12.31.2012

Jai Maruthi variety dosas

Southwards of the famed Silk Board junction in Bangalore, whose name rarely passes through the mind of a daily commuter without arousing the severest of shudders, lives a long flyover. The elevated tollway, as it is named in various government notices, memos and such official paperdom, cruises above the chaotic ramshackle that is Hosur road for nearly ten kilometers. It disregards the row of tiny little  named places below it with the nonchalance of a fat and prosperous businessman passing by the slums of Bombay in his airconditioned airport taxi. Kudlu gate, Singasandra, Hosa Road... all whizz by underneath as the tarmac heaves and falls like a giant roller coaster, proceeding steadfast in the general southward direction. Towards the end, one arm veers sharply to the right and lands the rider with a jolt, right at the menacing face of a tollgate - which guards the entrance to Electronic City.

For many of the regular, native Bangalore junta, hearing that I live in Electronic City brings out an involuntary sympathetic response - Oooh, that far? And the response invariably brings out my strong city-loving self - "Dude I TOLD you to live a little towards the city man.. you stray a little further south of where you live and you're on roaming dammit!".
Under such circumstances, I think of trying to merely cross the road on foot amidst 6pm-traffic at Silk Board, and the above-outraging city-loving self mutters to itself and shuts up quick.

So now that we have descended into the vast tech-park that is E-City, the road quickly assumes an air of importance - a la one of those longish and impressive driveways into some of India's better colleges. Young and sturdy shady trees line the pavements and pose a perennial danger to the hapless fellow texting away on his phone and walking without looking up (True story).

The tech park is home to a large number of companies - many of them well known, with their large number of employees, and some not very well known (like the one adjacent to where I work, whose sole purpose, I believe, is to unnerve late-nighters in my building by lighting up spooky looking lamps in their building at late hours). The most humanly reachable (going by normal BMTC route-info) spot on a normal day is one of the entrances/exits of Wipro, and is simply referred to as Wipro gate. Beyond this thing, the road suddenly peters out into a forgotten one marred with potholes and speedbumps (for even the vilest and most pathetic of roads in this part of bangalore have to have a well-built, hulking speedbump). The people who dare to venture beyond into this road have only one purpose in life - to go home for the night.

A kilometer or so down this road, one sees huge apartment complexes looming up on both sides, their flats dotting the dark sky-scape like individual mirror pieces on a giant disco-ball. In front of one such huge apartment complex is parked the green coloured vehicle serving my evening snack - the Jai maruthi variety dosa corner.

I have never been someone particularly inclined towards food except as a rather nice means to survive, and most of all, one who sees right through the clever foodgasm-inducing attempts by the marketing department in some restaurants.

"Rich, golden paper roast delicately stuffed with delicious, fried filling prepared from the finest of herbs lining verdant green valleys of Mysore, lovingly sprinkled with aromatic gunpowder ground from oriental spices handpicked personally for you from choice regions in  the South Indian peninsula" is just one number Mysore masala dosa, you see.

So I might add that, sometimes the best food I've eaten has been from an obscure wayside stall with nothing but a tarpaulin cloth covering its humble self.

And here it was - nothing but a makeshift stall riding piggyback on an extended autorickshaw.


It had customers, like the saying goes, from all walks of life. The lady from the nearby apartment with her two little kids, the fat pot-belly sporting mama with the bristled  moustache, the guy with the sweater-clad pet pug, and the auto driver from the nearby stand. 

"Masala, Plain, Mysore masal, cheese, schezwan cheese, chilly paneer, gobi, baby corn, sweet corn, chaat, benne, tomato cheese.." he began, when I asked him what varieties of dosa they had. I could've sworn bhairavi, khamaj and hamsadhwani might have been part of the list had I not cut him off and picked one at random -  schezwan cheese.

 The guy in charge snapped off a quick order to one of the men at the business end of things, who then set to work, first spreading an evenly thick layer of ivory-white batter onto the fuming hot stove plate. A fresh mist of smoke rose from the vicinity of the stove, carrying with it the aroma of the flavour the previous dosa had been doused in. And then the magic began. With professional dexterity, he let his hands glide over a few of the bowls in front, where the major ingredients which were to go into the filling were kept. A thick slab of the stuff was deposited over the dosa and out came a contraption looking like an egg-beater. This was rolled over the slab of filling, which flattened out evenly into indistinguishable pieces, all in a fiery red hue which sizzled and bubbled restlessly over the now golden batter.

The two little kids were kicking up a din over a glass of water. The elder one strongly disapproved of her sibling touching the glass to his mouth while drinking, while the latter thought it not a big deal at all. Their mom was, to borrow a popular tamil phrase, maattindu muzhikkufying in between the two warring kiddos.

When I turned back to look at my dosa, the guy was 'delicately sprinkling' cheese filings over it. The dosa had now assumed an air of importance and was spreading forth its aroma all around it. Smelt good, yessir!

As a finishing touch, he used the flat-ladle (or whatever it's called - I'm sure it has a name) and his fingers to roll the dosa into a cylinder, partitioned it in the middle for easy consumption and flung it onto a plate. Done boss :)

I spent the next five minutes trying to pacify the fuming dosa into a tame one at devourable temperature, and the next ten munching in silence. It tasted fine. Paying the chap off with a burp and some cash, I was washing my hands from the tap connected to a large water tub kept specifically for the purpose near the side of the van when i noticed a young boy standing near the driver's seat of the auto, grating paneer into little slivers. Our eyes met for a moment, and he turned his attention back to the little wisps of freshly grated cheese falling off into the bowl kept on the cushion seat.

And now for some nice filter coffee, but that is another story.

11.29.2012

Aneeeka!

On the 29th of November, on a cool winter's night in the outskirts of Bangalore, I did the unthinkable.

Rather, hang on. Chronological order of events is always more pleasant. So here goes: After a routine, harmless thursday at work I headed out the company gates a free man, and thought I'd finally give due respect to the one item that had been weighing rather heavily on the head (insert customary pun brag-phrase here) for a while - a long overdue haircut.

Months of having stayed in this fag end of the garden city had taught me how to really shed mane quick and fast, and make my Naturals-visiting colleagues think long and deep about hard-earned money. For I had found my barber, in the chaotic, cow-sporting, (yes cacophonous too, if you must) lanes of Konappa Agrahara. I have already waxed eloquent on the latter place in the previous post, and it is of no surprise that I find myself going there now and then every month just to buy some knickknacks or down some chaat from the roadside stalls.

So there I was, a bus ride and half a packet of Dark Fantasy cookies later, inside the tiny nondescript shop. The regular face, the owner was absent, and in his place lurked a heavily built man deeply engrossed in performing shaving rituals on some chap in one chair. The other chair was similarly inhabited, with the owner's aide tending to him.

I had to wait. I expect people coming straight from office to demand a haircut, in itself must have been odd in these places, so it was of no wonder that quite a few heads turned when I got up from where I was sitting, and proceeded to take off my shirt.

Law and order, however, was restored when the junta saw that I was wearing a tee inside my office shirt, hence validating a change of robes. We were good to go. Meanwhile, the owner-barber's aide was going medieval on a hapless customer's head - slapping, tapping and patting around with NavaratnaCool oil for lubrication. Head massage, not today maybe later - I made a mental note. A few minutes later, it was my hair's turn to be subjected to the scythe. And the date turned out to be with the new chap.

If there's anything a lot of guys would cringe at, it's the thought of an unfamiliar barber given administrator-privileges on your hair. Add to it the fact that I have to take off my glasses while he goes about his business, you have a nearly-blind me trying to guess the state of things from a mirror-reflection which looks like someone blur-filtered it in photoshop some ten to fifteen times (and a few more, just in case). Not good. Nope.

Fortunately, though, this chap spoke broken tamil. I communicated my need clearly to him, and he nodded enthusiastically. And whatay enthusiasm that was! He darted  from one side of the chair to the other, twisted my head through right angles in mere fractions of seconds and had the scissors in his hand chattering merrily without a stop. Two quick gestures from the comb and my hair was already down on its knees, ready to submit to his each one of his equipment's (masochistic) whims and fancies. All through this, the blurry image my eyes were giving me served no purpose, so I resigned myself with a sigh to whatever grooming that would present itself in the end. 

One has to realise one's limits.

Finally, he had given my hair a pull or two, and a few reassuring pats and I knew that I had reached the point of no return. He then proceeded to whip out the razor and gingerly place a newly opened blade on it, with the tenderness of a surgeon proceeding to divert blood flow through away from an ailing coronary artery. A quick clean up and I was done. The man took a few steps backward, and beamed in satisfaction. In a second, the expression was gone, and he made a few arbitrary clicks around my head with the scissors. Rinse. Repeat.

Holy hell.. It's his first time, I exclaimed to myself in horror.

Years of near-blindness have taught me the art of reviewing a hair-cut by merely running my fingers through my hair. The man was good at what he did. It seemed perfect. I put on my glasses. Now it was my turn to beam. I handed him the nominal (or cheap, depending on where you are from) sum of forty rupees and strutted out, feeling light. All was well with the world.

Clad in a loose tee and my neck smelling of Cuticura talc (dont ask me. It's something universal to their trade) I hailed an auto and noted from the corner of my eye that two others had done the same - the autorickshaw had now magically transformed itself into a 'share auto' which meant it was going to be a little cramped inside, or worse, I would have to ride half-bum on the driver's perch. 

However, another gentleman had beat me to the front and I was forced to share space in the back. But oh delights of life, the co-passengers were females. To add to things, the birdwatching mind had already #noted that one of them was hot, and she happened to be the one squeezed next to me. The auto flew, and so did time. (Future wifey/girlfriend reading this - oye I'm just kidding okie! What's a post without a bit of masala in it.. haha I know right?). Unfortunately the two of them were old acquaintances or so, and most of the conversation took place to my right side. So fast forwarding - I got down with one side of my tee smelling of some exotic female deo.

Which brings us to where the post started. A casualty of the haircut - one of the little hairs (or I think it was that) - had somehow gotten its way into my mouth and I had noticed its presence. All attempts to somehow evacuate it from its perch had failed and I had no option left except the one -

I SPAT. Onto the road.

I hated people who did it. And ironically, after having written about it long back, I just did a haaakthoo right by the side of the road. I watched as a car sped past, its tyre picking up the little drop. I watched, disgusted at my action, as the tale spread in the form of a mark on the rubber, to faraway lands.  Wherever the Volkswagen Polo would travel.

-------------------------------------------

 "Anika! Aneeaeekaaaaaaaaa!", she shouted as she trotted alongside me. "Where are you Aneekaaaa?" With all the sweet love of an elder sis, continued to call out for her sibling, running to the football field.

Minutes later, I saw the kids from the balcony of my apartment - Anika and her sister - as the little kiddos held hands and walked back home.


9.09.2012

Idli-vadai ondhu kodi

Konappana Agrahara is easy to miss if you're the regular Bangalore dweller. For all you know, you might've been dozing off or wishing your car had cruise control when this tiny nondescript place whizzed by your left (or bottom-left, if you were on the flyover) along the Bangalore-Hosur highway. It must have been one of those numerous little villages that you know nothing more of save the name that pops up in white letters on the green boards that line the national highways. For the nonchalant cityfolk that we tend to be, these places must have served as mere placemarkers, another familiar milestone that we passed when cruising along the road in our hurry to get to Chennai, Salem or Cochin. Perhaps a spot to stop for a tea or a pee.

Konappa (as I shall be henceforth calling it, for obvious simplicity) - which has been my place of residence for close to two months of my coming to this city, by all means gives you the impression of a curiosity shop. Infact, the place is vividly similar to the many little temple-towns that dot interior Tamil Nadu. Vaitheeswaran Koil, Sankaran Koil, Sucheendram and the like. To start with, it does not feel like (rather, it is not) Bangalore. Geographically closer to Tamil Nadu, it sits in that confused spot where you can get away with speaking in Tamil rather than take the trouble to liberally infuse your sentences with the 'maadi' word.

Mornings are quite the nippy kind, even for places that are more than a stone's throw away from the city. After finally deciding to lug myself out of bed (the alarm having been snoozed around six or seven times) I set the bucket at rest under the trickling stream of hot water issuing from the water heater. I warm my hands on the heat being given off by the burner inside the heater and spend a while looking at the crowd walking on the road below. That is where the confluence is first visible. The general, shirt-clad drove of faceless IT professionals walking to work rush past unmindful of the slower, older and more pertinent crowd - the shoe-seller, the temple priest, paan-wallah - and the frail old man carrying the fortune-telling parrot.

men who come from the hills
With parrots in a cage and fortune cards

Kamala Das had it right. From the dark and looming Yelagiri hills near Jolarpettai to the barren open lands that the towns quickly gave way to, each of these nondescript places have a story of their own to silently present. It talked to those who cared to listen. To those who stopped their cars to sip tea and smoke a local beedi at the wayside shop. To those who paused to look around while straightening their tie. The story that was so intertwined with the rough pace which the village was forced to take, in the rushing current of India's booming businesses. Of how tiny little houses gave way to hostels, of how the paanwallah became a mobile phone recharge shop owner.

Life is laid-back. The smell of thaazham-poo kumkumam floats up to my room from the ornate shop below selling 'puja items'. It is quite a nice little shop, the kind that makes you want to reach for your camera at times and shoot the bright colours and wish you could capture the smells as well. The fruit-seller with his surprisingly unending collection of dilapidated five-rupee notes sits outside his shop. The monkey that had become friends with the gentle, well fed cow roaming the roads at her own sweet will is nowhere to be seen. The sardarji glares out at passersby from his mattress shop. The temple priest performs aarti on someone's newly bought autorickshaw.

The business end of things makes up for the unhurried nature of everything. A few paces away, hundreds of Volvos buzz past, their turbos in full song, ferrying people to and from work. The sun sets to scores of blue-shirts and black trousers marching home marking what was another day at the office. The stress and cholestrol-levels threaten to render the air heavy with their pregnant danger. A man stands with a fortune-telling robot. The barber shop services a lone customer, the barber relating some interesting tales as the person listens with the barest of nods. A makeshift jalebi stall has just been set up and the friendly stray dogs wait in anticipation for a few crumbs. A bunch of giggling ladies devour pani puris at the Kolkata chaat centre.

The town sleeps late.

Like most of the people here, I crashed here in the hope of using it as a rock to rest my head while I searched for a proper apartment to live in, somewhere in the city. And like many others, I found myself as surely drawn to the place and the people as we were put off by its numerous shortcomings. It would probably be just a matter of weeks before we moved out, but Konappa agrahara, with all its bells and whistles, has managed to leave a mark as vivid as the kumkum colours in the puja shop below.

5.04.2012

XKCD downloader or 'Ohai regular expressions'

An impromptu post finally made its way through the pipeline. I had been wanting to play around with regular expressions for a very long time but hadn't really gotten down to it out of 1. Laziness, and 2. It seemed a bit daunting, and there was no reason I was going to just memorise those itsy bitsy characters for the fun of it.

Finally, some incentive came along. I had been trying to go through some of the (extremely arcane) documentation on tldp.org whenever a dash of some linux-enthusiasm crept in on an unsuspecting me (mostly at around midnight right before a university exam), and they feature a very nice selection of download options for each article. It would've been nice if some other sites that featured a lot of textual content (spanned across many pages listed as links in one) came with that too.

Plus, trying to do something entirely unrelated to what you are supposed to be doing (or what you would be graduating in) is just plain fun.

Hence I started trying to create a script which would download all the web pages that a current page linked to, and those that the downloaded ones linked to and so on (recursively, for a specified number of levels) and along the way, test the waters of the very powerful stuff called regular expressions. Long story short, I did get the hang of it and ended up writing it in Python as opposed to a BASH script because I was very rusty on BASH syntax and python felt better.

Long story short - I did manage to make sense of a lot of regex usages, enough to feel somewhat confident of finding my way around the big bad world of characters galore. The downloader script did work like a charm for a lot of plain-html based websites where you could swear that a link (you could be sure it was in blue) was put there by the good old "a href=blah/blah.htm" tag, which you could conveniently exploit with a simple regular expression similar to this:
[hH][rR][eE][Ff]="(.*\..?htm.?).*"
For many others, it would stumble. The web isn't quite the old one these days, and in an array of bewildering Ruby on Rails, AJAX and stuff that made you wish for the hundredth time that you had played with these things earlier (and also, while we're at it, graduated in Compsci), some tinkering was needed and I was getting pretty much bored with poring through page-sources.

Around one o'clock is when another idea struck. Simple - Download XKCD comics. Now that was interesting and sure had incentives of its own. The good thing with XKCD is that the chap has been pretty much straightforward and consistent with his stuff, and viewing the source yielded all that I needed to know. The latest comic would be displayed when one headed to xkcd.org, and the number of the each comic was there in the permanent link to the comic (the latter being also part of each page). The path ahead was thus - open the latest page, extract the comic number. Any number running up to the latter would serve as a valid suffix to "http://xkcd.com/" without the server screaming a 404 in your face, and "so a little wget magic is all that's necessary" to view any page. A little more regex within the source of each page and we were set.

Download the script here
- Run the python script: it tells you how many comics xkcd has reached currently.
- Enter the number of the comic from where you want to start downloading, and where to stop.
- Twiddle your fingers and watch it download and save stuff into a sub-folder named xkcd_downloaded.
- Each comic is saved as an image and a text file with the same name.
- The txt file is the transcript (the text that pops up when you hover the mouse over the comic)

So there. The entire xkcd comic set right inside a quiet unassuming folder.

There's one annoying bug in the code: If the comic transcript contains characters which are escaped by HTML (such as ampersand, single and double quotes, etc), in spite of my having taken care of them in the code, some transcript files still show up stuff like ' instead of a single quote. Suggestions on how to take care of this are welcome. Solved, thanks to spotting a very silly mistake.

Now the sad part. After dusting off, a casual google search revealed that people had already done xkcd-downloader scripts. There are indeed quite a few of them online, but I am not sure if a lot of them do it as neatly as this :P

The good part was doing it for fun, learning a thing or two on the way.. and it happened :)


4.15.2012

SerenDippyty

I stumbled home tired after having survived an extremely hot afternoon out in the mercy of harsh urban environs.

"Ma, I'm taking a rather long winded route to college tomorrow. Plan to get back in class a little late, around fifteen mins or so. But shall have to cover around 130 kilometers instead of the usual 13 odd, so heading out early in the morning.. will that be fine?"

Fortunately or not, the upper generation isn't very freehanded with the phrase WTF. I had to explain: The plan was this - take the morning Janshatabdi up sixty five kilometers to Kollam and return by the Malabar express just in time for the morning hour on Virtual Instrumentation. (Attendance shortages were a pain, and people had to be pleased). The reason? Now this was tough, and we have to rewind a bit.

The previous day afternoon was mostly free, and the old lemon was being bothered by something.. Wanting to head off somewhere alone, I just took off from class silently, walked around for a while and decided to take a detour on the way home. Not having fully decided what to occupy myself in the evening, I boarded a different bus and turned things over. Apparently a diesel locomotive new to these parts had arrived for giving the crew around Trivandrum some training with the thing, and I had not seen it up close in its new habitat yet. I got off near the station with the intention in mind, and lo and behold - there, standing in the sidings in the loco yard, flaunting its sturdy metal body in the afternoon sun, was Mr WDP4B. The most powerful diesel locomotive in the country as of yet, setting foot for the first time within the state. The original object of my pursuit, the WDG4, was two diesels further behind this beast - both of them being close cousins of each other.

So it was a double treat. I texted a few folks and confirmed that the damn thing had not been spotted here anytime earlier this week. I moved along the wall that overlooks the station and tried to get a closer look at the beast. Dodging the curious looks a male from Male was giving me (I later found out that he was, as are most people, interested in getting to the station rather than in what was being parked there), I managed to put my mobile camera to good use.


I scrambled into the station, and after a bit of talking to some nice loco pilots and pointsmen in the yard there, found out to my be-still-my-heart-ness, that the loco was in charge of the morning Janshatabdi express to Calicut the very next day. It was then that I hitched up the plan. Called up a fellow railfan Akshay, and after getting over the bewilderment of the news, he said he was game, and decided to buy tickets for both of us. As luck would have it, my very old Powershot A410 died on me refusing to open its shutter that evening, and hence it was a borrowed cam that was going to be used the following day.

The morning of the Ides of March saw a rather nervous me walking down the foot overbridge towards platform-1 of TVC, fervently praying that it was indeed the WDP4B #40063 that was assigned to the Janshatabdi that morning. I would've ended up being the laughing stock of a lot of people I knew if otherwise. Halfway down the walkway I heard the familiar whistle coupled with the jet-turbinish whine and I knew everything was in place. The WDP4B (affectionately called the Dippy in railfan circles) was at the business end of the train and we were good.


And there it was. The 4500-horsepower beast, with the massive engine inside so nicely packaged that all it produced at idle was a loud whine and a slightly shrill whistle from its turbo-supercharger. I loitered around the loco while I waited for Akshay to turn up. In the few minutes that followed, I chatted up the loco pilot and was invited inside. Boy. The dim lighting inside the cab showed a not-very nicely done workmanship on the control stand, and the entire ground was shaking a bit. Quite a a desi experience compared to the interiors of this loco's earlier cousins, imported from General Motors way back in 2004 or so. After mumbling thanks and suggesting there would be two crazy guys leaning out the first coach for a while, I stepped off the powerhouse. A lot of officialdom turned up later and took up almost all the little room there was in the cab. It was the first run of the train with this locomotive, and the entire crew was a tad anxious about things. We later found out that there were six loco pilots inside, each trying his hand starting the loco from different stations enroute. Needless to say, a lot of people were excited around the head of the train, while the regular travelling junta inhabited their respective seats inside their coaches oblivious to everything.

At 6 o'clock the collective prayers of a few individuals was followed by the loud blare that is the dippy's horn. The sound of this loco as it accelerates is different from the chug-chug that people usually associate with diesel locomotives around the place. This one sports a very aircraft like whine, coupled with a not-easily-missed throbbing bass sound that is just music to one's ears. Akshay and I observed the train start off with that noise we all love, walked along for a few seconds and took our places right at the door as the train slowly covered the points of TVC yard. It slowly ambled on, with the throttle in notch-1 (position), and to our dismay, the engine went back to idle rpm after a few minutes of our coach leaving the station. (For those who are wondering, the sound told us).

"Daivame, chathicho?" we exclaimed as the turbo whistle died down and the train slowed down. Moments later came the reply. Almost as if wanting to make up for that little misleading behaviour, the gentleman at the controls pulled back on the throttle lever and the engine responded with that literally uplifting sound. A lone morning jogger couldn't help stopping to look on at the train as the pilot took the loco past notch 1, 2, 3 to 4 and 5 all within seconds. The sound of the revving whining diesel filled the air like an aircraft taking off and as if that wasn't enough, the honking mayhem started. Short staccato blasts shattered the morning tranquility and the cold air was mixed with the very warm smoke blowing onto our faces from the exhaust. In short - a treat for all senses.

Those who must've taken more than a cursory look at the photo must have noticed that the driving cab (where the loco pilots sit) was way back at the back end of the loco. This long-hood-leading position worked out to a railfan's advantage (and added to the strain of the ones driving it), thanks to the myriad of curves along the route we were to take. The long hood up front and the oblong projection housing the radiator up at that end made signal spotting on curves rather difficult in that position, from inside the cab. As a result, we were greeted with the sounds of the diesel beast notching down to the engine almost at idle till we ran up to the signal (with occasional long horns in blind curves), and then revving all the way up to full throttle (Notch 8) as we resumed the banter. Clearly, the loco pilots inside the cramped cab were having fun, if not with anything else, with the horn switch. Heads turned everywhere. Inside the first coach, the all permeating sound of the turbo was making it seem as if there was a very hissy and whistling milk-cooker on the boil somewhere nearby.

We halted at Varkala and we scrambled out to get a few shots. The cab was abuzz with all the people inside, and by the time we returned after clicking a few photos of the train they were quite getting used to the attention from the rather strange breed of college-going chaps. The starter signal had already been given and the crew members exchanged places for the next one to start the train from standstill. And boy the ones near the loco had to cover their ears a bit when the horn sounded.

The ride onwards to Kollam was just as bit of fun as the ride so far, what with the curves and good speeds. Speeds hardly left 90, the maximum permitted in the section, and it was with a bit of hesitation that we got down as we sidled into the mainline platform at Kollam Junction. We posed with the blue and white beast and watched it notch up for its long journey onwards to Calicut.

One of the gentlemen who had come to see the train and its crew off at Kollam happened to be a friendly loco inspector whom we had a long chat with on sensors, loco maintenance, and general IR stuff. A thoroughly fantastic morning having been made, we trundled off in search of a ticket back to Trivandrum and some breakfast. The Malabar Express crowd was thronging the platform as the train pulled in on time behind a sullen looking electric loco. Seats were the priority, and we managed to squeeze our bottoms in a sleeper coach whose rightful inhabitants were already being roused rudely out of their seats by general-ticket-wielding regular travellers. Filling in the masala dosa, which was surprisingly pretty good, I spent the time seated, texting and trying to doze off.

Kazhakuttom arrived, a quiet but rather large station. We got off here, along with many others who were headed for college. The sound of the 40063 was still playing around in my head, stubbornly refusing to quieten down. Boarding a mini bus to college, I found my classmate Sruthi inside and we made it off to class, just in time for the teacher to only register a mild annoyance on seeing us at the door so late.

She did wonder who kept whistling strangely throughout the class though.

2.28.2012

Make. Do.

Of late I've come to hate sitting at home in the evenings. What with particularly nothing fantastic happening in life of late all the choice one has is to leg it to the terrace and watch the sun go down, with a scowl.

It was thus with best interests at heart and also with the aim of taking in some freshly polluted air from exhaust pipes of the various beings that ply the roads that I put on my famed (in local circles) red tee and set off with no apparent destination in mind.

A long road with scant traffic (owing to yet another hartal being on the prowl). Thiruvaaranmula krishna. The song was being played off some temple speaker in the distance. The Sahaana raga on which it is based, is a lovely, soothing one - best played off a contemplative veena and best heard under a banyan tree overlooking a pond.

Pots. Earthen pots - of all sizes, stacked on top of and next to each other in a precarious fashion. The city would be witness to an unbelievable amount of faith, smoke and women once the Attukal Pongala happens. I dodged the ubiquitous Pulsar-riding chap and crossed the road, reaching Attakkulangara junction. The three-doored temple with the Paala tree - the priest stood by, lazily observing the growing traffic, with his pot belly blocking a full view of the dark stone idols - Black figures adorned with the brightest of marigold flowers. One of the earthen-pot-sellers was wiping the sweat and dust off her brow with the end of her saree. Honking and chaos everywhere.

I wonder if the entire creative process - art, music or anything similar, is any different from the process of doing something else productive. It certainly does not feel similar to the logical thinking that happens when one is writing code, for instance. Superficially, the latter requires you to keep track of what is going through your mind, while if you want the former to yield good results, you have to keep your powers of observing each word of thought or creation at bay. Infact, the process of making music - singing an alaap in a particular raga for example - is hard to explain logically. I believe an artist or a sculptor would feel the same way about his work too. But to believe that the two are different things just complicates matters.

Glancing up while walking past the red South-Fort revealed that it was built in 1891. To think I had never noticed it before. The entire structure is perhaps taken for granted, and the only thing motorists have in mind is that the passage under its strong beefy pillars is that it a one-way road. Plaster peeling off in places, it reveals the bricks laid many years ago under the decree of the ruler of Travancore. Unlike its counterparts in old Delhi or Hyderabad, this fort does not have to bear the brunt of paan stains, fortunately. I daresay Trivandrum is easily more hygienic.

Things in the world have to boil down to something. Just like the fort is made of bricks that are revealed in a quick inspection, we have come to know of atoms and molecules. The brain is thought to function as a result of impulses - exchange of chemical and electrical energy between neurons - that in some strange code or manner, represent everything we do. The key to understanding how we work, or how we think, is to decode how the impulses correspond to thought processes. My knowledge of biology is limited to high school level but I believe that the means by which impulses trigger physical activity is already well known - and similar to sensor-actuator-systems in the world of engineering. However it is still fuzzy how thoughts work. How exactly is it that we come up with something? Are 'random' ideas completely deterministic, ie determined by a function of all knowledge and experience we have, or is there some probability element to the way an idea 'sparks' off?

To say that there is a mysterious element governing how our thoughts proceed sounds a bit superstitious, and maybe a bit spooky, like quantum mechanics or something. Maybe it will help if we consider the way we look at how water flows in a stream. From outside, the flow is utter chaos - a totally random gush to a casual observer and perhaps a tad beautiful to the poet. However, the water molecules are behaving in perfect order, and in perfect compliance to the laws of physics. It is just that they are moving too fast for us to notice them individually and work out how they behave, in our mind. Another example would be arcane, but might make more sense to some: It is like observing the sleepers on the adjoining track from the window of a moving train. If you let your eyes fall casually on the track, it appears to be a blur. However if you look at the speeding track carefully, you can make out individual sleepers passing by. Speeding past in a whizz, but observable individually for a brief moment.

To someone who is utterly engaged in his work - an artist applying colours to canvas, a sculptor chiselling out a statue or a pianist with his fingers playing over the keys while his glance is turned up to the heavens in a dreamy gaze - what if they are thinking just the same way a chess-player thinks, but thinking too fast for their own observations to follow the process, just like looking at the water flowing through the stream? The more I think about it, the more it seems probable. If you could indeed slow time down to observe the brain churning out something we call a creative effort, it would perhaps be observed that the neurons are firing in a certain order, and that the entire process isn't necessarily random or truly divine as we would readily believe.

If this is the way it is, then it must surely be possible to codify it. We must be able to, at some point, come up with some rules that represent how this creation takes place. How the notes just present themselves in perfect harmony with the raaga during the aalap or how the artist thinks when he is drawing some abstract figure. (However, to say for sure that *this* is how something works is not really the spirit, for all we can offer is *one* way in which some phenomenon can be explained. The very phenomenon that can be explained with Newton's laws of motion could also be explained with the one word - Magic) If it is indeed true that whatever we come up with could be a function of solely our past experiences and knowledge, we could then, come up with something that could simulate the whole creative process itself.

In short, we should be able to make a machine that is creative.

The Pazhavangadi temple was as crowded as always. A twenty-something-looking female walking ahead of me caught my attention. A middle aged guy who happened to be standing by the side of the road locked his gaze onto the lady. I watched him as his eyes followed her as she passed him, finally turning his neck by no tiny angle as she disappeared down the road. Stark act of public chick-watching by a mature man. I made the disgust apparent with a frown as he passed me oblivious to the amount of judging he had just been subjected to.

The road that leads up from Pazhavangadi, onto the parallel road to Vazhapalli is an interesting one. Apart from being flooded regularly in the monsoon season, it sports a wide variety of shops all along its course. Being a hartal day, most of them were closed except for a paanwallah. Kaviraaj Traders - dealers in Ayurvedic medicine. Maha Chips - the closed shutter betraying its interiors by giving out the tempting smell of sweets and good snacks. A few residential colonies, walls lined with movie posters.

Talking of the creative machine, once we are able to come up with something that would produce art, or make music the same way we do, the first reaction would be of all hell breaking loose. Ofcourse, there is no doubt about the fact that, as soon as we are able to explain how something happens we should be able to simulate it by means of a computer or some such thing. If not a computer now, maybe something more powerful many decades later - later, but surely yes.

The question now changes to - if we did, then, have a way to churn out pleasing stuff like music or art by means of some algorithm *exactly* the same way *we* as humans came up with them, would we know it?

The wall was filled choc-a-bloc with movie posters. The old ones having been beaten down by the rains or prised apart by some passer-by in a pissed-off mood. Sleaze. Muscular arms, six packs. Some beautifully designed ones made lovelier by pretty faces.

Aren't humans subconsciously plagiarising, or using some 'formula' at some point or the other to keep going? Look at Bollywood. Start with a romance plot, add some twists and turns, some comical characters, show some navel and cleavage and we're set. That's artificiality right in your face. How often do we actually come across truly *inspired* pieces of work every year? Perhaps the line between artificial and natural creation is, as are lines between everything, truly blurred once you start noticing them.

If that's the case, then maybe nothing would happen. You could have design-generators. Photoshop bots. It would just creep in, just like what the keyboard or the digital age did to music. It would be a known fact that artificially generated stuff did exist, and then decades later we would probably venerate experts who could distinguish between two very cleverly similar samples. But what is the point of it all? It would become disillusioning. Then the lines between what people perceive as good music and bad music would start to blur. Wasn't music, or art intended to impart pleasure rather than be subjected to a critical analysis?

Total chaos. Not in the world, but in the mind. Sense of good and bad being influenced by factors other than the experience of the thing alone - factors such as facts and decisions.

The road that leads to my house from the SP Fort hospital was exactly the opposite of the one I had just walked past. Chaotic. People thronged the lone tiffin centre that was open, sipping watery tea and biting into bajjis hot from the pan. Traffic bursting at the seams, moving in one dizzy, flashy blur that sometimes paused for a moment when you looked at it directly. Smell of smoke. Dried leaves burning. People shouting. The orange LEDs on the Volvo bus flashing rhythmically. Or was it random?

Music, or any art, for that matter, is truly profound when it is intended with the sole aim of its being there. It's that simple. You sing because you like what you are doing. You feel it is good because it makes sense. To you. Some of the best paintings would have never made it to public exhibitions simply because they meant so much to the artist himself. You may charm a crowd with your guitar, but the reaction of the crowd will not replace the feeling you get when you sit alone under a tree and strum some chords - to ease your mind, to please it or to just express your innermost moods through what you play.

The world may like it or not. It doesn't really matter. Create, with the principles of creation alone, and for yourself.


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Influenced by a series of high and sober musings on the same subject, some good conversations and the narrative style used in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance.