Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dear Diary stuff

The last week has been enjoyable. First, we went off, the missus and I, with some friends, for a mini-vacation to Mahabaleshwar, a surprisingly pleasant 6 hour drive from Bombay. I was looking forward to this vacation. For one thing, it had been a particularly busy and high pressure time at work and  for another, I had just found out that Mahabaleshwar was quite close to a place called Kaas which I've been wanting to see for ages. This place, also called Kaas Plateau ('Kaas Pathaar' in Marathi), is a large meadow on the top of a largish hill, near Satara, which has more than a hundred different kinds of wild flowers for about a month this time of the year. The timing was almost perfect

But first, Mahabaleshwar. This charming hill-station has been the getaway of middle-class, mumbai based Gujarati families for decades, and shows its Gujratiness in a hundred different ways. Most hotels have a "100% Pure Veg" on their billboards (I've always wondered what a '75% pure veg or 47.328% pure veg' would be) and downtown Mahabaleshwar has several Gujarati thali places. Speaking of which, if you've never had Gujarati thali, you've missed something. It's a sit-down, all-you-can-eat meal comprising of some curries and the most awesome 'fulka' chapatis fresh off the tawa, followed by 'khichdi' on which a large spoonful of melted ghee is lovingly poured right before missus's horrified eyes. It's not something Miss Universe hopefuls would put on their dietary regime if they're vying for the title, but one is not, fortunately, a miss universe hopeful. Missus is, however, and sticks to the un gheed version. She makes several eye gestures indicating that she expects me to do likewise, which I spy through my peripheral vision and shrewdly avoid eye contact with her. The ghee bearing waiter, who has been looking saddened by missus' refusal to take any, is all smiles when he sees my acquiescent nod. After he goes away, missus asks me in an angry whisper what the hell I think I'm doing.

"Ghee is good for health"

"Sez who?"

"Oh, hundreds of people. There is one Balaji Tambe who has this wonderful scientific explanation. According to him, the ghee that you eat enters the blood through the alimentary canal, goes right up to the coronary artery and lines it. This makes it difficult for plaque to stick and thus prevents heart attacks. I saw it on tv"

Missus rolls her eyes and appears to be counting to ten "If you have another helping of the khichdi with ghee, I will hit you on the head with my umbrella"

It is a reasoned argument and I am persuaded. I decline the waiter's insistent offer on his second orbit. He goes away downcast, possibly to the pantry to take some antidepressant medication.

We head on to our hotel, the large and ostentatious, if curiously named,  Evershine-A-Keys Resort which is quite empty, it being the off-season. The lobby is spacious and shiny, with french windows opening out into a garden. The place abounds, for some reason, with statues of lions. There are a few guests chatting up someone who appears to be an astrologer. He is an elderly man, well dressed for the part. Dhoti, kurta, a large red tilak on his forehead and the all-knowing demeanour that astrologers (and MBAs) seem to have.

We are walking around in the lobby, having checked in, freshened up and gotten ready to go because we are waiting for our friends to get ready (we are going to Kaas Pathaar) and we are walking because we have to metabolize the ghee we have had with our khichdi.

"Walk faster!" says missus and I take it up a notch, hoping these chaps will emerge quickly from their room

Presently, they come out and observe that there is an astrologer.
"Oh, look! An astrologer!"

They institute inquiries and it transpires that the learned gent is indeed available for consultations when we return from Kaas Plateau.

Kaas turns out to be a pleasant ninety minute drive from our hotel. Its a large, flat rocky maidaan which should have been carpeted with wild flowers as far as eye can see, but is rather less floral. "You should have been here two weeks ago" our guide, one Machhindra Kamble, tells us. "But don't worry. There are still a lot of interesting plants here". And there are, indeed! We see several kinds of ground orchids, some seven species of carnivorous plants, some very imaginatively named flowering shrubs (one is "shepherds hat" in Marathi, because the flower resembles the pagdi that itinerant shepherds wear on their heads. Another is called "Sita's tears" because they have spots on their petals which were the tears she shed when Ravana carried her to Lanka) and several other plants which have interesting tales which M Kamble tells with infectious enthusiasm but which I can't remember now for the life of me.

We return. I am quite ravenous, and there is nashta laid out in the hotel which includes some very good looking bhajiyas.

"Don't even think about it", Missus says

"But I'm hungry!"

"Aww. Here, you can have these nutritive biscuits"

There must be hundreds of differences between a nutritive biscuit and a piece of cardboard but I can't spot a single one. Still, I AM hungry and it's either eat this or starve, and starving is not one of my super-powers, which is one of the major differences between me and Mahatma Gandhi. (The other difference, as missus will obligingly tell you, is the inability to be consistently truthful). But I digress.

We find ourselves in the lobby and the astrologer is still there, looking wise, Our friends go over and chat him up. Missus and I decide to stroll around in the garden, which is looking awfully romantic by the light of the moon. We hold hands and reflect on the beauty of this place and how silent it is, compared to Bombay. "To be fair, a heavy metal concert would be silent compared to Bombay" I observe. Missus nods sagely in agreement. We're still strolling around when missus hears someone calling out her name. She looks around and sees our friends beckoning her to come on over and meet the astrologer. Missus is quite anti-astrologer and this promises to be fun. I tag along

The astrologer takes a good look at missus' palm, asks for her date of birth and does some sophisticated calculations using his fingers. Actually, I've always wondered about the nature of astrological mathematics which I've been told since childhood is really sophisticated and complex, but which nevertheless yields itself to computation using one's fingers. How cool it would be, I find myself reflecting occasionally, if legendary badass mathematicians did their stuff the same way. Imagine Euler calculating carefully on his fingers and concluding that e power i pi equals minus one, or Godel checking and rechecking using the fingers of both hands, before observing that an effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete.

There, I wander off again. Sorry. Where was I? Ah, yes. The astrologer, presently having completed his computations, tells missus that she has wonderful children who love her deeply and will take very good care of her. Missus smiles. Encouraged, the astrologer continues. "Your husband is a gem of a man". Missus, to her credit, remains poker faced. "He is a pillar of strength in your life" Still poker faced. Red Indian Chiefs could take her correspondence course. "Your marriage is happy and will remain so for a very long time". And then, without warning "Your husband is indeed your god. You must touch his feet every morning". Missus gets a severe case of the giggles. The astrologer looks a little miffed. Missus controls herself and makes her impassive face again, but the magic is gone. The astrologer makes some general sounding predictions. We cross his palm with silver and push off to the dinner buffet.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Random stuff

It's been a while since I've blogged (though I suspect no one's really noticed) and much has changed. My little babies have grown up and moved out to study engineering in faraway places, leaving missus and self mildly at a loss to find things to discuss. This is because, for a very long time, whatever we discussed was somehow connected with one or both of the boys.

"He is playing the guitar", she would say to me

 "I can hear that", I'd answer

This would usually fall below her standards of acceptable replies

 "He's supposed to be studying. He has tests coming up"


"Hmm? What do you mean 'Hmm'? You are his father. You tell him to study"

Missus comes from a fairly disciplined family. She tells me, though I find this extremely hard to believe, for my father in law is such a gentle soul, that when her father spoke, they would tremble. My sons have often rolled on the floor with laughter because of something I said or did, but I don't think they've ever trembled. But when missus is in moods like that, you don't quibble. You do as commanded.

"Told them!" I would report back, confidently, for I had. I would shrewdly suppress the fact that not the slightest heed was paid to me by the recipient of that speech. Missus would diagnose this in about two seconds. She would say something imperious. Something like "There is a doctrine in law, I've been told, that an untruth has two components. Suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. Which means it is a lie, if you lie. It is also a lie if you don't report the full facts"

"He said he'd study later"

"You were supposed to make him stop playing the guitar"

I would intently examine the floor tiles for minor defects.

"Say something!"

And every once in a while, we'd go back and forth about why the hell should they study (me), how the hell he'd never get into the IITs if he didn't (she), how virtually everyone I knew who was from the IITs was a bit of a pill to whom I'd never marry my daughter, had I had one (me) and finally, how people who derided IIT grads were usually people who didn't get into the IITs themselves (her). This would finally end happily thanks to a cockroach or a lizard, who populate our lovely city densely, who had sashayed into our bedroom and whom one non-IIT grad, to wit, your author, would eliminate from the surrounds, winning instant love and affection.

All this has now ceased. The boys are independent and, more importantly, they know more than missus and I do about virtually everything. So, missus knits. I play chess on the internet and get beaten by virtually everyone I play with (I have, at the moment of going to press, excised the chess app from my computer and phone, having solemnly vowed never to have anything to do again with the blasted game). We go to the food court at the mall. Occasionally, the old spark resurfaces. Today, we dined on shawarma, and missus, for some reason, found my technique below par. "For heavens sake", she told me, "there's hummus smeared all around your mouth". It WAS particularly gooey, this shawarma. I tried to wipe it. :What ARE you doing? Now you've got hummus in your hair" and so on. Missus, of course, didn't have a single molecule of the damn thing on her person. She has supernatural powers, I tell you. As I was telling you, we don't seem to have a THING to talk about, these days!

File photo of when the tykes were young!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Alaskan Tale (groaner)

"We have to find the impostor as soon as possible, of course" said the Agency station chief, "but with the utmost discretion"
It was an unusual conversation for me. I am a specialist in the larger fauna of the Alaskan wild and in the course of my research, have spent many years living with the Unangan, as the Aleutian islanders call themselves. I speak their language and know their customs probably better than any non-Unangan would, but I had never had a stranger assignment than this one. I have studied bears and birds but now I found myself in a small research station interviewing locals.

"Would you be able to tell from just a conversation who the impostor is?" the chief asked

"I probably would. There are unique intonations of some words. But I'd like to use a small feather, if that is permitted. Just to confirm it"

"Feather?" asked the chief, a little incredulously. He seemed to suspect I'd been having a couple.


"Hmm. Ok, I guess"

Later in the evening, the chief and I sat in his office. He had opened a Jim Beam in celebration and was effusive in his gratitude.

"Thanks a million, Doc!" he said. "He cracked under the lights. He was a Russian plant, planning to open supply lines for them. But how did you know?"

"Oh there are some words which are unique to the Aleut language which require an intonation of the vowel sounds that comes naturally to them but are quite impossible for the rest of us. The confirmation with the feather was the clincher"

"You said something about the feather earlier. How does that work?"

"Oh, the Aleuts have a peculiarity of the facial nerve which results in their being tickled when a feather is brushed DOWN on their cheek, but not in the opposite direction. Quite unique, I assure you"

"And this one failed the test?"

"Yes! I knew right away he wasn't a real native. He was an up-tickle Aleutian"

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On my father's completing 50 years of medical practice

Yesterday my father, who is a general practitioner, completed 50 years of being one. We had a little celebration in his clinic today, organized by my sister, who is a dentist and works with him. My sister and her staff decorated the place with ribbons and flowers and festoons and whatnot and got him to cut a cake. The celebrations lasted for about 15 minutes after which it was business as usual for him, with patients lining up with ailments, some real, some imagined.

He nearly didn't get this far. He had some pretty radical cancer surgery in 2001 and pulled through with as little fuss as you could possibly imagine and then, a couple of years ago, a pretty difficult angioplasty which had everyone worried, through which he sailed with complete calm. (I'm writing this post mostly for myself because I'm kind of overcome with a great deal of I don't know what and I want to preserve that as best as I can. So if I'm boring you, my apologies. I'll try and come up with something jollier in the next post.)

Coming back to the res, my father is the calmest person I have known. Calm in a quiet, unobtrusive way. Not in-your-face insouciant or a rebellious I-don't-care. He is simply calm. Some kind of inner peace keeps him going even when faced with situations that lesser people, such as I, would find impossible to countenance without substantial wailing and screaming.

I'll give you an example. When he was being assessed for the surgery, the doctor solemnly warned all of us - including him - that since it was a long and radical surgery and since he had angina, hypertension and diabetes, there was a fairly high risk that he, well, mightn't make it. We were understandably downcast and on the day we went to admit him to the hospital for the surgery, we were choked by the possibility that this might be his last journey from our house and similar dismal thoughts. And him? He said he would like to go to Modern Lunch Home, an eatery en route to the cancer hospital, specializing in sea food, because he mightn't get the chance again. We went, my mother, I and him. The food simply turned to ashes in my mother's mouth and in mine but he ate heartily with the enthusiasm of a teenager. I tell you, when MY time comes, as it surely will, (though hopefully not for several decades yet), I hope I will be able to face the prospect of my own death with even one hundredth of that equanimity. Actually I'm pretty sure I won't. I'm scared of dying. Nearly everyone I know is. Everyone, that is, with the exception of my dad.

But enough of this moroseness. His medical practice has been a tremendous success, if you count it in the number of people who see him as their saviour and cling to him for support. He has saved lives and given hope to literally thousands of his patients, many of whom acknowledge it in the most touching ways.

He continues to work. His patients come to him, often for medical advice, but just as often for advice on their lives in general. People with troubled marriages, problem children, domestic conflicts and what have you, troop in regularly in the hope that he will counsel something that will miraculously make the trouble go away. Incredibly, ever so often,  it does! Sometimes he will scold, at other times plead, but mostly, I think it is that wonderful inner calm of his that gets through to the most troubled soul, It seems to soothe the turbulent emotions that seem to be at the core of most interpersonal problems and I've seen it in action a few times. It's like magic!

So, congratulations, Pappa! Keep going!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The hazards of being a credit card customer AND a moron

Here's some nuanced advice guaranteed to bring you peace and prosperity, advice which no one else will probably give you.

Do not be a credit card customer AND a moron. You can be one or the other but not both.

There. I have got it off my chest. The world knows now and is already a better place. As you heave a sigh of relief, dear reader, you are probably wondering how I was enlightened. Well, here is the story

I am a customer of ICICI bank for their credit card. I have been a customer of ICICI bank for many things (including a demat account, a trading account, a savings bank account and a current account) and with great reluctance, have had to let go of each one of these because I would steadily find myself losing out to the sharp minds in that fine organization. With artistic flair and surgical precision, clauses, terms and conditions that they inserted into these relationships would quietly but surely ensure that they eventually got the better of me. If ICICI bank gets into a revolving door after you, and I mean this as a compliment, you can rest assured they will emerge ahead of you.

I sportingly admitted defeat. It was a fair fight after all. They with their IIM Mbas and NLS lawyers, me with my, well, wits about me. I let them go, one after the other. But I hung on to the credit card. What, I figured, could go wrong? First, I had had it for nearly a decade and second, all I had on it was my cell phone bill payments which, to tell you the truth, I had no clue how to change to another subscriber while discontinuing this one. I had visions of two companies now paying the same cell phone bill to Airtel, resulting, of course, in the latter getting fat and lazy and probably acquiring a drinking habit. I love airtel dearly, as I would a child reared on my own money (which it is, sort of) and I wouldn't want it going to seed. The credit card stayed.

So when one lovely December morning I got a call from some jolly old chaps purporting to be from the credit card department of the ICICI bank, I answered with nary a premonition of danger.

The jolly chaps were worried. My reward points were expiring, they told me, and the only way to salvage anything out of it would be to buy this gift hamper containing shoes, sunglasses, a watch and some tremendously valuable discount coupons from a company called Deal@Once. I did find the thing rummy - they were asking me far too many questions, for one - but the jolly chap sent me an authentication message or something which seemed to come from ICICI, my trusted friend for so many years, and I fell for it. One thing led to another and before I knew what was happening, I had agreed to receive their gift hamper in return for 6999 reward points which were going to expire anyway.

In the course of all this, I ended up giving them my credit card details and authorising the transaction  - because I am a moron - all the while thinking I was authorizing the deduction of 6999 reward points from my account. And got a mildly nasty shock when I found it charged in my credit card bill in the good name of Amtec Engineers of New Delhi.

I checked on the net and found that this scam has been going on for a good 6 or 8 months, if not more, and several of those victims were ICICI Bank customers. (To be fair, there are customers of other banks as well)

I called up ICICI cards and whined but the lady at the other end was stern and unsympathetic. She told me to file a police complaint at the nearest police complaint and go cry someplace else, because SHE wasn't giving me any money back.

So that is where the matter stands. I plan to go and file my police complaint. I was worried that the policeman might laugh so hard upon hearing my complaint that he might fall off his chair and hurt himself, making me liable to the charge of injuring a police officer on duty but a senior legal mind assures me that there is no law which will punish me for that, though he privately admitted that if more complaints like mine make it to local police stations, they might have to enact one.

So here things stand. It's not ICICI bank's fault of course that I am a moron but I wish their fine minds would try to actively go after these fraudsters - after all, this has been happening for months now - instead of having conferences, meetings and off-sites devoted to inserting clauses terms and conditions in to their account agreements. We ARE morons, we customers, but we are God's children too. Aren't we?

Here are some of the other sad stories

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How I quit smoking and got a life

It will be ten years come July that I've been a non smoker. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have blogged about this sort of thing because like the time I had that big pimple inside my nostril or the time I sneezed nonstop for two hours, they are anecdotes that hold little interest for the rest of the world. People faced with choosing between listening to those and watching, say, an episode of KrishiDarshan, would probably pick the latter. But one of my best twitter buddies, @TheRestlessQuil, declared she was going to quit smoking and I chipped in with (mostly gratuitous) advice. Another friend, @saffrontrail, urged me, diplomatically perhaps, to write it down in a blog post, which I suppose is sound advice because dear old twitter, for all its worth, makes it difficult for a verbose old fogey like me to  express myself. So here goes

I used to smoke in engineering college and then I had sort of given it up. When I married that goddess in human shape, the apple of my eye, the fruit on which hangs the fruit of my life, the.. well, missus, I was mostly clean. I would occasionally bum a drag when with old friends but that was it. Slowly however, it started as a cigarette or two when I was drinking with friends, then a cigarette or two in the morning because the head felt heavy and in no time, I was smoking a pack a day.

The missus protested strongly. She told me that she hated my cigarette breath and she fretted over all those lung cancer ads. (at the time, I was very dismissive about the cigarette breath complaint. You women, you love to exaggerate, I remember telling her. But several years later, I happened to be seated next to a pretty young thing on a flight. Not as pretty as the missus, of course, but pretty nevertheless. Anyway, I looked forward to the pleasant prospect of chatting with the PYT, dazzling her with my wit and wisdom and whatnot, imagining her telling her children someday that while their father was a sound egg and a good person, they, the children, should have seen the distinguished elderly gent, (me, that is) who was with her on a flight once and so on, when she decided to open the conversation. And I had the shock of my life because her breath, which smelled of coffee and cigarettes, both consumed in copious quantities, was horrible. She spoke from a south easterly direction and I replied in staccato monosyllables in a north westerly direction till, after a couple of minutes, she gave up on me thinking I was some kind of crank. I realize now I wronged missus. Cigarette breath IS horrible)

So, as I was saying, missus complained buckets-full and I kept telling her that I would give it up. This new years, positive. Ok, after my birthday, hundred percent. Well, after YOUR birthday, guaranteed. It never happened, of course, and we gradually started growing more distant. I would leave home extra early in the morning on the pretext of having work to catch up with and come in as late as possible, all because missus wouldn't let me smoke at home.

Then one day, after an argument that was not particularly different from a hundred arguments we had had before that one, the missus ended up sobbing. Somehow, it stung me. I don't know why, it wasn't the first time she had shed tears over this topic of conversation, but I decided it was time to quit.

And I found that I couldn't. I didn't last twenty-four hours. I would stride out in the morning, grimly determined to last the entire day without a single drag and by lunch I would be a complete wreck with no thought on my mind other than to race out and buy a cigarette. Someone suggested nicotine chewing gum and I soon found out I was addicted to smoking AND nicotine chewing gum. Someone else suggested homeopathy and you, dear reader, will be staggered to know I tried even that! Despite being a card carrying skeptic and a homeopathy-basher all my life (slogan - "NOTHING is as good as homeopathy"), I actually went to a homeopath who asked me all kinds of mildly daft questions like which side do I lie on when I sleep (you moron, how am I supposed to know that if I'm sleeping? But I didn't say that) and whether I held the cigarette in my right hand or my left. He gave me two or three bottles full of sugar pills with very detailed instructions on how, when and how many to consume. Needless to say, didn't work. The only positive thing about homeopathy was that that I didn't get addicted to those sugar pills like I did to the nicotine chewing gum

Then one day, I met an old friend (whom I shall not name because he won't like it if I did) who had given up smoking, successfully, I might add, for he had not smoked a cigarette for seven years. He told me that smoking couldn't be given up by resisting the urge. I told him he was talking through his ruddy hat. Don't resist the urge it seems. Then what? Give in to it? No, he said. Just observe the feeling. It affects only your body, not you. I felt obliged to upbraid him again. Not me, only my body. Are they two different things? Dude, when I die, they're going to put up a photograph of my body, not me.

He smiled mystically and told me to just think about it. Not the smoking or the cessation thereof, but who I was. He suggested I sit in front of a mirror and stare at myself for as long as I could and I would sense it.

This held even less promise than homeopathy. If the missus caught me at it, I could forget about ever being taken seriously again. But I was desperate. I tried his silly little exercise, read up a lot about different kinds of meditation, psyched myself into determination mode and I don't remember what else.

Then one day, I suddenly saw. The chap was right. I was different from me.  I know what you're thinking. Old Naren has been having a couple. But I'm serious. I don't know what specifically set it off but I decided that day - I remember it was the 19th of July 2005 - the urge to smoke would not affect me. I began to observe it with distant curiosity, in the manner of a child looking at an exotic monkey in a zoo. My mouth would dry out. I could feel my temples throbbing. My eyeballs would hurt from the inside. A couple of deep breaths would make the feeling go away but it would return in a trice. I did not try to fight it.

I lasted the entire day. This was a first. The next day was pretty much the same. And the day after. I observed myself getting more irritable, but I had read that this was expected. Managed to hold it in control, though I found myself being uncharacteristically acerbic, especially in my interactions with the loved ones.

Days passed, then weeks and then months. I would go and sit with smokers, if I found myself in their company, and test myself (mildly Manu-Abha style, it now occurs to me). Sure enough, my mouth would water and I would occasionally feel my heart thudding away in extra-power mode but I could handle it.

It was years before it stopped beckoning but now, I can't even dream of smoking a cigarette. Missus was extremely happy of course. She gave me such melting looks of gratitude that I regretted not having kicked the habit earlier. Entirely worth it. And if a weak, vacillating character such as mine could do it, there is no reason YOU can't.

The question of course is why you should. Why indeed. There is no good reason. In my case, I did it only because it seemed to cause missus so much sorrow. But I am also glad to be rid of at least one master. It's freedom, however miniscule.