A seaside vacation in Kerala

What image comes to your mind when the word vacation is mentioned? I know some of you might start conjuring images of summer vacations from childhood, good times with friends, cousins and all that. If you are one of those, I suggest you take a deep breath, empty your mind of all thoughts and start all over again. Wait! Don’t clear everything. Let us keep the summer part. Do you see yourself lounging on the beachside curled up with a picnic basket and a novel? Well – I do. Now, being a fellow Indian, you may ask me how many such vacations I have had. You are probably asking because you very well know the answer – zilch. Yes – zilch! The nearest I came was during a weekend trip to Greece during my summer internship. The sea was there, the sun was there, the book was there; an apple and some assorted biscuits doubled up as the picnic basket. It however ended up on anti-climactic note with the waiter of the hotel that had put the longue chair coming and asking us to clear out if we are not ordering anything from the hotel. See – now you have completely thrown me off track. I wanted to talk about  the second leg of our Kerala vacation, the more secular one, following the temple odyssey and  you have led me away to the Mediterranean. Anyways no more Greeks and Romans. Let me wave a magic wand to clear all distracting imagery and take you straight to the Cherai beach resort.

The resort was straight across the street from the seaside and had put up nice little cottages for the guests. My son was so overwhelmed at the sight of the resort that he felt the immediate need to relieve himself. Needless to say, we gulped down the welcome drink and rushed towards the cottages. Once there, I lounged on the bed in the room with my kindle while the little feller was literally getting all the dirt out of his system. So there you go – book, sun, beach, and longue – you have it all. Ah, yes! The picnic basket! It lay in the other room – the packets of biscuits, sweets and savories we had brought along. The added benefit of having it all indoors was that one could get one’s mobile phone charged as well.

Now, now, my dear reader I know you are all geared up training your guns at me for being a dog in the manger who instead of enjoying the scenic sea view, chooses to waste time indoors. Hold you horses, ok? We did go out into sea later in the evening, climbing down the safety abutment, fully armed with umbrellas to protect us against the vagaries of the fickle Kerala weather.  How I wish I was one of those travelers with that sensitive poetic disposition who breaks into tears every time he sees the sun set across the horizon. He would have waxed eloquent about all the lovely sights and sounds, bringing forth your emotions as well. But to my credit, I must mention my son who stepped in to make good his father’s deficiencies by not just weeping but wailing loudly bringing forth every ounce of emotion lodged inside his tiny heart each time the waves came close to his feet.

A brief sojourn to the city of Ernakulam was also part of our itinerary. Our Zen Master Car driver in his dry, stoic tone managed to convince us about the futility of the whole thing. So we decided to confine our city visit to an hour long walk along the marine drive gazing leisurely at the sea on one side and the shops on the other. It was a time of reminiscences for me about this city where twenty five years back I had shown the spirit of the warrior by fearlessly jumping off the first floor balcony while the little chip of the old block strained to break free of his constraints in order to emulate his patriarch’s feats of bravery. But the firm feminine good sense of matriarchal authority prevailed averting any acts of foolhardy male bravado that might have resulted in unfortunate consequences for the chip like it had to the old block two and a half decades back.

I hear you, dear reader – all this is ordinary stuff, you complain. Tell us something new and exotic, you implore. Or maybe you don’t. You probably have already got bored and left. But the heart of this attention seeking writer wants to assume otherwise. So I try to humor you with something exotic – a lady soothsayer in traditional Kerala white attire. She offered to unfog the mists clouding our future for a fee. But given our lack of the local language, we did not want our future to be lost in translation. So we decided to give her services a skip. Did I just hear a groan? Wait! I have some good news for you – I have changed my mind against continuing this post and boring you with the excruciating details of the Kerala massage therapy that I underwent during those two days. So here are the three little words that you have been eagerly waiting for – “It’s the End.”

On a Temple Run

I have already written two posts about our visit to Kerala. I continue with the account of our trip not necessarily in the chronological order of occurrence of events. After the boat trip and birding trip, we move on to the temple run. After all, can one return from a visit to the God’s own country without paying a visit to the Gods. The presence of a pair of pentagenarians in our touring party totally sealed the case in favor of the temples.

The first person we met as we started our spiritual odyssey was an exponent of the Advaita philosophy – our driver, who had mastered the art of saying ‘Neti Neti’ – “No No”.

“Do you know where we can get vegetarian food?”

“No”

“Is there some good sightseeing spot on the way to Guruvayur?”

“No”

“Can we visit Thrissur temple on our way back?”

“No”

He had this ability to say it with a flat tone, a dead pan expression and the calmness of a Zen Master. I was reminded about Ramakrishna’s parable of God in the mahout that talks about a boy who saw the God in an elephant running amuck and went and stood in front of the animal to receive its blessings ignoring the God in the elephant driver who was imploring him to move away from the path. As one may imagine, the elephant’s blessing proved to be quite disastrous for the boy. While the boy paid the price for his lack of reverence for the elephant driver, my father-in-law’s experience turned out to be the other way around. A quick call to the driver’s boss brought about a miracle akin to one of those performed by ancient day saints with the driver suddenly attaining enlightenment about places to find vegetarian food along the way and the Thrissur temple and other places of interest, like the proverbial Mountain of Mohammed, rising from their remote locations and moving towards more convenient locations along our route. I wondered if in the years that have passed since Sri Ramakrishna’s time God has moved up the value chain and has chosen to take abode in the driver’s boss. But the temples as such seemed to be still stuck in the time before Ramakrishna and continued to maintain only elephants rather than switching to mahouts and subsequently mahouts’ bosses.

We got to visit three temples in all – the main Krishna temple at Guruvayur, a nearby Shiva temple and the temple at Thrissur on our way back. My usual problems with temples are the huge crowds and long queues. My mother used to say undergoing this ordeal was a way of showing devotion to God. That day the lack of crowds denied me the opportunity to prove my religious credentials my mother’s way. However I got to prove the same in altogether a different way thanks to the rule in all Kerala temples that men can enter only in Dhotis and due to my inexperience in wrapping myself in the traditional Indian waist cloth. So I was faced with the daunting task of thinking about God while my entire attention was caught up in hanging on to my Dhoti or rather making my Dhoti hang on to me.

If I had to face the trial by waist clothe, my son had to face an altogether different test. In kind of a portent of the times to come, his worth was measured for the first time – on a weighing balance so that an equivalent amount of banana, jaggery or oil could be offered to the Gods. He wept and wailed to express his dissent, little knowing how in the years to come in every stage of life he would be measured again and again and again by different people on different scales.

Otherwise the religious leg of the journey was largely uneventful. Maybe I should add a passing note about the wonderful Keralite food we had on the first day and the horrible Andhra food on the second. If but had I the skill of Enid Blyton who with her writing skills could even make the infamous British food sound so exciting, what scope would have the wonderful Keralite cuisine afforded me! Or if but had I the devotion and poetic skills of the medieval saints who composed verses after verses on seeing the statues of the Gods. But I am but a fool who can only write about foolery.

Social Activist's Guide to Indian Politics - the Muffler

I don’t know how many have read this book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Since this is a Western book not suitable to the Indian ethos, I wondered how it would be if it were to be adapted to the Indian context say with a title like Social Activist’s Guide to Indian Politics. Here is my take on one of the passages from the book – related to the uses of the humble Bath Towel which in our Indian context transmutes into the Mighty Muffler.

Just about the most massively useful thing any interstellar Hitchhiker can carry. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course you can dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

Just about the most massively useful thing any Indian Social Activist can carry. Partly it has great practical value. You can clean your pants seat  when you rise after day long protest at Jantar Mantar; you can lie on it on the brilliant pavements around the India Gate, inhaling the polluted Delhi air; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which don’t shine redly or otherwise on the smog covered Indian skies; use it to sail a miniraft down the toxic Yamuna river; wet it for use in parliamentary debates; wrap it round your head to look like a farmer’s leader or avoid the gaze of the corrupt Indian Neta (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, whose existence like the unicorn is only notional as per official records, it assumes that if it has forgotten all its poll promises, the people and media have forgotten as well— daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your muffler to stop an auto rickshaw or the metro train, and of course you can wrap it around your neck to keep warm if it is still in one piece.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost." What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with

More importantly, a muffler has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a common man (common man: non activist/politician) discovers that an activist has his muffler with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a Gandhi Cap, placards, Khadi suit, Jolna bag, Hawai Chappals, black arm bands, flags, wire cutters, mikes, brooms, garlands etc., etc. Furthermore, the common man will then happily lend the activist any of these or a dozen other items that the activist might accidentally have "lost." What the common man will think is that any man who can do Dharna for three days, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his muffler is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with

Hence a phrase which has passed into hitch hiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is."

Hence a phrase which has passed into activist slogans, as in "You want good governance and honest politics? Vote for a man who really knows where his muffler is."

Of Cows and Guns

I had prepared hard and cracked the entrance exam to the county’s most prestigious management institution. All that lay between me and every Indian’s dream was an essay and an interview. I gingerly turned over the paper to look at the topic – ‘Gun Control’. Damn! Why are all this people so obsessed with America and Americanism? Couldn’t they have chosen a topic more suitable to Indian ethos? Say our dear old domestic cow! As I sat blank thinking about guns and cows, the Dana Lyons song refrain began to play in my head.

We will fight for bovine freedom
And hold our large heads high
We will run free with the buffalo, or die
Cows with guns

Yeah! That must be it. Cows with guns! An uprising against a popularly elected government. An assault on democracy. How can the great American nation protect its lofty ideals? By banning guns? But wait! Ban guns? What are we talking about? Aren’t guns one of greatest gifts of science to mankind? If not guns, then ban the damn cows. That’s it. Ban the cows. Hasn’t our own Indian government done it? These Americans have so much to learn from us and we think we need to learn from them. Hasn’t it always been the case? We invent something and some damn white skinned clown or the other pops up and puts his label on it and makes it his own.

Take this song Cows with Guns itself for instance. These Americans act as if it is an original concept they have cooked up in their beef grills. But the truth is that our mythology talked of armed bovines centuries back. The entire armies of Vishwamitra were supposedly decimated by the divine cow Kamadhenu during his siege of Vashista’s ashram. These Americans must have come to India, read through our mythologies, stolen our ideas and then added some of their own bovine excreta on top of it to make up this song.

I know what you are thinking. How am I equating the Indian beef ban to American cow ban? Isn’t it just the opposite? Let me tell you – it isn’t. Isn't death the only thing that separates cow from beef? Our Indian philosophy says death cannot change who you really are. So why should it change the holy cow? In practical terms, our nation’s father has the answer. For this is exactly what the whole philosophy of Ahimsa is all about. If we do not go killing the cows, then the cows won’t come killing us. So we all live happily ever after. That is the essence of Non Violence. This idea itself was borrowed from the animal kingdom. A bird to be precise – the ostrich. This wise bird as soon as it sees hunters, goes and buries its head in the sand. The logic being that if it is not able to see the hunters, the hunters won't be able to see it. Gandhiji probably encountered a few ostriches during his stay in South Africa and learnt this profound philosophy by observing them. Now the inheritors of the great nation founded by him have extended this philosophy to the matter of cows and guns.

Now you may ask, why all this non-violence thingy? Why not just do preemptive strikes on all the bovine camps in the famed cow belt and bring the cattle class to its knees? Well there is a small problem – these beasts play a very important role in protecting the country’s traffic ecosystem. They are in fact the sole reasons we have so few accidents on Indian roads despite such dismal adherence to traffic rules. They play the role of natural traffic regulators, placing themselves at strategic spots on the road at great personal risk to themselves to slow the mad rush of traffic. So we need to tread sensitively to ensure this fragile balance is maintained.

One might think why we are wasting time discussing this trivial issue of bovines and firearms. The point is that this actually represents a broader question of religion versus science that has challenged societies from the time of birth of civilizations. The beef stands for religion and gun for science. What kind of society do we want to build? That will decide which we want to ban and which we want to promote.

I quickly scribbled out all my arguments and came out of the hall, a smug expression on my face, proud of my unique logic. I was sure all the other candidates would have written some mundane cliched facts, regurgitating whatever they had mugged up from newspapers and coaching guides. The B-School would be proud to have an original thinker like me.

Since then the wait has been on. It is three years and still I haven’t got a call. Who knows? Someday I may get a call. Or maybe I am just a victim of a McDonald and Burger King conspiracy to suppress original voices and take over the world.

Asterix and the Digital Empire

“Why is the village looking so deserted? Where is everyone gone?”

“Don’t you know, Obelix? The entire village has gone digital.”

“What the hell is that? Is it some kind of kind of dangerous disease? Can’t Getafix cure them?”

“It is all those cursed little boxes supplied by that bloody Phoenician merchant.”

 “How can something so little be so dangerous?”

“Ouch! Ouch!” Obelix yelped as Dogmatix nipped his toe.

“Come, Obelix. Let me show you.”

The little man led the large man to one of the huts. They knocked at the door once. They knocked again. But no one opened. Then the huge giant swung his arm. The door burst open with a crash. Inside sat an old man in a corner and a pretty young woman in another corner the eyes of each glued into a little box they held in their hands.

Obelix walked up to her and tried to peer into the box. “Don’t disturb me, you big oaf. Can’t you see I am busy checking out the latest Lutetian fashions? Do you want me to fall behind that vile Impedimenta?”

He backed away and tried to look into old Geriatrix’s box. The man gave him a wink. “Psst! See here. Nice, isn’t it?” Obelix peered into see pictures of winsome lasses displayed on the box.

“What the hell is this?”

“Hush. She will hear.” He proceeded to intently leer into the box.

“Let us go and find our leader Vitalstatistix. He will surely be able to do something.”

“No, Obelix. That would be of no use. He has abdicated from his life here and taken up a second life inside the little box. He says the people in the game listen to his orders – nobody in the village ever does.

“Surely Impedimenta would be able to knock some sense into him.”

“If only she herself were free from the nonsense on social media and chat rooms. She is happier discussing with her Roman counterparts about the number of husbands Roman court women have had and baby showers of pregnant theater artists.”

“This is serious. We should seek the help of Getafix the druid.”

As they walked towards the druid’s hut, they noticed Fulliautomatix on the way. Various brand new tools lay around him. He was intently tapping on the little box. Asterix hailed him.

“Can’t you see I am busy, Asterix? I need to complete writing about the features of the latest bellow and anvil I have received for product review,” he growled.

Soon they were at the hut of Getafix and what did they find there? An old man with a white beard was intently staring at the little box. “Et Tu, Getafix?”

The old druif looked up from his box and shrugged. “Well, I am left with no choice. All traditional sources of my potion ingredients have dried up. Only way to get them is to actively trade on the commodity markets.”

“Everyone’s gone crazy, Asterix. I am really sick. Let us go into the jungle and have a good hunt.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Obelix. But there are no longer any boars in the jungle.”

“What happened to them?”

“The boars have gone digital. You can no longer hunt them. You can only order them through the BoarPanda App.”

“Damn! Let us go and find at least a Roman garrison and collect some helmets.”

Asterix shook his head. “Roman legionaries have gone digital too. Nowadays only drones patrol outposts and the soldiers operate them from control rooms in Rome.”

“This is so terrible. Are the pirates at least still there or have they gone digital too?”

“They are there but they have joined the Galley for Sure service and if we treat them badly they will give us a bad user rating. Then no galley will ever pick us up.”

As they walked through the empty jungles, they heard a familiar voice in the distance like the yowling of a hundred cats in pain. “Ah! At least Cacofonix is still the same. Let us go and have a word with him.”

As they approached the tree from where the singing was emanating, they noticed the bard holding one of the small boxes in reverse pointed towards himself as he sang.

“What is going on, bard?”

“In the village no one appreciates me. So I am vlogging my songs live for the benefit of a more appreciative audience across the world. “

Obelix peered into the small screen and saw the bard in the display. He was thoughtful through the entire way back. Then he suddenly exclaimed, “I have an idea!”

Atserix looked at him quizzically as he continued. “If Cacofonix can find fans on the internet, why not me?”

To Asterix’s dismay, suddenly Obelix gave a whoop and picked up one of the little boxes still remaining in the crate and began to click pictures of himself and Dogmatix in different places and poses making duck faces, pig faces and monkey faces. Obelix had discovered the selfie. Asterix knew he was now a lost cause.

Asterix resigned himself to his fate and went and slumped down at the cross road hand over his head. As he sat worrying, he heard a sigh next to him. He turned around to see a tall man in toga, a laurel wreath over his head.

“Caesar?”

“I am no longer Caesar. Now I am loser. That fellow Zuckerburgeus has ruined me. Now all roads no longer lead to Rome. They all lead to the evil book of faces. And the one face that matters - that of Caesar has no value any more. No one uses any denarii anymore. It is all mobile wallets. “

“You were the one who went and stuck the Digital Rome deal with him.”

“And I rue that cursed day.”

“Maybe we can still remedy things.”


Caesar looked up hopefully. Asterix quickly laid out his plan. Caesar nodded, a smile on his face and jumped on to his horse. Asterix took out his last bit of magic potion, took a swig and they set out to wreak havoc pulling down the cables and towers of evil. 

The Birth of a Poet

People go for years, sometimes even decades just going through the motions leading their mundane lives, being just another face in the crowd, a cog in the gargantuan mechanism of human civilization. Then suddenly comes one day when suddenly something goes ‘pop’ inside their head and they are suddenly awakened to a wellspring of talent that has been hidden for all these years. I had one such moments of epiphany back in the late nineties when I was on the verge of completion of the first leg of my education.

In order to proceed to the next leg, I was supposed to prove my mettle in this especially tough exam called IIT JEE. While big cities had good coaching institutes to prepare students for this ordeal, small cities had to depend on enterprising professors from local colleges. We were at the home of one such enterprising gentlemen on that fateful day - a portly one at that who styled himself a master Chemist. He had converted his home into a classroom by the mere act of purchasing a portable blackboard to put up in the hall. Usually, he would explain some concepts for few minutes. He would then dictate a few problems to solve from a text book as bulky as himself and divide us into two groups. One group would be dispatched to the kitchen and the other to the bedroom. As per the old Indian Guru Kul traditions, we made ourselves comfortable on the cold floor finding suitable niches for ourselves under the dining table, behind the refrigerator and other such exotic places. While we matched our wits against the Physical Chemistry Problems, he would switch on the Television in the Hall and sing along to encourage us.

“Thilana Thilana,” his hoarse voice boomed across from the hall. One of my co sufferers, tired of straining his brains computing temperature and pressure of gases, took up the note and joined in at a low voice. “Thithikindra Thena.” Immediately as if by magic more voices joined in chorus. “Ooooh, Oooh, Ooh, Woof, Woof, Oooh, Oooh, Ooh, Woof.” The new singers brought relief to the worn out chemists and we began to encourage our friend to continue to lead the singing to keep up our sagging spirits. He did and our friends outside also sportingly obliged as if they understood our need.

Later in the evening, as we walked back home in the night, we discovered that our friend with his singing had managed to forge a permanent bond with these four legged denizens of the streets. They graciously escorted us all the way to the bus stand and patiently waited alongside till we boarded the bus. So there was the moment of epiphany for him, who had discovered a Pied Piper like musical talent. During such momentous occasions in history you need bards and story tellers to record the events for posterity’s sake. So that was the moment of epiphany for me - for, suddenly my poetic talent surfaced and I began to spontaneously reel out verses eulogizing the amazing feats of our new found hero during our bus ride home. It was greeted by so much gaiety that I faithfully recorded the inspired verses on paper and brought it to class the next day for the benefit of the other classmates at school.

The poetry was received with the same enthusiasm here as well, further enhancing the glory of the Pied Singer of Trichy, the silver tongued Tamer of stray dogs. Enthused by the reception, I went on to pen another piece of work, this one dedicated to my faithful companion who shared my bench. The work titled ‘Dog in the Bog’ that portrayed my friend as entire humanity’s best friend was not too well received. He was apparently neither a patron of art nor a believer in free speech – he tore the paper carrying the poem to bits, denying the rest of humanity this great work of art. That was my first encounter with censorship and intolerance at such an early age.

Respecting the sentiments of the minority community, the person in question being the sole representative of the Odiya community in a land of Tamils, I shelved the work. However the fame of my first work continued to spread till it reached our Mathematics teacher, a known patron of poetry.

He was this traditional garden variety poet who wrote about subjects such as love, compassion, relationships and the like. So his finer sensitivities failed to appreciate verses dedicated to an unconventional subject such as the influence of music on canine minds. On the contrary he considered it an effrontery to poetry to label my writing such.

I could not for the life of me figure what was wrong with my poetry. In fact my lines rhymed so perfectly while hardly any of his did. And it was not like he used all those bombastic words like flabbergasted, obsequious etc. that we tried to use in our English essays. In terms of ideas, how much can one keep writing about love and stuff? What was wrong with dogs and dog tamers anyways? The only difference I could see was that his poetry was more difficult to comprehend and they were published in a book while mine was on a ragged piece of paper. Maybe that’s what made the difference ultimately.

Anyways for the next few years, I gave up poetry and focused on the more mundane matters such as entrance exams and jobs.

Maid in India

I was having this discussion with my European friends. They had me cornered to the wall. We have clean roads, better healthcare, great education, and people with more civic responsibility and so on. What do you have? They said many more things but I limit myself to just few for the sake of brevity. I pondered what is it that we have that they do not have. Then I had this sudden ‘dimag ki batti jala de’ moment – we have maid servants. My European tormentors were silenced at once.

Maid servants are such an integral part of our lives in India. So much so that no self-respecting blogger can call himself one till he has written at least one post dedicated to this tribe. So here I am finally earning my stripes as a blogger writing on this topic of utmost importance in the Indian context in my eighth year of blogging. I would however refrain from whining about my traumatic experiences with them for  bloggers have already said enough on this subject and there is where little I can add to the corpus of knowledge. So I limit myself to sharing a few random snippets just to keep a hand in the pie.

Deviating from my usual pattern of chronological sequencing, I take a reverse chronological approach starting with the most recent one who just left our service. Two hours of honest labor at our home was earning her the same amount  eight hours as a sweeper at a government office was. And given the high demand for services of this nature, more such offers were forthcoming. If she had quit her government job and taken them up instead, it would have given her a four fold increase in income for the same effort. Yet it was the job at our house that she chose to relinquish. The reason purportedly was the job of a maid servant did not hold the dignity of labor that of a government employee offered notwithstanding the fact that there was no difference in the job content. In India, job title is everything. No wonder now bank clerks are called book keeping executives, the sales man is called customer relations executive and the telemarketing caller is the call center executive. The whole word executive has taken on a new meaning. In order to differentiate, whoever is not an executives is now a vice president or a Managing Director. Given the scenario, maybe we need to re-christen maids as house maintenance executives or still better - housekeeping consultants. After all now everyone calls himself or herself some kind of consultant or the other.

Moving on, the one before this one was a pioneer who attempted to change the entire engagement model - a symbiotic relationship rather than the traditional employer employee relationship. She would do the cleaning and mopping and in return we would make tea for her and play telephone operator , dialing numbers for her on our home phone so that she can have her daily chat with her relatives and friends. When it came to payment however, the flow went only one way. In ancient days, on one specified day, European kings would wash the feet of their servants and serve them food at the royal table. We should probably count ourselves blessed to get this opportunity which even kings got only once a year on a daily basis.

Travelling further back in time, we move to my times as a bachelor. The first one we tried to hire gave us such a complicated list of items to be procured to aid her in her job that we began to wonder if she was planning to clean the house or create a comprehensive automated cleanliness management system. Talking of automated systems, how we wish we had such a system or a robotic maid like Irona, Richie Rich's robotic maid! The closest we got to that was the quiet efficient Bangladeshi maid we had while at Gurgaon. She would just come in sharp on time, quickly finish her chores and disappear without a word. The only time she ever spoke with us was to ask for her salary at the end of the month. It was indeed a moment of distress for us when Sheila Dixit sent away all the Bangladeshi immigrants for the Common Wealth games. If the quality of our immigrant maid was any indication, it is no wonder that their loss due to the Common Wealth Games caused such a wellspring of resentment against her rule that swept her out of power in the subsequent election.

Our experiences with maids in Chennai and Hyderabad unfortunately were not at all like that in Gurgaon. Despite all our efforts to keep them happy, they broke up with us. They say the girls always like the bad guys. Seems like maid servants are the same too. They would rather work for a family who keeps their noses to the grindstone slogging away to glory under the critical eye of the lady of the house with nothing better than an old rag that in its earlier incarnation as a lungi or baniyan used to protect the dignity of the man of the house. All this for a paltry pay. On the other hand bachelors get them all the latest brooms and mops, tubs, buckets and the preferred brand of detergent and cleaning fluids. They pay twice what families pay for half the work and never nag. Yet it is the bachelors who often find themselves receiving the short end of the stick.

One hypothesis I have regarding this maids’ preference for families is the availability of free gossip in families which is probably one of the perks of the job. Gossip has been the traditional opium of the middle class Indian households and the maid servants the prime distributor of the same until TV channels made a business model out of this need and started delivering it through the idiot box. Maids should probably approach the government to enforce a ban on these TV programs to protect their unique selling proposition while bans are still the flavor of the season. Television probably poses a much greater threat to them than washing machines or dishwashers. It is our social responsibility as well to protect this folk art which has been an integral part of our culture. Fresh live gossip from our own neighborhood would definitely be more wholesome and nourishing than the stale and cooked up stuff on TV channels.

That is all I had to say about maids. I am sure some of the other bloggers would be able to wax eloquent on this topic for posts and posts. As far as I am concerned, this is all I could whip up to save myself from accusations of ignoring this most influential section of Indian society on my blog.

Maths Teachers through the Ages

We just passed the Teacher’s day where all bloggers were out paying their tributes to teachers who transformed their lives. I have had more own share of inspirational teachers from as varied fields of study as English, Physics and History. But strangely no mathematics teacher seems to figure in the list though many of the others’ favorite teachers seem to hail from this discipline. So I thought I would take a sojourn down my memory lane in quest for that elusive inspirational teacher of numbers.

In my first three years of education, teachers were generalists who single handedly initiated toddlers fresh out of their diapers into the education system. The only thing about mathematics I remember from this period was my mother receiving complaints about how I was challenging the spatial orientation of numbers. But the teacher apparently was not too impressed with what she called the sleeping ones.

Then I shifted to a new school in God’s own country for my second standard. All I remember from that time is that the teacher had set a prize for the person who score 100% in marks – a cool looking eraser I had my eyes set on. Since I do not carry any recollection of ever being in possession of the said object, it is conceivable I never managed that feat.

I was back to what was then a retirees’ paradise and now India’s answer to Silicon Valley for my next two years. All I remember from this period is a Malayali Christian Math’s teacher who was the class teacher as well in my third standard with who my mother had managed to strike a friendship. Of the subject as such or the teacher during my fourth standard I carry no recollection whatsoever. For my Fifth standard I moved on to a different school – here the teacher’s cane managed to find an indelible place in my memory that the teacher could not. I still vividly remember that shabby cane she would bring probably plucked from the trees on the roadside unlike those smooth pliable art pieces that the masters carried to ply their craft upon errant students’ posteriors. Talk of gender discrimination!

In sixth standard I encountered the first memorable teacher. And she did take a personal interest in me as well. But the interest had more to do with my social skills than my mathematical skills. Or rather the lack of it! She would keep wondering how my mother with such a nice smiling face would have a son with such a dark gloomy face as if the word’s burdens rested on his shoulders. Probably she was not aware genes get inherited from both one’s father as well as one’s mother. Or it could be just that she assumed a woman with a smiling face would have married a man with a smiling face? But all in all she was a nice grandmotherly lady whose very positive aura gave a pleasant feel to the mathematics classes. However the teacher next year made up for the same with her unpleasant negative aura which is all I remember about her.

For my eighth standard I moved down south to the land of temples. There I managed to run afoul of a popular mathematics teacher – again thanks to my social skills. This time my outraged reaction to a perceived injustice lead to my earning an epithet for impertinence. The teacher during the ninth and tenth made her presence felt by her constant absence. That suited me pretty well and I managed to secure 95% in my board exams.

Moving on to my eleventh and twelfth, we had a teacher whose claim to fame was more non mathematical in nature – a book of poetry and a self-proclaimed sense of humor. My only interaction with him was at the end of the two years when he volubly expressed surprise regarding the loopholes in the IIT JEE system that allowed a complete dunce like me to penetrate through.

So that’s been my checkered history of relationship with Math’s teachers. I did have a brilliant teacher for my IIT preparation though. But then I am more a ‘do and learn’ person who tended to foray into the world of dreams while he would be expostulating brilliant solutions to high complex problems on the blackboard. Then there was this lady mathematician who offered me free coaching for Mathematics Olympiad based on my performance at a city level Mathawiz contest evaluated by her. But she was known to be a marionette with a reputation for flogging her students relentlessly in pursuit of mathematical excellence. I lacked the resolve and strength of heart to put up with her rigorous demands. My pragmatic parents also did not deem it necessary to put me through the ordeal for the sake of intellectual pursuits that did not have direct career implications.

A day at a Boathouse in the backwaters of Kerala

There are these bucket lists people have. Some may be filled with all exotic stuff such as climbing the Everest, visiting Manchu Picchu, maybe Antarctica or even expeditions to moon or mars for the more ambitious. For the ones of humbler aspirations, staying at a boat house is probably there somewhere in the list. Now I won’t go into figuring where I fall or even if at all I have a bucket list for that matter. But the point to note is that staying at a boat house has been crossed out of my existent or non-existent list thanks to our recent trip to Kerala.

Well, like Oliver Twist let us begin from where it all began – the booking of the boathouse. When we were initially planning our itinerary, we had thought of staying a night at the boat house. What joy! Sleeping out there in the middle of a water body being rocked to sleep by the rhythmic sway of the boat, waking up in the middle of the night to look out of the window to see water all around! The complete sea gypsy experience! But that is all the stuff of books – reality sometimes is stranger than fiction but most times is just drab and devoid of glamour. So we discovered – there were packages to stay at House boats – a day costing what it would cost for a week at a regular room. But the boat apparently would not be in the middle of the water. Sharp at 5.00 pm, the boat would return to the bank and be moored there till next morning. How difference would the experience be from staying at a regular hotel with a back water view we thought, unless of course we were one of those who believed the value of an experience derived from the price we paid for it. I am sure many would have heard the story of the king who to prove his love for his beloved presented her apples purchased at hundred times their price. We unfortunately did not have such princely passions. Being the typical Indian middle class family that we were, we decided we would opt for just the morning to evening ride which would be much easier on our wallet.

We did not have to book the day ride in advance – it could be booked on arrival. So we reached Kerala and then began to ask around. We were told that usually rides were available between Allepey and Kumarakom. We were told Allepey was supposedly the Venice of the East and it would be an ethereal experience traversing the city through the canal criss crossing the city. The Venice of the West we had missed due to unsuitable weather conditions during our honeymoon in Europe. This seemed like just the opportunity to expiate for the same. Also some of the rides advertised an experience of traditional village life as part of the package- again my mind was filled with visions of Sea Gypsies.

We spoke to one of the boathouse agents and stuck a deal. The boat would start at 10.00 am and get us back before 5.00 pm with lunch thrown in as part of the package. The boat was waiting for us by the time we reached the backwaters. Our hosts were to be a father son duo in traditional Lungis – one would be steering the boat while the other would be cooking for us, we were told. The boat house was indeed like a small house with a hall cum dining room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a toilet. The boat apparently had electricity and we could use appliances like air conditioner and television inside. But were told the air conditioner was generally run in the night only. And who would spend all the money to travel to Kerala and then hire a houseboat only to end up watching the television. So the electricity did not have any utility value as such. But yes – it was cool to have access to running water and electricity in the middle of the waters cut off from civilization. I was reminded of the system Captain Nemo had set up in his submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

The houseboat chugged on for around two hours during which we managed to catch sight of some good scenery as we relaxed on the couch and looked on. The things I liked most were the floating beds of flora in the middle of the water and cormorants resting on wooden stakes closer to the banks. We saw what looked like a nice island as well in the distance but the boatman informed us that it was out of bounds for us. That is the problem with all these arranged package trips – anything that has an inkling of adventure element is typically out of bounds. But then this was a family trip and we were no Swiss Family Robinson or anything.

Sharp at noon, the boat came to a halt and the boatman announced that lunch would be served. It seemed a bit too early but the boatman said they had already prepared and if we didn’t have it, it would turn cold. So we decided to humor him and go ahead with our repast. Food was nothing fancy – there was rice, Sambhar, Rasam, two vegetables - one made of shallow fried potato and other of cabbage and of course curd to end the meal. But simple food has its own charm and there is this element Enid Blyton characters mention in many of her books – how food tastes extra special when had outdoors. Having food in the middle of water away from land added the extra flavor. As we were having our meal the boatman pointed to us what looked like a town in distance and told us that was Allepey. We began to look forward to the Venice of the East.

After an hour, the lunch was cleared and the boat was again on the move. Any moment the boat would be docking at Allepey. One strange thing we noticed was that the boat seemed to be moving away from the distant town the boatman had pointed out. Probably the area we had seen did not have an approach point for a house boat. We soon came close to some banks and passed right next to a line of houses – some Keralite women in traditional domestic attire were seen washing clothes in the lake. For the uninitiated, let me mention the said attire consists of just a blouse and lungi.

An hour passed by. Then two. We waited patiently. Soon our patience was rewarded by the sight of a bank approaching. Finally! Venice of the East – here we come. Then suddenly my wife spoke up – “Wait. This place looks familiar. And look at the person standing there – don’t you recognize him?”

Where did this familiar person come in Kerala? We did know anyone in Kerala and why would Allepey look familiar to my wife? She must have probably seen some photos on the net. That is why I say don’t spoil the excitement of travel by looking up all photos of the place beforehand on the next. As we came closer, I could see the person she was pointing to more clearly – I too recognized him. It was the driver who had dropped us off from the hotel in the morning. And yes – the place did look familiar too for it was not Allepey but Kumarakom. We were back to where we had begun our journey.

The boat men were smiling cheerfully at us. “Goodbye Sir. Hope you enjoy ride. Come with us again.”

Thousands of blistering barnacles! “What about Allepey, man?”

“We had lunch at Allepey, no, Saar?”

“What? Is that all? What about seeing the town and the canals and all that?”

“No inside Allepey in package, Saar.”

So much for Venice of the East. I placated myself saying possibly the place was just overhyped. How could some Allepey or whatever in the Indian hinterlands match the great Venice? How can the sour Indian grapes match the exquisite grapes of Italy used for making premier wines?

“And village life? What happened to that? Surely that was part of package?”

“You no see village woman in Mundu washing cloth?”

What the heck! Sea Gypsies indeed!

I made one last desperate attempt. “But the trip was supposed to end at 5.00, wasn’t it? Its only 3.00 now.”

“We drive boat fast and bring you home earlier. No extra charges, Saar.”

I realized any further continuation of this conversation would only serve to increase the rate of fluid flow through my veins. So I ended the conversation and made my way towards the waiting car with stoic dignity.

A visit to Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary

For some an ideal day may start with bed tea late in the morning. Not for me – not definitely while I am on vacation. On an ideal vacation morning, I would find myself up and about – all ready for a day’s adventure – even if it is for something as tame as a walk inside a bird sanctuary. After all the corporate grind provides little scope for any kind of adventure. Unless of course one were to call poor performance appraisals and client escalations adventures.

India’s national transport was waiting for us at the hotel entrance and a chauffeur in Lungi greeted us. It took him just 15 minutes to take us to the Kumarakom bird sanctuary. There the guard gave us entrance tickets of 50 Rs. each with a warning about bad path thrown in free of charge. In the earlier sanctuaries we had visited there were boat rides. But this one unfortunately did not have one though a canal ran along the slushy path through the undergrowth. We plodded through braving the slush, climbing over one fallen tree and ducking under another. Unlike proverbial good children who had to be seen and not heard, the birds chose to be heard and not seen. We heard a myriad of chirping but hardly any of the denizens of the air came into view as such for over 20 minutes before an owl finally decided to make a brief appearance. This was followed by a couple of stray sightings.

We labored on. As we walked on the chanting of mantras from across the canal joined the chirping of birds. And human voices could be heard. We looked across to see house boats and some buildings. It was kind of disappointing and took away a bit of the feeling of adventure. You know it does not feel like exploration with civilization so clearly in sight. Well it was never an exploration after all – just a bird watching walk. That made me wonder about the whole point of bird watching. People who know me will be acquainted with my habit of raising fundamental questions at the most inopportune moments. But well, that’s me.

So the bubble cloud appeared over my head and transported me to the various bird watching trips I had undertaken as the processor in my head whirred into action, analyzing the utility of this seemingly fruitless activity. Slowly some answers began to emerge – the beauty of the birds, the thrill of the chase, the intellectual pride attached to any piece of knowledge. For some the beauty of God’s creation alone would suffice to motivate them to undertake arduous journeys through slush and mire. But then there is this little fellow in the head who asks why not enjoy the beauty through pictures on the internet without undergoing all the trouble. So the next thing is the thrill of the chase – looking out eagerly for the birds, the disappointment of not finding any and the sudden spurt of joy when you spot one. And last but not the least, as a geek one feels good spouting off about cormorants, babblers and warblers to the astonishment and awe of the uninitiated.

By then we had reached the watch tower, passing a couple of other groups along the way. We climbed up the tower and looked around but could hardly spot one or two species. I regretted not having brought my binoculars along. On our way back however we stuck gold as we paused at a point near the lake. We came across a couple of teals, spoon billed kingfishers and a few others. As one of the bird books had mentioned, one may walk all around a forest without spotting a single bird but end up finding a huge variety of birds – all in one spot. That is how bird watching works. The trick lies in identifying that sweet spot and then waiting patiently. Doesn’t life in general also work more or less along the same principles?

On our way back, we met a lady, who indicated to us that we really had no need to jump over or duck under the fallen branches. There was another route to the site completely avoiding the branches. Like how I always do in life, instead of searching for the optimal solution around the branches, I had grabbed the first solution that had come my way. I realized in my projects at work also I got trapped by the very same attitude – the tendency to grab the first solution that comes to my mind even though it would be tedious and time consuming rather than continue to look till I find a more optimal solution.


Some of the things in life you get too little too late. Such was our meeting with a boatman when we were more than halfway back. He offered us a ride to the entrance. We decided we may as well walk – it was for touring the sanctuary we had desired a boat. That was already done and it was time for us to return to the hotel. So we had to decline and made our way back to the auto that was patiently waiting for us. The little journey did not end like fairy tales with lovers meeting but as it is usually the case with journeys on India’s national transport – with the auto driver demanding an additional 50 bucks for his efforts on our behalf. We did not want to spoil the rest of the day – so we shelled out the ransom money and got rid of him. 

Marijuana Diaries - Book Review

It is becoming a regular trend for bloggers and amateur writers to come together and put up a collection of small stories. I myself have been part of three such projects and looking to be part of couple of more such projects in the coming year. The stories are either written by pre-selected set of authors or outcome of open contests. Big publishing houses generally tend to go for contests while self-published books tend to be a project by a set of authors working together. Startup publishing houses go both ways. In terms of genres and themes, big publishing houses seem risk averse and opt only for romance. Startup publishing houses on the other hand seem open to experiment. This particular anthology I write about - ‘Marijuana Diaries’ is one such experiment by Fablery. They have already brought out a couple of anthologies based on contests organized at their site. In this one, the editor seems to have picked a set of authors and asked them to write. For generic themes like romance, contests work best. However for a theme like addiction, I feel this idea of choosing authors and asking them to write on different aspects of the theme ensures a broader coverage. 

The addictions covered here are those of sex, drugs, food, alcohol, work, television, romance, hobbies and social media. Each story deals with how the addiction impacts the life of the protagonist and the people around them. While in some stories the addiction is central to the story, in others it happens to be peripheral. In a theme based anthology I would have preferred every story to have addiction as the central theme. Also from a broader coverage perspective addiction to relationships, revenge, religion, ideologies and ambitions are ones that were prominent by their absence. 

As far as the title goes, it is appropriate and kind of conveys the theme. But when I browse the internet I find a more famous book already existing with this title. So this might cause the book to lose out on internet searches – not sure how much that medium contributes to book sales. The cover image is simple and elegant but not sure if it conveys clearly the theme of the book or in some way piques the curiosity of readers. There is a line drawing of contours of a woman who is smoking with the names of the authors floating all around her. To me, it conveys a picture of an addicted woman. Most of the authors are women and most of the protagonists in the stories are women as well. But there are exceptions to both – we have two stories by men and a story by a woman author with a male protagonist as well.   

Coming to the stories, they are mostly character based and closer to literary fiction as they focus on psyche exploration. All the stories are written reasonably well and I must congratulate all the authors for the commendable effort on their part. However I cannot say any of the stories really left a strong impact on me as such. But that could also be due to the fact that I possibly am not the intended audience for this book. Some reviewers can really keep aside their genre preferences and judge stories purely on merit. Unfortunately I am not one of those. I am a hardcore speculative fiction buff and in terms of serious reading as well, attracted more to the abstract and conceptual. So simple stories grounded in realism are hardly likely to cut much ice with me. I was aware of this even as I picked up this book and probably would not have but for the fact that I count many of the authors included in this anthology among my friends.

On a closing note, I must mention I found the idea of a diary on Marijuana addiction mentioned in the first story intriguing and set the right tone for this book.

The Rat's Fate

Aesop’s fables are usually short, simple and filled with wisdom. A couple of recent events that attracted a lot of media attention reminded me of the tale of the rat and the frog. For people who haven’t heard the story, basically there was this rat which went and befriended a frog. They decided to travel together, their legs tied to each other – one of those typical show of friendship. As they travelled, they came across a pond. The frog suddenly felt immense desire to enter the water. Forgetting the rat it jumped right in, dragging the poor rat along. It is anyone’s guess what must have been the fate of the rat. 

Now coming to the events, the first one is the backlash Anushka Sharma faced on social media in the eve of the Indian cricket team’s exit from the world cup. Male chauvinism and unrealistic expectation from sportsmen are two causes most people attribute to this backlash. But I see a different cause – friction between strata of society. Most of us middle class in our heart of hearts have a hidden bitterness towards celebrities, politicians and scions of wealthy business families, who we feel have been gifted a fortune on a platter while we have to struggle for every penny. This bitterness is what I feel finds outlet in public outrage against celebrities. Say Virat Kohli’s girlfriend was a non-celebrity - would she have attracted this much ire?

The second one is the video on choice starring Deepika Padukone. The Video reminded me of the famous lines by French queen Marie Antoinette. When someone told her people did not have bread to eat, she responded as to why they do not eat cake then? Some view it as sarcasm but there is other view that this was her innocence and total disconnect with the life of the masses. This Choice video seemed the same. It came out as if all that matters to women is taking care of appearance and having sex. That is possible true of women belonging to the class the actress and the director of the video belongs to. But women of other classes have other more pressing matters that demand their attention.

Similar differences exist between the middle class and lower rung of society as well. We have often heard people complain about how much they have done for their maid servant or driver; yet the person does not at all seem grateful. Obviously so! Whatever scraps you throw to them, the basic class difference is not going to vanish. In their heart of hearts they must perceive this as a basic injustice to them and resent us. In some cases, it is even justifiable. While some may have obtained their position in life through personal initiative, intelligence and toil, quite a few must have got things as a privilege of birth. Middle class people have access to education and life style which without any effort on their part endows them with some basic etiquette and communication skill that makes them automatically eligible for certain basic white collar jobs. This opportunity is not open to the lower strata. 

While I am not outright against intermingling of classes, I feel one must be cognizant of the fact that friendship across classes can be a slippery ground. One has to be watchful to avoid the tragic fate of the rat.

A dog is a dog is a dog

What is the point, eh? How can a dog be anything but a dog? I read this story in one of my school books where a dog is not a dog but a robot - owned by a boy who lives on the moon. The boy’s parents feel the boy’s dog is just a machine and the boy needs to experience the love of real live animal. So they want to give away the robot and get him a real dog. But for the boy, the robot dog and its feelings are reality. He does not want a real dog. He wants his dog.

Ok, good story, you may say. But what does that have to do with us? Well, everything. Dog is after all a man’s best friend. Before the feminists protest, woman’s too. Once I was talking to this European girl who loved dogs. We were in Japan at that time and I mentioned Sony’s robotic dog Aibo to her. She flared up at the very idea. How you can even imagine a robot taking the place of a real dog, she said. Next you will suggest one can even date and marry a robot, will you?

These whole set of memories were triggered in my mind when I read an article that said virtual friends are not real and that one should spend more time with real people. Why are our online friends not real, I wondered. They are not even robots but flesh and blood people who are just situated physically remote from us. Is physical closeness what makes a person real? I come across so many people walking around in my apartment complex. But I know nothing about them. They are just faces and bodies. Why are these people more real than people whose thoughts pour out to me through their blog posts, Facebook updates and tweets?  

Moving on from dog to girl, I used to spend entire nights talking to this girl I mentioned earlier. Virtually! She was in the room right next to mine. Still we were comfortable chatting to each other on Skype. When we were together in person we exchanged shallow niceties whilst we exchanged deepest of thoughts virtually. How about that! Our interactions continued even after we moved back to our respective countries. But somehow we eventually drifted away from each other. All our best interactions had been online. So I would have expected spatial distances to make no difference. But that had not been the case. I have somehow never been able to maintain a regular virtual connect with any of my friends from old schools, colleges and workplaces either.

That leads me to believe that it may be possible to maintain virtually only those friendships that were developed virtually in the first place. But then again my closest friends in virtual world happen to be people living in my own city, who I have met on occasion. So again geography comes into play. 

It is all complicated as people mention in their relationship statuses on Facebook. Unless of course you take a dog’s view of the world, stop analyzing and just love unconditionally. Guess that is why a dog is a dog is a dog. 

Welcome to the Circus

Today while I was travelling to office, someone was mentioning there was a circus in town. Incidentally at the time I was reading the book ‘Five go off in a Caravan’, a Famous Five book where the protagonists interact with circus folks. That got me thinking about the fascination the idea of Circus has held for me since childhood. So I thought I will jog through various associations circus holds in my mind and also why a circus seems to be a fascinating setting for fiction writers to set their stories in.

For all my fascination with circuses, I have actually been to a circus just twice in my life time – once in Trichy at the age of six and once again in Bangalore at the age of twelve. And actually hardly any memory survives of either occasion. But what remains strong in my memory is the Hindi serial ‘Circus’ and various Enid Blyton series involving circuses. Of course the other association circus brings to my mind are school essays we had to write about visit to the exhibition, the circus, the fair etc. Most of them were torturous and involved learning standard essays on the topics and regurgitating the same on the exam paper. 

To me all the stuff that happens behind the scenes is more fascinating than the show itself. The show itself must be alluring for if that were not so, the rest would be meaningless. Maybe it is just that my fantasy was so over hyped that reality could not measure up or it could be that the ones I had been to may not have been the best in business. Coming back to the point, the idea of people with so many different exotic skills living and travelling together along with animals is indeed quite exciting.  

I always feel we live dual lives – one personal and profession. Some may even have a third one – social. This starts right as children – there is one world out there at school and altogether a different one back at home. I always liked the idea of all worlds merging and people leading just one continuous life. I really loved it when I was in a software company’s onsite team in Germany. We were a small group of Indians at office and the same group used to share apartments, hang out together in evenings and travel around Europe in weekends and holidays. So it gave a kind of cozy feeling. I did not feel that Monday blues so much. The work has to be done – but the same people with who you had fun in the weekend would be there at work also. I see circus life as something like that – a heterogeneous group of people who live and work together as one big family.

And not last but not the least, circus environment provides rich scope for fiction writers in terms of various kinds of people as well as physical settings. No other group can provide such a heterogeneous setting with people of various age groups, gender and regions living together. Not just people but animals as well. And as far as physical settings go, wouldn’t the possibility of fights at the top of a trapeze, within tiger cages and horse stables make an action writer drool?

The Man in the Fool's Mask

Here I was sitting at the dinner table at the client guest house. A senior executive is seated in front of me.  A deathly silence prevails as he methodically dispatches food off his plate oblivious to my presence. I am stuck in a Shakespearean dilemma – to talk or not to talk.  If I am to talk, where do I begin? I do not feel very enthusiastic about stating some mundane known fact about the weather, the recent cricket match or the country’s politics. And when I finally manage to muster spirits and say something, it is closed with a simple “Yes”. What next?

I don’t know if many people are faced with such situations. But I often land up in such situations. Sometimes things get even worse. The other person is talking to me but I go cold turkey. This happens when he starts with some question like “why are you looking lost?” or “why that gloomy look on your face?” I have no clue how to answer such questions and from there on I go defensive and words begin to fail me.
This used to happen to me all the time in the presence of non-family adults when I was a child. On more than one occasion teachers have asked my mother why I never smile. I don’t know – I was not really an unhappy child or anything. On the contrary I have always been known for my sense of humor among my closer friends. I wonder where from the other kids developed this habit of smiling which I did not. Recently my wife made a passing mention that my father never smiles. Strangely I had not even noticed that in all these years. Now come to think of it, my grandfather was not much into smiles either. I wonder if this is one of those heriditary things.
To some extend I did manage to develop the habit of smiling at familiar people at least over the years without making any conscious attempts as such. After all, making any conscious attempts in matters like these only tends to make things worse. However in the presence of some people, I still tend to go stiff and uncomfortable. More often than not the person tends to be in a professionally or socially higher position than me. So at times I wonder if it is a result of a hierarchical mindset.

Alcohol was one thing that helped me ease out of my inhibitions. During the days when I was at the peak of my drinking, people would find me to be altogether a different person after a couple of pegs go down.  While normally girls would not even give me a second glance, I have had girls giving me conspirational winks in class on mornings following nights of binge drinking. But then one can’t be high on spirits all the time, can one?

I found social media to be the ultimate antidote for my social awkwardness. The fact that I can even choose not to be myself makes things even better. I feel so comfortable behind the fool’s mask. I am no longer bound by the constraints of age, gender, nationality, profession and social hierarchy. No one can see my face and ask why I am looking so serious.  However some things carry over to the virtual world as well – people who have interacted with me for long on social media would know I never use smileys. It is so much easier than managing facial gestures and body language but then I just don’t feel like. Well, that’s me!

Paved with Good Intentions

The road to hell is paved with good intentions it is said. The implication is of course that intentions are meaningless unless backed by action. But I was thinking of it in a different light – what if well intended actions turn out worse than inaction from the recipient’s point of view? I was at the receiving end of one such gesture yesterday which got me thinking. The incident in itself was minor and the details probably do not merit as much interest as the thoughts it triggered.

Various shades of these well intended gestures presented themselves to my mind. At one extreme, we have ideas like the white man’s burden wherein Europeans arrogate to themselves the noble responsibility of civilizing ignorant barbarians. There were probably some English men who even genuinely believed they were helping these ‘backward’ races. Somehow I perceive quite a bit of the so called social work to be manifestations of this tendency to different degrees. A group of people assume their way of living is better than that of another set of people and go about trying to ‘improve’ the lives of these others? 

A more benign version we experience from our parents, children, spouses and other near and dear. I remember one day, during my childhood my mother thought I would enjoy a Hindi movie. But instead of watching the movie, I was busy reading my favorite Enid Blyton book. She got into a fit of rage that I was not doing that which she though should make me happy. So she came up to me and ripped apart my Enid Blyton book. Now tell me. Did she make me happy or unhappy?

Then there is yet another version where the gift in itself is harmless like those oversize sweaters in weird colors knit by one’s dear aunts and great aunts. But then there is a catch there also. You are thinking you are being nice in accepting the unwanted gift graciously. And the other person thinks you should be eternally indebted to them for this great gift they have given you. Every time they meet you, they ask if you are still using the item that they have given you as if you would have never been able to remain alive without the sweater or whatever ugly thing they gifted you.

I for one believe each and every person knows best what or she wants and one should not do something for someone unless one is really sure that the person wants it. After all everyone’s life is their own and it is up to live as they think best. Now that is a great attitude to have and everyone would be appreciating me for my open minded liberal attitude, right? Wrong! I am often accused of being indifferent and lethargic at best and selfish and callous at worst.  

I am left wondering possibly the trick is in the paving after all, irrespective of whether it is the way to heaven or hell. After all paving is hard work and anything that is time consuming and laborious must be good irrespective of the results.

Zen and the Art of Diary Maintenance

Many people who eventually became writers have started out by keeping diaries. Though I have never given a serious thought about writing anything other than what the basic academic curriculum required during most of my school and college days, I have often tried to maintain diaries. It is fascinating to see in movies or read in stories how people have captured every little incident in their lives in their diaries. But actually once you get down to it, maintaining a diary is no easy task. If you set out to faithfully record the happenings of the day, it is not long before the tedium of the task completely overwhelms you. If one were to think about it, diaries in stories usually tend to capture all the interesting incidents of the protagonists lives, leaving out all the dreary details, the monotony and the drudgery of day to day life. But how is possible selectively record only the interesting incidents unless one has a talent for storytelling?


The other approach to diary keeping is to focus on one’s thoughts and musings rather than incidents. But this again comes with its own set of challenges. Recording of thoughts has an element of grandeur to it that makes one draw parallels with great minds and want to believe one thinks profound thoughts. But unfortunately when you observe your thoughts, more often than not they tend to be mundane and you wonder if the thoughts are even worth the paper and ink they are going to consume. And at times, when the thoughts do appear profound, you wonder if they are occurring naturally or it is just you being pretentious in an effort to write something cool in your diary. Then there are truths hidden in the recesses of the mind that you want no one to ever know. Would one really dare to put one’s darkest thoughts down on paper and risk discovery?  

So why suddenly all this fuss about writing diaries you may ask. I think you might have guessed the answer- I am going to try keeping a diary all over again. Where? Right here! After all isn’t that what the original purpose of blogs was – Web Logs. Even my idea when I started my blog seven years back was to share my musings. From there I took lot of detours and got into the realms of fiction, reviews, poetry, satire, analysis etc. In an effort to find a sense of structure and a sense of direction, I started my second blog. With that in place, this blog’s identify crisis deepened. Then suddenly one fine day, it all came to me. The two blogs are like Yin and Yan. If Three Realms represents order, Lucifer House represents chaos. While Three Realms is about the past, the future and one’s imagination, Lucifer House is about the present. While Three Realms center of gravity lies outside, that of Lucifer House shall reside within.

So from now on, I shall be sharing my musings here on a frequent but irregular basis with no form or structure, with no rhyme or reason.

Tublu by Jahid Akthar - Book Review

In every sphere of human activity, be it arts, science, politics or business there comes a time when it is freed from the shackles of the elite and made commonly available to the masses. As far as English literature for the Indian masses is concerned, Chetan Bhagat may be considered the great emancipator. The popularity of his works has spawned a whole generation of Indian writers who write on simple day to day themes that everyone can relate to in a kind of language that is commonly used by majority of Indians. The books have broken the myth that in order to write books, one has to be very proficient in a language, do lot of research on various topics, be highly imaginative, have a deeper understanding of human behavior and other similar things. These books have increased the general readership for English books in India as well as encouraged hordes of people to take up writing.  

Tublu by Jahid Akthar is one of the latest in the above genre of books.. The book tells the tale of a simple village boy who comes to the city with his father and his experiences in various aspects of life as he grows into full manhood. The story takes us across various places in India and abroad and spans over three decades, giving us a glimpse into the life, attitudes and aspirations of a typical Indian twenty first century middle class male. Being a first time author, I must credit Jahid for putting together a coherent set of events that stay together over two hundred pages.

One of the good things the author tries to do with this story is to reinforce some of the modern day ethos – freeing oneself from social conventions, breaking through various economic and social barriers to connect with people, a more liberal attitude towards sex and love to name a few. The book also gives us some insights into the typical life style and interactions amongst the current day urban middle class youth in India, especially those in IT and IT enabled services industry. 

One passing mention I must make before I close is the foreword section. I usually tend to skip this section and do not even remember if the books I read have it or not. But here somehow it caught my eye and what impressed me was the candor. It is written by a professor and gives a balanced view of the book, giving the reader an inkling of what to expect in the book. However like some of the other forewords I have read, it doesn’t take us through the genesis of the book , talk much about the author or go into his overall thought process behind the book.

The book is quite small and is a light breezy read. I would definitely recommend this book to all fans of Indian campus romances. People who generally feel intimidated by books due to heavy language, ideas or content should give this book a try – it is one of the simplest books they can pick up. 

Thoughts on Parenting

While this blog has been running close for close to 7 years and I have made acquiantance with numerous bloggers, I have never been requested for guest posts as such. I myself volunteered on 3 ocassions. But that changed towards end of last year with requests coming from 2 bloggers I have known for a very long time - Nethra and Saravana. This has been followed by a request from yet another person who I have known for really long - Rachna Parmar- who hosts a very popular blog on parenting, relationships and social issues. She writes in a simple, sensible, no nonsense style that appeals to a lot of people. Her blog has won acclaim on numerous Indian and International forums - Indiblogger, Blogadda and Huffington Post to name a few. It is indeed a honor to write a guest post on her blog. The post is on a topic that is very popular on blog-o-sphere but absolutely new to me.

'I never imagined I would ever write a post on parenting – I am just not parenting material. But then here I am, invited by one of India’s foremost bloggers on the topic of parenting to write a guest post on her blog on this very topic. Let me see where do I get started – this is one topic where I have the luxury to start like Oliver Twist – where it all began. It all happened one fine September morning on the eve of Ganesh Chaturthi. Wife complained of pains and we rushed to the hospital. Nowadays in modern hospitals however fathers do not wait anxiously outside for nurses to come out and announce whether it is a boy or girl. They take you right in where you can watch the doctor pulling out a lizard like creature from your wife’s womb like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, chatting away casually all the time. I was so stupefied by the enormity of the moment that I did not even use basic common sense to figure the gender of the child and had to be told the same. '

Click here to read the rest of the post on Rachna's blog.

Service with a Smile

One of my all-time favorite books is one called ‘Six Cousins Again’ by Enid Blyton. A key plot line in the story is a conflict between a mother and her favorite youngest son. The mother is used to petting and fondling the boy and he appreciates this show of affection. But things change when the boy’s request to keep a dog is denied. The mother says she will not take the trouble to care for the little pup and asks him to take it away. From then on, the boy begins to feel all the mother’s sweet words and gestures are just for show and that she does not really care for him. If she really cared for him, she would have ensured he got what he wanted. Somehow I could so relate to the boy’s sentiments at that age.

Now looking back, I realize the boy’s sentiments might not be entirely right. After all, parents can’t bow down to all the whims and fancies of their children. For example, if our son were to come to us with a request similar to that of the boy in the story, I doubt if we would be able to oblige. Neither me nor my wife are used to animals and wouldn’t be comfortable caring for a pet animal. But that does not mean we care any less for our son. But then the idea is still right in principle – one should show one’s feelings through actions rather than words or gesture. I thought about this in all together a different context – people in the hospitality and service sector.

Let me first start with my experience with an executive of a credit card company. The credit card had been given to me on the understanding that it was a life time free credit card. But they ended up charging me for it at the end of the second year. The executive I spoke with informed me that my understanding was wrong and the card was free for one year only. When I requested to cancel the card, she said she would not be able to cancel the card and I would have to personally make an appearance at the bank. Almost everything I asked for met with a negative response and I was none the wiser either on the exact procedure to cancel the card. But all time she spoke so sweetly and nicely. In the end, she asks me if she can do anything else for me. That totally got my goat. What is the point of asking if she can do anything for me after having done absolutely nothing for me so far?

At least in that case, it was single interaction and she could be excused on the grounds that she is probably a junior call center employee who just has to mechanically do what she had been trained to do to earn a paltry living. But I had a similar experience in dealing with the customer service executive at a popular hotel chain. I had discussed about some facilities to be offered to me and certain payment terms with the sales team. This customer service executive told me some of these things they would not be able to offer and for the rest of the things he had to contact a senior. Three days passed by and still he kept stalling me that he was waiting to get in touch with his senior. When I tell him my problems, he listens with a smile but offers no solution. And after all that every evening he comes knocking at my door, “How was the day, Sir? Hope you are enjoying your stay with us!” 

He knows pretty well that I am not getting dinner and going to bed hungry. He knows he is not giving me the bill in the form I would need as per my company policy and I would have to shell out my own hard earned money. So isn’t asking me whether I am enjoying myself sounding more like rubbing it in rather than being courteous to me?

I recently read in a book that Starbucks trains its staff to be genuinely empathetic towards the customers. I haven’t had much experience with this chain yet. So I am not sure if this is possible. But at least I could do without this hypocrisy of all sweet words and gestures while being completely unhelpful.  

Lucifer House Inc. - Entering 2015

I am writing a New Year post rather late in the year. But still it is January and I need a post per month on this blog. Since March, 2011, I have not missed a single month without at least one post and I hope to keep it that way. 

Last year was a good year. I wanted to post every Tuesday the entire year on my Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog ‘Three Realms of the Mind.’ I was able to achieve that. I had a reading target of 52 books – I achieved 92, though I missed some of the books I had actually targeted, reading some easier books instead. Unexpectedly, I got some off time at work and I was able to participate in National Novel Writing Month Marathon in November and complete first draft of my novel. I also managed to get a story into an anthology by Indireads. You can choose to either buy or get the novel for free by subscribing to the publisher’s newsletter. Check out the details here.

I have lot of plans for the coming year as well. I want to continue the trend of a post a week without fail on Three Realms of the Mind this year as well. I have taken on a stiff reading target of 110, which includes a short review on Good Reads as well. I have joined 2 writing groups that require me to write a total of 37 stories this year plus reviewing at least 10 times as many stories. I also plan to edit the novel I wrote last year and have it ready for sending to publisher at least by the end of this year.

One thing I have always felt over my 7 years of blogging is that so many people get requests to write guest posts while I hardly ever received any. I don’t know if that really matters but along with comments and page views, one of the indicators of how one’s writing is perceived by people. Last year I was happy to receive a guest post request from a long time blogger friend Saravana. It has been followed by two more such requests. I hope to be able to write worthy posts that justify the two bloggers’ faith in my writing abilities.

So that is a lot of stuff – so too much activity is not going to be seen on this blog. I had wanted to start a new blog for my memoirs this year. I have dropped the plan and this shall be my memoirs blog. As and when a memory of some event from my life comes back to me strongly, I shall be penning it here. It shall also be the place for all my general updates. I may also participate in a contest or two if any grabs my attention. Indiblogger has introduced this Happy Hour Concept that lets you grab Rs.1000 or Rs.2000 voucher just for writing. One can’t let such opportunities pass by, can one?

Amongst other things, I would like to mention the basic idea for the story published this year as well as my novel originated as blog posts on this very blog. Among the stories I plan to write this year, one will be the completion of a project started on this blog and lying in cold storage for a long time – retelling of Mayan mythology. So this blog has been an incubator of sorts for me to try out ideas and develop them. I hope this blog continues to play this role. In the past I have often thought about abandoning this blog as it seemed too haphazard and without any direction. But now I am more certain of what this blog means to me.  I have gone in all directions over the years and explored various avenues. At the end of the day, it boils down to the first lines I wrote on this blog back in April 2008 completing a fill circle.

"This blog is meant to record some of my random musings about various things I encounter in life. These little thoughts blown away like grains of sand by the great wind of life . This blog is meant to capture those grains of sand within this oyster and preserve for eternity as pearls of wisdom." 

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces