Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Washing Instructions

Spin-drying instructions for a Haier semi-automatic (they still exist!) washing machine:
Please arrange the laundries evenly.
If spinning the uneven laundries it will arise vibration and the spin result is not good. Please stop spinning and arrange the laundriers (sic) evenly.
Don't touch the bin in the spinning tub before the tub pause, specially care about the children.

I must have read these lines quite a few times, and I keep finding something new to smile at. Priceless.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sleuth for the Soul

Imagine you're on a thing made of battered strips of metal tacked together (they call it a bus, I don't), with seats with unsightly sweat-stained stuffing spilling out of them. It jolts up and down one of the endlessly stretching thinly tarred series of potholes (they like to call them roads, I don't) cut into barren fields; your book threatens to fly out the window, the jumping letters form aberrated patterns in front of your eyes, and you get into an irritable mood and finally decide to snap it shut.

But if you've been reading Agatha Christie (juvenile? I don't think so) over the weekend, you needn't languish of boredom on the twenty-minute trip to office. You never know when crime is around the corner, especially when you can feel it strongly in your bones. In any case, you should always be on your vigil. A horrid, inconsistent world, this is. Start with suspects. Remember all those lists good old Fatty and his devoted followers made out, crossing out people by and by as their innocence was proved? (I'd like a Mr. Goon in my story too, and I am tempted to think I wouldn't be hard-pressed to find one.)

My list of suspects gleaned from the people I came across on a morning when the possibility of an act of crime seemed promising:

The lady in the elevator - She was old, wearing shoes that indicated that she'd gone for a walk and a sleeveless bottle green sweater on her simple, drab outfit. She gave me a generous smile as I entered the elevator and struck up a conversation about the merits of the tenth floor and its misty views of far-flung areas, and how she disliked the fourth floor for its lack of vantage points. The fact that she was elderly, though, wasn't reason enough to let her off the hook - paraphrasing Lady Bracknell, age isn't quite a sign of respectability. I mean, think Warren Anderson.

The bilingual beauty - I'm not sure she was a beauty- but I'll give her the benefit of doubt (because when you're observing people clandestinely, you don't stare them in the face, even if you're an amateur). She had freshly shampooed, medium-length hair that she kept flicking back. She kept up a steady stream of Malayalam into her mobile phone, then switched effortlessly to Tamil. (I wasn't eavesdropping - she was loud.) Remember those polished Ludlum men who speak German, Russian, Polish and any other language they might need at a moment's notice?

The man with the stubble - Now he was the one I was really suspicious of. He punched something into his mobile phone, looked all around furtively, then called someone and spoke in hushed tones, giving the whole act a rather secretive nature. Something was definitely fishy.

Rip van Winkle - He slept through the bus ride, his head reclining on the seat, the grey roots of his thinning hair exposed as the black dye wore off. More likely to be the victim of the 'biscuit bandits' than the culprit? You never know.

The talk-till-we-drop sisters - They talked throughout the twenty minutes of the journey without a pause; you shouldn't ask me about the nature of the conversation- it isn't polite- and they weren't loud enough, either. But yes, the chatter could have been a screen, so I'm not excluding the seemingly innocent women from the list.

The girl in blue - She patted her watch into position with curiously abnormal care; she was poker-faced, glazed-eyed, had long hair. I know her rather well. I might be inclined to trust her a little more than the others.

Now, for the crime. It didn't happen. Premonition deceived me, the feeling in my bones just turned out to be a case of more rattling than usual on that rickety bus. The stars sure know how to thwart an adventuress in the making. A big, wintry damp squib.

Maybe I'll just go back to planning a Polynesian raft trip. I've added a few new stops to it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On Being Earnest

Do I know what it is to be Earnest?

I'm afraid not. I couldn't. Not unless I were christened.

Oscar Wilde's marvellously confusing play caught my fancy when I read an abridged version of it in school. It had been conveniently removed from the syllabus as our hallowed, haloed batch entered Class 10, to be replaced by a play about an android with a Bengali-sounding name and an apocalypse and some such thing; even somebody besotted with science fiction would have been bored to tears by it. It was the perfect foil to the other play we had to study, A Christmas Carol, one of the most delectable stories ever written.

We complained to our English teacher, and she broke the news of the delightful story of Earnest having been relegated in favour of this more contemporary (or futuristic) piece of 'sci-fi'. We begged a copy of the previous year's textbook off her and settled down one afternoon (skipping some dud class we were supposed to attend) to a comfortable perusal of The Importance of Being Earnest.

We took on roles to read it out loud. Cecily Cardew fell to my lot- pretty, dumb, romantic Cecily. I have a history of ending up with not the brightest characters. When we read Robin Hood, I was Friar Tuck- we weren't so particular about the gender of the character- and reading some other play in class in middle school, I was the character who invariable guessed the identity of a criminal wrong. And there is no resemblance whatsoever to reality. I am quite observant, really.

Reading the complete version of The Importance of Being Earnest brought that pleasant winter afternoon back to my mind. I remember how confusing the play had seemed then, how we had to stop and discuss Jack and Algernon's foibles to make sense of what they were really up to, to figure out who Gwendolen and Cecily were really in love with. I'd completely forgotten the story, eight long years having elapsed since, and the revelation towards the end did come as a surprise.

Laced with wit and sarcasm for Victorian hypocrisy, the play entertains with its sharp repartees and clever plots. Rediscovering it is definitely one of the better things I've done this week.

Devoured by mundanity, you try to revamp your life- find a new cloak of simplicity- and it becomes beautiful once again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

They won't let me forget Singapore. I miss Clarke Quay - the Turkish ice-cream man's tricks, the huge swings that sent people screaming for dear life as they went high up into the air and gave the queasy, grounded people sprained necks, Haagen-Dazs ice-cream (rum-raisin: heavenly), the pub that wasn't a hospital, the quaint buildings with quainter windows, the fountains, the honeymooners, the smoke, the noise, the psychedelic colours - doesn't really matter that we were the only people drinking Sprite there. You didn't have to be a heady party-goer to enjoy Clarke Quay.

What wouldn't I give for just one more week in Singapore!

Not Uri Geller - this is what a certain pebble-like vada did to my spoon at the food court.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The day starts off normally- everything is as it should be, your dress is ironed to perfection, your flat footwear (extremely important if the person in question is the kind who totters even at the mere mention of the word 'heels') fits comfortably. You breakfast with your ex-roommate, drink horrid coffee, read The Guardian blogs, meet some more friends. You are plentifully supplied with candy and literature.

So why should the day suddenly go awry?

Treat it as a rhetorical question- or try to answer it. I don't know myself what happens on those simple, bright, clear days when things are as ordinary as can be, and suddenly, an invisible cloud casts its shadow, a malevolent eye throws a furtive glance at the happy, at-peace-with-itself world and slinks away. There is no visible, practical reason, yet the future suddenly stretches out in front of you, endless and lacking promise. Hopes shrivel away, dreams laugh in your face as they flit by, their turn at deception done.

I live in anticipation of the future. I spend every moment working for a future that I do not know of; am I, in the process, forgetting to live the present? Whether my distant dreams of people unknown and shores unseen will ever come to fruition, I have no idea about; what really should matter to me now is to realise what lives and breathes around me, into me, and gives me the life that I have. To identify the presence that consecrates and beautifies every single day, to give it credence and take joy in the simple things that I come across. A little word of compliment, exaggerated though it might be, lifts my spirits- why should I doubt its sincerity, when it does the giver and the recipient no harm?

Simple is beautiful. I may not be able to keep the clouds at bay. They always loom low on the horizon, threatening to take your life over. Hope, though, is always round the corner.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Deception and Wildlife

December sunshine. I pray for rain, and this is what I get.

What the crows got at. See that whole bunch there? I don't know why people complained about a poor crow pecking at one papaya.
A butterfly outside the food court in office- I managed to shove it away before it got trampled to death.

A moth on the kitchen wall on a cool December afternoon (when the sun was unusually absent-minded and forgot to shine).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Revisiting Hyderabad

Hyderabad, yet again, seeps into my veins (or refuses to cleanse itself out of them). However, I still cannot find it in myself to love the city enough.

The fly-over rises over a lake choked by a thick bed of algae; buffaloes wallow in the shallow pools near the edge where milkmen bathe their cows. Vehicles inch down the road, almost abreast of one another, jostling for space and air. Plumes of smoke splutter from engines of vehicles which, doubtless, would have passed the pollution test. A green-painted bus passes by, still advertising the World Military Games held in 2007. Disembodied voices chanting poetry waft from a single-storeyed 'school'- a building with very few rooms and an open storeroom heaped high with notepads and folders. Grey water gushes through a broad drain by the low wall. There is no evidence of a playground. Or children, for that matter, on this blazing Saturday afternoon. Could the sun be the culprit, shining unabashedly when a soft December wind should be sending yellow leaves drifting off trees? Or is it something as practical as exams and the constant race that we have so successfully embroiled ourselves in?

Box-like houses, discoloured, chipped and generously cobwebbed, stand in rows- no colour, no sign of habitation, not even a clothesline. Trees block the sunlight out, their shadows splayed across the walls. A temple with vermilion-red walls, pictures of deities painted in bright colours, spreads out in a small compound a few steps below road-level. Further down, spires, domes and intricately-carved minarets peep out from behind high walls.

Shops. Plenty of them. Glistening outlets which market goods from Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India under famous names, filling up coffers in Europe and the US and expanding egos closer home. Right next to the shack where the sweaty mechanic in grease-streaked clothes crouches by the rickety old motorbike and the stall that stocks everything from betel leaves to copies of economic intrigue.

Beggars cluster at the traffic signals, emaciated babies held at the waist in dirty rags by tired mothers, drunken fathers lolling on the dividers. You don't want to encourage them- but it isn't easy to turn away either, cold-hearted and indifferent; only, you know that single coin you give them isn't going to help them anyway, and you wish you could do something more, then forget about your resolutions promptly once the light turns green. Fickle, cold-hearted humanity.

The fly-overs and the faux-modernism cannot mask the infrastructural lapses and the glaring masses of people struggling to make ends meet. The few gardens and the sparkling fountains don't hide the vast tracts of barren land where garbage is heaped by the truckloads, the ponds wherefrom sickening odours rise and where parasites thrive. Tombstones and cremation grounds dot the outskirts, the dead and the forgotten buried and burnt and generally dispensed with. Life as it is, ironically, may not seem much better to some of those multitudes.

Time to weed the garden.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Paralysed, Broken City

Chaos is back, and Hyderabad is reeling under the effects.

The latest round of the Telangana agitation began last Sunday as KCR declared he would go on a hunger strike- a bandh was called and his supporters promptly went on a rampage, Osmania University was vandalised. Monday saw the shutdown of normal life, buses were off roads and shops were closed for fear of violence.

Things seemed to go on with relative normalcy Tuesday onwards, but then took a turn for the worse Saturday afternoon as rumours of KCR's condition began to spread and his supporters grew agitated yet again. Cable operators stopped beaming entertainment channels for a few hours, more buses were tampered with, petrol pumps shut down, shops had their display windows broken. With a two-day strike having been called and a curfew in place today, public life has ground to a halt. Buses are off the roads, a few shops have their shutters hesitantly half-open, all the ATMs are closed, the works- quintessential elements of an Indian bandh. As much inconvenience as possible.

We're destroying the public transport that we pay for, inflicting more blows on the poor. What will make them see sense, though? Sporadic acts of violence, a chance to smile and wave at the camera, a 'student agitation' (accompanied by vandalism) and blocked roads (which will in turn lead to traffic jams)- this is the strike we're talking about- and things are going nowhere. The political implications of the agitation are being thrashed out in studios, while we, as usual, are left to watch and crib. My mother tells me of a similar, though much more severe, agitation in 1969, when life came to a complete standstill. This was initiated by students as well. Schools were closed for eight months, while some others had their students abandon uniforms so classes could go on as usual.

Today, such a situation would hardly be feasible. In a recuperating economy, to think of shutting down completely and hamper with the functioning of businesses that work globally would be hara-kiri. Prices of commodities are already rising as a result of the strike; the state has suffered enough this year due to the heavy floods and the destruction of the kharif crops. Are they even aware of the trouble they are causing?

Tomorrow is Day 2 of the strike- what will it be like? I don't even want to guess.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Yet Another Anniversary

As yet another anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy comes and goes by and the clamour for justice continues, I must mention a book that was inspired by the incidents and the aftermath of this disastrous night that ruined several thousands of lives- Animal's People. I might have talked about it earlier, months ago, when I actually read it; it is a book that stays in your head and haunts you for a long time once you're done with it.

Set in the imaginary town of Khaufpur, it sees the world through Animal's eyes- a young man maimed by the tragedy, but possessing a dauntless spirit. He utters the worst profanities possible and has lecherous thoughts, but is embroiled in a constant battle to find justice in a murky world that reels from the consequences of a tragedy long gone by, politics playing its part as usual. He goes 'Namisponding, Jamisponding', lives with a French nun who has quite lost her sanity, speaks a mix of English, French and Hindi. He falls hopelessly in love with a girl who treats him unusually kindly, not like the 'Animal' that the rest of the world calls him. The arrival of an American doctor rouses suspicion in the village- could it possibly be a continuing conspiracy of the company that lay at the bottom of the tragedy all those years ago.

Touching and thought-provoking, this book shows reality in its full, stark form. It doesn't gloss over the unmentionable, it uses strong language, it gives you goosebumps. But you see life through the eyes that tell you the true story.