Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lessons in Humility

It had been a hot, sultry day. I was in Vedar Colony, a small tribal hamlet at the foothills of the Nilgiris, the ‘Blue Mountains’, in the Western Ghats in South India. The sun dipped below the hills, lighting up the sky with a dazzling array of colours. I had spent the day with WWF-India’s Western Ghats team, trooping around the area, inspecting elephant-proof fences and identifying areas for improvement, and discussing ways of streamlining the process of installation and maintenance of these systems. I stumbled through a freshly-ploughed field as we approached yet another ‘private’ fence, consisting of a single strand of wire, usually connected to a dubious source of electric power, often capable of turning pretty much anything that came in contact with it into toast. With dusk approaching, we would soon have to call it a day, and as much as I loved being out in the field, the idea of hot soup and some brainless entertainment on the TV was starting to sound way more exciting than I would have otherwise liked to admit.

I was beginning to go through the motions a bit, when I suddenly felt a buzz in the air. A small crowd had gathered in the field next to us, and were looking intently at the periphery of the village, where the mountains flattened out into more hospitable terrain. I followed their gaze, trying to figure out what was happening, in the failing light, and there they were - Elephants!

A herd of elephants were slowly making their way from the forests to the west of the village, along the village boundary. It was a small group, comprising of just 2 mother elephants and 2 calves. Their target was a small water body outside the village, a pond shared by people and wildlife. In a few minutes, as the entire village turned up at the spot, they reached the pond, and started bathing and drinking. The calves frolicked around gleefully, while the mothers watched us warily. I watched, transfixed. We were just a 100 feet away, a distance that a charging elephant can cover in almost no time. While unlikely, a charge would have undoubtedly resulted in casualties, and the tension in the air was palpable.

Suddenly, a man started talking, almost shouting. I turned back and looked at him. He was looking intently at the elephants, and he was loud enough for the animals to clearly hear him. He went on and on, without stopping, for a few minutes, while the rest of the village continued to look curiously and intently at the animals. He was speaking in the local language, which I do not understand a word of, so I tapped my colleague and asked him what the hell was going.

‘He is talking to the elephants’, my colleague calmly replied.
‘He is… what?’ I asked.
‘He is talking to the elephants. He is telling them that they need not fear us, that we mean no harm. He is saying that we are just curious and want to watch them. They can drink as much water as they want, and he then requests them to peacefully return to the forest.'

I watched the man, bewildered. The elephants did not respond; they seemed to be comfortable with the distance between us. After a few more minutes of bathing and splashing the water around their large bodies, the mothers nudged the calves out of the water and towards the forest. Soon, they were ambling away, having had their fill. As the (usually) gentle giants peacefully made their way back into the forest, I wondered what I had just experienced. Here was a village which experienced a high level of Human Elephant Conflict, where elephants frequently raided crops and took away an entire season’s livelihood for a family, or caused human deaths and injuries once in a while. People had lost their family members, their livelihoods, and often their houses due to these pachyderms. And yet, there was intense fascination, admiration and even love and respect for these denizens of the jungle. These people were happy, even excited to see the elephants - their presence didn’t make them take off for the nearest safe haven, it brought them out of their houses and into their fields, trying to get a better look. How do you explain this with rationality or logic?

I walked back towards our vehicle with my head bowed in humility and respect for these magnificent communities which cover large expanses of my country. People who have co-existed more or less peacefully with wildlife, including large mammals such as elephants and tigers, while the rest of world went through a frenzy of killing over the last century, wiping out large mammal populations across large parts of the globe. People who are likely to have never heard of sustainability, but practice it in their everyday lives, with every passing breath, while the rest of the world gobbles up most of the planet’s resources. People who, unless pushed to the very edge, accept nature’s vagaries and the often debilitating impact that it directly has on their lives, yet love it, and have a deep-rooted fascination for its incredible denizens.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Runaway Feline

Homesickness is a strange emotion. About 2 weeks after returning from a family trip to the US for my younger brother's graduation ceremony, during which we had been suddenly bombarded with questions about marriage, children and our plans for the rest of our lives on an otherwise fine evening, I had the following conversation with him. I thought that both of us were still recuperating from that ambush, but no, apparently, he seemed to want more of the same very soon.

Him: I’m coming to India.
Me: That’s great! In December?
Him: Umm, no, in the first week of August!
Me: Why?
Him: Err, just like that?
Me: Cool. Don’t get the girlfriend along, they’ll probably ensure you go back married.
Him (ignoring my attempts at humour): I want to come to Delhi
Me: Why??
Him: So that I can meet you!
Me: Why in the world would you want to do that?
Him: Because you are my brother?

Now this was a bit much to take. In family gatherings, both my brother and I have the conversational abilities of a rock, so put together, the sum total of conversations across our lifespans would probably not go beyond a couple of hours. Coming all the way to Delhi seemed to make zero sense, given that (a) we had just met a couple of weeks ago, (b) we would meet, ask each other how we were, and spend the rest of the weekend wondering why the wall clock had stopped and whether they allowed you to enter the airport a day before the flight and (c) it was August, and no sensible soul willingly travels to Delhi in that god awful season. Just as I was grudgingly admitting to myself that he was a much nicer soul that I was (actually I had reached that conclusion a long time ago, I had just successfully buried the thought deep in the recesses of my head), I had a eureka moment.

Both my brother and I have a thing for felines. Especially the ones you are allowed to domesticate. This affection had continued to grow as we grew up, denied as we were the pleasures of pet ownership during our formative years by our keep-that-thing-away-from-me dad. This affection continued till the point the then-wifey and I got a kitten named Chikki, which had subsequently grown into a significantly large, albeit loveable cat which systematically marked the whole house with his scent lest any other creature mistook it for his territory. Having moved straight from home to the university dorms, my brother had been deprived of such pleasures, and was quite besotted with Chikki and demanded regular updates as to his latest misadventures. My hunch was that the Delhi trip was actually to meet the cat. Which, to be honest, made a lot of sense. In fact, it made more sense than the purported reason. And I was very happy for him to come over and meet the cat, given how happy it seemed to make him. Excellent, I thought.

Except for one small problem. Chikki, after being a house cat all his life, had come back in not too bad a shape after 2 vanishing acts, the first a month and the second three months long, and was absolutely annoyed at being forced to stay indoors and not go bounding along out of the house when anything cat-like meowed, groaned, howled or shrieked anywhere within earshot, either to go trade a few punches with the silly male who was invading his territory or to mate with a female who seemed to be passing by. Any open door, window or accessible ledge had him exploring ways to escape, much to our frustration. I had sort of made up my mind to let him loose and come and go as he pleased, when my brother announced his decision to come. Now this was a problem. Keeping Chikki in for 3 weeks was going to drive both him and all of us mad, especially with his infernal howling through the night when he really wanted to go out. Letting him go could be problematic if he decided that he was going to take his time in coming back, and especially if he decided to make himself scarce just on the weekend that my brother was here. This was going to a long three weeks.

All seemed to go well for the first 2.5 weeks. The situation was explained to the home mates, who gravely agreed with my assessment of the situation. The maid was duly warned and threatened (not that that makes too much of a difference, she has a mind of her own. Asked not to cook a specific vegetable, she cooks EXACTLY that almost every single time), and seemed to cooperate given that brotherly relations were at stake. Everything was in place, with a day to go for him to arrive.

I came back from work the evening before and opened the door to the terrace. A well-spaced grill, which can let an obese baboon pass through, much less an agile cat, separates the final bit of the terrace from the neighbours balcony. A piece of fibreglass had been tied to this grill to prevent the cat from using this to take off, as there was direct access from there on to the road below. Unknown to me, an afternoon storm had loosened the knots that otherwise kept this sheet firmly flush with the grill, thereby creating a few centimetres of space for a determined feline to explore and exploit. 

Around 11 in the night, I realised that Chikki was missing. A thorough search of the house, including his favourite hiding spots, revealed nothing. In a few minutes, the 3 of us were roaming around calling his name, until we heard a faint meow. More calling from the terrace resulted in a louder meow and a happy, excited looking cat face popping out of one of the square shaped holes in the building’s terrace wall, about 12 feet above our terrace. This was the terrace above the house, and inaccessible to us without a set of keys which the landlord insisted on keeping with himself. Most importantly, this terrace was at the same level and directly connected to all the terraces in the line of buildings in this area. Anybody who has ever lived in Delhi knows that you can easily go from house to house by jumping over the wall separating the terraces, since multiple buildings are physically connected without ANY space in between. Basically, the blasted animal was free to do as he pleased and go anywhere he wanted to. Add to this the fact that he had not been able to go anywhere for the last month and a half due to the house arrest imposed on him, and we had a highly delicate situation at hand.

My first attempt at reaching him consisted of standing on a chair perched on top of a square table, stretching my hands up and calling for him. This, expectedly, had little impact, as he continued to gaze at me through the square hole, with a you-really-think-THAT’S-gonna-work expression on his face. He continued looking around from his newly acquired vantage point, with a vary eye on my movements, lest I did something unexpected and suddenly managed to reach him. The next step comprised of rapidly clearing the dining table, resulting in my room being thrown into utter chaos, and lugging it all the way to the terrace. The square table was put on top of the dining table, and the chair placed on top of that, and I started my precarious ascent to the top of this contraption, with the house mates holding the table and chair in place, while at the same time looking around carefully to figure out which direction to jump at in case I came crashing down and they had to make a clear choice between themselves and me. Standing on top of this thing felt like what those dahi handi breakers must have felt, the ones who are at the very top and break the handi. The fact that your life depends on your friends standing below is slightly unnerving, especially when you know that in case things start going badly, there is a clear incentive for them to get the hell out of the way and come out fairly unscathed, leaving you in a fair bit of bother.

I was finally high enough now to be able to see through the square hole directly, as it was perfectly at eye level. The top of the terrace wall was still about a foot and half above. Having seen my ascent with a lot of interest, Chikki had popped his head back in, and was sitting somewhere behind the wall, out of sight. Calling his name, I inserted my hand through the hole. For a while, nothing happened. Then, a furry paw seemed to come out of nowhere, swiped at my hand and immediately disappeared. I withdrew my hand and waited, and it came again, out of the hole and missed my face by a whisker. Apparently, it was play time. This continued for a while until I realised that I was in a distinctly unfavourable position, and there was no way I could catch him this way.

One of the advantages of having a greedy pet is that any hint of food being offered is usually irresistible. Rattling his food bowl was a common method of getting Chikki out of sticky situations when the reluctant feline refused to oblige and move, or to even find him from his hiding spots. A bowl food of freshly poured cat food was delivered to me, which I rattled around a few centimetres away from the opening. Sure enough, the greedy bugger responded, and thrust his head out, attempting to reach the bowl. Quick as a flash, I grabbed at him, trying to get a hold on the scruff of his neck and yanking him out through the opening. Cats, however, can be notoriously difficult to catch hold of when they don’t want you to, and within a flash, he had wriggled out of my grip and disappeared. A few moments later, I saw him sitting about 5 feet away from the opening, on the terrace floor, having decided to withdraw from the scene of the battle, with a very wary, how-could-you-stoop-to-that look on his face. Round 3 had also gone Chikki’s way.

It was about 11.30 in the night now, and I was fast getting weary of this expedition. I told Gayatri and Bhale that I was going to climb into the terrace, as I could reach the top of the wall and pull myself up and catch hold of the offending feline. I had no idea as to how I was going to climb back down, but at least we’d have the cat, which was probably the preferred option given the situation. Dismissing their protests, I put my hands up and pulled myself, expecting to quickly climb over the ledge and into the terrace.

The next thing I remember was being covered head to toe in construction debris, with the ghastly stuff finding its way into my nose, mouth and ears. Gayatri and Bhale ran for cover, leaving me precariously perched on top of the contraption, barely able to stand steadily. Dire threats and some choicest cuss words later, they were back, warily holding the table while ready to take flight in an instant if things worsened. Looking up at the wall revealed that the top had completely crumbled off, leading to calls for abandoning the mission.

‘Come down, yaar. That looks bad.’
‘Hmm. I think the loose stuff at the top has already come off, now I can climb up. See, I’ll prove it to you.’

I thumped the wall to prove its solidity, and the whole thing shook like a bedsheet in a mid-summer thunderstorm, sending more debris onto me and a plume of concrete dust in the air. Chikki continued to watch the proceedings with a dispassionate gaze. I climbed down with a bit of alacrity, convinced that the whole thing might collapse on me at any point in time.

After dusting off some of the debris on me, I refocused on the larger problem at hand.

‘Ok, we need to get the keys to the terrace’, I said, calculating that the brother’s flight would land in precisely 8 hours from now.
‘Umm, it’s midnight, and you look a bit terrifying at the moment’, Gayatri pointed out.
‘Stuff that’, I said and dived into the bathroom for a quick shower and scrub.

About ten minutes later, I was standing at the landlord’s door, the building across the street, having rung the bell and hoping that he didn’t flip out. About a minute or later, he emerged, looking (obviously) very sleepy. For a moment, I felt bad for waking up the old fella so late, but then what had to be done had to be done.

‘Yes?’
‘Umm, can I get the terrace keys?
‘Now? Why?’
‘Err, my cat has somehow managed to get there and I need to get him down before he runs away and gets lost.’
‘Your cat?’
‘Yes, my cat. I need to get him down.'
‘Ok, sure. Just keep the keys, you can return them tomorrow’, convinced that I’d turn up half an hour later otherwise.

The terrace was thus opened, and Chikki decided to prolong the game for a few minutes more, by sitting under the water tanks, as far as possible from any probing hand. The whole thing ended after an exasperated Bhale crawled underneath and dragged the reluctant feline out by the scruff of his neck. Mission successful!


Monday, June 6, 2016

A Lunatic's Guide to Making Cherry Jam

It was one of those hyper, super-enthusiastic weekends that I occasionally tend to have. Thankfully, I have come to realize that most people do not share my enthusiasm and seem to look at it with the kind of wariness that you reserve for somebody running down the street yelling something unintelligible. Which, when I think about it, seems to describe my condition with a degree of accuracy which is unnerving. The good part of this realization is that these phases are unlikely to affect anybody else, unless the said person unfortunately happens to have some degree of affection or concern for me, resulting in him or her either trying to give me company or trying to understand and rationalize my actions. 

Unfortunately, these crazy phases still have to compete with my inherent laziness and reluctance to do absolutely anything remotely productive on weekends, which means that pitched battles end up being fought in my head, most of which go like:

Mind: Let's go to Azadpur Mandi tomorrow morning at 6 to buy mangoes and cherries. Yaaay!
Head: But.. the Mandi is 22 kms away. It is a wholesale market, possibly the largest in Asia. And most importantly, you cannot possibly consume, even with the help of the bottomless pits that you seem to share your house with, more than a dozen quickly ripening mangoes and 1-2 boxes of cherries over the next few days.
Mind: But they’ll be cheap. I wanna go to the Mandi.

Off I go to bed, dreaming of luscious mangoes and bright red cherries. Only to wake up at 9 am.

Head: It’s 9 am. Its already like 75 deg C outside.
Mind: I wanna go to the Mandi :( Why did you not wake up?

The next couple of hours consist of a dreadfully annoying debate in my head, during which I do absolutely nothing other than sit on my already toasty bed and get more and more pissed. Around 11 am, when the temperature outside has crossed something like a hundred degrees, I decide that I am indeed going to the Mandi.

Exactly an hour later, I am standing outside Azadpur metro station, cursing myself. After wandering around for some time, I figure out where the darned thing is. It is a pretty interesting place,to be honest. If you are a cow, that is. Or a foreigner trying to see the real India or some jazz like that. I wander around the place, with my mind and head going on and on as always:

Mind: Let’s go see that section.
Head: Why? Can we go home? Or somewhere where there is shade?
Mind: Oooh, there is an entire different section for fruits about half a km from here!!
Head: Dear lord
Mind: Oooh, melons!

Most people, after going through the above experience, and following that up with trudging all the way back to the metro station with 3 kgs of mangoes and 2 boxes of cherries, in the middle of one of the hottest days in Delhi this year, would (choose one of the options):

(a) Die (Sensible, about time you did that if you were bonkers enough to keep torturing your body like this occasionally)
(b) Sleep
(c) Spend the rest of the day in a zombie-like state, drinking gallons of water, and experiencing sequential organ failure due to heat stroke eventually leading to (a)

Not me, though. Having realised that I might have possibly bought enough cherries for me to survive on for a week without any other food sources, I decided that I had to make best use of them and not let them go bad. And so, a decision was made to make some cherry jam.

Now, I follow a fairly minimalist kind of jam-making philosophy. This consists primarily of waiting for inordinate amounts of time for the water to reduce and trying to get the fruit/syrup ratio just right. Just a few days ago, I’d made my first attempt at making cherry jam, which went like something along these lines:
  1. Buy an inordinate quantity of fruit. Something which you couldn’t resist at the shop, but very quickly realise you aren’t going to make a dent into with normal consumption patterns. Something which needs a disproportionately large amount of effort, like cherries, which need pipping, is ideal. Simple fruits like strawberries, which are ideal for jams, should be avoided (Is there anything like jackfruit jam?)
  2. Put 2 large pots of water for boiling. Put scarily large amounts of sugar into them
  3. Peel/clean fruit. Realise that you still have way, way too much fruit and about half a dozen less gas stoves to heat water on for this quantity of fruit
  4. Wait for the water to reduce. Taste to check that there is sufficient sugar in it to make you sick, even when it has barely started reducing
  5. Start dripping with sweat, since you decided to move into a house with no fan in the kitchen. Thank the heavens for having a maid cum cook who hasn’t turned homicidal yet due to his.
  6. Wait
  7. Wait
  8. Wait
  9. Dump fruit into water/syrup. Realise that still you have way, way too much fruit, even though you dumped only about a third of it. Put more water to boil
  10. Wait
  11. Wait
  12. Wait
  13. Rush out to buy more sugar
  14. Wait
  15. Wait
  16. Wait
  17. Exactly about 2 hours into the process, realize that things are finally happening, and that some progress has been made.
  18. After some adjustments in the fruit/syrup ratio, the jam is finally ready. All 50 grams of it :|
This cannot do, I tell myself. I did not go through all this trouble for about 3 spoonfuls of jam. And so, batch 2 starts. Except that I am now drowning in my own sweat, and after dunking the fruit into the syrup, I proceed to take a break for a few minutes. Unfortunately, my re-entry into the kitchen consists of a frantic dive into plumes of smoke, startling the feline which so far, unlike its owner, had decided that it was not moving anywhere away from its water-sprinkled mattress under the fan. A whiff of the smoke and the critter was bounding out of the house and into the neighbour’s balcony as if its own tail was on fire. As I put the badly burnt vessel into the sink, I made a mental note to sleep through the maid’s visit tomorrow morning, to avoid getting an earful from her. Restoring that vessel into its former glory was going to be some task, not helped by the fact that the main constituent of the sick, black mess in it was about half a kilogram of sugar.

With vengeance in mind and dreams of a full jar of jam, I start on it again. Now starts the fun part. After 2 hours, I have some cherries which have been boiled the hell out of, and a pitifully small amount of syrup which is not very syrupy. I google ‘how to repair runny jam’, and decide that I need to put in lots of lemon and lemon peel, for the pectin, which apparently magically thickens the syrup. And of course, water and sugar. So off I go to boil another large vessel of water, add tonnes of sugar to it, and start reducing it. After another hour of this, the newly formed syrup is added to the earlier lot. Further reduction happens, until it seems to have become thick enough. I decide to let it cool down a bit.

After about 5 minutes, I decide to have a look at how things are coming along. What I now have is almost rock-solid candied cherries, with a resin-like tenacity, sweet to the point of making me gag, with the fine ghastly bitter aftertaste of lemon peel. The whole thing is stuck into the pan like concrete. I somehow manage to coax it out, shove it into a jar, close the lid, dump it into the fridge and plonk into bed. Now, what could I do with those mangoes...

Sunday, August 30, 2015

By the River Rangeet, I threw back my head and laughed!

Happiness is a strange thing. Bliss is even stranger. You think you’re far, far away from anything remotely close to these feelings, weighed down by the weight of the world, and there they come sneaking up on to you at times you least expect them to.
Mt. Kanchendzonga

Chugging down the remainder of the lemon tea in my cup in a hurry, just about managing not to scald my tongue, I rushed out of the hotel entrance on to the street outside, away from the direction we’d come in the night before. I quickly broke into a fast jog, aided by the steep descent from the ridge on which the hotel was located. It was a crisp, cool September morning in town of Geyzing in West Sikkim. I followed the road as it made its way out of the town, into the unknown.

It had been an unusual start to the run. Running is an activity that makes me happy beyond measure, even if it is my standard 5 laps around Lodhi gardens in Delhi. As I passed the first bend and the hotel disappeared behind the folds of the mountain, I felt heavy, an immense weariness weighing me down. I was plodding, my head down, eyes scanning the ground to avoid anything unpleasant that might makes its presence felt through my thin-soled, not-meant-for-running canvas sneakers. It had been just a couple of kilometres when the voice inside me got to work. Let’s go back. This isn’t working out. You could catch another hour of sleep before the meeting starts. Not today. Come on. Let’s get back into that warm bed and switch back into the other world. Escape.

I plodded on. With a stiff neck, a slightly sore back and a badly battered heart, I continued. As fast as it was, every step required effort, a conscious attempt to continue and go on and not look back. One step at a time, I told myself. The road curved around the side of the mountain, crossing streams small and large and past tiny villages. Sunlight filtered in through the trees, slowly warming up the cold mountain air. It was stunningly beautiful a sight. I crossed yet another mountain stream, gurgling and bouncing along the slope of the mountain, as if laughing aloud, and suddenly a sob escaped my lips. It had been a rough few months, and it was all coming out now. I plodded on. The stunning vistas around me looked clouded and misshaped, as if I was looking at them through a wet window.
Along the way

The descent ended abruptly, and the road moved upwards. The effort involved in ascending the slope and breathing with a rhythm distracted me from my troubles. A few hundred metres and the canopy opened out, as the road turned around the mountain. A small shop stood at the edge, between the road and the sharp drop below. Wisps of steam escaped from the counter. The stiff climb had me winded, and I stopped to catch my breath. A cup of tea felt like a good idea.

Cupping my hands around the warm mug, I ascended the flight of stairs next to the counter to reach the roof of the shop and peered down over the edge. And then, I threw my head back my head and laughed. And laughed and laughed. A wide grin spread across my face, incongruous with my still beady eyes, as I looked down into the valley, bathed in the first rays of the sun, towering above the waters of the Rangeet at its base.

Finishing off my chai, I continued upwards with a foolish smile on my face, humming the happy song that was playing in my head. The crick in the neck was a thing of the past, and the heaviness in my heart a distant memory. By the river Rangeet, I threw back my head and laughed!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

By the River Teesta, I sat down and wept

It was late afternoon as we left the plains behind and started our ascent up into the mountains. Beneath us, at the bottom of the valley, flowed the majestic River Teesta, in her pristine glory, her waters slaty grey after the heavy rains that had lashed the region for the last few days. The sides of the valley were covered with dense forests, right from the edge of the river to the misty mountaintops. Thick moss, orchids and ferns covered every possible surface, creepers and climbers clung on to every possible hold in the race to the top of the canopy.

I was in paradise. It was a beautiful, crisp day as I made my way into WWF’s Kangchendzonga Conservation Landscape, one of our work areas which I had wanted to visit ever since I’d joined WWF.

And then, it all came crashing down in a hurry. Passing a bend, we hit the first of a countless number of landslides that had ravaged the area. It went on, kilometer after kilometer, almost non-stop for the next few hours. Every now and then we would come across a still-intact piece of forest desperately clinging on to the mountainside, only to be followed by yet another patch of ravaged earth above us and a few hundred feet of what had earlier been pristine forest now smothered under the sickeningly dull grey mixture of sand, soil and minerals that make up the Himalayas, below the road, sliding into the river.

And so it went on. I have seen more than my fair share of landslides, including being trapped between two of them for a couple of days, but I have never seen devastation on a scale like this before. Just as I had reconciled myself to this reality, we went around a bend, and there it was - bang in the middle of what had been, and was still desperately trying to be, a free-flowing, beautiful, wild river - the ugly foundation of a massive dam. Was this the dam on the Teesta that we often talked about, I wondered? In a few moments, I had my answer. How naive of me, I realised, as I saw a board proudly marking the site of the Teesta Phase IV project. What chance did a river as majestic and wild as this have of reaching the plains unmolested, without a dam coming up every time the valley widened enough for a road to go in?

And so on it went. Landslide after landslide, without any real demarcation between where one ended and the next one began. At one point, the road suddenly broadened, and there stood 4 massive earth-movers - every civil engineer, infrastructure developer and over-worked, harassed road maintenance official’s dream machine. The earth-movers weren’t been used - they just stood there, as if a part of the landscape, at home amongst the misty mountaintops, trees, mud-puddling butterflies and the angry river at the base of the valley. Moving along, we saw yet another dam site, and then yet another. Massive construction work happening bang in the middle of some of the most beautiful and precious river stretches in the country, the land around it savaged beyond recognition, bludgeoned, scarred and destroyed.

Sikkim is a power-surplus state, one of 8 in the country which produces more power than it needs. It is pretty much covered with forests, from the remote North to the relatively populous South and East. I quote from the State’s Department of Environment and Forests website, “The recorded forest area of the State is 5,841 km², constituting 82.31% of the geographical area of the State.” Even allowing some room for exaggeration given that these are official numbers and that a lot of this ‘forest’ would be nothing close to anything reasonably described by the term, this is quite an astonishing figure. It is also almost completely mountainous a region. Facts which would make me want to leave the place mostly alone, given that it seems to be doing rather well for itself, especially since it does rather well on the development indices too, and possibly every other possible indicator that you might want to throw in. But then, being a part of a larger nation has to come with a price. A hefty one in Sikkim’s case.

There are about 35 existing or proposed dams in the Teesta basin (which is essentially most of the State), give or take a few - deciphering the exact figure from the map requires one to be armed with a marker to strike off the ones which you have already counted. Thirty-Five Dams. That’s more than 1 dam per 20,000 people, a staggering figure only probably beaten by Arunachal, which suffers a similar fate.


Dams Planned and Under Construction in the Teesta Basin
Source: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)

Who will consume all of this power? It’s the top-tier urban centres, industry, and of course agriculture. You and me, and our ACs and heaters. Not so much that poor villager’s home you really hope all this power is lighting up - most rural, or even non top-tier urban centres of the country have power cuts heading almost into double figures every day - a reality that stares you in the face when you travel to the field. And industry, which we hope would grow at double digits for the next few years and make our mutual fund investments rise and shine and not seem like the daft idea it did in the previous regime. And of course, the farmers - not your 1-acre-plot owning marginal farmer of course, but the rich, powerful ones who need the free power to pump out all that groundwater into their fields.

And the roads. Our nation seems to be obsessed with road-building. We love to build all sorts of them - from magnificent 8-laned mega-express-highways which almost promise teleportation, to narrow village ones under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). We have the same road density (road length per sq. km) as the US, and far greater than China and Brazil. That is a pretty astonishing statistic, albeit tempered by the fact that this, in our case, also includes fair-weather, or ‘kuchha' roads. And yet, we never seem to have enough of them. And if we have enough of them, we want them to be broader, more laned, and smoother. Kind of seems strange to me, now that we’ve managed to connect 90% of hitherto unconnected villages by roads under the PMGSY (MoRD-2011). Apparently, the previous NDA regime, during its term, constructed nearly half the total length of national highways laid in 32 years. The UPA Government, not to be outdone, claimed in the 2014 interim budget that the road network had increased 7-fold during the 10 years of its rule (hurray to the PMGSY!). Basically, no matter who’s at the helm, we just love them roads.

Whom do these roads really benefit? Of course, the rural ones do offer connectivity to previously unconnected villages and consequent benefits. But the possible negative impacts of these roads are likely to be limited, given their breadth, in comparison to massive, multiple-laned National and State Highways, especially in ecologically fragile areas such as the North-East, Sikkim and other hilly regions of the country. The truth is that these roads benefit you and me, and the industrial sector (again, effectively, you and me), and the tourism sector (mostly again comprising of the privileged classes in touristy places, apart from the odd shop on the highway or the few communities which have landed a locational jackpot in a few places).

Who pays for all of this? The unfortunate ones who happen to own land where a new, shiny power plant will stand or which will be submerged under the backwaters of that magnificent hulk of concrete and steel, and who are handed out some bit of money and asked to basically buzz off. Or the ones downstream who depend on the waters of the river for their livelihoods. Or the ones who unfortunately happen to come in the way of the road necessitated by the plant. And of course, the lesser denizens of this planet, who simply end up being drowned as the waters rise, or hacked away to clear the way for a transmission line (just so that we can put those poor villages on the grid or the road network, of course).

Which brings me to the whole point of this piece. So many of our policy actions, cleverly disguised to make them seem critical and life-saving for those poor, deprived souls living out their lives in some remote village, are actually geared towards pleasing and catering to us urban folks, and mostly the urban elite, in order to satisfy our never-ending, ‘first-world’ needs, especially when it comes to issues like development and infrastructure. We are the ones who want continuous power supply and sexy roads, and we will be the ones to create a hue and cry when we have 2-hour load-shedding blackouts imposed on our cities. We are the ones to crib that it takes 4 hours to complete a 100 km journey from Bagdogra to Gangtok, and that there are a zillion landslides on the way. How dare those pesky tribals come in the way of linear projects or those mute trees refuse to stand up and hold the damned (!) soil in its place even if we’re building a 4-lane highway through the mountain? And how does it really matter if a few dams cause a few landslides, especially when the place has too much of forests anyway. Who needs so much forest?

What gives our policy-makers the authority to systematically plan towards wrecking a place like Sikkim or Arunachal, to satisfy the masses thousands of kilometers away? Indeed, what right do we have to claim and forcibly take what is not ours? The answer is fairly simple, and yet it surprises us when a little bit of soul-searching leads us to the realization - Because we CAN.

A misty haze hung over the spot where the Rangeet, a tributary of the Teesta, surrendered into the larger river. The road curved around another mountain, and followed the smaller river, moving westwards, towards our destination, the town of Geyzing in West Sikkim. The sun dipped below the mountains, and nightfall came quickly. A shiver passed through my body as the clouds closed in onto the road, enveloping us. I rolled up my window and withdrew from the world around me.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Darjeeling!

There’s something to be said about traveling alone to new places that you end up forgetting when you haven’t done it for a while. While the pleasure of good company while traveling is undeniable, there is something very satisfying about discovering a place as per your whims and fancies and eccentricities. The last bit is especially true for me!

The good part is that work offers these opportunities on a fairly frequent basis, and doesn’t leave me with much of a choice - I can either experience the place on my own, or stay cooped up in whatever hotel I am putting up in, really a no-brainer.

And so, after an incredible day and a half in the picture-postcard stunning town of Geyzing in West Sikkim to kick start my visit to what WWF calls as the Kangchanjunga Conservation Landscape, I moved towards more mainstream Darjeeling, another hill-station which lays claim to the title of the Queen of the Hills. Mussoorie definitely calls itself that, as does Ooty. The king sure does have quite a harem!

After settling down in my room at the Darjeeling Gymkhana Resort (which basically consists of filling up every horizontal surface with my clothes and other stuff and pulling apart the half a dozen bedsheets and blankets and what not tucked into the sides of the bed with what I imagine as considerable violence and excessive enthusiasm - I think the first thing that they teach housekeeping staff in the hospitality industry is how to fix the sheets and blankets into the sides of the bed such that only a sheet of tin can enter between them) and having a shower, I came to the swift and extremely terrifying conclusion that this place was an allergy nightmare. The whole thing reeked of paint and other such nefarious building material. As if in cue, my nose started tingling. Unfortunately, I had a considerable pile of reports and documents to go through in preparation for the next few days, which I gamely struggled with for an hour, before giving up. Putting on a pullover, I headed out, my respiratory system gulping in the fresh mountain air outside with the relief that only my unfortunate tribe of allergy sufferers know.

It was early evening by then, but the clouds had started moving in. Exiting the hotel, I promptly went off in what I later realised was the wrong direction, ending up slightly far away from the centre of the town, after a delightful albeit slightly spooky walk through thick clouds, tall trees and walls covered with a dazzling array of colourful fungi, and a street called ‘Hooker Street’, with a straight-faced explanation of how it got its name, which amused me a bit (though I have a feeling that my boss, who commented on the picture I posted on Facebook with a you-gotta-read-up-young-man-about-this-great-guy-called-Hooker line, did not quite see it the same way). I realised that I was headed the wrong way after I saw a sign which welcomed me to the zoo, which is sort of in the outskirts of town. Turning around, I made my way back, crossed my hotel and promptly got lost again in the smaller by-lanes and side alleys of the town. Google was helpfully telling me that I was somewhere within a 10 km radius from the centre of the place. As it goes, the translucent blue circle that it uses to surround the location pin on the map was so large that I failed to realise this fact for a while, wondering why what was supposed to be a largish park on the western end of the town had so many buildings and shops and people mulling around in a distinctly un-park-like way. After wandering up and down and around a few streets, skirting past small groups of extremely happy - and drunk - men celebrating karma puja by dancing to none other than Honey Singh, I found myself in front of the Rink Mall, located appropriately on Mall Road, although the road, with its name, precedes the ugly imposition by a considerable margin.

Malls in small towns are fascinating places. They have the slightly brash air of somebody who knows that he is quite important, although not universally liked. Like most malls, they are undeniable eyesores. Unfortunately, in these towns, and especially in hill stations, they are usually located close to the centre of the town, which means that they end up in the middle of a few heritage structures, significantly adding to the overall beauty and aura of the place. In this case, the mall was located bang opposite a picturesque building with grim warnings on its walls attempting to discourage any desperate poster affixers with a target to meet and time running out, which on further inspection turned out to be the Post Office. 

By now, I had trooped through a fair chunk of the town, and was beginning to get a trifle annoyed at the lack of what I perceived as any progress towards where I actually wanted to reach - Keventer’s, a popular eatery in town. Most people, by this point in time, would accept their inability to figure out the way on their own and ask for directions, but that is one idea which has never really caught on with me, for a number of perfectly sensible reasons, such as never-ending faith in my sense of direction (never mind the fact that it was when I was finally leaving Darjeeling for Gangtok a solid 3 days later, that I actually realised that I'd gotten it all wrong by a healthy margin of about 180 deg - what I thought was the North of town was actually the South). And so, I gamely kept on walking, until I reached the point from where we had entered the main part of town a few hours earlier, which meant that I had now successfully managed to reached the outskirts of the town again, albeit on the other end, having miraculously managing to circumvent everything half interesting (the mall does not count). Now, in addition to having still not made any real progress towards my goal, I was also beginning to feel rather tired and quite peckish, having walked up and down for the better part of an hour. After walking back for a while, I finally caved in and decided to ask for directions, after which I reached my destination in a few minutes without any fuss.

After a fairly decent burger and a chocolate drink served by a waiter with this amused why’d-you-come-here-and-order-veg-food look on his face, I proceeded to walk back, stumbling upon the main square in town, the Chourasta, from where the walk back to the Hotel was a fairly straightforward (and short) affair.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Beasts in my Balcony


I have always been a wee bit too partial to the fellow denizens of our planet, and have a penchant liking for them and their usually agreeable company; even the ones which have an unfair reputation of being a bit unpleasant and generally avoidable. My curiosity for unusual creatures of different hues and shapes is rarely dampened by the possibility of the unpleasantness that might ensue if the said creature decides that I ain't no friendly fellow creature.

This ideology was tested to its limits during my stint at the b-school-encroaching-upon-a-jungle that IIMK was, what with the zillion critters roaming around, infesting our rooms, wardrobes and pretty much any space they could crawl into. This was, however, made up for by the bird life which would put a national park to shame and the resident mother fox with her litter, not to mention the fearsome looking monitor lizard which a friend under whose hostel it resided insisted was a full-bloodied komodo dragon. I missed this continual companionship subsequently as I moved base to less charming locales.

Despite the amazing tree cover that Delhi has, it doesn't seem to have any biodiversity to really rave about, a fact that rather disappointed me after moving here. Maybe it's gone down recently like every other Indian city, or maybe it's simply an unfair comparison to cities located with an hour's flight (for a bird!) from that incredibly amazing thing called the Western Ghats, which tend to spoil every nature lover who's lived around the western coast for some time. Delhi is thus rather boring, at least from a biodiversity perspective. What it does have though, in humongous quantities, is them blasted pigeons.

As a kid, I used to love pigeons. They were large, not too ugly birds and had the brains of a single-celled organism. It wasn't too tough to catch them, though why any one would want to do that is quite beyond me, now that I think of it, unless you planned to devour them, which is not as uncommon as you'd think, but wasn't quite what I trying to do. They also had that rather innocent look of a labrador about them, which makes you rather want to pet them silly. An accessible pigeon nest was like a treasure, and I've quite excitedly seen quite a few of them hatch and grow up and turn into them fine, magnificent birdies.

Anyway, as I grew up, my love for these creatures diminished rather quickly, in proportion to the population explosion which they underwent, threatening to submerge the world in mountains of disgusting dark green and white shit. Over time, I was indifferent to these creatures, apart from the occasional curse which came out when they crapped on my bike. And so time passed, life moved on. Little did I know that destiny was slowly taking us to a slow but deep-rooted warfare which would involve biological weaponry, some excellent guerrilla warfare and some plain-old face to face combat.

After moving to Delhi, seeing a couple of dozen houses and driving our poor agent up the wall, Persis and I finally found the perfect place. Well-lit, with two balconies at both ends and a couple of leafy trees close to the building seemed perfect. The house had been locked up for a few months, with the consequence that a pair of pigeons had decided to nest in the rear balcony. They'd laid a couple of eggs. No sweat, we thought, let's give them their space and not open that balcony up until they're done.

We eagerly watched and waited for the cycle to run through. The chicks grew up, started losing the yellow stuff which they have in fair quantities and started fluttering around. One fine day, we saw the slower one of the two on the railing of the balcony, making short sorties around. With joy in our hearts and a certain knowledge that we'd done the right thing by waiting, we opened the door of the balcony, only to see a rather surprised looking mother pigeon sitting in the nest again. She bent her head and looked up at us, and we knew had the feeling that we'd been beaten. Sure enough, after we managed to shoo her off, there they were - 2 freshly laid eggs. Winter was still retreating, and a cold draft filled the bedroom as we stood there, wondering what to do. There was no choice, really. We couldn't be heartless enough to throw the eggs out, and we couldn't use the balcony for the fear of scaring away the mother for too long with the consequence that the eggs would get too cold.

And so we waited for another couple of months or so, until the exact same thing happened. As it turned out, luck decided to be a bit on our side for a while, and we decided to keep a tiny kitten which I'd found meowing her top off on the edge of a road. The last batch of chicks hadn't still flown out when Mishi entered the house, and it would be fair to say that she made life miserable for the missus and kid pigeon, by making the fact that she knew that they were there just on the other side of the door amply clear. I mean, I can imagine what that must feel like. One fine day, you're raising your family in what seems like a nice place inhabited by rather dumb folks who just cannot figure out  how to get rid of you, the next day, you have a fearsome predator separated from you just by a door. I also used to regale in a little bit of animal cruelty / entertainment, by picking up Mishi and showing her the tasty morsels on the other side of the door which didn't amuse missus pigeon one bit, I am quite sure. With alarming trepidity (is that a word?), they seemed to hustle their chicks through the whole cycle before hastily flying off and surveying the quarters only from a safe distance, though not before an alarming episode when the heat of summer made us open the balcony door and forget that we had a cat, which had the prompt effect of Mishi wandering around with her tiny fangs inside the chick, wondering what next to do, instinct having taken her only this far. Thankfully, the chick was rescued and grew up to be a fine (blasted) pigeon although with probably a few traumatic memories. Mishi was scolded despite the silliness of scolding a cat for trying to eat a bird not having escaped us.

Things had reached an equilibrium, considerably in our favor. We had won, and the balcony was ours. And then tragedy struck. Mishi died in a tragic accident. Not a couple of days had passed when the pigeons were back, with guerrilla tactics that drove me nuts. As soon as dawn broke, they fluttered into the house. One of them took up position on the balcony door, while the other sat atop a humongous bag kept on top of the wardrobe and proceeded to peer down at us with exactly the same amount of unnecessary enthusiasm and curiosity every morning. Pigeons outside the house are merely disgusting, annoying creatures. Pigeons inside the house, however, are a different thing altogether. With unerring aim and the dedication of a suicide bomber, they can manage to get entangled in all sorts of things - fans, windows, curtains, pretty much anything that forms a part of a normal house in the city, either dying quickly and leaving behind an unholy mess of feathers, blood and gore, or getting badly mangled but not quite dead and leaving you wondering what really to do with them, or giving me an asthma attack by fluttering around till they contaminate the air. The same scene repeated it self every morning, thus - flutter, flutter, flutter, only for me to wake up and charge them like a madman, at which they would calmly move outside and watch proceedings from the balcony. During a really hot spell of weather, it was impossible to keep the door closed, and so this circus act played out a few times every morning before I gave up and went off to sleep drowning in sweat.

Again, a sort of an equilibrium came into force, this time with the pigeons calling the shots. Still they weren't laying eggs, so it was ok.

And then, Persis went off to Hyderabad for a few weeks for work, with the consequence that the balcony remained undisturbed all day and the pigeons figuring out that this was the opportunity they were waiting for. A small pile of twigs greeted me each evening, which I dutifully disposed off, and the war was on. And then, one fine day, there was another visitor in the balcony. A small chocolate-coloured bat was hanging out (literally), in peaceful slumber one morning. I decided to let the fellow be, and not trouble him too much. As luck would have it, I went off to office without closing the balcony door properly that day. As I returned in the evening and sat in the living room, a dark object fluttered across, settling under the table. Oh dear. Armed with 2 bedsheets (one for me and other for the winged fella), a broom and a dustbin, I managed to trap him inside the bin and transport him to the balcony. And since then, he's hung on, refusing to leave the place, with the result that the door cannot quite be opened without the fear of doing another evacuation. The pigeons gleefully accepted this opportunity and promptly laid an egg. Here we go, all over again :|

To be fair to the fellow, I wasn't that unhappy about this latest winged visitor, and thought that he was quite cute. I mean bats do look quite cute, if you can shake off a bit of the bias we tend to unnecessarily have against them. Plus, I'd never been able to see one this close up, so that made me quite thrilled too. The office folks, who comprise of most of my social interactions these days, aren't quite sure about me after hearing about this though!

The final act of this battle played out today morning. As I slumbered through my beauty sleep, I heard repeated splashes of water. Alarmed, I realized what was happening. A quick run to the balcony, and sure enough, there she was, the maid, trying to splash the bat away with enormous amounts of water. As another wave of water hit the wall, the poor fella desperately tried to shake off the humongous amounts of water he was suddenly covered with. He was dripping wet, and the maid was in no mood to relent. 'Bhaiyya, kitne din hue… jaata hi nahi hain. Andar aaeya aur katega', she protested. I finally managed to convince her to leave the poor thing alone and keep the balcony door closed. Anyway with the pigeon egg, it was a lost cause for a month or so. So we now have a couple of pigeons and a bat in our house, and we're one short of a balcony. Oh dear indeed :|

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The King of Fruits

Despite the recent aging processes I have been going through due to which I am quickly turning into a spectacularly boring old fella, I still retain a childlike enthusiasm for certain things in life. Window seats and mangoes being the two which come to mind instantly.

I hadn't partied or imbibed the spirits for a while, and the Saturday night plan at a friend's place seemed just like what I wanted after a tiring, travel-filled month. Just as I'd settled down and was waiting to open a beer bottle, she announced that she had some mangoes and maybe we could have a snack before we got started. And that was that. A huge, stupid smile covered my face as she got them out. I tucked into them with an enthusiasm rarely seen for anything else, and within 15 minutes, all my grand plans of having a fun night with the usual gang had turned into a sleepy evening with a fruit-filled belly. I lay back on the sofa, a content smile on my face. The booze seemed boring now, something that would ruin the taste in my mouth. It was supposed to be a party, so I tried. But after just a few drinks, I was done. All those mangoes were making me feel distinctly sleepy. They'd kinda ruined my party, but then, there's no way I'd choose anything else over them. Mangoes, you see, are my weak point.

There's a deep, emotional connect between Maharashtrian Brahmin families and the yellow fruit. Atleast with the ones who originate from Kokan, that spectacular coastal strip of land second only to Kerala in peninsular India. We really dig into the stuff. Come mango season, and we'll have them chopped, depeeled and whole, in semi-solid form with chapatis in meal (something which really stumps other people), in milk-shakes and what not. Of course, it's not just any mango, but the alphonso, the king of the king of fruits. It's quite inexplicable, this obsession. The darn thing is, one, costly as hell. Two, its as fragile as any fruit can be, and can find a variety of silly reasons to turn overnight into a ghastly black mess. Even more annoyingly, this often does not manifest itself on the exterior, so you need to have a prayer on your lips if you're pulping a plural number of mangoes into a common container. Three, they are fattening, more than the choicest dairy products put together. Now this isn't a concern for me, thankfully, but even I notice a perceptible bulge in the tummy region a few weeks into mango season. Four, they produce enough body heat to ensure that you enjoy all the ill-effects of teenage times without the associated joys - namely, boils and pimples, large, ghastly, yellow coloured ones. Despite this, there is an irrational obsession with the darn fruit amongst us, and I take this to a completely new level.

Show me a bunch of good, quality alphonso mangoes - heck, even mediocre quality ones - and watch me go week-kneed with sheer anticipation and delight. It's.. a bit creepy, I think, that I should feel this kind of attraction for a.... fruit. It's quite funny. In my new place in Mumbai, my roommate got a 2 dozen pack of the choicest alphonsoes as a gift from somebody. One look at the box and it was love at first sight. The box said that it shouldn't be opened till 3 days from then, and I spent those days in a mixture of agony and anticipation which drove me up the wall. And then, when the moment arrived, I opened it... and I think I don't quite remembered what happened after that! Oh dear. I think I am going to have to keep the darn corporate jobs for a while just to feed this rather expensive taste. The non-profits will have to wait for a while. Unless that's an additional component to my CTC!

I dread the day when my arch-enemy decides to send a hot chick to seduce me for some ulterior gain (the arch-enemy part is essential because part two of the above sentence ain't happening out of any lady's free will - other than the one that love has made blind, of course). No, I will shout, I shall not cheat on the love of my life. Nothing shall make me do that, least not a pretty young thing in a teeny-weeny. And that shall be the moment when I see the evil glint in her eyes, as she fumbles with her large backpack. I will recoil in horror as I realize the magnitude of evil that resides in my arch-enemy. I make a run for it, but before I am out of nose-shot, the heavenly aroma of the choicest, 'A'-grade alphonso mangoes reaches my olfactory glands. And then... I can always claim I don't remember what happened afterwards!




Monday, June 6, 2011

Mumbai...

Life seems to have an unerring tendency to do two things which lead me to the rather megalomanic conclusion that they've deputed somebody up there just to mess around with me. Since the almighty is considered powerful beyond measure, I can convince myself about the practicality of such an eventuality. One, it makes me do exactly what I have declared that I would never do, to myself and the world at large. Two, it picks and chooses from the things I am damn worried about and turns things around so that one fine day, I find myself right in the middle of that damn thing, wondering how I ended up there. Sometimes, when it really wants to have fun, it does both together. And that's how Mumbai has happened to me.

It might seem strange to be scared of a city, particularly a metropolis like Mumbai, especially when the darn thing is just a hundred or so kilometers from the place you've lived most of your life. And yet, fear is the emotion that comes first to my mind when I think of Mumbai. Seven months in the city has taken the edge off a bit of that feeling, but I still feeling an intense wave of restlessness whenever I come back from anywhere else.

So when I'd got into the IIMs, I'd made one promise to myself, and to a few close friends, in the vain hope that telling somebody else about it would make me keep my word to myself even more. I'd said that no matter what happened, I would not take up a job in Mumbai. I'd take a pay cut, a hefty one, but I wouldn't come here. And I continued in the same vein all through the MBA, baffling a fair number of people. After all, around half of the batch from any B-School ends up in Mumbai. As things happened, I did end up away from it, landing up in Bangalore. Unfortunately, as things also turned out, within a few months I realized that that wasn't quite the role I wanted to be in. And left with little choice and a lot of trepidation, I decided to haul my ass over the big bad city, scared out of my wits.

Seven months have passed by since, and I still don't understand this city. It's like a parallel India, one which exists in it's own universe. Mumbai is to India what the US is to the world - everything outside its boundaries is just an annoyance, to be 'managed'. Its residents live in astonishing ignorance and indifference to world that surrounds it. Its residents live in unbelievable squalor, grime and congestion. And yet, they choose to continue living here, of their own will and accord. As I said, I don't really hate all that Mumbai is - I just don't understand it. Why? Why would anybody choose to live the way they live here?

I've never cared too much about money. I've always respected it and been careful about it, but I've never lusted after it. Two weeks in Mumbai and you realize that if you do want to live a decent life here, all such silly theories have to go out of the window. 'Money is the lubricant of life', I said to myself one fine evening, and was instantly appalled by what I said. And yet, that cannot be more true anywhere than in Mumbai. Nothing else really matters in this place. You either have the stuff - and therefore the choice of getting what a decent life demands - or you go about trying to eke out a miserable existence, commuting like a tinned sardine for hours, living in rooms the size of closets, in buildings with no facilities, no conveniences, held together by an outside structure covered in grime and the black stuff which covers any undisturbed surface during the months of the monsoon. You just need to visit another city - and it hits you. You gotta be daft to actively choose this place. And yet, so many people do. You fear what you do not understand, and this is exactly that.

You have to be very clear about life in Mumbai. It's straightforward. You earn lots of money, and you live comfortably. And the scary part is that the city starts changing you bit by bit, by driving home the same thought every day, an insidious little worm of thought that keeps going on and on and on. It's not overnight, it's not perceptible, until one fine day you wake up and realize that everything that you've held sacred in life is slowly looking silly or unnecessary, that the only thought you have is how to earn more, save more, so that you can probably buy a house at an atrocious price and use the rest of your otherwise useless life in paying back the loan. Your hobbies, interests, dreams all get rudely chopped at the extremities and fitted into one sanitized, neutralized heap of crap.

So here I am, seven months down the line, settling uncomfortably and edgily into the place. Winter, surprisingly pleasant, has gone. So has the dreaded summer, the insane heat and humidity. Now comes the last part of the lap, the crazy monsoon. Today is day 2. They say you've gotta experience the rains to really experience Mumbai. So well, here we go. After resisting and fighting for 27 years, I sit in my room and wait for the crazy showers to take over. And then once it all ends, I fervently hope that the I see the next monsoon in more hospitable climes, though that is more of a desperate wish than a feasible reality. Mumbai, you have me by the scruff of the neck for a bit. Damn. Me and my stooopid proclamations.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Corporate Douchebagization of an erstwhile decent old chappie

I guess it had to happen sooner or later. It's just how systematic and step by step the process is, that gets to me. The corporatization of an individual, that's what I am talking about.

I've always been a sort of a scraggly, unkempt kind of person. Not unhygienic or smelly (clarified with whoever I can ask such a thing!), mind you, just not somebody who liked to keep every strand of hair in its place and be all prim and proper all the time. Sort of bored me, the whole thing. Especially because coupled with my completely unspectacular looks, that sort of a thing would have made me look completely boring. Atleast this way I could get some attention, even if it was on the lines of 'How could he have hair like that?!!'

B-school was perfect for something like that. I grew my hair for months, and the omnipresent humidity of coastal Kerala (is there a non-coastal Kerala?!) made it turn into curls till I had difficulty convincing people that, I had, umm, straight hair. Yes, perfectly straight, not a wee bit curly. And there it was all round and round, till I had people asking me what did I do to make it look like that because they wanted to do it too. Guys. Don't ask. So I had this majestic basket of curls in Term 5, and it looked awesome.

I never really bothered too much with clothes too. I mean yes, I did try to look presentable, but I was too bored, not to mention stingy, to go out and buy really good clothes. And so I wore the same old faded tees and bored jeans and a couple of comparatively jazzier 'party' shirts which I repeated for every goddamn party on campus, till I started having trouble remembering which was which when I saw the pics. Until Term 5, of course, when the length of my hair made things pretty clear. Some forceful cajoling by some batchmates did add a whiff of fresh air to my wardrobe, but I got bored of maintaining those darn things. I mean who's going to troop half a mile to give the thing for ironing and then troop back the other way, when I could sleep instead and wear it crumpled. All of it looked the same after a couple of ones anyway. Even to the others! Worst, on the rare occasions that I did give it for ironing, I promptly forgot everything about it, only to turn my room upside down trying to look for it when there was a occasion for which it was the *only* decent thing by miles. That was followed by a visit to the ironing place, where I would find it in some dusty corner, looking much worse than it would have in the first place if I hadn't bothered. In short, it was all too much work, I didn't particularly care, people around me did not too, and all was well in life.

Until, I came back into the corporate world.

Now, Mu Sigma wasn't that bad a place for this. Sure, there were a bunch of folks who really dressed up and came looking all swanky, but most of them were just overworked, bored freshers (add a year or 2 for some) who had enough trouble keeping up with the official formals from Monday to Thursday rule. Interpretations of the same were fairly liberal, and that kept things easy for me. Just a bit of a nip and tuck and I was fine.

Alas, L&T is a completely different ball-game. Not that I was expecting anything different, particularly in the Corporate Strategy team, but what I had not reckoned for was the fact we would also have a fair number of consultants from all those fancy firms swirling all around us, in their fancy shoes and never heard of labels, looking all chic and suave. And next to them were specimens like yours truly and Sanket Bhale. These scallywags raised the stakes considerably, and sooner or later I knew that I had to fall in line. Not that I agreed with it in principle, mind you, for I simply do not see the point in dressing up just to come to office, unless you have clients to meet. Looks all a bit like a fancy dress party to me, to be honest, dressing up only for the usual office people. Kinda pointless. Anyway, so things inexorably started moving that way.

First came the hair. I came out of b-school with the fierce determination that I'd regrow all that I'd chopped off for placements, and whoever had a problem who do the whole bridge thingy. Well, too much talk and too little action. It all went off in a few weeks. The few times that I did manage to grow them beyond a couple of months, the bloody things started twirling towards their ends, no, not like proper curls that I had on campus, but just an inch or a half towards the end, which made me look, to save on adjectives, really silly. Imagine a fella who's supposed to be helping you out with your Working Capital or something similar having hair which kind of bobbed when he moved. Bad idea. And so, with a silent sigh, I subjected them to the barber, who gleefully asked 'Shorter?' with a broad grin every 5 minutes or so, until all I had left was a fine sprinkling of stubby growth on my pate. Now, to counter the mess that the top was, I'd also grown a sort of a goatee. Unfortunately, that also decided to stop behaving itself and grow all over the place, until I started looking like I had a kitchen sink cleaner attached to my chin. Again, does not go so well with the whole image I was supposed to have. Out that went too, after a 3 month struggle in taming it.

And then, how could I forget the clothes? Now I have somewhat decent clothes, nothing exceptional (refer para above. I do NOT see the point). Unfortunately, the few costly brand shirts I did have, had the amazing tendency to look like I'd worn them straight out of the washing machine, a few hours into the day. Even when I'd actually got the darn things ironed (I do iron all formals, I'd be stretching things too far if I didn't!). Amongst other clothes, I had a combination of shirts with their collars scuffed (doesn't it hide behind the hair? No, I learnt, especially when you have a sodding hair cut), a few ones with slightly weird colours (gifts) and a variety of trousers of various lengths. I have trousers which can fold up and reach my knees, ones which mysteriously shrunk the week after I got them (unless I miraculously grew a couple of inches at the age of 27), trousers which looked smashing when I buy them and then catch all the lint in the world with every single wash. What I have also realized that the bottom of the class from tailoring schools goes to altering departments in malls all over India. And so, I decided that enough was enough. I was going to join the club, simply because I was too bored to worry about something like this all the time. This is perfect fodder for a neurotic soul like me :| I proceeded on a shopping spree and got some fairly good looking stuff.

Last came the accessories and habits. No, not good looking belts and I-just-made-another-species-extinct leather wallets. But stuff like the small comb which you keep in your back pocket. The habit of actually using shirt pockets to keep stuff like boarding passes, bills, and other random paraphernalia. Switching from a nice informal-looking, actually useful and really comfortable backpack to a stupid, pain-inducing shoulder laptop bag.

In short, I have been reduced to a well-dressed, decent-looking, clean-shaven guy with short hair, a laptop bag, and a small comb lurking out of my back pocket. The lowest point was when somebody at work actually complimented me for looking really good today. I, Harshad Karandikar, am now officially a Corporate Douchebag. Aaaaaargh.