Saturday, 26 January 2008

on stories..

what does it mean to be able to write? the question was rhetorical, so dont bother. its about telling a tale, i think. i guess i have to explain. i have a friend who spent a bit of time in germany. when he returned to India, i asked him if he felt like returning at all, if felt like he wanted to live there. now, this was not in the usual abroad-is-best mentality us indians have, it was more because he was an aspiring automobile designer, and germany is obviously one of the automotive heavens on earth. but he said no, which surprised me. and his justification surprised me more.
he compared a simple day-to-day activity as it happens in germany with the way it happens in india. in germany, if you wanted to go grocery shopping, you stepped out of your building and onto the quiet street, wait in line for the quiet bus ride to the market, buy what you want, often pay to a machine and not a man, repeat bus ride to return home. even the cars that followed for a while behind the bus would maintain the exact same gap between themselves no matter what the speed. not a sound, not a step out of line. then he said, look at the same activity in india. you get out of your house and onto the street, most likely to realize you stepped on a cow-pie, run after the bus and when it slows to avoid a pedestrian, you jump aboard and get a toehold on the footboard with 20 other people, hanging on for dear life till u nearly get caught in the stampede alighting at the market, only to have a fierce argument short of fisticuffs with the grocer to save half a rupee on the onions, repeat bus ride and reach home, only for a passing car to splash you with mud right at your gate, and you enter your house to figure that the electricity board decided the time was auspicious for a power cut. at the end of the you can sit with a friend or significant other and tell them a story, the story of how you went and got groceries. the story that would be told in india is far more interesting than what could be told in germany, he said, and that at the end of the day, he would rather live with the stories than any amenity the developed world can provide.

that was a sort of moment of clarity for me. i have often discussed with myself as well as a few friends the importance of what you write. am i here to merely report what i see? is that level of objective honesty required? i'm tending to think not. i mean, when i run out of fuel on my bike and have to push it a kilometer, there is a difference between whats happening and what i'm experiencing. in my mind, the goggles of imagination are on, and im living an outrageous adventure that very minute. i mean, who runs out of fuel on a bike with a digital fuel gauge? so i tell the story with all the bells and whistles that i see. its far better than walking in with a dour face and saying 'crap, i ran outta fuel on the bike, pushed it a mile and am all tired out now'. i'd much rather walk in with a sheepish grin and tell the story of how i got stranded, silliness galore.

that does not mean i spin my tales either. while the bells and whistles enhance certain parts and obfuscate others, by no means am i telling a fallacy. there are no absolute facts, there are only interpretations. there is a theory on photons that states that you can only observe either the momentum or the position of the photon at one time (I stumped Lopez, our revered physics teacher with that one, i would know :P). by observing one, you are changing the other. i think a variant of that holds true for everything in life. by observing facts, i may have colored them forever with my interpretation. and that, to me is what writing is all about. we all live in overlapping interpretative universes of our own, and i want mine to be funny and entertaining. Why? i dunno... maybe because it'll liven up those spaces where my universe meets yours.

whoever said that the universe is made up of stories and not atoms, was telling the truth.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008


it was not a trip, really. it was the cross section of a country. i chose to cut india from chennai to goa, and saw the country in a way most people can't. the policeman who hitched a lift in chennai, the dead cows outside the city limits, the hundreds of dead dogs, blotches on the road as martyrs to development, the simple life in the farms of karnataka, that asian chick on a pink enfield bullet.. it cant be seen anywhere else, and i think i can vouch for that with some degree of certainty. i got a chance to go on a roadtrip in america, and the actual trip was the part we dreaded though it was in a car far more comfortable than the bike i used for this 2000 km trip across the deccan. the roads there were arrow-straight, the scenery pretty much the same. nothing dramatic, nothing is thrown at you that you wouldnt expect, except maybe the odd deer crossing the road to become roadkill but then even that is marked by signs. no bullock cart coming opposite you on the fast lane on an expressway, no expressway disappearing into two feet deep potholes that nearly throw you off your ride, in short, nothing that you wouldnt expect, especially if you've been in that country a while.

well it certainly is more interesting here. take for instance, the fact that my pillion and i were cruising along what we though was the expressway to bangalore, only to find ourselves unexpectedly airborne after hitting a bump at 110 kmph. i doubt if you can find another country where there's an unmarked bump across the freeway. i know it couldve killed me, but im not complaining for now. if it were an arrow-straight road to goa, i would probably have taken the bus. which brings me to my point : the whole trip felt good because i took a risk. it was the longest trip i'd done. there were enough people and reasons telling me not to do it. that ranged from my own parents to skeptical friends, the condition of the roads to the endurance of the rider. but that one moment where you think, oh what the hell, im going... thats what biking is about methinks. its a gamble to trust ur fortunes on a machine and a million unknowns, and when your gamble pays off, you feel more alive than ever. the risk, the feeling of having done something out of the ordinary and mundane, that cannot be explained, it can only be experienced. you can sit on an armchair and compare biking to any number of alternative activities, but nothing will come close to even beginning to describe that experience.

it teaches you about what it means to be alive, what life is. your sense of perspective changes in ways you cant imagine. the office commute that i was cribbing about suddenly seems insignificant in comparison. i get impatient when bangalore traffic crawls to a halt, but imagine what i felt when after an hour of cruising at 110 kmph, i get stuck in a traffic jam at a tiny town that has four rickshaws and a bullock cart, all of which were actively engaged in creating the aforementioned traffic jam? i didnt feel angry, i felt humbled, i could say. suddenly, stopping in bangalore after 2 minutes of riding at 40kmph didnt seem so bad. it teaches you to manage your thoughts, especially if you're a compulsive worrier. i'd definitely recommend a bike ride to that kind of people. there are so many new things before you that you are struggling to drink in, that you suddenly stop worrying about punctures, failures, office, relationships, mortgages, secrets... for a few moments at least, its you and the surroundings. you might be sharing the space with a thousand other people, but you feel truly alone and alive amongst the unknown around you. and everything else just fades out...

it teaches you about death as well. there is death on the roads in every direction you look. people, animals, villages, trees, towns, all dying or dead in one way or another. one of the first sights out of chennai was a couple of dead cows. followed by over thirty dead dogs on the way to bangalore. what unsettled me further was the realization that the black blotches i saw on the road wasn't tar melting under the hot tamil nad sun, it was the dried blood of hundreds of dogs, mute vitcms of civilization. in fact, my faith in civilization was all but shaken when what i thought to be a dead cow on the road north of bangalore turned out to be a dead man. some poor homeless man had been hit by a vehicle, and all that people had done was to put stones around him to prevent further collisions, and just stand around seemingly indifferent to him. my faith in myself was badly shaken as well, for i didnt stop either. at that point i was telling myself that the man was probably dead, and that i wouldnt be of any help, but later i questioned myself whether the trouble of attempting to save a homeless man was worth less than the selfish pleasure of a new years party, and i was mute to myself in answer. the scene stayed in my mind the whole trip, as it does today, and tempered my usually headstrong nature. i realized anything could spell death, a bullock cart coming in the opposite direction in the fast lane, or a single stray rod bent in the divider partition. but instead of merely fearing death, i accepted the fact that the road that carried me was running as a dividing line through the lives of so many poor people like that dead man, and that at the intersection where our lives meet, there were bound to be casualties on either side. as i (much)later talked to a friend, i ruminated on how the dead man and i ended up on different sides of the dividing line, and how easily fortunes can push me to the other side as well.

im a big picture guy. i hate to be bothered with details usually. which is where the bike journey changed my perspective again. i learned to respect the smaller stuff. be it a handful of stones on a curve in the road, or a tiny metal valve on my bike, i came to realize these small things could bring my big dreams to a halt. that hit me right in the prime of the trip, on my way from jog falls to honnavara, hurtling through the mountain twisties at extreme speeds in a bid to make it out of the mountains before the sun went down. i took a curve with my best friend riding pillion, and a bus came up around the bend and i braked hard. the rear tyre started washing out due to some gravel i hadnt seen but could now feel, and being on a lower gear i revved up for traction. the tyres bit in, i recovered, and realized what a few tiny stones couldve done to me there. and maybe it was the realization that im powerless in the face of these million small things, but i became superstitious as well. i now have a ritual in the morning where i look the bike over, start it and place a hand on it, feeling the vibrations, listening to it. if im alone i find myself talking to the bike as well. i cant communicate with the machine, nor can i claim to know if its working perfectly by placing my hand on a piece of vibrating metal or plastic, but i can sure as hell tell you that it makes me feel good about the bike, and in my eyes makes the bike more a venerable friend than a heap of japanese engineered metal and plastic that money bought.

the threads that bind me to my daily realities, my web of security, i saw it thin out right before my eyes. you go out of reach of mobile phones and gas stations, on a machine that is not infallible, ridden by two guys who are not invulnerable.. riding through a forest dirt road from goa border to dharwad, i realized how ensconced i was in this web of security. the bike was falling apart on the dirt road which was hardly more that a loose collection of rocks in some places, i was fighting for control and keeping from crashing was taking a toll on me and my pillion, tempers were frayed, we were out of reach of mobile phones and our friends or anyone, for that matter, had any idea where we were. all i could do was keep my wits about me and drive. crisis management? this makes the best management gurus look retarded. all that you hate about everyday life, all the troubles, you suddenly see that all those dont really matter. in that sense biking also clears your view of the big picture. not everyone will take the chance to see the world on two wheels, but there is no other panacea experience i can recommend. you see the threads that bind you stretch really thin, almost to snapping point. you start wishing you could break them, but know you can't, that you will be at work next monday. but you will have felt good pushing a limit.

a journey is also the best way to get to know someone. to know if what you thought of them was right, to see if they're a good friend or merely a good travelling companion. i went with a bunch of guys i've known since we were 3 feet tall. ive only grown two and a half feet since then, but our friendship has grown far more. and amongst all the strain and tribulations of such a tiring journey, i was grateful to see that this friendship could weather everything. there was friction, there was fun, and there was a collective sense of contentment at having accomplished a long journey, but its not the roadtrip im talking about. its a journey that started at 3 feet tall.