7.18.2013

The gentleman's hanky guide to etiquette

Alright fellas - We're men, and We make Fire and all that, but this is about those few times you felt powerless and pitiably at the mercy of that micro-organism going by the name Common Cold Virus. As irritating a day as it might seem to you, it is even more irritating for the ones that inhabit office space, college desks or government land beside you. For there have been times I had a tough time convincing the big boss (on leave, as big bosses generally are) over the phone that I was indeed at work and not volunteering at the steam locomotive shed in Coonoor (Coonoor is near Ooty, which is sufficient grounds for the big.b. to raise an eyebrow) owing to the sniffling, snorting, hissing and hachooo-ing presence of a co-worker whose WBC decided to take a day off to get their rental agreements renewed. 

The level of unpredictability and general Murphy-ness I refer to is somewhat like this:
So without much further achoo, here are a list of things you might want to keep in mind to conduct yourself professionally in a stiff upper-lip (tough, under the said circumstances) setting.

The hanky. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. This is not school. Gone are the days of the all purpose sleeve-rub, or (for those of you who have a flat stomach) flicking up the bottom of your tee to wipe a runny nose. Use a large hanky and keep it in a location that renders it at your service in under a second (sneezes, like the world in general, have gotten quite fast paced these days). Precisely at the moment time freezes on an impending sneeze, whip the fabric out and stifle yourself to death with it. Once the dust settles and the clock resumes ticking, nonchalantly remove the hanky with all the collateral damage securely contained within, adjust your tie and cuff-links and shoot off a polite 'Excuse me' to the people around. Like a sir.

Meanwhile, as you were expelling the atomised gas-liquid mixture at a force of many g's, the people around should have ideally just felt a butterfly take off or heard something like a distant door gently click shut. The trick to the entire gesture is subtlety. Reserve all the loud sneezes and the various vocabulary experiments (Hash you, Wah Bishop, Hashish, etc) for the more tolerant confines of your living room. The only thing that should give away what you were up to over the past two seconds is your post-incident, dignified request that everyone around excuse your action.

Needless to say, if you're the kind that regularly leases shoulder real-estate to worried and troubled  females (a gentlemanly pursuit, no doubt), make sure you have an extra, unused set of hankies before you offer them to the troubled female in question. 

Don't hoard. This is commonly seen with kids, and some of us don't really grow up. The tendency to stock liquid reserves up the nose and, owing to the precariously vertical means of storage, snort every now and then to keep the damn thing from making a quick prison break of sorts. Gravity is your biggest enemy for the day and unless you're the space shuttle you are not going to win. Hence it is better to stop fighting for a lost cause and head to the nearest restroom to clear up matters. Do not make a rush for it, as it conveys a different sense of urgency that might shed bad light on whoever shared their lunch with you for the day. Stroll on, and veer sharply once in close proximity to the place. Once in, make sure the wash basins are completely empty (Do not mind the fact that there might be someone behind the toilet doors - chances are that the noises they have to stifle are more embarrassing than what you are about to sound forth). Blow your nose hard, wash your face and leave. 

On the way back to your seat, beam at the person sitting nearby whom you've always liked a lot, and nod politely at the office boy. Silent breathing for at least an hour.
It also saves  your index finger from having to take a trip across your upper lip every few minutes, like this:

Finally, keep in mind that your olfactory superpowers might not be in full force this day, and hence if you are working in environments where you rely solely and crucially on the smell of LPG, smoke or frying molaka bajjis to make sudden and quick getaways, you are advised to keep a trustworthy assistant handy.

Keep the beard on, and don't hate the nasal twang in your voice. It's reportedly attractive to some. 

6.25.2013

Stalin grad

"That beard of yours.."

Dr. R had been inspecting the sheet of paper I had handed him for a few moments. Mycobacterium, Varicella and some of their similarly disease causing kin. Fortunately, I had managed to come clean through the tests.

He looked up suddenly.

"That beard of yours.. do you know what it is called?"

School, college and a few months here and there - I knew this type. It would be a little longer before I left the room. "Uhm, well - it's more widely known as the French beard, doctor", I offered.

"No. There's another name for it." He fell silent and looked at me with a strange smile. Doc's upper body was bobbing up and down - he was probably the leg shaker type.

I clicked, and unclicked the pen. "Well I shall find out, then", I assured him.

"Heard of the Bulganin? Bulganin thaadi, kettitundo?"

I showed him roughly what an elongated version of the soul patch would look like. He nodded approval.

"There was this Russian Minister, of the name Nikolai Bulganin. Him, and Nikita Khrushchev, they had come here in the late 50s or so. Of course, back then Russia and India were great pals - what with them voting for us in the UN and all. So when this guy came here, people liked his beard. And the ones that sported it - they called it a Bulganin thaadi."

With the happy flourish of a professor who had just demonstrated how parallel rays of light, upon passing through a convex lens, converge at the focus, he took one quick glance at the document and signed the form.

"Of course, it was only later that the people realised how communism was just a load of bull, right?  Okay then, all the best for your future!"

4.20.2013

Nocturne

There's this mood that comes over you.. an introspective one. You're neither happy, nor sad. You neither want to reach a conclusion nor let your mind think for that matter. You just want to close your internal eye, and let the notes of the piano wash over you. A piece with a rich, complex fabric crafted by a minor scale spreading its deep and enigmatic mood all around. Not happy music, not sad either. Mysterious, exploratory and reflective. You want to be caught in the midst of it all, a mere onlooker experiencing what it feels like to be within the folds of a vast universe. You just want to let the beauty in chaos and  complexity crash over you like the waves on a rock. You want to feel them crash over you, and the soothing surf withdraw gracefully. You want to see it all happen, but not think deeply about it yourself.


4.16.2013

Ride on

A hundred and sixty years ago, the first passenger train service in India ferried passengers between Bombay and Thane.

To me, one of the most profound things I have felt while travelling on the Indian Railways was the sense of unification. For a country whose geography, local language and cuisine changed easily every thousand kilometres or so in every direction, India could have very well been a couple of nation-states. Yet, after a long day of wandering around and experiencing everything from subtle changes in cuisine to disastrous changes in weather, wherever you are, there is a soothing comfort of the azure-blue coaches, and the familiar sounds emanating from the locomotives. It becomes your very own mobile home.
For irrespective of the zone, section or gauge of track, the essential character of the railways has stayed intact. The gentle tug pulling you out of the station, the one language that the wheels speak all over the country as they run over and over the (mostly)welded joints in the rails.. and then the coaches starting to sway in their own fashion, putting you to sleep. It works the same way whether it's over the shifting desert sands of Jaisalmer or winding its way through the thick tropical forests of the Briganza ghats. From being the only passenger in the eerily quiet coach of a weekday Garib Rath to near-asphyxiation in a commuter train, it treated you exactly the same way, and worked in accordance with its mottled manual - the one borrowing from the British, retaining archaic and quaint operational rules and incorporating newer ones as modernisation came in. This character was what bridged the gap, subconsciously, between you and your fellow travellers. The hesitant (sometimes brazen) question "Where are you from? Where do you want to go?" would soon give way to discussing places and sipping tea while the regular ones rattle off what train would be crossing momentarily. And by the time you point out the yellow board and explain reassuringly to the fidgeting gentleman how you could expect a faster run now that the train had passed the 'T' board, the railways has broken the ice elegantly. For, after a few minutes of getting to know each other you are no longer the different-looking fellow with the weird accent and the bulky bag. Bharat couldn't have put it better when he said:
"Your coach becomes your home, fellow passengers become family. There is food shared. There is old Bollywood music played. There are bets won and lost on card games. There is a unified sense of frustration when the signal stays red. And when it turns green, there is a deep, fulfilling sense of going. Somewhere. Anywhere."

Somewhere in the middle of recovering from chicken pox in high school and battling boredom from bed on a fine summer holiday, I stumbled upon the fact that I wasn't really alone in being drawn to trains as a kid. Over the years, IRFCA played more than the part of just an online group of crazy railfans. Although the list and its character has changed over the years, some people whom I near-idolised, whose travels I was virtually a part of and whose writings I read for hours on end, ended up inspiring me to do so many things that none of my tenth standard classmates had ever thought of or fancied. From regular blogging (oh some of them were the finest and funniest travelogue writers I had read, and still are) and photography to forcing my parents to let me book tickets so that we could take an elaborate (albeit much beautiful) route to our destination, railfans are truly one classy breed of humans. To this day I have talked to and met people some of whose full names I still have no idea about but have enjoyed many an interesting conversation and a cup of chai with. It's the very same group that has grown into a huge network with people of all ages who would be more than happy to meet you at stations all over the country. It was much more than a fleeting teenage craze, and for most of us it stayed well into adulthood - some finding their fix of pleasure in spotting locomotives, some in being entirely up to date on timings, crossings and the like, while some were just as content in heading to the nearest station every evening and watching the various cogs turn in their organisational wheels.
In the words of Krtgrphr, "There was always something to look at, some goodness to munch on, someone to talk to. Some of us grew out of that, yet many of us are reminded of that bond well into adulthood when we find ourselves suddenly awake at 2 in the morning, a sudden thud or a gentle jolt from the train’s entry into a station the cause. There, by the light of the yellow sodium vapor lamp from the platform, we crane our necks and try to catch a glimpse of the sudden activity on that sleepy platform through the grimy metal bars on the window. Years on, the world — the stations, trains, timings, announcements — everything has changed, yet the smells and sounds somehow remain the same."

And what better place to be at peace than a solitary train journey sitting at the door or chewing the cud by the window. It is the very same train that has soothed the mind off bitter thoughts and angry tears, as much as it has added to the general feeling of well being at happy moments in life. And it has been so for many a traveller - People sitting right opposite each other, looking out at exactly the same blur of green and gold in the sunset, yet lost in their own different worlds.

In the rush to come up with yet another IRCTC joke or making the stupidest of comments such as accusing the driver of not taking the right-side track while it was free, not many realise the fine web the Indian Railways has spun across the entire country and its populace. It is this subtle and unobtrusive unification that we take for granted and seldom stop to notice, yet it is the one of the most essential things holding the twisting, complex, battered yet beautiful fabric of the country together.


2.26.2013

The meandering roads through the delta

Not many people seemed to have heard of Konerirajapuram. "I dont know, but have you been to all the Navagraha temples first?", some of them offered. Going around in Ambassador cars from temple to temple which probably differed from each other in a minor change of deity was not why I had come here. I politely declined and proceeded to ask someone else.

The ancient lands of the Cauvery delta have a long story to tell. Geographically speaking, the famous south-Indian river rushes with quite a pace through most of Karnataka, hastily bubbling through forests, occasionally missing a footing and heading down some deep (and beautiful) waterfalls but slowing down now and then. Things change as she nears the east coast of Tamil Nadu: Past Tiruchirappally (or Trichy, or Trichnopoly - if you prefer the old British one), the river slows down considerably and breaks into innumerable distributaries, each enabling the life and livelihood of the farmers in the region. The Cauvery delta, one of the largest and most fertile regions in the south, is straight out of a casual train-travellers' dream - with its endless fields of paddy, sugarcane, plantain and more.

Hastily looking up passenger train timings, and with a bit of googling and furtive sneaks at strangers' flickr albums, I had made up my mind about a few places I should visit over the weekend. And there I was in Kumbakonam, already tired after the last day and a half, debating whether to skip the last leg of the journey or not.

"Take the country road going right from S. Pudur, flanked by lush fields of the delta on either side.. Delightful duck filled canals abound in this pastoral heaven." These were the words off this one trip report on indiamike forums that prompted me to quit mulling over it, haul the bag and leave for the place. Konerirajapuram was 25 kms away, on the road to Karaikkal (onward to Nagapattinam, etc) via Thirunageswaram. I was a few hours away from my mental 'start off to Trichy via train atleast by NOW' deadline, and deciding not to tempt fate, hired a taxi.

Kumar and his Indica were instructed to do a leisurely pace throughout the road, since we were in no hurry, and more importantly, since I wanted to take in the sights. After all, how often does one get to see where most of one's food comes from. Kumbakonam is not a very large town, and the buildings along this road petered out quickly to hay-thatched huts with frail wooden fencing. The harvest, as I'd learn later, had been over the past few days or weeks, and the air was still heavy with the smell of hay, as were the roads. Every ten minutes or so we would pass a large haystack which was either standing in the sun (hence doing justice to the old adage) or was being transported in tractors and trucks. Quite a lot of cows looked up at the passing car and went back to their affable business of chewing the cud or whatever vocation it is that cows occupy themselves with all day.


The road was true to its word. A strict two-lane, with trees painted in zebra stripes (as they are often, in TN state highways), it wound and meandered its way like the river, through miles and miles of fertile cropland. We passed a million shades of green and golden brown over the humble span of 20kms, often yielding to houses and brightly painted tiny temples. Some of them with ponds of their own.
At S.Pudur, we followed the road leading right. This one was narrower but more scenic. After a short while we stopped by an old gentleman who had taken his cow for a drink in a canal. 
"Natarajar koyila? Go straight, and once you come to a bus stop, turn left onto the road that leads inside". We came upon this bus stop a few kilometres down the road - a deep blue, decorated shelter located under the shelter of a huge tree. The road leading left was even more narrow, wide enough for a tractor and a bicycle perhaps, to pass each other without a fight.

By now we were bang in the middle of nowhere, miles away from any decently sized town and surrounded by farmland for as far as the eye could see. Three kilometres or so inside, the road suddenly split into two at right angles, each encircling a pond and rejoining at the other end, in front of the temple.
 
It was 3.30 or so in the afternoon and there were a few people in the temple. An elderly gentleman told me that they would open the main sanctum only by 5.30. Damn, I thought. I dropped the name of the priest, Gnanaskandan, which I'd gleaned from the trip report from the indiamike forum and that seemed to work. The head priest, was just coming out of a room in the side of the temple grounds and agreed to show me the Nataraja statue after I told him of how I had heard of the place and had come all the way. The bronze statue is not the main deity, apparently.. The Nataraja is located in an enclosure in the side of the sanctum, and is almost one and a half times the height of the average male. The idol, which he claims, was made in panchaloha or a penta-alloy, was completely camouflaged in inches-thick flower garlands after an abhishekam which had happened in the morning.




The temple was built under the supervision of the Queen of Chola land at that time. There's an interesting fresco located high up on the wall of the temple: It shows a British official making an offering to the deity through the queen. This was the first painting I'd noticed with the British in them, and it was a fine job - right from the assumed superior air about the queen and the looks of surprise (or approval) from her ministers to the swords and handlebar moustaches of the angrezi soldiers. It was a minute of severe flashback to the lines in history books.

Having thanked the priest for his kind gesture, I strolled around the village. It was one of those hot and sleepy afternoons where man and animal alike take a well deserved afternoon siesta. The pond bed had completely dried, and the glare from the afternoon sun was getting a bit too much. "There's no water at all pa.. no rain last year also. See that opening over there, to the side of the wall - the water would come through the canals in the field to the pond", said the old woman who had seen me observing it. I could only manage a "Ah indha varshamaavadhum nalla mazha peyyatunga..". Let's hope there's a good shower this year.
 

Walking around with a camera hanging around your neck is never a pleasant thing when you want to blend into any surroundings. Fortunately, that can precisely be some of the best conversation starters too. For, in a while I had gathered the curiosity and friendship of a few boys who were out plucking citrons (Naarthangai in tamil). And when you're a newcomer in a village and surrounded by boys, you're treated like a special guest. Vignesh, Ramu and the rest of their gang fed me with all sorts of information, for the city-dweller in me must have made himself seem like a perfectly ignorant fool in these settings. Some of this info was pretty bizzare though. Like the way they hung the heart of a dead cow in sacks on the huge banyan tree by the side of the road. But it made sense. Something that was part of the family - it made sense that a part of it was mated with another sacred object (the tree) for ever, and as a token of remembrance. It just seemed natural to the boys, such that they didn't have a ready reply when I instinctively blurted "Oh.. but why?". But it made sense, from their point of view.

"The paddy was harvested yesterday. The machines do it, cutting it in the back, yes", they nod enthusiastically as I describe the combined harvester and ask them if that was the thing. And on a lark we jumped past the tiny irrigation canal, into the field.

It was surreal. Having been brought up in a completely urban environment, the only proper agricultural or pastoral setting I'd been in was restricted to a few times in my childhood and pretty much none beyond. And now standing there, gentle cows to one side, and harvested paddy all around, while the wind played around with the tall stalks of the yet to be cropped fields in the distance, I thought for a fleeting moment of the traffic and noise that accompanied my desk job and wished I didn't have to go back for a while.

"Come again anna! Come during the festival, it's nice to see the temple then", said the boys as I bid goodbye.
"I shall, definitely! I loved your place!" And I meant it.

For Konerirajapuram had earned its place in my heart as one of those faraway lands that would crop up during moments of boredom in the office, reminding me of its fields and streams and the simple people of the delta.

2.21.2013

Afternoon in Arsikere

"A.S.K", I told the man as I handed him three ten rupee notes at the unreserved ticket counter. "Ask-aa?" he said, as he punched away with two fingers on a well worn out keyboard and handed me the piece of curved paper.

Arsikere - a small town of mostly railway prominence, and a journey of 166 kms out of Bangalore. To me, the getaway meant a good break from the regular SilkBoard-Madivala-Electronic City mayhem, and a Saturday spent clickety-clacking through rural Karnataka landscape seemed perfect.

The morning passenger to Hubli was yet to be brought into the platform. A burly man in charge of handling over the caution orders for the run upto Arsikere was catching up on the sleep he missed by resuming where he left off, on the bench on the platform. The express to Mysore was cooling off after a nocturnal run from Mayiladuthurai. The sweater clad homeless man lingered around near the warmth of the diesel locomotive.

At around eight the shrill horn sounded and we pulled off. Entering or exiting metro cities via is typically never a pleasant ride. It's the same with Bangalore. Taking the mainline to Madras gets you rolling at a good pace through miles and miles of construction sites, garish coloured buildings and subjects you to an atmosphere liberally peppered with sand and dust. The exit to Mysore presents a formidable array of smoking garbage and slum-dwellings. The line to Arsikere via Malleshwaram and Yeshwantpur felt slightly more bearable, and the urban buildings soon gave away to suburban, and finally to rural.

As the man opposite me unfolded a copy of the day's Malayala Manorama, I went Aha! He had spoken to me earlier in English, and I had replied accordingly. When the time was ripe I dropped the 'surprise the Malayali' bomb. Casually, as if to continue the conversation, I asked - "Saar engottaa pokunne?". His head popped up above the newspaper and his shining eyes said it all "Aha! Malayaali aanalle!". And that was how I made the acquaintance of Fr. Abraham.

The scenery had switched to the pure rustic now - Kucha roads, ragi and maize fields, and incandescent bulbs lighting up the occasional cluster of houses. This was a single line, diesel territory and the only electric poles that were around were the small unassuming ones bringing power to the lone houses set in the middle of fields. It was a cloudy morning, we were ambling along at a leisurely pace and stopping at every station enroute. Golhalli, Bhairanayakanahalli, Dodbele, Dobbspet - all of them small stations that crop up suddenly on the way, as if to put a break to the monotony. 

Tumkur was like waking up from a dream. A harsh blot on the landscape by man, reminding you of dust and crowds and packed human settlements, the train seemed to heave a sigh of relief as we exited and picked up pace. We had picked up a good number of food vendors as well, and for a while the coaches were filled with the smell of chutney and chai. It was time to head to the door. I gave up my seat to a middle aged gentleman who was only too glad to sit down, sat down at the doorway and put my feet out. It was heavenly. We must have been trotting on at no more than 65 kmph and the world seemed to be completely at peace. At every station there was just enough time to get off, stretch my legs, have a good look around the platform and nod politely at the birds chirping away in the tall trees lining it.

 

Mallasandra, Gubbi, Nittur, Sampige Road. 
This was life at its unhurried best, where you didnt have to fight your way into a coach or worry about the train starting off before you boarded it. Halt stations, akin to rural bus stops are probably the most passenger friendly in that respect. And what's a single line route without the pleasure of waiting for crossings! At Gubbi we halted a little longer than usual and I went up ahead to have a little chat with the drivers. We were waiting for the intercity from Shimoga to cross. The train controllers in the section seemed to be doing a good job and within a few minutes the train came roaring up the gradient. A short while later we let out a long blast of the horn and set off at our own sweet pace. My camera had caught the attention of a few lads in the first coach and I had made friends with them by employing whatever kannada I had picked up after coming to Bangalore. The boys Praveen and Naresh were also heading to Arsikere, and I kept feeding them little bytes of railway information on the way - what the triangular board with the number 20 on it meant, and how we would pick up pace after passing the circular 'T' board and so forth.

We played hide and seek with a few low hills in the last leg of the run upto Arsikere. At around 12.30, we pulled into Arsikere, a little over half an hour late. The end of the station towards Hubli is a lovely one - lined with grand old trees and maintained spotlessly clean with the track heading straight into the hills. The other end leads to Hassan and Bangalore. Bharat, who had suggested that I make my weekend getaway this small town in the first place, dropped a tip that the food was decent too. Excellent, I thought as I picked up a warm packet of puliyogare from the vegetarian refreshment stall on platform 1. The sun had gone behind the clouds and there was ample time to sit under one of the trees and savour the spicy sour stuff. 
Arsikere is named after a tank ('kere') during the time of the Hoysala kings. The town was a prominent place during their rule, and the 'Arasi' in the name refers to one of the princesses of the Hoysala dynasty. A 13th century temple built during their reign is also situated here - while wikipedia calls it the Ishwara temple, the locals simply call it Shivalaya. A short auto ride later, I was left to myself with the birds and trees at the breezy Shivalaya grounds.


On first glance, it seems a tad smaller in size than the photos might suggest. The place around the temple is protected by the ASI, and is maintained spotlessly clean. Huge banyan trees line one end of the temple, and brightly painted houses overlook the other. 

A few men were sitting around and gave one long glance to the stranger with his camera, and resumed their business of doing nothing. The small area around the temple is to be negotiated barefoot, and consists of neatly trimmed grass and upon which the old stone structure resides.

The main sanctum sits all the way in the rear end, and is guarded by a 16-pointed star shaped mandapa. Set in solid, cold stone, it felt easily a couple of degrees cooler just sitting on the smooth granite slab set amongst carvings of animals, gods and the like. Wonder how many generations must have sat in the same spot, over the same piece of stone.


There's this powerful emotion I feel at times when visiting old monuments, especially empty ones - and that is one of the voices of the past. Walking around in the cool breeze, with nothing but the sound of birds and the occasional passing bus in the air, I couldn't help imagine how it must have been centuries ago, with the devout thronging the place. The air heavy with the smell of kumkum and camphor and incense, the priest conducting the morning puja and the crowd standing on their toes to catch a glimpse of the figurine, anointed with sandalwood paste and adorned with freshly made flower garlands, illuminated in the light of the camphor flame during the deeparadhana.



The courtyard is home to some lovely, quaint objects. One being the small Nagaraja stone figurines set at the base of trees: This is something seen quite a lot in Kerala temples. The second was a set of rocks, no doubt from the same site, with various engravings on them, laid out neatly in a row on a raised platform in the grass. There was something terribly attractive about quiet charm of it all, something I would never expect in the grand temples of Tamil Nadu or the marble steps of the modern day ISKCON shrines.


I spent a long time around the place and it turned out to be an afternoon well spent. The next train out of Arsikere was only in the late evening and I thought I might as well check out the tank which gave the town its name. "Neer jasthi illa saar, yakke hogubeku?" The auto driver was justified in asking. There isnt much water in it sir, why do you want to go there?

I dont know boss. Chalo. 

We passed over the railway line to Bangalore and he stopped his auto by the side of the road while I strolled around taking in the place. It was a large water body, no doubt more beautiful during the monsoons. The railway line ran below, on the other side of the road in the form of a long S-curve to the side and I couldn't help wishing for a freighter to turn up. Where are trains when you need them! 


A masala dosa and a green banana from the shop nearby, and back at the station. Lady luck was kind - the returning passenger to Bangalore was running late by two hours or so, and was due in half an hour. 

By now I was pretty much tired to do anything more and eyeing the sizeable crowd that would probably be thronging all the stations enroute, got into the coach and climbed up to the luggage rack. A few gulps of water, and with some help from the chugging loco I was soon napping to the swaying of the coach over the single line track to Bangalore.