Tuesday, 27 July 2010

A borderline atheist's conundrum..

based on true incidents. written about a year or so back for a short story competition.

in two days, i was to leave for America. it is the dream of a good number of people i know, and i was poised to achieve it. i just didn't have the clothes for the mission. a couple of friends came down and decided to help rectify that, and they were more than welcome since i was rubbish at shopping. i roamed the streets of the city's shopping district, full of apprehension. not just about what clothes to buy, but more about what awaited me in three days time. i considered myself quite the traveller and wanderer, but this was far beyond what i'd traversed so far. our efforts stretched from afternoon to evening, and we were now at that twilight phase where the sky seemed undecided about where to go, stay with the day or give in to the night. my thoughts were on similar grounds, since i was headed someplace i was not too keen on, yet was thrilled for the experience of travelling into the unknown. i was confused.

we had come to a popular bookstore, near which there exists a clothes shop specializing in export rejects. by this point i had pretty much all i needed, and my friends were tired of picking stuff out for me so they headed into the bookstore to do some browsing and shopping of their own and left me alone to fend with the choices of t-shirts before me. t-shirts were all i had left to buy. in keeping with my 'hate-shopping' policy, i was done in five minutes, and all my t-shirt needs were addressed. unfortunately, it wasn't the same for my friends who decided to take their own sweet time browsing through books they were unlikely to read anytime soon. i wasn't left with much option but to sit outside on the stairs leading to the street from the building that contained both these shops.

as i sat there pondering over things i should probably not have been pondering about, a girl appeared. she was the sort of girl you couldn't help but notice in an instant. pretty in every sense of the word, commanding the attention of everyone who passed around her on the sidewalk yet seemingly unaware of it. yet she seemed unsure of what she was doing there, and merely stood in the middle of the sidewalk while people milled around her. i kept stealing glances at her while i waited for my friends, and she was facing away from me. i wondered what she was doing here, in the middle of this crowd. perhaps she was waiting for someone? for lack of better things to do, i kept looking and wondering. until she turned around. at which point, the decent thing to do was to look away and pretend i wasn't looking in the first place. which is what i did.

but then i was put into an unfamiliar situation. the girl looked straight at me, into my eyes. i tried looking away, but i was transfixed, to put it mildly. she started walking over towards where i was sitting, and i automatically started going through the usual checklists. i looked around to see if there was anyone behind me, and there wasnt. i looked back to see if she was still looking at me, and i was pretty sure that she was. maybe she suddenly decided to buy a book, or perhaps cheap export rejected designer clothing.. yeah, that had to be it. all these evaporated the moment she stood right in front of me, and said 'hi'. a simple, sweet 'hi'. were i my usual self, i would probably have said 'bond. james bond'. but what came out was a 'bwuuhh?' from my mouth.

she extended her hand, and i timidly shook it. soft hands, yet a firm handshake. it almost seemed like i met her at work and was concluding a business deal. i looked up at her face, and she was smiling. i continued with the checklist. do i know her? have we met at some party where i got drunk and did something so stupid that she remembers me? the latter seemed plausible, but somehow i was inclined to rule it out. i had the good sense to let go of her hand when the handshake concluded, but my senses were thrown off gear again when she said 'd'you mind if i sit down here?' another 'bwuuhh..' gave her the go ahead and she sat next to me. a few moments passed in silence, while i figured out what to say. predictably, i couldnt form a single sentence. anything i attempted to say would surely come out as the now familiar 'bwuuhh.. '.

she put me out of my misery by saying 'how are you'. which still had me wondering whether i have met her before. i wracked my brain in a vain attempt to remember, and despite priding myself on my memory, i couldnt imagine where i possibly could've met her. but on the positive side, i seemed to be regaining my ability to speak, and said 'fine. how have you been?'. this, in the remote possibility that we do know each other. she made small talk with me initially, while the processing abilities of my brain were almost equally divided between responding to her conversation and figuring out plausible reasons for how a girl at least three leagues above me was talking to me out of the blue.

small talk soon developed into a full-blown conversation, which may have lasted all of five minutes maybe, but applying relativity, it seemed like an eternity in my head. i was just as confused as i was at the start regarding why this was happening at all, but was more than happy to just play along. it was a random, free flowing conversation, neither of us knowing the other presumably, until the moment she said 'you looked worried earlier. what's the matter?' since i had been thinking of my upcoming journey until i saw her, i told her i'd been thinking about it and was apprehensive about heading there alone. she asked me if i had any friends here, and i said i had quite a few, mentioning that i was waiting for a couple of them with dubious reliability while shopping for things i needed on the trip. she asked me what i'd bought, and i showed her the shirts, sweater and t-shirts i had accumulated as part of the afternoon expedition. she said she was new in the city and had no friends.

i was disinclined to believe that somehow, perhaps it was her demeanour, but she insisted that was the case. at this point, any red blooded guy would offer to be her friend, but i was more inclined towards saying 'bwuuhh..' again so i kept shut. i wanted to tell her i could be her friend, and show her around town, but i was battling the now all-pervasive bwuuhh. which is when she said, 'would you like to pray with me?' i mustve made an expression of incredulity, because she immediately launched into an explanation. 'well you are worried about your trip, and i am part of the church of so and so (i forget the name).. so i thought prayer would help you'. she took my hand in hers and asked me to close my eyes before i could form a coherent response. once she held my hand, a coherent response was pretty unlikely, in any case.

so we sat there, on the stairs leading to the bookstore and the shop with cheap export rejected designer clothing, while the rest of the shopping public moved along on the sidewalk in front of us, while my friends looked at books they were gonna buy but weren't going to read, holding our hands, closing our eyes, one of us reciting a prayer while the other pretended to pray while wondering how a borderline atheist like him got into a situation like this in the first place. after another eternity, the prayer was over, we opened our eyes and she smiled at me. i smiled back, she let go of my hand, and,still looking at me, pulled out a brochure from her backpack. a fucking brochure, for her church. which was followed by a notebook where she wanted me to write how i found the prayer experience with her, and sign my name. i was too stunned for an indignant expression. i could shoot down pyramid marketing guys before they even took off, yet i'd been had this time. i accepted defeat and signed the notebook, and walked home with one less reason to believe in god.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Cheburashka ♥

In Soviet Russia, nostalgia feels you! that didnt quite come out right, but yeah the question isn't too far off. is it possible to feel nostalgia for something you've never known, from somewhere you've never been?

I have been a huge Russophile from probably the age of five. I grew up in a family chock-full of believers in the communist ideology, not least of whom being my mother and my grandfather. We had a subscription for Misha magazine from where i learnt the Russian alphabet. My mother herself took Russian in college, that language being one amongst the many she went on to learn. I had penpals from the soviet union, and the prized stamp in the collection that we inherited was one from the communist East Germany. Thinking back, i owe a lot to my love for all things russian, since it was a boyhood fanaticism for their aircraft that got me started on the aviation road. or airway, rather.

One of the things i do is spot airplanes. And when it comes to that, the rarer the better. If it flies and is weird, i probably know a thing or two about it. I have cherished memories of a long list of strange aircraft sightings, from an Antonov 124 at delhi to an Ilyushin 18 in trivandrum, and all the way back to delhi for a cargo 707 which is a rare thing these days. I would travel miles if i could get to see the An-225, and i would travel back in time if i could to see the Air India Il-62 and L-1011. To be frank, the regular Airbuses and Boeings are kinda boring, to the point that even the paramount Embraers are a relief for me.

Antonov An-74

Cheburashka - Can you see how the nickname came to be?

And what i haven't had the chance to see, I read up about. I have a sizeable database on the weird planes of the world, and keep adding to it on almost a daily basis. Which brought me, a couple of years ago, to a most interesting aircraft, the Antonov-74. I had been looking for an aircraft the russians nicknamed the 747ski (which is actually the Antonov 30), dont ask me why i needed to know that, and i stumbled on this airplane instead. And this, in turn, was nicknamed 'Cheburashka', apparently after the Soviet animated character it resembled.

So, wiki-fan that i am, i immediately went on the Cheburashka page, to look it up. Airplanes were soon forgotten (i remembered the 747ski again only months later), and i couldn't get enough of this little chap. Pictures were downloaded, links were opened, youtube videos were watched, and torrents were downloaded. it didnt even disappoint me that i had gotten japanese dubbed versions on torrent, there were very few good torrents in any case. I've watched the video at the top of this post dozens of times now.

And strangely, it felt nostalgic. It felt like i had seen it before, a long long time ago. I know for a fact that i haven't, yet it seemed to fit so seamlessly with my memories from childhood that i was amazed.. i'd say yeah, it IS possible to feel nostalgia for something you've never known. It took me two whole years, but i finally got around to writing this and sharing it here.. Take a look at the video, and if you couldn't love Cheburashka, your friendship contract is probably up for renewal :P

PS - if you do like it, especially the song, i can send it over. or come over myself and sing it. and then hit you on the head non-lethally but severely enough that you wont remember my bad singing. whichever.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

A wedding + roadtrip, and some disappointment..

The wedding + roadtrip:

Two very good friends of mine, Sooraj and Asha just got married. I'd been pretty kicked about it since the time Sooraj called with the news that they're getting married, and had decided immediately that i was going no matter what. i'd been wanting to do a roadtrip on the bike as well, since it had been seven months since i did a serious long ride. this was the opportunity, and i guessed sooraj wouldnt mind since he's already set the bar with his delhi-kerala trip. Pgt agreed to ride pillion, since he'd been saying for a while that he wanted to come along on one of my trips. whether he'll come again for another one is a different matter, but go we did.

The plan was to head via coorg and hit the northern end of kerala at kasaragod, and then ride south on NH17 to kanhangad where sachin lives. From there on i would be without a pillion since the two of them would head to kannur by bus for the wedding, while i'd make it on the bike. Sooraj had arranged a resort for all of us to stay the night, and about 15 people from NID were already there to begin the festivities. The ride there was pretty uneventful except for a bit of rain once we crossed the kerala border. Coorg, as expected, was stunningly beautiful in the rains. it was glorious riding all the way to madikeri, with green rolling hills on either side and small sleepy towns punctuating the ride. the misty mountains on approach to madikeri made my day, as we shot through them covered in a light spray from the morning drizzle.

Once the roads took a sudden turn for the worse, we figured we had crossed the kerala border. the flurry of checkposts soon after confirmed it. we played hide and seek with a snaking river all the way to kasaragod, and then landed at sachins house for a sumptuous lunch cooked by his mom. the animal kingdom had taken quite a hit on their population to feed us that afternoon. i headed off immediately after lunch for kannur, and made a halt at payyannur where sooraj lived. Now, i have a constitution's worth of rules for myself when it comes to bike trips. These vary from the intensely pragmatic to the ridiculously arcane. and on each trip, i end up breaking at least three or four of my own rules. the rules i have regarding prior trip planning are usually always broken, but this time in addition to those, i broke a big rule that i had. 'Never ride to Kerala'. One reason was that most places i wanted to ride to in kerala would take me via my home town of cochin, where the risk of running into someone i know was a bit high. i couldnt ride home since my bike would be immediately impounded and my name would be deleted from the ration card. the second reason was that the traffic in kerala is insane. i take public transport as much as possible when i'm there, i dont quite think im enough of a maniac to survive driving there. plus, it'll add a few years to my age overnight.

so this time, that rule was broken, since i wouldnt be driving much in kerala, and kannur would mean that i dont have to go anyplace where there's a chance i'd run into someone i'd know. my pre-trip planning was sloppier than usual, and i neither had a toolkit nor any spares. i got sloppy on that count because the bike had never given up on me on any trip so far. well, this time she did. at payyannur, the bike wouldnt start anymore. so the groom-to-be, his brother and their friend came to my rescue and eventually we managed to start her up. at this point, i decided to visit sooraj's house anyway, and catch the argentina-germany match there. the story of that is dealt with in the second part of this post.

overall, it was a fun wedding. it's always nice to see the couple happy, instead of looking grim (which ive seen quite a few times elsewhere, by the way). sooraj was grinning like an idiot, and asha had her sweet smile as always, and we the friends were rapidly switching between making bad jokes and eyeing the girls in the auditorium. it was nice to have caught up with some old friends, and it was nicer to have made some new friends. with the wedding out of the way, it was time to head home. the next day was an all india-bandh, and since that would mean no petrol pumps, i couldnt risk a ride. so, right after a nice wedding sadya, i started off for bangalore. and i wished i hadnt.

each trip is difficult in one way or another, but this one was something else. as i made my way up the winding mountain roads on the ghats, the sky grew ominously grey. i rode as fast as i dared, aiming to cover as much distance as possible before the rains hit. that may have been a disastrous decision, in retrospect, since i was smack in the middle of nowhere when it finally started raining. i was surrounded by thick forest, there was heavy fog in patches, the last sign of civilization was about fifteen kilometres ago, and the road still kept climbing higher. since there was no shelter of any sort, i decided to keep riding in the rain, climbing higher and higher on the twisting road, with all my lights switched on so the oncoming trucks would see me. it was about four in the afternoon, but seemed like six thirty. there were no signboards indicating the route to mysore, and i had no map with me. i couldnt have opened a map in that rain, in any case. after riding about half an hour, i got this gut feeling that i was lost. there was no traffic now, only me riding around on a narrow twisting road flanked by forest on one side and coffee plants on the other. there was no place i could take refuge in or ask for directions, until i finally saw a shed in the coffee plantation, halfway up the mountain slope. I had to park on the road and walk halfway up the hill in pouring rain to find out from the guy there that i missed the mysore road a few kilometres back in the fog.

after turning back and finding the road, i took it all the way up the hills to reach the deccan plateau, and stopped for a chai. in what is becoming a tradition now, the five minutes i spent in the chai shop were the only minutes without rain. as soon as i hopped back on the bike, it was cats and dogs again, and i was cold, soaked and on the verge of giving up. i asked the shopkeeper about the roads ahead, whether they get better or worse. he told me that there's a bit of forest for twenty kilometers, apart from that it was ok. I was contemplating taking a room at the next town and riding the next day risking the bandh. At the very least, i wanted to sit it out till the rain subsided. I asked him how big the forest was, and he assured me that it's not a problem. somehow, i decided to press ahead, and that turned out to be a good decision. the small forest he mentioned was the fucking Rajiv Gandhi National Park, as i found out later. if i'd sat out the rain, i would most likely have run into the elephants there at night, given my luck.

after crossing the forest, i was back on familiar roads again. but there wasnt much sun or warmth, and the net result was that i was soaked all the way back to bangalore, and couldnt ride as fast as i wanted to since the wind was making me shiver. my shoes are still wet even as i write this, the day after the trip. i reached home at around nine in the night, with ample time to sleep since the next day was a bandh. and sleep i did, like a baby. if you dont count the snores, that is.

the disappointment :

the song goes, dont cry for me argentina. i damn near did. and im sure a lot of people in kerala did as well. i do not intend to turn this post into a discussion and dissection of their loss, since the reasons vary from the rational (lack of a decent defence) to the irrational (i wasn't wearing my lucky jersey that day). what i intend to do is focus on the madness that i witnessed.

at the outset, let me say that i am a huge football fan. i used to love playing the game since school, played pretty much in every game that happened in college, and still continue to play when i get the chance. i dont watch the game much on tv, but i still prefer watching football to any other sport. i own jerseys of argentina and my favourite clubs, spent a large chunk of my first ever stipend on a pair of (then)expensive football boots, and keep a football in office that i kick around when i'm bored. yet what i saw in kerala was quite something else.

in kerala, argentina and brazil have large numbers of fans. in a state not known for things like cut-outs of film stars and politicians, world cup footballers from literally the other side of the globe get huge cut-outs placed at road intersections by their supporters. and that was years ago, and that was something i'd come to expect. even in homes, there was a healthy amount of craze for the game. i remember my father waking me up to watch the match where roberto bagio missed the penalty. when i went for sooraj's wedding, the family there were all looking forward to watch the match, and i could see the expressions on at least some of their faces wanting the wedding eve visitors to leave quickly. sooraj included. he had made a bet that he would cut his ponytail if the germans won. i'm sad to report that in the end, he did.

so, given all this, i was unprepared for what i saw this time. when i went home the weekend before the wedding, i'd counted 400 argentina hoardings along the roadside from palakkad to thrissur, before i stopped counting. these were put up by local sports clubs, businessmen, groups of friends, even individuals. brazil had a sizable number as well, followed by lonely looking hoardings supporting germany, spain and the netherlands. i saw one each for england and portugal as well. shops had painted their shutters in the colours of their favourite national teams, i found out on a sunday. there were flags and other decorations hanging along every road and junction. during election times, back in the time when the rules regarding painting on walls was a bit more liberal, we used to see signs on walls saying 'Booked : CPI(M)' in anticipation of a coming election. I actually saw a big wall with 'Booked : Argentina Fans Association' on it, ostensibly in anticipation of an argentine victory. I know we're a football crazy population, but all of this seemed to me a little over the top. and in my list of irrational reasons for our loss, i added 'bad karma generated by an over-enthusiastic populace'.

let me explain that a bit. one of the boards said 'If the earth were a football, and the sky was the pitch, and the stars(of the astronomical variety) were the players, they would still be beaten by the brazilians in the final'. i doubt if coach Dunga would share the same assessment. heck i'm a die hard argentina fan yet even i had a feeling we would lose thanks to our rubbish defence. the text on quite a number of these hoardings were along similar lines. the day brazil lost, fans of every other team took out a rally together to gloat. brazil fans seem to be hated by a lot of people. of course, ten minutes after the argentine defeat, when i was on the road from payyannur to the resort sooraj had arranged for us, i saw brazil fans tearing down and burning argentina hoardings, and bursting crackers. a few friends who were behind me in a car,most of them brazil fans, were stopping and urging people to burn the argentina flags, and one guy they urged turned out to be a hapless argentina fan taking down his hoarding so no one would burn it. i was shouted at by one group that had congregated at a junction to tear down argentina hoardings for having committed the crime of riding past them with bright headlamps. it was mayhem, and i'm told i didnt see the worst of it that happened further inland from the highways.

i put the hoardings down to the fact that vinyl printing is much more accessible and cheaper now. anyone with a bit of extra cash kicking around can get one printed, and thanks to photoshop, they could be standing next to Messi wishing him the best. and a lot of people these days seem to be having just the right amount of extra cash kicking around. and any excuse to celebrate will do, i guess. i kinda had mixed thoughts about the whole thing. i was glad to see the love for the game, yet i was wondering if the whole rivalry and hoarding drama had gone a bit over the top, leaving the game in second place. i dont know, and dont see myself fit to judge, but i'll look forward to what happens in four years time.