Friday, February 29, 2008

A modern mural... lost forever!

I'm not writing much on this now, because I need to connect with the bandy I want to introduce you to next. Another old friend of mine.

In the meantime, take a look at these pictures. They are shots of a fabulous ceiling mural that this guy did. I have seen him with my own eyes, work for hours on end on it, lying on his back on a scaffolding...he wasn't even paid much for it - just enough money to buy the required materials.

And guess what? They recently white-washed it! Oh, yes, they did! It's gone. You can't see it no more.

I'll leave you with that thought while I collect my thoughts and other material around this original 24 karat bandy....

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Staggering Into The Sunshine And Out Of It – an unplanned weekend detour

It had been sometime since I had visited my parents and friends in Madras so I decided to go over for the weekend.

I got on to the Guwahati Express at around 11.30 on Friday night at the Cantonment Station, hoping to catch up on some sleep. I had already had a couple of Cobras and was half-way through McCall-Smith’s “Tears of the Giraffe”.

Just another regular, short train journey home was what I was expecting.

The first sign of something interesting afoot was when I found a guy sitting with his feet stretched out on my seat. He asked me for my seat number. I told him my seat number and he put his feet down to let me sit down. His buddies were lolling at supreme ease on the other seats and one of them was blasting “Hare Ram! Hare Ram!!” on his mobile phone. I broke the ice by asking the seat-keeper whether he and his buddies were going all the way to Guwahati. Yes, he said. They were Air-Force Police personnel. They had attended a “mental toughness” training in Bangalore and were getting back to their station in Guwahati. They would travel almost another 2 days before reaching their destination.

They were passing each other a 1 liter pepsi bottle but the stuff in the bottle didn’t look like cola and I didn’t have to think too hard to guess what was in the bottle.

When the train stopped at Bangalore East or KR Puram - not sure which - I saw the boys get down and ask around the platform vendors for cigarettes. I knew from experience that they were not going to find any so I called them over and gave them a couple of cigarettes. After that, the ice was completely broken and they positively forced me ;-) to have a swig from the pepsi bottle. Just as I had guessed it was some kind of Army issue whisky. One thing led to another and soon we were animatedly discussing the relative merits of the Israeli army and the French Foreign Legion, the Siachen and the Gripen and other things martial. The whisky had a perfumy flavour to it but it went down smoothly enough.

By the time the bottle was emptied and we finally hit the sack it was past 3 in the morning and I had clean forgotten to set an alarm for myself.

I slept well enough and woke up at around 8.30.

Madras had come and Madras had gone. I had slept a little too well! I had slept right through the 30 minute halt at Chennai Central and had continued sleeping for another 2 hours while the train had rattled its way from Madras to Guwahati.

The next stop was scheduled for around noon, God knew where, and it looked like it was going to be a wasted day and a wasted weekend.

I got myself a cup of tea from a one-handed kid and went to the toilet to smoke a ciggy when the train suddenly slowed down and groaned to a halt. Without a second thought I stubbed the cigarette out, collected my stuff and jumped off the train and staggered into bright sunshine.

I had jumped off the wrong side of the train and I was between two tracks. The one-handed boy had followed me to the door and he motioned to me to move away from the other track. A few seconds later a train zipped past in the opposite direction and the whiplash rocked me back on my feet.

My train started moving too and I was soon left standing all alone in what looked like the middle of nowhere.

There was a tiny station - I soon found out that its name was Doravaruchatram - about 500 meters down the track and I wobbled through the station master's office and across a small field onto a national highway. I crossed the road and the first thing I saw was a wine-shop replete with a pictorial pantheon of Hindu deities. I said a silent prayer and asked the wine-shop man for a beer. The only beer available was Armstrong (strong beer). I put the bottle in my backpack and asked where I might find some tiffin. He pointed down the road.

A young share-auto driver was at the wine-shop exchanging all his small notes for big ones from the shop guy. I asked him if he would drop me in Chennai. He said it was a 100 kilometer ride and that at 7 rupees a km it would cost me 700 rupees. I might have almost gone with him. Luckily for both of us, some passers-by who had joined the conversation scolded him and told him it was a stupid idea, what with an AP registered autorickshaw and all. They suggested that I take the "local" (train) from Sulurpet station which was about 10 or 12 km away. The auto guy and I sheepishly agreed that it was probably a better idea but I anyway hired him to find me some tiffin and then take me to the station.

The tiffin place was a small thatched shed and the food was cooked and brought from the owner’s house in the field behind. It took about 10 minutes to find a bottle opener but finally I settled down to wake up properly with my Armstrong (strong beer). The tiffin – 3 dosas, 2 vadas and 2 idlis with unlimited sambar and papulu podi– was delicious. The auto-boy and one of the passers-by who had suggested the train option invited themselves to my table and the 3 breakfasts cost me all of 74 rupees!

The auto ride to the train station was pleasant and I noticed sign-boards for a bird sanctuary - Nelapattu - on the way. I think we also passed a village called Tapa Indlu on the way. Don't know why but it reminded me of Machu Pichu.

At the Sulurpet station, on a whim, I bought a first class ticket – I’ve always wanted to do that on a local train. I still had an hour or so to kill, so I wandered out of the station and asked the lone auto guy where the nearest wine shop was. He said I could go straight and turn left or go straight the other way and turn right, but if he took me there and brought me back to the station it would cost me 20 rupees. I took the auto. At the wine shop, Sanju, the auto-rickshaw man had a 90 whisky while I had myself a slow Kingfisher.

I was back at the station just about in time for the train and I finally staggered out of the sunshine into the first class compartment which was empty except for a couple of gents in lungis catching up on their sleep.

I spent the next hour or so watching the people and the landscape and trying to memorize the names of the stations we passed - Akkampet, Tada, Arambakkam, Elavur, Gummudipundi, Kavaraipettai and so on - and wishing that I had remembered to bring my camera along.

I finally reached Basin Bridge station sometime around 3 or 4 PM and took an auto and reached home about 12 hours late. Ooof!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A "Gomi" Bandicoot

In my lexicon, “bandicoot” is also a term of endearment.

Like I told you the last time, not all bandicoots are bad and some of them are downright loveable. The one I want to introduce you to today is actually quite a chic and resourceful bandy!

My friend Agathe is French and she lives and works in Paris. She did her doctoral thesis on some esoteric, ancient sanskrit mathematical treatise. I am mega impressed by this fact and love introducing Agathe to my friends and talking about her every chance I get. Agathe has traveled in more countries than anybody else I know. The most recent postcards I have received from her were from China and then Jordan. Yes, Agathe is the kind of person who sends hand-written postcards with exotic stamps on them from exotic places around the globe.

Agathe is a bandicoot. A “bandy” in the sense that she loves junk, rubbish.

Some years ago, Agathe lived in Japan for an extended period of time – not sure what she was doing there. She told me that in Japan, just as in many highly economically developed societies, there are the extreme rich and the very poor. And between these two extremes there is a huge middle-class that is the engine that drives consumerism. Some of the Japanese middle-class are wasteful and gadget fixated. These people simply throw away perfectly good things. That’s right. They systematically buy the latest models of just about everything – televisions, fridges, laptops, vacuum cleaners and what have you. They simply must have the latest model. So, out go all the old televisions and fridges and bicycles and telephones and just about everything else. This section of Japanese society simply discard all their junk or “gomi” as is it called in Japanese. And much of it is perfectly good stuff!

There are designated spaces in each apartment block for leaving the “gomi” and this was the network of Ali Baba’s caves where Agathe rooted for treasure.

She first started off by more or less entirely furnishing her apartment with “gomi”. Word soon spread and her (mainly expatriate) friends started giving her wish-lists of stuff they couldn’t afford or didn’t want to splurge on. Agathe would scour the “gomi” dumps of Kyoto and salvage the stuff that her friends needed. She soon became so adept at “sourcing” stuff that one friend even gave her the exact configuration of a PC that he wanted and Agathe helped him put the machine together!

I’m sure that there is some kind of “reuse, recycle, refurbish etc.,” message in there for all of us, but I’m too lazy to bend my mind around it right now.

Or, even a huge potential in a chain of grey market, second-hand stores. Imagine shipping in containers of practically brand-new Toshiba laptops and selling them for, say, 3000 rupees! And charge the suckers another 3K for English key-boards. LOL. Who knows, the Japanese municipal authorities might even pay you to do it. An all around win-win situation.

Agathe is now back in Paris, working for the government, and she is as ardent a seeker of “gomi” as ever. The last time I visited her, she took me on a delightful crawl of wine bars all over that magnificent city. The theme of the day that she had chosen was “cheese and wine”…..The third or so bar we went to was in a quiet side street and we were lolling around a tiny table on the tiny sidewalk, sipping a nice glass of some chilled white wine. The neighborhood was “comfortable” middle-class. Across the street from us there was a gated apartment block. As we watched some Arab kids crawling right in and out of the gaps in the grills of the locked gates, a lady walked out and carefully placed a lamp-shade and a couple of other things in the huge garbage container. A minute or so later, Agathe uncoiled herself like a plump python and strolled across the street. She examined the garbage container as intently as if she were contemplating a bracelet at a Champs-Elysees shop window , then very deliberately picked up the lamp-shade and strolled triumphantly back to our table. The crawl ended sometime well after midnight and I took turns all evening carrying that piece of “gomi” carefully all over Paris.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bandicoot Biodiversity Hotspots

Bandies thrive just about anywhere, but there are certain ecosystems that are particularly favourable to this sub-species.

The big ones amongst these are (1) Organizations That Are Not Meritocracies like state owned banks, state run colleges, state organizations like RTO offices etc., (2) The Unorganized Sector like "house brokering", or house maintenance services like plumbing and electrical services and to a lesser extent (3) The Lower Echelons Of Just About Any Office.

The common thread in all these environments is that high quality performance is not a prerequisite for success and in most cases there is a lack of a defined or strictly implemented moral code and a framework of ethical behaviour.

In general, bandicoots are bottom feeders who, in their lives, have replaced ethics with greed and excellence with expedience.

Thus, you will find a bunch of bandicoots in a RTO premises who will promise to get you an international driving licence delivered at your doorstep without you even having to get behind a wheel. For a price, ofcourse.

Or, let's say you are looking for someone to fix a broken flush in your toilet. Chances are that you will end up having a close encounter with a Class A Bandicoot. He - it's usually a "he" - will not only make sure that he screws up the entire plumbing fairly well but will then force you to buy a whole bunch of useless accessories that he will collect a commission on from the hardware store. If you insist that you personally get the accessories then he'll hold you to ransom by dissappearing for a day or two leaving your toilet in a state of total disrepair. The bandicoot will stretch a two hour job into a two day marathon and make a mess of it. A bandicoot has no conception of a job well done. Its all about "how much can you hit this sucker for?". The helpless sucker being either you or yours truly or someone else just like you and me.

Ever tried renting an apartment in Madras? Wow! that really brings them on! They'll dawdle and they'll straggle. They'll lead you on endless wild-goose rides. They'll make you hang outside locked doors like forsaken puppies. They'll talk cock. They'll fart. They'll do just about everything but show you a house or an apartment that suits your purpose or budget. And if by some fabulous stroke of luck you do find a home, you will probably end up with three different bandies all claiming that he is the rightful recipient of the brokerage.

You are also certain to spot bandies in and around most offices. Here the diversity ratio is more equitable. The admin departments are particularly flush with bandies. Receptions and finance departments are also quite kind on bandy populations.

Well, I'm feeling kinda drained after reliving some of my tangles with bandies. But before signing off for the day, let me clarify that not all bandies are bad bandies. There are many that are quite lovable. I hope I'll eventually get a chance to introduce those too to you.

Have a great weekend and if you are a beer drinker have one on me - preferably a Cobra!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Bandicoot spotting

I've got PeopleWatching in my DNA and I've been doing it as long as I can remember. It didn't used to be called that in the early days. All that came later with Desmond Morris and suddenly this pleasurable past time of the jobless and the curious became a whole science with a fashionable name to boot.

Anyway...that's neither here nor there because what I want to talk to you about is this fascinating sub-species I love watching called "(human) bandicoots".

I didn't come up with that term to denote this type of person. I first heard the term used by my sometimes friend, total non-philosopher and certified mis-guide, Mr. Sudhakar. More power to him and perhaps more on him later.

In the animal world, bandicoots are large rats. They are nocturnal, urban-dwelling, beady-eyed and adept at escaping harm. They live in those unspeakable places that large rats live in. You seldom notice junior or sub-adult bandicoots. But they are so adept at survival that probably they all live to be quite old.

And bandicoots are fat. All of them.

"(Human) Bandicoots" or "bandies" in short, are much like their cousins the "real" bandicoots. In fact human bandicoots get their name from the fact that they are so similar to their animal behave-alikes. The only difference is that human bandies are not necessarily nocturnal. In fact they thrive in just about any location and situation which supports human activity. And, by jove, do they thrive! (to be continued)