Sunday, December 28, 2008

side - middul

Blatantly staring at my face is the fact that I am getting closer and closer to being yesterday's generation. I share my parents' shock when I see high school kids walking around with cell phones. Parents give it to them to know where they are, I'm told. And I wonder- if not at home, school, if not at school, home, or maybe at a friend's home. Where else could they be ? Coffee day ? When I was at high school, coffee day outlets were a thing of the future. Iyengar's bakeries were a plenty. And there were only a few things one could do at those bakeries before getting irritated with the stray dogs and the copiously copulating flies. I must admit that I like the mochas and the coffee days and the pizza huts of the world. But the iyengar's apple cakes and the honey cakes are to-die-for even if their greatness is completely lost in their cheap prices. As for the argument about hygiene and immunity, I have that in plenty too. If I'm going to live till a 100 if I stay away from fly-kissed apple cakes as opposed to living till 70 if I do not, I'll take the latter thank you very much.

Be that as it may ( translates to : Oh I actually wanted to elaborate on point a. But point b and c were clamouring for a hear ye hear ye. So I did not want to do points b and c any injustice. Nonetheless points b and c are in no way related to point a. And it just turns out to be that way. And so... on to point a)

I am not sure if kids these days are taught to make a big deal about the Indian independence. When I grew up it was always a rather big deal. At least, I appreciated it enough to know that that it was in poor taste to treat it as just another holiday. That's what it is these days. When true tales of bravery are replaced with smartly marketed cinemas whose copyright sales to broadcasting channels are timed perfectly for this holiday. While it is questionable if we have progressed enough, it is clear to me that we haven't altogether regressed. If one pauses to consider how large and heterogeneous the Indian population is, it is remarkable that we have managed to stay together for so long instead of crumbling into our constituent states. If one pauses to understand how different each state is from the neighbouring state with respect to food, to customs, to which god to follow and which "other-god-follower" to ridicule, to which language needs to be spoken so as to get the best bargain on the potatoes, it is impossible not to ask what makes us stick together. For my part, I feel truly, bluely bangalorean, and I get a culture shock when I travel to some other city. They think, act, and eat differently. They even love a different subset of SRK films than I do, and I cannot see reason in it. Yet we're moving along or stagnating as a whole country. We expect governance, while constantly electing the wrong people to govern us. We expect clean roads while never flinching to pay off the policeman when he catches us without a current emission test. We think of the seat belt as some kind of crippling device and refuse to prevent ourselves against accidents while zooming and fuming across the potholes. As a nation we love our double standards and we are tolerant of everyone else's double standards. And we discuss it loudly and lovingly. And these are ties that bind and make us one.

My grandparents had lived in the era of winning independence, and my parents have lived at a time when there were days when such independence was even regretted. Whether the indian parliament was doing any kind of good job at all was still highly suspect. My parents seemed to think that manmohan's singh's liberal politics of the 1990s (in my mind, that is marked as the time when we got cable TV at home. We had this 8 channel remote orson TV till then. The buttons for 5 and 7 wouldnt work. But it had never mattered until then because there was only 4 channels you could see anyway. When we got cable TV, it became supremely important to get a remote that would work. So we got another TV, with a remote that would work. Such was the cascade effect of liberalization. Cable TV connection necessitated a TV necessitated good TV watching furniture necessitated good TV watching food necessitated a 4 burner stove ad infinatum. It was affordable opulence at last.)

It is generally agreed that we did a good thing by sending back the British. It is also agreed that during their extended stay they did a few good things for us. Notable among them are the railway system and cricket. Both happen to be our lifeblood. We can never have too much cricket. And with india's growing economy, and increasing foreign reserves and increased air travel, we still love our trains. They take you everywhere. They take you all the time. And they run like clockwork. This once-upon-a-time loss making organization is today profitable enough for snooty IIM's to invite Lalloo to give a talk. With reservation booths and e-reservation and i-tickets, you can plan your trip, choose your class of choice, and your favourite berth. Confirmation, RAC, waiting list - they're all words of the indian vocabularly universally understood.

During exam time, with entrance exams in a thousand states, and having to ferry students and their respective families insisting on giving moral support ( or alternatively, simply pressurizing the poor kid to no good), they'd introduce special routes. And then during summer for children to go visit and be pampered by grandparents and relatives.

Those black, steam spewing trains surface everywhere. In movies, as the lover pleads for mercy, while being surrounded by those lush green fields. In movies, as the hero jumps from coach to coach in giant leaps as he chases the villain, this time being surrounded by deserts all around. And here again, they appear, as he tries to commit suicide as the train crosses a giant bridge over a huge river. They're picturesque. Of course, we probably copied those ideas from David Lean and the westerns, they're exceedingly well employed directorial touches that move indian audiences.

The ubiquitous train comes in all our maths problems. The train's moving at this speed.The train is this length. The platform is this length. When will the train cross the platform. Kids all over india go mad while chewing natraj pencils flummoxed at figuring out if they're meant to add or subtact or divide.

And the train stations- the simple village train station, what with its one platform, and one supervisor, and those huge city stations with 8 platforms, and a thousand coffee stalls (today, manned by Coffee Day, who've gotten their marketing strategy bang on and are finally being sensible about selling coffee at rs 7 instead of rs 53.38 ), and many a black coat wearing, paunch bearing TTE.

All distances are measured by how long it takes the train to reach. Chennai is an overnight journey from Bangalore. Mumbai is a 2 day journey. Delhi is a 4 day journey.

And then of course everyone has their perfect choice of berth. Upper, lower, middle, side upper and side lower. 8 to every coupe. All sweet wives and young children and senior citizens invariably get the lower berth. Kids and teenagers and people such as I (who hate the upper berth because the cobwebbed fan is staring you at the face all night and won't ever let you sleep) prefer the middle berth. The upper berth always goes to the head of the family- the alpha male, or the young boys who want to show off to their peers, or people who prefer their privacy. We each have our own special place in the train. And we these berths as though our birthright. As soon as the coupe is full, there's a consensual process of berth swapping. Right from the thoroughly understandable " I have an old mother, would you mind taking the middle berth and giving your lower berth", to the amusing " it's my son's first time on the train, and he wants the middle berth". When air travel hit the middle class, we tried much of this seat swapping in the aeroplanes. Of course everyone wanted the window to see the clouds and to glimpse the heavens. Before long, everyone also realized that despite all their prettiness and their nice manners, stewards and stewardesses couldn't handle such chaotic re-organization. Watch the TTE as he approaches the coupe, and notice how calm he is as he registers all the berth swapping and the strange people handing him tickets from berths that were not originally theirs and in this mess still manages to find the ticketless rogue who gives him a sheepish grin. Sometimes, one has to wonder if the paunch has any magic in it.

And with the trains being as much in vogue now as before, and people wanting to go to places for all sorts of trivial reasons, they've introduced the side-middul.

The side-middul berth has sneaked up on the Indian public. There is now a 9th berth that we need to come to terms with. No one is sure what to make of it. We aren't sure if this berth should be our new favourite. What's worse, we don't even expect it in the trains when we get into them. In the last 2 times I've traveled with this uninvited berth, I've seen what seems to be bordering on panic. As families walk in authoritatively trying to claim their seats, they suddenly realize that they don't know where to look. My mom, who's a teacher, finds herself being drawn into this confusion and finds it impossible not to offer help. Of course, spending 6 hours each day full of unrelenting and impossible tenth standard students makes her what she is - persuasive. "Look here. Here's the ninth berth", she insists, as families upon families try and ignore her. "Look here, this is not the middle berth anymore. That is". Invariably, a shrewd kid soon realizes that this strange lady is in fact right and implores her father to listen and not look dumbstruck. There is such a thing as a melting heart. It's amazing how quickly a frustrated face turns into a visage of calm as he turns to my mother and says "what madam. I don't understand what the ticket says". My mom, in her ecstasy of having won this cold war, proceeds to help and explain with ample gusto. "They've introduced this new berth because there are far too many people that want to travel in the train right ?" She explains as though describing a weird english prose passage. "And the e-reservation system hasn't been updated properly, so it shows all the wrong berths" she says. And then she'll point her hand at the new numbers and will say "see. now that is the lower berth. and that is the side middul". And then she'll point at one of the side midduls, and say " see, that is the side middul". Tell me, when you need to lower it. I'll help she offers.

Of course, no self-respecting indian man will allow a woman to help him too much. Now that he's got his answer, he will quickly dismiss my mom with a blunt thank you. The child of course jumps up and down saying "see, I told you, you never listen". And then of course, mr alpha male must proceed to confirm what is there for everyone to see- this new "ninth berth". Is there really a new ninth berth, he will ask the TTE, as though the ones he currently sees are going to disappear once the train starts. Yes yes sir. Can't you see ? Says the TTE in exasperation. The TTE who, through years of experience can tell you with in less than a second where a seat is located the moment you told him the number, has to recalibrate his mental berthing chart, and is now responsible for 9 more baboons per coach. Eventually of course, everyone must settle down and get some sleep and get to where they want to go. And side middul can only mean more chances of doing that. Even though, what we'd really appreciate is for lalloo to be able to conjure a gazillion new trains out of thin air.

Meanwhile, the indian railways had found yet another way of getting all of us closer, and in a few months a new word will be absorbed in the indian vocabulary. Side middul. 5 years from now, when I have my nieces and nephews, I'll be telling them the story of how there once used to be only 8 berths a coupe, when there is now 9. And perhaps they will find me old and boring that I travel by train. Meanwhile hopefully, the TTE will have graduated from knowing the multiples of 8 to knowing the multiples of 9.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I've never been much of a gamer. Is that a regret ? Read on

Back in the days when I was vulnerable and "impressionable", the games pretty much sucked; at least the ones that I came to know of. They were the days when parents would ambitiously send their children to summer workshops and computer classes. MS Dos and LOGO were cool to know. Advanced classes would teach you microsoft office- editing and copy pasting. Such was my exposure. The summer workshops were more fun. They'd teach you calligraphy ( not just the arabic style). My personal favourite used to be the cloud font. I can only describe it as a font whose letters looked like they were etched from the clouds. It made me dreamy. It made me fantasize. I don't remember what about ? In all likelihood I was simply fantasizing about more clouds.

The gaming fairy simply bypassed me. Perhaps if I had an older, freaky, moody brother, I'd have at least come to know of its existence. But of course, my parents decided to shower all the love they could ever muster on me and me alone, and that came with a large helping of gaming ignorence. It is fair to ask the question : what happened to aunts and uncles who could've bought you computer games for your birthday? Fair question. The gaming fairy simply didn't notice my entire clan. Never got close enough for us to even get a whiff of the adrenalin induced mindboggling stupor. I am one of those kids who didn't grow up with mario. I grew up with marie biscuits ( it was unfortified and way better those days) and milk bikis. But never mario. It's a rare affliction. So rare that it hits one in all the population in the second largest country in the world. That one is me. Me!

Do i regret it ? Probably.

But as H.W Longfellow says...

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

(footnote : personally, i think rain is a great thing. Rain makes me happier than the sun ever will. But I'm speaking of the indian rain that comes bringing with it the life supporting nectar. Indians can do quite well with less of the sun and more of the rain. But that will require so much moving around of the tectonic plates, that only sci-fi ambition could ever make it possible. So here, we stick to longfellow's interpretation of the very dreary english rain)

So then came the wii.
If anybody has seen sound of music..... ( I watched sound of music while others were playing mario, and that bit I do not ever regret. I love rodgers and hammerstein. If I ever have kids and they do not like these musicals, I am ashamed to say that the thoughts of giving them up for adoption will cross my mind. They don't make 'em like that these days.)

Those that have seen sound of music will remember Liesl yelling wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii when the handsome blonde boy ( while I never did find that boy in the least bit handsome, but the casting authorities sure did) grabs her and kisses her. In that one moment, she abandons all her feminity, all her poise, all her austrian aristocratic elan and especially the grace with which she jumps from bench to bench while dancing with the boy. She abandons all that for a glorifying "wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii" that makes every single one of us want that blonde boy (unhandsome as he may be).

What made the masters at nintendo think of calling their gaming console "wii", i know not. But they got it bang on. I have sold my soul to the devil and wish for more souls, simply so I can sell them again to the devil. While hard core gaming purists ( its funny how easy it is to throw about the word "purist". What, for instance, is a reality tv show purist ?) may find the present installation of wii a mere curiosity, and will not find it tempting to change allegiance from the neuropathy inducing first person point and shoot games, I know too that wii will eventually get them. Such is what my soul is worth thank you very much.

So when I went to California for thanksgiving my uncle and aunt introduced me to their wii. (It seems like the gaming fairies that had been ignoring us thus far were finally taking note of my clan). It was only mildly amusing when I was creating the mii with the magic wand. But then play started and the devil swooped and swallowed my soul in one exhilarating gulp and I was done in. Here I was, with a wand! Here I was playing tennis. Moving my hands. Backhand. Forehand. Simply amateur- there's-no-term-for-what-you-just-did-with-your-bat-hand. And then here I was playing bowling. Strike. Strike. Oh ouch... gutterball. And then boxing. Was boxing fun. My uncle and I were working up such a sweat it was hilarious. And then out came the towels and the wet soaks. Before long, we were regular boxers, sweating and panting and loving every bit of it.

And then back to tennis. By now, I was gone. While I didn't really have to move around the court (ahem, the carpeted area in the living room), I couldn't help myself. I hit my index finger on the armchair, with a swing that was so hard that there was such a disgusting clot. The pain. The pain was madness. I was laughing hysterically. The pain was real. Not imaginary real. But real, bang yourself on a teak armchair real. And then at some point I yelled wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii. Like liesl of sound of music. It had come full circle. I had finally become this person who could reconcile her love for sound of music and her new found minor attaction for gaming (?).

Long live nintendo!

Monday, December 01, 2008


When I walked into my office on monday, it was after thanksgiving. My body was sore from playing too much wii and waiting far long in airport lounges. I was glad I had urged myself to come to work, although I was feeling no guilt for plotting to leave as early as possible.

How are you asked my office mate.

It was after a long weekend. I assumed that this "how are you" was not just mere gesture. It was an actual question asking for an honest answer. I smiled and said "not bad". It was a long "not bad". It obviously meant " ya, I don't want to bore with you with the details, but in all honesty, I am not in the peachiest of moods". Taking the hint, he said "ah. that means not good".

I smiled and launched into a big explanation about how the weekend was actually fun but in retrospect maybe I should've tempered it a tad, if only to save myself agonizing fatigue.

And that was when the story changed tracks...

He looked at me a few seconds.

Then he said " I assume no one you know was injured in mumbai then".



How manyth time was something happening in that place ?
I've lost count.


It refers to the feeling that consists of "no feeling".

Some people cannot care less.
Some people do not understand how caring will help.
Some people cannot bring themselves to care.

And then there are those like me..
who take it as a fact of life.
coz as every day dawns, terrorism is getting to be an urban reality.

I guess no one I know got injured, I said.

He was shocked. Apalled.

"You guess ?". Shouldn't you be certain ?

" My family is too large. If I search and ask long enough, I most certainly will be related to someone that got injured". I said.


Indians with large families.
Indians of the second largest country in the world.
Indians with so many people to call family, that losing one doesn't matter ?
Really? REALLY ?


People like me don't believe in luck.
We believe in grand words and themes called stochasticity.

There is a 50% chance that a madman's gonna do something to mumbai.
Again and again.
Yet again.
Never ending.
A random chance.

When things start to happen randomly, you stop expecting anything.
You toss a coin.
It may turn out as heads. There may be a bomb here.
It may turn out as tails. It's not here, but there.
But it bloody hell is somewhere.
Waiting to explode.
You accept whatever you're dealt with.

Worse, you can't seem to care how it turns out.
It stops exciting you.
It stops moving you.
It stops affecting you.
You simply become indifferent.

An indifference born from shock.
Because you can't seem to do anything.
Because you feel helpless.
They keep coming and coming and coming at you.
Everyday you thank your stars that no one you knew died.

Someday there'll come a day when someone I know will get injured.
It's random you see.
Nothing's gonna change by then.
Anti terrorist policies may come ?
There is no such thing.
We pass blame. We allot blame. We then pass it again.
Who gets blamed is random too.
Who gets to take responsibility is random too.
There is no one who can stand up and say " I failed, and that's why this happened"

Aisa hota hai.
Swalpa adjust maadi.
Life goes on.

And then someone says "I planned it. I wanted this to happen"
And still we don't believe them.
S/he's not being honest.
Someone's asked them to say that, we think.

The TV blares.
xyz from abc claims responsibility.
I see.
So what ?
Do they get punished ?
Its just more paperwork for intelligence agencies.
Oh there were reports that his was going to happen ?
And still you didn't do anything ?
Why ?
Coz there was a 50% chance those reports were mere rumours.
Oh good job!
You know your probability, you freaking my cup is half full!!!
Half full is enough huh ?
Go hungry on a half full stomach why don't you ?
Take a half salary paycheque who don't you ?
Walk with one leg and one arm and a single ba!! why don't you ?
Isn't your cup wonderfully half full ?

A day will come when someone I know will go.
And the apathy will hit.
Coz it happens.
It happens only in india.
Collateral damage.
We have plenty to spare.
Enough buffer.
We didn't breed like rabbits for nothing did we ?
We have plenty to spare.

We have a volley of bodies.
An "akshaya pathram" of bodies.

This is how a peace-loving nation turns mad.
When there's nothing else to do, and no one to blame, and too many people you care about get hurt, a peaceful nation gets mad and violent.
And there's nothing that can stop a nation with right on its side.
Right ?
Right ?

I don't know.
In fact I don't know if I'll live to see the tale and tell the tale.

This is me.