Thursday, April 29, 2010

My vacation - Part 3 - Jinja

Off to Jinja, the old capital of Uganda and the stronghold of people named Madhvani, who are the Ambanis of Uganda. The town is about two hours drive from Kampala. 

Enroute, we passed by a suburb of Kampala named Ntinda. This is pronounced Natinda. Which rhymes with Bhatinda. Which awoke the Keats in me. I composed this little sonnet to a fictitious, touchingly incompetent culinary craftsman, and narrated it to the missus who, as is her wont when in any car ride greater than 5 minutes long, had gone off to sleep.

"There was a young lad from Bhatinda", I told her, nudging her awake gently, "who found a job as a cook in Ntinda. But when he roasted meat, even on the lowest heat, it would somehow get burned to a cinder".

She looked blankly at me. "What in the world are you gibbering about? What have Bhatinda and Ntinda got to do with each other?". I explained the poem to her. A young man, a migrant, leaving home and its hardships, coming to a strange town, landing a job as a cook and then struggling with his inability to roast meat etc.

The missus did not seem to get the poignancy. "Naren, kindly stop this tomfoolery before someone concludes you are non compos mentis. Now let me catch up on some sleep". The missus tends to use latin when seriously pissed. I continued to compose, silently now, my poetic  masterpieces.

There was a young man from Bhatinda/ who married a lady named Linda/ whose hair was highly curled /because the part of the world /she was from was called Ntinda.

Nope. Not as good as the earler effort. Best not to tempt fate by narrating this one to the missus. She has never bitten me but that does not mean she can't. Or won't.

The landscape was beautiful. Just green, green and more green. Our driver Ronald was a dignified and knowledgeable commentator and kept giving me little tidbits of information such as the average rainfall in Uganda, the average temperature, the distance to Jinja, the flora and fauna to be found there, the early white explorer Speke, who afforded great poetic possiblities (The Early White Explorer Speke/ was ordinarily docile and meek/ except when he found/ no shrubbery around/ and he badly wanted to take a leak) but Ronald's constant, dignified commentary rather demanded attention.

Enroute we stopped at a forest called Mabira, which nearly caused civil war in this charming country thanks to one Jay Mehta, husband of Juhi Chawla. This is a long and potentially sensitive anecdote which I will narrate some other time, mainly because I don't know how much truth there is in it. Suffice it to say that if the anecdote is true, said Mehta is a greedy whatchamacallit.

Ok, missus making eyes at me. Will update post lights out.

My vacation - Part 2 - Kampala

(As mentioned in the earlier post, this is a highly jazzed up account of a vacation I am having currently. The high point of the drama, such as it is, is that we were pushed off the flight to Europe and de-conveyed to Africa. Best left unread, of course, unless you are one of the few jobless ones. Like me.  BTW, many apologies for not responding to earlier comments. this is because I have but a hairs breadth of internet time.)

Finding another destination of course was not as easy as it seemed. First, we didn't have time (or, in my case the patience) to line up outside some snotty embassy with a truck load of papers and the earnest “Please give me a visa, mister, I promise not to settle in your country or carry on trade or occupation for profit in any manner” expression so important to visa officers. And second, I had a feeling my credit cards were close to maxing themselves, putting de-luxe destinations out of bounds, for long vacations at any rate.

The missus' first choice was Thailand, but it seemed to be going through one of those phases where chaps start throwing bombs at other chaps who, instead of turning the other cheek as recommended by well known world figures, throw bombs right back, escalating the whole ruddy thing. All in all, not conducive to tourism.

My bright suggestion at this stage was Sikkim. Beautiful, unspoiled, easy to get to, economical. This was met with a glowering look. I upped it to Sri Lanka. Ok, so I wanted to minimise cost, but Sri Lanka is a great tourist place. (Its tallest mountain, I am told by my younger son, is Piduruthalagala. He had to study this for Geography which made him very unhappy with the tendency of the local populace to name their mountains in several dozen syllablic words instead of say Bob mountain or Tim mountain. I digress.) This suggestion too was tossed out the window.

“Let's go to Uganda. It has visa on arrival. And we can do some safaris.” suggested Neela, the missus' twin sister who , with her husband Mahesh, were traveling with us. I heaved a sigh of relief. It's a long story but we have a decent base there. House and all. This would be DEFINITELY low cost. Evidently, Mahesh was also thinking along similar lines as me, as I distinctly spotted him heaving sighs of relief of his own. Unanimously passed.

We marched off to the Emirates office on Vittal Mallya Road, Bangalore, and did the needful. (we were flying from Bangalore, because Neela and Mahesh live in Mysore and had done all the dirty work of booking tickets etc). Somewhere in the vicinity was a 'fish spa' which is a spa where you put your feet into a fish tank and the fish eat all the dead skin, toenail dirt etc. Your feet come out a lovely pink. What they omit to tell you is that the process is ticklish as hell. I was shoved into the place and assigned a ten minute session. Ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity. My giggling and writhing seemed to offer no end of mirth to the missus and her accomplices (viz sister and brother-in-law).

And the thing is the futility of it all. I mean, compared to, say, aquiline looks or a lean muscular body, pink feet offer little by way of sex appeal. I might be wrong but I really don't see buxom young lasses throwing themselves at you because you have pink feet. But the missus had decreed, so it had to happen.

I shoved my pink feet into my shoes and we hurried on to the airport. The flight was from Bangalore to Dubai, where we got a couple of hours of duty free shopping and thence onward to Entebbe (yes, the famous airport where the Israelis did their 90 minute thing) via Addis Ababa.

The flight was pretty uneventful. The missus spent the entire flight to Dubai sleeping on my shoulder, making me feel like the warm, affectionate caveman that I am. I listened to some music. There is this Bryan Adams' song, the words of which go something like this “Lets make love.. something something.... january to december” I don't know the words, but I have come to the conclusion that it is based on Raag Shuddha Nat. I've done a comparison, which I can make available at request (post it on youtube or something) if you promise to remember that it was done under the influence of alcohol and do not hold it against me if and when I am appointed to high office.

Well, Uganda is beautiful. We spent the evening in Kampala, Uganda's cheerful, laid-back and emerald green capital. I had picked up a bottle of Glenmorangie whiskey (which the missus insists on calling Glen Morarjee) of a decent vintage and I am happy to report that it goes beautifully with Kampala.

The following morning was our trip to a town called Jinja. To read about which you will have to wait a day or two while I sneak the laptop under the bedcovers, away from the sight of the missus, and write out my secret report. This one has been bad enough... I've almost been caught twice. (I pretended to be checking flight availability to Europe.)

Cheers, then. Back soon, hopefully.

Monday, April 26, 2010

My Vacation - Part 1 - Africa

(Dear reader,
If you, like most people, like your information neatly packaged in structured, speed-readable communication, the long and short of what follows is that my wife and I set out on an European vacation that was rudely cut short because of the volcano trouble. We decided to redirect to countries broadminded enough to offer citizens of India visas on arrivals (since we didn't want to waste time queuing up outside snotty bureaucratic satraps with bank statements and IT returns). Thus, we landed up in.......Uganda

Also, apologies if I seem uncommunicative but the fact is that Uganda has the feeblest internet in the world. And the missus isn't too keen on me spending hours on the computer, cursing silently at the monitor or pulling my hair out or both, as is my wont when the internet refuses to respond.

So, that's that. The complete executive summary. You don't need to read on, unless you are one of those very few in the world who have nothing else to do)

Life has been whooshing past these past few days.

First it was the proposed get-away. Did I mention it? The missus and I were planning to visit Europe for a long relationship-rebuilding vacation. This has been necessitated by the missus' firm conviction that I love my computer more than I love her. Completely untrue of course. I don't take my computer to dinner or to a movie. Not always anyway. That argument of course did not cut much ice and said vacation was planned in great earnestness and detail. Which Venetian canal to cruise down in gondola with gondoleer singing which Italian love ballad and so on.

But I digress. The said proposed vacation necessitated many subtle strategic moves such as ensuring that my Airtel bills and Icici credit card dues were paid off. They are direct descendants of Gnghis Khan where it comes to tardy settlement of dues, the aforementioned Airtel and ICICI chaps. I have heard that they behead their defaulters and pile up the skulls in neat little heaps outside villages as a deterrent to other potential defaulters. I'm a sentimental kind of guy. I'm very attached to my head, unattractive as it may be to other people. So I pulled out the old cheque book and did the necessary writing. I just don't remember if I dropped it into the box. Guess I'll find out. If they come at me with machetes, it was nice knowing you folks.

Coming back to the res, the next on the list was helping the missus pack our suitcases. This is an enterprise fraught with danger because my darling helpmeet, the apple of my eye, the nuclear reactor of the little submarine of my life, my safe and secure elastic rubber cord in the Great Bungee Jump that is worldly existence, is apt to get a tad ballistic when I can't find my things when she asks for them.

“Get me that striped shirt”

“Er, which striped shirt?”

“The black one, the one I've been telling you about for the last ten minutes”

I found something which answered loosely to that description.

“What is this?”she asked, holding the shirt up like an exterminator holding up a recently exterminated pest. Never a good sign.

“Black striped shirt?” I answered hopefully.

“This color is called 'blue'. These little squares are called checks. Stripes are – Oh, you're hopeless, Naren” and in a marked manner, got up and picked the shirt herself. I swear it wasn't there a moment ago. The missus must be a prestidigitator or something.

She went back to the suitcase.

“Now, please pay attention. AND SHUT THAT COMPUTER.”

And so on. Finally she got the suitcases packed. She'd tucked in an enormous amount of stuff including my wedding suit aka my ticket collector disguise. “Just in case we go to the opera” she told me. I fervently hope we don't. No offense, but opera always sounds like people panicking in song. The missus doesn't care much for the music either, but she likes the spectacle.

“Have you called the cab?”

Thankfully, I had. Having thus saved my marriage by the merest skin of my teeth, we set forth for the Airport.

And to our dismay, were resolutely told by the Emirates people to take a walk. They didn't say that in so many words, of course. They are too well bred for that. But in the round about way so popular with the airline people, they told us that there was a volcano blasting away in Iceland which is why we couldn't fly to Rome, though Rome airport was open, because of back-log problems and they would be happy to refund us our money in due course or reschedule our flight as and when it pleased them.

First, dismay. Then anguish. Then anger (I chose the charged-with-sarcasm route, completely wasted on the rhinoceros hides that airline employees are equipped with). And then the missus, practical as ever, said “Where can I book tickets for some other destination?”....... (contd)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reminiscenses on the Eve of the Eve of my anniversay

In about 48 hours from now, the missus and I will have been married 18 years. Eighteen years! It seems just yesterday that we were sitting shyly in her uncle's house, discussing God, competitive strategy and favorite colors in an attempt to assess if we were compatible.

For those of you who were born in modern times, arranged marriages included a 10 minute "now boy and girl can talk" session, post the horoscope matching and family background verifying. Till that moment, the ship would be steered exclusively by maamis and maamas. It was only after they adjudged the thing securely in the bag that the prospective protagonists were allowed to have an unsupervised conversation.

We were ushered in to an inner living room. My heart was thudding like the proverbial bass drum. The missus perched some ten feet away on the sofa across the coffee table. Her eyes, I noticed for the first time, were a deep greenish-brown.

I smiled weakly. Completely wacky thoughts were running in my mind. What if I were to burp or something? It would sound so loud. Would she run away in disgust? Had I buttoned my shirt properly? What if she suddenly started singing?

She returned my smile with a shy one of her own. There was just the hint of a dimple on the lower left side of her mouth.


I could sense that she expected me to say something but my mouth wouldn't open. I could see her smile wane a little. "I hope he's not a deaf-mute, not that I have a anything against deaf-mutes, just saying" she seemed to be thinking.

I decided to ask her what her hobbies were. Always a good ice-breaker. I opened my mouth to speak and to my complete mortification, heard myself asking "do you believe in God?"

"Yes. Don't you?" came the reply.

Between you and me, what with one thing and another, I've never been able to swallow the God bit. In my dreamy and romantic youth, I had often fantasized about meeting God and demanding, successfully, to be transformed into (at various times) a champion sportsman, a world-famous actor and an irresistible sex symbol but I never managed to achieve the level of gullibility which enables people to go so far as killing each other on the basis of completely unsubstantiated hypotheses.

"Yes, of course" I lied.

That seemed to be the right answer. She smiled again. I managed a grimace.

"What is your favorite color" she asked

To this day, I don't know the right answer to that question. If I'm pouring out a beer, it would be "Golden brown". If I was seated at the local Shetty hotel it would be the "dal tadka" yellow.

"Blue" I told her (or possibly green, don't really recall)

That seemed to please her. I was emboldened. My turn to ask her something. Hmmm. I wasn't clued in to Hindi movies too much, but I knew "favorite picture" or "favorite actor" would be a good bet.

"So, have you read Michael Porter's "Competitive Strategy"?" I found myself asking her.

She turned her eyes plaintively to the door, willing someone to come in and rescue her. And luckily her aunt walked in.

"So? Done?"

"Yes" we replied unanimously.

Little wonder then, that this marriage has lasted eighteen years, and shows all signs of lasting another fifty. Really solid foundations, as I am sure you will agree.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Flying and why I hate it

As I type this on the flight, I cannot help wondering whether I am a Cynical Realist, a Pragmatist, a Practical Alarmist or a Regular Schizophrenic. It's not that I hear voices in my head or anything. I'm just alive to possibilities.

It's this ability of mine, this ability to see possibilities others cannot, that has proved so debilitating for my evident genius.

It derailed my chess career, for example. The problem is, I can see so far ahead that I am unable to continue after White's first move, when I am black. And when I am White, Black's response to my move will usually make me see irrefutable threats that my opponent might be oblivious to.

For instance consider my last ever chessgame. I was playing for my college team then, and my opponent was a sweaty, neurotic looking chap named Babu. The team wanted just a draw from me. I was sure I could manage it. After all, this Babu was a complete unknown anyway.

We set up the pieces. The arbiter checked our clocks and told us to start. And to my dismay, Babu played 1. e4.

You would doubtless recall Fischer V/s Petrosian, in which Fischer slowly strangled the former world champion, considered practically unbeatable until then, in a fashion that persuaded me there was no real defense. Well, Fischer had played 1.e4 in that game.

I thought hard for some 30 minutes and try as I might, I could see no way out. I could sense the expectant eyes of my captain and the other team-members upon me but my clinical mind told me there was no way out. I resigned.

The captain and the other team-members were unreasonably angry, I recall. Abusing me like that! “You frikking moron! How the frikking hell can you resign after the first frikking move?” I remember the captain screaming as he, for some reason, pulled out his hair. It hurt, believe me, especially when I realised that “frikking” is not an English word (I checked the Oxford dictionary). It is in some arcane tongue - I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be Basque or Inuit - and one can only speculate what ghastly meaning it has. When I asked him to apologise, he most rudely demanded I absent myself lest he be tempted to disembowel me. Boor! I had had enough. I resolved never to play chess again.

It is this rare ability which makes me fear flying so much. For instance, if you consider the universal desire of the soul to seek eternal truth, and the fact that airline pilots are, despite their funny way of talking, human beings,you cannot help being alarmed.

“Don't be silly, Naren” the missus says.

She is responding to my reasonable conjecture that if the pilot is a Sceptical Pragmatist, he would probably decide that there is no objective reason to suppose that any good will come out of taking off, and attempt to land the plane with a full tank of fuel. The tyres of course are not desinged to land with thiry tons of fuel weight. They will probably burst. The plane will careen out of control, tipping over and somersaulting like Olga Korbut (Nadia Comaneci, if you prefer) on cocaine.

And of course, we will be shredded into little pieces of DNA evidence in the crash report.

“Naren, the pilot is not a lunatic to cut throttle and land after going through all that trouble taking off. You heard him say “Close and arm all doors. Cross check and report”.

I chuckle at this.

“And why are you laughing now, my dear paranoid jellyfish?” she asks.

“Cross Check” I reply. “Further evidence of the pilot being non-compos mentis”

“Huh?” she goes, in her typical impatient tone. I have to explain EVERYTHING to some people!

“See, here's the pilot, building up speed, flying this eighty ton contraption at speeds approaching that of sound and all that he instructs his staff to do is ensure that the negotiable instrument is not left open payable to bearer.”

She takes a moment to digest this.

“Cross check means 'Verify again'. It does not mean put 'A/c Payee Only' on the corner of a cheque. That cheque is cheque. This check is check. Oh, darn it. You've got me gibbering now. If it scares you so much, just shut your eyes and pray, ok?”

I have logically established, quite conclusively if I may say so myslef, that God does not exist and hence prayer is useless, but I sense that this is not a good time to tell her. I hold her hand tightly and brace myself.

By some incredible stroke of luck, we land in one piece. I am still breathing.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Trouble in the Spiritual World

I wrote this, then deleted it, then some really sweet people said hey, post it all the same, we could use some laughs, though I muchly suspect the laughing will be more at the fact that I am displaying senility than any joke that might have inadvertently crept in. But what the hell...

I dont usually have existential doubts, but my good friend Sri Sri Fullananda and I were contemplating difficult cosmic questions recently over a spiritual bottle of Soma. Like me, Fullananda is also a deep thinker. That made two deep thinkers at that table.

We've done this kind of thing before, you know, this contemplation stuff. We like nothing better than a good delving into the cosmic. But that evening, I have to say this, even the usually satisfying topic of Oneness with the Supreme left us cold.

Soemthing seemed to be troubling Fullananda. I could see that he sipped his Soma listlessly.

"Not happening", said Sri Sri. The Sri Sri, for all his Sri Sri-ness employs the argot of the scatterbrain youth, a fact that I don't really approve of, but with Sri Sris, you have to bear with this sort of thing.

"Not happening? This Soma?" I enquired

"No, the Soma is great. Jolly miraculous, come to think of it, that the essence of spirituality should be so well captured by the Scots, of all people! Evidence that He pervades all humanity. No, I was referring to all this 'Oneness with the Supreme' business"

I was puzzled.

"What kind of defeatist talk is this, old chap?" I asked him, with the merest hint of alarm in my voice, for I knew him to be of the finest mettle when it came to mystical philosophy. The bearer of two Sris. One of the best speakers on heavy metaphysics. His discourse on 'The Lifting Of The Gossamer Veil of Consciousness To Get A Glimpse Of All Encompassing Reality' still makes my hair stand on end. (No, I can't tell you how it all came out in the end. Listen to it yourself!) "Oneness with the Supreme not happening? You're speaking through your hat, my dear fellow". Some might have thought my tone a tad sharp but you'd have to agree that it was deserved.

"You know, old chap," he said, gazing absently into the soma, "you and I are of a mien different from the rest. We Know All. But I fear things are not all hunky dory with our brethren"

"You mean our fellow philosophers?" I asked

"Yes. And in particular, I mean the practising Swamis. The Babas. The Sris. Even the Sri Sris. "

"What about them?"

"Well, the way they stumble about in the real world, unsuspecting and innocent"

The penny dropped. "You mean old Nithyananda being caught on camera?" Tragic. One of one of our best chaps. Just happened to be practising some oneness with a female disciple at an inconvenient moment. You won't believe how they hounded the poor man.

"There's nothing wrong with getting a bit of oneness going with one's female devotees, if the said devotees aren't against such oneness" he continued "the supraconsciousness being what it is and all, but the real world takes such a dim view of all this. That poor fellow is going to be pilloried now. And worse, it is the thin end of the wedge"

"I know what you mean. All of us will be suspect. Whenever they see us going into trances with female devotees in attendance, they will say we are yielding to base carnal desires. "

Fullananda giggled. "Actually, I kind of like those base carnal desires", he said, as if to himself, but quickly recovered. "No!" he said "No! We must lie low. We must go into seclusion. Alone. Without female devotees."

"Without female devotees?" I was puzzled. "How will we acheive communion with the inner being of the supreme self?"

"Oh do not worry about such things," said Fullananda. "Have faith in the eternal. Our Hand will be guided."

"And by the by", I askedFullananda, "what is your view on doctors?"

"Doctors? Sound chaps! Very sound."

"But don't they rubbish our faith-healing methods?"

"Some might, he said, "but deep inside they're on our side."

"How is that?" I asked, mystified.

"Well many doctors have told me that they desire nothing more than the demise of non-believers."

This was news to me. "Really? I've never heard anyone of my acquaintance say so"

"Oh come, come, old salt. Dont you know the battle cry of good doctors?"


"Its 'Die, Agnostics!'"

No, I didn't have the heart to tell him.