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.