Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Gym and I

I've recently joined a gym. A nice, swanky place, smells in equal measure of sweat and deo, and is staffed by extremely courteous, if trifle pushy, instructors.

My objective, of course, was and is to silence Sheela's insensitive barbs in re the size and shape of my abdomen. She says things like "duck - here comes a gynecologist" or "you don't have to hide that basketball under your t-shirt. carry it under your arm, like everyone else." As you know, I am very quick on the uptake - Einstein Narendra, they used to call me back in college - and I've quickly realized that unless I lose that extra inch or two around the belly button, I'm going to be the butt of many more jokes.

So the only solution for me was to join this gym. It was that or go on a diet which is kind of difficult for a guy like me. I mean, the last time I went on a starvation diet (known as 'portion control'), my t-shirt dissolved in drool on the very first day and I ended up looking more like an ill-dressed hyena than the suave young gentleman that I am.

Its been a month now that I've been doing time in this Bombay version of Sing Sing and the fact that I am still alive is a more a testimony to my raw survival skills than any gentleness on the part of my instructors. You know how it is - the instructors job is to push you to work out hard and as they love to put it, "get the most out of your body". Question: Would this make a great mission statement for a laxative?

The Survival skills

So you're lifting 15 pound dumbbells and you're supposed to do two sets of 15 repetitions each. If you do the first set without vociferating your anguish (squealing like an impaled pig, that is), you get handed 20 pounds for the next set. "Enjoy the sweet pain" they tell you. And while I'm groping for a suitable come-back to that, he says "come on - last 10 " AFTER the first 15. So the trick is - and I'm giving out zealously guarded secrets here - is to pretend you're losing your life around the tenth repetition of the first set. If you can fake it, you are through. Though it has to be a real professional acting job, or they'll catch you out and you'll never have any credibility again. A path, as you will readily understand, fraught with the utmost danger, but the only path, nevertheless.

So I remembered things like Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage and all the men and women are merely players" and tried my hand at acting. The exact circumstances elude my memory but my groans of agony failed to convince my instructor who goes by the name of Imran which must be Arabic for "wily old fox" because he would say " ok twenty reps" and after twenty repetitions were done, would say "ok last ten". I would make horrible grunting sounds the kind you hear in the labor room of a hospital after "Push, Madam, Push!" but to no avail. I later learnt that its not just the grunting. If your muscles are really tired, they sort of tremble.

So that's what you guys have to learn to do before joining a gym - learn to make your muscles tremble. But I digress. I was talking about my experiences in the gym.

One of the things that struck me was the silly things that people said to motivate me. "Roberto Carlos Legs!", instructor Swapnil told me. (For the uninitiated, the said Carlos is a short bald guy with an eight figure salary who has a certain rude talent in kicking a football) "Yeah, sure. More like Roberto Carlos hairdo, if I keep this pace up", I thought. Silently of course, because Swapnil makes Sylvester Stallone look like a 90 pound weakling. You argue with him at your own peril. "Don't worry about the pain. Pain is your friend" said another instructor the size of whose pectoral muscles deters snappy comebacks like "You got it wrong, bub. Its the other way around. Most of my friends are pains".So I keep the old gob shut, and wisely so, because he looks mean enough, and powerful enough, to break my nose with his little finger.

Why do I go there, you might think, after all this belly aching. Well, for one thing, Sheela's stronger than me. Secondly, the gym is full of people who have larger bellies than I do. Its fun to watch them sweat, then look in the mirror and despair. Since Sheela too works out in this gym, I can subtly hint, with imperceptible nods and eye gestures, that she got a great deal by marrying me, compared to SOME people.

I have no hope, of course, of losing my paunch. The credit side of that account keeps increasing in the form of great business lunches washed down with great business beers, faster than my gym exertions can deplete it. Still, one does what one has to, especially when one's wife knows kick boxing.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I love my government

I just love my government. I've spent all of today on a pavement outside the regional passport office in Bombay trying to get a ECNR* stamp on my passport. "The how much??" said my friend 'Jack' who is culturally disadvantaged where it comes to comprehending the finer points of Indian Laws. He was brought up in America. We will keep one minute's silence to mourn his disabilities and move on to an erudite analysis of how the bureaucracy works hard to make your life fuller and more meaningful.

First, the facts. It so happened, dear reader, that we landed up at 6.00 am, application form and all documents under the sun in hand, on the pavement outside the Regional Passport Office. That early because we were advised that the queues could get really long. Some 50 people had already beaten us to it.

Just ahead of us was a distinguished looking gentleman dressed in formal office wear, shoes shined to a finish that slobs like me can only dream of. He had the air of someone who was turning the wheels of the economy. Which he was, because we later discovered that he was a very senior officer of the Reserve Bank of India. I, for one, found it surprising that someone of so exalted a station in life could not manage to find a lackey to stand in for him, like so many other prosperous people who sauntered in languorously at 9.30 and occupied positions that seedy looking gentlemen had been occupying since earlier than six.

Some of the poor saps who had been standing there since 6 in the morning took umbrage at this and protested loudly. There was a brief altercation where the contestants discussed intimate details of relationships between them and their close female relatives in extremely crass and graphic terms. Then one of the worthies bitch-slapped the other, raising the volume of the argument by several hundred decibels. Soon, the cops turned up and sadly, for the bunch of us who were enjoying this immensely, restored law and order.

Meanwhile, my friend the Reserve Bank Governor was getting increasingly concerned that in his absence, the wheels of the economy might just stop turning and vociferated this concern several times in various grammatical structures. The beads of sweat appearing on his broad forehead, for some reason, struck Sheela and me as droll.

Presently, I decided to forage for some coffee and went walkabout. Presently, I came across a Cafe Coffee Day outlet whose employees were stretching, yawning and rubbing their eyes. They firmly told me that the shop had not yet opened for business, but I'm not a Bombayite for nothing. Ten minutes later, they were pouring out three Cafe Lattes, one thoughtfully ordered for Mr. Indian Alan Greenspan. When I gave him the coffee, he was really overcome with emotion. If he had had a daughter of marriageable age, I am sure he would have wedded her to me. Sheela of course did not agree with this analysis, citing some lame reason like he's not blind. Be that as it may, we spent the rest of the morning being fawned upon by him.

Eventually, our turn came and we were ushered in to a hall which mercifully had air conditioning. At the stroke of ten, a lady possessing the eyes and dental features of a medieval dragon appeared behind the desk. The place came alive and the chaps in front of us were summoned.

They went in the manner of aztecs going to the head priest to have their hearts cut out. With trepidation, if you know what I mean. The dragon lady spoke sharply and flames shot out from her eyes, but she did not actually bite them, which livened me up considerably.

I was next. The dragon eyes went over the documents. They looked up and started frying me on a low flame. "Where's your address proof?" they asked. I opened my mouth to speak but no words would come out of my parched throat. With a croaking sound, I proffered my ration card. The eyes raised the temperature to "medium". "Ration card is not proof enough" they said and told me to prove that I existed in some way acceptable to the God Baal, or prepare to be sacrificed. "What about my passport? Isn't that proof of residence?" I asked, throwing all caution to the winds. The flame went to "high" and with a muted scream I hightailed out of there faster than a ninety pound weakling at a bodybuilders' convention.

Such then is my tale. On the morrow, better prepared and wearing holy charms, I managed to satisfy the lady (document wise, that is) and won for myself an ECNR stamp on my passport. I am now in the exclusive club of distinguished people who can visit the Middle East, Japan, Korea, China, Africa and South America without having to ask anyone. I bet you
can't do that. So bow, underling. Accept your inferiority

*Foot Note: ECNR stands for Emigration Clearance Not Required. If you need to know more than that, I suggest you meditate under the Bodhi Tree. Its either that or read the Government Rule Book. Whichever is easier for you.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Carbohydrates in Mysore

I'm back from yet another impromptu little vacation in Mysore. A rejuvenating couple of days. The place never ceases to fascinate me. It has wonderful weather all year round. The food is amazingly cheap and delicious (more about this) and the landscape abundantly green. Every one calls every one else "Sir", (pronounced "Saar"), regardless of their respective stations in life. In Mumbai, everyone calls everyone else "Boss", which to my delicate, Mysore-conditioned, saar ear, sounds crass and insolent. Another thing I love about Mysore is the tendency of people to add a "oo" sound to just about every word ending in a consonant. Thus right becomes "rightoo" as in "go straightoo and then turn rightoo". Isnt it remarkable, then, that Mysore does not have even a fiftieth of Mumbai's population, which of course is known for its surliness, smog, exorbitant prices and a concrete landscape of profound hideousness. And a climate so humid that you, with your pure and blameless heart will never suspect exists outside hell. One of life's conundrums. Why the devil would anyone want to live in Mumbai when there exist, on the face of this earth, places like Mysore? Am I not Mr. Pertinent Question Person today?

Well, the mystery that I really wanted to write about in this post concerns an eatery. There is an establishment known as the Sri Chamundeshwari Hindu Military Hotel in a small town called Bannur about 14 km from Mysore which has just one item on its menu - mutton pulao. And it is said to be the best mutton pulao in the district.
This eatery is all of 200 square feet under a precariously propped roof. The roof, tables, floor, walls and the utensils have one thing in common - they're all completely smoke blackened, as are the cook and the waiters. Bannur itself is, how shall I put it, no threat, as a holiday destination, to Monte Carlo. It is Anywhere, Karnataka with small unassuming mud and brick houses. The people are equally unassuming. Most of them are thin and grizzled, with the ageless look of rural folk all over the country. However, it is the meat capital of the area. Almost all the meat sold in Mysore comes from here. As we walked towards our target eatery, we walked past a long row of butcher's shops. A grisly sight for an occasional meat eater like me. I avoided the difficult philosophical questions that were sort of bustling through my mind by the simple expedient of not looking at the shops. This is actually the Indian Government's patented way of problem solving. If you don't see the problem, it doesn't exist. This is an interesting line of thinking, but beside the point and entirely outside the scope of this blog, written as it is by a doofus and generally unimportant person. So we shall buttonhole it for the moment and move on to earthier things.

Coming back to this restaurant. The fare is simple, as I said, comprising of just one item, the pulao. This is made out of rice flavored with green chillies and mutton cooked in green chillies, mixed and cooked again. With a few green chillies stirred in while all this happens, I shouldn't wonder. The resultant is a spicy pulao (I knew you'd never guess) eaten with an optional spicy gravy. Made mostly from green chillies, I might add. Its really yummy.

I now come to the mystery part. The operating hours are 5 am to 7 am, when the shop winds up for the day and what was buzzing with activity quietly dons the garb of a sleepy rural street. Who would want to eat mutton pulao at 5 am in the morning? Search me. Even the locals haven't a clue as to how these hours evolved. They all assemble there because, well, you wouldn't get any pulao otherwise. The place has some classy custom, mind you. The day I went there, there was a Mercedes parked outside. Some rich real estate type person, I would guess. He was too ugly to be a movie star. Had that extra chin or two which sort of disqualifies a chap from matinee idol status. The point is, the rich and famous are on the regular customer list. Yet the place is extremely cheap. The three of us ate like hyenas after a bread and water diet and ran up a bill of 250 rupees. Roughly 5 dollars 75. In other words, 27 cents a burp.

As I was saying, I couldn't hold back from the carbohydrates. The fragrance had already made my gastric juices slosh about and when the stuff was served, people were irresistibly reminded of Sus Scrofa Domesticus (Google it!)
We staggered back and slept it off. When I woke up an hour later, I was - and this is Mysore for you - hungry again. The though did occur to me that the whole thing might have been a dream, but I was afraid to ask. My hands were smelling of chillies, though.

PS. Errata: There are several more items on the menu, or would have been had there existed a menu, which there doesn't but then, merely the lack of a printed menu does not mean that the menu does not exist, of course, and I've been drinking beer, I confess. What I mean is that you can have stuff like idlis with korma and khaima (which means kheema or minced meat) balls. Mutton Pulao is not the only dish available. But the 5 am to 7 am thing is true.

Monday, April 16, 2007

My Republic Day Parade

We spent this Republic Day at the shopping mall down the road. The irony of it - celebrating the anniversary of a republic based on the principles of Svadeshi and frugal Gandhian living at a mall
showcasing the finest and the most decadent of western hedonism - was not lost on me. And this heady consumerism, far from being ruinous, has ushered in a wave of prosperity, look around you.

What a change from my childhood, I was thinking. Everything was scarce back then. Milk, water, sugar, rice, kerosene, cooking gas, name it. Except babies, of course, who abounded. I recall one economics professor saying that our problem was that "the woman of India is more
fertile than the soil of India".

I was bragging recently to my sons that I could have a proper bath in one bucket of water, including shampooing my hair. (They heard me out silently and with a sombre expression, fervently wishing, no doubt, that my goofy traits are not genetically passed on). This is a skill featuring in the C.V. of everyone who grew up in Bombay in the 70s. What an unnecessary deprivation, foisted on us by namby pamby politicians and bureaucrats who, instead of being lynched, as they richly deserve, have streets and public institutions named after them. I'm
rambling, of course.

Coming back to the mall. There were thousands of people tramping around in the place, and it wasn't rush hour yet. Virtually every shop had a "SALE" sign out. "Up to 50% off" was the popular one, with "Up to" in 3.2 millimeter letters and "50% off" about 4 feet high. The only ones with 50 % off would be three white shirts that the staff had mistakenly used as dusters. The rest would be 10 %. But the word "SALE" had the same effect on the general public as a red cape on a bull. Pawing the ground and snorting impatiently, the wife would plough into the teeming crowd, myself and the boys following as inconspicuously as possible. Diving into heaps of merchandise, she would pull out a few worthy ones, conclude commercial transactions and move on to the next shop. Looking into her eyes, I could see pure delight. It was retail therapy at work.

Down in the lobby, an enterprising businessman had kept a Formula-1 car. This goofiest of sports (after golf) has an amazing ability to grip the minds (I use this word in the loosest sense possible) of the younger generation. It was more of a bill board on wheels than an automobile, and carried the most improbable ads. Mobil, Elf and Pirelli I could understand, but what was Henkel doing there? Fed Ex? Siemens? I was disappointed not to find Durex, Nestle and Boeing. I mentioned, sarcastically, to the boys that they could have a Life Insurance ad on the undercarriage for when it flipped over which, I am given to understand, happens now and then, though nowhere with the frequency I would like to see. My sons thought it a brilliant idea and suggested I write to Bernie Ecclestone about it. Anyway, they milled around it along with a thousand other young people, and took snaps from all angles with my phone (which has a camera, another goofy feature which only young people find useful.).

In all the confusion, I managed to escape to a cookie shop called "Cookie Man" and extensively sampled their wares. Ummmm! It was wunnerful, as they say when their mouths are full of brandy snap cookies.

Friday, April 6, 2007

You might want this guy to twist your arm

There are many things in Mysore that I find amazing. (The one thing that Mysoreans seem to find amazing is "How did someone like Sheela end up marrying that ugghhh?" but thats another story).

There is the huge and ornate Mysore palace (in which lives the huge and ornate king of Mysore), the 6.00 am mutton pulao, the addressing of all and sundry as "saar", breakfast for less than Rs. 10, tiny workshops where craftsmen produce the most intricate of wooden carvings, a restaurant named "RRR" which serves such spicy chilli chicken that it is rumoured to be fed to suspects by the police in order to make them "talk". Many, many more

The most amazing of them all is this guy named Dr. K. R. I. Jagdish. He is famous for curing severe cases of slipped disc, cervical spondylitis and allied ailments, but is much more than that. I am told that he cures stuff like diabetes and asthma too.

Any way, I landed up there because young Sheela (my sweet and long suffering wife) had spondylitis trouble. Caused, no doubt, by continuously having to crane her neck to see if I'm hitting the Malpuris or the rabdi in the fridge. She was in considerable pain and we eventually landed up at our orthopaedic surgeon's clinic.

He made us click a few X-rays and promptly diagnosed it as spondylitis. He chattily carried on an interesting conversation about El five and El six or something like that which would have been really entertaining if I could understand a word of it. They could be Mexican cities for all I knew, or weather conditions (I've heard of El nino). An airline, perhaps, like El Al.
But I digress. Well, he recommended physiotherapy, and Sheela soon felt better. But the pain never really went away. To make matters worse for me, the words "pain" and "neck" used in the same sentence would usually end up in someone cracking a silly juvenile joke about me. With a dignified "Ha", I would take that as a cue to disappear, the better to preserve my self respect.

Eventually, to cut a long story short ("too late", I hear you say) we landed up in a distant suburb of Mysore. Dr. Jagdish, ( who endearingly calls himself "Jag" and his treatment "Jag Therapy") started work at 8.00 am. We had been warned that there would be a long wait, so we landed up at 7.45. There were 12 people ahead of us. It was a good hour before our turn came and I marched in with Sheela to find a 70 year old guy wearing shorts and chatting with two assistants, one American and one Japanese. Talk about incongruous. He had a disarming smile and a gently sarcastic tone of voice. He holds daal as the root of all evil because when we answered in the affirmative to his question whether we consumed it, he gave us the kind of look
your cardiologist would give you if you told him you ate 12-egg omelettes and half a pound of bacon for breakfast each morning. Horrified! After a little tirade against the poisonous nature of daal, he asked Sheela to lie down and felt her neck. He promptly said the same Spanish things (El this and that) that our orthopaedic surgeon had said. Amazing! Without any X-rays too! He said it was a very mild case and would cease to bother her, provided of course she stopped eating the poison (daal).

He held her arm and gently moved it around. Then he said he was going to manipulate
her joints and it might hurt a bit. Before she could say "daal", he had twisted her arm and
neck and sent a lot of joints in there going "snap". Sheela hasn't felt the pain since. He gave
her some exercises to do and strict instructions to have nothing to do with daal, and we left.

Know the most amazing thing? This whole treatment is free. He does not charge a penny other
than a one time Rs. 50 registration fee which entitles you to see him as often as you like, for
ever. Even that is waived if you tell them you cant afford it, as some poor people do. There is a charity box kept near the reception where you can contribute but it is voluntary and unsupervised. In my entire life I have not seen anything like this anywhere. You're not even asked or urged for a donation.

I was moved. This Jag, I learnt later, practises for half a year in Brunei. The other half is in
Mysore. As far as I can see, he lives entirely on voluntary contribution and invites people to
live with him and learn his science, free of charge. Even the cynic in me could not see any ulterior motive or hidden agenda. And he really does work miracles with slipped disc cases.
Many people who considered themselves crippled for life are today completely cured.
Sheela met a family she knew, a wealthy businessman's, doing voluntary service at Jag's,
eternally grateful to him for making someone in the family walk again.

Really amazing, Mysore.

P.S. Several people have asked me for jag's contact details. Here they are

Sri K. R. I. Jagadish Charitable Trust
9/1P 13th E Main J Block Kanadasa Nagar
Dattagalli 3rd stage

Ph: 3294855/2901813