Thursday, June 3, 2010

Waylaid on Empty Streets? Try a Different Vernacular!


Of late, a new kind of menace is wreaking havoc in Bangalore – of extortionists in motorbikes. In an era of mail/twitter/facebook/blogosphere-driven mass paranoia, it's amazing that the EXACT SAME method has been adopted by gang after thuggish gang (possibly from the same coaching camps) with stunning success. They seem to be following all the mantras of running a business – standard operating procedures, repeatability of processes and good returns on minimal investment.

The modus operandi of these gents (ladies haven't entered the game yet) is quite standard. You are traveling in your car in a fairly isolated or deserted stretch of road thinking about your mounting to-do list or unpaid bills or that wholly unnecessary morning argument with your kids/wife/ boss/boss's wife etc when suddenly you see one or two bikes ahead of you. Now, this by itself is nothing to cause major alarm since in our free country, public roads are constructed for the use and abuse of all and sundry starting with folks who set up football field sized stalls in full regalia (tents, loudspeakers, industrial fans etc) to sell their wares, approximately in the middle of major traffic junctions.

But this time around, you sense something different. After allowing the tolerance for lousy driving, you feel that the guys are coming a little too close for comfort, considering that the road is practically empty, barring the omnipresent stray cows. Before you realize it, you are surrounded by bikers in front and on the sides, all frantically gesturing at you to stop or better still, cut you off by literally blocking the road ahead. You have no option but to pull over. Is this police in mufti (plain-clothes) you wonder and have they found out by sixth sense that you're not carrying your registration certificate, insurance papers AND driving license since you forgot to put them back into the glove compartment after picking it from the last servicing which in fact happened six months back and that can only mean the car has been running minus most of the essential oils including engine, brake, door, steering, ceiling, cooling, heating etc?

Thus distracted, you get out of your car to reason with the police when the bikers reveal their true colors - unbathed, unshaven, wearing chains, random pieces of chunky jewelry augmenting garish shirts with top 2-3 buttons off or just vests, sporting drunk and bloodshot eyes. Guitars in hand, they launch into their first bass riffs and you recognize to your utter horror that you're being subjected to YET ANOTHER rendition of "Smoke on the water", which you've heard in every school/college festival and is so sick off that you violently lunge at them grabbing the nearest rock, fueled by years of suffering all those versions that sounded like a bunch of tomcats getting strangulated and then being thrown in boiling water.

Oh wait, that's the desi rock star stereotype, cut that bit about the guitar and let's proceed with the rest.

The bikers start shouting at you accusing you of a parade of heinous crimes. You'll be informed that their sometime brother/cousin/lover/friend/city councilor/local politician/cook/gardener/significant other AND full-time thug/goonda has been brutally knocked down by you just a few hundred meters back and has to be taken to the hospital right then and there or he/she will bleed to death and you will end up with first-degree, pre-meditated culpable homicide charge in your hands. No bail, no parole, your kids dying shameful deaths being called murderer's progeny and the REVENGE…. You're jolted back into reality.

You're now racking your brain wondering where in heavens you knocked down anyone, let alone fatally, but your conviction level starts flagging thanks to the absolutely certainty on the other side. As you start protesting, you slowly realize that (a) there's no one else in the road (b) these 4-5 guys with the bikes don't look like your average office going white-collar types and importantly (c) they're now slowly beginning to display their collection of implements all of which, singly or collectively can cause unpleasant outcomes on your body parts. To further prove that they're virile men who play by a different set of rules, you may find your bonnet dented with a handy crowbar or your rear view mirror contorting into some as-yet-undefined yogic pose.

If you continue your foolhardy protests, new and interesting charges will be hurled at you like (a) the fact that you rode over the toe/s of one of the folks while trying to dodge them (read: additional compensation) (b) you have hit their bike also and caused arbitrary damage (read: further compensation). Well preserved dents custom created once and used many times for this purpose, would stand mute testimony.

Before you know it, you're ushered back into your car with multiple folks for company, who in normal circumstances would be among the last people on earth you'd invite for a joyride. You're then "driven" to the nearest ATM machines (the downside of carrying four debit cards in the first place), divested of your daily withdrawal limits (or better still the ATM card itself with the PINs) after which the heroes drive off into the sunset (or daylight). As the movie comes to its finish and "The End" sign gets flashed on the screen, you realize that during the entire transaction, there was no further mention of the dying don you're supposed to have cruelly mowed down.

How can you ride on deserted roads to get to your destination faster? Can you avoid loss of cash, body parts, manly pride etc? Pondering over these questions, I came up with some options to pick from:

1. The non-violent way (brief version) – Don't protest, give in, listen to their stories, pander to their whims and testosterones and end up with a body (not just the car's) without too many dents and scratches though you may be poorer by ten to a few hundred thousand.
2. The tear-jerker way - Start protesting, negotiating, talk about your poor finances, massive debts, children dying of starvation, wife suffering from violent mental illness (true or not, this has really good dramatic quality) and generally behave as if you're the screenplay writer for the 2nd half of a Karan Johar movie. You may just be able to negotiate a better deal!
3. The macho-man way (hallucination version) – if you're carrying a weapon of some sort and sincerely believe that you have more male hormones per square inch that rest of the population in the planet put together, you can try this out. I can't guarantee the final results though.
4. The macho-man way (real version) - If the gang is just one or two people and you are a six-footer with a chest size of 46" who spends three hours in the gym daily lifting up a series of extremely heavy, complicated weights meant for various muscle groups, then this is for you. But then, I'm comforted by the fact that you will get married, have kids, lose those muscles and suffer reading the same Sesame Street story for the 17,000th time about how Zoe didn't feel like going to school and you'll happily let her be illiterate if only you can
5. The non-violent way (extended version): here you refuse to get out of the car, period. They can rave and rant, smash your bonnets or twist your rear-view mirror so that it reflects eagles soaring above, but you stay put. If you have the police emergency number and/or friends in the vicinity, you can pass time by calling them all before the inevitable step of getting your side windows smashed followed by step-1, 2 or 3 (read above)

As for me, if I ever end up with these good Samaritans, I've decided to speak in chaste Malayalam and nothing else - no English or Hindi for me and as for my Kannada, the less said the better. I can only think of two outcomes, repeating the story of their poor brother bleeding to death in Kannada, Hindi, broken English and finally in mime format so many times to no avail can potentially make grown men cry. Alternately, they may quickly cut to the chase and get straight to the wallet-snatching/car smashing part. So I may still end up shoving good money at them, but at least after some fun and free entertainment in return, so Malayalam it's going to be.

Read more!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Beware: Those Family Taxis Maybe Time Machines!

I was alone (with two stranger-anxiety ridden cats for company) at my friend Liza's house in a town quaintly titled "Village at Nagog Woods" in the OUTskirts ("out" intentionally capitalized) of Boston wondering how to get a taxi for my 12pm lunch meeting for a retail client. Google maps kindly informed me that if I take the highway option its 35 minutes, so I decided to go to and check out my luck with neighborhood taxis hoping that a hunter-gatherer-cabbie from the woods (lonely, dark and deep as Frost wrote, Zip code: 01718) would be faster than a faraway slick city-taxi crook. Yahoo local promptly gave me ten or so options and I commenced the calling process.

The first one returned a dead signal. The second one kept ringing (No voicemail? In a country where EVERYONE communicates through voice mail???). The third one rang a few times and hit a voicemail, though I had no intention of conveying my secret desires into a voicemail recorder. The 4th one had a voicemail which said the number has changed and I need to call a number elsewhere (would he be a city-slicker? I decided not to call). The 5th one called "Boxborough Taxi" was answered by a lady who sounded as if she was up all night screaming at a rock concert. In a hoarse drawl, she asked, "Baaxbrow take-see" and I told her about my plans to go to Framingham. "Well, that's kinda far, how do you go there?" With all the confidence and wisdom emanating from googlemaps, I gave some random directions which seemed to convince Ms.Hoarsey who responded with, "I'll be right there." "Huh?, Are you somewhere nearby?". "Just gimme a few minutes and I'll swing by".

The clock slowly ticked by. I tried calling her at 10.35 and received no response. At 10.40, she called me asking for directions again telling me to walk down the road to some intersection. Minus a local cellphone, this was out of question. She called again after 5 minutes and said that she's somewhere close by (realization dawning that she's NOT a call center person, but everything rolled into one, I decided to pick-up Liza's cordless phone, lock up the house and wander outside, imagining Liza's face when the kids come back from school and gleefully report the doings of her friend who ran away with, of all things, a cordless phone.

An ancient car, which looked as if it predated the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam slowed down. As the beige colored car, approximately 27 feet long (not considering the bumpers, which looked like salvaged missiles from the same war), slowed down, I thought the lady inside was trying to get directions. Just as I was about to say that I am even more clueless than she possibly would be, she remarked joyfully "oh, you called for a ride". A little too taken aback since the cabs I've seen in the US so far had sported a signboard on top and their names proudly on the sides, I checked "Boxborough?" "Yeah, that's me, come on in".

Fighting aside my reluctance, I tried to get into the back, the standard norm for taxis worldwide. "No, no, come over here". The interiors at the front seat (or whatever was left of them) had violent tears on leather making me wonder about what all insect families I may possibly be upsetting. Sitting down I realized that Ms. Hoarsey who had a sunny weatherbeaten old face with wild frizzy blond hair was wearing the shortest denim shorts ever made by mankind, exposing 99.7% of her legs which may have been pretty some two decades before. As I was pondering about women in their 40s who live in denial of their youthful charms gone by, I was taken aback by what distinctly sounded like a yelp from the back.

Being a vet's son, I am quite fond of dogs, though one doesn't count on them yelping behind you in taxis driven by hoarse voiced blond old women wearing short-shorts. Turning back I saw a dog peering at me sleepily from inside a tiny cage. My disdain of un-dog like dogs being pretty strong (I would happily support any movements to tranquilize all Chihuahuas in the world and banish them to Mexican jungles or wherever they first appeared from), I decided to leave that dog alone. But Ms. Hoarsey was not be suppressed. She launched into a full length blast on the dog which is only 10 months which she bought for her daughter Amy, who's 19 and is a hair dresser and is attending an advanced course, which would give her better pay or job at a better salon in a place they pay more tips closer to downtown that could hopefully pay for a car so that Ms.Hoarsey can do away with her driver duties and then focus on her garden which needs some pruning... People like Greg, Mark, Fred and Tom came and went as part of the cast of characters with no explanation on who's an uncle and who could be Amy's boyfriend.

While this refreshing monologue was going on, I asked her the most obvious questions – "Have you been to Framingham? Do you need help with the directions?". "Oh no, no, I am not going to Framingham, I am just here to take you to my dad". "Why your dad?" "No,honey, I'd have taken you myself but I lost a good 25 minutes hunting for your place and now Amy needs the car and Mark would need to take her to meet Fred who plans to skin Tom alive for the barbecue party hosted by Peter so that they can do a cannibal dance before the police arrives…" As the blabberthon continued, I yanked her back to reality and asked, "Your dad is going to drive me to Framingham?". "That's right, I guess Greg will also be with him".

While Greg coming with me was least of my worries, it was already 11.10 and we were driving further into wooded wilderness when she suddenly stopped the car near a deserted underpass and pulled over to a dirt-clearing on the side. The war veteran car thudded to a halt, the dog yelped once more (upon which its owner patted the cage affectionately), rubbish at the back moved from one side and piled up at the other and the dog's cage was covered with a bunch of old towels. Ms.Hoarsey quickly swept them away as the dog sat down and closed its tired eyes. I followed suit and closed mine too for a moment.

A couple of calls later, I was offloaded from one ancient car to another which I was positive had seen the likes of Kennedy administration. "So, I need to go to THAT car over there?". "Right, my dad will take you wherever you want to go". I didn't like the sound of this open invitation, but banking on my philosophy of "go with the flow", I tentatively went to the other car. "He needs to go somewhere in Framingham and I need to give the car for Mark and Amy to go buy the hoola-hoop so that they can whack Peter with it when he starts digging over the Martha's graveyard and then prepare for Amy's homework that needs to be given before Todd comes in at 7pm to get…."

Inside dad's car, I realized two things within a couple of minutes. Dad was, for all practical purposes, deaf (now I knew why Greg wanted to join the joyride) and looked like a child of World War I vintage. Second, Dad's car smelled of years (and generations) of dried pee. After shouting without success to Dad about my destination, I decided to try my luck on Greg who casually remarked "Ooh, that's far, never been to those parts of the state", significantly improving my assurance levels.

As the Kennedy-era contraption started accelerating on the highway, I desperately wanted to cling onto something so that if we explode into thousands of pieces as part of the car's final death dance, I get to grab the biggest shard as a life jacket. But that stench, giving me vague memories of some distant, forgotten past where I had to travel in an unreserved compartment of Indian Railways which ended up with me sitting close to the only functioning loo, ensured that I don't hold onto anything and spoil the expensive suit that Anitha had gifted me on an earlier birthday.

As we finally found our exit, my battery started displaying its death warnings and Greg generally asked to no one in particular "what do we do now?". Trying to take control, I passed my laptop to him and told him to trust googlemap instructions. After 5 minutes, with my battery running low, he passed a pen & paper and suggested I write down what googlemaps said. The pen was wobbly (another war veteran?) and the paper was smudged with some reddish brown smear, which to my now splendidly biased mind could've been blood, ketchup, strawberry jam or all of the above fossilized over decades.

The laptop went into hibernation mode and I hadn't finished note taking, so between where I had reached in my notes and 500, Staples Drive, Framingham there seemed to be a gaping abyss. Thankfully, Dad (grandpa?) with all the wisdom of WW1, WW2, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War etc, made it to the office after a few false turns here and there. He then gave me a receipt (which said "Maynard Corcorde Taxis") and charged me $45, which sounded far too low for the amount of traveling we seem to have done. As a final irony, my blackberry fell onto the floor of the car as I was getting out. A near death experience via asphyxiation occurred as I my face came close to the unsavory underbelly of his front passenger seat. The time was 11.50.

Postscript: After the meeting, I called a lot more professional looking (and amusingly named) "Tommy Taxi" whose Egyptian lottery visa recipient driver charged me a princely $101 for the same distance. May be I should've asked Dad to wait for me there. Then again, maybe not. As a brown-skinned guy in an exploding car, I may have been all over global news channels with headlines like "Terror Trail: Fringe Osama outfit murders two innocent Bostonians", Ms. Hoarsey would've surely loved the TV microphones and Amy would've become a national icon for saving Greg who broke his leg when went to fix the roof for Tom so that the rains don't fall on the head of his poodle which was stolen by Mark….

Read more!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

All's fair if everyone's fair

February 2002
American Idol- Season 9
Walking through the streets of Harajuku, from where the rest of Tokyo gets ideas on latest fashions and fads, I am face to face with an apparition of dyed blond hair, painted brown face and dark lipstick. The Yamambas of Japan take their time and carefully paint themselves at shades infinitely darker than their natural skin tones. So, dark is cool, eh? I wondered whether these ladies have any idea how the rest of the world, routinely fret and fume about what can be done so that they look fairer and supposedly, prettier.

Back home in India, perhaps thanks to nearly 200 years of colonial rule, good looks are defined almost always by a single attribute, fairness. Needless to say, there is a thriving fairness industry luring young women (and these days, men too) with promises of nirvana in just six weeks or may be even faster, provided they smear their face with the fairness cream, in the suggested liberal doses, day after month after year (Hey, did somebody say six weeks?). The hopes of fair skin comes packaged in tantalizing names like fair & lovely, fairever and fairlife (If life ain't fair, baby, get fairlife! how's that for an adline?).

If I thought this could be an India-specific craving, my doubts were dispelled during my year spent in Malaysia where I chanced upon Cerah & Ceria cream ('C' as in Ciao - translated as 'fair & happy). The implication of course, was that if you are dark, you stand no chance of being happy in your life and will have to spend your entire living moments a sad mental wreck. There was also the more spookily named Cerah Cinta (or 'fair love'). So much so for thinking that love is blind.

Couple the fairness angle with arranged marriages, you get a potentially lethal combination. Darker girls routinely get taunted and teased all through their lives with words or equivalents of blackie, black ghost, demoness and similar terms of endearment. Why is that we don't have any fair, tall, slim devils in our myths? How come they are always dark, bloody-eyed, frizzy haired things with fangs who gleefully laugh 'Buwahahahaha' after munching human beings like potato chips?

As for our hapless dark girls in question, apart from a shattered self-confidence, once the girls arrive the marriable age, they need to suffer all these complimentary descriptions from absolute strangers who come to check them out, in the garb of potential suitors. Suddenly, marriage brokers become apologetic, parents turn defensive, promises of dowry escalates and the groom (never mind the fact that he might be a squint-eyed, crooked-nosed, obese ogre) behaves as if he is doing a supreme sacrifice by marrying the girl.

Along with this, there would be a steady accumulation of wealth (or loot, for many government officials), all in anticipation of the day when the ugly potential groom comes and gives free and frank opinions on their daughter as if he's an adonis disdainfully judging a beauty pageant. After the opinion, the groom will walk away with the money, the girl and that smug feeling you get when you do profound things for the betterment of society, which is so great for untamed male egos.

All through their lives, the dark women move on with lesser friends, lower self-esteem and a damning acceptance of fate (or you can be a Michael Jackson, provided you have a few gadzillion dollars to spend on eager plastic surgeons). See where the problem lies? Unlike the Caucasians, Negroids or the pure Mongoloids, we guys in rest of Asia is a mixed race, with a blistering array of complexions.

The only solution to this is to ensure that all people, big and small (as Paul McCartney would put it, in one of his motivational numbers) will walk around with identical complexions, whether fair, brown or dark. Suddenly, a lot of interesting racist remarks on colors would go, a lot of people might become more confident.

I am generally scared of lowest common denominators and consequently scared of large occasions where only lowest common denominators (LCD, as per our maths teachers) prevail, like for instance, most class parties or parliament elections. You would have empathized with my tears if you had to listen to 'Hotel California' or 'I want to break free' 4 million times because these are amongst the popular choices. Or if you had to look at some of the politicians our LCD public elects, never mind the fact that their esteemed leader has the competency levels which would give your alley cat a definite superiority complex.

So, in a continent of amazing diversity in terms of religion, races, culture and color, fantasizing about everyone having nearly the same complexion is like asking everyone to take singing as their profession. The output I guess would be rap music, so you know the potential disasters. Given a choice between dark complexions and an hour of rap music everyday, I would happily opt for the former, even if it comes with pimples, scars and perpetual oily secretions. In any case, rap music has been certified as a guaranteed killer of brain cells, having the power to reduce the IQ levels of whole communities and their pets by half.

In conclusion, much as this would reduce the general corruption levels in government servants accumulating wealth for their daughters' dowries, I would still advocate diverse complexions. But ladies, do tone down that flab in your bodies please. I prefer you to be slim and trim. Now, was that my imagination or was that you making a snide one on my podginess?

Read more!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Chasing a Bicycle Economy

February 2002

It was one of those events just waiting to happen, in spite of my stubborn persistence with the cat philosophy, which is summed up as, "Close your eyes and the world turns dark with you."

Outside the Japan Railways Station (JR Eki, in local parlance) in Kawasaki, there are at any point in time around 50,000 bicycles. They are arranged in neat rows of three and in perfectly parallel lines. A humble Gaijin like me could not be faulted for assuming that these are free parking spaces provided by a probably compassionate municipal government. Way to go. Join the party and take a seat as the 50,001st guy in the great bike parking game.

On a particularly cold early summer morning, three or four eldery uniformed gentlemen were quietly attesting some stickers on every vehicle at sight, picking them up and piling them into a pick-up truck. "Hey, these may be leftover bicycles whose owners didn't remove them the previous night". "Yeah, may be a beer or sake too many and a missed last train home. They should've been careful about such things." I muttered these accomodative gospels to my first principles and parked in the same area again.

My Corporation Compassion theory finally crumbled to dust when I saw the old men piling up the day's booty not once, but twice in afternoons on the way back from lunch. That's when the legality angle hit me. Hello Everybody, I've finally discovered organized crime in Japan. Everyone knows this is illegal, everyone parks anyway. Brave man that I am, I decided to take my chances and joined everyone. So the happy story went on with several more parkings around the station premises and several trips to the more happening places in the world, up north to Tokyo and down south to Yokohama.

I could have written "And he parked happily ever after", but for one blip in the blissful life which came on a very cold winter morning. The company lawyer refused to come to Kawasaki just for my case, so Mohammed went to the mountain, which meant a 90-minute two-train ride to a weirdly named faraway station called Koku-bun-ji, where the hermit was living. Over four hours later, after one wrong train, peak hour squeezes and a brief tryst with the grandfatherly legal eagle, I was back in Kawasaki after finishing The Daily Yomiuri from start to finish twice over.

Just in time for a 11.00 AM appearance in Office. The confident walk to the bicycle parking area ended with a thud. The place was cleaned neat of any evidence of any bicycles parked since prehistoric times. So off I trundled on to the nearest police outpost, or Koban, with my bag of woes.

The trouble with trying halting Japanese with anyone (a policewoman in this case) is that you are enthusiastically served some rapid fire Japanese of the purest variety. Aaarghh! Ayerton Senna's ghost has just nuzzled me by. "Yukkuri hanashite o-kudasai", said I. She apparently tried to speak slowly, but I continued being the stoic Buddha. She then picked up a notice which showed a map, a telephone number and bus numbers and said, "Go forth and seek thy salvation, you infidel" or something to that effect.

The infidel clutched the sacred parchment and WALKED down to the office. Kataoka and Kato in office giggled and reassured me that the bombing target shown in the map is beyond the national highway, beyond anywhere in Kawasaki they've ever been. The spot of interest was marked in the centre of a road. We were all wondering how they can keep snatched cycles in the middle of the road, I assured them of an answer upon my return, if and when I did.

During lunch hour, I went and patiently queued up for the bus at Terminal 19/20. Buses 4/5 were supposed to take me there. I got in and reconfirmed with the driver who was sporting a snazzy pair of sunglasses in a country where rumor has it that only mafia men wear such things. The Mafiosi assured me that the bus would indeed go to Shiohama and I put in my 200 yen which is more like an entrance fee (you can get down anywhere you please - our socialist thinkers back home would be quite horrified about such schemes, but it does make sense when you think about it).

I sat down praying to gods that Shiohama will be comprehensible when heard in that ridiculously high-pitched female recorded voice (who has been obviously faking it for years) which announces before each stop which stop it is, asks us to be careful and then tells us where all the bus plans to move next while saying thank you some 300 times in between. The speaker system assumes your geography knowledge is stuck at kintergarten levels and consequently puts a lot of thinking and anxiety off your mind. They do the same thing for trains, elevators, escalators and wherever else, the same ridiculously high pitched female voice, faking it, getting on your nerves ('Speak in your normal tone, you imposter', goes my suppressed war cry).

Shiohama came and the fake-voiced woman announced it is indeed the place for picking up cycles (actually she said some sentences interspersed with the word Jitensha or bicycle in Japanese, so I guess this is what she would have meant). All of us shame-faced criminals got down at Shiohama pretending as if we are there to attend some global summit on environment or some such thing. Looking at the obnoxious white factory fumes, it would have been a good place to start anyway.

We all ambled in the direction back where we came from when we hit upon a huge overbridge. So that was it, the cycles were all underneath then. The criminals were all walking with a safe distance between each other with an "I-know-why-you-are-here,-but-I'm-not-here-for-what-you're-here-for" attitude. On my part, I saw some bicycle pictures (which is how you get around for everything in Japan including safety instructions in a humidifier to choosing which food you will eat) and went straight ahead under the bridge, chucking the attitude game.

Some half a dozen guys and a couple of ladies were rummaging through endless rows of captured prisoners of war, all neatly arranged by date of capture. The old men manning the place seemed to be having a bit of post-retirement fun. I ran through the soldiers of that day, picked up my poor pawn, unlocked and brought it to the office shack, filled up a couple of forms as per what the man told me (since they were all in chaste kanji), signed away my life (or more, who knows?) on both the forms, paid 1500 yen and started my journey back.

A few kilometres later, the familiar city sights finally grinned at me and I realized when an old woman jumped across that the scoundrels had broken my bell (manhandled the PoW) and all that remained there was a stub to ring it. It was too late to go back and as things stood, since I had no clue what bicycle bells were called in the local tougue, I decided it would only unnecessarily excite a few calm members of my nerve cells.

The cycle was back with me, the minor injury in the battlefield notwithstanding. Coming back into the warmer climes of my office, my brain cells began functioning again and I figured out the whole economic angle to it.

Thrice a week, the old brigade launches their invasion into the city area with their pick-up trucks. About 200 cycles can be rammed into a pick-up truck (very similar to handling poultry birds, if you've seen them). Five trips and they end up with a nice round figure of a 1000 bicycles. The old brigade goes back, puts the cycles (all neatly labelled for the law violation) into that sprawling area under the bridge, relaxes and waits for the sacrificial goats to troop up.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, panic-stricken individuals at various levels of anxiety ("the first cut is the deepest cut", sang Rod Stewart), wait for Bus numbers 4 or 5, hop onto it and make a beeline for Shiohama, which no one would otherwise visit even if government provides you with a tax-free poultry farm there (after which the chickens would all die in three days breathing all that carbon monoxide).

In the use-'n'-throw culture of Japan, assuming 500 were sentimental about getting their cycles back, that makes it a cool 100,000 yen that day for the bus company and 750,000 for a day's work for the old men playing post-retirement jokes on citizens with bicycles. Multiply this by 12 and you get 9 million yen a month. Neat, huh? The tourism figures to Shiohama would have surged by 15,000% and the local economy would be netting upwards 100 million yen per annum by just running pick-up trucks on a 10 kilometre radius.

This sounds like a perfect recipe for unlocking India's greatest unrealized potential, viz., black money. But then again, don't forget that by-law to block all those MPs, MLAs, bureaucrats, tehsildars, directors of sundry institutions and assorted tiny/small/medium/big/jumbo-timers saying, "My man is coming there to pick his cycle, waive that 1500 yen for him, or else...."

Read more!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Gum here to revitalize

January 2002

I confess to this, I have never been a fan of chewing gums. Personally, I could never take a fancy to something which gets itself rid of 99.97% of all taste and sweetness some 0.3 seconds after its inside the mouth, leaving the chewer to spend the next three hours vainly trying to extract the remaining 0.03% of the leftover sucrose. Sometimes this process goes on for hours until the man (women thankfully don't chew much except for girls with a twisted sense of feminism) in one weak moment of frustrated chewing, turns into a vicious anti-social animal and sticks the gum right on top of the nearest available toilet seat.

Lee Kwan Yew must have suffered quite a few of these chewing gums in Singapore, sticking happily at inconvenient places before he would have decided, enough is enough and banned it from the entire island. Nevertheless, this has resulted in a huge boom in the gum industry in the neighboring rubber-rich Malaysia. I suspect that any given moment thousands of Singaporians are walking over the causeway through the Straits of Malacca to spend a few hours on their weekly quota of chewing gums; not for forget sticking it later at all the public toilets out there in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

I make it a point to carefully check toilet seats in public places before committing myself to any of them. That being the case, my biggest peeve concerning chewing gums is not the sticky toilet seat issue, but the kind of obscene (I don't think there is a better word) gestures people make at public while relishing their spearmints or whatever. Had this been a world without chewing gums, these gesticulations performed by the man on the street, would have been taken as downright social insults. Wars would have broken out. China would have been asking US to apologize every fourth hour, while executing some more people for treason.

The great chewing gum afficionados ('Gummers' for short, though I'd prefer something more accurate like 'Bummers') make it a point to roll the infernal thing from one end of their mouth all the way to the center and then over to the other end, like one of those fountains twirling around and watering the lawn equally everywhere. The overall effect of this is quite gross, especially when the gummers begin to speak with the gum in the mouth running from one end to the other. The gum, all the while, keeps threatening to come out into the free world (where it can plonk itself on the nearest available toilet seat).

The other day a friend of mine offered me a gum, I'm sure with the noblest of intentions. So, in the noblest manner I refused, politely pointing it out to him that I find chewing this thing obscene (as I said earlier, no better word yet). This being a matter close to my heart, I got carried away and went on to add that given an option, I'd round up all the gum chewers, tape their mouths shut with three rolls of adhesive tape each and scrawl "DANGER: DO NOT REMOVE" on top of that heap. Actually, this is more of a wishlist. Considering my current physical condition ("a few kilos less here, a few inches less there, I'd be fit as a fiddle", that's my mission statement), I instead just say "No, thank you".

He was scandalized by my response to what he thought was a touching gesture of offering the last remaining gum from a pack of five. This resulted in me being subjected to some intense knowledge-transfer (or unsolicited download, in the Internet parlance) as to why I should come out of my primitive mindset and begin chewing these gums at a rate of 16 hours per day, not including sleeping hours. And why in fact, everyone in the world should buy gums in large quantities and spend their waking hours chewing it with gusto.

The gum therapy theory (roughly) thus spaketh... Every day we eat food using only our side teeth (If you want to know whether they are called molars, incisors or canines, please visit your nearest dentist, I don't have the faintest clue). So the side teeth gets plenty of exercise mashing up our food and thus the gums there become, to use an earlier expression, 'fit as a fiddle'. After this, they all turn into musicians in a fiddle concert, breaking world records for fitness. No, seriously, they all develop cavities big enough for golf balls to relax comfortably, due to an overdose of chocolates.

Coming back, while the side gums play fiddle flexing their biceps, the chaps out there at the front would all be smiling and displaying themselves during horrendous artificial polite conversations (inversely proportional to job security and self-esteem). This turns them into something as tough as a wafer biscuit. Thus, devoid of their muscles, the gums soon turn into weak good-for-nothing wimps.

Here is where the Spearmint makes its grand appearance. According to the Gum therapists (or 'Gummers' - essentially, people who can give long political speeches while chewing three gums at any point in time), you should take a chewing gum, taste it (for exactly 0.2 seconds: see above to know why) and then start chewing it with your front teeth. Yes, gentlemen, you are supposed to chew it ONLY with your front teeth.

I asked my friend of simple inconveniences like (a) The thickness of the front teeth being just 2mm or thereabouts, what about the high chances you would end up grating your teeth? Wouldn't their current weak situation make them fall like dominoes in a neat row and (b) What about the fact that there is an even higher chance that they would pop out like bread slices from the toaster and land on the listeners shirt collar? I also had other questions ringing in my mind..."What happens if weak teeth fall inside and you end up swallowing them?", "Can I brush my teeth from today onwards?" and so on, but I thought I'll stick to the basics first.

With a reassuring look, my friend, the therapist replied that the answer to my concerns, is of course, practice, practice and more practice. As one of my collegues said in one of his technical presentations, repetition a.k.a practice is the mother of something, father of something else and an architect of something other than these two. Coming back, with an earnest and sympathetic face, my gummer friend advised me to immedietly walk down to the nearest convenience store, buy my supplies for the next 3 months (which at this rate, would require a couple of pick-up trucks and may be an extra trolley too) and start practising. The alternative to this for me, incidentally, would be to live a life of lasting shame with all my front teeth missing.

In fact, my gummer pal told me that he is a neo-convert who took to this therapy just three months back. Today, as he looks back at his efforts, he can only feel his heart swelling with justifiable pride at the tremendous strides made by his frontal gums in their quest for enduring strength and lasting peace of mind. In fact, such is his confidence today that he wouldn't mind climbing on a stage and singing "Smoke on the water, fire in the sky", if only someone told him what the rest of the lyrics were. I personally would support the Chinese method and try him for treason, if I have to listen to THAT song even once more (as well as any of the several other songs which come under the category of 'College Classics' the abbreviation for 'songs so many times sickeningly overplayed that its guaranteed to kill brain cells instantly and make ignoramuses do irrational acts while feeling that they are ACTUALLY rock fans)

As for making my own nuclear stockpile of Wrigleys, I am afraid I didn't do any such thing and instead, decided to invest on 'less healthy' stuff like cartons of apple juice and milk. Meanwhile, if you see merits in the gummers argument, you are free to please go and wipe out the chewing gum supplies at the nearest convenience store. Just remember to spare me during your practice sessions. Else, when I finally get that undetectable sting ray gun, you would be right there in my list of usual suspects. Don't tell me I didn't warn you then.

Read more!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Nihon NO-GO! Of linguistic twists & writing by pics

March, 2001

"Writing on Japanese" language is any day a much more pleasant alternative to "writing Japanese language" or even humbly attempting to do it. Japanese is considered to be one of the toughest languages in the world, especially if one goes with the intention of learning to read and write it. For functional literacy level itself, its supposed to take years for native kids. This is because the script is pictorial, so unlike Indian scripts (Devanagari or Dravidian) or any European language, it does not use letters in an alphabet in various permutations to coin words. Instead, each word (or subword) has a picture/notation associated to it in Kanji. Kanji is the traditional Japanese script which is acknowledged to be one of the most complex scripts in the world.

Apart from Kanji, Japanese language (Nihon-go or literally, Japan-language) has a few other scripts as well. One is Hiragana which is used to act as a connector between various Kanji scripts to give them tonal variations. Incidentally, a change in tone of Kanji can give it a totally different meaning, this is the reason why in spite of the script being very similar to Mandarin, the Chinese can only read it, but can't make out much of the meaning. The third script is Katakana, which is used to depict foreign words like alien names (My name stamp called Inkan or Hanko was made with my name in Katakana script since I happen to be a foreigner). Words like TV (terebi to be precise!), Cola (cora) or Beer (biiru) are written in Katakana. A fourth script, more sparingly used, is called Romanji which is a modified version of Roman script for certain specific words.

The sum and substance of all this is that, if someone wants to read Japanese, the first three scripts of the above are mandatory! In fact, to read comfortably, one needs to write/recognize at least 2000 Kanji words. Knowing 3000 will help one to manage with finesse for most cases like reading a novel! This means memorizing 3000 pictures, unlike 26 in English or 50-odd in various Indian scripts, using which we coin words. So here, for instance,a bird could be represented by two Kanjis, may be one for sky and another for animal."Exit" is represented by a Kanji in the shape of a rectangle, meant to be a mouth! Every student has to go through this memorizing process before he/she can really prepare for higher studies for advanced learning in specialized subjects like Chemistry or Physics written with this pictorial script. This has been one of the biggest reasons why in spite of such incredible development and large scale looking upto USA for everything, most Japanese can't even pull together a single sentence in English.

The advent of computers have solved things drastically for many Japanese and its common for a Japanese person these days to say that he can read 15,000 Kanji, but write only 3,000! The keyboard used is still more or less the normal QWERTY keyboard, with some shift commands for certain words in Hiragana (Incidentally, its easier to recognize Hiragana since its much simpler and is less pictorial - in fact, to me it looks similar to Arabic). A Japanese word is typed in English using the English keyboard which is automatically converted into Hiragana script on the screen. If they press the enter-button after a word, it becomes the Kanji equivalent!

This makes typing also a fairly complex exercise, but thats the price the Japanese are willing to pay for retaining their pride in their intricate script. On the other side of the spectrum, one has countries like Malaysia who straightaway adopted the Roman script for their language (Behasa Melayu), which had an offshoot benefit of enabling the entire populace for the cyber-era (with literacy being near 100%). Along with the famed cultural insularity of Japanese with Gaijins (foreigners), the script seems to be one more (powerful) device to keep foreigners at bay (how many will have the time and motivation to spend years to master this humoungous script anway?)

There is another little issue of the missing "L". Japananese (or Nihongo, as its called 'Nihon/Nippon' meaning Japan and 'go' meaning language) does not have the "L" sound! They also don't have "V", only "B" (a little like we Indians converting all Ws to Vs). So "R" is used to replace "L" frequently, so one needs to do a lot of reverse mapping upon hearing a sentence like say, "Prease ret a thousand frowers broom" or some such. Non-vowels are also not combined, so all of us Indians here have slightly modified names, Gopikrishnan is Gopikriushunan, Baljeet is Barajeeto, Viswes is Bisuwesu and Gurpreet is Gurupreeto. Similarly, apple-pie becomes apparey-pie, milk shake becomes miruku shaiku and hot coffee becomes hoto kohi.

Yet, compared to a European or an American, an Indian would do a much better job learning to speak Japanese since structurally its very similar to our languages and totally opposite to English. So Japanese also has nouns at the beginning and verbs (with its forms and question qualifier) at the end. So, "School [present continuous of 'Go'] desu ka?" is similar to the Hindi line "School ja raha hai kya?" instead of the diametrically opposite "Are you going to school?" where question qualifier is "Are you" followed by the verb and finally by the noun. Then there are interesting aspects like the variants of "s". Instead of sa, si and su of in Indian languages, Japanese have sa, shi and su/tsu, so you figure out that Kawasaki shitty is not the smelly place it sounds to be be on the first hearing. Incidentally, among other things, you'll never find a Japanese name starting with "P", though I don't know for sure what P actually did to fall out of favor.

But at the end of the day, learning to speak a few words in Japanese (with their correct pronunciations, of course!) will help one a long way in getting about in this amazingly interesting country, which has steadfastedly retained its language and script while getting itself thoroughly westernized in almost every other parameter, be it fashion, music and umpteen ways of automation.

Read more!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Mumbaikar's have souls too

(A Near-Death Experience late evening on FEBRUARY 18, 1999)

I glanced at my watch. It was 8.50 PM. "Rohit, I better be going now." Dwarakesh (Daru for us), ever the practical gent, echoed my views, "Rush or it will be quite difficult for you to get your train". The next thirty seconds were spent on choices. My train to Hyderabad was to start from Bombay's (or should I say Mumbai’s) Victoria Terminus (VT) at 9.55 PM. I was at Bandra, quite a distance away having just finished dinner at Rohit's house. The business trip was just for a day and I managed to squeeze in some time to meet Daru and Rohit, both my business school seniors. I was meeting them after a really long time. Lots to catch up and very less time.

Daru was skeptical as to whether a taxi straight to VT would be able to beat the 9.00 PM traffic and make it in one hour. A direct train to VT might take 45 minutes. Supriya (Rohit's wife) then asked to me go to platform 5, grab the train to Church Gate station, get down there and take a cab. With this option, there was a fair chance that I'd beat the deadline. Thanking them and catching an autorickshaw took another couple of minutes. As the auto noisily zoomed by to the Bandra station, my nervous glance at my watch said 8.55!

Rushing through the crowded Bandra station through pacy white/blue collar workers, business execs discussing strategies, dogs, beggars, the lame and the invalid, I got a ticket to VT hoping that with this way, I can catch either of the two local trains, VT or Church Gate. I rushed down to platform 5 (faithfully following Supriya's instructions) only to find a Church Gate train whizzing past. "Bhai saab, I need to go to VT by 9.55. When is the next Church Gate train?" I asked one passer-by. "Arre, if you want to go to VT, why are you standing here? There are enough direct trains to take you there". "No, But I just have less than 50 minutes". The watch was showing 9.07. "That’s okay, your VT trip won't take you more than 35 minutes" he said in his cool, assured Mumbai Hindi.

Why I ditched my Church Gate taxi plan, I don't know, but this gentleman sounded fairly convincing, I climbed up the stairs and went down to platform 6. It was 9.10. All I could do was wonder aloud, "Let’s see what happens next". "Hello ji, this is the VT platform, right? " "Yes! Yes! Where do you want to go?". "Actually, Hyderabad! My train starts from there at 9.55". "There is one train at 9.15. But I think it’s late." With this, my next guide went elsewhere leaving me with my mathematical jugglery on delayed trains and faulty planning. "But I can't miss this train. I need to be back in office tomorrow. There is no point in staying back here for the weekend looking for elusive reservations or uncomfortable alternatives like a 16-hour bus journey".

As I came back to the present from my thoughts, my watch said 9.17. Announcements in three languages kept on coming with the lady profusely apologizing without much sincerity about some Borivli train starting 15 minutes late. "I don't care a damn, ma'am, where is my VT direct?" I talked back to those obsolete megaphones. 9.20. To my utter horror, I saw a Church Gate train coming quite matter-of-factly on platform 5 in front of my dismayed eyes and leaving in 30 seconds as per plan. 9.24. “Where the hell is my VT now? There is no time to wait for VTs with their slow jaunts and contempt towards normal timings. The next Church Gate is my last opportunity".

9.28. As I started subtracting 55 from current minute dials and was doing reverse calculations, another train started approaching platform 5. Without any further thought, like one of those seasoned Mumbaikars, I jumped on to the rail-lines as the train stopped. Just then, I saw another train approaching my platform 6 as onlookers told me loudly to watch my step. "What the heck? Church Gate it is for me". I threw my briefcase & bag into the compartment and hauled myself into the train. "No one expects anyone to climb from the rail-side while designing bogies", I realized as I climbed a good six feet and got into the train just as it began moving hearing the "tut, tuts" from others standing-by.

The next stop off-loaded some passengers and I managed a seat. 9.31. "Goodness, lets see what happens now". "Bhai saab, I have a train at 9.55 PM from VT. I plan to get down at Church Gate and take a cab. Do you think I'll make it". My neighbor (lets call him Merv for his huge moustache which looked like those of Merv Hughes, the Aussie Cricketer) was visibly alarmed. "What is this? You should have started earlier". Chastising me made it more comfortable for him to do some clear thinking. "Yes. Yes. You can make it. That’s what I feel". What do you think?" He asked the man right opposite to him who was busy chatting with his window-seat-occupying friend. "About what?" Replied the white collar middle-aged Government Servant (GS, for reference).

Merv told my entire story with great flourish along with my Church Gate plan. Merv's neighbor at the window seat responded first. "Don't worry, You can just make it". I looked over and saw a youngish traditional looking chap with an unshaven 3-day bearded face with an earring on top of his ears, not through the lobes, but right through the cartilage. The Earring man looked at his watch. "Its past 9.35. Lets see." he said. At this time GS spoke quite emphatically. "Forget Church Gate. Just forget it. Get out at Marine Lines and take a cab from there. That’s much better."

The GS-Crony sitting next to him at the window seat echoed his senior friend’s words. "Aise hi karne ka hai (you should do like that)”. GS, obviously inspired by his crony's loyalty reiterated his plan. "By the time you reach VT in the cab from Marine Lines, this train would be just reaching Church Gate".

My bearded neighbor opposite spoke for the first time with an I-have-seen-this-so-many-times smile gleaming all over his face. "Mushkil hai ji (It’s difficult). I don't think you'll make it”, said the bearded pessimistic philosopher (I'll call him Philo). Having said that, I guess he wanted to assuage my tensions as well. So the Philo quickly added. "But why bother? These things happen in life all the time. You catch some trains, you miss some trains" espousing the supreme irony and will of fate in all things mundane in life including that of getting into and out of trains. The time was 9.38.

By this time, the entire 5-man gang of the coupe had just one mission in life “to ensure that I catch my 9.55 to Hyderabad”.

Merv and GS were evidently irritated by Philo’s words. They obviously had no time for these kind of rambling train Philos. Merv said Church Gate or Marine Lines is fine with him accepting the better judgment of GS. Earring again asked me not to worry. "Its 9.43 now!" said I. "No problem. Mil Jayega (You'll get it)". GS and his crony chorused together "Hey, we are getting down at Marine Lines. Come with us.” Philo softened his stance considering that he was not getting much support for his truths of life. "If the train is meant for you, you'll definitely get it". He said with an air of finality and got down at Church Road.

Grant Road also came and went and the time was 9.47. Finally, GS and crony got up and gestured me to be ready for the next run. We got down at Marine Lines with all three of us running to find some escape routes between the railings so that I could jump straight to the road and hail a taxi. Unfortunately (and surprisingly as well), the rails were continuous throughout. "If you take the overhead bridge, you'll lose a minute. Are you prepared to jump over these pointed rails" GS asked. "Oh, yes" I had no problems whatsoever.

I gave my briefcase to GS, put my shoulder bag on both shoulders and squeezed myself between the pointed rails and a huge, long I-shaped iron bar, which made a smooth climb difficult. I took the briefcase back only to find that the road was quite a level below. "This is no time to evaluate heights and their impact on my fresh-from-surgery right leg. When you gotta jump, you gotta jump". I shouted thanks to the waving duo and jumped 8 feet down to the footpath. "Get a car from the other side" shouted GS.

The traffic was fairly intense and I ran to the middle of the road. Standing at the road divider, I wildly gestured at an oncoming taxi to stop. He surged ahead to my anguish, but then stopped at the pavement slightly ahead. I ran behind him as he was reversing the car for me, threw my bags into his car and said, "Boss, you have exactly five minutes to take me to VT. My train to Hyderabad is just about to start". The genial Muslim kaka with a combed beard and no moustache became visibly tensed up. "You should not rush in the last moment like this. What will happen if we get stuck at red lights?" and he dashed past.

The first junction gave us a green, the second one was an amber. The smiling kaka said, "You’re very lucky", only to find us stuck at the next red light. "Don't worry, this is the last traffic junction for us". He speeded past many other cars, honking in between to reach the station. Getting next to the main entrance was quite a feat what with tens of cars clamoring for space. But kaka drove past, imperiously blasting his horn in the process. "15 rupees" said he. I handed over two tens to him. "Sorry, I don't have change", kaka said. "Truth or opportunism?" I wondered. "Keep the change and thanks" and I ran into the railway station.

"Goodness! How do I find the platform now?" The electronic signboards were running live tickers on trains and their positions. The Hindi one said 7001, platform 9, right time 21.55. I rushed to platform 9 and saw my train there. The first sigh of relief... The last two were general compartments and there were too many people blocking my way outside. I sped off to the nearest AC compartment at sight. "Damn! Not mine!" The next one also was not mine. The time was 9.56. The third one happily turned out to be bingo on target (HA-1). I put my briefcase in first and the train started to move. I grabbed the iron handlebar and swooped myself into the train.

I went inside and found my seat. I sat down and breathed normally without any adrenaline for the first time in over one hour. I was still wondering whether all this was actually happening or whether I'm in some sort of a dream or a trance foolishly believing what I wanted to believe. The arrival of the ticket examiner brought me back to my senses. As he handed the ticket back to me, I sighed the deepest sigh of my lifetime and muttered to myself "What a clincher it was... and how!".

My track record on photo finish journeys has been fairly good so far. Like the time I went to the airport at 8.00 in the morning for a 6.30 AM flight and managed to secure a ticket for the 8.30 AM flight (which I thought was what my flight in the first place). Or when I forgot my only suitcase leaving my aunt’s home at Kuala Lumpur for boarding the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore (to Chennai) much to her anguish. The driver did 140-160 km/h on his Volvo and brought it back for me ten minutes after the departure counter was closed!. But all said and done, I'm sure my wife won't be very amused with this tale, methodical and tensed up that she is about traveling....

The final word from me would be to say that in the big, bad world of metro Mumbai, it’s easy to conclude that the people are heartless and couldn’t care less. What I’d like to say is that Mumbaikars have souls too, it’s just that they are too busy chasing trains to display it all too often.

Read more!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Here's where it all kicks-off...

Well, i've decided to finally turn The Curious Onlooker mailing list into a blog form (rather than the restricted yahoogroups form). It sure is a leap of faith, so to start with, I plan to do what producers of most long running serials do when bereft of new ideas...start doing re-runs ;-)

Having begun my yahoogroups mailing list in 2001 alongside my Japan sojourn, I'll begin by posting my (old) thoughts on things I saw in land of the (surp)rising sun. Then the re-run show will move to Cebu (Philippines), come back to Bangalore, move to Houston and then again back to Bangalore. By which time, I'll probably start getting into writing some fresh stuff :->

Thanks for the fellow onlookers who've given me your support, barbs and whacky counters over the last 6 years...Keep them kicking in. Adios for now and keep blogging (!!! now, is that a verb or what?)Gopi

Read more!