Tuesday, December 27

Wrapping paper

After swearing to lay off the sappy stuff on the blog, it was but natural that the last post would be swimming in that tripe. However, it has been shrugged off just as we're about to wrap up another year.

2011 started off at a stagger, collapsed a couple of times, got knocked out once and after a pick-up & dust-off, and a calibration of directions, began a steady jog-trot towards the finish. On the professional front, I gracefully parted ways with my organisation sometime around November. It'd been a decent ride and I would have continued there for a while longer were it not for extenuating circumstances. I took the opportunity to closely examine the idea of plunging into freelance writing, tried my hand at a couple of projects and learned that one needs to be fully committed to the experience and whatever comes along with it. I wasn't ready, so I interviewed and successfully have got another job in Bombay, a city which isn't done with me yet. I'll be starting at the place in January.

On the personal front, its been one of the best years of my life. I met this lovely girl and have been in a wonderfully fulfilling relationship for some time now and I hope to... Screw it. I can't sustain that kind of nonsensical lying, even in text. Status quo this year. Thank heavens for books and BBC Entertainment.

As is par for course, the end of the year balanced the good news about the new job with the bad news about my laptop. Old faithful completed 5 years at the start of the month and promptly crashed a fortnight later, taking all my data with it. I do backups of course, but it'd been a while so I lost a lot of stuff I'd been working on for my projects. Yes, its inconvenient, both for me and others who are depending on my writing. But there's no point crying over spilt milk so I'm picking up the proverbial pieces and trying to put them back together asap. Its kept me away from the internet / computer for a bit, which is not that bad a thing, on the whole.  

I don't want to bother heaping ridiculous expectations on 2012. Suppose I'll do my bit and wait for the dice to roll kindly.

I do want to write more though. Lets see. Good luck with the new year, all.

Song for the moment: Playing for time - Acoustic Alchemy

Thursday, December 15

Reference Point

The next time you hear "there's no use revisiting the past", take note. It is good, solid advice. Let me tell you what could happen, when you choose to ignore it.

I've never been one of those blokes who'd give Charles Atlas or any of his brethren a complex. But the slightly slothful lifestyle brought on by working as a consultant for the last month, mostly spent working and writing at home, has taken its toll. A hint of chubbiness has started suggesting itself again, which is troublesome. The path to hell, or rotundity, is paved with vada pavs and other good intentions, so I haven't engaged in any urgently-required callisthenics. Having shamed myself enough, I decided to go for a jog today at the Pune University track.

The University is where I spent two years at the Anthropology department collecting a degree. They were good years, marked more by normalcy than anything else. At that point in my life, normalcy suited me just fine. I'd been jogging at the track there for a few years, so being on campus made it even easier to be faithful to the regimen. And trust me, considering the condition of the track, serious effort is needed to remain faithful. Laziness and a lack of money and other options helps too.

I understand the University may not be resting on sackfuls of shekels, but they could and sadly, can still make at least a modicum of effort to maintain the facilities. Taking inspiration from some ancient Olympic site, the track was originally constructed entirely of mud, with the hope that regular watering and care would help grass grow on the surface. Well, the cows that pass through the campus had other ideas, and were no doubt delighted with being provided a kilometre long snack bar. The track is popular with Punekars and there's a sizeable crowd of people there, morning or evening.

With the passage of time, some sections began to wear out, but that was not considered a problem. Mud is plentifully available. Some bright bean decided otherwise, filling these sections with the choicest of carefully considered sharp stones and bricks. In one fell stroke, it became one of the most challenging obstacle courses in town and has stayed that way for as long as I can remember. People have adopted a peculiar half-trot, half-stumble style when navigating it which is hilarious when viewed from the sidelines. If you can hack through the many thorny bushes lining the track, that is.

I used to be able to run about 5 km continuously. I fortuitously managed 1 km today, before having to stop and move briskly away from a nasty looking stray dog that had collared (ha!) one section of the track. After a couple of shortened rounds, my lungs began frantically telegraphing a "its us or you" signal, so I stopped the sham. And then challenged the past a second time by paying a visit to my department. Again, I shouldn't have. Sunlight filtered through the trees, bathing the place in a cheerful winter evening glow. Which was good since the management seemed to be on some cost-cutting measure and most of the lights in the place had been turned off.

Unbidden, the ghosts of old scenes began to move across the landscape; the group camaraderie at the end of many tough days, moments of friendship, solitude, celebration and grief. The worst was the memory of failed romance. Feelings of "what might have been" seep through the fabric of all our old memories but stab deepest in the case of lost love and its regrets. I scooted out of there.

And, since I was on a roll, went back to school.

Loyola looked as lovely and serene as always, framed by hills and a beautiful sky palette painted by the setting sun. A lonely jet liner cut across the horizon, white plumes marking its path whilst a group of boys were engaged in a game of football on the playing field. It was a scene guaranteed to have Wordsworth going into paroxysms of delight and start blathering on about daffodils and such. But all I could think about on my years at school was a lot of personal potential and possibilities wasted.

In this kind of wistful & melancholic mood, it is easy to blame people and circumstances from the past for who you are today. Thankfully though, I've just finished Abhinav Bindra's superb autobiography 'A shot at history'. It is a must-read, not only because it is superbly written but also because you get a keen understanding into the amount of desire, hard work, discipline and focus needed to be successful. He took these elements to extraordinary levels, but heck, there was an Olympic gold medal at the end of that road.

So, while there may be some just cause for blaming factors beyond our control for our current lives, I suspect quite a few of us could also direct many of those accusatory arrows at ourselves. At the end of the day, if we can't learn any lessons from our experiences, being stuck in a past soaked with regret is all we'll be left with. Surely we can try to do better?

Song for the moment: Don't stop - Fleetwood Mac     

Monday, December 5

To live is to fly

(Sorry readers. Stuff came up. Lost the thread of the post and then interest. Anyway...)


Part 2:

KS was in mental turmoil. As usual. His team had made it to the quarter-finals of the footy tournament, which made him happy. But, and there's always one of those tripping him up, the quarters, semis and finals would be played on Sunday; the quarters in the morning, the semis around 5 pm and the finals at 9:30 pm. This was the official schedule, which, in India and especially in Pune, can be summarily dismissed. Assuming the Sunday Boys made it to the final, it could safely be said that the game would begin no earlier than 10:30 pm. Therein lay the roots of our hero's turmoil. 

Although he spends a shocking amount of time in Pune, KS is actually based in Hyderabad. Being the pain & discomfort loving bloke that he is, KS makes the torturous 12 - 14 hour bus trip too and fro pretty regularly. This was one such trip and he was to leave for biryani land on the 8 pm bus on Sunday. If the Boys lost. Which was not what KS wanted. Checking Redbus.in for the last available option for Sunday night found some Neeta Volvo horror that skulked out of the city round about midnight. Neeta Volvo services being synonymous with every MC/BC/etc. gaali one could come up with, was not an option at all. So, train options were examined and seats found on the Pune-Hyderabad Shatabdi leaving at 5:50 am. One was booked.

On Sunday morning, I slept in and reached the ground after the quarter final was over to find the team sitting rather silently behind one of the goal-posts. They'd won, but only just. An enormous slice of luck ensured that a hopeful punt up-field by KC had inexplicably bounced over the charging keeper and into the net, giving the Sunday Boys a 1-0 ticket to the semis. I missed this evening game to watch the new Tintin movie with the family. Having followed and cheered the Boys road to the final thus far, I can say with complete honesty that I forgot about the game while the movie was on. At 8 pm, I received a happy text from KS, announcing that the Boys had thrashed their opponents 2-0 (in the shorter form of the game, this was a thrashing) and were in the finals. 

As I parked the bike and walked around the periphery of the field, there was a noticeable buzz in the air. As fate would have it, the final was a repeat of the previous year, in which CF and KS's team had lost. This was, effectively, a grudge match. Once the tomfoolery over the chief guest's appearance had been settled, the players began their warm-ups. The Sunday Boys were calm and cheerful, practising their short passing game before desultorily taking a few practice penalties. Their opponents, United FC, spent the entire time taking penalties, a forewarning of their philosophy of play. Some time later, the field was watered and chalked afresh and the game began. 

From the first whistle, it was obvious that United FC were not going to allow the Boys to settle into their usual rhythm. Every time one of the Boys got the ball, 2 of the opponents would swarm him, forcing him to boot it toward a team mate or commit an error. When United had the ball, they would quickly make their way towards the opposing goal and shoot. Although an ugly style of play, it was effective, since it intimidated the Sunday Boys, both mentally and physically. CF found himself on the receiving end of more than a few tasty tackles and was definitely not his usual commandeering self. After a goalless first half, United FC were awarded a penalty since the Boys had conceded 3 corners (3 corners = 1 penalty, which was the rule). This was a team that got to the finals without scoring even one goal from open play. Penalties were their strength, so the result of the penalty was a foregone conclusion for most of the spectators.

It was a well-taken penalty, I'll give him that. The ball arrowed in towards goal at the right height and in the right direction. But finals are a different ball-game (pun whatever... you decide) altogether. For some reason, the ball hit the inside of the post, but deflected out and into open play. An audible sigh of relief came from my right, where CF's young son was there to see his dad lift the trophy. CF's brother, built like a brick-house, stood next to the kid and also looked about as thankful as a huge, intimidating bloke can. The game went on. A few minutes later, it got ugly. There was a clear hand-ball by one of the United FC players, but the referee signalled for a simple foul rather than a penalty. CF, already rather ragged thanks to the rough treatment he was getting from the opponents, lost his temper and almost marched off the field in protest.

2 minutes before the game was to end, the Sunday Boys got a penalty of their own, through the 'corner' rule. Scoring a goal this close to the final whistle would effectively kill the game and everyone knew it, both on and off the field. As an aside, I would like to inform the readers that the phrase 'could cut the tension with a knife' is both true and in this case, apt. I did not want to watch this penalty being taken but couldn't take my eyes away from the game unlike CF's kid, who'd turned in the opposite direction and was studiously examining an interesting patch of sky. 

What happened next took the game from ugly to uglier. As CF swung his foot to take the shot, a laser light began zagging on the ball. Whether this distracted him we will never know, but the ball came nowhere near the goal post. Once again, Lady Luck ignored the Sunday Boys, who requested a retake of the penalty, which was refused. Over on the sidelines, the owner of the laser was immediately identified and warned by the authorities. But the inherent frustrations of the game bubbled over in CF's brother who confronted the laser guy and began a brawl, which threatened to shift the focus away from the game. At one point, it looked like things could get really bad for the audience as various people began to congregate around the brawlers and cheer them on while loud curses could be heard coming from both camps of supporters. 

Somehow, the melee was stopped and the game went on. However, something had gone out of the Sunday Boys who became indifferent and listless. The final whistle confirmed that the game would be settled by penalties. The rest is history.

Now, I'd love to tell you how the Sunday Boys consolidated all their discipline, focus and accuracy and scored every goal flawlessly. Real life though, takes the piss out of fairytale endings. The Boys could not convert even one of their three penalty attempts and United FC won by converting just one chance. The Sunday Boys had given it their best shot, but it wasn't enough. The final result was not a story of redemption but one of repetition. Prizes were distributed, speeches were made and the crowd dispersed. 

No doubt it would be awesome if this post ended with some inspirational words or uplifting messages. But it doesn't work like that. A glum KS left for Hyderabad the next morning. A few days later, I happened to pass by the ground and found some guys in the middle of a game. Life goes on. 

Song for the moment: The kids are alright - The Who       

Monday, November 14

Any given Sunday

On following a football team over the weekend:

Part 1:


Writing about sport, about teams you follow or the ensuing action, can easily descend into nauseatingly superlative phrases and tired clichés. As a writer, is it possible to put yourself out there and let your head calculate objectivity whilst your heart hammers along with the drama? Reading Rohit Brijnath on the subject of sports-writing is an education, but I have to learn the practical lessons myself. So, I don't have an answer yet, just this post.

As with most opportunities, this one came in the garb of an innocuous question - Tu kya kar raha hai? (What's your plan? / What are you up to?). It was Saturday evening; of course I had nothing to do. KS told me about a 5-a-side football tournament he was participating in and asked whether I was interested in watching his team play. He is one of my oldest friends and an avid footballer, having played for Shivajians Football Club in Pune for over a decade. In all that time, I've never bothered to go see any of their games, so my instinctive answer was to profess a lack of interest and decline. A vision of me hunched over a laptop in an empty house, playing online scrabble, was the alternative and very unappealing prospect. I went to see the game.

The Ajinkya Memorial 5-a-side football game was being held under floodlights in Gaikwad Nagar, Aundh. 106 teams divided into various pools would play a rapid 20 minute game over 2 halves. Although there was a goalkeeper, the format called for fluency and dynamism. As CF, captain and linchpin of KS's team said - "Every player has to be able to play anywhere." The name of the team reflected its higgledy piggledy nature, cobbled together from a pool of people who had played for Shivajians in the past and other stray individuals. KS puts it in a rather blasé fashion: "I called, asking if there was a tournament and a team... KC called back after a while, saying there were a couple of spots. So CF and I went." The 'Sunday Boys', mostly men with increasing commitments and logistical complications off the field, met on any weekend possible and played the game they all loved with awe-inspiring ferocity. Awe, because this is India, and cricket rules the hearts and finances in the country. Football and hockey are poor second cousins at best. So, it takes serious passion to make your way to practice and play matches despite the poor facilities, crowd turnouts and other issues.   

Although you couldn't tell from their general demeanour, CF and KC are minor celebrities in Pune's footballing community. CF played football at Shivajians from 1986-87 till 2010-11, was known by all and sundry across generations, and is the quintessential sportsman - liked and feared in equal measure. KS is equally well-known for his doggedness and enthusiasm for the game. However, their claim to fame is spectacular, both having featured in the Indian football team that played in the 2009 6v6 Budweiser Cup at Old Trafford, Manchester. Yes, the Manchester United one.

The game I attended on Saturday night was the pre-quarter. KS and I reached the venue at the scheduled time, to find out that the matches were following Pune Standard Time and were extensively delayed. KS wandered off to meet his team while I had an hour to watch two games before theirs. I was to learn a lot. The first was already in progress, so I got my first view of this version of football. Both teams seemed to struggle to come to terms with the limitations of the field and the change in tactics needed to succeed, and proceeded to kick the ball forward whenever possible. It was akin to watching a hilariously volleyballesque version of football. The next game proved to be no different and it was no surprise that both matches were stalemates and had to be settled through penalties.

Meanwhile, KS came back to where I was standing with some less than ideal news. The Sunday Boys' forward was stuck in a bus coming from Bombay to Pune and would be delayed. A skilled forward is important in regular football, but his worth is accentuated further in the shorter version, where he would draw defenders to himself and create open spaces and panic amongst the opposition. Another player had assured CF about his participation, failed to show up and had switched off his phone. In a format that allowed 2 substitutes, the team had none. A seemingly emaciated group was now effectively a skeleton crew and the atmosphere was slightly gloomy.

Chance brought some cheer in the form of V, who had come to watch the team play and wandered over to greet the players. CF brusquely told him to find the appropriate equipment and kit up as soon as possible. V would be getting a much closer view of the game than he'd bargained for. With this, the team would have the option of at least 1 substitute, instead of 2 and hope for the best. V's participation was tinged with anxiety since he was nursing a hand recovering from a break and was markedly unenthusiastic about risking further injury to it. The wild insouciance that lives in every sportsman washed over his concerns. V would play.

Off the field, the team has an unassuming aura, with KS being the epitome of the all-round nice guy. Having known each other for years, the jokes and caustic comments (also known as locker room humour) came thick and fast, providing a relaxed, festive mood. They then took the field for the final warm-ups and the change was instantaneous. Each player went about his ritual with a calm, almost professional competence. Even as they kicked the ball around, one felt the presence of a palpable confidence. These guys knew what they were doing.

Once the game commenced, this was reinforced. Previous teams struggled to get out of the 11 man, big field mentality and ballooned their passes into the trees with alarming regularity. In the entire match, the Sunday Boys kicked the ball into the air 3 times.

While the other games were on, I was content to sit alongside the Sunday Boys team, listening to their reading of the games and players. Once their match came up, I found myself unable to do so. I stood, paced along the touch lines and tried to convince myself that it was the dust in the air that caused my lungs to work harder and heart to pound a little quicker. So much for objectivity.

The Sunday Boys played with a fluid style, making short, ground passes, holding possession, creating opportunities and running the other team ragged. The contrast to previous teams could not have been more obvious. The first half ended goalless, but there was no question of which was the better team. It was a question of when the goal would come, not which team would score.

The second half confirmed this. CF took a shot that struck one of the opposition players on the arm. He clinically converted the resulting penalty and the Sunday Boys continued to play their game. As the clock wound down, I stood on the sidelines wondering if a goal from open play was realistically possible. As far as I could tell, the opposing goalkeepers' only contributions involved holding on to the posts (much smaller in this format), blocking everything that came their way and praying that the family jewels survived the 20 minutes unscathed (handling the ball was not allowed).

When the goal arrived, it came with the nonchalance of sunrise and the speed of quicksilver. As the opposition toddled around aimlessly, a short pass from the sideline launched the ball at CF's feet. He took a rapid look at the field and charged. Two of his team mates raced ahead, one down the left flank and the other down the centre, both shouting for the ball. CF beat one opposition player with a quick feint, pirouetted around another and burst into the area 3 feet from goal. He looked up again, saw he had only the keeper to beat and...

As CF said later "Arre, I saw you there, next to the keeper. But by then I'd already made the move and couldn't decide whether to pass it to you. I went for it."

Sport provides many moments when the athlete goes for it. These instances stay frozen in the audiences' memories, breaking free of gravity and soaring on the wings of audacity and imagination. 

The ball slithered through the keeper's legs and into the net. The crowd broke out into applause at the skill of the move as the team hi-fived and hugged. Within minutes, the referee blew the final whistle and the game was over.

2-0 to the Sunday Boys. They were in the quarter finals. 

To be continued...

Song for the moment: Call me lightning - The Who                  

Sunday, November 6

Nobody but me

(Giving the mental cupboard a much-needed airing)

Due to certain happenings over the last month, I have been giving serious thought to doing that typical quarter life thing - writing freelance. Yes, I'm quite a way past the quarter century mark. No, I did not have an epiphany of titanic proportions as I sat, frustrated and disillusioned at my desk. Yes, I have mostly sat frustrated and disillusioned at my desk, but as a vendor, can readily assign blame on the psycho Indian client mentality factor.

I will not lie and say that the timing feels right to do this. If anything, whenever I think about quitting and going freelance for a while, I feel a peculiar crushing sensation in my chest and oodles of panic thrashing around the noggin. I obsess about whether it would be the right professional move. Whether it is a good move, personally. Of course I have no way to answer either correctly or in a way that would appease the frightened figurative chicken doing a vigorous rumba in my tummy (no, this is not a reference to indigestion). I ask if is this the right time in life to give up the comfort of a safe, corporate job & a steady pay cheque to jump into the unknown, uncertain, 'no holds barred' jungle of the freelance writer?

And there are the two questions I dread most of all but have absolutely no way of answering.

1. Am I a good enough writer?
2. Will I succeed?

No, these are not fully correlated, although it would help if the answer to the first one was 'Yes'.

They call it risk, because you stand to lose something. Eventually, you understand that every decision carries risk, but some risks are higher than others. For a guy brought up immersed in a culture of 'tried, tested, trusted' and taking the road more travelled, doing this is crazy and irresponsible. Thankfully I don't have any financial commitments (read, the family have worked and invested wisely and stolidly) and no personal ones either (read socially void). Doing what feels crazy and irresponsible brings its own load of guilt, an emotion I'm intimately familiar with. Ideally, this should be an individual decision, with costs and consequences being borne by me alone.Unfortunately, this one will bring its share of angst, stress and various other unsavoury parcels of baggage that are familiar in our Indian family settings.

Lord help us! The baggage.

Look, I'm not one of those impulsive blokes who spews pseudo-inspirational gyaan about just one life to live, packs bags and heads off for the hills without considering the result of my actions. Maybe one should be, but old habits die hard and some traits never let go. So, any grey hairs the folks have are strictly due to age.

My professor at UAB told me to trust my gut when making decisions. That paid off in spades before. I've tried to channel the same philosophy when considering the present situation and am drawing a solid blank, which scares me even more.

So, where are we right now? I have a few job offers, but they are of the corporate communication variety... very little creativity or communication, very mucho corporate shenanigans, events, networking and such. Not my cup of tea. Which is why the freelance idea has cleared its throat and tentatively put up its hand.

I have to make a decision sometime soon. When the time comes, I know there is no way I will be ready to but don't know whether things will work out for the best.

Uncertainty is a bitch.   

Song for the moment: Twisted Nerve - Bernard Hermann

P.S: Anyone looking to hire a decentish writer? Please to be letting me know.     

Sunday, October 23

Advice for the young at heart

As S pointed out in the comments section of the previous post, its been 2 months since I have written here. Mind you, it is not as if life has been mundane in that period. On the contrary, as I type this, I feel like one of those unfortunate animals that gets caught in washing machines and somehow survives - much lighter, ragged and half-dead.

Being struck by serious illness is never a laughing matter. When I did fall very badly ill in September, I was thankful to have a helpful room mate around. The situation had reached one of those hairy impasses where I was delirious with fever and consequently rather reluctant to get out of bed. Had it not been for A, my roomie, you'd have probably heard all about it in one of those stories that frequently make it to the papers - "Foul smell, neighbours complain, cops break door down, discover..." or something like that. It was touch and go, but a couple of weeks convalescing at home in Pune got the train back on the rails. Only to have it miraculously  derail thanks to the stresses and ornery machinations of work. All pretty exhausting, really.

The dust is finally starting to settle, just as the sights, sounds and buzz of Diwali is upon us. The timing feels especially poignant, since its the festival of lights that signals the dispelling of darkness, the welcoming of prosperity and change and what-have-you. One of the nicer traditions of this festival is that we're expected to buy ourselves new clothing, to be worn on the big day. However, this involves shopping which, to be perfectly honest, is not really a favourite activity for most guys. I like to keep the experience as efficient as a commando operation - identify target, get in, execute and get out, without fuss.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't we supposed to be in the throes of recession, inflation, massive petrol price hikes and other portents of doom? Then why the hell are there so many cars and bikes ferrying numerous portly ladies and gents to malls and other stores? I would say we should be exercising prudence in general, but seeing the behemoths that pass for people these days sailing around stores squawking for one size larger or stuffing just one more pani-puri down their boa constrictoresque maws... well, its a lost cause. And the prices; Heaven help us. I understand that the Lee's, Levis and other 'brands' have been around for a while. But I'm from a generation that used to pay Rs. 2 for a vada pav and Rs. 400 for stonewashed Newport jeans. So the idea of paying anything between Rs. 1700 - 3000 for a pair of jeans or a shirt, no matter how venerable the name, is just not on for me. As the current Levi advertisement says "Your life is your life." Buying one of their products would make my life theirs. Or a couple of vital organs at the least. Visiting shops and seeing the various malls and the swarming mobs therein, I can see how commercialised it has become; this, the most family-oriented & fuzzily warm festival of them all.   

We went to a place called the Mega Mart, where most of the assistants took the philosophy behind the name to heart and were incredibly rude or blasé, which put me off instantly. I get that its a fuck-all job, with low pay and little to no satisfaction. The hajaar customers are annoyingly Indian. But guy, being sarcastic and haughty isn't doing you or the shop any favours. Naturally, I mentally flipped him the bird and went elsewhere. I haven't bought a pair of jeans in almost 4 years and while I covet a pair of Levis, I'm much happier buying Live-In, which fit better, age well and allow me to get 2 for a price of one of the royal denims, with spare change left over.

As I think back to the past couple of months, weeks and even today, I can't help but hope that the chaos ends soon and some peace, joy and happiness are around the corner. In this day and age, we could all use a generous helping of these.

Happy Diwali all.

Song for the moment: This time tomorrow - The Kinks

Tuesday, August 23

Cut and Dry

Earlier this year, I came across an article which spoke about the return of the quintessential barber shop to France. Considering that male facial hair grooming still follows the 'with moustache / beard / fungus-like goatee or clean shaven' type here in India, our barber shops don't really face much of an issue. Besides, I'm not sure the chaps cutting hair at our local saloons would look too kindly at an instruction of "I would like a shave, but could you leave an almost 3-day stubble?"

Also, after watching The Godfather and Eastern Promises, I've developed a marked reluctance for the idea of getting a shave at the barber's. Call me crazy, but the idea of sitting there, helpless, with your throat exposed while the bloke with the straight-razor hovers over you... no thanks.

But what about the idea of having a favourite barber to cut your hair? As kids, us guys would be taken or told to make our way to the saloon and get the hideous, school-appropriate cut. Lacking any need for special preference in terms of style, it wouldn't really matter which anonymous pair of hands+scissors cut our hair. Conversation was kept to a minimum, with the guy gruffly telling you to tilt your head at particular angles every now and then. All this changes once you reach college and, for perhaps the first time, think about actually getting a genuine haircut, rather than a cranial mow. Or at least, this was the case when I went to college. The trend nowadays seems to be to look about as unwashed and decrepit as society and your mum will allow, matched by a glazed-over or beady-eyed gaze. 

Over the last 10 years, at the local saloon, I've trusted only one or two particular barbers to cut my hair. They're good with the scissors and make polite conversation, which is about all one can generally ask for. If these chaps are out for the day or too busy, I prefer to come back some other time and the routine has chugged along smoothly. Till today, that is. As both of them were on holiday, and I definitely needed a haircut before a client meeting in Bombay later this week, I had no option but to take a number and wait my turn.

My barber for the day was a no-nonsense type. I started to tell him about the exact way I wanted my hair cut, saw his stonily distracted expression in the mirror and resignedly went with the old, school faithful i.e. "Short and even." After almost a decade of ritualised, conversation-peppered haircuts, today was, well... briskly efficient. Let me put it this way - hardbitten sheep shearers deep in the Australian outback probably approach their work with more joie de vivre.

So anyway, thinking back to the article, I can't help but wonder if our desi lot will ever get around to seeing the saloon as more than just a place that men and flies congregate, enveloped in a mist of Old Spice and talcum powder. On the other hand, considering the starting price for the Plisson shaving brush mentioned in that article is approximately Rs. 4000, I think we're okay with the current state of affairs.

Song for the moment: Minor thing - Red Hot Chili Peppers

Saturday, August 20

Bottle it up

Hello?

Its me.

Are you okay?

Yes... I want to tell you something.

Can I say something first?

...

I love you. I do. Its as simple as that. I was stupid... I... god knows what I was thinking. I never wanted us to break up. I was scared... you knew me too well and it scared me. You're still the only person who knows me. I couldn't say anything before... remember when you told me you were getting married? I wanted to tell you then, but I didn't know what you would say. I did not want to hurt you again. I even thought about coming to your house and telling you everything... asking you to call it off but... what if you said no? Even when we met later, it took all I had to not ask you whether you were happy. I wanted to sock the guy. You knew I was a little drunk, right? I was too scared to see you after so long... but, you told me I can still make you laugh. So many times after that, I've stared at your number on the phone... I wondered what's the worst that could happen if I called and told you to divorce him... and, you called now, so I'm saying it... I love you. I didn't want to hurt you. I'm sorry.

...

Hello?

I'm pregnant.

Song for the moment: Love song - Sara Bareilles

Disclaimer: Fiction, of course :)

Monday, August 15

Many the miles

Some time ago, I decided to cut down on the whining that seems to be a major theme on this blog. After having written a couple of short story posts and one interesting challenge, I found that more commentary on life, its machinations and assorted tomfoolery just did not interest me. For the moment, at least. That also thankfully means that I can't talk about the Indian cricket team's test saga.

Anyway, in recent weeks, a new trend has taken root in that fragment of the 'gang' that lives in Pune. Instead of meeting up and hitting the tipple every now and then, we meet and they discuss trekking to various forts in and around Pune. Notice how I'm not in these councils-of-war. Although I've played sports in school and college, I've never been a fan of physical toil. All these talks conjure up are images of waking up at some ungodly hour before sunrise, scooting to some random hill / fort and huffing, puffing, slipping & scrabbling around in near darkness while one's lungs scream blue murder and knees piteously beg for mercy. So of course, when asked whether I'd like to come along, I confidently reply in the negative, right?

Wrong. Much as I abhor these unholy callisthenics, they do promise an element of tiredly pleasant satisfaction at the end. Last weekend's trip to the Chaturshringi temple Tekdi and beyond was fun, involving a shortish climb and much walking and a sumptuous breakfast in the end at Krishna Dining on Law College Road. Ergo, when this weekend's trip to Sinhagad Fort was announced, I was reluctant about the 5 am time, but rather naive about the climb itself. While climbing up to Sinhagad is a Puneri institution, it'd been a long time since I was there, so it was almost like my first trip. And a quarter of the way up the boulder-infested, 35 degree gradient, with superb views of the misty verdant valley and Peacock Bay, I was overwhelmed. With nausea.

Not that it wasn't a beautiful view, mind. Just that I was breathing like an asthmatic on his last legs, which made any and all appreciation of the environment pretty redundant. Fortunately, my climbing mates, KS and GT are the cheery types, not showing a trace of annoyance or trying to bump me off a suitable rock spur. Somehow, I manned up and made it to the top. I suspect it was largely due to the fact that most of the trek was completely cloud-covered, giving spasms of hope that the damn thing would end around the next corner.

While the climb itself was not pleasant for me, the overall experience was lovely. The views, when they broke through the cloud cover, were breathtaking (figuratively speaking of course since I had none to spare by then) and the buttermilk & kande-bhajji  at the fort were excellent. To top it off, the restaurant's cat nonchalantly climbed into my lap and dozed off for the length of the meal. Since I love cats, this didn't bother me in the least. I'm not making this up. A photo exists which will be shared when KS (who was pretty flabbergasted) does so.

On the trip back down, we passed the customary testosterone-fuelled idiots screaming and hooting as they headed up. Methinks the climb would take care of any spare energy eventually. Wearied but generally pleased with both the effort and the fact that we managed to miss the crowd heading up (heaven knows why these chaps want to spend a holiday swarming up to the fort), we made our way home.

There's talk of another such trek in 2 weeks time. Heaven help us all.

Song for the moment: Everybody wants to rule the world - Tears for Fears  

P.S: You lot heading for the Sikkim trip. Practice. Way more than you're doing now.

Wednesday, July 6

Overnight sleeper

"Where the hell are the fancy envelopes? I just bought a packet last month."

R was upset. This was like saying the sun rose in the east, since R's job as the office admin guy was to become frazzled at the smallest issue and start swearing. It was closing time and people had already slipped on their travel face - a mix of stoicism and weariness as they contemplated the voluntary manhandling exercise otherwise known as local train travel in Mumbai. Barely anyone paid attention as R continued his diatribe about thievery and his pay getting docked for the missing envelopes.

B quietly packed up his laptop bag and joined the general throng streaming out. Compared to some of the others, he hardly travelled at all, since he only had to go about 6 stations in the wrong direction. Years ago, when B was new to Mumbai, the wrong direction idea had confused him since trains looked crowded no matter what direction he would go in. One 9 am trip to Churchgate for an interview that lasted all day followed by the 7 pm Borivali return taught him a lesson he'd never forget. That was the day he understood claustrophobia, the day he decided to invest in a first-class pass and some good deodorant and damn the expenses.

Now, a much better paid B did not mind shelling out the seemingly crazy rent to live where he did. It was a quiet, well-connected locality, a nice building with no wall-seepage problems and a pretty roomy house. He made his way home and saw that the light was on. H was home. The fact that she was gave him more pleasure than would be considered normal. But he didn't care. One only had to live alone in Mumbai for 5 years before any bravado associated with independence and freedom evaporated, replaced by the fatigue of coming back to an empty house and the peculiar, heavy stifling stillness that accompanies it.

He was glad for H's presence, happy that sense had finally dawned, relieved that his reluctance and shame had given way. After being solo for so long, it felt strange initially, but had steadily gotten better. He was even sleeping like a baby nowadays. B let himself into the house and took in the fragrance of food wafting in from the kitchen. Another bonus. Not only was H a superb cook, she knew how to keep the conversation going during dinner. There was no nagging; just questions about his day, followed by snippets of news which she'd heard or read about.

After dinner, he helped wash up. There was an expectant, inquiring look on H's face but B smiled and said that he was exhausted. It took barely a minute from whispered 'goodnights' to him drifting off to sleep, still smiling. H couldn't sleep. Night after night, she figured he'd initiate the move, but B seemed content in talking, eating and nodding off. It was unnerving. She wondered if he didn't find her attractive enough, but dismissed that idea instantly. But she couldn't figure out his problem either. One of these days she'd have to talk to him about it.

B woke up to the greatest smells in the world - coffee and buttered toast. H was an early riser and had already left. He made his way to the dining table to find breakfast laid out. Sipping his coffee, he looked over to H's place at the table. The envelope he left there was gone. As usual.

H had never been a fan of cheques and wire transfers. R was just going to have to bear with the missing envelopes.

Song for the moment: Nights on Broadway - Bee Gees

Sunday, July 3

Positive thinking

As messages went, it was short and simple. But he'd been staring at the screen since Goregaon station and the train was now pulling into Ville Parle. As a move, maybe it was a little more complicated.

It was Friday evening. Most people, work week weary, would be streaming into homes, pubs and restaurants across the city meeting friends and loved ones . He was heading to a shared 1-bhk in Santacruz, already planning a meal for one and hoping something good was on the telly. This was his typical Friday evening in the city.

The idea of sending the SMS came inexplicably. And immediately felt like a bad idea. Pointless. Then he thought about having to spend the weekend sitting on the floor of his room watching tv, hearing the clock tick and thinking about nothing in particular. Maybe it wasn't that bad an idea after all. He started typing, read the message twice and cancelled it. The question had to be perfectly phrased - subtle, fresh, interesting, non-domineering, not verbose, appropriately flirty and definitely, absolutely not desperate. Any wit, implied or otherwise would be a bonus. He continued typing, adding, deleting and cancelling words and sentences over and over.

As messages went, it had to be short and simple. As a move, it was becoming very complicated.

Eventually, the right words appeared. Or so he hoped. He paused, smiled and began to imagine the positive response, the agreed rendezvous time and place (he'd suggest Bandra), the right restaurant... heck, afterwards maybe they'd even take a stroll on the Carter Road promenade. Anything could happen, right?

But Ville Parle was gone and he still hadn't hit 'send'. What if the answer was 'no'? Again. He'd look stupid. Again. But looking foolish was okay, right? After all, if there's anything he'd learnt from the movies, it was that polite, geeky persistence was considered cute. More importantly, it was successful. Most of the time. He was definitely sending the text.

"What's the point? Is it really going to go anywhere? And knowing your luck, the answer will be 'no'. Do you really need to look any more idiotic? Or desperate? Do you really want to do this? Do you..."

It really was a perfectly simple message - Dinner tomorrow?

As the train pulled into Santacruz, he hit 'delete' and stepped out.

Song for the moment: Lonely no more - Rob Thomas

Thursday, June 30

Mr. Chow

This post is based on a wager with Atul, which you can read about here.

When you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you do? Stretch lazily, hop out of bed & head for the can, slouch on the bed & feel your toes gently brush the floor?

I force myself to smile... a big, toothy grin with which I try to convey eagerness, earnestness and friendliness. The right smile is important to me because customers who feel cared for order more food and booze... and leave more tips. The right smile ensures that my drunk, frustrated customers don’t try to prove their manhood by starting a fight with the one guy they think they can lord it over – Me.

The right smile is important to me because my life is exhausting and empty; a token existence in maximum city. Without that smile, I don't think I could get out of bed and face the world.

I'm a waiter in a restaurant in Mumbai. My smile is what could separate me from the other waiters and from the sea of humanity that washes through the doors of my workplace. In this city, it is very easy to become jaded and cynical. It is even easier to avoid having facial expressions. We’re all so tired you see, so why waste energy feeling anything or showing what we feel? Daily I see people, bent wearily over their drinks. I hear them, talking about their problems, failures and rarely, their successes. I think about their self-involvement and wonder if they notice anyone besides themselves and their lamentations.

My eyes are weak and I wear thick, unfashionable glasses. Even without them, I'd be able to see more than my customers.

A few rare regulars know me and take the time to say hello and enquire about my well-being. I don’t say much, but this is where the practice from every morning pays off. They think they’re making a connection and I think... that I’ll say whatever it takes to keep the orders coming in.

No matter what happens, I smile. I have to.

Song for the moment: Quiet Volcano - Artie Tatum

Wednesday, June 15

Never give up on a good thing

I have an indifferent relationship with cellphones. Since 2004, I've only ever owned two and family, friends and colleagues have cajoled, requested and almost threatened me to get a new one. I've thought about it but always come back to one simple point - I don't really use the phone that much, so it doesn't bother me that my phone looks like I took it out of a garbage pile. If appearances were that important in life, I'd be nowhere. Oh wait... Anyway, my supposed callousness came to a head the other day when I tried to make a rare phone call.

A polite but firm automated voice informed me that the yearly validity on the Airtel SIM card had expired and asked that I renew it if I wished to avail their services further. For the next 3 hours, that automated message was the only intelligent thing I could get out of the Airtel people and retailers. If their "Dil jo chhahe, paas laye" tag had any grain of truth, an axe or a bazooka would have manifested itself in my hands and well... you get the Idea. At least figuratively.

Basically, all I wanted to know was - To extend the validity, what amount do I recharge the card with? You'd think the answer would be 'any', but it isn't. No, some clever management clog decided that each plan has a specific charge to extend validity. Finding out what that amount is, is a Sisyphean task. The two local Airtel retailers I asked didn't know. The second bright boy even tried calling 198 from my phone to find out. Yes, the very same phone that I told him did not work 10 seconds before.

So I tried the number from a land line, laboured through the various options on the auto thingummy and was finally put in touch with a cheerful lady who promised to help. Like Moses promised the desert journey would be a short stroll. I gave her the various details and asked her the amount. She didn't know and directed me to call another number. I did, went through the same process and was greeted by another polite guy who, with his enthusiasm and zeal, was quite likely the telling difference between the Trojans losing to the Greeks because of his absence. He digested the information I gave, considered it and said he did not know the amount either. When asked why, he said he wasn't authorised to know the answer. Pressed further, he admitted that no one would know and that I should ask the local retailer. Or the chaps guarding the Coca Cola formula.

I tried to exit the conversation gracefully until the guy asked me to rate the service at which point I threw the kitchen sink at him and hung up. I then did the only sensible thing; I called our local grocer in Pune with whom we've kept a goods diary for the last 18 years. I've grown up being friends with the guys at Om Supermarket, to a point where I now go behind the counter and pick up whatever I need. Sometimes, I've even helped out other customers with their items. The point is, a simple, almost 2 decade long family relationship with these guys saved the day. The uncle manning the counter listened to my problem, said he'd call the local Airtel guy and asked me to call back in 10 minutes. Following which, he charged the phone for the correct amount and wrote the account in the diary as usual.

Although this is mainly a post about the sad state of affairs at the Airtel call centre, it also let me express my appreciation for the endangered kirana store. Fancy mega supermarkets and malls have proliferated in most cities in India and definitely in Pune. I guess that is some form of progress, so I'm saying nothing against them. But I'm willing to bet they wouldn't go out of their way to help someone who randomly calls them from another city; a person whom they met as a boy of 10 and know as a man of 28. They may not always stock every item I need, but they stock decency, humanity and friendship.

Not everything available in the store is on the shelf.

Song for the moment: Keep the customer satisfied - Simon & Garfunkel

P.S: The amount was Rs. 110, in case you were wondering

Saturday, May 21

Golden years

As a kid, watching my grandpa slice a mango was the definite highlight of many a summer evening. Talk about simple times!

Back in the early 80's we lived with my grandparents in Bombay. My memories of that time are compartmentalised into special events; the colour of the candle on my 2nd birthday, watching my beaming mum wheel a red cycle through the building gate & slowly realising it was for me (I'm pretty slow that way), helping my grandma make vadaam for the year, the smell & colour of salt and chillies mixed with aavakaay in barani (porcelain) jars, the buzz around the house during Diwali and Avaniaatam...

It was a different life; one with games of chor-police, yellow plastic bat cricket, The World this Week on the telly and of course, mangoes in summer. My grandpa being the patriarch of our mob, would take on the very serious task of buying, cutting & distributing mangoes. A strict disciplinarian with generations of tam-brahmness behind him, he would approach the season in his own eclectic way. The event lasted as long as mangoes were available, starting with the tangy parrot-beak variety, shifting to the alphonso & culminating a few months later with another type which I don't remember anything about except the large size.

With all the grace & mystery of an extended tea ceremony session, my grandpa divided the process into clear stages; the extensive inspection of the fruit at the markets, Good-Bad-Ugly-esque calculated price bargaining and packing the raw mangoes in the rice drum till they ripened. I remember the numerous occasions I'd anxiously peep into the drum with a concern people usually reserve for newborns. When he deemed the mangoes ready, grandpa would take the ceremonial knife (or so I thought) and begin to sharpen it on a granite slab. If I were lucky, I'd get to help... and take my word for it, the rhythmic, rasping sound as steel brushed against stone was a lovely tone.

Post dinner, grandpa would seat himself in a corner of the room with a large steel plate, a couple of mangoes and the now-gleaming knife. The family would gather around, but pride of place (and the one closest to the action) was mine. Grandpa would pick up a mango, speculatively move it around in his hand for the best grip, take the knife, place it against the skin of the fruit and...

It was effortless. The yellow skin would come off in long, curling layers at remarkable speed. All the while, the fruit would be held perfectly - not a drop of juice would fall on the plate. Once completed, slices of yellow gold, in sizes and shapes alien to geometry, would begin to plop down on the plate, till there was only the seed left. The first piece was my grandpa's, but the second was always mine. The plate would get passed around till everyone took pity on me and gave it back; the carnage that followed would put hyenas to shame. 3 months of encore performances later, the season was over.

As long as I lived in that house, this was a summer ritual. Eventually, the family moved abroad for a while & then pitched the permanent tent in Pune. My fascination for mangoes & appreciation for grandpa's efforts began to fade.

Today, 20-odd summers on, I tried to skin a mango and failed to bring an iota of the finesse that my grandfather demonstrated all those years ago. I think about an 82 year old gentleman in Bombay who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease and hasn't cut a mango in years. I wonder about the many things life has given and taken away from us...

Thatha, I do not have your mango-cutting finesse. But I can write about it.

Song for the moment: Ajeeb dastaah hai yeh - Lata Mangeshkar (Dil apna aur preet parai)

Saturday, May 7

You rascal you

In two diabolically hellish weeks at work recently, I was often left staring at the laptop screen, dumbfounded. It'd reached a point where anything I did was wrong and even doing nothing was chastised in language that was vitriolic, to say the least. Remember the scenes where a group of people surround a guy and proceed to beat and kick him down till he's forced to curl into a ball, hoping to avoid further punishment ?

By last Friday evening, I had reached that figurative foetal position. The same few thoughts kept circling around - Why was every molehill being turned into a mountain ? Why was I putting up with this aggravation ? What was so enamouring about the job that I was shouldering so much invective & stress ? Heck, why didn't I just quit ? I had no answers. I do remember being surprised at how much fear was coursing through me and wondering what I was scared about. It was just a job, right ? So, why didn't I believe that ?

To get my mind off the shitstorm, I began a clean-up of the computer; the registry was cleaned, files backed up and the temporary files folder deleted. Lastly, I made my way to Program Files and began deleting the redundant stuff there when I came across a folder called SoftActivity (please get your mind out of the gutter). I couldn't recall ever installing or even seeing this name before so I went through it.

And found that this cute piece of work, installed on my laptop since July 2010, is a maha-funda, powerful keylogger software.

I've written previously about how I'm not particulary anxious to experience the high-falutin emotional descriptions much favoured by the writing fraternity. But there was an undeniable "mouth went dry and tongue became like sandpaper" experience going around.

Now, unlike a sizeable portion of what passes for human beings at the workplace, I don't waste my time on various social or game sites. I also don't visit job sites, hoping for a fast exit from what, in truth, is the professional equivalent of Gomorrah. I get along okay with the management & colleagues and do pretty good work. Or so I've thought while some third-rate mofo had been stealthily recording EVERY key I'd ever typed since last July.

I'll confess, just thinking about the sheer enormity of it made me need to sit down and collect my thoughts. To say I was stupefied would be putting it accurately. Every online chat session, every email, every bank account password... all of it had been compromised. Coupled with the maelstrom of work-related stress I was already carrying, it was a miracle I managed to even get home that night. Since sleep was out of the window, I spent the time figuring out what had to be done to salvage some of the wreck masquerading as my secure online information. And so it was that a marathon Saturday and Sunday session with me hunched over the house computer left the following:

One personal email account closed, after migrating everything that could be moved, to a new account. Two other personal email account details changed and left to the mercy of fate, since there's only so much information that I gave a damn about.
Blog, photos and analytics account details changed and migrated.
Bank account passwords changed, ATMs visited personally to change the pins and hope for the best.
Professional network account changed.

Basically, the life I'd been living online since 2006 had to vacate and find a new city.

The crap at work abated somewhat on Monday and I managed to get the software removed from the computer that evening. The management doesn't know who installed it since they supposedly didn't authorise it. The senior IT consultant in Hyderabad doesn't know anything about it either. So that leaves the junior in-house IT guy, who was on holiday all of last week. If he hasn't installed the software, I have to reconcile with the fact that some unknown entity has about 10 months of my data, with me unable to do a damn thing about it.

To say that I feel violated is putting it mildly. But I also realised just how much of my information is in cyberspace and how easy it is / would be for someone to steal this data, https or no https. So, while I'm waiting for the IT bloke to show up, for a little WTF were you thinking - frank heart-to-heart chat, maybe anyone reading this should inspect your work and home pc's for innocuous looking folders that could be much more.

I've stopped accessing personal stuff at work. Even if there is supposedly no software tracking anything, I just don't trust the system any more. Now, I access new information from a lot of other websites during office hours and limit the casual reader /mail / chat stuff to about an hour at home. Considering I got lucky while finding that software, learning a lesson this way was worth the inconvenience I guess.

It has also spurred me to renew my efforts to change workplaces. As the bloke said, "Some things you do, you can never take back..."

Song for the moment: Black dog - Led Zeppelin

Thursday, April 14

Who can it be now ?

After 2 years and countless bus trips, you'd think I'd have learnt my lesson by now. Sadly, like a plethora of guys out there, I'm a sufferer of what is called the 'Empty Seat Agony' syndrome (ESAS). I didn't stand a chance, really.

Sufferers of ESAS are generally guys who are implicitly aware of the vagaries of Fate & the sinister machinations of the universe. Raised on a special diet of awkward social situations and an instinctive understanding of self-pathos, we're stuck in the limbo of the great evolutionary game. Usually well-read, of above average intelligence, cynical and/or pessimistic, we possess a sense of humour that is devastating & self-depreciating.

We're not loquacious, know the meaning of the word 'loquacious' & of course, cannot (possibly will not) dance to save our lives. Dance, in the ESAS world, is a random flailing of limbs and we cannot be convinced otherwise. In terms of looks, the word most likely to attach itself to us is - Hmm. A number of this species of guy have cornered the market in playing the brother / supportive shoulder to the dame of interest. But the one thing we suffer in common is Empty Seat Agony. There's always a little spark of hope and it refuses to die.

It starts innocuously enough. At Dadar, one example gets on the bus to Pune & takes his seat. Habitual paranoia against the universe means that he'll be there at least 5 - 10 minutes early. The adjoining seat will be empty. He will keep his backpack in the storage, stretch his legs, plug in the earphones and twiddle his thumbs. The wait has begun. You see, that bloody spark of hope will send out enticing signals to the mind, usually along the lines of:

"What are the odds, huh ?"
"Hmm... 5 minutes to go, the other seats are taken and no one yet."
"Nah... no way. Snap out of it. You've been on enough bus rides to know better. But still..."
"Holy crap. Please old uncle, don't sit next to me... whew, he's not."
"Damn. No one is sitting in the next seat. Now what ?"

ESAS happens, is what. From Dadar to Chembur and then on to Vashi, even on the face of irrefutable proof of a thousand previous journeys, the poor sod is praying to high heaven that a reasonably cute dame open to intelligent conversation (with him) will take that empty seat.

Every time, without fail, the seat will be taken by another guy, who's expression will range from a mutually recognised disappointment (because he's another ESAS victim) to complete indifference. The original protagonist is forced to adopt Hamlet's expression of WTF-tinged resignation and pray the music player doesn't give out. Of course, if he's really lucky (and he is, on average) the guy sitting next to him is a combination of the following:
  • Old
  • Suffering from flatulence
  • An incessant & loud phone-talker
  • Obese and sweating
  • Has the flu and no shyness about largesse in spreading it
  • The snorer
  • The noisy eater
  • Anti-deodorant
  • Believes in airing some very ripe socks once he's sat down
  • Is travel-sick and does not have a plastic bag
Frankly, the old guys (with no other afflictions) are pretty decent, apart from possible weak bladders. But a combination of any of the others (take my word for it) is our hero's Waterloo. The obituary might as well say "He died bravely. Smelling faintly of rotten cabbage. Or socks."

The hope destroyer who sat next to me recently brought fresh problems. Hardly had he sat down, that he took out the cellphone and began to play Hangman. Now, I don't know whether he suffered from a lack of understanding on the point of the game or took ghoulish pleasure in failing, but an awful lot of guys were hung during that bus ride. It was like watching a kid come to grips with potty-training. For example, having been clued in that the 5-letter word was a 'direction', this bloke proceeded to stare into the middle distance for about a minute a la Zen exercises. He then proceeded to try the letter E.

I wanted to emulate the game, garrotte the fellow myself and put him and the world out of their misery.

Like I said at the start, its been 2 years and not once have I managed to find myself sitting next to a girl, never mind cute, intelligent OR otherwise. Yes, I should give up the ghost by now. But you know just as well as I do that come the next journey I'll take, there'll be an empty seat next to me and hope will clear its throat and begin humming a song. Its the Empty Seat Agony Syndrome, I tell you.

We are like this only.

Song for the moment: Poor Boy - Cliff & the Shadows

And yes, the music player gave out 20 minutes out of Vashi. Go figure.

Sunday, April 3

King of anything

(Much has, is being & will be written about the 2nd of April 2011. This is my sentimental contribution.)

I am 28 years old, the amount of time a nation waited. It is a nation of sufferers & cynics, a country where it is easier to be corrupt than to be a good person. A place which makes it hard to simply and truly wear a worn out heart on a scuffed sleeve and wait for joy. Think about what experiences an inherently religious nation has to go through before the idea of 'belief' mutates into something that must be constantly tested.

This is the same country that voluntarily chooses to fall in love with a team sport in which 11 men have ample opportunities to fail individually. A sport hosted in arenas that have plumbed the depths of human decency. One who's administrators are, collectively, about as criminally incompetent, indifferent & selfish as a group of people can be. This is a place where a nation's passion for a sport constantly fights a bloodied battle with faith.

This is the Indian's relationship with cricket.

I'm an early 80's kid and my mother would often tell me the story of June 25th, 1983. About how a young woman flew up three flights of stairs holding her 6 month old son and saw the moment. About how, earlier in the day, she knew, with an instinct that was hers alone, that 38 would be the highest individual score. About... an enviable belief that turned into a moment of joy which made life seem bearable, even if it was for an instant.

I don't know if that was the seed, but I have watched and loved cricket since I can remember. But I did not have the belief. One side of me is the partisan Indian fan. I don't know about the fancy gimmicks of today, but the heart has bled a normal red for the team. The other side has appreciated great bowling & the flawless graceful technique of batsmanship, no matter who the opposition.

More often than not though, my experiences have been coloured by disbelief. When India managed to win, it was there. When India managed to lose, it was there. That's what you get for watching India play cricket.

And then there is India's bond with Sachin Tendulkar. No sportsman in the history of any game has or will take on the burdens he has. None other can cause a collective plumb in a nation's spirit simply by not being successful on the day. Or raise it, by succeeding. Think about the incomprehensible, unfair enormity of it. That is all.

So yes, when he was out yesterday, I did what 28 years of conditioning commanded - I stopped watching. Thank heavens for Cricinfo, though.

See, I don't have the luxury of forgetting Sharjah 1986, Eden Gardens 1996, Chennai 1999 or Johannesburg 2003. Yes, in the past few years, India has won more than it has lost and, in the process, pulled some spectacular ones off. There have been a lot of soothing moments. Yet, before yesterday, say the words 'India, Sri Lanka, World cup' and I'm willing to bet that the first image that pops into the mind's eye was the sight of a grown man's heart-rending tears as he left the field. There are some embers that glow, no matter how much time has passed.

So, for me yesterday was about the average Indian fan's journey watching a team normally snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It was about the finest partnership in Indian cricket and one that will go down in history - the one between a captain and a coach.

It was about watching SRT cry in public for the first time ever and understanding, for they were tears of joy.

It was about shedding tears myself; for him, for the past & for the ancient blood hum of sport which lives beyond words.

The burning embers from watching 28 years of cricket were extinguished on the night of 2nd April, 2011.

Maybe, just maybe, I'll begin to believe.

Song for the moment: Chariots of Fire- Vangelis

Tuesday, March 29

Elegantly Wasted

It was the perfect day. He wasn't completely sure what that meant because it'd been a while since, well... Many phrases whistled through his head but the one that fit, the words that felt right were - he'd felt alive.

It was like unwrapping a gift and finding something incomparably better than what one was expecting. The rare times when an explosion of giddy joy left one speechless & breathless simultaneously. That perfect, first kiss. The day combined the vibrancy of all those moments and all it had taken was one phone call.

Thing was, it was a phone call from HER.

She was in Bombay. To meet him.

She'd been to the city many years ago on a short trip, but like most out-of-towners, Bombay had scared the bejeesus out of any possible return trips. Until now. So it began - the perfect day.

She didn't remember anything good about the city and he, in his social hermit role, had not seen much of it in the two whole years he'd lived there. That wasn't relevant though. Even as they walked, saw the sights, ate or sat on the jetty watching the sea, they talked. He made her laugh.

He loved the easy familiarity with which they could converse, no matter how long the pause. It'd been almost six years. But they were two people who knew each other so intimately, even their silences counted as conversation. 

He wanted to ask what she was doing in Bombay. After dinner, strolling on the promenade and enveloped by the salt-breeze, they kissed. He stopped wondering. He was at peace. He couldn't stop smiling. It really was the perfect day.

He woke up, still smiling.
But he couldn't remember why.

Then, the phone rang.

Song for the moment: Dream a little dream - Sissel Kyrkjebo

Wednesday, March 23

High & Dry

The two usual suspects sat slumped at a corner table. The repose that hung around as they occasionally sipped beer and spoke suggested this was a routine event. The truth, however, was far more painful. Professional ambitions, personal realisations and other matters had conspired to put about 4 months and 1000 kilometres between their pub sessions. The casualness had been replaced by a sense of occasion, which was irksome, but somewhat ignorable.

The music was not. They'd come to this particular pub because the beer was good and the music, mostly rock, was what they needed. But they were no longer regulars, so neither could understand when the place had decided to turn into a country-western stall. One of the guys even predicted the entry of some bloke in a 10 gallon hat, which would probably not have raised a murmur. Nobody of the type showed, thankfully. There was only so much a cold brew could stave off.

What was also odd was the theme of the conversation. It had been a year to the day since the last bag had been packed and the flight taken. One would think a year would be enough for time to move on from past obstacles, old doubts and repeated experiences. Apparently, it was not. At some level, that amused both of them, but it asked a lot of nagging questions to a couple of very exhausted men. So they continued to talk, dissect why neither could write worth a damn any more, make plans & resolutions, bob heads in time to the music and stare off into the distance, comfortable in the moment. For the ghost of an instant, it was like 2010 had never happened.

Song for the moment: Roll me away - Bob Seger     

Friday, February 25

Tell me a story

For the Suppandi, Shikari Shambu, Kaalia, Tantri and Chimpu in all of us: 

For a kid, moving abroad is a peculiar experience. You are aware of the gravitas of leaving behind coddling grandparents, friends and every other familiar sight, sound and smell.

Yet, at that age, you're unable to express any of the sadness and dread in a coherent way. Even as you struggling to come up with anything that won't get you punished for 'being a nuisance' or 'in the way', the move is already over. One minute, you're waking up to the smell of filter coffee & 501 soap and the sounds of grandma grating coconut while the cooker whistles merrily; the next minute, you wake up because of the oppressive silence, don't see a fan, don't recognise the smell of carpet freshener and are introduced to the terms body clock, jet lag and dawn.

And Ovaltine... *shudder*.

So, what is a kid to do when he realises that classmates don't stay in the same neighbourhood, never mind the same building ? That the telly doesn't show Vicco, Nirma or Rasna ads anymore? That the only two things to watch on the telly are camel races and a game called football (which you're watching for the first time) with commentary in Arabic? What do you do to stave off loneliness?

What the kid does is start reading voraciously, with an appetite that completely unnerves the parents and results in stacks of books lying around in every room. In the summer holidays, when he visits India, the kid continues to blaze through the pages, leaving friends puzzled about the drastic change, and relatives pleased because they think the kid will eventually read IIT tomes with the same fervour.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

In his cousin's house, the kid discovers a wooden cupboard completely filled with hardbound stacks of Indian comics. Only these comics are amazingly versatile, filled with stories from Indian mythology, science, adventure, clever talking crows, simpletons and even haplessly charming hunters who don't hunt. It is, in literary terms, manna from heaven.

Every summer, the kid comes back from Abu Dhabi, opens the cupboard, selects a random book and is lost for the rest of the trip. And then, one day he returns to find the cupboard and the books gone. "We had to burn everything because of termites" says the phlegmatic uncle. The kid has no reply.

But he continued to read other books and till today, has a decent knowledge of Indian mythology. He has not stopped reading. 

Dear Uncle Pai - Thank you for the stories. R.I.P

Song for the moment: Time is on my side - The Rolling Stones
    

Thursday, February 3

Fighter

I was both nostalgic & sad about Solskjaer's retirement because it seemed a great career had been cut short. When Beckham left, I felt a gloomy disappointment about another quality player being sacrificed on the altar of the infamous Ferguson personality. When Keane quit amid the chaos, it was jarring; both for the abruptness of his departure & because I couldn't imagine him playing elsewhere. When Messrs Phil Neville and Nicky Butt were asked to go, there was a palpable sense of helpless inevitability about their departures (Update: A feeling has been somewhat vindicated by this). When Ronaldo finally f****d off, I was thankful the drama & nonsense was finally coming to an end.

On reading of Gary Neville's retirement, I thought, "Shit, there goes the last warrior". After Keane, Gary was the one Man United player who, in his prime, battled intelligently through the match, dominated it on the strength of his personality & not flash, a footballer who left no one in doubt about his passion for his team and the game.

In the modern day game, where most players genuflect in the face of Mammon, one of the last one-club footballers has hung up the boots. He may not be leaving with a cornucopia of adoring fans among the viewing public, but surely has the respect of his fellow professionals. For Gary Neville, that will probably be enough.

Song for the moment: Never will I break - 3 Doors Down   

Thursday, January 27

When did you leave heaven

As the faithful reader (ahem, ahem) would know, I was to take a long-delayed family holiday a couple of weeks ago. Well, that holiday happened and our destination was Rajasthan, specifically Jaipur & Jodhpur. Now it'd be easy (and probably consistent with the whine-fest tone of the blog) for me to go on an extended bitching session about travelling with family, why I've never been an ardent fan of such holidays & how the most recent experience reinforced my beliefs. But, I've decided to try and turn over a new leaf and tone the "यह मेरे साथ ज़ुल्म क्यूँ, पर्वत्दिगर ?" down a notch. Instead, I want to try a short description on you, the very suspecting public.

The Jaswant Thada in Jodhpur is a mausoleum built completely of white marble. Further details can be found here. I can't exactly say how beautiful it was because, well... I can't. I'm no authority and I don't believe words can ever do complete justice to a personal experience (aka, I'm not a good enough writer, yet). I will say that the carvings were impressively intricate and the view of the city from the monument was very nice. Inside the building, peace is manifested in an almost physical state. The acute sense of 'hush' is probably not everyone's cup of chai, but I enjoyed it & were I by myself, would have spent more time there than I did.

What the websites & guidebooks failed to mention though, was the man in the traditional court livery of white dress & colourful 'patka' who sat on the right side of the pathway to the monument. Only he knew whether that seat allowed him to escape the fierce sunshine or to allow his dark eyes to rest on the greenish waters of the lake opposite. A thin rug that had definitely seen better days was the only thing between the man and the ground. A lunch box and a thermos probably containing hot chai sustained him throughout the day.

As I started on the path to the monument, he looked up, paused for an instant and then started to play a slow tune on the Sarangi. If you've never heard the instrument, I suggest you look it up on the internet. For me, in that place, at that time, it was like being struck on the face by the lamentations of Grief herself. If Pain, Longing and Comfort were ever to be weaved into a quilt, the thread would have to be drawn from that sound. Wave after wave of melancholy & anguish seemed to crash and ebb darkly around us, the effect heightened by the surreal cheerful blue skies framing the scene.

Jaswant Thada
People hurried past me, and him, anxiously on their way to photograph a mausoleum. I agonized over whether to go over and speak with him, afraid that if I did, the music would stop. I eventually decided not to. I did not take a photo. The picture could only have shown a man holding a bow and a stringed board.

Eventually, he stopped playing, no doubt miffed by the tourists' reluctance to part with any money. I too left for the next stop on the list. All that is left is this post, bereft of both a picture of him and a song. No matter. The effect of the music was much more, but it now reverberates in the deep unknown of my mind.         

Sunday, January 9

Spiral Staircase

The more I introspect & talk to others, the more I realise how much of a hold routine has on people's lives. The vast majority of humanity finds a rhythm to daily life and marches to it. What puzzles me is how we convince ourselves about the advantages of a cyclical life, even if we are unhappy with it.

In the last half of 2007, I was planning a trip to India after 1.5 years. The tickets had been booked as early as August and, as my blog posts reflect, I was eagerly looking forward to coming home. Strangely enough though, a sense of ennui gripped me a few days before I left, not letting go till the flight from Birmingham had taken off. I remember asking myself whether the trip was worth the effort. A voice whispered that I could just as easily carry on working at my 8 am - 5 pm on-campus job; I'd miss the convenience of the squash court at the Rec centre and the easy beer-laced post-dinner banter with my flatmates. For a mad second, I considered cancelling the tickets and unpacking my bags. Of course, I did not; that trip home proved to be a life-changing one. But, as the day of my return to the U.S drew near, that familiar ennui was back. And this time, I viewed the same alluring elements - the job, the evening sports and the flatmates - with mounting dislike.

In the present day, I live and work in Mumbai and come home to Pune on most weekends. Even now, I suffer from the same affliction; even though being at home is nice, there are days I view the Friday evening bus trip with resignation. This is promptly followed by the Sunday evening to Monday morning gloom when I think of the return journey.

In case you're considering calling the nut-house on my behalf, let me assure you that I'm not the only one seemingly seduced by the siren song of an ambiguously natured routine. I have friends who are on similar tracks; people who, in a somnambulist state, push against the whetstone of a daily grind, comforting themselves that the train they are on must eventually reach its journey... shouldn't it ? And right there, I get the strong feeling that we don't know what the end destination is. Are we just hoping there is one ?

Anyway, if you're wondering what brought along this less than cheerful prose, it is simply the fact that I'm soon to take a family holiday for the first time in nearly a decade. Now, my idea of a holiday runs along these lines. But, as I've readily admitted before, thanks to the comfort of routine, I've become more of an arm-chair traveller. Holidaying with family brings stresses and expectations that are thankfully absent when taking vacations with friends. The seed of this post lies in this thought - even keeping the fact that I really do need a break, why am I more apprehensive than anything else ?

Too many questions, very few satisfactory answers.

Song for the moment: The build up - Kings of Convenience

Wednesday, January 5

Breaking the rules

As is evident from excellent articles written here, here, here and here, the 4th of January 2011 was a glorious day for cricket. Truly, the words 'test match' were dissected cleanly and explained with a fierce clarity that should leave no one in doubt - this is the sport of cricket distilled to its finest base elements. However, that day has passed and I will not attempt to add descriptions or superlatives to it. Instead, I wonder about today and tomorrow, the 4th and 5th days of what could be a test for all time.

If India are to have any chance of winning, they have to bowl out the South Africans for less than 200 runs. At the most, 220 - 230. With the SA bowling attack... actually who am I kidding; with Steyn bowling as he is, we cannot chase any more than that. If, by some chance, in the 2nd innings, he repeats or betters (yes, you heard it here first) those two spells from yesterday, we are finished. I believe this completely and utterly. Yes, we have a great batting line-up. It is quite likely one of the few line-ups in world cricket that has the technical competence to stand a remote chance against the SA attack on this pitch at this stage of the game. But GG is pugnacious rather than supremely accomplished, CP has youth and reflexes on his side but no experience and our holy triumvirate must be, for every magical moment they've ever given us, tired.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter - IF we are to stand a chance, I argue that VS cannot play his 'natural game'. I know, I know. He is a game changer. When it comes together, his batting is a joy to behold. To play any other way would be akin to asking a hurricane to be gentle. I accept all of these ideas. I can even see the half-exasperated, half-resigned shake of the head and the wry smile when my idea is voiced.

I'm also getting exhausted hearing these ideas trumpeted every god-damn time he fails. I don't know if his successes are becoming excuses for his failures, but I'm sure that is not how it is supposed to rationalise either. 

He is an opener. Never mind what he is expected to do, what he isn't expected to do is treat the role as if he were the chief guest at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the innings. I'm not asking him to become Chanderpaul (heaven forbid) and grind the opposition into dust. Still, this is his last test outing in SA on this tour and no one can know what the future holds.

So here is what I'm hoping for - he bats, he gives bad deliveries what they deserve and, it being Sehwag, even the good ones get thrashed. But he must recognise that Steyn and the rest are bowling extremely well and that he cannot dominate them from the start. If he sees out the initial bowling partnership, this could be India's game.

Great batsmen like SRT, RD and VVS adapt to the conditions and the situation. VS changes them. In his case though, true greatness would lie in adopting the ways of his senior colleagues just this once. On the strength of their records, it would be no shame.

Its not just a game any more.

Song for the moment: Ecstacy of Gold - Ennio Morricone 

Sunday, January 2

Don't stop the music

Its been almost 4 years since I started writing this blog. A couple of days ago, I was tagged by Atul to list the 12 posts of 2010 that held a special meaning for me. He may be rather surprised to know that this was my first ever tag. Infused with the excitement of trying something new, I went through my posts, relieved to see at least one post a month. Of course, choosing posts that mean a little extra ended up being a lot harder than I thought. But then again, most experiences usually are, no ? Here we go then:

January: Year of tha boomerang - Written the day I resigned from my first job in Bombay. Now and then, I go through a mental closet cleaning exercise, evaluating experiences and the state of my life at that point. Here, I dwelt on what the change would mean to me.

February: After forever - I wrote this the on day of the German Bakery blasts in Pune. Not my best stuff, but it was written in the moment; one where I lost the last vestige of an innocently peaceful image of my home town.

March: Nobody's home - One of the hardest pieces I've ever written; not in terms of effort but what it meant to me. The post was tinged with a bit of everything - humour, friendship, nostalgia and sadness.

April: As I am - My only post of the month. Nevertheless, it was an awakening of sorts; for too long, I'd ignored my beloved books and with this post, I flagged off another chapter in my love affair with the printed word.

May: The memory remains - Cambodia will always have a special place in my heart. I chose to revisit some memories of the place within the context of another favourite - the Indian monsoon.

June: The seeker - A melee of feelings came together in this post. It couldn't have made much sense to the reader, but it was written for me.

July: One more cup of coffee - I returned to Bangalore after 10 years and fell in love with the city all over again. It was just a 2 day visit, but it had a beginning, an end and everything in between.  And much more.

August: The weight of my words - In a Mumbai train, there are a thousand minute meetings and a million untold stories. This just happened to be one of them. One of my favourite ones of the year. And no, I never did see her again.

September: Once upon a time - We think we know all about teenage angst, love and life's slings & arrows. A generation ago, our elders walked the same road. A post from the past.

October: Chug all night - This was the month I went back to Bangalore and saw a test match live for the first time. Much happiness, but I didn't write about those 5 days. But the post that still makes me smile in resignation is one where longing meets reality and I shrug away some looming gloom.

November: Between the lines - I'm pretty much an arm-chair traveller, my head tied down to routine whilst my heart dreams of faraway places. There was a point where I was reading 3 excellent travelogues at once and it was like being given a favourite dessert but having no room for it.

December: All good things - There was a point this year when I almost shut this blog down. For the most part, I need companionship and conversation to find a spark that turns into a post. This piece is about my failings as a blogger, certainly, but also a question to those whose blogs I follow about why they've stopped blogging. 

Okay, so my first ever tag is done! My first instinct was to tag Atul because he writes more frequently than most others I know. Unfortunately, he's off the list. So, more in hope of stimulating more blogging than anything else, I tag the following suspects:

Bhumika - New city, new life, new experiences. More blogging, please ?

The Puneri - Because of the excellence of this post, I'm hoping Saar will take hint and write more this year.

Neha - Someone whose blog output is decent enough to think she'll take this forward. 

Dennis - I know, I know. But it wouldn't hurt to hit that 'publish post' button, right ? No ? Okay.

~Me - The only one I don't know personally. Or at all, for that matter. I'm not even sure she visits this site, but one can always hope. But she hosts an interesting blog and here's looking forward to more unique posts this year.

Also, you, its about time you unfolded a few thoughts this year. A 'mind of the married man' monthly series. And as for you, find stories from somewhere and write.

Considering very few of the people tagged here have actually written 12 posts this year, please choose arbit number but say what was mucho grande especial about it.

Song for the moment: Brand new day - Sting