Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Planter's Club - Part II

The abiding tragedy of my life is and will always be the reluctance of Shilpa Shetty to marry me. She can find no better husband - charming, witty, not averse to polygamy - but somehow she hasn't cottoned on to the idea. I therefore decided to go with the Hoysala temples (You may recall my assertion that I would prefer seeing the Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebeedu to marrying Ms. Shetty. What prompted that statement was that she wasn't really planning to marry me any way. Alright, alright, I'll get to the story)

We set out on the assurance that the roads were "okay" and took a short cut through a place called Bikkodu. It was a beautiful, rustic drive. I wondered, as I often do, why the hell I live in Bombay when there are places like this in India. On either side of the road were forests alternating with coffee estates, resplendent in various shades of green. Every now and then we would come across a house with a garden that would be bursting with flowers of almost every conceivable color. The people on the roads were simple peasants with a serene look on their faces (except one whom I splattered by driving full speed over a nice, fresh cow pat. He lost his serene look for a while, I guess. Not my fault, I had no idea these things were so sprayable.)

Anyway, we landed up in Belur for our first look at the Hoysala temples. These temples date back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Since I wasn't around at the time (I really regret that. Life was such a party, going by the erotic sculpture panels.) I thought it might be a smart idea to engage a guide. The guide turned out to be a motivated and serious historian who spoke excellent, if slightly accented, English. I really don't recall all the details (except the erotic sculpture panels, about which I could give a lecture series) but the intricacy of the sculpture was mind boggling.

"The stone is known as soap-stone. It is soft when quarried and hardens as it is exposed to the atmosphere. This made it possible for the sculptors to achieve this level of intricacy" said our guide, as if that made it a piece of cake. The temple was made in segments and joined with dove-tail joints and the like, as if it were wood. This makes it an achievement in engineering because the builders would have to estimate loads and design it well, lest it collapse like a pack of cards. Since that hasn't happened in the last 900 years, it would appear that they passed their engineering degree with honors. It did rather make one suck one's breath in.

We headed on to Halebeedu which is about a half hours drive from Belur through some fine and picturesque farmland. En route we were stopped by a posse of policemen standing next to a trademark rattletrap police jeep that couldn't overtake a toddler's tricycle, if the toddler's tricycle didn't want to be overtaken. I got out of the car (I was driving) and interpreted the head cop's guttural comments as a desire to see some papers. I gave him a wide choice. There were registration papers, insurance papers, papers pertaining to the first service of the vehicle, somebody's horoscope, and a blood test report. He took a hard look at them all and asked for my license. As he subjected it to his regular scrutiny, I realized he was holding it upside down. He returned all this stuff to me and decided not to press charges. Duh!

Relieved, I resumed the journey and presently we rolled into the erstwhile capital of the Hoysala kingdom. This temple was bigger - two temples adjacent, in fact - but was vandalized by the general Malik Kafur, who had sauntered into town with his army, looking for a bit of cash. This is a recurrent theme in the history of India, the Muslim conquerors' penchant for defacing fine sculpture and painting. They would come, plunder, slaughter some of the citizenry and as a parting shot, defile any decent statues they could find. The caves at Ellora will bring tears to your eyes when you see what Aurangzeb and his friends did, in the course of a weekend, to centuries of labor of the highest artistic merit and historical importance. More recently his descendants, the Taliban in Afghanistan, bombed a couple of enormous and completely harmless Buddha statues out of existence in a place called Bamiyan. And so it goes on. But let me not dwell on topics that are none of my concern, especially topics that can bring a fatwa upon my head. A fine head, if I may say so, and one that I am keenly interested in continuing the ownership of.

Coming back to my fine little travelogue, by the time we were done with Halebeedu, everyone was hungry. We decided to look around for lunch. Halebeedu, for a tourist destination, seemed strangely bereft of establishments that would sell food for money. We went to a government hotel set in a large ground. The major domo gave us the once-over and announced that all he could spare, at the moment, was rice and curd. We were really hungry and I was willing to eat even that, but the kids kicked at the prospect. Soon, their mom joined the agitation and I was overpowered and forced to look for another place. There was a bar and restaurant down the road, stocking, presumably, Dr. Mallya's finest. This was turned down on the flimsy grounds that it is not good to have so much beer. The rightful leftover, so to speak, turned out to be an establishment called Shri Krishna Veg Restaurant which did a set meal for Rs. 12 per head, consisting of cardboard cleverly disguised as food. I washed down as much of it as possible with America's contribution to the world of fine beverages, namely Coke.

"Time to head back", I told the lads and got a glazed look in reply. These guys had pigged out on the Shri Krishna Veg Restaurant gourmet cardboard-a-la-king! They had actually enjoyed this, these same ingrates who turn up their nose when I cook them an omelet. Not tasty enough for them, my omelets aren't! Well, I have a lot to say along these lines but somehow, I don't think you're dying to hear about it. So I'll conclude my concise and informative - well written, in fact - travelogue by telling you all that if you haven't seen the Hoysala Temples, you haven't lived. And for those of you who want the letters PhD after your name, there is a wonderful thesis waiting to be written on "The nutritional value of commercial cardboard" in the Shri Krishna Veg Restaurant. Maybe the way to end world hunger is to increase cardboard production.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Planter's Club, Sakaleshpur

I know what you're thinking. Ho hum. Another one of them stupid vacation diaries. The Planter's Club, Sakaleshpur is where I spent a few days last week, soaking in, along with the atmosphere, a few stray drops of beer and some tremendously spicy cuisine. But hang on. The paying public demands a few footnotes and background material....

Once upon a time, long, long ago, a few Sundays back in fact, Sheela's tribe organized an impromptu outing to a coffee estate that Sheela's brother Sundeep had bought recently. Everyone was there except Prince Charming, who was basically toiling away in Bombay. Sheela rang up Prince Charming and asked him to come on his mettlesome charger and grace the gathering with his customary good humor and vivacity.

Now, Prince Charming was very busy with work, you know, slaying dragons, saving damsels in distress and sitting at the round table. He wondered aloud if it would be worthwhile going all that way just to chill out for a few days and do nothing but drink beer and eat yummy food. As he spoke, he realized that it was his beholden duty to his family to cheer them up and spend quality time with them. After all, what good is a valiant knight if he cannot spend a few days drinking really chilled beer and eating mutton pepper fry for the sake of his family? So with a heavy heart, he bid adieu to the dragons and the damsels in distress and heaved his posterior in the general direction of Mysore, wherefrom the tribe would repair to the Planter's Club, Sakaleshpur.

Well, I must confess that I (I'm taking the liberty of referring to myself in the first person. When one is Prince Charming, one does rather merit the third person treatment but jealousy abounds, dear reader. I know it astounds you, but people would actually think me arrogant if I kept referring to myself in the third person) rather imagined a planter to be a grizzled old man with his back bent from years of planting, looking yearningly skywards every now and then as if praying to the rain gods for deliverance. The Sakaleshpur Planter is anything but.

From the array of cars parked in the place, my guess was that the average Sakaleshpur Planter lived like a sheikh whose family has just installed a few new oil wells. I hobnobbed with a few and found them speaking with impeccable diction and great erudition on a wide range of subjects. One of them set me right about the Modern Art scene in India, on which topic I had recklessly shot off my mouth. I admit that I know as much about the Modern Art Scene in India as I know about the Lesser Scandinavian Poets, namely nothing, but I had never thought I would be so speedily, if gently, exposed as a goof. I quickly learnt the merits of not opening my mouth, except for the purpose of ingesting the beer and the mutton pepper fry.

Interesting place, in short, and it wasn't really opulent or anything, it had a beautiful location and great comfort. The staff was an absolute throwback to colonial times. An extremely geriatric gentleman turned out to be the cook. Eighty two years old, would you believe it. After a particularly delicious meal one evening, young Sundeep sent for him, to thank him for the wonderful meal and cross his palms with silver. It turned out that he wasn't interested in the money at all. That seemed unusual. We looked at him quizzically. After a bit of hemming and hawing, he inquired if he might speak freely. We urged him to ask unto half our kingdom, but all that he wanted, it turned out, was a large drink. The bar had closed and the bar clerk had left for the night, taking with him the keys to the liquor cabinet, so we couldn't buy him a drink. He looked yearningly at a half finished bottle of Scotch that we were sampling rather extensively. Without a second's hesitation, young Sundeep handed it over to him, the rest of the company agreeing that it was a mere bagatelle in the appreciation of culinary genius.

Next morning, we were amply recompensed for the generous liquid gift of the previous night. He cooked up a beautiful meal of "akki rotti" (rice chapaties) and some deep red concoction of spice and tomatoes that was tangy and delicious. I found I had nothing to do. Sundeep had to go back to the estate for some work, so I thought I would hijack one of the cars and explore the countryside a bit. The wife and kids agreed to join and we ended up going to the Belur and Halebeedu temples about an hours drive away. Was that good? Let me put it this way. If I have a one-or-the-other choice between seeing the temples and marrying Shilpa Shetty, I would unhesitatingly choose the temples. Only if it was a one-or-the-other choice, of course. I would much rather do both..........

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A tryst with Mr. Destiny

Mr. Destiny is what I call my friend's astrologer. He can fix it for you.

Want to start a new business? Throw out those business plans and cashflow projections. Mr. Destiny will look at your horoscope and tell you how you will fare.

Usually, he finds that you will fare badly and that you will be cheated by partners and business associates. Your face falls. You've worked a great deal putting together that plan and mobilizing support for it. Now what do you do? Abandon it? Or go ahead and risk Mr. Destiny telling you "I told you so" as you try to piece together your shattered life?

Mr. Destiny reads your thoughts. A tranquil smile flits across his face and he tells you to have faith in him.

Do three things, he says.

First, there are an odd number of letters in your name. This is very bad for Venus, which is the dominant planet for you. So add a letter. Now, this can be fun. If you name is, say, Ashok, an ordinary, everyday kind of name, no one is going to notice it unless you do something seriously big like winning a Nobel prize or making it to the Oval Office. But add an 's' in the right place and you become "Asshok" leading people to believe you are someone of prominence in the pornography industry and consequently, inviting you for dinner. See? Its working already.

Second, wear a moonstone ring on the little finger of your left hand. Amazing coincidence, Mr. Destiny has one in stock, which he will let you have for less than market price. Lucky you. He probably knew that you were coming to meet him, he can see the future, you know. I for one find it most impressive that Mr. Destiny has lunar rocks with him. I tell my wife so. "I thought NASA would have them under lock and key", I mention, in a conspiratorial whisper because Mr. Destiny seems to be in some kind of trance. "You're such a doofus", she whispers back. That statement is true, of course, but why is she mentioning it now? "Because the 'moonstone' is not a lunar rock, it is a gemstone", she says. This does not seem like sufficient grounds to declare me mentally unsound. How am I supposed to know stuff like that? What am I, a contestant on Kaun Banega Crorepati? Bournvita Quiz Contest? Huh? I prepare to present these strong arguments in my defense but my wife fixes me with a stare. I find that the temperature of my lower limbs has gone down considerably. "Want to make it in the evolution race?", the stare seems to be saying, "keep that trap shut". I decide to follow a policy of compliance.

Third, Mr. Destiny gives you a mantra which you have to repeat one million and eight times. Each repetition is to be accompanied with pouring a spoonful of water on a tulsi leaf and put on an idol of Krishna. You are desperately doing some large-number math. Lets see, two seconds for each mantra, thirty in a minute, one thousand eight hundred an hour, let me see.. one million would take..... a really long time. Fortunately, this activity can be outsourced. There is a team of pundits who will do this in such a way as to ensure that the benefit accrues to you, for the extremely reasonable price of ten thousand rupees, payable in advance please.
Now your destiny is fixed. It dare not have the temerity to traverse paths not charted for it by Mr. Destiny.

Till you meet Mr. Good Fortune, who gives you a commiserating look and tells you that Mr. Destiny did not know someone called Jack Shit, implying that his advice is therefore misleading and actually, harmful. You need to have seven syllables in your name, plus it should begin with the letter K, plus you should wear a sapphire ring on the middle finger of your right hand because otherwise Mars in the seventh house will team up with Mercury in the third floor flat and both will kick your sorry ass big time. You might have to get married to a Banyan tree and think of what kind of sex life you will have then, ha, ha, ha.

Some times I really wonder if life is worth living. Now where did I put that bottle of sleeping pills?