Monday, 20 June, 2016

Road Worker

It was a rainy night. After all, it was the monsoon season. I had had a light dinner in preparation for a long bus journey. From Cochin to Mysore. I got into the bus and in a short while, the bus started and, unusually enough, I slept off.

After a comfortable sleep, I woke up and peered at the watch. 6 am. The bus was not moving. I parted the curtains and looked outside and found that the bus was in the bus stand of some town. As the cobwebs of sleep cleared from my brain slowly, I sat up with a jerk! I realised that that the bus was still in Kerala whereas it should have been in Karnataka, in some town close to Mysore. Gundlupet or Nanjangud perhaps. But, why????

My fellow passengers were all fast asleep. I got off and found the driver in a tea shop. He told me that there was a land slide on the Wayanad Ghats road. It was being cleared and that we would start soon. My hopes of reaching home to a hot cup of coffee, a bath and breakfast receded by at least by six hours. So I changed my target to a hot bath and lunch at home.

The bus started, as promised, after I had a cup of tea. Having slept through the night, I was wide awake and could enjoy the scenes outside of the wet and dripping Wayanad. The bus started making its way up the curved road. Outside, it was the verdant forests stretching as for as the eye could see through the steady drizzle. Then a cool grey sky stretching up from the horizon. Large and small wisps of pure white clouds moving up the green slopes of the ghats is an unforgettable scene.

When the bus moved ahead a kilometer or so, it was met by a landslide blocking its path. Luckily enough, we had just passed a small stretch of road that was a little wider than the rest of it. Wide enough to allow a skilled driver to maneuver the bus and turn it around and head back down the ghat. There were some discussions if it was the right thing to do. The rains which had appeared to be getting lighter had in fact become heavier. The stretch on which the bus had stopped, was right at the top of a sheer drop to the right - a prime candidate for a landslide - bus and all. To the left was another sheer slope that could slide in on the bus itself. The incessant rain made that a real possibility. So it was decided that it was better to head back.

Unfortunately, by this time, there were half a dozen vehicles behind our bus. The possibility of turning around had almost disappeared. Within a few minutes, there was no need to fret about it because there was another small landslide behind the last vehicle that blocked that option.

So, we all sat, hour after hour, listening to the rain make a monotonous noise beating on the roof of the bus. The green covered hills with a grey sky and wisps of while clouds climbing up the ghats through the tops of the trees that looked so enticing and beautiful just a few hours ago completely lost its charm. I tried to read a book even in the dark interior of the bus trying to ignore the stomach clamouring to be fed and thinking too much of the real danger we were in.

There was a lady in a seat a few rows away who had two small children and she was trying to manage them with some snacks and milk she had carried. People talked of their previous experiences from their travels, none of the pleasant. Much of the talk was in Malayalam which I barely understood, which was a good for me, I imagine. Everyone was wondering why no one had come to clear the landslide.

The minutes and hours moved agonisingly slowly. Some people, with their dhotis folded up till the knees and holding umbrellas for protection, walked down the road. They informed us that there was a landslide up the road nearly at the top of the ghat and there were PWD men clearing it and they would come down to clear "our" landslide. They also said that they would be done in an hour or so. Apparently that was a bad, large one.

Somehow this news seemed to galvanise some people into action. They said that if we could somehow clear our land slide, we could go ahead and the other bigger landslide would be cleared by then. That sounded like a good idea but how does one clear a landslide without equipment. Someone went and enquired with the driver of a truck behind us if he had something that would help in the task. Well, he had! A few crowbars! I also got off the bus in the pouring rain and joined hands with those who had started trying to clear the debris on the road. Fairly big boulders, small trees and mud and grass and driftwood had to be cleared. We were all thoroughly soaked but the camaraderie in the air was something exciting. A few lengths of rope and a few pick axes appeared as if from nowhere. Soon there were a bamboo baskets and steel bowls used in construction work and so on joined forces. I had to take my glasses off as it was getting wet and water vapour from my breath was collecting on it and hindering me. My only pair of leather shoes was taking a beating.

Working in steady rain on a stomach that had only seen a cup of tea some eight hours earlier did not seem to matter. By about four in the evening, we had managed to clear the path. With a collective cry of jubilation we all hurried back to our vehicles and the convoy started up the road. I had to go through all sorts of contortions to change my clothes on the moving bus.

Thanks to this experience, I can add "road worker" to my résumé, perhaps?

I remember that when I finally reached home at seven in the evening instead seven in the morning everyone at home was relieved. No one had an idea what had happened to their son/brother until I reached home. I remember that there had been some disaster the previous day and the newspapers had screaming headlines but, I can't remember what it was!

Tuesday, 7 June, 2016

Reading “The Cry and the Covenant”

Sometime during the year 1980, I was in Pune on work. I went for a stroll in the evening and came across a road-side seller of second hand books. I stopped and browsed hoping to find a book that would interest me.

I came across an old and dog-eared book. The paper was brittle. The book had lost the glue that had once held the leaves together at the spine and had been stitched together. Close to the stiches, the paper was broken. Yes, broken. Not torn. Obviously, it had been read a few times after it was stitched. I flipped through the pages and found the story very interesting.

It was the story of Ignaz Semmelweiss. The great triumph and tragedy of his life. The man who had the means to stop the disease that killed innumerable women during childbirth - puerperal fever. It was transmitted by the doctors who examined women without disinfecting their hands. The very concept of infection didn’t exist at that time, let alone disinfecting. Even without the concept of the germ theory of diseases, he deduced how the disease was being spread and how to prevent it. That was his triumph.

When he told the doctors in the hospital in Budapest, where he worked, they were actually spreading the disease, and how not to, they were incensed. In a temporary triumph of ego over evidence, they continued to kill women ignoring Ignaz. That was his tragedy. The greater tragedy was how he went about proving (or so he thought), once and for all, that he was right. I don't want to reveal this greater tragedy and prevent you from enjoying the book, if you happen to read it.

All that came after I read the book but I got glimpses of it from browsing. I was captivated. I bought the book after a bit of friendly bargaining. I brought it to the hotel room. I caught hold of two covers - a brown paper one and a clear plastic one. I cut the cotton thread that barely held the pages together. I put the "book" into the plastic cover.

I started reading, after dinner, by taking one page out of the plastic bag, reading it and putting it into the brown paper bag. So it went and I finished reading the book in a few days. If I remember right, my sister read it too.

It is the only book I have read, one leaf at a time.

Saturday, 4 June, 2016

May Their Tribe Increase!

Panjim Airport. Dabolim. Gate G. After two intense days with a client, I was relaxing while waiting for my flight. I was drawing the people around me in my sketch book - my pastime at airports.

I rested a bit and kept my book on the seat next to me. My flight was called and I left.

I realised that I had left it behind only when I dug into my bag soon after we started taxiing. Too late.

It was an ordinary 200 page notebook filled with my sketches – done mostly while on travel. Drawn while on the move on a bus, waiting at train stations, bus stands and airports. In the hotel rooms. Views from the windows of hotel rooms.

So many memories. This was a visual diary with no dates, no names, no words. I knew every small thing in that book - where, when, who, what, the weather.... practically everything but the date and year.

Now gone.

A friend asked me to call the airport. I did. No one picked up.

I posted the loss on Facebook and Twitter with the hope of increasing the chances of getting it back.  An artist friend who saw the post called me to suggest that I call the duty manager at the airport.

Here comes the bright part. I found a landline number on the web and called. The gentleman heard me out and said, in Hindi, that he was actually the apron manager (what does an apron manager do anyway?) and generously gave me the mobile number of the duty manager.

I called the duty manager. His line was busy – in three languages. Drat! I waited a few minutes before trying again and he called! He was returning a missed call! How nice! He was patient too and heard me out. Talked to the people around him (as I could visualise) and told me that they had not received the book.

I asked hesitantly, if he could send someone to check. He said he would. REALLY? He asked me to call again in the morning. When I did, he picked up and as soon as I started explaining, he remembered and asked the people with him if they had received a book. He had actually sent someone to check. But, alas, no. No book.

The gloom of the loss was mitigated by the praiseworthy behaviour of these gentlemen. Thanks - whoever they are!

We are so used to people in authority of any sort being unhelpful. I have had my share of those.

But I have had a good measure of the exceptional ones too. But I always make it a point to praise them and their kind, when they are nice. Here.

May their tribe increase!


In 2002, soon after joining Philips in Bangalore, I travelled to Eindhoven, Noord (North) Brabant province, The Netherlands. It was the headquarters of Philips. I was there for three months to undergo training in IP and patent analysis. I stayed in a two-bedroom apartment. My apartment mate was Ajay Nitin.

Through Ajay, I met another colleague, Ramakrishna, and we three often had a good time together after work. One day, Ramakrishna, who lived in an apartment some distance away from mine, invited Ajay and me for dinner. Chicken and beer were on the menu, we were told.

The aroma of puliyogare welcomed us when we entered Rama’s apartment. Though some Tamizh knowing friends of mine tell me that it is actually puliyodharai, for most Kannadigas it will always be puliyogare. Rama apologised as he opened the bottles of beer. “I am sorry. I didn’t have chicken masala. I used puliyogare masala!” I said, “Ah! To hell with Iyengars! We shall enjoy chicken in puliyogare masala!” This seemed to tickle him immensely and he remembered it often, even years later.

The chicken tasted really good. We had a great time – the conversation flowed, lubricated by good Dutch beer, perhaps Grolsch. I choose that name because I just like the sound of it.
While we were at Rama’s, it started raining. When it was time to get back, we abandoned the idea of walking back and rang for a taxi. It was an impressive looking Mercedes with an equally impressive looking driver. He was wearing an expensive looking suit. He was young, tall, (The Dutch are now the tallest people in the world. I am told that the people from Brabant are not very tall) and good looking. He spoke very good English too, like many educated Dutch. I sat in the passenger seat, to take a look at the hi-tech dashboard, after seeking the driver’s permission. I plied him with questions and what I learned surprised me.
He was the owner of a fleet of taxis – all Mercedes. Still, he drove one himself. He wanted to stay close to the customers and experience his business first hand.

On another occasion, years later, I landed at Schiphol and took what is called a Schiphol taxi that was booked for me. I had to go to Den Haag – The Hague – to attend a seminar on patent search (cleverly named, “Search Matters”). Since I wanted to enjoy the flat, green Dutch landscape that I so love, I took the passenger seat again.

It was something like a station wagon and not very fast. It was hence a longish journey and we had enough time to talk. The driver was willing to talk too. I asked him how long he had been driving a taxi. He mentioned some number. I asked him what he did before for a living.
He said he was a brigadier in the Dutch army!

I asked him why drive a taxi. His answer was interesting. Paraphrasing, “I don’t have to really work. With this job, I am the master of my own time. But, it gives me good money. I get to see places and it gives me an opportunity to meet interesting people. Like you.” I don’t know if he really meant the last but I appreciated it.

The Dutch are very proud of their well-earned reputation for being blunt.

The reason for saying all this is that it is almost impossible for anyone in India with their backgrounds (taxi company owner or a retired senior officer of the armed forces) to be driving taxis. I recently came across an auto driver who was studying for his master’s degree in commerce. There used to be an auto driver in Mysore, in the seventies and eighties, who was a graduate. His auto was named “Dignity” or some such word with gravitas. He always wore his shirt with its top button buttoned. I couldn’t help wondering if it was an attempt to advertise his dignity.  He seemed to say that though he was a graduate, he was driving an auto and there was nothing wrong with it.  I had once come across a cycle-rickshaw-wallah (cycle rickshaw pedaller?) who was a graduate. He said he was jobless for a long time and had no choice but to ply a cycle rickshaw. I once listened to a BBC radio quiz that was won by a London taxi driver. (QM: How do you know so much about so many things? LTD: I always browse through a volume of The Encyclopædia Britannica when I am waiting for a fare)

I once told my son that I wanted to drive an auto-rickshaw, after retirement, because I wanted to know how it felt and how the customers would treat me. He was horrified by the very thought of it and was angry with me for even entertaining such a thought. It appeared to me that the Mysore auto-rickshaw driver and the cycle rickshaw pedaller chose their professions because they were somehow forced to. The M. Com. student’s choice was his own and there was no chip on his shoulder.

The reason for any profession being considered high or low is economics. If every job pays one enough to lead a decent life and the ratio of the highest paying jobs and the least paying jobs is not humongous, this perception of a job being below one's dignity will  come down, if not disappear.

Thursday, 14 January, 2016

I Need My Magic Potion in the Morning!



Copyright of ArtMechanic 

I was in the historic town of Tongeren in Belgium for two and a half days of meetings. I was the first one to check into the hotel reserved for the participants. I went up to my third floor room, deposited my bags. I freshened up and explored the room. The main purpose of the exploration was to find the kettle and coffee things for the next morning. I looked everywhere but, no kettle. Hmmm. Things were not looking good.

I had to explore because many of these hotel rooms are designed artistically and many things, for example, the coffee things, are not easily visible. I found an iron, ironing board and what not. But, there were no kettle and coffee packets. In any case,  I decided to explore the town – having explored it on Wikipedia already.

I came down to the reception and asked the young lady at the reception where the coffee things were, still certain that they were there and I had not found them. I was told that for the group booking the company had done, the coffee things were not included. I resigned myself to starting the day without coffee and was about to go out. I thought,  “what do I lose if I ask for it? If I get it, it would be great. If not, status quo!”.

I went to the young lady and said. “Hi, I am an Indian. I am a south Indian. For us, the day does not even start without a cup of coffee. Is there any way I can have coffee, first thing in the morning?”

She laughed and said, “Let me see if I can give you one from another room!” We went to the third floor. She opened a few rooms and, hey presto! She gave me a tray with the kettle, coffee pouches, tea bags… the whole enchilada! I was set for the few days at the hotel!

I had a spring in my step when I explored the town.

The picture of Ambiorix is the copyright of ArtMechanic and is used here under the,_version_1.2GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Saturday, 26 December, 2015

How I Came to Read Han Suyin

It was the winter of 1979. I was employed in Ranchi - then in Bihar, now Jharkhand. I frequently went to Dhanbad on work. The company I worked for then was in the business of electronics for mining, especially coal mining, and hence Dhanbad. I usually  took a 'de-lux' bus from Ranchi and reach Dhanbad in the evening.

Those journies feel unreal now. Roads were really bad. At many places, all that was visible around me was scrub jungle  without a sign of human habitation. The dust raised by vehicles on these roads had settled on the trees and bushes and the scene was incredibly dreary and depressing. What made me look outside eagerly was that in the middle of nowhere, there would be a single, thatched house, perhaps with a few goats or cattle, a couple of hens, smoke rising out of the whole thatched roof, no chimney there, a woman doing some chore with an infant on her hip, a little girl playing all by herself or doing some chore. No other human in sight. I have never understood why they were there. What did they live on? How did that poor lady end up in a place like that? What future did the little girl or the infant have? Only disturbing questions and no answers.

The bus passed a bridge on a small river with just a trickle of flowing water. It was at least a hundred and fifty meters below at the deepest point. It was a cantilever bridge built of steel, if my memory serves me right. It was painted with "silver" paint in some unrecorded and indeterminate past. Now only rusty patches were visible. The road on the bridge had holes in it in some places and one could perhaps see the river below. It creaked and groaned when the bus crossed it. The bus crawled across at very low speed, pitching and rolling like a small craft in rough sea. I let my breath out,  with relief, every time I crossed that bridge and become aware that I was holding my beath only then.

I have crossed that bridge a couple of times by the company jeep.  I remember the Jeep’s registration number even today. DED 757. The driver, Mohammed Naim, always bragged that he was a pilot piloting a craft more modern than the Boeing 747. I have often wondered what my mother would have done then, if she saw the bridge and the road I had used.

The owner of the company I worked for, once took a couple of Britishers on this road, by jeep, to Dhanbad. He called the bridge The Tower Bridge and recounted with great glee that they were livid!

After this perilous crossing, the bus crossed roads under which, deep in the fiery bowels of the earth, coal burned! The road here was more uneven and there were just patches of the original road surface left. There was a black dust covered board that read, "ROAD ON FIRE. DRIVE AT YOUR OWN RISK". For those who do not know what this is all about: there are large reserves coal in this area. Though they are underground, they have caught fire. Though still very much underground, the coal is burning. If you search on the net, you will find some details.

Here, there was human habitation around. Right next to the road on fire! Actually these houses were on land underneath which a fire blazed.  I am told that it is a distinct possibility that the earth under your feet could open up and you could fall into the inferno below. I have never heard that it actually happened, but the theoretical possibility exists. When I heard that, my first thought was that one won’t suffer much and the end would be mercifully swift. In this area, I have actually seen plumes of smoke rising from the ground. In spite of all this, there is some vegetation! You can only marvel  at the hardiness and tenacity of life. In this area the air is always smoke filled. There is a dull yellow streak to the sunlight. In Dhanbad itself, the air is so thick with smoke and coal dust that I have stared into the sun, still high up above the horizon, with naked eyes. You perhaps do not need any protection other than normal dark glasses to watch a solar eclipse.

After one such journey, I had reached Dhanbad and settled into an air conditioned room, a first for me I think. The hotel was called The Black Diamond. I had had a late dinner and slept. The next morning, I got ready to go to work. I came down to the restaurant for breakfast. When I looked out, the streets looked deserted. I did not wonder why. I went to the reception to hand in my keys and I was told that I could not go out! There had been some trouble the previous night and a curfew had been imposed. I do not remember if it was communal violence or a gang war.  Yes, you heard it right. There is coal Mafia in Dhanbad and a gang war could easily bring the whole place to  a standstill.

I had no idea what to do. There was no TV. I had carried a novel with me and it was over very soon. I had brought that more out of habit and not because I had not imagined that I would get any time to read! I was told that the curfew would be relaxed at noon for an hour, so that people could get some essential supplies. It so happened that there was a very good book shop near the hotel and made a beeline to it. While browsing,  I came across a two-volume set called “Morning Deluge”, by Han Suyin. I had not heard of her. I read about the her and what the book was about in the blurb and was intrigued. Her prose sounded very poetic. There was a portrait of Mao on the cover.  I asked the bookseller if I could buy just  the first volume. To my surprise, he said yes! So, I bought it and hurried back to the hotel.

The day was full of reading and many cups of tea. I loved the tea there because it was made the Bengali way, light, sweet, aromatic and very watery. I was so enthralled by the book and Han Suyin's writing that I had finished the book by noon the next day. Having read, Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow I was fascinated with China. This book had whetted my appetite. Han Suyin's writing is unpretentious and it often made me feel that I was reading a long poem. The combination made it impossible to put it down. By breakfast the next day the book was finished. I eagerly waited for noon so that I could buy the second volume. By the morning after, I had finished that too.

The curfew was lifted the next day. I did meet the people I was supposed to, but nothing really got done. In spite of it, I made the perilous journey back to Ranchi feeling fulfilled. Soon I looked for other books by Han Suyin and have read many with great satisfaction.

Monday, 22 April, 2013

Extraordinary Kindness

I was travelling from Eindhoven to Schiphol to catch my flight back home. I was to change trains at Utrecht to go to Schiphol. The train from Utrecht was supposed to leave from "Spoor" (Platform) 5. The announcement had been in Nederlands and hence I asked a fellow traveler, a Dutchman with an Indonesian wife and a lovely baby) if I had it right. I had.

I go to platform 5 and the platform has been changed to 4a. I do not know and am waiting.

The Dutchman I had consulted, comes looking for me on platform 5 and tells me to hurry to platform 4a!!! After thanking him as profusely as I can in a hurry I rush to the other platform and catch the train.

But for him there was a distinct possibility that I would have missed the train and the flight!

Thank you my unknown benefactor, wherever you are and whoever you are!!!

(This happened on 20, April 2013)