as remotely normal as far as fellow interns are concerned. Making for fascinating observations on office group-dynamics, body language and avoidance. Oh joy!!
  • The amount of work at an internship is inversely proportional to the pay. I work for free.
  • You are going to be working in strange places all your life because 1st world countries do not need help with 'development'. 3rd world countries, on the other hand, do. And convincing yourself that the travel is a bonus only works as long as things are going well.
  • Not everything named Angkor is spectacular. Especially beer.
  • On the subject of beer, Beerlao is recommended. Some morons may think that this is the only item that gets exported from Laos, but that is a fabrication. On the other hand, it may be the only item that ought to be.
  • No matter how hard you try to rationalize it or how many times you hear it, any friend's "oyez, oyez" concerning impending matrimony is regarded with a fine mix of happiness, disbelief and the realization as to how old we are. Or are getting.
Song for the moment: Have you ever seen the rain - CCR

Saturday, June 7

Another day in paradise

I chose this internship for the work, it's true, but also because the opportunity to travel to a new country and culture was quite irresistible. Friends were envious and family were resigning themselves to another in a long list of whimsies they'd been presented with over the years... by me. So, there was definitely a bit of chagrin in the air when I realized that I'd been in Phnom for 2 weeks and had not seen a single place of interest. Not even a done-to-death tourist spot, and many abound in a country that peddles the name of Angkor so desperately that a local beer has been named after it. And it's not even good beer...

And so, I went to see Tuol Sleng. Most people would have started out with the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda or even Wat Phnom. Knowing that these monuments were not famous for getting up and leaving in the dead of night, I am still in no hurry to see them. But, even before I came to Cambodia, I knew about Tuol Sleng... and am glad it was the first place of interest I saw. A slight amount of effort will result in an overwhelming literary bounty about it, each book & website using bigger and more convoluted words than the last... attempting to encapsulate this... well, it. I know it cannot be done. You have to be here and see it for yourself. So, I will not try.

The experience was not depressing and instead confirmed what I've always thought - we, as people, humans, supposedly the pinnacle of evolution... are capable of atrocities beyond the scope of any other species on the planet. It also made some sort of sense that the head of operations at S-21 (as it was known at the time) was Comrade Duch, a teacher of mathematics.

The flagitious events that took place here did so during the Free Love and Beatnik / Hippie years in America. Fittingly enough, more people know about the philosophy of the Woodstock years than they do about S-21.

Fittingly enough and perversely enough.

Song for the moment: So much trouble in the world - Bob Marley

Friday, May 30

Parallel Universe

Before I came to Cambodia, the thought crossed my mind that this trip would provide an excellent bit of impetus to my blogging. That is, I dreamed of writing posts furiously through the night... posts which had breathtaking detail in every line, startling observations, eye-catching photos, insightful observations and so on and so forth. For a time, as I made my way from Birmingham to Phnom Penh, there were plenty of the above resulting in an update every few days. The wheels came off that literary wagon the day I landed here.

Ironic, I know. However, as I wrote and deleted words, lines and paragraphs time and again over the last 2 weeks, I decided one thing - the next post would not be the typical read comparing different worlds, talking about culture shock and whatnot. What will I be writing about then ? Hmm...

One thing I did notice... it's easier to find and move into a new house the second time around. After having gone through that circus in the U.S, finding an apartment and dealing with the logistics of moving in came very naturally. Fate was on my side as far as finding a place was concerned. When a very dehydrated moi visited the apartment building of one of the other interns, a house was being vacated at the time. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth (to be translated as: after Self bargained hard and furiously with the landlady over the rent, amenities & utilities) I moved in to Apt. 2, 206 Norodom Blvd. Great location i.e. close to work and not far from Sisowath Quay which is the riverside, which in turn means pubs and restaurants literally fighting each other for space along the banks of the Sap River. Pub-hopping is the easiest thing here; just exit from one and literally just step through the next door. Repeat till drunk.

Sipping on an Angkor beer on the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) at Happy Hour, watching the sun set at the intersection of the Sap and Mekong rivers... is a nice way to realize that you actually have arrived in Cambodia. The FCC, by the way, has a lovely collection of photos taken by journalists from years ago. Rather putting-off maybe, to be reminded of savagery, brutality and the loss of innocence as you are tucking into a nice meal, but I personally liked it. There are good and bad realizations... and gentle reminders of our own good fortune never hurt anyone.

Cambodia is 'Development Central' as far as the world is concerned. I have never seen such a hodge-podge of international aid organizations and NGO's comfortably resting against each other (figuratively speaking) in any other country. Foreign aid contributes 50% of the National Budget... yes, you read that right. Thanks to this state of affairs, political power is indescribably important. Whomsoever is in power controls the development of the country, and so the funds. And also the bribes.

Working for the UNODC has been interesting so far & I got thrown into the deep end of the pool from day one. The work has been non-stop, which I appreciate and today has been the first slow day since I got here. What have I learned so far ?

That the title United Nations does not necessarily translate into a glamorous setup a.ka. the Secretariat Building in NYC. That is an altogether different world. There's plenty to explore here, though.

Song for the moment: Eye of the tiger - Survivor