Friday, May 30, 2008

Wondering in Wadala : वडाळयाची गोष्ट

Way back in 1969 when Bombay roads could still be enjoyed by sticking your head out of the window as you drove in the left lane at Marine Drive,and most cars did NOT have airconditioning, I once went to the RTO office near the Race course , in Tardeo, for my driving test.

The feeling was identical to what one experienced before an important university exam, similar to one I had just given. There were two types of tests. One was slightly acrobatic, and the other tested your desperation.

The first one involved entering with your car, in reverse, through an area marginally broader than your car, into a larger rectangular area. You then proceeded to face the various corners going backwards and forwards, till you were again equipped to come out, in reverse again , through the aforementioned narrow entry channel. For further excitement and instant disqualification, the corners of the rectangle were identified with removable colorful markers, which fell down with the slightest touch, or a strong whiff of a dangerously close auto exhaust, created by a nervous and tense future driver.

The second part was slightly sadistic. You waved goodbye to your motor school trainer, (like a kid waving to his mother on the first day at KG) , and with a massively structured driving test examiner sitting next to you , you drove towards the side roads leading off Pedder Rd. (Pedder road cuts through, what must have been a hilly area in ancient days). Electronic turning signals were always supplemented with turning hand signals, and heavily hyperthyroid eyes observed all your signalling as you drove. They then asked you to stop on a deadly incline between two cars. The crowning part of the test was when they asked you to start the car again, and get into the traffic, without the car rolling backwards. If you rolled, you were finished. So were the cars parked behind you. You said your prayers, did your stuff with a foot acrobatically placed on the accelerator and brake simultaneously, and hoped your letting go of the clutch would be exemplary, and not thudding, if you know what I mean.

(I got my license).

I recently had occasion to accompany my daughter for her learners license , as well as get my relic-of-a-license renewed.

The graceful, old world , race course RTO in the city, now caters to denizens of south Mumbai. Ordinary mortals like us go to the Wadala truck terminal.

This is a massive acreage of land, somewhere between Dadar and the eastern seaboard, of Mumbai. The authorities, rubbing their hands in glee over so much potentially developable land (and the ensuing flood of the non-biological green), in a sudden attack of righteousness, agreed to situating a Truck Terminal there. One envisaged a set up where trucks bringing in all kinds of stuff from across the country would enter , and their goods unloaded after some quick checking ,tax payment and registering, allowing the drivers and cleaners a decent rest before dedicating their days to diesel once again.

What you actually see is different. You enter through a massive arch that suddenly appears on the side of the main road. Half the main road in permanently dug up, and if you try to strain your neck to read what it says on the arch, (Regional Transport Office), you run the risk of banging into something resembling a ruin.

You then drive, somewhat with a lot of doubt, through a landscape of arbitrarily parked trucks and tankers, in various states of non-readiness . There are trees growing through apertures in some chassis, some aged vehicles, helplessly appear to squat on their flat tyres, and sometimes NO tyres. Cylindrical tankers with lids open, challenging the summer sun to dry their innards, trucks which have seen better days, displaying what another vehicle did to them on one side, despite declaring "Buri nazar wale, tera mooh kala".....Its a landscape that would warm the cockles of the heart of a movie producer, as he thinks of the variety of crimes, chases, and chorus dances that can be done with all that infrastructure , maybe even for free.

Just when you feel like turning back, you come to a slightly leafy tree lined road, with a fire engine parked prominently. Behind it you notice firemen undergoing training as part of the Mumbai Fire Brigade training program. On the opposite side are a bunch of government-issue , depressing, rectangular buildings, some of them with ramps of alarming gradients. Between ditches designed to subject trash to sunshine , and suspicious looking people wandering about aimlessly, you notice a bunch of ruins that appear to function as tables. Two tables that have legs on only one side are joined together on the non-leg side, and supported by bricks unloaded by the municipality for some other purpose.

The new learners line up, and the RTO officer, no longer massively structured , but with a huge file, takes his seat on one side of this roadside table. One by one, the learners applications are perused, entries made, and everyone is then asked to go to the nth floor of another nondescript building, after dodging through a large amount of container carriers, trucks, and police vehicles, not to speak of young chaps carried sixpacks of cutting chai , to the officers, functioning picnic style on the nonexistent lawns.

We blindly follow the driving school guy. He points us to the lift. He will follow in manual mode. Wonder of wonders, there is a queue system to get in. We miss out on the panstained walls, and noticeboards designed to give you a cervical pain, as we meet our guide on the 3rd floor and are taken to a hall studded on one side with payment counters, and the other side with PCs. web cams, fingerprint machines, and young people.

The place is throbbing with driving school instructors and their students. In the midst of all the government yellow walls, with pan stains, ink stains, unreadable notice boards at unbendable angles, there is this room with six electronic number displays with a ringing tone, which announce who must come to get their picture taken. While you do your stuff, trying to pat your hair in place, others trying not to display their braces, while still others strike a pose designed to impress a cop if they ever get pulled up while driving, the computer operator wants to know if the captured photo is OK with you.

This is certainly a new thing. Everything has a style.

You may drive atrociously, but you need to get caught in style.

I don't even bother looking at my photo. My daughter demands another shot , which, at first glance , will NOT send her friends into a paroxysm of laughter. The computer operator obliges. "Its your license. Your photo. If you need to show it all your life, it needs to look good.....". True.

We get a receipt that will suffice till we get our final driving license, duly renewed etc. We trudge back to our vehicle. The RTO officers with their open air tables have gone. The shadows of some buildings now hover near our vehicle , in the midday sun. Nearby we see a charpoy, on which several truck drivers wearing comfortable lungis, are enjoying various relaxed poses, giving moral support to their assistants who have come for a test. We see a bunch of driving school cars whizzing past us with the instructor and student in the front seat. The student is doing his stuff, the instructor is confident, and the rto examiner person, sits in a bored fashion in the seat behind.

No wonder, every week we hear of people losing control of cars at high speeds. People who should not have driven at all. People who should have flunked the test.

Maybe its time to get some movie producer types to design hilly sets in Wadala. Then everyone can take the acrobatically desperate test that has stood me in such good stead all these years. Makes you mentally capable of handling pressure and desperation.

And never mind the massively structured RTO types. With the ruin-style work tables in Wadala, stability would be a difficult proposition...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Memories : shredded and retrieved

I am sitting at the moment surrounded by newspaper cuttings and articles. All pertaining to me. And my childhood. Carefully collected, but now , handling tends to cause a disconnect in the molecules that hold it all together.

I came across this plastic bag on my recent visit to my parents' empty house. Eerily empty, not of just humans, but even paper memorabilia.

Very atypical.

After my mother's passing away , my father lived for 6 years, till the age of 89 years. Except for the last few months of his life, he never had a problem of how to occupy his time. He read voraciously, wrote prodigiously.

One of my most abiding memories is that of my father and his cupboards full of books and files; the growing cost of books meant it was more of the latter. Files full of cuttings, reference articles, notes, copies of stuff , pictures; all this in several languages. He conducted a continuous verbose correspondence with various socially dedicated organizations, and authors and publishers. On his visits to me, his favourite hobby was to rummage around in our collection of books.

Somewhere in the last few years of his life, his intellectual activities, (the ones that we could see, that is), reduced. My sense of wonder in observing the workings of his brain led to this blog.

Towards the last few months , when he was still mobile, he went through the various papers in all the various cupboards. Our household help who has been with us for 60 years, tells me of the extreme zeal with which my father proceeded to simply remove and destroy, anything, that spelled paper. A pair of scissors was a permanent fixture, and slowly, a host of cupboards started falling empty.

This also coincided with the period in which he became slightly delusional, forgot people, got angry very fast, was adamant about imaginary things, and often got confused about household and personal things he had done all his life.

Some call this a dementia of the Alzheimer's type. Some just call it old age dementia. It gave a new meaning to the phrase "out of sight, out of mind". Those of us that he saw often, he remembered. On my every visit to him, I would see gaping cupboards, newly empty shelves, waste baskets brimming with paper cut to pieces. You asked him about it, and he either feigned complete ignorance or indifference , or gave you a big piece of his agitated mind, saying this should have been done ages ago.

They say , some parts of your brain just quietly reduce efficiency and stop functioning, as you go deep into old age. Alzheimer's patients have a well documented obsession with cutting up paper.

But the brain efficiency is not an absolute thing. Its all about observing things, and the brains ability to receive body signals or messages, and maybe, sometimes, do a bit of learning from it. Which probably explains , why those of us who continued to appear in his environment frequently, made an impression somewhere in the neuronic jungle, and smart links were maintained that lit up his synapses, as recognition dawned in his mind, whenever we met. Those who he did not see frequently, were either not in his database, or more likely, they were there, but the links were, as they say, corrupted.

This state of affairs worsened. The last 3 months he was completely bedridden. The delusions increased, adamancy reached new heights, language skills got limited.

One of my most traumatic memories, is walking through an empty house a day after his death, trying to occupy my time (between attending condolence visits), searching for his papers, looking for old letters, searching for something that would simulate a virtual personality in the house; the strange thing was, he had got rid of all his books, files, and even family photographs. There was nothing to clutch and work on.

And now this plastic bag that I came across on my recent visit.

Its a file of clippings.

Poems I wrote as a child, laboriously rhyming the words. Articles written by me, in children's
magazines in marathi, about various travels we undertook with our parents , when young. Letters written by teachers and school principals, after some decent success in school leaving exams. Indulgent communications from favourite aunts and uncles after seeing their niece do so well in some competitive exam. Mature articles I wrote, as an adult , in various publications in English and Marathi , about graduate studies and life in the US ,in an age (1969-71), where it was so uncommon, there was no one standing ahead of me when I went to get my US visa ! I had taken my father to Disneyland when he came to visit me at the university there, and the file even had a caricature of me done by the artists there, which I had completely forgotten about.

How did these papers survive? How did papers relating to a slew of unrelated activities get thrown together ? When did he find these ? How come they escaped the scissors ? Why did he leave these things for me , when during his lifetime, I never knew that someone was archiving these ?

They say the brain is the machine that manages, but what makes the "mind" is the the effect the rest of the biology of the body has on the brain. Its a question of parts of the body sending messages and the brain being geared with a perfectly configured cell "receiver " for these messages.

They say your limbic brain in hardwired. Your emotions, intuitive reactions, remain hardwired , tempered by age.

What changes in the learning.

Its just something that makes you wonder about the Maker of the human body.

It could be intelligent cell division and energizing of the various body parts while in the womb, while protein messengers flash around triggering a hormone here , another protein there, starting and finishing things.

Its simpler to think of Someone Up There, who guided my father into unilaterally preserving these things , while the rest of it lay in shreds all about him........

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pangats to Gilly Payasam

One thing one realizes having lived for close to six decades is how the "pace" pf living has changed, and how it pervades all aspects of our life, personal and public.

Take wedding meals.

Childhood memories take me back to wedding meals that may be defined by a single word : "pangat" , and it has no clear translation in the English language. Elaborate sit down meals, on wooden flats arranged in lines on the floor; each wooden flat faced up to a plantain leaf that greened the occasion, and glistened , as an entire army of food servers went by in almost military precision, serving stuff in a predefined order.

Every food item had a predefined place. Uncooked meal items like koshimbir(salad) , and mouthwatering green chutneys redolent with the aroma of raw mango graced the left. Various cooked vegetables with varying amounts of comfort gravies dignified the right. Typical vegetables were cooked regardless of status of the wedding party; "aluchi bhaji" (a sweet and soft , tantalizingly sour concoction of gravy made from colocassia leaves, tamarind and gram flour), "bharli wangi" (baby aubergines stuffed with a heavenly mixture of coconut, jaggery and spices, steeped in a spicy gravy), and the ever popular, universally applauded "batatyachi bhaji" (dry boiled potato bhaji).

While one may slurpingly overflow, while describing various items, what was significant was the serving method.

After the initial mandatory serving of all items, serving folks kind of went up and down each line of seated guests, bent just so at the waist, announcing the item as if singing a song chorus. ("Panchamrit. Panchamrit, Toop, Toop, Khamang kakdi......") If you wanted an item, you signalled, and the container was inclined appropriately, your item descended into your plate, and the procession continued. Simple items like fragrant rice and waran(dal) were embellished magically with a stream of golden ghee, a pinch of salt, and thoroughly enjoyed with freshly made mango pickle. Jilebi was the dessert of choice, and in all the "methods of serving food" , serving these was an exception. The newly married couple came by, with a huge plate of these, urging you to have just one more. A typical thing that happened was someone , on a dare, showed that he could eat a plateful, and he was indulged by the newly married couple, and watched avidly by the others. Folks who ate with single minded dedication, often slurped, and the louder the slurp, the more terrific the food item was. Elderly types often went up and down the "pangats" being sociable and observant about wastage at the same time. Some elderly lady, often overcome with the wedding emotions was cajoled into singing a Bhavgeet, and she did so, eyes downcast, fingers fiddling with a jilebi piece, as a hush descended , people quietly getting on with their meals, keeping their musical opinions to themselves.

Then came weddings where what you eat became more important than how you eat. Individual idiosyncrasies ruled. Folks liked to show their awareness of food not native to them, and the entire combination of quality and quantity of food did not fit into the pangat system. It became acceptable to fill your own plate, wander around eating, take random helpings, and then discard your plate (sometimes along with food). The milieu changed . The kitchen and dining area arrangement fizzled out, and we were presented with tables laid out , groaning under all kinds of food, kept warm, being roasted "online" sometimes, occasionally replenished by a guy, who suddenly darted out from behind a table with a refill . Rules were changed to suit the new social habits. Unlike what you normally see on Mumbai bus stops, people in their finery organized themselves into civilized queues. This often translated into people having to wait for long before getting a meal. And you couldn't tell who was the host, with so many people mingling around.

Weddings which earlier meandered over 3-4 days, were slotted precisely into four hours defined by economic compulsions related to availability of wedding halls, and working days and holidays for the attending guests.
With globalization, came the complete destruction of the "original wedding meal". People suddenly served "starters", unclear whether the food or the people were starting something. Then you had stuff from at least 3-4 different countries, so that your gut was overloaded with shrikhand neapolitono, undhiyo au gratin, and chowmein navratan supreme.

I shudder to think what comes next.

Since most people in India, eat,sleep and drink cricket, it is to be expected that this desperation will have its effect there too.

And so the sedate 4-5 day test matches, where players landed up daily in their impeccable whites, and played during office hours, cutting,swiping,defending,sweeping,glancing etc, nicely interspersed with a lunch break where you were polite to the opposition . Mornings and afternoons were interrupted by well defined drinks breaks, and tea breaks, folks applauded in a genteel fashion from the pavilion, and no one removed their shirt and waved it around.

(Actually, my son (then a very young school kid), who watched tests and the TV Ramayana/Mahabharata during that period, really believed that the Mahabharata war had warriors following some kind of "end-of-the-days-play" system, and going back to some place, to duly arrive back the next day with their chariots, and maces, to get on with the war once again. Maybe he looked for P. Karan, c Krishna b P. Arjun, or maybe K . Duryodhan c and b P. Bhim)

The one day internationals and the T20's are the so called modern improvements. Quick events. More noise. Less substance. Unnecessary expenses. Again, like us old timers who recall the earlier wedding meals, there are purist cricketers who try this new style , but are not really comfortable about it. T 20 has even introduced the foreign colleague system. And the less said about the cheer leaders , the better.

So its Masaledar Warne with Murlidharan au Gratin, with a side of Ponting Sandesh and Gilly Payasam .


Friday, May 02, 2008

Sachin descends from the Wall (and its not Rahul Dravid).

I stay on a campus in North East Mumbai. The premises are owned by the Institute, and we have been living in our current place for about 15 years. Very recently, our house appeared in a list of houses marked for painting, and today, the painting was initiated in a massive mess of shifting stuff here and there, bags, heaps of stuff, books, and many other things.

The way things work, is, that there is a contractor who hires temporary chaps to do the scrubbing and painting and finishing work. These guys also help the residents move their things from room to room as and how required.

I have an older son and a younger daughter. Due to the relative inertia (and refusal to organize rooms), of the last fifteen years, the childrens' rooms have been studded with, among other things, posters of the Solar system,Human Genome, Human Body, Healthy Bones in young girls, cute dogs, Hritik Roshan, Sunil Gavaskar, tigers, Dalmatians, and last but not the least, a massive poster of Sachin Tendulkar from about 10 years ago.

The entire morning was spent trying to save some of these precious posters, scraping paint of walls, cupboards and any number of suitable flat surfaces. A bunch of Hrithink Roshans got scratched and torn in the process, and were duly crumbled and thrown. There was better success with Solar systems and Bones. Sunil Gavaskar was laminated and hung, so he survived the cellotape trauma. (We have 2 generations of cricket mad members).

Mornings in India are a busy time as people go off to work, lost things are retrieved, various household help types appear at regular intervals, and I got called away to the front door while this room clearing was going on.

Fifteen minutes later, having just finished with the caller, I was taking a breather and having a look at the newspaper, when one of the elderly painting-and-scraping-types appeared, reverentially holding a huge paper expanse in his hand. Smiling, anticipating my question about the sheet contents, and puffed up with a sense of pride that he would reserve for one of his own children doing well in life, , he announced, "Sachin Tendulkar!"

Of all the posters and stuff, scratched, scraped and yanked of the walls, here was something, that this gent, carefully detached, using his nails, cutters, blades, and even one of the painting colleagues,rubbing water over some edges; this poster was not to be spoiled.

A smiling Sachin Tendulkar, in his trademark batting stance, almost 4 ft by 3 ft , now sits , spread out on the living room sofa, for the duration of the room painting.

Makes you wonder.

Here is someone who manages to unite folks, irrespective of age, social status, economic strata, injuries, IPL, deep fine legs, silly points by Harbhajan types, centuries, ducks, crores, runs and anything you can think of. I can't think of any one in politics who can claim such support.

Having said that, I fervently hope Sachin doesn't join national politics after his retirement. In one of my more optimistic moments, I have often felt he would be a great Ambassador to Australia.....

(Come to think of it, if ambassadors were decided by holding a referendum with voting in both India and Australia, it is quite possible, that he will win by a landslide)

Anyone listening ?