Monday, October 26, 2009

Village Trips

Once in a blue moon the job throws up something that leads to interesting experiences. Something similar happened the previous week. Almost three months into the new posting I was pretty settled with the routine in the office. I would wake up, get on with my routine of reading and writing until ten in the morning after which I would take the few steps to cross the road to the office. At the office I would sit most of the time doing almost nothing. After nearly nine years of sitting cooped up in an office I thought the new posting would take me to the fields. I happen to be posted to a training institution where I was supposed to train others, farmers mostly. However I was doing nothing of the sort and instead I got trained twice. In short, I was comfortably ensconced in my little routine until last week. I was told, no ordered, to stand in for an officer in a distant place. Not surprisingly I was reluctant to go. But I had no choice.

Not only was the place very far away, the other thing was that I had to travel to three villages daily for five days. I wasn’t given any vehicle or support and not even told what I was supposed to do. I only knew that I have to have meetings with farmers in fifteen villages. A couple of days ago I had addressed nearly hundred farmers in three villages but there I had others to support me. Here in the new assignment I was to do a solo job of it. It seemed a daunting task in every way. I decided to travel to the place from Hyderabad which was nearer. I took my bike to a roadside town on the state highway, from where I traveled to this place I will call MG. From MG I planned to visit three villages every day for five days. I had only one lady assistant, a newly recruited person to assist me.

On the first day I traveled on my bike for seventy five kilometers to MG and from there deep into the rural hinterland. It turned out to be very unlike the other village. To begin with the entire area was hilly, with winding roads, fields on either side. The hillocks were green with trees, the paddy, cotton, jowar fields were green. It was greenery everywhere. In the mild sunlight of wintry late afternoons the grassy landscape looked quite beautiful. It was another time when I wished I had a camera better than the one I carried. Nevertheless I clicked the accompanying pictures. In a couple of villages I was told one could find deer in the wilderness. There were also herds of wild boar that destroyed the crops. I once saw a peacock on a hillock.

So it went. Every morning I would travel in a bus upto the roadside town where I parked my bike. I would go on the bike to MG from where I would go to the villages. The meetings were a challenge. The farmers are not so na├»ve as everyone thinks they are. One slip and you’re exposed so one has to be very careful about what one talks. I was able to conduct meetings without any trouble. It wasn’t even boring because one village was not like the other. I learnt new things and an interesting episode I plan to write for ‘Open Page’ in The Hindu soon. I would have lunch in a farmer’s house in the bigger villages or else I would return to MG for lunch. So for five days I was touring villages, meeting farmers, talking to them and learning new things myself. It was tiring no doubt but it also was a rewarding experience in the end.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Sunday Haul

Though the saying ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ doesn’t apply when it comes to books, I always regret not buying books that I come across at Abids on Sundays. The feeling of regret lasts a week until I pick it up the next Sunday and if I don’t find it then the feeling lasts forever. This Sunday at Abids however, I picked up a nice movie magazine that I had not earlier come across but it isn’t doing anything to stem the feeling of remorse of not having bought the book I had seen. The book I missed picking up was Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lectures on Literature.’ I did not buy the book because it was in too bad a condition with water stains on all pages and a bent shape. I did not feel it was worth it but now I wish I had because it was really a treasure. The only thing I can do is hope it will be still on the pavements until next Sunday. But I will be away at work on Sunday so I have to make some arrangements for someone to buy it on my behalf that is if they can manage to find it.

Even as I was planning to watch Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Inglourious Basterds’ some day soon I stumbled across a film magazine that had a lot of stuff on the movie. ‘Empire’ magazine was yet another new find for me at Abids. It was the August 2009 issue, a fairly recent one that I got for only twenty bucks. The issue is some kind of a special issue listing out 1001 Greatest Movie Moments. It would take me decades to go through all those moments because I am not such a big movie fan. One can imagine how keen a movie buff I am if I let it be known that I watched ‘Pulp Fiction’ just a few months ago. Not that I don’t like movies but I find the whole process of getting to the movie theatre, standing in line for the tickets and watching the movie, a boring thing. Hence, it is only once or twice a year that I go to the movies. Anyway, now that I have a list of the good movies I might watch more of them in the future.

It seems there’s actually a movie titled ‘The Inglorious Bastards’ made in 1978 and is the inspiration for Tarantino. He even had the director of the original Italian movie, Enzo Castellari, in a cameo in the movie. This and a million other bits about other movies made and in the making fill Empire magazine. I might never find another issue again at Abids. This was a ‘one in a billion’ find! But there’s enough in it about TIB to make me go and watch it right away and again and again.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Sunday Haul

Maybe it is a measure of my luck that I found the brochure of Mont Blanc's special edition 'Mahatma Gandhi' pen before the pen itself. Controversies apart, the pen is quite a smasher going by the looks and the exquisite craftsmanship that went into it as can be judged from the picture above. (pics courtesy: Uma Shankar Sastry) A picture is worth a thousand words so I won't waste any trying to describe how the fountain pen looks.

The other haul on Sunday was Amy Tan's 'The Hundred Secret Senses' that I got for fifty rupees. It was the first copy I saw though I had seen umpteen copies of her other book 'The Kitchen God's Wife' at Abids. I might read it sometime next year only.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morning Calm

There’s something about watching the sun rise over a vast lake in utter silence in one’s own company that puts one in a meditative mood. Sunday I was at the Necklace Road at half past five in the morning when the day was just beginning. Looking at the cloud filled sky over the lake I thought I had made a mistake in coming. It looked like I wouldn’t be able to watch the sun rise. But I was lucky as a minor miracle happened. The sun peeped out of a gap between the dark clouds long enough for me to take a picture. After half a minute it was gone but it put me in a good mood. I spent the next hour soaking in the silence and recharging myself. I had missed doing this monthly ritual in the previous month because of the weather so I really enjoyed the routine.

Coming out to begin the next stage of the routine I saw a group of men jogging on the road with two men on a bike egging them on. From the looks of them they looked like cops. They talked in that easy manner that comes from a familiarity that can only develop when people do something together. After they passed a group of cyclists wearing helmets appeared. This must be the group I had read about somewhere.

Watching the sunrise after a gap of nearly two months put me in such a good mood that I did not mind what happened next when I reached Adarsh with the Sunday papers. There was place at only one table in a corner. Sitting at the table was my friend, the smoker who had irritated me on earlier Sundays. He appeared to come every day to the hotel to enjoy a smoke while sipping the Irani tea. I always found him at the hotel on the Sundays I came. But this Sunday I did not mind it much and let him smoke while I lost myself in the Sunday papers. I saw an ad for the iPod Nano and wondered when I would be able to own one. I've been going too long without music. However it was a good beginning to the Sunday. The finds at the Abids book bazaar were proof of that. Next post would be the Sunday Haul.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Sunday Haul- Irving Wallace and Bill Bryson

Sooner or later I know I am going to find all the books on my list. But the search isn’t going to end since the list continues to grow even as I tick off titles in it. The more titles I find from the list, the more it gets added to. Last Sunday I found another book that’s been on the list for quite a long time. I don’t exactly remember when I added Irving Wallace’s ‘The Sunday Gentleman’ to the list but now the title’s been added to my shelf of books on writing.

Books by Arthur Hailey, Harold Robbins, Irving Wallace and others formed the popular reading in the eighties. I guess most of those who read English fiction in those days would have read their books sometime or the other. I was no exception. However the books written by them could be read only once and then discarded. Of all the books by Irving Wallace I was fascinated by one book and that was ‘The Prize’ which was a novel woven around the Nobel Prize. It wasn’t until recently that I found his ‘The Writing of One Novel’ which was all about how he came to write ‘The Prize.’ ‘The Writing of One Novel’ is one book of Irving Wallace that I read again and again at least once a year. It is a fascinating book every aspiring novelist perhaps should read at least once.

Before he started to write books full time, Irving Wallace was a magazine writer researching and writing articles for prestigious magazines like Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review, Esquire etc. Somewhere I had read about his non-fiction book called ‘The Sunday Gentleman’ in which he had written about his magazine writing life. I wanted to get hold of it and was on the look out for it since ages. At last I found it though it wasn’t a very good copy I got because the cover wasn’t good and part of the pages were wet. I picked it up nevertheless and I am glad I did it. I have read the first article in it which is all about his magazine writing career. Needless to say it is very engrossing as are the other pieces in it. I have read the one about the ‘Orient Express’ and another piece about a writer (Gilbert Patten) who created an unforgettable character called ‘Frank Merriwell.’ The amount of research he does is truly astonishing. There’s a piece in the book on the Rolls- Royce titled ‘Millionaire’s Chariot’ which I am looking forward to read soon.

For a long time I couldn’t decide who was funnier- Dave Barry or Bill Bryson? But now it is decided Dave Barry is my favorite, and Bill Bryson comes a close second. I will write about the reasons in a later post but for the time being let me put it on record that Bill Bryson is equally funny. In fact I read Bill Bryson before I stumbled on books of Dave Barry. Anyway, I have almost all of Bryson’s books except the recent ones-‘Mother Tongue,’ ‘Thunder Bolt Kid’ and ‘Shakespeare.’ It was the last title I found at Abids on Sunday. It was a brand new book which I got for only eighty rupees. It was a lucky find at a time when not many sellers are to be seen at Abids because of the Diwali shopping season.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Old City Chai

It’s Different in the Old City

When someone who’s taught you thirty years ago tells you to do something you cannot but obey him. A kind and indulgent teacher who shares my name told me during one of our regular chats that the Irani chai in Old City is very different from the stuff I drink in places like Bahar and Paradise. When he told me he’d take me to an Irani joint for a cup I fell for the hook. I had always wanted to try out the chai in the Old City and I got the chance on Sunday last. I happened to be in Charminar visiting relatives and I called up my teacher who is now a Professor. When someone who is a Professor doesn’t mind sitting pillion on your bike and sharing a cup chai with you one can imagine how the teacher-student bond was.

He took me to Hotel Nimrah right near the historic Charminar teeming with gawking tourists, pushcart vendors, autorickshaws and just about everything you can find near tourist spots. The hotel was crowded with all tables full so we had to stand and sip the delicious chai. My post lunch sluggishness vanished the moment I took the first sip and by the time I finished the last sip of the golden liquid my mind was clear and alert. Short of increasing my intelligence the Irani chai did everything else. It was truly very different from the Irani chai that I have at my usual joints. But it isn’t everyday that I come to the Old City. However I plan to make it a regular ritual from now on. I might come on some Sundays to check out the flea market and finish off with a cup of chai at either Nimrah or Faraasha that is right beside it.

A Victim of Floods

The matter of two thousand cusecs of water in the Hussain Sagar is making headlines in some city newspapers while elsewhere people are talking of lakhs of cusecs. One can imagine the sort of breathless hype these papers want to build as if two thousand cusecs of water is going wash away the city. The rains have brought to the fore the depthless potholes of Hyderabad again. Every newspaper worth its name is writing in detail about how bad the roads in the city have become. One has to wait and see when the promised repairs to the roads are made. Of course, one more rain and even the new roads will be washed away.

It is truly unimaginable how people in the flood affected parts of the state are suffering. It is hard to imagine people spending more than four days on hilltops, rooftops and other places without food with flood waters swirling around them on all sides. Everyone has been caught unawares with the sudden rains and the heavy flooding. It seems such type of floods have never been witnessed in the state. Everywhere you see there’s water and more water. Only a few weeks ago the talk was of drought and now you have more water everywhere than you can imagine in your life.

I had not really expected the floods to affect my life, but it happened. I was supposed to leave for Bangalore on Saturday evening but with all road links snapped I couldn’t make it. I had been making elaborate plans to spend a week in Bangalore on office work. I listed out all the people I would call on and talk with. I wanted to check out the second hand book places in Bangalore and also pick up a few titles. Bangalore is one of my favorite cities and I was eager to go over there. But the floods, as it were, poured water on my plans. I had to remain at home. It was a terrible disappointment. But life’s like that and one saying comes to mind- It is something to the effect that ‘life is what happens when you are busy making plans.’

Friday, October 02, 2009

Shadow Driving

It is far more interesting driving a bus then being a passenger inside one. I realized this the other day when I had an opportunity to be behind the steering wheel of a passenger bus. It was a memorable experience, a childhood dream almost come true, and also a revelation about how the road transport corporation plays with the lives of its passengers, and a lot more. The experience would not have been possible had I not taken a snap decision.

When the bus driver told me there were not seats in the bus except in his cabin, I agreed to it. There was no choice as all the buses were full and it had been a long and tiring wait for me. I had been traveling almost all week on work and wanted to get back home for the holiday. I wanted to be home in time for dinner so I got threw in my bags and climbed into the cabin. I sat on a long seat which was actually a bed for the second driver because it was a long distance bus. However the other driver was somewhere inside. I was not exactly driving the bus but sat behind the driver’s seat within reach of the steering wheel, the gear stick and if I stretched my legs, the brakes and the accelerator too would have been accessible. So it felt as good as driving the bus and appeared to be a lot of fun but it was otherwise.

I had thought there was nothing like traveling in a SUV but I discovered that it was nothing compared to traveling in a big bus sitting right behind the driver. The driver was one of those lean, wiry guys who are cool and unflappable in any situations. He was cool alright but he was also the sort who gives others on the roads moments they will remember all their lives. I watched him overtake enormous trucks at impossible moments with other vehicles approaching on the opposite side. He would keep overtaking while looking in the rearview mirror on the left to see if we had passed until the drivers of the oncoming vehicles pressed the horns in panic or slowed down completely. At the last moment just when it appeared like a collision was inevitable, he would give the steering a turn and veer the bus away. It was quite hair-raising for me to watch and I wondered how the people in the vehicles we just passed must have felt. After some time it began to feel like fun and I was actually looking forward when we would have trucks to overtake.

After a while it fell dark and the only time the driver opened his mouth was when out of the darkness loomed the rear of a ‘Volvo’ bus. It did not have any lights at the back and were it not for some last minute braking we would have certainly rammed into it. I wondered how the driver of the ‘Volvo’ was driving without brake lights and endangering the lives of the people inside. A little later when it started to rain heavily I discovered something similar in our own bus. I had wondered why the driver was not switching on the windshield though it appeared like we were peering through a waterfall. The lights of the oncoming vehicles blinded us, the lights getting magnified because of the cascading water and the falling raindrops on the windshield. I asked the driver, in fact whispered into his ears because his head was just inches away. Very coolly, he told me the windshield wiper was not working since ages!

For the next two hours I sat tensely on the edge of the seat. I watched the driver take the bus without a windshield at high speed in heavy rain on a national highway with hundreds of large vehicles moving in either direction. I marveled at the driver’s skill, or should I call it guts, in driving the bus in that condition. Now every time he overtook a vehicle I closed my eyes unable to take the tension. Cars and two wheelers simply careened off the road to get out of our way as we approached, horn blaring loudly. Only when the bus reached the four-lane stretch with a divider did I start breathing easily because there was no danger of colliding head-on with anything.

Just when I began to relax, he took out his cell phone to answer the calls he was getting. He got four calls in a span of one hour. It hadn’t stopped raining and in fact it grew heavier when the bus finally entered the city. However it did not deter the driver from talking on the cell phone. I also noticed that the instrument panel too had no lights. Now and then he rose from his seat, with the bus in high speed, to wipe the condensation on the inside of the windshield. This too made me very nervous. I wondered if I had taken the right decision to get into this bus.

But I forgave the driver all his faults for just one reason. When we heard the sirens of an ambulance, he blew the horn loudly scattering the vehicles ahead of us and careened to the left giving a wide berth to the speeding ambulance. Though he did not have any concern for those not yet dead in his bus at least he thought of those in an ambulance. By that one act the bus driver earned my appreciation though I did not tell him.