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. 

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces