Movie Review - Kabul Express

When Kabir Khan set out to make a movie on the traumatic conditions of the Afghani people post 9 – 11, he was being ambitious. Somewhere down the line, he must have realised it too. So instead of trying to make a great movie and fail, he sticks to making a regular light-hearted movie and does all right. Occasionally you do see glimpses of things that must have had an impact on Kabir Khan– maimed children, Pepsi cans in a country where clearly basic sanitation must be in question, Burkha clad women begging in street corners. However, he skims over them and sticks resolutely to cracking jokes on Pepsi being sweeter than Coke.

Jai (Arshad Warsi) and Sohail (John Abraham) are two Indian journalists in search of a career defining Taliban story. They are inadvertently taken hostage by a Pakistani colonel who was fighting in the Taliban. The Pakistani colonel uses them as protection as he makes his way to the Pakistani border in a country where people are only too glad to kill Talibs. An American journalist and an Afghani driver accompany the trio.

I presume the character of Sohail was meant to be a somewhat Clint Eastwood type – a bit broody, strong and introverted. Unfortunately, thanks to combination of bad characterization and John Abraham’s utterly incompetent acting, the character comes out as feather headed and gormless. Jai, as the provider of comic relief, comes out much better.

Khan does manage to bring in just a tiny bit of emotions towards the end by which time you have lowered your expectations from the movie considerably and have settled to watch what is on offer. Still, all you can largely think as you leave is what a wasted chance it was.


Hyderabad Blues

(Taking a break from my Konkan stories to write about my last weekend in Hyd)

My most overwhelming memory of my Hyderabad trip, unfortunately, will be of looking and feeling like a dog with fleas. The dry skin caught me by complete surprise. Being a coastal person, I had no idea that the Deccan plateau could be this merciless. Within hours I was shriveling up like an orange and by the end of the day itching quite a bit. On the second day, it was all I could do to stop splashing water constantly on my face to bear the agony of puffed up, red skin marked by rashes. Finally, my godsend friend, managed to give me something to put on my face that improved things considerably.

Having gotten that bit out of the way, I can actually put down what I did during my trip. Hyderabad reminded me of Delhi in some ways. It has excellent examples of Muslim architecture (though the Mughals and the Qutub Shahis were not really related. The Delhi based Mughals were Sunnis and came over from Afghanistan. The Qutub Shahis were Shiites and had a good connection to Persia). One can easily spend a week, if not more, exploring some of the structures, which are still standing. I had two and a half days. Since I had located two old friends who insisted that I stay with them, I also had a great knowledge bank I could draw from, not to mention warm, friendly places to park myself in.

My first visit was to the Golconda fort, constructed on a hill about an hour’s drive from Secundarabad. The structure is fairly elaborate (a marvel given that it was built in the 1500s by the first of the Qutub Shahi rulers), and the fort used to serve as a city at some point in time. There are huge ramparts, quarters for the king, queens, the reception place for the common people and nobles et al. December evenings is perhaps the best time to visit the place. The rockiness of the place can give you a sense of how much sun can be radiated in mid-day April. A fact that was confirmed by my foolhardy friend who, midway through her pregnancy, decided to drag her visiting mother to the fort. When her mother suffered mild sunstroke it finally occurred to her that perhaps the move had not been too smart. Luckily, blessed with better weather, I had a pleasant time scrambling up and down and taking some wonderful pictures. When it began to get dark, we joined the crowd getting ready to watch the sound and light show. The show was a pleasant surprise. I had been half expecting Bollywood music being blasted and the fort being lit up in bright colours. Instead a fairly decent background of the fort’s history was given; complete with period music and little snippets of imagined scenes.

The next morning was a race against time. I quickly registered that Birla Mandir was cool and spacious before rushing to Salarjung Museum. After seeing three rooms I realized two things – (a) Salar Jung III, whose collection it was, had excellent taste and (b) it was impossible to do justice to the place in the time I had. Heavy hearted, I gave up after three rooms and then realized everyone was rushing towards some spot. Curious, I joined the throng and arrived at a central courtyard where a heavily accented voice was announcing ‘please look after your children as we approach this great moment’. The moment in question was the chiming of a nearly 400 year old British clock, still in excellent condition. Families lifted little ones over their heads to see the ‘moment’. Children, old enough to stand, but too young to be interested in the clock, were rapped on their heads to focus. All in all, the tension in the air was palpable. Especially since it was almost 12 noon and this would be the maximum number of chimes any visitor could hear during visiting hours. Suddenly all noise ceased and a tiny little figure came out of the clock, banged his hammer twelve times and disappeared. The tension ebbed and people began swarming out. I took shelter in the Ivory room and looked at the intricate carvings for a while before rushing to Charminar to keep up my appointment with my friend.

When the Golconda Fort had become too small to house the growing population, Mohammed Quli, the reigning Sultan of the period, built the new city of Hyderabad. The Charminar was some sort of a centre point around which the new city was planned. Accordingly, it was an exquisitely pretty and a fairly pointless structure. I took photographs from down below, and then realizing that my friend would take a while to get there, decided to go up.

I joined the long queue and finally handed over my ticket to the guard. He looked at me and asked if I was alone. When I said I was, he shrugged and told me to leave since women were not allowed to go upstairs alone. I was dumbfounded. I asked him to repeat this and he did so, quite casually, unperturbed by the grave crime he was committing of restricting a free and honest citizen’s movements. Then I asked him why this was so and he looked slightly confused and embarrassed that someone could question him on what was obviously a well known reason. After some persistence, he finally replied that women going up to the roof alone have a tendency to commit suicide. Now I was enraged. The feminist in me came out and began to ask the guy for a government order that stopped me. Helpless, he turned to his superior officer – a lady sitting in a chair and staring listlessly at the queue of prospective visitors. She merely brushed me away stating that ‘single women commit suicide’ and her officer had given her orders not to let lone women up there. By now in full form, I asked her for the government order which said so, discovered that there was none and then informed her that I would be forced to file a lawsuit against her and her obviously ignorant, discriminatory, mcp superior officer. With that, I stomped off to climb the stairs. The guard, looking worried and obviously highly fazed by this new situation in his career and new world view, ran behind me. Then pleadingly suggested that I at least write a letter stating that I had no intentions to commit suicide so that he could show his superior officer. Suddenly, I could see the guard’s viewpoint. Acknowledging my rights was obviously not worth the risk of losing his job. So I calmly gave him my visiting card and explained that I was a reasonably well educated person working in a responsible position and I really did not have any particular reason to die. I was also carrying a camera – further proof that my intentions were very honourable and restricted to touristy things like photography. Then giving him the card as some sort of a symbolic deposit, I went on.

After all the effort involved, needless to say, I spent every minute wondering if I would slip and fall down the wretchedly narrow, winding staircase and let down the cause of women around the world. Even upstairs, I took extra care to stay away from the edges. After five minutes I realized that I had no clue what distant structures I was looking at and I left. When I went back to collect my card from the guard, he looked a little surprised and asked me ‘you have come back?’ I do not know if he was really convinced that the only way I was coming back was head down in an onrush. My friend was waiting and I had no time or inclination to ask for explanations. (Later on I found out that Charminar sadly does have a history of teenage kids - boys included - throwing themselves down around exam times and fairly recently some woman had indeed committed suicide)

The afternoon was spent in shopping for Hyderabad’s famous lac bangles in Lad Bazaar and pearls in a street nearby. I was exhausted by the time I went back to my friend’s house and gladly settled in for a home made meal and normal conversation. My friend, V, with whom I was staying had transitioned from a B-School corporate climber to a mom who ran her own business from home. V’s kid definitely seemed to have benefited from the time V had given him. Not to mention, both V and her husband read and traveled quite a bit and did not have cable in their house. Consequently, the little kid was under the impression that it was the accepted way of life and did not have any inkling of other kids his age being glued onto cartoon network.

The next day, we walked by the Hussain Sagar Lake. It was a bit hot and some parts where so obviously full of toxic waste that even Hyderabad Corporation had felt obliged to put up boards admitting that sustained exposure to the place could be dangerous for human beings. There were other parts, which we nicer though – food courts, parks and walkways located right on the banks of the lake. After ambling for a while, we decided to briefly stop at a mall so that I could also get a flavour of the city’s younger crowd.

When it was time to leave for my train, I realized I had done quite a few things but enough of practically nothing. This city definitely mandates a second, more leisurely visit.

p.s. I was carrying a book by Ian Austin called ‘City of Legends – The Story of Hyderabad’. It is a fairly informative book and was thin enough to skim through during the time I had. Not a bad travel companion for this trip.


Konkan Trip 7 : Gokarna part C

PR and I did a little reconnaissance trip and chose a lovely looking shack for dinner. You had to access it by way of a small bridge. Their menu promised yummy food. The seating on the first floor was on low tables lit by candlelight. With such an atmosphere, very little could have spoilt dinner. NA and self engaged in a juvenile competition to figure out who could blow tiny bits of wax the furthest distance on our table. When everything was eaten, and I was proven clear winner of the competition, we started for our hotel.

We had seen autorickshaws on the road to the beach the previous night and were not unduly worried about the transport. Sure enough, when we got to the road, the autos were lined up on either side. Unfortunately there was no sign of a single driver. And just like that, we decided to walk up the seven kms to our resort.

My beach floaters were already coming apart. With some ingenious ideas from SA, they were fixed. PR and SA were not in trekking gear either. NA was the only one comfortable in the footwear department and had atleast recovered from his dehydration attack. After ten minutes, I began to get worried. The road was in excellent shape but there was no one on it now. The only light was from SA’s torch and the moon. I had read a sign board on the dirt track between Kudle and Om beaches cautioning people to be careful about thieves and animals after sunset. I was not sure if both parties had spread their areas of operation to include the road we were on. There was thick vegetation on both sides of the roads and insects buzzing intermittently. When I had worked myself up to a frenzy, I figured out it was time for some distraction. And thus began the question round.

We talked and talked and talked for the next hour, asking each other inane questions like ‘what soap do you use’ to interesting ones like ‘if you had to pick out one person of your own sex to date, whose looks would you prefer’ to personal ones like ‘what thing did you most enjoy doing as a child’ (My answers to that – Pears, Angelina Jolie and traveling with cousins). We stopped for a water break but after the general spookiness of the place began to set in, decided mentally to just continue walking non stop.

A little later, we could hear the howl of a dog at a distance. Other dogs woke up and responded. The hillside was suddenly a frenzy of mad barking. We were finally approaching a village and the village dogs had woken up. I froze and walked on auto-pilot based on instructions from SA to act normal, fervently wishing I had not read the Hound of the Baskervilles as a child. Earlier in the trip PR and SA had discussed how scary it was to face dogs in the nights. They tend to gang up and terrorize you and even though you knew at a logical level that they would not bite, it was still an experience one could avoid. I had not commented on this topic, not having experienced it before. It was as though fate had decided to broaden my life’s experiences. We walked at our usual pace; looking nonchalant (I like to think). The dogs continued barking. I eyed the walls of the houses in the village we were passing through, checking out which were the best ones to clamber over. The walk lasted a mere five minutes (and obviously a very long time for me) and we were done with the dogs. I realized except for me, the rest were quite alright.

The only good thing was I stopped worrying too much about the thieves and wild animals. Atleast we were in civilization, such as it was. After sometime, we could hear the next set of dogs barking. Simultaneously, we could also hear an auto put-put in the distance, approaching us. We stopped the auto to ask for a ride. After two minutes, SA thanked them and waved them away and explained that he was fairly certain the occupant of the auto was not particularly sober. Clearly, facing the dogs seemed a better prospect. So we continued through the next round of dogs. By this time, I had given up all pretence of being calm and began to slowly mutter all devotional songs I knew (largely repeating a few words over and over again given my pathetic knowledge of such things)

We were on the last leg. The final set of dogs was awaiting us at the turn up the hill to our road. We were quite exhausted by now. It was 11.45 in the night and being in bed seemed like a fairly good idea. The dogs were standing at shoulder height, thanks to the terrain and I could hear SA promise himself to come and make mince meat of them the next morning. Company finally! PA continued to walk about like she was making her entrance at a ball – graceful, with her wraparound skirt held up. NA looked like he could not have cared about the dogs’ actions one way or the other. Luckily the dogs were happy with just a display of their vocal prowess and did not reach for the jugular.

Beyond the turning, the road disappeared into a wild mesh of stones and mud. We had to pick our way carefully since we could barely see and ran a decent risk of falling over the cliff’s edge. Thinking back, I realized that we had walked practically non stop for seven kms uphill – a feat I had not achieved even on days when I was supposed to be officially trekking. Also, suddenly the beauty of the countryside, bathed in moonlight hit me and I basked in the glorious shared walk.

Later on, when I heard PR narrate her version of the story, I realized she had been less paranoid than me and had thoroughly enjoyed herself from the word go. Being brought up on a hill station, she was used to deserted roads and barking dogs. Still, as memories go, this one will live on for a long time.

Konkan Trip 6 : Gokarna part B

The day dawned bright and shiny. We were in high spirits. We had not been murdered in our beds, the cockroaches had not appeared again and the distant view of the sea from our balconies assured us that all was well with the world. SA came to inform us that the hotel owner had agreed to give us a lift till Gokarna Beach. The plan was to go from one beach to the next and explore all the beaches in the area – Gokarna, Kudle, Om, Half moon and Paradise. Gokarna beach was closest to the temple and attracted all the pilgrims. Om was the most popular among the foreign crowd, followed by Kudle. Half moon and Paradise were supposed to be quite deserted and suited for people who wanted to get away from the crowd.

Breakfasted and ready, we waited for the owner to appear. SA had not told us anything about what the owner was like. A pot bellied man appeared from nowhere, screaming at all the servants in the area. Then acknowledging our existence, he informed us that he would be ready in five minutes. His face looked a lot like someone had either punched him several times or he had an overdose of strong drugs at some point. He also clearly reveled in showing off his superior position among the crowd of kowtowing servants. He was very polite and helpful to us though and faithfully kept his promise. He suggested that using a ferry would be the best option to travel between beaches and dropped us off at Gokarna beach.
We began to search for the ferry and soon realized that our hotel owner had been referring to the tiny fishing boats with a motor attached to them. There was no jetty. The fishermen just shoved the boat into the sea, jumped in and rowed till the water was deep enough to start the motor. Just looking at it was scary. We decided to wander through the town while thinking of other travel options.

Gokarna town proved to be quite interesting. The temple area had narrow, lively streets, filled with cows and trinket-sellers. Foreigners on a spiritual journey had made inroads into these parts too and no one found it strange that the priests could provide shelter in their pristine, vegetarian, high-caste homes. I also realized there were a lot of positives to having a tourist crowd comprising non-Indians. Even if their personal hygiene habits were a bit worrisome, they definitely had a well developed civic sense and did not litter. The bookshops around such areas stored a good selection across various languages. The continental food prepared by restaurants catering to them was cheap and divine.

After a while we decided to move to the next beach. The options were to hire bikes, autorickshaws or cars. Only PR could handle a bike competently and the hilly roads were too dangerous for NA or SA to polish their rudimentary skills. Cars would be too expensive, and we packed ourselves into an autorickshaw.

The view on the way to Kudle beach was wonderful. The auto driver dropped us off on a hill and told we had to take a narrow track down. Several people passed us on the way and we realized this was the only route down. Clearly no infirm or aged person would be able to walk down. The beach was however wonderful, and fully justified the trip. As per plan, we found a reasonably empty looking shack and began to make ourselves comfortable. All of us opened our books/ordered food or juices/went for long walks on the shore/played in the water a bit and generally lazed around. The day could not have been more perfect.

NA disappeared for a long walk and after a couple of hours, we began to get worried. Sure enough, when he came back, he was looking red and very dehydrated. After being forced to drink plenty of water he fell fast asleep. The original agenda of checking out all the beaches was dropped. We decided to just walk across to Om beach in the evening, after a cup of chai (served in very tall glasses). The hillside was not particularly green but even the brown grass was a brilliant foreground for a slowly setting sun. We went back to the scene of our previous night’s heartbreak. With a reasonably crowded beach and some amount of daylight, the beach did not look quite so overpowering. We watched the sun set and talked and walked and made our peace with Om beach.

Konkan Trip 5 : Gokarna part A

The Gokarna part of the trip began on a fairly surreal note. Everyone was fed up with listening to my ancient 1970s Hindi music tapes and gladly agreed to play a collection of rock music PR had made in college. Small villages rushed by us on one side with tiny STD/PCO shops, open air restaurants and plastic shops marking their neon-lit existence. Inside we were trapped in humming our existential angst. Shriraj, our driver, did not blink his eye (or for that matter his accelerator pedal) when various heavy duty lorries hurled themselves on us in the narrow road. It was already night when we weaved our way into the tiny road that terminated on Om Beach.

SA had made bookings for us in a place called Gokarna International – a happy and economical hotel for families, located in the centre of the town to enable quick trips to the famous temple. All of us, in an unspoken agreement, knew that it was Plan B and we would first die trying to stay in a shack close to the beach. So off we went in search of the highly recommended Namaste Café at the entrance to Om Beach. After scrambling down the cement steps and the rocks, we realized we had stepped into Goa of ten years ago. Namaste Café was buzzing with white skinned people, pleasantly high and vocal and the only Indians were clearly the waiters and the owner. It also looked pretty full and when we enquired about rooms it was no surprise to hear that they did not have any. We were directed to Niravana Café at the other end of the long beach.

Om Beach, from afar looks like the Sanskrit script for ‘Om’ and thus earned its name. Ever since Goa began to attract a more up-market class of visitors, Gokarna had begun to take on the task of providing an economical beach option for the down-market First World travelers. Added to that was the presence of a famous temple in Gokarna and anyone in search of the great Indian soul, could easily find nirvana, religion, alcohol and possibly more here. This was not to say the beach was strewn, Bollywood-style, with half naked people in a drunken stupor. Everyone had settled down to a clearly familiar routine of conversations while staring at the sea and eyed us with very little curiosity as we trekked to Niravana Café.

The owner of Om Beach’s second best café was also not too helpful. He had one room which four of us could share and no attached toilet or ceiling fans. It was cheap at 200 rupees a night. We began to check with other Shack owners. Everyone replied in the negative. It was already close to 10 p.m. and somewhere in the corner of my mind I was worried if Gokarna International would also call a no-show and cancel our reservations. All of us were also slowly realizing that brown skin would not get us too far in this place. Deciding to make one last attempt, we changed tactics. NA, who had so far not been given any job more onerous than buying snacks for the trip, was elected as our representative to go and get us rooms. He spoke with a New Zealand accent and was the closest we could produce by way of a foreign connection

We all trooped into a fairly deserted looking shack. The suspicious looking owner barely acknowledged our presence but he was obviously eager to have any customers. The dialogue started;

NA – We would like rooms

Owner – Where are you from?

NA – (pointing at me and PR) – These guys are from Chennai. I am from New Zealand

Owner – (without blinking an eye) – New Zealand? Come. I have rooms

We silently marched into the room on display. It was a small, white hut. There were no windows. There was a queen size mattress on the cement slab, occupying two thirds of the room. The mattress was covered with a dirty bed sheet and we could almost see the bed bugs crawling all over it. If we did not die of suffocation or claustrophobia, we would certainly die of insect bites. Looking at our disappointed expressions, he took us past a small bamboo enclosure, which he told was the common toilet and triumphantly introduced us to his best room. It was painted a vivid blue. Same space, same bed bugs, same dirty sheets. Our minds protested ‘That’s it? The ridiculousness of it all began to hit us. We were being treated like untouchables in our own country, by a bunch of former fisher folk who were so fascinated by white skin that they refused to even look at us. And all for the hole of a room they had managed to build which we would not have even considered looking at under saner conditions.

Angry, amused and with plenty of perspective, we tramped out and decided to head back to the car. SA’s torch light which had been assisting the moon light in guiding us was beginning to dim. We wondered if our driver Shriraj had left with the entire luggage or had sent out for the police to track us. Nearly an hour had elapsed. Just as reached the end, we saw Shriraj coming towards us, waving a welcome torchlight. All of us cheered up immediately at the thought of a friend still left in this strange world. Shriraj modestly blushed when we told him he was a saviour to have come down with his torch. ‘Actually when I was buying the mobile, I was wondering if I should go for a model with a torch light’, he explained, ‘and now it is so useful’. We told Shriraj that we had to check out other options. On the way to the beach, we had spotted a fairly swanky looking place called ‘Swaswara’ and we began to make inquiries there. The receptionist greeted us politely and informed us that the rooms were 360 dollars a night. If the earlier experience had shaken us, this totally took the wind off our sails. SA politely told him that we would be back when we got pay hikes. Later we learnt that the resort catered to chartered tourists from First World countries.

We informed Shriraj about the prices and he burnt in righteous anger asking ‘are they selling the rooms or renting them out?’ and continued to rave for the next ten minutes. Atleast our entertainment value in this episode was increasing with each passing minute.

The next stop was the Om Beach resort, 7 kms uphill. It had been over our budget when we were planning the trip. Now, it seemed like the best option. Unfortunately, there were no rooms here either. We were in a Dickensian tragedy and the night was getting on.

On the road to Om Beach resort was a dilapidated sign board for a resort called ‘Seabird’. We decided to check it out as well. The place was deserted. The prices were reasonable – 800 rs a night for a non a/c double room. Rooms were available. Suspicion began to rear its head – why would such a hotel be practically empty? Were the guests being murdered in their beds and placed as stuff toys in some place somewhere? We told Shriraj that we were not happy with its ready availability. Shriraj, clearly a man of simple living and thoughts, could not understand our logic. Yet, he could not give up his role of a Man Friday now. So he disappeared and returned to furtively inform us that he had checked with the employees and they had confirmed that this place was safe. We were too tired to explain why there was a flaw in his research and were about to leave the place, when blazing brilliantly two vehicles full of tourists arrived. The tension disappeared, relief flooded us and we decided to stay on. We paid Shriraj and plonked on the verandah outside our ground floor rooms. Meanwhile, the tourist vehicles instead of adding to our numbers and being a security cover had decided to go elsewhere. We were too tired to begin worrying about our safety all over again. We were too tired to even walk up to the restaurant and just got the food to the verandah. We lay there for a long time, finally managing to make our way to our respective beds. There was a tiny cockroach somewhere behind my bed. Killing it in one stroke and closing the windows to prevent a further infestation, I slept.

Konkan Trip 4 : Amgol

During the extensive Net search I managed to do before the trip, I had read an article that mentioned Amgol. The writer had not given it great reviews. However, the thought of an island in the middle of a river sounded fascinating. As time passed, I forgot all about the place till my memory got triggered off somehow. Desperately, I searched quite a bit and almost a week passed before I could locate Amgol again. When we got there, I knew the effort had not been wasted.

Vishwas Soans, the proprietor met us in Kundapur and led us to a rudimentary jetty. Our transport was a small boat rowed by the caretaker of the island. Loading our luggage into it, we began the trip, fascinated by the quiet and beauty all around. Once we reached the island, things only seemed to get better. The island was quite tiny and one could walk across the length in about ten minutes. There were only 5 rooms in the island and at that point, we were the only guests staying. We got two rooms facing each other. One room had a lovely balcony outside with a view of the river. Before we could even toss a coin to decide who could get the room, SA suddenly developed signs of life from his quiet reverie and dashed into the room to bag it. The girls had no choice. Luckily the other room had a lovely open-to-the-skies bathroom and a shower made of stone. PR and self must have had good one-hour baths the next day in it. SA pointed out the danger of a passing bird deciding to do its morning ablutions over our heads (a theory constructed by quite a few of my male friends to whom I told this story. Makes one wonder if the male of the species has an extra juvenile gene added somewhere).

Once settled in, we walked to the western end of the island where a small hand-made jetty provided a perfect spot to see the setting sun. The jetty could be used to hail any passing boats in case our personal ferry was not around. We just sat there watching boats pass by slowly and the sun change the colour of the skies from golden to an ever-increasing inky blue. Worried, we would not be able to walk back in the dark, we peeled ourselves away from the mesmerizing scene. Near the dining area, just by the river, were two hammocks. All of us took turns lounging in it. Somehow the still air seemed perfect for general bantering and eating the elaborate dinner provided. There was a distant hum of Ayappa Bhajans somewhere but that faded into the background.

When it was time to go to bed, all of us were pleasantly tired and slept off as soon as our heads hit the bed. The guys later on told us they heard something in the dark. We preferred to think of it as divine justice for having grabbed a room by the river without tossing for it.

The next morning, we persuaded the caretaker to take us on a jolly ride in his boat, after dropping off his children at school. All of us trooped in, armed with video and digital cameras and before long, I requested the boatman to let me try my hand at rowing. The river was not too deep. The boatman had a long stick, which he could push to the bottom of the river. Then using it as a lever would propel the boat forward till it had moved about seven feet. Then he would take the stick of the water and repeat the process. The process looked deceptively simple and I grabbed the stick with élan. That was when I realised that water could be extremely resistant and I had to strain every fibre in my body to even get the stick to hit the bottom. This explained why he and the other boatmen we had seen had a physique that would have made the keenest gym goer jealous. After seven-eight attempts, when the boatman sat in one corner and chuckled to himself, I managed to get closer to the process. The boatman then pointed out that we were going against the direction of the current and this would take all day if I continued. Saying so he grabbed the stick and everyone else began to snigger. Finally we had rounded the island and now everyone was keen to try their hand at boating. PR was the most eager of the lot and the boatman showered special favour on her as she spoke to him in a language that was closest to Kannada. He did not speak any other language and so far all communication had been done in a series of wild gestures and slowly spoken Hindi/Tamil. NA and SA tried for a few brief moments before admitting that they had been way out of range while laughing at PR and me. The boatman gave me one stick and gave PR one and let us row for a while. After five minutes, when PR and self had managed to work up a fine sweat, he told us to stop. The boat continued to move and he explained that our efforts so far had been completely useless since the boat anyway had moved with the current. With that he sank to another round of his chuckles. Pricked, we decided to continue till we began banging into the island and spent more time pushing the boat away from the shrubbery than rowing.

The exercise had got our appetites high (not that otherwise there was ever a lull) and we breakfasted heartily. The rest of the morning was spent in reading books/talking/having long leisurely baths/feeding fishes in the river and generally watch the world go by. Lunch was again an elaborate affair. Food had come from Hotel Sharon in the mainland and tasted too oily. We managed to eat a bit, sitting on a bed sheet by the river and then continued our lazing around. Afternoon turned to evening and our driver for the next leg had already arrived. Piling our luggage into the boat, we bade a farewell to Amgol. It was now time to go from the river to the sea.

The route to Gokarna must have been a pretty one, had we done the entire journey in daylight. We did see some of the good parts though. At Marvanthe, the highway was flanked by the sea on one side and by the river on the other. The beach looked inviting, but Vishwas Soans had told us about another prettier beach at Ottinane. We pressed on and eventually came to a hill. From here we could see one of the most striking views of the entire trip. The sea and the skies seemed to merge together. A golden strip of beach separated the sea and the backwaters. We eagerly walked down the 250 steps to the shore. The sea was calm, gently lapping onto our feet as we walked on the firm sand. The only company we had was a family of picnickers collecting mussels. There was an inherent gentleness in the way the air blew, the sea moved and the tall trees that surrounded the coast. Somehow, mere frolicking was not suited to the calmness of the place and we each stood in the water busy with out thoughts. After a while we explored a nearby temple and then as the tide began to come in and the sky got darker, began to climb the 250 steps to the car. Gokarna was atleast 2.5 hours away.


Review - Dhoom 2

Review of characters in order of signs of personality

1. Locales – is wow. If this movie does not up the sales of Cox and Kings tour packages, very little else will.

2. Hrithik Roshan – From the word ‘go’ our man gets into his super-cool, super-pouty act. He has never been in better shape before and each scene you would like to whistle and throw some money at him. It is a pity though that he really does not suit the role of an international jewel thief. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot but look like mama’s little boy.

3. Abhishek Bachhan – As the police officer in the imaginary world, he does his thing again – ride super cool vehicles, gets posted on assignments in Spain, Fiji et al. Competent but not in the same league as Roshan for the hotness mantle.

4. The motorbikes – Check them out in the climax scene. Think most people in the audience started whistling when the bikes appeared and did not stop till they were out of the scene.

5. Aishwarya Rai – Anyone who saw her in Bride and Prejudice would remember the gentle jiggling of her tummy as she did her gentle dances. No sign of that now. Of course her acting is still worse than ever and in the first five minutes of her opening her mouth in this movie, the terror of her squeaky, high pitched dialogue delivery throws you back almost with a physical force. But, what did you expect? Just keep rewinding ‘Crazy Kiya Re’ song in your head again.

6. Bipasha Basu – Another wash board stomach for most part. In the first half of the movie, she kept her clothes and wits on. In the second half, lost a substantial part of both

7. …

8. ….

9. ….


100. Uday Chopra – Sooraj Barjatya puts dogs in his movies for the diversity factor. Yash Chopra sneaks in Uday Chopra instead. Atleast dogs are cuter


Konkan Trip 3 : Udipi - Malpe - St Mary's Isle

We were eager to hit the road and after a quick breakfast, began the journey to Udipi. To my disappointment, NH 17, our path for the entire trip did not exactly run along the beach. Infact, to go to any beach, we had to take some quick diversions. Still, it was early enough in the day to just enjoy the scenery we did have and the fairly good road. Udipi was yet another series of temples – Shri Krishna, Chandramoulishwera, Ananteswara and some smaller Mutts. The first temple required men to take off their shirts. NA tried objecting but to no end. Given that fairly pot bellied men seemed to have no issues flaunting their pot bellies, our scrawny friend’s protests over doing a Salman Khan was quite amusing. However, he was sticking to his principles and we lost sight of him for the rest of that round.

The Traveler's Guide (which had been put back into action) mentioned that the nearby Malpe beach was another touristy option. It did however forget to mention how breathtaking the beach was and how it should be on every itinerary involving that area. The sand was golden, the sea a happy blue, reflecting the happy blue of the sky. Our driver grudgingly admitted that there was a ferry to a nearby island, the St Mary’s Isle. He was reluctant to take us there, pointing out that the ferry did not leave unless there were atleast forty people ready to board it. We decided to go anyway and when we reached, found out that a ferry was just about to depart. Happily skipping on board we settled down to admire the calm sea during the twenty-minute ride. The water on the shore was clear enough to let us see the shallow bottom of clear golden sand. The island was pretty small, with a few thatched roofs to provide some shade and could only be visited on a one-day trip. There were a few snack shops and no restaurants and consequently the litter was well under control. Entranced, we began to walk in the cool seawater around the island and came to a secluded spot where we could admire the sea in peace. When we were finally satisfied with the longish ramble, we caught the ferry back. We were famished by then, and happily tucked in another awesome fish meal at Kairali hotel.

After this, it was time to hit the road, full steam, to reach Kundapur, our next destination.

Konkan Trip 2 - Mangalore

NA, PR and I landed up in Mangalore in the afternoon, having gone through a scenic train route involving large bits of Kerela. SA had arrived that morning from Mumbai and had had plenty of time to figure out that our hotel (Pooja International) offered nothing by way of good meals but was located conveniently close to the station and in the heart of the city. Hence, we decided to go out for our first meal to a place recommended by my Outlook Traveler’s Guide. It was economical, no doubt. But fairly rundown and with that the Guide was abandoned. We decided to place our trust on the driver for the day, Harsha, for any meal recommendations.
Harsha took his guide duties rather seriously. Our first stop, against Harsha’s obvious disinclination to take us there, was the Sultan’s Battery. It was a fairly old structure from where Tipu Sultan’s soldiers had once used cannons. It overlooked a river and offered some great views. However, there is only so much you can do with a structure and Harsha was eager to take us to the next spot. The Americans built Vegas to give vent to that one stray vulgar strain that runs in every person. Indians, I think, decided to build garish temples instead. The Gokarna Parsvanath temple was painted a bright gold and red. Occasionally, there were statues of various gods and goddesses in fairly arresting poses and the locals seemed quite happy and proud walking around. To Harsha’s disappointment, we were out pretty early. We decided to do the church circuit next. Mangalore has some old churches built by the Portuguese and a Christian population that obviously believed in spending its Saturday evenings in prayer. Our first church was the Milagres Church (In the picture). The second one was St. Aloysius, which boasted of some really fabulous frescos on the ceilings and walls. It was also part of a college campus and we walked about, taking in the students scurrying around, unmindful of the evening sun streaming through green trees creating dappled patterns on the vast grounds. The next stop was the Rosario Cathedral, the oldest church in Mangalore. The front was apparently modeled on the St. Peter’s Basilica. A sermon was in progress here too and after all that religion; we were not exactly too pleased with the holy start of our holiday. However, the next stop, Kadri Manjunath temple, deserved a visit given that it held one of the oldest bronze sculptures in India. The temple was fairly peaceful and we watched pilgrims take a dip in a pool nearby. After sometime, feeling refreshed and fortified by the prasadam we decided to hit the beach. The action for the day was dying by the time we reached. Inspite of the approaching darkness, we could make out that the waters on this side of the country seemed calmer than the Chennai seas.

Harsha suggested a place for dinner and we trooped off to a pretty nice rooftop restaurant. The entrance had pictures of Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty tucking in a sumptitious meal. We were too tired to figure out if that was just cheesy or whether it clearly marked this place as the most popular in Mangalore. Food turned out to be quite nice though and I began my love affair with fish. After one of my yummiest fish meals ever, we headed back to the hotel and slept off to the dying sounds of traffic outside.

Konkan Trip 1 - Prologue

I think I spent about two months talking about a trip down the Konkan coast and nearly a year before that fantasizing about the trip. When I had finally found 3 people to go with me and announced to the world in general that I was off, most people just gaped and asked ‘you mean you still have not gone?’ My band of co-travelers was a bit skeptical too, after all they had been thrown together with one common link – me. In case of NA, he did not even boast that link since he was a friend’s friend and I had met him once over lunch. Most of the times he just mumbled something. Funnily enough this seemed as good a quality as any other since it meant that even if he was not happy with something, we would be blissfully unaware. SA was an ex colleague and had met PR, my Salsa classmate on a one day trek earlier.

The trip was not really an authentic Konkan coast tour. It started at Mangalore and wound its way to Goa, with a few stops in between. The idea was to explore the beaches on the way and eat good food. At any rate, all of us were quite happy with this agenda.


Fit and Fat

The buzz word in my office these days is fitness. The first person to wake up to the ever increasing layers of lard a sedate job provides was P. She promptly signed up for a membership at a neighbourhood gym. She has also now been inducted into a competition where the gym members form groups of three and see which group has managed to lose the most weight overall. I am glad to report that I gave some good advice viz pair up with really fat people. It will be easier for them to lose 5 kgs as opposed to a thin person. P also took this advice but has now discovered that fat people are fat because they don’t like going to the gym. Consequently she has not seen her groupies at the gym and now glares at me any time we discuss the gym.

The next person forced into the bandwagon is my senior colleague. His wife gave him a six-month membership to a gym and the sunk cost motivated him to get started. The first day was an eye opening experience for a man who had not seen the inside of a gym in a long time. There was an impressive array of instruments to tell him his scores on BMI, fat %, energy levels etc. At the end of it, his muscular instructor balefully informed him that he had failed on every count and it was time to hit the treadmill running. Feeling a bit like an under-performing school child, my colleague nodded and went to the first available machine. This involved sitting down and pedaling with his hands – an activity designed to discourage even the most hardcore gym enthusiasts with the utter monotony of the action. This also gave plenty of time for my colleague to observe other members and that is when he realized that if he was ever going to fit into this gym, he would not be able to afford an inheritance for atleast one of this children. The average gym-goer was outfitted in branded track pants, t-shirts, head bands and shoes (totaling around INR 12000). Some of them even had bands wrapped around their knees or elbows that had a discrete Swoosh. My colleague had worn a pair of tracks and t-shirt he had got as a part of our last office offsite. The gym-goer also moved about with an array of accessories including latest version of an ipod (around INR 24000) and a sipper (around INR 2000) containing Gatorade (INR 200. Remember this stuff is imported here). My colleague seemed to be the only person listening to the piped music playing overhead and drinking water from the water dispenser. All this has not had a great effect on his overall enthusiasm levels. However, the fee will have to written off unless he is willing to throw in the time. And he is.

I took a cue from all this and signed up for fitness classes. After listening to my colleagues’ gym experiences, I decided to stick to aerobics. Aerobics in India is the stronghold of middle aged women making meek attempts at shedding half a lifetime’s worth of fat. If you look from above, the effect is usually like watching a herd of hippos, clothed in pink, jiggling limbs and being a bit short on breadth. Of course as an exception to this rule, there is always one woman who will be very enthusiastic, jumping while others walk, lifting 5 kgs when others fumble over 1 kg weights and overall, inviting the wrath of everyone else. My class followed the stereotype to the T. The only exception was a single male member, looking like an intruder in a harem. The class began and I got into the groove while closely observing the enthusiastic member of our class. For some reason, she had decided to come to class with plenty of make up. As the class progressed, I watched fascinated, as her make up also began to slowly run down. At the end of half an hour there were streaks of mascara running down her cheeks joining the rivulets of foundation, beginning to merge with the island of red lipstick At the end of the class, they had all successfully become one single Picasso-esque picture worth a half million dollars at Sotheby. I was curious to see if she achieved this effect day after day. Sadly I have not gone back to class due to a string of excuses. But clearly there is some motivation for me to go back.

The champion of all exercising however continues to be my colleague. Claiming to have absolutely no time to reign in his expanding waistline, he finally did only what the really living-in-denial would do. He bought a Morning Walker. This is a piece of equipment on which you place your legs and lie down. Then you turn it on using a remote. The machine simulates walking and apparently you lose the same amount of weight that you would have had you gone for a walk instead. If this was not incredulous enough to hear, my colleague also added with much melancholy that he did not even find the time to use the Morning Walker.

Hmmm. Atleast I have signed up for the aerobics classes even if I have not gone more than once.
p.s. The title of this post is inspired by an award winning slogan my sis once wrote for a competition. It went something like 'I like Kellogs because it helps me stay slim and fit and not round and fat'. Simple, to the point and very powerful. Also she was still in school when she wrote this.


Cochin Chronicle

I must perhaps be the last person in my circle of friends to have visited Cochin. Everyone person to whom I have talked after my trip has had his/her share of Cochin stories and just writing about it seems a bit pointless. However, as the wise men would say, everyone makes a different journey (Ah, I made up that quote actually..)

Thanks to our local newspaper, which actually gives news about things other than movies, I had had a chance to read about the Cochin Jews. So like everyone else I flocked to the Jew Town to see the Synagogue as also catch a glimpse of the fast dwindling race. I must admit doing the latter made me feel quite pathetic since it is an invasion of people’s privacy to say the least. I did not have worried. Jew Town was filled with Malayalis selling antiques and Delhites selling silver jewellery and shawls. The Synagogue was closed and I had no option but to browse through the shops. They turned out to contain some fairly interesting curios. Of course, the natives had even managed to put on sale the black and white photographs from two generations ago – neat rows of people in their Sunday best pasted onto a big fraying brownish cardboard. I mentally decided that if I actually saw anyone buy it, I would go and raid my grandmother’s house for some snaps and put it up on E-bay with some fancy title such as ‘Young girl in traditional Tamil dress, circa 1920’. Just when I was leaving the place, I managed to see a couple of Jews. Atleast I think they were Jews. There was something Parsi-like about them – the same white and withering skin symbolizing the lack of sufficient people in the younger generation and signaling the end of an era. Most Cochin Jews have already migrated to Israel and other places and the rest would probably have to make a choice about maintaining ethnicity and dying single or marrying outside and changing the gene pool.

The next stop was at the Dutch Palace. A signboard informed me that the Dutch had given it to the then reigning king of Kerela from the Varma dynasty. Hence the palace was filled with Hindu murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana. The murals were pretty colourful and only if you looked carefully and read the instructions given below you could understand what stories were depicted. After some careful looking and reading the instructions, I finally figured out what the drawings were and my eyes grew wider, to say the least. The murals definitely did not toe the line of today’s moral brigade. The palace also contained other interesting trivia such as Dutch and English coins, maps of Cochin, dresses worn by Royalty (some pretty nifty handwork). Being a lone traveler I could wander about at my own pace and felt glad about not following the mandatory tourist-on-a-tour-bus route of giving the place a quick run through.

From there it was to the singularly unimpressive looking St Francis Basilica. The place would not have been so popular but for its ‘history’. It started off as Portuguese Catholic Church, passed through Dutch hands, moved on to become English Anglican and is now under the Protestant care of the Church of South India. In the middle of all these changes, it had been razed down, built again, and been a Cathedral and then a Basilica. And this interesting background was gleaned from a Cox and Kings Brochure, which an enterprising native was selling for ten rupees. I just hoped that the money went towards maintenance of the Church. The Church had indecipherable Portuguese and Dutch tombstones on the walls. It was interesting to see dates from the 16th century though. The original discoverer of India, Vasco Da Gama had also been buried there at one point. A non-descript stone marked this spot. However, in line with promoting tourism, the Government had thought to adorn the place with a small half-foot high fence of golden coloured chains in burgundy jacket. My personal guess is most people in charge of monuments, center their idea of what constitutes ‘grand’ from childhood viewings of ‘Mahabaratha’ and ‘Ramayana’ which used to come on DD.

The final stop was at Fort Cochi. I went for a long walk on the promenade watching the sun stream from behind the clouds onto the sea. I also browsed through the nearby shops. Before I could examine the stores selling antiques or visit one of the gloriously ancient looking hotels for a spot of tea, it began to rain. I decided to press on to the Bolgatty Palace but halfway through ended the venture when the rain began to come down harder. Instead, I decided to wait out the time till my flight at Cochin’s new wonder – the Bay Pride Mall. Apart from the ubiquitous Metro Shoes, Fab India and Barista, the place also had a lovely food court from where you could watch the backwaters as you munched your food. I did exactly that, accompanied by a nice book while a bunch of kids nearby strummed simple melodies on a guitar. It is nice to do the Tourist rounds. It is nicer to find a good place to rest your tired feet.
Perfect day.


All creatures great and small

I was visiting Cochin on some official business and after a long meeting, my colleague and myself headed to a highly recommended up-market restaurant to catch some lunch. We were seated and the waiter got us a bottle of drinking water and served it in nice glasses. I reached out for my glass to take a sip. In the water was a tiny little worm, the colour of filter-coffee, wriggling about acrobatically, either trying to get out or enjoying a little swim. Appalled, I got the waiter’s attention and pointed out the worm to him. The waiter was puzzled because the water bottle had definitely been sealed and he assured me so. I could have been almost convinced by his earnestness into believing that I was hallucinating but for the fact the tiny creature was still present in the water and my colleague could also see it. Having established this fact irrevocably, the waiter gave me a resigned ‘Now what shall we do?’ look. Then looking pleased with himself for coming up with a clever pause-breaker, asked ‘Should I change the water?’ ‘I presume so’, I replied coldly trying to pack in as much indignation as possible. With that, he whisked away my glass and then seeing my cold glare, whisked away the offending bottle of water. After a while he came back with a fresh bottle of water, a fresh glass and a triumphant smile. While pouring me the water, he explained that he had discovered the source of the worm. Apparently the roof of that section had just been changed and the roof had been lined with dry, brown straw to look traditional. ‘So the worm must be from there’, he concluded. This of course caused greater terror than before. The menace had not been confined to a single bottle of water. It was there all over the place, ready to drop into your food, your clothes, your hair at any point of time. However by now my colleague had assumed a pose of supreme indifference to the problem. He is vegetarian and if he could be alright with tiny worms creeping all over his lasagna, I realised that perhaps I should stop being paranoid. I chose to ignore the problem and consoled myself with the fact that worms were proteins and not carbohydrates. This is not to say that I did not throw furtive glances at my food, water and the ceiling from time to time.

Finally it was time to go and I am glad to report that my acquaintance with wildlife ended there.


Movie Review - Dor

Nagesh Kukoonoor is a fairly talented but not a consistent director. Sometimes he manages to pull off a perfect fairytale, like Iqbal. Sometimes he falls far short of the lofty idea he had so obviously constructed in his mind, as in the case of Teen Deewaren. Dor is an ambitious effort, trying to talk about a woman’s place in our society, about breaking free of that place in the society and how ultimately it is only women who can stand up for each other in a world where men make the rules. The tough part about taking such ambitious topics is that one can end up being merely preachy as in the case of Swades and lose focus easily. Dor manages to pull it off, but just about.

The movie talks about Zeenat (Gul Panag in a refreshingly non-Miss India avatar) and Meera (Ayesha Takia in a role that proves her worth as an actress). Zeenat is a battle-hardened woman who has made her own decisions all her life and for whom no situation is an insurmountable challenge. Meera, in sharp contrast, is a typical Rajput bahu caught in her small world defined by obedience to her parents-in-law and customs. Both women are deeply in love with their husbands. As the story progresses, their lives connect and Zeenat must go on a quest to ask Meera a great favour.

Full credit must be given to Kukoonoor for articulating what the life of a woman like Meera must be. She is clearly in an oppressive world, but has accepted it so well that she is absolutely unaware of it and her only concern is about missing her husband, Shankar, when he has to leave town. Even when the unforeseeable happens she accepts the fact that she is not a person who has individual rights and wants but is a cog in the great Rajput wheel. Ayesha Takia essays the role brilliantly, right down to flaring her nostrils before tears begin to role down her face. Zeenat, as the stronger woman, sometimes is not so convincing and seems a bit one-dimensional. Even towards the end when Zeenat finally faces a situation, which is beyond her control, and she is as vulnerable as she can be, the character still has some sharp edges. The greatest flaw of the movie lies in its dialogues. A lot of them come across as obvious and unnatural instead of being subtle and going with the flow of the movie – the statements on how society treats a widow and widower differently, the reconciliation between Meera and her grandmother-in-law, Zeenat’s entreaties to Meera to break free.

All the above is quibbling though. I guess when one watches a movie like K.A.N.K the temptation to point flaws never arises because there are far too many of them to even make a logical beginning. In a movie like Dor, which almost reaches perfection, the rough edges stand out starkly and you end up feeling like Farhan Aktar wanting to remake some parts.

In the ultimate analysis, Dor is a movie that has a heart. The scenes where Meera and gang spontaneously break into a dance, the scenes where Zeenat’s Man Friday imitates various movie stars and where Meera’s mother-in-law is reminded of the ephemeral nature of the privileges she enjoys in her society make you want to smile, laugh and applaud. And just for that, the movie is worth watching.


Happy Diwali

This Diwali I have immersed myself completely in the pure and joyous commercialism of the season. I bought lots of new clothes, I collected plenty of money from unsuspecting relatives by falling at their feet for their blessings and I even undertook a project to paint our old mud lamps in delightful designer colours till my mom pointed out that South Indians light lamps for Karthigai Deepam not Diwali. In line with these activities, I decided to accompany a colleague to buy sweets from a popular sweet shop.

As expected the place was packed with last minute shoppers and we finally managed to make it to the billing counter. My colleague’s inventory was substantial and while she struggled to make payments I fell into overhearing a conversation between two people

Male 1: You will never guess my age.

Male 2 (in flattering voice): Don’t know. maybe early 30s…?

Male 1: (laughing in an embarrassed tone hiding a lot of glee): Actually I am 43.

At this point, curiosity got better of me and moving to Convenient Gaping Position #1, I casually took a look at the man. He looked 40, not 43 but definitely not early 30s. Since my work sometimes involves coming up with such white lies, I completely sympathized with Male 2. Coming back to Convenient Overhearing Position #1, I continued.

Male 2: (Who obviously had not stopped gushing during my subtle spy walks): I just can’t believe it. This is amazing

Male 1: (Still laughing)

Male 2: Infact no one would say you were single. You look like a normal, married man.

Hello!! Since when did normal = married. This was the point where I felt like moving to Convenient Bashing up Silly Goose Position #1.

Male 2: So are your parents looking out for you.

Welcome to Indian society where people actually hold your parents responsible for your singleton status even if you are 43

Male 1: Er..not really. Think if it happens, I will just find someone of my own.

Thank God. Finally some sense.

My colleague had finished with her purchases by then and it was time to move on. However, I have suddenly realized what an entertaining experience overhearing can be.



Tired of being stuck at home on too many long weekends, I sent out a SMS one fine morning asking people if they would be interested in a trekking trip. About 6 were interested and I fished out an old newpaper article about a place called ‘Mannavanur’ which had been featured in The Hindu’s ‘Road Less Traveled’ series long ago. The picture that had featured in the article was worth a thousand words and was good enough for me to hold onto that page for more than a year and now it was time to actually go.

Mannavanur is not a very well known destination and when you call up the local coordinator in Chennai, you know why. Any avid P.G.Wodehouse reader would remember Robert Baxter, Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Baxter’s tagline used to be ‘Baxter suspects’. He did not suspect anyone about anything in specific but used it as a general worldview. The gentleman I spoke to was Baxter’s real world equivalent. He suspected. He suspected that we would be a bunch of yuppies waiting to get to Mannavanur to douse ourselves in alcohol (which some of us did in the cold), throw plastic papers all over the place (which we did not do) and generally change of the fabric of local people’s lives (ha ha. Why would anyone care about us!). So he reluctantly parted with the details of the stay and the cost. Then he came to interview me and I spent a good one-hour convincing him that we were worthy of staying in those cottages and being allowed to trek in restricted areas. The cost per head per day for stay and food came to a glorious INR 550 so it was well worth spending the time with him.

There are many treks one can do from Mannavanur. The one featured in the article was a long one (23 km round trip) to Berijam. This however required permission from the Forest Reserve and I simply did not have the time to get that organized. Later on I found out that if we had told the people in charge of the cottage the previous evening, they could have arranged it.

Day 0 – 1

Friday night, the bunch of us set off for Kodai Road by train. We had arranged for a Tata Sumo to take to our destination but the station had enough taxis. On the way we had breakfast at Kodaikanal and after a sum total of 3 hours we were there.

The place looked pretty basic, full of brick cottages set at different levels. There was one cottage for the dining room, with its wide array of curiously ugly, homemade masks made by the owner of the place and foisted on unsuspecting guests. There were levels for the squeaky clean common bathrooms and other cottages. The 30 step steep climb to our cottage got most of us panting and I was rather glad we were not doing the Berijam trek. Once we dumped our luggage though, we stepped out of our rooms and came across the most amazing view ever. The cottages were set just below the lips of those hills and hence afforded a panoramic view of the valley below. There was a lake in the middle of the valley, which changed colours as the day progressed. All around there was nothing but greenery. One could sit for hours and just gaze.

After a round of catching up on sleep, washing up et al, we arrived freshly scrubbed for lunch. Post lunch, was a 6km walk to the lake. The weather was pleasant and the walk went through pretty grasslands and hillocks and upon reaching the lake we did nothing more than plonk down and chat or doze. Clearly, this was not going to be one of those strenuous trekking holidays.

On the way back, all of us decided to take snaps against the grey-black rocks that appeared on one side of the road from time to time. A correct angle made you look like Spiderman effortlessly clambering up the mountains. If the public was expecting to see snaps in the trip of us climbing every mountain, fording every stream etc etc, they would not be disappointed.

The place had no electricity but the owners provided two hours of light thanks to a generator. After which there was nothing but candlelight for us to move about. SR decided that the atmosphere was perfect for describing his close encounters with ghosts (yes, he was serious) and told us more and more fantastic tales about ghosts sitting on this watchman’s chest, ghosts blocking gates and so on and so forth. Atleast it got couple of the group members wary about walking to the bathrooms by themselves.

Soon it was time for dinner and a good nap in the increasingly cold weather. I piled on three blankets and still shivered. Sometimes I wonder if I am just psychologically prone to feeling cold in really cold places or is it really cold.

Day 2

The jeeps, which were supposed to take us to the trekking point, had gone off on election duty. The caretaker suggested alternate trekking routes and transport plans. Finally we decided to take the local bus at noon to get to the trekking point. We were assured that the jeep would have returned by the time the trek got over and we could return in relative comfort.

It has been a long time since I have taken a local bus. We got into the bus and instantly everyone pretended they were not looking at us while staring at us through the corner of their eyes. Given that the women in the group were all wearing pants and t-shirts, this was not entirely unexpected. At least people were being polite enough to not directly gape. The ride was quite interesting. The road fitted the bus the way clothes fit models – absolutely no extra space to provide a margin for error, an especially worrying fact at the never ending hairpin bends. The driver was however a veteran of the roads and did not blink an eye while pulling the bus back from sharp cliffs at the last second. The locals also treated the bus like their private vehicles – getting off every now and then to catch a quick drink if the bus was planning to loop its way and come back to the same point.

We reached the starting point and set off. The road was picturesque and a river ran by the side throughout. The scenery changed from green valleys, eucalyptus trees to pretty pines. After a while we stopped talking, instead just walked on and on. Eventually we reached our destination – Kilakarrai Falls. The real name of the falls is Vellai Tawalai (White Towel) but the area is called Kilakarrai and hence the misnomer.

The Falls was deserted and the water sparkled gently in the sun as it babbled down. We spread ourselves in convenient spots – S and self choosing to get an instant pedicure by dipping our feet in the cold running water while sitting on the warm rocks, the guys deciding to catch a nap in the shade nearby and the others chatting away on the grass. An hour flew by quickly and it was time for the return trip.

Our guide was quite keen that we also see the bottom of the Falls having come all the way. Five of us decided to trek down through a narrow path covered with dry vegetation hiding shallow pits. After some fumbling, we made it down and gazed at the pool for a while. It was colder though and we were happy to start climbing back up. The guide decided that we could use a short cut through the vegetation and we started following. After five minutes I spotted my worst nightmare – a colony of leeches waiting to spring onto unsuspecting trekkers. I immediately sounded the alert and before I could finish the rest had started scrambling back up. We reached the road and checked for leeches and realized the wily creatures had managed to climb onto our clothes in the space of those few seconds. With some quick action, all of us were rid of leeches. An hour later, we halted for a break and Cherie discovered that one leech had still managed to escape detection and had bulged so much with her blood that its eyes were practically popping out. Cherie screamed and pushed away the leech and tied a hanky to cover the wound, which, as expected bled for some more time.

It is paradoxical wanting to trek but not being happy with leeches. I have been mentally trying to prepare myself for a very long time to handle leeches. Before every trip I have a logical conversation with myself pointing out that leeches just look gross but are not dangerous. However when the moment arrives, I turn hysterical, leap about like a banshee and in general behave like a person who has had the pleasure of knowing what a 2000 V electric shock feels like.

After that brush with nature’s bounties, we started back. S and I had a long conversation reminiscing our hostel days and it felt very strange and pleasant to think that after eleven years we were trekking together through an unknown road, sharing stories which the other had failed to hear while in school and had moved on in life so much but could still bitch about our hostel warden with the same school-girlish intensity.

About half a kilometer before we reached the bus stop, we found the caretaker waiting for us. The jeep had been arranged and we were glad to be on the way back. By now we knew that hot tea and some calorie-heavy divine snack would be waiting us for on our return. The thumb rule of trekking is to figure out how many calories you are going to burn and then eat merrily. Invariably, I always overestimate the distance I am supposed to walk and underestimate the amount of food I will be consuming.

By now we had told the caretaker that we were quite happy to pay extra for non-veg food and the cook had prepared quite a spread. After a heavy dinner, it was time for the traditional bonfire. Possibly it was the absolute lack of any other source of light, or the mesmerizing effect of the bonfire, most of us managed to stay up till three in the morning sharing sad, happy, funny and weird personal stories. We could not have been more honest if we were devout Catholics at a Church confessional. An unspoken understanding not to spread the stories was also reached. This was not too tough to keep given that people were too sleepy or too high to actually remember the bare details.

Day 3

It was a destined to be a day of tension. The weather became hot and sticky as we descended to the plains. One of us had a bus ticket from Kodaikanal to Bangalore and hence had to get off halfway through and that signaled the end of the trip. The train tickets back for the rest were not confirmed. We figured out bus tickets would be a challenge in case the train did not work out and we may end up traveling in some third rate bus with wooden seats, if at all.

Luckily around five my parents called to say that four out of our six tickets had been confirmed. This improved everyone’s mood considerably and we made the last visit on our agenda in high spirits.

I confess I have not been one of those diehard fans of visiting Tamil Nadu’s temples and it was only when the Madurai Meeanakshi temple got into the list of potential wonders of the world, I decided to go and see it. The trip lasted just an hour but was well worth it. The temple complex was massive to say the least and in spite of all the tinsel and lights that been hung all over to mark Vijayadasami, the place looked glorious. We had also arrived on the day the 108- Veena concert was in progress and in the midst of the rushed schedule managed to drink in the sound waves that reflected off the stone walls, pure and clear.

Reluctantly (atleast for me as I had managed to buy a cheap book on the temple’s background and wanted to explore the place further), we left for dinner. The place, Royal Court, was just opposite the railway station and for a reasonable price you could sit at the rooftop restaurant, which had a view of the temple. Everyone was subjected to a quick summary of the temple’s history, mythology and architecture, courtesy my book.

Finally it was time to board the train and we got in and found to our delight the TT from the onward journey was TTing again. We explained that two of us were still on waiting list and he agreed to turn a blind eye if we managed to share our berths. A complicated process to stuff four people into two berths began. I think that must have been the first time in my life I must have slept sideways continuously for eight hours.

And the next morning, it was back to the grind. Albeit with a slightly aching side and some lovely photographs in the digital camera waiting to be downloaded.


Khosla ka Ghosla - Movie review

When I went to watch this movie I knew it was supposed to be light, charming and funny. At the end of it, that is exactly how it turned out.

The movie starts off a bit slowly, establishing the principal characters. Kamal Kishore Khosla (Anupam Kher) is a Punjabi man approaching retirement who has spent his entire life being in ‘service’ and epitomizes the classic middle class man who by virtue of having slogged it out for years in a respectable job has accumulated enough money by way of Provident Fund. His first son Chiraunjilal a.k.a Cherry (Parvin Dabbas) looks the typical MNC software engineer, complete with Allen Solly trousers, rimless glasses and in a ‘she-is-just-a-good-friend’ relationship with Meghna (Tara Sharma). Kamal Kishore and Cherry don’t see eye to eye and the older man makes some awkward attempts at bonding with his son before his typical middle class father’s ego comes in the way. Balwant a.k.a. Bunty (Ranvir Shorey), the second son is the standard Delhi wheeler-dealer who is frittering away his time. Kiran Juneja supports as the mother and there is a boyish teenage daughter to complete the family.

Kamal Kishore invests his entire lifetime’s savings into buying a plot only to find that a land shark, Kishan Khurana (Boman Irani) has grabbed it and he is expected to pay a hefty sum to get his own land back. This alters Kamal’s entire worldview and throws him into the unfair world, which he probably knew existed but had never encountered so far. Trying to appeal to the authorities and other agencies does not help him. Meanwhile, Cherry is busy trying to get a work visa for the U.S., unmindful of his father’s trauma. Bunty tries to help his father but cannot. Just when things seem bleak, Cherry steps in and the whole family hatches a plot for beating Kishan Khurana at his own game and setting things right. Do they succeed forms the rest of the story.

The storyline is fairly simple and the conflicts in it are familiar everyday situations. The charm lies in the characterization of each person. No one is black or white but comes across, as your average person whose faults can be understood when you walk in that person’s shoes. Cherry seems insensitive but is nothing more than someone who has moved away mentally from his family into another wavelength. Bunty is the Man Friday but he is limited by the experience of someone young and competence of someone not too bright. Kamal reigns in the familiar world of his family but cannot handle a new order where his son Cherry is drifting away and people like Kishan Khurana exist.

The story is of course one of those feel-good ones and while you know that the second half may never exist in the real world, you are still happy to let it play out.

The finest performances come from the land shark team lead by Boman Irani. The man is in his element playing a ruthless Goonda who cloaks his slimy interior with an even slimier exterior. His lawyer Munjal, complete with pockmarks on his face, looks the part. The Delhi flavour of the movie lingers strongly right through the movie and with its authentic Punjabi accent and mannerisms provides a welcome relief from typical Bollywood. First time director Dibakar Banerjee can pat himself on his back for this decent debut. The production values are however none too great and in some scenes you can picturise the cameraman having walked heaving the camera. But hey, it is a low budget movie.

Watch it not expecting greatness but believable ordinariness.


Cricket Match

In yet another example of team building, my office decided to hold a cricket match. The match was between the front office and back office. I belong to the front office. The team had been hobbled together from the list of people who had applied from various locations across the country. Consequently they had had very little practice.

Ar from my office had volunteered to be the wicket keeper notwithstanding the fact that his last brush with cricket had been in his previous job 3 years ago and his last brush with exercising had been at his gym a couple of weeks prior to the match when he had gone to get as much value out of a three month membership as he could in one single day. S from my office had also volunteered. Thanks to a concerted effort at diversification (We are an equal opportunities employer) there was also one woman in the team.

On the day of the match, we all landed up at the stadium. Front office was fielding and back office was batting. Ar was standing behind the wicket wedged tightly in his wicket keeper’s gear making any kind of movement almost impossible. The rest of the team was scattered all over the field (though I am sure to the trained eye it denoted strategic positions).

The match began. Within the first over it became rather clear that back office would be a bigger challenge than what we envisaged. There was fanfare all around as they hit 4s consecutively. Front office decided that some quick strategizing was in order and grouped up, discussed stuff and then split up again. The result of the next over was the same. Within sometime, we were just happy if back office scored anything less than 36 runs in one over. Our guys were rather down on stamina and refused to chase the ball unless it came within 1 foot of them. Given that the field was large, that seldom happened. At halftime the score was 105 runs at 10 overs with 2 wickets down. Someone cruelly shouted out for Ar’s benefit ‘there is a difference between the umpire and wicket keeper. Get moving’. S who had bowled the worst over in the match was much disconcerted.

A change in strategy was required. P, the woman member, was called to bowl. Man, all I can say is there has never been so much suppressed sniggering in an audience. The opposing team’s supporter began to scream out her name in an effort to intimidate her. P also got intimidated and bowled pretty badly for two balls. And then she suddenly got into shape. We finished the over with lesser runs than what had been scored in any of the previous overs. Within another two overs she was back to bowling. One of the guys from the front office smirked ‘At this rate she will the ‘man’ of the match’. Har har har. Another guy from the opposite side screamed back ‘But we still have not played. The lady from our team could be the ‘man’ of the match too’. More har har har.

All I can say is what followed must have been one of the finest moments in our office’s cricketing history. P got a player out. And then again bowled more efficiently than any of the others and ended up breaking her previous record. The commentor announced that it was not surprising since she had played state level cricket at one point. More than what most people in the match had played. What a brilliant moment for proving women can be better than men in an obviously all-male situation! At least it got the guys cracking those silly jokes to shut up.

On that high note, I decided to leave as it was evident we would lose. As it turned out, we did not lose but the match came to a draw. The heavens, taking pity upon us, let loose a barrage of rain. The back office guys honourably offered to draw the match. And everyone went home, happy and contented.

Car story

Several weeks ago, one evening I was returning from a client meeting. I was quite ravenous and requested the office car driver to stop at a nearby bakery so I could pick up some snacks. I went in and made some selections and feeling quite pleased with myself for buying the last patty before another customer could, came out, got into the car and closed the door.
At this point, things went wrong. Instead of our sweet and meek car driver, a perfect stranger turned around and boomed in an irritated and inquisitive voice 'Excuse me'. That was when I realized I had gotten into the wrong car. Both cars were golden coloured Ford Ikons and the cars were parked in a haphazard way that precluded any checking of number (Not that otherwise it would have occurred to me to check the number).The stranger was on his mobile phone and presumably that explained his less-than-articulate dialogue. Not to mention, one is usually not geared up to handle situations where strangers begin popping into your car, complete with fresh food, and make themselves at home. I could not have gotten out of the car faster if I had discovered my co-passenger was a hungry Anaconda. The office driver was meanwhile was running to me to inform me that was not our car, a fact which I had gathered with first hand evidence by then.
Well, I was mortified to say the least and kept hoping the car driver would not tell anybody this story. The most striking thing about the whole situation when I thought about it later was that it was not too good on my ego. I have been watching Indian movies since the age of 1 and Indian movies are usually of the sugary syrupy kind where when the pretty heroine enters a stranger’s car by mistake, the stranger usually mutters a ‘wow’ in a this-is-my-lucky-day tone. The heroines usually (a) react by simpering equally if the driver is the Hero (b) proudly getting out if the driver is the Hero and it is one of those hate-turns-to-love movies or (c) beating a hasty retreat if the driver is a Goonda thus providing ample chances for the Hero to come to the rescue. While I would not have liked the story to continue on the lines of a, b or c, in my heart of hearts I was always hoping that when a situation like this happened to me, the driver would turn and say ‘wow’ in a this-is-my-lucky-day tone.
Sigh. Another reality check.


Seminar story

As things go, bang after my last entry on networking at seminars, I got tossed headlong into a seminar. If you were to draw a map marking off ‘Conversational skills’ on the Y-axis and ‘Time of the week’ on the X-axis, you will notice a major dip in my personal map around Saturday mornings. Usually I am at my impolite best, trying to get over the fact that I up early on a Saturday for some work related thing and I was up late night on a Friday.

So this morning I trudged in slowly at 9 a.m. into the seminar hall to find that in a room of the sixty possible seating places, my three colleagues had chosen four consecutive chairs in the first row. The fact that they had arrived early and had voluntarily chosen these seats did not help. This immediately killed all plans I had of SMSing my friends throughout.

The first thing that happens in most of these conferences is a bladder alert fifteen minutes into the programme. For some reason organizers believe that people get their money’s worth only if they are subject to air conditioning that makes them realise what afterlife is going to be when they are tucked away in a morgue. Within the first hour you know most people are fidgeting. Coffee break is welcomed by all at this point.

At the coffee break I realised I already knew someone over there. My colleague and I agreed unspoken that latching on to this guy would be the best idea to avoid feeling guilty about not being in active networking mode. We sidled up and did the polite conversation-over-coffee thing when our acquaintance’s friend steered a seemingly innocent question into a terribly sad story about his personal life. We had asked him if he had been with this company for long and he replied in the affirmative. And added that except for the one year break he took to look after his then ailing (and now dead) father. I am a considerate person and usually feel quite sorry when I hear about personal tragedies. However I have never figured out how to handle it when strangers start pouring out their tales of woe – not in a manner of seeking comfort from another human being but for just filling up awkward pauses.

I suddenly realised that I had not actually still ‘networked’ with anyone. So promptly turning to the stranger nearest to me, I smiled brilliantly, introduced myself and gave my card. He did the same and then apologized and pointed out that as the next speaker he would have to rush to the stage for setting up his power point slides. So much for accurate spotting of potential targets.

After an hour more, the last speaker came on stage. Much as it is unfair to be judgmental about people based on their looks, my colleague and myself agreed that clearly he spent a lot of time in deep and intense personal experiences with alcohol. This had not just added bags to his eyes and jowls to his jaw but also an ‘I-could-not-care-less’ aspect to his personality. 45 minutes into his speech, he had criticized a range of things from newspapers to the finance minister. His worried co-speakers, seeing no end to his speech and a fast approaching lunch hour gestured subtly to him that he was running out of time. Our man however was in no mood for subtle gestures. He interrupted his own speech to ask if it was time and when the answer was affirmative, stopped in mid sentence, thanked the audience and sat down.

At least since it was a half-day seminar, there was nothing else to do but wolf down some lunch and leave. And that is just what I did.

If anyone is wondering where exactly did I use the skills I had pontificated about the previous time you must realise the greatest networker is one who knows when the audience is not really in his target list and conserves his energy. Ok, that bit was complete rot, but Saturdays…No way.