Thursday, December 28, 2006

Loos of the World

A rather smelly topic but I thought this was something I could write about in great detail!

My first experience with an unconventional loo was when I was about 10 years old. I went to Lucknow to our ancestral house along with my parents and since the infrastructure in he old ancestral home was inadequate, we put up in a charming old world hotel called Carlton and spent the day at the ancestral house where my Father's sisters lived. Calls of nature can hardly be ignored for a long time and the moment came when I just had to use the loo. My Pishima (Father's sister) showed me the way to this rather dark looking entrance, a 60 watt bulb was switched on for my benefit. On the left hand side there was a bath area and on the right hand side there were toilets. I entered the toilet expecting to find a white commode but instead I found a set of steps, on climbing the four steps I found a hole. Pishima instructed me to use the err... hole from outside. Just below the hole I heard a scuffling sort of a noise and screamed on top of my voice and yelled to Pishima that there is someone down there. She said it was nothing and said she would wait outside. When I emerged she told me that the noise I heard was nothing but the pigs that are let loose in these interconnected tunnels and help in cleaning up the mess. Well I guess that was a stroke of human genius applied to sewage cleaning!

My next experience with unhelpful loos was in Schipol airport in Amsterdam many years back. They may have smartened up by now. I entered this spotlessly clean all white loo and wondered where the flush is, there was absolutely no chain, button, switch or lever in sight. There was a tile with a red dot a cryptic statement 'Please Approach' written in small letters. I gingerly pressed this tile and whoosh came a jet of water!

The next worrisome flushing experience was in Germany or somewhere between Germany and Denmark when we were cruising in a ship. Alcohol is duty free it seems on such cruises so the ladies and gents drank with gusto and as a consequence the loos were rather crowded. On my visit to these cramped chambers I again started my desperate hunt for the flush lever. After about seven minutes of a detailed examination of every nook and cranny I found this almost invisible switch built into the cistern which yielded correct results.

My experience in a WC in a Canada airport is also worth mentioning here. After being accustomed to hidden switches, tiles, levers and chains I was expecting something along those lines but what I found left me pleasantly surprised yet again. When I did not find any known flushing device, I started hunting for the unknown and came upon a foot pedal which I pressed and got the result I wanted. The good thing about foot pedals is that one does not have to use hands!

Lastly I must mention the antique loo experiences in France. It seems that the plumbing was at least 100 years old in the hotel where I put up. One could hear the water gurgling through the pipes from miles away when the loo was flushed. Once I got a call in the middle of the night and a very angry lady was saying something in French and it seemed she was complaining about the water flowing into the cistern which made an awful lot of noise and disturbed her sleep - her room was right next to my loo. I think she should have complained at the hotel reception! At another hotel in Paris I found the much written about French device called the bidet. All my story book imaginations came to life, gold fittings, many fine soaps, a radiator, warm towels on a rail, a porcelain tub .... Bliss!

I am sure I haven't covered all aspects of strange loos - still have many more countries to visit and lots more to experience!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Symbols of Hope

A rocking chair for a 2 year old, a broken umbrella and a song. These are my symbols of hope and I look them up whenever I am in going through a difficult moment.

The Rocking Chair
I brought the rocking chair as a birthday gift for my son - his second year. When I took my son out for a walk in the evenings, we used to pass by a house where a rocking chair was kept on the balcony and he saw a child sitting on it and rocking. That caught his imagination somehow and it was impossible to pass by that house without a series of tantrums, eventually I had to change routes to ensure more peaceful walks. In those days we were in a tough spot financially, too many commitments, too many loans to repay, debts everywhere and buying a rocking chair for my son seemed an unnecessary expenditure. I did manage to stow away some cash over a few months and finally on his birthday, after work I went to a toy store nearby and found what he wanted and bought it. When I entered my house, I was greeted by somewhat hostile and accusing glances at the sight of what seemed to be an expensive gift then - my son's joy and excitement made it worthwhile and made all the sour faces all around fade away into oblivion. I am a great believer of throwing out the old and making space for the new but I haven't been able to throw away the rocking chair as to me its a symbol of positivity and associated with a belief that all clouds have a silver lining.

The Umbrella
The umbrella dates back to the same financially difficult times associated with the rocking chair. When meals on the table are uncertain, then new umbrellas are an unthinkable luxury. I used to walk to work, clouds thundering over my head and heavens emptying their guts over my poor leaky umbrella. A steady patter of drops fell on my head thanks to the leaks and by the time I reached work I was fairly damp and uncomfortable. One day I just said to myself enough is enough, I NEED a new umbrella and went and purchased it. This rusted and torn contraption also has not made it to the garbage bin because it reminds me that I can change my life if I want to - I just have to go and do it.

The Song
Many years later when all clouds were history, I was one of the members selected for a very prestigious assignment to be executed in USA. This would give me plenty of exposure and growth in my chosen field of work and I was really looking forward to it. The home aspect was challenging as I had to leave behind a 4 year old who had never been separated from his mother for a single day, stocking up on groceries and provisions, instructing the maid and arranging for my Mother to step in and look after spouse and son while I was away. All of these details were taken care of except my visa, all my team members had got their visas but for some strange reason, mine was rejected because of missing information. Half of me was bitterly disappointed from a career perspective while the other half was relieved that the family would not be thrown into a tizzy. My visa application was sent again - this time with complete information, I had to reach the American embassy at the crack of dawn 4 AM to stand in queue for my appointment. During my hours of wait I heard many whoops of joy and saw many tears and also managed to learn a smattering of Gujarati. When my turn came I was asked a few basic questions and dismissed, another hour went by before our passports were handed over outside, the song was blaring out of a radio in a nearby roadside shack as I opened my passport and saw a 10 year visa granted. The song reminds me that there is someone up there to take care of us.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Morning Glory

Every morning I wake up rather reluctantly when I would much rather stay under a blanket - a rare luxury in Bombay as winter is non existent but mornings are sufficiently nippy for a light blanket and I am forced to emerge due to a rather persistent alarm clock. It seems crows are rather punctual about coming and crowing in delight too. One of them comes sharp at 6:15 AM on the branch of a banyan tree right next to my bedroom window without fail. I haven't decided on the gender but I think it’s female, so maybe I'll name her Cindy or Clara or something.

After being awakened by multiple sources of noise I have this task of waking up my son, usually I just have to whisper "Time for football" and he is up immediately. After which I have to hear the customary grumbles of spouse for causing all the commotion that wakes him up. Of course I am unrepentant as always and continue with brushing my teeth.

After dropping my son at the school football grounds I head for the nearby jogging track which is a beautiful place with plenty of trees, green lawns, walking tracks, tennis courts, little huts for people to do their meditation and yoga. Some people volunteer to water plants and tend to the new saplings just planted, while some help with cleaning or supervising the cleaning of the area. There is a laughter club somewhere from where I hear sounds of ha ha ho ho he hee and what not and an involuntary giggle escapes me every time I hear it, it’s kind of infectious. Once I reach the track, I start running, puff and pant, stop when I am out of breath, walk a bit and then run again.

On my way I overhear bits and pieces of conversation, two ladies walking together engrossed in exchanging recipes; I mentally hope they are fat free. A group of all white clad men with huge beer bellies huffing and puffing and talking about share markets and property prices. A few older men discussing how best to hide grief while the other wisely says one must control ones self not to feel negative emotions. "But how?" asks someone, I don’t wait to hear the answer as I have to keep running. While on an empty stretch I watch a lone duck lazily venturing out to test the waters in the adjacent lake. Further on I see and hear a huddle of Bengalis engrossed in a discussion about the gross financial irregularities in the puja committee, a pair of college teens, lovers whispering sweet nothings in each other's ears, a group chanting Vedic mantras, many people doing pranayam (Ramdev has really reached the masses) and so on.

When I walk back to the school I see some middle aged men fighting like children over what seemed to be an unfair tennis match. An old Sikh gentleman walking with a loaf of bread which he distributes to the stray dogs in that area. A few zealous entrepreneurs who sell all kinds of juices for the health conscious by the pavement, a buzz of activity in front of the school gates where parents are collecting their children.

I spot my son in the crowd, (the bright blue t shirt helps) who is drenched in sweat and when he sees me he gives me a bright smile. It's time to go home.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I am VERY Busy

In this teeming city of millions it seems everybody is a floating island, nobody has time for anybody as everybody is very busy. They look busy, act busy, say "I'm busy", walk fast, and talk fast and what not. At my workplace when I talk to my colleagues, they say "It's been a hectic week", "I'm going home late everyday", "I don’t even have time to get up for lunch" and so on.

I know somebody (who works part time) and calls us off an on for some reason or the other and her primary theme of conversation is that how busy she is and how full her social calendar is and how blessed we should feel that she actually found time to call us and inquire about our well being. Another lady who again works on a free lance basis loves to say that her phone is hardly ever free for 12 hours in a day because so many people are trying to reach her. She at one point said that we should not bother calling her on her birthday as the chances of getting through her on her phone would be remote! I know many more people with the same disease.

I prefer to call it a disease because in reality by saying 'I am busy" one creates a moat around one's self by not allowing people to cross over. Even the so called partying set of Mumbai conveniently seeks refuge in their cell phones whenever they feel threatened by invasion of their private spaces. I wonder what makes people falsely project that they are the busiest people on this earth when they are not? Is it low self esteem which makes them hide behind these self created veneers? Or is it that they like to live in a world of their own creation where they are in demand every second? Sometimes I think it’s a cry for help to save themselves from their lonely existence.

In my corporate experiences, I have seen that when most people approach me, they first ask me "Are you busy?" and I always say "No - nothing that cant be done later", though sometimes I do say "Yes I am busy" when I genuinely want to avoid a person! I find it intriguing that over time in our homes and work places, we have become hesitant to cross each others moats - even if the draw bridges have been lowered, we seek permission before we cross.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Life and Times in Sunset + Vine, LA - Part 1

This is my much delayed post on my culinary expeditions around the Sunset and Vine area, mostly within half a mile radius

Baja Fresh
Light, fresh, inexpensive no nonsense Mexican food. I found that Mexican food sits rather well on the homesick Indian palate. I tried most of what they had to offer but I liked the Tacos and Quesilladas the best. Everything is served with nachos, salsa and guacamole and makes for a filling meal. Their slogan is No Microwaves and no MSG (I think) and they live up to their 'Fresh' slogan completely. It’s the usual noisy eatery, quick token based service and you needn't tip as its self service all the way.

A meal for one here will cost about $10 to $15

Zen Zoo Tea Cafe
This exotic little eatery is nested beside the Borders book store. The food served is oriental and was definitely music to my spice starved palate. It has both here and to go options and has little Feng Shui knick knacks on sale too which you can browse while you wait for your food to arrive. It also has a collection of fine teas from the Far East which you can order.

I tried the Dim Sum Platter which was served with hot (rather mild as per Indian palates) chili sauce and a very sharp mustard which brought tears to my eyes. The dim sums had all kinds of fillings - spinach, shrimps, pork and there was something called pot stickers as well which had a bread like covering with pork filling inside. It was served in the steamer it was cooked in and has 12 dim sums in all. Beef and Broccoli with brown rice was also good and so was the Citrus Chicken (very much like sweet and sour chicken in Chinese restaurants in India). Though I thought that the chicken was too fibrous and needed a lot of chewing.

A meal for one here will set you back by about $15

Kabuki
A Japanese restaurant which seemed to do very good business. It took me a few days to venture into this place as I have never had a brush with Japanese cuisine before so the fear of the unknown kept me away but I overcame it soon enough. I tried their sushi platter which .... tasted .... different! But it wasn't bad either. The taste of the rice seemed to be more dominant than that of the fish inside - a dunk in the wasabi and soy sauce ensured that it tasted like something.

I also experimented with a tempura platter with miso sauce and sticky rice. This was a much happier experience - the crispness of shrimps and vegetables is amazing and everything is a perfect golden glow. The tempura is served on a bed of salad consisting of lettuce and tomatoes. The miso sauce was interesting though the rice was avoidable.

A meal for one here (any one item) will cost about $20

Fabiolus Cafe
Fabiolus Cafe is an Italian eatery which has a nice informal environment. It’s got a cheery and friendly ambience where the manager / owner or whoever the person may be welcomes each individual with a big smile and a warm greeting and showed me to my table. I had set my heart upon on any kind of a risotto and thankfully it features on the menu in many forms. I opted for a risotto with over roasted Italian sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes and parmesan cheese. While I was waiting for the risotto to arrive, I nibbled on some bread and an olive based dip. The risotto tasted good but I think there is better - the texture was more watery than creamy and the rice was slightly undercooked. It was the typical assembled quick fix risotto with no trace of white wine, which I believe is an essential ingredient.

A meal for one here will cost about $25

Magnolia
One can always depend on this eatery being open till the wee hours of the morning (3 AM) and it serves traditional American food. There are indoor and outdoor dining options and if you choose indoors, the interiors are fairly pleasant. I came here to satisfy my cravings for steak and mashed potatoes and thankfully it was there on the menu. I ordered something called 'Skirt teak with mashed potatoes' - it tasted excellent though the portion of meat was rather modest. The brown gravy from the steak and the buttery mashed potatoes was the best thing I have ever eaten. If I had time I would have come back another time but this was my last meal in LA.

An average meal for 1 will cost about $25 to $35


The Hungry Cat
This is the most trendy and chic eatery in the vicinity and is tucked away a little inside the Sunset + Vine complex, every time I walked past this place - which was everyday as I lived in the same apartment block, I always heard sounds of cutlery on china plates and a lot of animated chatter. It was always crowded and with good reason. I ate here on two occasions, the menu does not have a lot of choice and usually its best to go with the 'Today's Special' I had a crab frittata which was a no nonsense crab frittata with lots of shredded crab meat and a suitable amount of egg to bind it and was lightly seasoned. It tasted fresh, light and excellent - if one has white wine to go with it - it's even better. The next time I went there was for dinner, a sort of a last day in LA all by myself celebration. The seating and the ambience is somewhat rustic, there is a candle on each table, I sat outdoors and had this most divine meal of raw scallops marinated with orange and ginger oil and garnished with cilantro accompanied with a drink called orange juyola (or something like that) which was a lovely orangey and lemony vodka based drink. The Hungry Cat is an elegant seafood restaurant which is more on the expensive side but well worth it.

An average meal for one here will cost anything from $10 to $35 depending on your appetite.

Los Balcones Del Peru
The first time I entered here - it seemed that it was some long forgotten place stuck in a time warp. The interiors have a rustic Peruvian (?) feel. The selection is not long enough to confuse you and is not short enough to leave you wanting for choices. All menu items are available in beef, chicken and sea food options. Toasted bread and green cilantro and chili based dip is served as a starter while I waited for the food to arrive and it took quite a while. Unfortunately I cannot recollect the names of the dishes I ate but it tasted wonderful and was this combination of fried prawns, rice, tomatoes, bell peppers and fries with some divine sauce. On another occasion I tried the sea food spaghetti which was also excellent. It is also popularly known as Mario's and definitely worth a few visits.

An average meal for one costs about $15

Borders Cafe
The coffee served here is termed as 'Seattle's Best Coffee'. A fair amount of variety is there in both hot and cold coffees. I tried something called Raspberry Mocha Twist which tasted good. The cheese cake was divine and quite perfect. The place has inside and outside seating and is a good place to browse through reading material while drinking coffee.

Zankou Chicken
The ultimate in fast food - quick, delicious and cheap. Though it’s not exactly in the Sunset + Vine locality but is a few minutes drive away. I tried their trademark item called the Tarna which was roasted chicken, tomatoes filled in pita bread served with a garlic and horseradish sauce.

A meal for one will cost about $6 to $10

There are plenty of fast food chains in teh vicinity as well which I avoided as most of it except Mexican is available in India.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Baby Steps

To an alternate career I hope!
Some days back I bumped into this lady, Kavita Chhibber in an online forum and its been a happy association so far, she is using some of my blog posts for her emag located here. It's a well put together emag which makes for great reading, do visit.

I beleive being a part of Dr Deepak Chopra's blog is by invitation only and I managed to gatecrash into intentblog - weekly intent section and managed to generate 43 comments - people sure talk a LOT there!
On an impulse I wrote to a few more people - who knows, I may just hit upon a 1 million dollar book deal somewhere?

I needed to boast about it on this blog!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Sibling Rivalry

My cousin and I grew up together in Delhi; our Mothers were good friends so as families we met very often. Our dolls used to spend the week at each other's houses, we used to make 'Fanta' by powdering orange drops and then mixing it with Soda, we used to cook food in toy utensils over a candle flame, we used to play 'Beauty Parlor' with our dolls where we would be the beauticians and our dolls at the receiving end of our experimentations. She introduced me to the forbidden Star comics, which were a pictorial representation of a romantic story. Then the kiss seemed a repulsive thing - imagine a man and woman exchanging saliva - YUCK! However curiosity about this man woman thing (however yucky it seemed) made us consume quite a few of this disreputable literature before we were caught.

She was the darling of the colony, everybody knew her, and even my Mother would comment that she is such a bright and lively girl. "Why can’t you be more like her?" She would say. While my cousin's mother would say how quiet, reserved and polite I was and she would say "Why cant you be more like your cousin?" and bemoan the various imagined faults that her daughter had. We were oblivious to all these comparisons as we were very young. Later she moved away to Pune and we wrote each other long letters writing about inconsequential things.

My cousin and her parents visited us at times; she grew up to be a raving beauty with umpteen boyfriends. She used to tell me about some of them and their declarations of undying love while her mother complained to my mother about the pitfalls of having a beautiful teenaged daughter who is addicted to flirting. I was the fat bespectacled serious and studious teen who boys did not talk to or looked at so my mother had no such worries. My mother would say "Isn't she beautiful? She has grown up to be so pretty!" while her mother would say "I wish my daughter was more like your daughter? She is so mentally stable and serious about studies".

Somewhere down the line I would hear that how well my cousin draws and sketches, how good she is at writing poetry and so on. I am sure she also heard many of my imagined or real talents from her mother. Perhaps the jealousy crept in somewhere and started showing up. I still remember the first incident where I was thrilled that I solved the Rubik's cube puzzle, my cousin too wanted a shot at it and said she needed to concentrate and went to her room - alone. Voila! She came out with a solved Rubik's cube, however on closer inspection, I found that all stickers had been tampered with and had been moved around to 'solve' the puzzle. She probably felt that she would be compared to me yet again so she felt the need to prove herself in any which way she could.

Somehow things were never quite the same after that and to this very day, after so many years we still are uncomfortable around each other, we may not show it but its there. The other day she invited us for lunch, my Mother waxed eloquent about her artistic capabilities and the way she had decorated her house while I mentally hemmed and hawed and yawned. May be she did but I have this mental block not to recognize anything that she did and to this day I think that she is the most ordinary looking girl in this world while everybody around me thinks she is model material.

Its just one of those things one cannot change...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Traffic & Tempers

A ride in an auto rickshaw on a Bombay street is always full of adventure. In addition, it gives you a good workout and digests food faster as the craters on the road shake and stir you in every direction till your insides are all mixed up!

I missed my office transport so I took an auto rickshaw to work and while on the highway I heard a lot of impatient honks behind. The rickshaw driver was of course quite oblivious and thought he was Michael Schumaker driving a Ferrari. Once he awakened to reality, he reluctantly gave way to a Merc right behind, however the Merc was rather miffed that she was not given way so the lady at the helm spewed a few verbal abuses to the rickshaw driver. Michael Schumaker spat in return and drove on with more vigor - it was a make beleive Ferrari versus a Merc!

Anyway Bombay is hardly a place for aspiring F1 racers and traffic played spoil sport to the merry chase (rickshaw sputtering behind a Merc) and Schumaker in a vengeful mood, bumped into the Merc as she chose to halt right in the middle of the road without any indication - just because she is a Merc. The lady emerged screaming obscenities and slapped poor Schumaker and said that he had deliberately banged (strong word - it was just a tap) the Merc. The Policeman, who's main job is to catch hold of hapless souls and collect a little bribe was called upon to listen to the horrific story of a Rickshaw deliberately banging into a Merc, a small crowd gathered around and the Lady in the Merc swelled with self importance and wailed about how Schumaker refused to give way while she was in a hurry to go the Doctor. I was called in to give my expert judgemnet and I went for Schumaker all the way and wished that he had actually dented the Merc! The Merc Lady shouted at me and said how the crowd always supports the underdog and one day I will suffer at the hands of such louts and then I will understand her predicament.

The rotund Policeman, seeing a lot of prospects zipping past him, told the fat Merc Lady "Madam, apna energy mat waste karo aur jaldi kaam pe jao" (Madam, dont waste your energy over trivial things and go where ever you were going). So in all it was much ado over nothing, I lost 15 crucial minutes and got some material to write about in my blog after a long hiatus!

As a closing thought, I wonder if people with bigger, shinier and more expensive cars are ugler, angrier and more violent?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Going Back

For the past 15 years I had been contemplating about going back to Delhi - just to visit friends and look up all the old places that I used to frequent while I lived there. Somehow the opportunity or a reason to go to Delhi never came up and going alone for a weekend just to mingle with old friends was frowned upon heavily by family. Thankfully a very dear friend of mine decided to get married and the whole family had a reason to go to Delhi.

There was a lot of excitement everywhere, another dear friend called me and threatened dire consequences if I didn't stay with her and both of us had a lot of conversations about our husbands meeting for the first time, food likes and dislikes and the menu plan for the five days that we would stay with her. The menu plan was an impressive array of Mongolian, Lebanese and Italian cuisines along with some Indian fillers which I used to eat at her house many moons ago. I was to be the guinea pig for the recipes that would make it to her soon to be published cookery book and kept my fingers crossed!

The great thing about friends is that one can take up exactly from where we left off and after banishing our respective husbands and children to their respective rooms we talked like there was no tomorrow and caught up on each others lives, thankfully the husbands and the kids got along quite well so we could leave them together and go do our own thing.

I went back to my school after more than a decade and this time with my son which felt kind of strange. I bribed the ferocious looking watch man and gave him emotional crap about wanting to show my son this grand school where I once studied. We walked around and to my relief not much had changed and whatever had changed was not at the cost of open spaces and greenery. The gardens were perfectly manicured, flower beds bloomed with seasonal flowers, the canteen was still at the same place and so were the water coolers. I peered through the art room to see the wall where my creations were once displayed and the award I had received from K R Narayanan (one time President of India) for my art. The Banyan Tree which was also our school emblem had spread its branches forming a shady green canopy; the props from Rang De Basanti were thankfully not in evidence.

We walked down the lane behind the school to Nathu's and I remembered the many times that we had sneaked out of the gates to have their famous chaat and gol gappa. We drove down to Defense Colony market and ate at Aka Saka (as Faley's had closed down). I requested the chef to make me roast pork noodles which no longer seemed to be on the menu. The gentleman at Defense Stores where we ordered grocery from seemed frozen in time and still looked the same. I introduced myself and said that we stayed in A33 and at once he recollected my Father's name and enquired about my Mother and gave me updates about who had died, who had moved and how many old shops had closed and so on.

My favorite bakery had closed down so I reluctantly brought my son an éclair from the one that had taken its place. I took my son to the toy store where I used to buy comics and toys - this gentleman had grown older and frailer. I was overjoyed to see that the small little library behind the market was still in existence. The house where I had spent 18 years of my life however had been razed down and a new building was being built in its place.

So much had changed yet so much remained just the same. The houses were grander, the roads were wider, the people were richer, the familiar landmarks were gone and there were new ones in their place and some roads and the parks which seemed grand before appeared to have shrunk. It felt like home but it also felt like a maze where I tried to search my past looking for some reassuring signs of familiarity. At times it felt as if the city had overtaken me in terms of progress and it seemed vast and strange and at times it felt that I had outgrown the city as my horizons had widened.

It's good to go back home...

Friday, September 01, 2006

Aagomoni

I heard from a friend that this time Goddess Durga is coming to visit us in a boat. I keep hearing various interpretations of her mode of travel which people use to predict the future. Maybe there is some amount of truth in it but that’s a topic to be researched later.

To me, the coming of the Goddess was signified by the fragrance of the 'shiuli' flower which blooms in the months of September and October. The flowers would bloom in the wee hours of the morning, spread their heady fragrance and intoxicates all around and then fall off by mid morning. I remember there was a 'Shiuli' tree in our garden which I used to shake and all these little flowers would rain on me. I would collect these flowers in my basket and place them in front of idols of Radha Krishna which belonged to my paternal Grandmother; it was a daily chore during the season.

The coming of the Goddess was also signified by examinations which would invariably fall in those days, I had two Mothers pulling me in two different directions, at one end my human earthly Mother ordering me to study while at the other end Mother Durga beckoned me to join the festivities. I managed to appease both; I studied diligently all day so I could go to the 'pujo pandal' in the nights.

Listening to the 'Mahalaya' telecast at 4 AM in the morning is another must, the mesmerizing and hypnotic voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra and the timeless songs still give me goose bumps when the tale of the Goddess Durga's victory over Mahishasur is told. The nippy morning air, the dewy silence of a world just about to wake up adds to the magic.

On the first day of the pujo we would go to the pandal and see the Goddess being adorned with jewels and all the weapons being placed in her ten hands while the dhakis (drummers) beat the drums in unison. Lunch was usually not cooked in any Bengali home in the vicinity and all would troop in to eat 'bhog' which is first offered to the Goddess and once she eats and approves, it is distributed to all who come irrespective of caste, creed and social standing. I would stand as close as I could to the drummers and stare into the all encompassing fierce but kind eyes of the Goddess and allow the drums to drive away the cobwebs from my mind and draw strength from the gaze of the Goddess, this is something I still do.

On the ninth day of Pujo - Navami, the lights of the pandal would be switched off, the only light would be from the 108 oil lamps which would be lit up, the smell and the smoke from the 'dhuno' would fill the air and the Dhakis would beat the drums with all their might while he priest performed the arati (worship) and finally the holy flame would be passed around so we could all place our hands over the flame and be blessed and lastly holy water would be sprinkled over all the bent heads in front of the Goddess by the priest.

I still remember the air of competition amongst friends over how many new dresses they got, the lazy afternoons where we sat around in circles after eating bhog and gossiping about people in general. Going back home to freshen up and then again dress up with more vengeance for the evening, the rehearsals for the dances and plays that we performed, the stage fright when we actually did, the bloopers of forgetting our lines, the endless goodies from the snacks counter, the yearly rounds to Kali Bari, Kashmiri Gate and Greater Kailash pujos, the budding romances, the beautiful ladies dressed in red and white silk garad saris, the men in crackling starched dhotis, the candy floss man, the bows and arrows, swords and clubs sold outside, my dear friend Rachita and her parents Pinu Aunty and Samir Uncle who made sure that the absence of my Father never affected me.

Durga Pujo in the A Block Defense Colony grounds was magical, somehow I haven't found that magic anywhere else, in Calcutta every corner has a Pujo and it’s too commercial. In Bombay its all about how many crores the Bengali associations spend to outdo the and somewhere the Goddess, the worship and belief are sidelined and forgotten, people head straight to the seating area to grab seats to see some famous artiste perform and then they head towards the food stall to fill their greedy stomachs while the beautiful Goddess in all her finery just gets a passing glance and a quick bow.

At times I wonder that the Goddess should enter our beings and kill the Mahishasur within us in forms of greed, hatred, lust and make better humans of us all.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My First Job

My first job was as a seemingly lofty designation of Center Manager of a training firm. This place had 4 employees in all, a receptionist, a general dog’s body (also known as a peon in India), a trainer and I as Jill of all trades. My Mother was dead against me working in some sleepy backward town but my Grandmother encouraged me to go and find my bearings after being sheltered for two decades and some. I loved the idea of staying alone and experiencing the unknown quite like the Fool in the Tarot story.

After many arguments, my mother relented and brought first class tickets on a train called Black Diamond and she offered to reach me and settle me into whatever accommodation had been arranged. The 'first class' experience on Black Diamond was interesting, carpeted floors, the train attendants appeared to be dressed in clothes from the British Raj era, spacious seating and a choice of food, tea and coffee. The first class compartment seemed to be full of potbellied bespectacled gentlemen who probably held senior management positions in the steel and coal plants in the Durgapur - Ranigunj - Asansol regions.

We managed to get a taxi to take us to our destination, some address in City Center. The car came to a halt in front of a half built house with tall knee high grass growing in front of it. A rusty motorbike was parked in front which was probably the only sign of habitation. I got down, waded through grass and found a calling bell and pressed with all my might. The door opened and an old gentleman stepped out, we introduced ourselves and then realization dawned. He scurried to get the keys and opened the room in front of the house facing the road (and the grass). The room was dingy, dark, had a fan, a tube light, a functional bed with four legs, a table and a chair. The toilet was even more dingy with barely a beam of sunlight fighting its way though a dirty glass window. My Mother let out what seemed to be a wail of despair while I smiled and blissfully left it to her to manage. The landlord (the old gentleman) warned us of dire consequences if we left the fan on after stepping out of the house or cooked inside the room using a kerosene stove. My Mother, enterprising as she is, managed to find a person who would provide cooked meals thrice a day so I would not have to cook.

The 'office' was a better place in comparison, it was a residential property which was turned into class rooms to train people to be computer literate and become programmers. The 'receptionist' was a friendly girl names Sharmistha, the 'peon' was a sinister looking person named Tarak, who (I later learnt) peddled XXX videos to men and women who had such tastes. The trainer was an Amir Khan look alike called Shantanu who I immediately fell for! I was given my brief by the 'Boss' who owned the franchise - another shady looking businessman who (I later learnt) always kept a pack of French letters handy, I forget his name now. Later Sharmistha told me to be careful as she had already been propositioned by the boss. Well all in a day's work as they say!

My Mother left after a week - the little room seemed emptier, there was no TV, only my Sony world receiver which helped me to keep in touch with the world. I brought along a cookery book and looking at it made me miserable but still I turned pages and drooled over pictures of lemon tarts and shepherd's pies and tried to assuage my cravings vicariously while I ate bullet like rice with watery dal (lentil soup), mushy characterless vegetable and a smelly fish. Most of my lunches and dinners were fed to a dog and her new born litter of pups. Over the next eight months I saw them grown into confident young puppies and Mama Dog gave up hunting for food as she had a benevolent provider at hand. The Papa dog was never seen in the vicinity and was perhaps making merry with the other bitches.

The monsoons came along with torrential rains, the grass in front of my door grew taller, the earthworms crept up into my room for a dry place and plenty of frogs hopped in the moment I opened the door. I could not bear the thought of spending nights with frogs who has no intention of turning into princes so I led them Pied Piper like into the toilet and swept them into the Indian toilet with a broom and flushed them to a watery end. The numerous earthworms met a salty end as I had read somewhere that if one sprinkles salt over all kinds of creepy crawlies they shrivel up and die.

The monsoons went and the grass turned into a field of 'kash phool' (a kind of wild flower which blooms in October), the sun was fierce and I wore my new bright orange dress and was walking down the street humming a song. I was in for a nasty surprise, a bull snorted angrily and started coming towards me menacingly and I still remember running for dear life and 200 meters seemed like a never ending stretch of 2000 kilo meters. I have never worn bright orange after that incident!

In the meantime I had managed to strike up a friendship with the landlord's daughter and watched some TV in the evenings which was better than sitting alone with nothing much to do. Shantanu used to take me for long rides on his bike all around Durgapur but his parents sensed a budding romance and strictly forbade him to go around with a spoilt city girl and I will not go further into that story. Sharmistha, Shantanu and I were good friends - as one usually is when they are thrown together in difficult situations, we had a lot of fun, we cooked together, went for picnics, watched an XXX movie at Shantanu's house (my first) courtesy Tarak which was more hilarious than erotic and had all of us in splits.

Every alternate weekend I traveled back to Calcutta, took a rickety bus which had people sitting on the roof and unlikely co passengers like some sheep and goats all packed in like sardines. On reaching Burdwan, I used to buy some 'mihi dana' which is a specialty and then board the local train to Calcutta - at times without a ticket! In course of another few months, the novelty of living alone and a job which had no future or challenges wore off and I finally bade farewell to the friends and acquaintances and came back home for a better job. I learnt a lot of lessons during that stint, some small and some big which helped me deal with situations along the way.

Now when I sit in my plush office with a laptop and all the trappings of the good life that this job provides, I remember my humble beginnings and the immense excitement and adventure that went along with it. It’s been a wonderful journey so far where India and I have progressed together and I hope we reach the greater heights together as well...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Amusement Parks: Universal Studios Hollywood

Los Angeles is a great place to be in, especially if one has to fill the long lonely weekends with something interesting to do. Most of my Friday evening was spent in browsing www.metro.net to chart out my itinerary to my destination by bus and train. I diligently wrote down the bus numbers and directions so I did not get lost. Los Angeles can be quite cumbersome without a car I was told but I managed fabulously with a $3 Metro Day Pass and my legs filled in for the rest.

The first amusement part I visited was Universal Studios; I took the red line train from Hollywood and Vine to Universal. I emerged and wondered what to do next and just followed the crowd who must be heading towards the park. I waited at the shuttle bus stop and a white and blue four carriage long tram like bus came along shortly and I boarded with a ho-mum-bored attitude. The bus started its ascent towards the studio and as it climbed, my interest grew. The studios were situated on a top of a hill and the panoramic view was great. The bus came to a halt in front of the entrance, I spent some time walking up and down 'Citywalk' which was a collection of souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and movie theaters trying to find a camera. The disposable cameras did not look too appealing so my friends and relatives would just have to take my word that I had visited Universal in absence of tangible proof in form of photographs.

After finding absolutely nothing to buy, I headed towards the ticket counter and bought a general pass, there was a 'first class pass' which guaranteed the first position in any queue for double the price but I had a lot of time to kill so did not feel the need for it. On entering I was assailed by what I call the 'amusement park smell' which is an amalgamation of odors emanating from fries, waffles, ice-creams, hot dogs and pop corn, which put me off food altogether - at least the kind that was available in park seemed revolting to say the least and if something looked remotely appetizing, the portions were far too large for me to finish.

I walked along trying to figure out a landmark from the map I had and stood in the first queue I came across which turned out to be Shrek 4D. With swarms of kids and families everywhere I felt even more miserable while in queues. The queues thankfully are fast moving so I didn't have much time to wallow in self pity. The Shrek show was rather cute where the earth shook while horses galloped and you felt Shrek's spit when he sneezed and nearly jumped out of your seat when the mice ran over your feet and something seemed to come straight at you.

The next ride was the Studio Tour which was the most wonderful part of the Universal experience, though the wait in this queue is probably the longest. The bus took us around the various stages which are numbered and where some famous stars were currently shooting for some up coming movies - we just heard about them but didn't see any. Next the bus took us around the 'facades' which were dummy buildings complete with doors, windows, curtains, signboards and so on. The streets had strategically placed mail boxes, street lights, trash bins - all made of cardboard or some such thing and managed to looks so real. The tour guide said that these facades could be remodeled to depict a street in any country and any period back in time. She rattled off the names of some movies which were shot in these streets but I can’t remember their names now.

Next the bus entered a dark looking shed when suddenly the bus started shaking, the whole place seemed to disintegrate, two trains were about to collide and it seemed that a truck would land right on top of the bus but of course we were saved just in time. This was the earthquake zone where we were shown how such scenes in movies are simulated. Next we entered another dark looking cave which was the King Kong zone where there King Kong ranted and raved like a maniac looking ferocious with big red eyed and sharp teeth.

Talking about natural calamities, floods can’t be ignored; they have their rightful place in the movies too. The bus drove along at a leisurely pace along the winding streets of a street with a look and feel of a Mexican village and suddenly we experienced 'torrential rains, dark skies, gusty winds, thunder, lightening and floodwaters gushing towards us. If I didn't know that this was a studio I would quite certainly be swept away and drown in the floods - they looked that real. The skies cleared magically and we moved on through the Jurassic Park jungle which had some watery and creepy sounds and then on to some exhibits of cars used in movies which overturn, burst into flames and were used for many famous chases in many famous movies. There was also an exhibit of Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift which was then just about to be released - the bus remained rooted there for 5 minutes so all of us knew that this movie was opening in theaters soon.

We passed through many bungalows where the stars of the yesteryears stayed during movie shoots; these are now used as offices by various producers. We saw the New York Central Park which is probably the size of backyard garden (okay it wasn't that small!) in this studio. For movies using New York Central Park, aerial shots are taken of the actual park and then fitted in with this park where people are shown walking around or sitting on benches.


Next was the water tank for the movie 'Jaws' where all the underwater shooting was done, there were some unexpected surprises as well when the bridge 'collapsed' and a rusty tin shark opened its jaws wide to make a meal of all the passengers and fires came up everywhere. Well we lived through this one as well and moved on to the next calamity - the house on the hill or the 'Psycho House' which has been carefully preserved. Thankfully no showers were turned on and no one crept up from behind!

War of the Worlds was next where the set was created by actually blowing up a fully created set to pieces. There were half burnt cars, broken houses, a broken aero plane, smashed coke cans, torn curtains and so on. It was a very real looking set which was used for the movie.

The bus then passed through a very pretty looking lane lined with houses on both sides with gardens in front, the houses were real and not facades and it looked very familiar - I had seen this before I told myself, Was it deja vu, past life memories? Well of course not! It turned out to be Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives - no wonder as I watch it religiously every week. ABC has exclusive use of this part of the studio and people are not allowed inside except for the Studio Tour buses.

The last stop was the huge white backdrop which is used for backdrops in many movies - King Kong against the blue sky was this back drop and then it was a drive down the memory lane where there were posters of movies from 1920s to 2006. This was probably the best exposure for movie goers to the world of movie making with ingredients of drama, surprise and magic.

Another interesting show was the Special Effect Stages where we were shown how visual and audio special effects are created and gained some more insights into the world of movie making. The Jurassic park ride was entertaining as well where one had all kinds of dinosaurs popping up unexpectedly and some spewing water at the gawkers. I had very unusual company of two Tibetan monks who were seated in the same row as me for this ride. Walking through the Lucy Tribute was nostalgic too. The 'Revenge of the Mummy' ride was an awesome rollercoaster ride where one has no idea about the direction where one is going. The only disadvantage is that one has to deposit all hand baggage in the lockers outside.

The rides up and down the escalators gave me a good view; there are three escalators one after another which connect the lower level to the upper level. On the upper level I tried some more rides like Back to the Future which was modeled on the movie, which was good but not great and definitely worth a miss. Van Hesling and Waterworld are good too if one is so inclined. I didn't have time to see Terminator 2 and Backdraft shows so I cannot comment much on them, gives me an excuse to go back another time (Dave are you listening?)!

As for food options, there were plenty. I chose Panda Express broccoli, beef and noodles which passed muster and assuaged my craving for something Asian, next was a Ben & Jerry waffle cone which was too large for me to handle but I tried my best while sitting on a foot massage seat soothing my aching feet and doing justice to my ice-cream which ultimately went to the trash bin half eaten - I long for it now! There are plenty of souvenir shops with Marvel merchandize and an array of colorful basketballs with Superman, Shrek and Spongebob pictures which seemed worth buying. By the time I was done it was close to 9 PM and I was ready to drop with amusement park fatigue but I loved every minute of my first experience of an amusement park.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Tears for Men?

If we must shed tears then they are perhaps better utilized the hungry and starving children of this planet rather than waste them over men.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Let there be Light

Every day I considered myself lucky to have this beautiful mountain just outside my window, I felt strong just by looking at it. The mountain was omnipresent in my life, my dreams, decisions and actions were derived from the strength that this mountain gave me. I often looked up with wonderment and admired its height, magnificence, majesty, beauty and the general halo that surrounded it. It made me aim higher and strive for more in life.

One day there was a tremendous storm with a heavy cloudburst and when the light of the day finally dawned, I looked out of my window to find that my mountain had disappeared. I was devastated to find that my mountain was just a heap of volcanic ash which had stood high in a perfect world but collapsed under the vagaries of life and nature. Perhaps it was my belief which helped it to stand for this long.

What I did not realize was that my mountain blocked light out of my life; it limited my vision and limited my aspirations. Now the horizon is mine to conquer, there are bigger dreams to dream and greater heights to scale and I am thankful to my mountain who taught me to think and dream big and instill in me the belief that dreams do come true if one wants it enough...

Friday, August 04, 2006

My Great Aunt


My Mother's maternal aunt was deaf and dumb, she was born that way and just because she was special, she was her Mother's pet. There was no great love lost between her brothers and sisters due to the sibling rivalry - the other children were jealous because she always got everything and all the attention while others - all seven of them, felt alienated.

In my childhood, I always looked forward to going to their house in South Extension; it was a small barsati (a room on the terrace) which she and her husband had rented. The house was impeccably neat; shelves stacked neatly, photographs of her husband receiving various awards from Presidents and Prime Ministers of India proudly displayed and an array of potted plants on the terrace. Her husband was the President of the Deaf & Dumb Federation of India and my great aunt, being his second wife was suitably pampered by her husband. At times they had massive fights when the step children came to stay or visit and all those fights were executed at our residence where both husband and wife banged our dinner table gustily while arguing - my Mother once in a while tried to remind them that the table was ten years old but who cared!

Years passed, my father passed away, my Mother had to start working and there was no one to look after me (I was eleven years at that time). My own Grandmother had her life and duties in Calcutta so she could not come and stay with us permanently. It was a difficult situation but my Great Aunt saved the day by offering to travel all the way from Narayana to Defense Colony every day, cook and feed me and leave in the evening. For many months she made sure that I ate a hot meal every day after I returned from school and had a maternal figure watching over me while my Mother was away at work. I carried the house key as she could not hear the calling bell but one day I lost the house key and I remember banging the door for an hour before she opened quite by accident.

Later our finances improved and we could afford full time domestic help but she continued to come every now and then to check our well being. She always got some snacks whenever she came - without fail and I always looked forward to her visits and the snacks. She taught me sign language, she taught me to lip read, communicating with her was never a problem because she could read lips very well. She was a lively, aggressive and gutsy lady who could not care less if buses, cars or rickshaws honked and stopped in their tracks because she was crossing the street at her own pace. She would just show her hand and glare at the driver.

Her husband passed way mysteriously on a train, he was poisoned and robbed and one fine day her life changed suddenly. She had to return to Calcutta, her brothers and sisters tried their best to avoid her as they would have to offer food and shelter, she lived with us for a few months but we were a family of women and it was stressful for my mother to manage two elderly people. She moved to an old home and finally the step son who she had ill treated and shooed out of her domain offered shelter. Her health failed, she lost her spirit, she kept visiting us, she asked if we were all well and still she never forgot to get the snacks.

I got married; I had a baby while she became bedridden with old age. My Mother visited her sometimes and told me about how she was ill treated and neglected. My Great Aunt wanted to see my son and my Mother kept reminding me that I must go and show her my son. The line "Chele ke khub dekhte ichche kore" (I want to see your little boy) still haunts me for I never did make it, she died before I could visit her.

To this day I regret that I could not find time to go and visit someone who had left her everyday priorities and daily chores and come and looked after me when I needed her.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Stars Under my Feet


One must be quite used to seeing stars in the night sky, seeing stars when knocked out or seeing stars throwing starry tantrums and flashing plastic smiles. I kind of got used having stars under my feet while in Hollywood. Every time I walked down Hollywood Boulevard I read the names of the stars that fell under my feet (ha!). It seemed kind of sad to walk all over them so I walked around them as far as possible.

I was greeted by Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball the moment I stepped out of my apartment. I still remember the good old Door Darshan (the only channel on Indian television about 15 years back) days when they showed 'I Love Lucy' and hearing 'Strangers in the Night' on AIR (All India Radio) and dreaming about some mysterious man who would come and sweep me off my feet (never turned up though!). I walked on some more and met Cary Grant who I fell in love with after watching 'The Rear Window' and I reverently stood and mooned a bit in front of his star.

When I had time to look up, I saw shops; there were plenty of shops selling everything from cannabis free cigarettes, incense and oils, tattoos to risqué lingerie. The first kilometer or so I was convinced that this is not such a good part of town but it gets better as one walks towards La Brea. Most shops seemed to be closed our out of business with shutters down. The shutters were painted with pictures of Mickey Rooney and Humphrey Bogart etc so it was good looking at the shutters too - I truly felt I was in tinsel town with stars twinkling everywhere.

I stood in front of Humphrey Bogart and bemoaned the state of love and romance as it is today. 'Casablanca' is perhaps the most perfect and poignant romantic movie I have ever seen, perhaps that’s why movies are made, to let us dream and live in a perfect world momentarily and forget the harsh realities of life. Which probably explains why I have seen 'Casablanca' five times and 'Sleepless in Seattle' 3 times and 'Come September' about nine times. *Sigh* I passed by Rock Hudson and rued the loss to womankind in general and wondered why men always have the best of everything - including the best looking men
.


While walking I got hungry and stopped for snacks at Popeye’s for some chicken wings and then at Greco's Deli Pizza for a pizza by slice which was good but not exceptional. I walked by some old buildings which were probably booming cinemas a few years back, I walked by Disney Cinemas which seemed to be very popular and then past 'Ripley's Believe it or Not' which had a tap in mid air with no support with water gushing out of it, however I didn't venture in. This area seemed to be a more happening part of town, full of tourists from all over the world who constantly kept stopping in their tracks to take pictures of the stars. When one is trying to walk fast this is the last place one should try it.


I crossed the street to the other side of Hollywood Boulevard and walked past some studios, and then Mann's Chinese Theater which is a pagoda like structure. There were some characters performing on the street, probably related to the movies playing in the cinemas. A ferocious looking samurai with a sword suddenly broke into a smile and greeted me with a 'Namaste' which left me beaming. Right in front of Mann's Theater there were foot and hand prints along with printed good wishes in concrete from many stars to the founder of the theater. I put my hands in Gregory Peck's hands and remembered some of the spellbinding moments I had spent with him on the silver screen. A little ahead there was the Kodak Theater, where some of the most prestigious award ceremonies are held including Oscars, the most recent one being the American Idol event. The theater complex is full of shops and cafes and generally a good place to hang out if one has nothing much to do. I entered and walked up to the entrance which was barricaded and I saw some very elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen hurriedly entering the door and a thousand flashbulbs going off the moment they did. Maybe I saw some stars for real as well but I would not really know who I saw!


I walked on and gave in to the temptations of sizzling hotdogs being sold on the pavements and watching all kinds of performers doing all kinds of things to convince the tourists to part with some of their money. I stopped at Starbucks (again appropriately named!) and had some frappuccino and walked on towards Hollywood/Vine. The walk was uneventful till I bumped into this very good looking man who offered me a free personality test. I fell straight for a handsome face and right into the trap of Scientology. After answering all 200 questions I was given my assessment, I was told that I was downright stubborn (okay - I agree), kept a LOT within myself (I agree somewhat) and I am a poor communicator (I STRONGLY disagree). The counselor told me that I probably had something to hide and though I communicated on the outside, the most important things were locked away within which was probably affecting my closest relationships. Ah..ummm....well.... god knows really but definitely worth thinking about a bit but I was kind of busier looking at the eye candy in front of me. Little did I know that all this was to hard sell courses targeted at my weak areas which I must do to have a more fulfilling life. Of course the course costs less than a pair of sunglasses - only $150. I kind of managed to slip away saying that I was just a poor software developer with a very meager allowance - I could barely afford to eat, forget about sunglasses (or courses). I still had to buy a book called 'Dianetics' and had to listen to Tom Cruise speaking about the wonders of Scientology.


After the Scientology adventure I ventured into a general store for some bread/food and the proprietor turned out to be a Bangladeshi gentleman who had migrated to the US 6 years back. It was nice speaking in Bengali after a while. While we were talking someone asked "What kind of language is that?" and we promptly chorused in unison "Bengali - the sweetest language and only parallel to French". The person said "At least it’s better than hearing Spanish all the time!" and walked off. The proprietor offered me a Hagen Daas ice cream and refused to accept payment for it. I was very touched.


My last stop on Hollywood Boulevard was the Pantages Theater where I had the privilege to watch 'Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' - a musical by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The hall was magnificent, the musical was even better - it was a biblical story about a boy named Joseph who dreamed big and made things happen. This was just the inspiration I needed to become an author, sell my movie rights and buy that dream house in Beverly Hills!

Monday, July 17, 2006

San Francisco – A Precious Experience



My tryst with San Francisco started with a Southwest Airlines flight which deposited me to the Oakland airport. From there I was advised to take AirBART to the Coliseum station and then take the BART to SF. The ticket vending machines looked very complicated and left me quite at sea. I decided to be shameless and dumb and asked the person behind me to assist me with the ticket, she pressed a few buttons and the machine greedily sucked in a 10 dollar note as that is the only denomination I had. Since machines are not intelligent enough to understand my thoughts, it d didn’t give me back the change. I headed up to the platform and boarded BART, which was comfortable, spacious and very fast and it dipped under the bay and zipped across and then I was in SF in just 20 minutes.

I emerged at Market Square and there were these tram lines right in front which reminded me of Calcutta. I had no idea how to get a taxi, I asked a person and she said “Oh just show your hand – they’ll stop” so I hailed a cab and clambered in and showed the address of the hotel and asked him to take me there. The cab driver was speaking in a language vaguely familiar but I could not quite decipher what it might be. Then he asked me where I was from and I promptly said Bombay, India. The cab driver immediately started speaking to me in Hindi and played some Hindi film music so that I felt at home. He was from Afghanistan but his family had settled in Peshawar, Pakistan. We had an animated discussion about the Khans of the Hindi film industry, he knowledgably said Hrithik Roshan was doing well too. In the midst of all this conversation, he took me to the wrong hotel, looked at the address again and drove all the way back – the meter had climbed to $25 but he said you give me only $10, the actual fare was probably $5 but I did not really mind as I had a nice conversation.

I checked into a place called America’s Best Inn and met a very sweet Indian boy at the reception. I was later told that almost all lodges and inns across west coast were owned by Indians, specifically Patels. I checked into the room which was tiny but had all that I needed for 2 nights. It smelled rather musty so I had to open the window to air the room. I had carried along my laptop and the super fast wireless internet made sure that I didn’t feel too lonely.
The next morning I was up early and went to the reception and gorged on bagels and doughnuts which were complimentary, the absence of dinner the night before had made me ravenous. A girl called Arju was at the reception, she was originally from Ahmedabad and was studying medicine and worked part time on weekends at the inn. She helped me to select a tour, I settled for the Grayline tour around the city and a bay cruise.
A charming trolley came to pick me up, they had bells for horns and it was made of wood and brass. The trolley took me to Fisherman’s Wharf from where the bus was to depart. The bus took us all around San Francisco starting with the Mission, Twin Peaks, the Crooked Street, Nobb Hill, Marina, the financial district, Washington Square, China Town, Town Hall, China Beach, over the Golden Gate Bridge, botanical gardens and back to Fisherman’s Wharf. The tour commentary could have been better but it covered the basics in a somewhat lack luster way so I did not tip the driver.

Hunger pangs could not be avoided further so I headed straight for the famous clam chowder in a sour dough bowl. The clam chowder was this creamy sauce like gravy with clams (without the shells) and what seemed to be potatoes; I could not make out the rest. The bread was sour and is somewhat an acquired taste but went well with the clam chowder. The crabs were huge and one could order a live crab and they would immediately dunk it in boiling hot oil or water (what a way to die) and serve it up with a dressing or sauce of your choice. I could not quite stomach the thought of eating crabs but I did have fried calamari (squids) and prawns with hot sauce. The sea food was amazingly fresh and tasty and I have never had anything like it before.

After appeasing my tummy, I went for the bay cruise and bumped into some rather bad ambassadors of my country. My fellow countrymen were a bunch of travelers with the SOTC guided tours whose queue etiquette and manners left a lot to be desired. The bay cruise audio was excellent and gave a very detailed background of the city. We sailed past Alcatraz, Sausalito, Under the Golden Gate, past the one time detention center for the Chinese immigrants, the other magnificent bridge – the Bay Bridge which is a double storied bridge, the panoramic view of the San Francisco City and so on.
San Francisco came into being with the gold rush but was ravaged by major earthquakes but was rebuilt quickly. The Panama Canal celebrations were held in San Francisco to prove that the city had recovered and was back on its feet. Some celebrities have chosen San Francisco over Los Angeles as their home; some names I can remember are Robin Williams and Danielle Steele. The transport department of San Francisco had to devise a very unique form of transportation due to the undulating roads; the buses are attached to overhead tram wires which aid them to negotiate the steep inclines.
Walking around Fisherman’s Wharf was a wonderful experience; I let my chocolaty desires run wild in Ghirardelli Square and indulged in buying a basket load of chocolates of all kinds. There were eateries everywhere serving every variation of sea food imaginable and one of the restaurants had a live band playing some great music, I was walking down at a leisurely pace when one man leaped towards me, he was hiding behind some bushes and was ‘scaring’ most of the passers by and everybody around had a good laugh – so did I. I walked on and a psychic tarot reader convinced me to part with $10 for a palm reading. Whatever she told me then helped me to get through some difficult days so I guess it was money well spent.
Pier 39 was another tourist attraction with the sea lions putting up a performance for whoever cared to watch. The Boudin Bakery “where it all started” – I guess they are referring to the sour dough invention was quite a popular spot. The bakers put up a show for all the curious bystanders by flipping dough up in the air and rotating it and then layering it with jalapeno peppers and cheese and rolled it up and thrust it into the oven. My wicked tummy urged me to buy it but it was merely a greedy reaction to visual stimuli so I managed to ignore it. I could have spent hours in the area just absorbing the energy of the place but I had to trudge back to the hotel and my legs were not capable of taking me around any longer so with one last wistful glance at a ship in the bay I headed back to the hotel.

The next day was reserved for China Town and surrounding areas, Arju, the girl at the reception was very sweet and lent me her monthly bus pass so I could go anywhere I pleased. She gave me the numbers of the buses which went to China Town and I set out for my oriental experience. The North Beach festival was going on and the area surrounding Washington Square was very festive and there were stalls selling all kinds of Italian things. I entered a church in the vicinity; I later learnt that Joe DiMaggio and Marylyn Monroe were married in this church. There was a special service in progress in Italian in honor of a visiting dignitary from the Vatican. I sat through the service for a while and tried and failed to understand what was said in Italian. The choir music was beautiful and the atmosphere was peace filled though the attendance was rather poor at the Sunday service.

I walked along Grant Street (humming ‘If you come to San Francisco – you must wear some flowers in your hair’) which is one of the major street s of China Town, it was intriguing to see all people speaking in Chinese, the grocery shops selling all kinds of Chinese vegetables and groceries and some small shop keepers could barely speak English. I brought some candied ginger, some bamboo mats, ate a moon cake and a melon cake from a Chinese bakery and headed to the dim sum shop to indulge in every kind of dim sum available and ended my meal with a dumpling (combination of pork and shrimps) broth and I was ready to burst. I don’t think I will ever be able to have another dim sum without remembering that bursting feeling.

Soon it was time to head back to the hotel, I sat and caught my breath at the reception and as I was waiting for my taxi to arrive, I saw rather entertaining scenes when guests checked in. One person’s wife threw a tantrum and wanted to move out after an hour of checking in because of a smelly room, another couple was going around USA and celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and stressed upon the need to have a king size bed to befit the occasion, a British couple who were on their annual holiday and needed advise on their next holiday. I obliged and told them about Palace on Wheels in Rajasthan which was sure to thrill them but the gentleman was more interested in covering India on Indian Railways like an average Indian, he said he loved the country last time he went there. A Dutch couple checked in who were jokingly threatened by the golden anniversary couple not to make any kind of noise next door as they intend to make all the noise. Amidst all this colorful conversation Arju prettily blushed and once the guests had left she rolled her eyes and rued about the kind of people she has to deal with everyday but agreed that it was a lot of fun as well.

Finally it was time to say goodbye, Arju and I exchanged email IDs and promised to keep in touch, San Francisco was indeed a very precious experience that I will treasure for a long time to come.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Beverly Hills

Last Saturday I went back to Rodeo Drive, the place which was kind of etched in my memory from a few years back during my last visit to LA and Beverly Hills. It reeks of exclusivity and its evident to one and all who pass through, the tree lined avenues, the perfectly manicured gardens, the beautiful houses, the opulent hotels and the world's most expensive shopping street, Rodeo Drive is quite something.

Last time I came here on a Sunday so there weren't much people around but all of a sudden a gentleman dressed in a red coat stepped out of somewhere and started speaking to me in fluent Hindi, he greeted me, asked where I was from and hoped that I would enjoy my day in Beverly Hills. I was more than astonished and very much pleased to hear my language in a country far away from India. That memory has always remained with me and it is what that took me back to the place.

On reaching, I find the very familiar, portlier and older "Mr Beverly Hills" in his element on a Saturday when the place was thronging with tourists. He never let a person pass by without asking where the person came from and promptly spoke a few words in his or her language, the reaction was always one of amazement and then happiness. He gave me his usual line, 'Aap bahut sundar hain" and then added that he said the same to Ash (Aishwarya Rai) and Shabana Azmi who had come there to shop. He also put his arm around Ash and took a picture (which is usually frowned upon by Indians but she let him put the arm around), which sent me into a fit of giggles. I said that I was pleased to see him again, he promptly fished out a few brochures to show that he was the mascot of Beverly Hills and on every possible travel brochure which mentioned it.

Right across Rodeo Drive is a well known hotel, also the hotel which was featured in the movie "Pretty Woman", a group of Japs were standing there and gazing at the entrance. Mr Beverly Hills said in a loud voice "You know why those guys are standing there? They are suffering from the Pretty Woman Syndrome"! Another round of giggles from everybody and then suddenly he announced "You see this lady out here? She has come all the way from India to take a picture with me", he snatched the camera from my hands and handed it over to someone who obediently clicked. He sure knows how to get visibility!

After a highly entertaining time, I walked down the street and did some serious window shopping, all the world's fanciest shops, shops where one could shop with prior appointments only, the worlds most expensive men's clothes store (Bijan's) where only royalty, the rich and the heads of states all across the globe shop, Valentino, Chanel, Prada, van Cleef & Arpels, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Guess ... You name it, every possible upmarket store had a presence.

Finally I took this Beverly Hills Trolley Tour which was a very charming ride around the small city, the houses of the celebrities (actors), the witches house from Hansel & Gretel, the Beverly Hills Hotel which is owned by Sultan of Brunei, who forgot for a while that he owned it, the big mansions of the businessmen, the grand limos, the Ferraris and the associations of the streets with a particular movie. Beverly Hills had showbiz, glamour and affluence stamped all over it but thankfully lets us in to see it as well!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Night @ the Call Center

No this is not a book review, but a personal experience, that too in a call center in the USA rather than in India. I spent some time at the call center to understand the business process better and in the process got an insight into the much more than business processes.

I was greeted by Yvonne, who was a very amiable and friendly lady, 62 years old, a hot shot COBOL programmer who worked in Bank of America in her hey days and could debug code by just looking at a dump. She was made redundant because technologies changed and jobs were outsourced, however to keep the home fires burning or may be just to occupy her time rather than just being forgotten, she chose this job of working nights as a supervisor at this call center. She showed me around, introduced me to people I should spend time with and offered me some soda and pretzels.

Next I sat with Nicole, who was an Australian who had shifted to USA fifteen years back. Initially for years she worked both shifts probably to make ends meet but now she works just nights and has been with the organization for a good 10 years. She showed me the screens of the application she used to enter data, how data got validated, posted etc. In the midst of all this we talked about Cricket, since she was Australian. I updated her about how well Australia was doing in Cricket. She and I agreed that Cricket was kind of boring if one did not understand the finer aspects of the game, she told me that she loved playing a girl’s version of cricket when she was at school which was far more energetic, fast and exciting as compared traditional men’s cricket. She also asked me that when the new IT systems were going online, she knew the new IT system would automate much of the work she did and it was to assess how much time she had.

My next session was with Ken, he has been working the graveyard shift for the last 10 years, but one does not really get used to such times, he said. He sleeps from 6 PM to 2 AM, when it’s dark outside and reports to work at 2:30 AM and works till 11 AM and has Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, when he catches up with friends etc. He has a very key role of collating and distributing the information before 5 AM every morning. Ken has two people assisting him, who are students and work nights to earn some extra bucks. He runs reports one by one, does a quick proof reading and sends it off to its location, some need to be formatted and emailed, some need to be hand faxed, some need to be printed and couriered while some are sent electronically by the existing system. He has trained several business analysts who came to him to understand the reporting and distribution section. The new system will have SQL Server Reporting Services which will have the intelligence built into it which will take away the human element from collation and distribution. With the new system in place, the customers will not hear Ken’s friendly voice telling them the top 10 figures, all they’ll see is a web page which is updated every 10 seconds.

I came away awed and humbled, awed because of the warmth and co-operation extended towards me despite being an ambassador of the IT solution which would do away with them and the stoic acceptance that they will eventually loose their jobs because the company wants to save on manpower costs by paying millions of dollars to consulting companies. Humbled because no matter how great technology is, people are special and important and you can’t have technology work without their contribution.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Life's a Beach

Here are some pictures of Santa Monica beach on Memorial Day. It seemed that all of California was out on those beautiful beaches and it almost came close to Juhu on a Sunday in Mumbai.
Interestingly, I have always loved this song by Sheryl Crow called ‘All I want to do is have some fun’, that is precisely what I did this weekend, but the only difference from Sheryl’s song was that I had fun till the sun set on Santa Monica Boulevard!
Memorial Day
A tribute to all soldiers, army, navy, marines, coast guards and air force. There was another pillar on the side dedicated to all soldiers who dies in various military operations in the line of duty since 1999. A pretty picture indeed.
The Pier
Everybody is out to have a great time. Somewhat like a walk down to Haji Ali in Mumbai, musicians playing the guitar or flute, people standing up on benches and trying to entertain the passers by to make some money, the serpentine queues for all the restaurants on the pier, the ancient carousel (set up by the Coney Island creator) which has been in existence since the birth of the pier in 1924, the numerous pretzel and hot dog stands by the side…
The Sailboats and Surfers
The oh so blue sea with pretty white sailboats drifting about happily aided by strong gusty winds. The surfers trying to ride waves which did not seem to be as high as I saw in Baywatch and my men readers would be disappointed to learn that the ladies and the men are mostly overweight and way beyond Baywatch expectations! There were some visual treats but very rare!
The Shade
The tall palm trees and beautiful green grass and the inviting shade made me fulfill one of my simple ambitions of sitting under a tree and reading a book, a hammock would have been perfect but one doesn't get everything. Some of the homeless wanderers had spread out their sleeping bags and rested in the shade, a physically challenged person had placed his 2 legs aside and dozed off, a pretty girl sat under a tree rubbing sun tan lotion, readying herself for the beach while the cool breeze blew gently.

The Sun and the Sand

A walk on the beach and the lovely warm feeling of sand between my toes made me realize a few things, the castles we build are temporary, the footprints we leave on the sand are temporary, the next big wave is but a reality, which will wipe it all clean and leave us with fresh smooth surfaces to build upon again. Walking on sand is also about rebalancing and finding steadiness in a constantly changing ground, I envy the light footed creatures of the beach who move with such speed and ease as compared to my apparently laborious movements.

The Californians do know how to enjoy every moment in between the waves.