22-Dec-2008

Walking about townside

Yesterday was nice. My sister was visiting and after two hectic days of shopping, we decided to spend the day just walking my favourite paths in townside. The cab dropped us off at the Trident end of Marine Drive where tons of news vans were parked. I realized that Trident was opening again. Some members of the public were already gathered to gawk. TV channels must have begun to hysterically scream about how Mumbai was back in business. We got away from all of that and began to walk among the standard Sunday morning crowd - old people power walking, marathoners practicing their runs, young couples shyly sitting on the parapet walls and holding hand. I had wanted to show my sis Marine Drive on a Sunday morning and it was heartening not to see the emptiness I had seen the weekend after the blasts.

She was pretty impressed anyway. And in one of those rare moments when we discuss the state of the world, she confessed that seeing Mumbai finally gave her hope that India could some day be like a developed country. ‘You mean, like the broad roads or the cool looking bus stops in Marine Drive?’, I asked, a little taken aback I must confess. After all, townside in Mumbai is hardly representative of the progress of the rest of the nation. ‘No. Those markers on Marine Drive that says how many kms you have walked. I never thought that we would actually spend on something that is a convenience, not an essential’. It made sense in someway. I guess our thinking has changed.

From there we went to Leopald for breakfast. Sis tucked in the yummy Akuri and Strawberry lassi and in the middle of it managed to roll her eyes at a couple of people who looked like hookers and I excitedly whispered how the area attracted backpackers, and consequently the trinket sellers, drug peddlers and also everyone else catering to this populace. Though from there, I restored respectability to the place by taking her to Good Earth, Adamjis and Titan, past all the branded stuff stores. It was not until a friend pointed out later did I realize that we had not thought of spotting the bullets which are still rumoured to be embedded in Leopald.

After walking the streets and randomly buying stuff, it was time to wind up with a mandatory photo shoot in front of the Gateway of India and Taj with pigeons flying about you. Unfortunately, entry to Gateway was through one of those metal detector gateways in a single file. My sister refused to join the rush of people surging through this pathway and could not get why there were so many people out on a Sunday noon forming a huge crowd.

I thought nonchalantly ‘Yeah, that’s Mumbai’

12-Dec-2008

In the Parliament - Bombay blast

December 2, 2008

Asif Zardari on Larry King Live

“Larry, I think these are stateless actors who have been operating all throughout the region. The gunmen, plus the planners, whoever they are, they are stateless actors who are holding hostage the whole world.”

December 3, 2008

Er..

December 4, 2008

Er…

December 5, 2008

Er…

December 6, 2008

Er…

December 7, 2008

Er…

December 8, 2008

Er…

December 9, 2008

Er…

December 10, 2008

Er...

December 11, 2008

Pranab Mukherjee in the Parliament ‘Have ‘non-state actors’ come from another planet,”

Whew. And just when I had given up hope we would come up with a good Bollywood style retort.

In the midst of this and other remarks in the Parliament that make you smack your head, (Manmohan Singh - There are no good terrorists or bad terrorists), we have come up with a series of impressive sounding measures.
But as the PM pointed out some of the measures had already been in place and the implementation never just took off. Will we follow up with action this time around?

06-Dec-2008

The week after we are still a mess - Bombay Blast

The last week has been rather surreal

- actually avoiding crowded places like malls and theatres, spending the first half of the week taking a cab home to avoid walking, sitting in office throughout the day with nary a lunch time walk…is this how people in war torn areas live? Is this how people in Kashmir live? I shudder to think of what they have been going through every day, day in and day out

- Mumbai’s siege may be over but we are still discovering undefused bombs containing RDX in CST, leftover from the last attack. Leftovers! Isn’t that the word used to describe what I find in my fridge after a week? Not for bombs in Mumbai’s most important railway station

- Look ma, no leaders! Maharashtra took its own sweet time to pick Ashok Chavan as CM. And Narayan Rane is still crying foul. Seriously you guys at the Congress top brass! If the purpose of sacking Vilasrao Deshmukh was to show that the Congress ‘cared’ about the nation and wanted someone who would deliver to take charge at the helm, then atleast go about it smoothly. It is not like the public was conned for one moment but it is rather embarrassing to watch you stumble over yourselves so much.

- Asif Zardari on Larry King Live claiming India has given no evidence of the nationality of the terrorists and in case evidence is given against the list of 20 terrorists we have demanded be handed over, they will be tried in Pakistan. Now imagine the Taliban guys post 9/11 sitting with Larry and saying this to the U.S……. Alright, we accept we are not the U.S. and Pakistan is not Afghanistan, but reading international press does not give me any confidence about India’s view point being portrayed fairly. My only hope is that we are working on a super secret plan to handle this whole thing that has (rightly) not been shared with the media yet. Think we should get there once we finish pacifying Rane.

- The discovery of the Quick Response Team trained by the NSG. Surprise, surprise we did have a quasi – NSG like squad all along but does anyone remember the acronym QRT being tossed around with ATS, NSG and RAF...neither do I.

02-Dec-2008

The aftermath - Bombay blast

The last few days have exposed the gaping holes in India’s security. No one had a clue that such large tranches of arms and ammunition were being moved along the coast. The agencies which did suspect it passed on the information to people who could act but who chose not to act. When the terrorists stuck, the Mumbai police was clearly out of its depth. It took the NSG ten hours to land in the scene of action. The media became a liability by providing information on what was happening at the three locations. Shivraj Patil in his interview to the media in the middle of Wednesday night sounded as clueless as the media about the reason behind the attacks and the scale of it. People stood around Nariman House cheering commandoes like a Trapeze artist had just finished his show in the circus and a couple of bystanders gawking at the scene in Taj actually got hurt in the crossfire.

The whole thing sounds like an unbelievable novel set in some impoverished nation in the 70s. Not like it happened in one of the world’s rapidly growing economic and nuclear powers. As a citizen of one, I would so love to kick some butt.

Why is our security not better than this?

We are surrounded by an elite crop of neighbours – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, and China. Pick any one name off this list and you cannot but wonder how we can be lax on security. What are we spending our money on if we don’t know what is going on right beneath our noses? And once hit, why is our response time so bad? While it is understandable that local cops can’t be expected to respond to extraordinary situations like this, why don’t we have specialized cops in all key places? It is not like this is a sudden occurrence. After all Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Assam – all of them were hit just this year. What is our strategy in the face of terror attacks and hostage situations? Do we fumble around before getting our act in place? Why did we have to lose our head of the Anti Terrorism Squad in the line of fire so early on when, with all due respect, he should have been planning strategy?

The fight going in the media about the exact number of terrorists was incredulous. Central sources claimed 15. Mumbai police said 10 landed and 5 went back. I am having a tough time trying to visualize 5 young, determined terrorists training for a year coming to Mumbai’s coast and saying to themselves ‘Oh dear, I don’t feel up to it. I am heading right back to Karachi’. The hatchet was buried when the Police commissioner clarified that the number was indeed ten and all terrorists were accounted for.

What are we doing about our esteemed neighbour, Pakistan, the hotspot of terrorists?

If anyone remembers Dawood Ibrahim (from the 93 Mumbai blasts)
it is probably from his sightings at social functions in Pakistan. The man will die a natural death before we can even extradite him. Our failure in bringing to task a man wanted in one of India’s most horrific attacks certainly sends out signals that we either don’t care or are incapable. Forget Dawood, the closest we have got to his on-the-ground guy in India, Tiger Memon, is to arrest his family including his younger brother, Yakub Memon, when they finally came back to India.

The universally accepted fact is that if ever a list of best training grounds in the world for an ambitious terrorist were to be made, Pakistan would be right up there in the list.

Does that mean we go to war with Pakistan?

Certainly not. If we did go to war, where would it stop? Unlike a boundary dispute where you know the purpose of aggression, this would just be ‘we will show them’ kind of war with no end in sight. On the other hand, the time has come to gang up with other nations. If Pakistan were to make inroads into Kashmir, it becomes a bilateral boundary dispute. If Pakistan were to train people to create terror situations, it is a global problem. The time is right, with such an outpouring of support from nations across the world, including the big daddy of all, the U.S. to put pressure through cutting them off. Stop dealing with them till they manage to demonstrate that they have put an end to ISI’s training-terrorists activities or managed to get some kind of control over the apparently wild North Western frontier which acts as a freeway in the arms trade.

So what are top honchos doing?

Bickering on TV. Vilas Rao Deshmukh had nothing useful to say and sulked in his interview
outside the Trident on Friday, implying that Narendra Modi should have stayed at home. Then he decided to get some goodwill for son Ritesh by taking Ritesh and Ram Gopal Varma on a guided tour of the Trident (Note to father and son – RGV’s films suck these days. You could have bet on someone else). R.R.Patil displayed his sensitive side by making a remark that sounded like a DDLJ quote on how small things happen in big cities. Kerela CM Achuthanathan’s massive ego made him make rude remarks about NSG's slain Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s family. Surely, these guys are not for real?

Do we sack them?

Oh yes. Atleast Deshmukh deserves to go. I don’t believe for one minute that his likely replacement, Sushil Kumar Shinde is more competent or less corrupt than he is. What we however need to demonstrate is the minimum standards that we, as the voting public, expect from our leaders. We expect that they understand that it hurts to live in the fear of where the next bomb would go off. We are shocked by how easily the sequence of events happened. We are outraged by the general air of cluelessness and silliness. We will put up with a lot and we do put up with a lot. But expecting us to put up with incompetence that threatens our lives, is really pushing us too far. If people in charge of our security cannot deliver, then we would like to see them pay for it.

So what do we do now?

No clue. Really. Taking part in candle vigils does not work for me. I can see it is a great outlet but am not sure if it is much of a solution. Not to mention, I am worried that it may provide an attractive venue for any leftover terrorists who did not take the boat back to Karachi as the Mumbai police claimed. Not being resilient and sitting at home is not an option. I have to pay my rent and feed myself.

I don’t think that voting out a particular party is enough. My only hope is voting out specific politicians who screwed up this time. It is one thing when your party does not come to power. But it hurts at a very personal level if you lose and are faced with the threat of becoming inconsequential within your party.

I am certain that Shivraj Patil will bounce back after a while. But in the interim, I am sure the ‘perks’ and the power he will lose on account of not being a cabinet minister for a couple of years will pinch. But imagine if he just lost elections and could not even come back as a cabinet minister. Boy, that would sure keep him awake at nights the way I woke up in fits on Wednesday night, very frightened. And when he comes back, hopefully, he will keep it in mind and deliver slightly better so as to not be sacked. And hopefully, other politicians in similar jobs also sit up and take notice of how ephemeral their posts are when they don’t deliver.

I still have faith that you can use your vote to make your voice audible. Just think about what your minimum standards are.

28-Nov-2008

This morning - Bombay blast

I knew the fight was not over as soon as I woke up. The sound of helicopters was loud in the air. I switched on the TV and could still see flashes saying the final hours of the operations are on. The ‘final’ hours have been on since last evening. You can’t believe it anymore. Even worse were the pictures of massive army trucks invading the narrow lanes past Colaba market. Moving past ‘Celejor’, the bakery that serves as a marker for me on when I am in that stretch.

Brushed my teeth to the sound of gunshots coming from behind my house somewhere. I knew it must have been Nariman House. I was reminded of this picture I had seen long ago in a Reader’s Digest magazine of a dentist continuing to work uninterrupted with sand bags piled up outside his window to protect against stray gunshots. The picture had been taken in Beirut.

Pretty much around then I could feel my eyes welling up, quite startling me.

27-Nov-2008

Today - Bombay Blast

The thing about going to sleep and waking up is that you hope everything was a bad dream and things would get better. They did seem to get better this morning, what with the hostage situation being contained to only three sites.

Somehow that was not the case

The day was spent in being glued to the TV. Flipping between channels to see if there is any progress, frustrated that there seemed to be not much and getting horrified to watch footage you had missed the previous night.

Intermittently, towards evening, I could once again hear faint sounds of either explosions or gunshots. Looking out of the window and peering out to a side, I could see a huge cloud of smoke over the Trident.

It has still not ended. Every hour there is fresh information on people dead, identities of people or some movement by the army. More than twenty fours after it started, it is startling to realise that it has still not ended.

Watching the Taj and the Trident burn is not an easy sight. Watching people come out dazed and being taken away is scary. Knowing that there are still people in there is even worse.

Even as the horror of the present fails to register, somewhere in my mind I am thinking about the future.

A few months ago when there were blasts in Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, I remember taking my usual route through Colaba Causeway. And panicking that if there were ever to be a bombing of a main market in Mumbai, this would be among the chosen places. I deliberately crossed to the other, less crowded side of the road (yes, futile) and continued walking. Now that things have come to pass, you feel scared and sad. I don't want to lose the pleasure of talking on my mobile and slowly sauntering home every day while discreetly checking out the new collections in Causeway's bright store fronts.

So far, it looks I will

Last night - Bombay Blast

I was sleepy from the previous night of fitful dozing and decided to turn in early yesterday. I was almost asleep when a friend called to check if I was alright and updated me on the firings and explosions in South Mumbai. Within an instant my brain made the connection with the two explosions I had heard earlier. They did not sound like fireworks, but I had told myself that. In a normal, functioning State, that’s what you tell yourself I suppose.

It was shocking. Colaba is home. It has the road through which I walk pretty much everyday. And last week while working late, I was walking past Cafe Leopald and the petrol pump near Bootleggers everyday after ten.

For some reason, being at home suddenly felt very unsafe. I locked the door, turned on the TV and settled to watch the news in the darkness. It was somehow scary turning on the lights and attracting attention to my house. It was not like masked gunmen would have looked at the lights, walked up to my specific house and waved AK-47s at me. Yet, the remembrance of the noise of the explosion and the conscious struggle in my brain to tell myself that it was nothing more than firecrackers had rattled me.

Watching live coverage of terrorist attacks must be one of the most surreal things one can do. Amdist calls and SMSes to check with each other or to warn people to stay at home, I watched the confusion of it all. No one could say what spot would be hit next. Most news channels were desperately trying to get policemen to say what was happening or to interview hotel guests who had escaped. Only a few could manage to maintain news value and not be voyeuristic.

I tried to get some sleep. No one knew what was happening and waiting for atleast one of the channels to bring closure to the events that seemed to have no end was disconcerting. Turning off the TV seemed sensible. But trying to sleep knowing that something was raging in the vicinity of your home was impossible.

Death tolls kept increasing. Anti terror squad personnel were being covered on TV even as they tried to sneak into the affected areas. Strange vehicles were trying to make getaways with suspected terrorists in them. People were emerging with blackened faces. News flashes reported new places where firings had been reported. Govt officials began to give interviews, sounding as informed as the average viewer watching TV. Real time TV is not neatly composed, edited and interspersed by advertisements. There is no time to summarize the events to bring new viewers up-to-date. There are no clips hailing dead police officers. It is all unfolding and it is unnerving.

Calling it a day around 2 p.m., I woke up intermittently to answer calls coming from the U.S.

This morning, T.V. was still showing live news. But they were neatly clipped, the big guns in each channel had been brought in, the army was there, there were claimants to the attacks and some of the news items were being re-reported evidencing the fact that pretty much most of the city was under control except for the three hostage spots.

Order is restoring. People have been asked to stay at home. But if the noise of the traffic that has started after an eerily quiet night is anything to go by, not all orders are being obeyed. The disconnect between TV and the reality around me is widening by the minute. Things are getting back to normal.

24-Nov-2008

Smile please

I have never looked good in a passport size photo so far. There are of course, basic factors that work against me. Such as the fact that people would be hard pressed to say I resemble Aishwarya Rai and the fact that I photograph quite badly. But add to that the fact that no human being in the recorded history of the earth has been known to look good in passport size photos and you know the picture is bleak

Yet, my parents persist.

I am due for a passport renewal. My dad mailed me a checklist he had made for mom earlier. My mom called me

Mom: Did you get the list?

Me: Yes

Not that she was worried that the list had been lost in cyberspace, since it had been sent to both my personal i.ds and my office i.d. It was merely a prelude to the next topic

Mom: Are you going to take a passport snap?

Me: Yes

Mom: Ok. Then please remember to put on some make up. Don’t smile too much. Don’t smile too little. Don’t look sad. Comb your hair.

Me: Yes

It is touching how parents believe that their progeny will look closer to Aishwarya Rai with just a little make up and the right facial expression.

I must admit that by the time I went to the photo shop, even I was slightly nervous. While never brilliant, my passport snaps had hit a new low with my new office ID. I looked like Eve in Beta version before God released her and it had shaken my confidence a bit. And given that a passport is something that you carry around for another ten years, you did not want immigration officers across the world visibly recoiling at the snap.

My plan was to dash across to the studio opposite my office at lunch hour and be done with it. Ten minutes before schedule, I was in the office washroom, armed with a huge make up pouch. I emerged after a while, the world already looking slightly better. Partly because it was hidden by my lashes, now thick with Mac Zoom Factor mascara.

The photo studio was not a large affair. It had a counter and a small place off the counter where patrons could smile and pose. The guys at the counter took your money and order and then quickly swung into the role of photographers. I tried not to look sad, or smile too much or smile too little. Infact, I went so far as not to blink or frown either. Especially when one of the guys at the counter hovered into the line of sight of the photographer, casting a shadow in my direction.

The snap was taken. I released my breath.
When I went back for the snaps, I was pleased to note that it was not too bad. Infact, the creases from my eyes to my mouth, curving around my cheeks had been gently erased. Clearly, the days of the skillful photographer were gone. It was the rule of the skillful Photoshop editor.

I don’t think they will meet my mom-standards. After all, the image she has of how I look could be a tad different from the opinion of the casual observer. I, however, do think that airport officials shall not take a quiet moment off their busy schedules to chuckle at my passport.

Not a bad deal at all.

13-Nov-2008

Conversation with colleague on Quantum of Solace

Male Colleague: So did you catch the new Bond movie?

Me: Yep. I thought it was quite incoherent

MC: I swear. I am planning to watch it again so I can understand it better. I did not get the story

Hello!

Me: Yeah, but no one got the story since the screenplay and editing was bad. Not because it had layers and meanings.

MC nods thoughtfully. Feel slightly sorry for him and decide perhaps he can be dissuaded from watching the movie again if I tell him what the movie was about.

Me: I think the movie was a bit about closure

MC: You mean like closing the company the villain runs?

Clearly MC had not seen sitcoms like Friends and Sex and the City and had no clue about such lingo.

Me: Er..no. It is about Bond coming to terms with his girlfriend’s death in the last movie

MC visibly recoils

MC: That sounds like a Mills and Boons novel

Add Mills and Boons to the list of things MC has not experienced

Me: No. In a MB, they just spend 100 pages pretending to dislike each other and in the last page they make up..

(and usually make out, I add mentally)

MC nods thoughtfully. He has clearly learnt more girlie terminology in the last ten minutes than he has in his entire life. He has also quickly learnt that trying to discuss Bond movie with women may not always result in a blow by blow analysis of the action.

MC changes subject quickly.

09-Nov-2008

Quantum of So Less

Bond movie rating

a) 100 Rs ticket for last row at Sterling Cinema – worth it
b) 325 Rs ticket for 4th row from the front in Inox Multiplex - not worth it

Scatter brained plot (and we are only comparing with other Bond movies here), jerky action sequences and a random influx of characters who die before you notice their existence made this movie trip quite bland.

Methinks action movie directors are going through a lot of existential angst. ‘Do we focus on mere action sequences or do we bring in the emotional trauma of the protagonist?’ is the question that seems to be springing to the lips of the whole lot. Good movies at both ends of the spectrum work (Case in point - Die Hard and Dark Knight). But most of them fall somewhere in the middle, giving the viewer one solid headache and plenty of time to think about everything in their lives other the movie. An excellent example of this horrid failure is Wanted. It did give me a regular optometrist workout as I rolled my eyes continuously at bullets being shot in curved lines, the hero suddenly taking up the cause of a dad he had never met in his life and Angelina Jolie finally looking like an anorexic hockey mom instead of hot babe. As a friend put it, at the end of the movie you began to appreciate the gritty realism of Rajnikant movies.

The best game plan to not drown in Hollywood’s murky waters is to sit at home and watch TV. Yup, for anyone who has not yet woken up to the existence of World Movies and NDTV Lumiere, please turn on the idiot box. And enjoy.

30-Oct-2008

Crackers

I remember Diwali as a kid. We never used to have enough crackers. It was always begging some kind adult for an extra ten rupees to go and buy another round of crackers. It is not like our folks never bothered to get us any. But we would run through them fairly rapidly. Sometimes even before Diwali officially began.

The fun began when the whole family got together. The main show when we were kids was ‘The Train’. We would have spent a whole afternoon lighting up snakes (that produced an ugly black coil of soot, accompanied by a disgusting smell and left burnt marks all over the floor). We would have run through the safer, more sedate ‘kuruvi vedis’. Then the adults would wake up; have their evening cuppa and The Train process would begin. A long thread would be tied from one end of the corridor to the other. One uncle would post himself at one end. Another would man the starting point. One would get a bucket of water, handy for maintenance work. Another would just pace around advising all three on how to do their jobs better. Our moms and aunts would usually watch the spectacle, just laughing aloud. Then The Train would be ready. Kids would be shooshed away to safe watching spots. The cracker would be lit at one end. Beating speeds of a Japanese Bullet train, it would whoosh on the thread to the other side. The naked eye could usually see only a trail of smoke and a slight sparkle here and there. We kids would remember to breathe again. One year, the train managed to burn an old mask made of coconut hair that was unfortunately hung in the passage way. I think it must have been the greatest adventure in my seven years of existence.

As I grew, and approached my cracker-bursting-prowess’s peak, there came a Diwali when a cousin and I lit crackers with one hand and flung it casually from his 6th floor balcony. Of course, my parents or relatives had no clue that we were doing this. Our hearts thumped from the fear of being scarred for life and of being discovered, the latter a more potent one. There was also the challenge of ensuring that the cracker burst after it left your hands but well before it hit some unsuspecting pedestrian on the road. The adrenalin rush and the arguments on how to ‘time’ your cracker…

After a while, I enjoyed bursting crackers with my younger cousins, but I was certainly not the enthusiast who begged everyone to come and start bursting crackers the minute the sun began to go down a bit.

Since then, it has been a steady downward slide. This Diwali, as also several previous ones, has been quite sedate as far as the explosives division is concerned. For tradition’s sake we had to get one packet of sparklers for the morning prayers. It lay quite forgotten after that.

Of course, I can now nobly join the activists who talk about the air and noise pollution created. Infact, I vividly remember mentally cursing some of the colony kids for bursting crackers during my post prandial siesta. But then, in the evening, when I saw them arguing with each other on ‘timing the cracker’ and rushing up to their parents for another round of crackers, I sheepishly let another new generation take my place.

07-Oct-2008

Ten steps to catch a mouse

1. Realise that stupidly leaving the kitchen window open is the surefire way of turning the fruit basket atop fridge into a rodent hotspot. Curse self and close all possible outlets through which mouse can enter

2. Realise mouse is still entering and exiting at will. Do research on mousetraps and purchase cutting edge mousetrap (basically a piece of cardboard with super glue on it )

3. Worry about what happens if the mouse is actually caught in the mousetrap. Will it nibble off your hand while you pick up the trap and throw it away? Will you die of leptosorosis?

4. Buy Mortein Ratkill and place it atop the mousetrap along with a piece of banana. Order of events as envisaged theoretically – mouse will smell the banana and jump onto the mousetrap. It will struggle to free itself. After all that energy, it will feel hungry and start eating the Ratkill. Then it will die. In the morning, you can throw out the entire contraption alongwith the dead mouse. Order of events as occurred practically – mouse smells the banana and jumps onto the mousetrap. It eats the banana. Then eats the Ratkill. Then jumps off the mousetrap leaving two tiny footprints.

5. Scream out in frustration

6. Ask maid to pick up a traditional mousetrap. Hang pieces of apples, banana and carrot on the trap and watch it disappear everyday. Realise you are incapable of setting the spring gently. Blame it on the defective make of the trap. Meanwhile notice mouse has become fit and has got 20:20 vision from healthy diet.

7. Scream out in frustration.

8. Realise mouse has taken up residence in the depths of the old, battered sofa the landlord has given you. Purchase new mousetrap yourself after testing several in the shop.

9. Set the trap at night. Jam all doors with newspapers. Lock yourself into your bedroom against your new co-tenant and feel like Robert Neville, the protagonist of I am Legend battling against the vampires. Repeat process every day while mouse pitter patters around the house happily after carefully avoiding the mousetrap

10. Scream in frustration

And one fine day your maid calls you at work and announces that she caught the mouse with her bare hands and flung it out of your fifth floor window. Slobber into the phone emotionally and speak corny Bollywood dialogues like ‘Aapne tho sach much kamal kar diye’. (You worked miracles) Stop before telling ‘mein tho zindagi bar apaki abhari rahoongi’ (I will be indebted to you for the rest of your life). Heave a sigh of relief and try not to think that the sixth sense is highly overrated in the human vs mouse battle.

p.s. Looks like the city is fighting a losing battle against the rodent problem and there are still some brave men out there.


28-Sep-2008

Chicken in White Wine Sauce

Key ingredients

Some of the 1.5 kg of chicken breast and legs in your freezer, leftover on account of enthusiastically over ordering when cooking Chicken Masala for the previous week’s dinner.

White wine – leftover from the bottle your friends got for the previous week’s dinner

Sour cream – substitute with yoghurt

Paprika – substitute with chilli flakes

Parsley – substitute with coriander leaves

Mushrooms – substitute with onions (all the time cursing your grocery store for not stocking mushrooms)

Method

Read your oven guide and familiarize yourself with the controls.

Grease baking pan with butter (substituted with ghee) and place defrosted chicken in it

Put pan in oven and turn it on.

Remove fruit basket, two hand towels, one notepad and one pen from top of oven when you realize oven is glowing red.

Prepare sauce by heating some ghee in your pan, frying the onions, adding curd, adding wine, adding parsley, upturning dish of paprika into sauce, picking out paprika pieces from sauce, giving up on the tiny pieces that have stuck to the other ingredients and finally adding a dash of honey to even out the taste.

Turn off oven. Turn chicken pieces. Add sauce. Turn on oven again.

Watch the oven lovingly as the chicken looks more and more cooked.

Turn off oven, serve chicken on bed of rice and eat.

Wince at slightly watery sauce but feel pleasantly mellow on account of the wine.

12-Sep-2008

Thinking of B-School Days...

The morning began with a nostalgia-inducing newspaper article on going back to campus. Thoughts wandered back to the time when I was a gangly, wide-eyed new student on my B-School campus. While I cannot remember too much of the stuff I crammed into my head during the two years, there are some awesome memories that flash forward in my mind when I think of all good things on campus.

The buildings. Our campus was made of grey stone. Set amidst lots of trees and greenery, just looking at the massive edifice gave you a sense of purpose and history. When I saw the building for the first time during my group discussions and interview, suddenly I so desperately wanted to be a part of the group of people who wandered through these magnificent settings in their shorts and t-shirts, casually owning the place. When it was time to leave at the end of two years, I went around taking snaps of each of those buildings, feeling happy to have just been in such architecture.
The canteen. After eating school and college hostel stuff that qualified as food by a thin margin, food here seemed gloriously rich and tasty. I was shocked when I found out that a batchmate was forced to eat out everyday since he found the food here ‘unpalatable’. Sure the watery Maggie noodles served on Thursdays, may not have been entirely interesting. But boy, Desan, the ex-army canteen manager of ours, ensured that the chicken curries and rawa dosas were scrumptious.
The finance quizzes. No I am not a geek who gets her kicks out of drawing binomial trees. In the first term of corporate finance, we encountered our God-Corp Fin prof who was so funny that all the women had a crush on him and all the men wanted to be as effortlessly witty. His quizzes were full of puns, Bollywood stories and plenty of dry humour, all carefully built around some discounting problem to find IRR and NPV. Half my time used to go in chuckling at the questions, and the rest used to be spent in actually solving the problems. But not all fin quizzes are wired into my mind for pleasant reasons. I remember sitting in an open book, three-question Derivatives final that stretched for four hours. Everybody was watching everyone else watching everyone else. Eventually we all wrote something, submitted our papers and then spent years afterwards recounting our individual traumas.
The admin man. Every institute has a super-efficient admin guy who does work, unhindered by anything as namby-pamby as human emotions or personal biases. During exams, it was his job to ensure we began on time, got the correct quizzes and did not attempt anything as foolhardy as copying from each other. In one of the exams, my batchmate was solving a quiz by the tried and tasted method of tossing a coin. Admin man looked at everyone sternly and said ‘no exchanging of coins’. With a twinkle in his eye. I think that was the only time I saw him say something nearing a joke.
The campus shop. That supplied everything, including very very desi pizzas and tomato ketchup from red, plastic containers that must have had an entire ecosystem thriving on its edges.

Placements. The flashpoint to which the two years in campus are pretty much supposed to lead. Finding that your name is not on the list, whereas that of the batchmate ranked 20 places below is there. Hearing ‘November Rain’ blasting out from your friend’s room as she mulled over being rejected in yet another group discussion. Writing pages and pages of Statement of Purposes and polishing up your C.V. It was a stressed out, ugly time. In the course of a few hours, your entire two years on campus got translated into a brand name job and great starting pay. After all these years, most of us have realized perfect jobs do not translate to consulting or investment banking. Each of us has found happiness and/or success in different fields. If only, we had had the wisdom back then…

The B block. Whose 1st and 2nd floors were occupied by the girls. We thought we were too cool. We were sure we were funnier and cleverer than most people and when our juniors came, we passed on this message to them too. We made some of our best friends there and they continue to be so till day.

That feeling. That others gave you when you told them you were a student at a premier institution. People used to read about fancy starting pays on your campus and look at you with pride or envy (depending on whether they liked you or not). When your cousins told their friends where you were studying. When the world seemed to be full of possibilities, most of it involving being the CEO of Lehman Brothers/HLL someday. You were considered as one of the smartest and the best in the whole country.

I was too old by the time I came to B-School to give it the kind of absolute ‘perfection’ certificate that I gave my class twelve days. But it sure had its moments.

04-Sep-2008

Timepass Poll

So the other day I was chatting with a friend about the James Blunt song, You are Beautiful.

(I have never been a fan of James Blunt. I always thought his voice sounded nasal and a bit shrill. Of late, though, I have started liking the You are Beautiful number. For those who have not heard the song, judge for yourself here. And for those who have not heard the song clearly, here are the lyrics. Finally, for those who would like a short synopsis of what this song is about – Male protagonist sees random gorgeous woman in a subway and meets her eye. And moans about how he will never see her again since they both are just strangers who shared a moment in a crowded sub)

I thought that if the random gorgeous woman had indeed turned around and given him her number, he would have just shrugged his shoulders and walked off. After all, men chasing women is a bit like a dog chasing a car. Once you reach the car, you are not entirely sure why you began the activity in the first place.

My friend (at this point I must add he is male) was shocked. He thought Blunt had indeed spotted his soulmate and when men meet their soulmates they just go for it.

And since we were so much at the opposite ends of the spectrum, I decided to conduct an absolutely unscientific poll with a sample of views collected from a cross section of my friends. So I (along with inputs from my friend) created this quick poll:

Do you think if the girl in the James Blunt song ‘You are beautiful’ actually turned around and gave her number, he would call her?

Option A - No way. He would lose interest now that the chase is over
Option B - Of course, today might be his lucky day

The poll was promptly mailed to about 30 friends.

A week later, this is what the responses look like

9 of the 12 women who responded voted for option A
5 of the 7 men who responded voted for option B

I am wondering now if all the women I know (myself included) are really this cynical…

I can only think of two possibilities are

Men are actually nice. Us women have become cynical
Men are deluded. They think they will call but won’t

My friend, on the other hand, thinks that women should be more liberal in giving out their numbers!

p.s. If anyone wants to see/participate in the poll, here are the links for men and women. It is the same
question. But since I was too lazy to sign up for a proper free site that let me ask people multiple questions, just created one poll each for the demography I was looking at

17-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Lamayaru, Alchi, Magnetic Hill..The End


Lamayaru is popularly called the Moonland. This is because of the fairly strange appearance of the rocks there. After three hours of travelling by the Indus, and eating fresh juicy apricots, we began to see the difference in the terrain. The rocks were yellowish and looked quite porous (see pic). Whether they resembled the surface of the moon, was a difficult thing to figure out given that none of us had had a chance to go there personally.

The monastery looked nice and again we wandered around blankly trying to make sense of the deities.

The sun got a little higher as we moved on to Alchi and reached just before lunchtime. Alchi’s monastery turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It is an excellent example of a Buddhist temple built under the Kashmiri influence. The people in various murals did not have slanting eyes but the full, popping-out Indian version. There was a small picture of the king and queen who had funded the construction. There was a lovely statue of the four Buddha Dhyanis, each facing a different direction and painted in a different colour. The murals, statues, architecture, all of them seemed considerably richer than that of any other monastery. We sat and just breathed in the air for a while.

Lunch involved eating well and watching a gang of five young, Punjabi couples who sat around a table and had nothing to say to each other. Eventually one of them played music from his mobile, filling up the silence at their table and breaking the harmony in others. We quickly got out of our stupor and pushed off to our next destination.

Magnetic Hill is a bit of a science project. For some strange reason, cars on that road can move uphill when the ignition is off. We reached the spot and watched with wonder as Stanzin switched off the engine, put the car on neutral and the car began to move uphill. There is a scientific explanation attached to this but I must say the whole uphill movement seemed pretty convincing.


The spots for the day had been done quite early and there was enough time to check out a local museum called Hall of Fame. It had been funded by the airforce and contained a lot of information on the Kargill war and the Siachen glacier. In addition, it also had a general overview of local culture, fauna and flora. Despite being a time filler for us, it turned out to be a very worthwhile visit. Especially for people like me who had clearly skipped out on a lot of history. Catching up on how India began to fight the world’s highest battle at Siachen was in equal parts fascinating and depressing.

Our last day had zoomed by and in no time we were having one last Ladakh meal at Pumpernickel. The next morning we would all be off to our respective homes. Most of which involved landing bang in the midst of civilisation, noise and pollution.

And would be left with memories of random things. Like the day Sandeep emerged into the bright sunlight from his tent in Tso Moriri to walk towards the washrooms. And announced to the world ‘Gosh, I never thought I would go to the loo someday with my sun glasses’

As usual, we had laughed ourselves silly. And would probably continue to do so for a few days to come.

14-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Hundar to Leh

Another early start for the day. We woke up, packed, drank our tea and paced around waiting for Stanzin to show up. Meanwhile, the guruji of the camp was awake. What is it about foreigners, especially women, who can get conned by any Indian guy in traditional clothes and with longish, graying hair? The previous evening, at dinner, we had noticed him sitting at a table with three wide-eyed women. I overhead some bits of the conversation. The stressed out Handyman had already begun to draw up his schedule for the morning. He checked with the guruji and the foreigners what time they would like their tea to be served. Guruji had assumed a wise smile and intoned ‘What do we know what time we would like the tea’. In a voice reserved to say things like ‘What time do we know when death approaches’. Surely, morning tea requires a little less pomp and more planning.

Waving bye to Nubra felt a little sad. I had really enjoyed everything – the walk, the monastery, the stay and the overall relaxed pace of that segment. The journey back did not take too long. Khardung La was a brief halt. Everyone tried walking up to a small temple there and felt completely out of breath.

We were well in time for lunch at Pumpernickel. Contrary to what we had been told earlier, Pumpernickel had existed and we had found out serendipitously. There was no electricity as we sat in the dim room, lit by small bulbs run on a generator. The menu, however, had me salivating. Between us, we ordered enough continental and Middle Eastern food to qualify as foreigners. Silence followed, as we dug into the Schnitzels and Shakshukas.

Sandeep had decided to watch a documentary on Ladakh at the Women’s Alliance Centre. I decided to go along. It turned out to be a dated one, made in the early 90s, urging Ladakhis to be mindful of losing their precious culture to the western influence. A viewpoint, that I have always found slightly unrealistic and biased. How do you convince a poor man wanting to move beyond butter tea that aspiring for a Mars bar will prove to be worthless in the long run?

We walked back to our guesthouse, debating on this topic and taking in the view in those parts of town. Evening brought more walking, as we explored some more streets. Dinner was to be at Pumpernickel again, but in a spirit of inquiry, I convinced everyone to try out the much recommended Ibex restaurant. A disasterous choice as it turned out. Oh well, one lives and learns.

13-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Nubra Valley (Diskit, Hundar)


We were supposed to begin the day with a 7 km trek through the desert. It turned out to be a 6 km walk on the village road, with one final sandy bit. We had been warned the ‘trek’ would take atleast a couple of hours. We finished it in slightly over an hour, without any breaks. Stanzin smiled sheepishly and told us that Indians normally took a long time to walk this stretch and stopped for breaks every ten minutes. The destination point had been the famous Bactrian camel ride near Hundar. We were very early and after running up and down the sand dunes for a while, finally decided to get the camel owners to get moving on the ride bit.

Bactrian camels, unlike normal camels, are double humped. I watched with wonder as they appeared into view. Unlike the lovely photographs I had seen before, their humps were kind of sagging over their backs. Besides, they all looked terribly tall. Mine looked terribly annoyed. After I got onto it, he was persuaded to stand up. Then he looked around and decided to sit down again. One more round of persuasion later, he stood up again. Each time, he decided to do his squats, I lurched, my heart lurched, the world around me lurched. Throughout the fifteen minute ride, I sat clutching the rug tied to the camel with my sweaty palms. Many photos later, we were done.

After checking out of the Olathang Hotel where we were staying and grabbing a bite, we decided to visit the Diskit monastery. Sachin and Sandeep, enthused by the morning walk, decided to walk it up. The rest of us, wisely refrained from exercising our limbs in a post lunch stupor and took the vehicle. At any rate, it was not long before the duo joined us at the monastery.

Diskit’s monastery is old and situated on a picturesque mountaintop. It has plenty of staircases leading to various hidden corners and locked doors. Also, being in the less frequented Nubra, it did not have quite as many visitors. We decided to park ourselves in one of those stairways that wrapped itself around the monastery. The view was stunning. The only sounds were that of a river flowing nearby and Sandeep trying various threads of conversation as the rest of us sat in silence.

After some general quiet and peace, it was time to move on to Hundar, our next stop. The guesthouse here was not so fancy. But it was by far the best in terms of a view. Our rooms were located in a lovely cottage with a lovelier porch. The porch faced the mountainside and we could see an old monastery perched somewhere in the middle. When we walked about town in the evening, we realized that this old monastery was not frequented often and had a narrow, long and steep walk up to it. We stuck to the relatively popular and comfortably accessible town monastery.

Aswath, (winner of the moniker ‘go-getter Nirvana seeker’), plopped down to meditate. Everyone tried it for a while. Boy! sitting on crossed legs with a straight back is quite torturous. Give me stretching my legs by walking any day and a while later I decided to give up on religion and begin exploring nature alongside the nearby river. Everyone joined and all of us chose our spots and did our own thing. As I sang corny old 90s Hindi songs to myself, confident that no one would hear me above the sound of the river, Sachin amused himself by singling out the sound of the river in different spots and Priyanthi simply lay on a rock and looked at the sky.

We walked back up and started chatting with the military guys there. They were guarding a bridge that had ‘no access beyond this point’ signs plastered clearly. This turned out to be the road to Siachen, one of the contentious border areas that India has with Pakistan. Postings to Siachen can be long and lonely and at that altitude, even eating becomes painful. The army chap smiled wryly when we told him we loved the mountains. ‘Try seeing them for one year continuously’ he commented, mocking my definitely urban soul.

Back at the guesthouse, the completely unused pack of cards was finally used, while we waited for 8.30 p.m. – our dinner slot. Given limited dining space and a limited kitchen, all of us had to pre-order the food and show up at the scheduled time. Except, our scheduled time got pushed as the single handyman running the show scurried about. Eventually, we were served. Priyanthi and I sat and cast quizzical glances at each other when we spied a Bengali couple, clearly on their honeymoon, being chaperoned by an elderly gentleman. The handyman, meanwhile, in an effort to be chatty with his customers, asked us if we were sisters. We both spontaneously replied ‘Yes’. The idea of trying to explain that we were friends, who looked similar, just seemed too tiring and unnecessary

12-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Nubra Valley, Khardung La


By the time we got to the grocery store, figured out that there was no electricity, searched out an internet café which would let us download songs from Sandeep’s mobile and then set out for Nubra, it was a bright and sunny ten a.m.

The road to Nubra goes past Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road at 18000 + feet. It also seemed to be the sharpest ascent, since in a mere 35 kms, we had scaled 4000 feet from Leh. Stanzin drove the last bit very slowly and carefully, yet my heart was pumping really fast as I pointedly looked ahead, ignoring the sheer drop. There were cyclists pushing ahead with amazing amounts of energy. At that altitude, you had to be superfit to even attempt cycling.

We had already seen Taglang La and Chang La and could not wait to see what Khardung La looked like. The peaks around us were beginning to appear at our eye level, so were the distant clouds (that's a pic taken on the way).



Then we reached. We could have been on Chennai’s Marina Beach or Ooty’s Dodhabeta or Mumbai’s Gateway of India. The crowd was unbelievable. There was a buzz as everyone followed the routine of getting off, using the toilets and then positioning themselves in front of one of the many boards that proclaimed ‘Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass’ to take a snap. Aged aunties, who rightfully should have been pumped with oxygen given the difficult in breathing, waddled sprightly to the nearest signboard. And some of them were being given oxygen later. But photos at any cost seemed the motto.

Stanzin later explained that a lot of people made it a point to make a day trip to Khardung La from Leh. Hence it usually got crowded and touristy. Seeing no reason to stay for too long, we followed the routine and then continued to Nubra Valley.

The descent took long, over 100 kms of winding roads. We stopped for army convoys making their way over to Leh and stared in wonder at all the vehicles. Nubra finally appeared, in its beautiful valley glory. There was a green patch. Then there was a vast, flat mudland with a single tarred road running in the centre of it. We could have been in a James Bond movie, discovering a nuclear hideout for Russians. It was so deserted, desolate, yet humming with activity.

It was long past lunchtime, yet the fat, home-made chowmein that was presented to us as food had few takers. Stuffing what we could, we made our way to Panamik and watched the hot spring – a tiny bit of water gurgling from the bowels of the earth, fairly hot when it appeared and gradually cooling down. From there, it was to Samsthanaling Monastery at Sumoor. Just 150 years old, this was much quieter than any of the monasteries we had seen earlier.

It was my turn to sit at the back of the car. The day had been long and hot. The ride was getting bumpy. The music CD, after having regaled me with a medley of various favourite artists, had settled into Metallica. The speakers were right over my head and amplifying what I had already put down as noise. In a matter of minutes, I was cranky and snapped at anyone who ventured to talk to me. Yet all was forgotten when we got stuck in a ‘traffic jam’ (basically the guy operating the road roller for an ongoing road construction refusing to let anyone pass through till he finished one segment). We got out and jumped around in the nearby sand dunes, playing like little kids.


We reached Diskit when it was beginning to get dark. Everyone else went for a walk in the two streets forming the town. I stayed back and read my book. Dinner turned out to be really nice, especially after the sad lunch. I slept well, dreaming of sand dunes and Metallica.


10-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Pangong


I slowly began to pack my stuff. Priya was still finishing her morning routine. There was a knock at the door. I opened it, wondering if another round of tea was being sent up. There, bright eyed and bushy tailed, stood Sachin, Aswath and Sandeep. It was ten minutes to start time. My jaw dropped to the floor. With the smuggest smile I had seen the trio asked ‘you girls are not ready yet? Let us know when you are’. And triumphantly, they marched back to their rooms.

We had an unprecedented record of sorts.

The road from Tangste to Pangong is quite unassuming till you reach the river bed. With huge, round stones strewn all around, and water beginning to trickle in, I was surprised that any vehicle other than a four wheel drive could even attempt riding on them. We watched as various vehicles began to slowly trudge their way. Stanzin was leading from the front – now dislodging the rocks, next jumping on the vehicles to stop them from sinking to the ground, he was having a busy day. Eventually, our vehicle passed through too.

Pangong was another beauty. Not as brilliantly blue as Tso Moriri, it was still impressive in its sheer vastness. With a length of 140 kms, of which about two third lies in Tibet, the lake seemed like the sea. I had never seen such large lakes at any rate and could not stop oohing. Then all of us settled to do our own thing. Which in my case turned out to be an obsessive need to throw stones into the water in a manner where they skimmed the surface of the lake at several points before sinking. I got pretty good at the game before it was time to leave, even wondering if I would be given admission into the Shaolin Chambers.

We had a late breakfast at Tangste at a lovely riverside restaurant, listening to the water tumbling over rocks. The journey back to Leh was long but had a good stop at Changla, with free tea supplied by the army helped matters and we got the unique blessings of Changla baba (see pic).

It was evening when we reached. But boy, were we glad to see the hot showers!


The plan was to try to get some new music CDs. The guys decided that the first stop would be to check with internet cafes if they could cut us CDs from their stock. Priya and I used the time to shop and generally browse. Finally we realised that one of the grocery stores that had been playing Iron Maiden when we last shopped there would probably be happy to let us cut a CD from their collection. As the rest of us ordered dinner at the Dreamland restaurant, Priya and Sandeep sat and selected songs for a nice compilation. Unfortunately the store’s CD drive was not working. We would have to come back in the morning with my pen drive. Still, the music scene was looking up.

09-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Tangste

Tip for the day – carry mouthwash for days when it is too cold to rinse your mouth out with the tap water

I discovered just how cold the water can get at 5.15 in the morning when I made some attempts at brushing my teeth. The rest did not fare better. We were ready to be off by 6.30, as usual half an hour late.

We were taking the picturesque Leh-Manali road. In about an hour’s time, we reached Taglang La, the world’s second highest motorable road. Despite the cold breeze, all of us jumped out to take ‘I have been there’ pictures. Then we jumped right back in and continued. The scenery was beautiful, especially the trees which stood out after days of no greenery.

Stanzin decided to reload the diesel in the car and nonchalantly strolled to a store to pick up a can of the stuff. Then he casually lit a cigarette and got down to switching the diesel from one can to another. Priya and I gasped as the vision of all of us being blown into a huge red fireball loomed in front of our eyes. But nope, the man just grinned when we pointed out the idiocy of it. Our secret suspicion that he was some kind of a super hero in disguise began to grow.

After breakfast at Upshi, we turned into the road for Pangong. After several hours, we began to get the news that the road to Pangong had been flooded. By the time we reached Pangong’s nearest village, Tangtse the news had been confirmed. With no other options, we decided to check into a guest house in Tangste and fantasize about our tents in Pangong. Though secretly, I was happy to be in a warm room with an attached toilet again after two days of freezing in a tent.

Our guesthouse seemed to be quite large and had a beautiful picture of a well developed city in a terrain similar to Ladakh’s. Priya ventured that perhaps it was China’s vision for Leh. Which was a pretty reasonable one given how close we were to Tibet, the huge Indian army presence and how many areas seemed to be accessible only through permits. As it turned out, the picture was actually that of Lhasa. It was difficult to believe Lhasa was this large and commercial.

The evening’s entertainment involved walking up Tangste’s single street, noting the army depots and camps. Dinner was at the guesthouse, where we were served in traditional low Ladakhi tables and given chopsticks to eat with. I played with my food for a long time, swallowing tiny pieces of noodles and rice, finally discovering why all Chinese women looked so thin. There is no way anyone can have a full meal on those sticks.

We went to sleep, warning the boys that we really had to be on time the next day given that the road to Pangong would get flooded before 10 a.m.

07-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Tso Kar


We had a late start, only at 11. Around ten, I developed a splitting headache. Sachin had one too. High Altitude sickness was hitting the two of us. We staggered into the jeep and held our heads for pretty much half of the bumpy ride to Tso Kar. Luckily, drinking lots and lots of water and eating Diamox helped. We recovered in time for our driver, Stanzin, to pull up by a stream with two black necked cranes. An endangered species, it is usually hard to spot them.

Gingerly, we all began to walk silently, trying not to crunch up the rubble. After a while, only Sandeep and Aswath were continuing. The cranes did not fly away. Instead, they seemed to be playing a game too, moving in a manner that kept the distance between them and us constant. Eventually Sandeep and Aswath abandoned the quest and came back. We decided to have our packed lunch (another rip-off from Nomadic camp) and watch the birds. Stanzin finished off his lunch quickly and then grabbing our camera, decided to stalk them. Much more suited to the job than any of us, he nimbly bounced from one rock to another and kept at the job for a long time. Eventually he came back, gave his lopsided grin (which we would all grow to suspect and love) and informed us that he had not clicked the pics in zoom mode. So after all that time and effort, we had pictures of two black and white spots.

Tso Moriri is a great bio diversity hot spot. We could not see a single bird that looked normal (which by Mumbai definition would mean pigeons, crows and the occasional sparrows). We spotted various ducks, red starts and rose finches, not to mention the camera-shy burrowing creatures – the marmots. None of which I would have been able to name but for Aswath. Even without knowing the names, it was possible to admire them, beautiful as they were.

The journey to Tso Kar, did not take too long – around four hours and was in some strange way quite picturesque. However, the road was barely there. We seemed to be driving over plain ground for most part, giving Stanzin a chance to show off the vehicle’s ruggedness. Jolted, we arrive in Tso Kar.

‘Tso’ means lake. It was a bit of a surprise when we realised that Tso Kar did not have a lake. Infact our campsite was at what had been a lake bed once upon a time. The lake had long receded to other parts. Nevertheless, we did our mandatory strolling and clicking. Dinner was much more sumptuous, and less well priced. The tents were also warmer. All of us slept much better.

05-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Tso Moriri


This was the day when we would begin our tour of Leh’s prominent lakes. Our first stop was Tso Moriri. We began by stopping at Indus ghat, where there is a small structure on the banks of the Indus River. The drive was hot and a bit boring once we got used to the brown mountains, repeated ad infinitum. The music was none too good. I had grabbed a few assorted English CDs from my collection of ‘I don’t care if these CDs get damaged’. Madonna’s American Pie began the series and we wound our way past Pretty Woman and so on. Sandeep had earlier suggested that perhaps I should call the CDs ‘done to death’ in honour of the clichéd stuff. Pointing out that I was the only one who had got along any CDs did not help. Neither Sandeep nor Aswath understood Hindi music, so the Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeskar were ignored. There was a suggestion that perhaps the duo should buy an I-Trip in Leh for my IPod. Sachin grinned and pointed out that the Leh man normally cannot afford an I-Trip and it would be unlikely we would find one. By the time we were done with the squabbling, Chumathang and lunch had arrived. Chumathang has hot springs to its credit, but since we were running late and would be seeing some in Panamik later on, we decided to push on.

I dozed the rest of the time till Priya exclaimed ‘wow, look at the lake the colour of copper sulphate’. The vivid colours in the region were exploring long forgotten words to describe colours. It was indeed beautiful and blue but not our destination, Tso Moriri about 260 kms from Leh. The road was deteriorating. We finally pulled into a campsite called ‘Nomadic Life Camps’ at five thirty. The camp was packed to the brim. We were given slightly worn tents right at the end.

We immediately set out for the lake, not wanting to lose daylight. The lake had looked a promising Cobalt blue as we had driven down. It became better as we walked closer. The mountains were glinting red in the last of the sunlight. The lake’s blue was richer than ever. The contrast was so mindblowing, it felt like a ten year old had painted a picture and pinned it to the sky. We sat mesmerized till it began to get dark. If only, we had made it slightly earlier..

Dinner was a rip-off with a big R. I had been warned that given how remote the area is, food is expensive in the campsite. We were infact carrying cup-o-noodles and theplas. But in the gradually creeping cold, no one was in a mood to eat anything but hot food. So we ate rice, dal, sabzi and French fries at 250 Rs a head. The mess boy chatted with us and told us that he was on leave from the army and would be going back to Siachen shortly for a three year posting. Tso Moriri was cold. We could not imagine how cold Siachen could get.

I donned two t shirts, a jacket, another jacket, two pants, two socks, a cap, my gloves and got under the two blankets. It still felt a bit cold. I slept in patches, listening to noises outside my tent. Priya had it worse, being able to distinguish the sounds of animals outside. And we found out the next day that the guys had it the worst of all since the outer plastic layer in their tent had ripped off. A draft had kept them up for most of the night.

04-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Hemis, Thikse, Shey and Stok


The plan was to leave at 8.30 after breakfast at 8 a.m. It was 8.45 before the guys could manage to get into the dining cum TV hall of our guesthouse. The Man Friday, Mohan, took everyone’s orders (choice was omelette and toast or toast). Our travel agent, Qayoom had arrived with a brand new Innova to give us a send-off. We munched on breakfast, drank our tea and finally ventured onto the roads at 9.30. Clearly, days which involved very early mornings would be bit of a challenge.

Abdul, the teenager who had accompanied us the previous day was also the guide for the day. At our first stop, Hemis, we realised that while Abdul was enthusiastic, he knew zilch about what lay inside the monastery. We walked around the partially dilapidated building and took snaps. It was at the Hemis museum that we got some insight into the way Tibetan Buddhism was organised. The monk in charge of the entry fee informed us that there are four primary orders of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama heads the Geluspa sect. The Hemis monastery belonged to the Drukpa order, whose top gun was called Skatsang Raza. Founded in the 16th century, Hemis’s Skatsang Razas had been fairly active in seeking help of the local rulers and other sects to add to the monastery buildings.

The museum had been cobbled together with various exhibits that had been found in the monastery. There were rows upon rows of cooking utensils. One of them proclaimed ‘a twin pot – rare piece’, suggesting vaguely that the rest of the pieces would be found in your average kitchen. Then there was a lovely Thangka (art on cloth) depicting ‘Sidharth contesting to win his bird’. It was Sandeep who realised that Sidhartha was actually contesting for his bride – clearly a more important historical event than Buddha’s ornithogical/hunting interest.

After Hemis, we headed to Thikse. This was better maintained than Hemis. But we still had no clue how many avatars the Buddha had, or what was Guru Rinpoche’s role in the general scheme of things. Finally a monk in one of the rooms informed us that we were looking at a giant statue of the future Buddha – Maitreya.

The previous night’s excesses had upset Aswath’s gentle gastric systems and he decided to consult the in-house doc at Thikse, who turned out to be a practioner of traditional medicine. He took Aswath’s pulse and nodded his head gravely in the manner of Bollywood doctors announcing that the hero’s unwed sister was pregnant. He then prescribed a few pills. Despite our healthy sceptism of non-Western medicine, Aswath did get better.

The next stop was the old ruins of the Shey Palace. The Namgyal dynasty had ascended throne in the 16th century. Then around the 18th century they were deposed. The current generation of the erstwhile rulers, lived in the newer and more exciting Stok Palace. The guards at the Stok Palace opened various rooms containing royal jewellery. A group of Rajasthani men who were also visiting, immediately began to loudly proclaim that the jewellery in Rajasthan was much prettier and you had to come there to see what palaces looked like. Clearly, for some people, travel is a way of reaffirming that you already live in the best place in the world.

Stok Palace had a lovely café on one of the roofs. We ordered tea and muffins and sat down to enjoy the absolutely ravishing views.

Leh’s bright skies and brown mountains were really beginning to grow on us.

After the authentic repast of the past day, we decide to locate ‘Pumpernickel’ a much publicised German bakery. Leh is full of them. Unfortunately for us, after quite a search, we were told that Pumpernickel had shut down. Disappointed, we ate at Gesmo, which was not bad either.

03-Aug-2008

Ladakh - The journey begins


The flight to Leh was at 5 a.m. I had instructed everybody to aim for seats on the left side of the flight, to get the best Himalayan views. So I was quite thrilled when we did get the seats. Of course, at this point, I did not realise I would fall into a deep slumber, disturbed only by the pilot announcing that we would be landing shortly. I managed to catch a few clouds floating over the desert and the barren mountains. Part of the reason for this somnolence was the night spent trying to sleep in the glaring lights of Delhi’s departure lounge. Such an early flight meant I would have to disturb the friends I was staying with at 2 a.m. to let me out and find me a cab. Given that they are sleep deprived parents of new born twins, the easier option was to just join the rest of the gang for a night stay at the airport.

The rest of the gang comprised unknown faces. Sachin and Priya are long-term friends and travel companions who did not know each other. Priya’s cousins, Sandeep and Aswath were introduced over a 3.40 a.m. tea at the airport. None of us looked too wakeful and I think my insane chatter in an effort to stay awake marked me down as a severe case of verbal diarrhoea. Luckily, Sandeep took over that mantle after the first couple of days.

We had all been warned about High Altitude Sickness upon landing in Leh and had been sincerely popping in Diamox. Exhaustion, sleeplessness and probably the altitude caught up with us and we slept for pretty much most of the day. It was evening, before we decided to plunge headlong into acclimisation by walking up to Shanthi Stupa, a Japanese funded construction perched on the top of 510 steps.

Wheezing like old women, all of us slowly made our way to the top. There were many unscheduled stops, apparently to admire the scenery, but mostly to catch our breath. Priya and I caught up on all the minute gossip we had missed sharing over phone, and the guys overhead parts of it while feigning utter disregard for such ‘useless information’.

Leh is not an easy place. One would expect that any place at an altitude of 14000 feet in the Himalayas would be green and pretty. Instead, as the world’s coldest desert (I think Mongolia is the only other one), it is stark, barren and quite sudden in the way its parched slopes fall away to endless gorges. The thin atmosphere ensures that the sun shines bright in the day, nearly burning you on good days. The 6 inches of annual rainfall means hardly any moisture in the air to keep the peaches and cream complexion glowing. We all knew that despite our huge supply of lotions and chapsticks we would look like dried prunes at the end of the stay.

Luckily the sun was coming down by the time we descended from our Stupa, and we sauntered through some of the main streets of Leh before dinner at the (very subtly named) Himalayan Restaurant.

Sandeep and Aswath could barely contain their excitement at the authentic local food in our menu. Fifteen minutes later our table was swamped with momos, cheese kothays and thupkas. Which was just as well, because once we stepped out of Leh, our food options became severely limited to Chowmein, fried rice and dal-chawal. Clearly the locals did not eat the authentic local food in other parts of Ladakh.

31-Jul-2008

Ladakh - Fact Sheet

When to go – July and August have the best weather. Though they are also the peak tourist seasons and hence require flight and hotel bookings to be done atleast a month in advance.

How to get there – (a) fly to Leh (b) fly to Srinagar and travel by road to Leh (c) travel from Manali to Leh. This route was voted the best road journey in India by Outlook Traveller’s mag. We took option (a) and flew down (Note – sit on the left side of the plane for the best views)

Stay and travel – Get in touch with a travel agent who will fix up your itinerary, book your stay, fix your jeep and get your permits for places that require one. We used Plan Himalayas (good guys) run by Abdul Qayoom – 94198 15333

High Altitude Sickness – Yeah, it exists. We all took Diamox as per our travel agent’s reco. Then happily climbed Shanti Stupa on the evening we landed, travelled to a couple of monasteries the next day. On day 4, I had the mother of all headaches. More diamox and plenty of water helped solve the problem. Met several people who had to be given oxygen. Note – (a) take Diamox after consulting with your travel agent/doc (b) take rest on the first day and do some mild travelling on the next. High Altitude sickness does not dramatically hit you when you land. It creeps up on you unawares, usually in the first 36 hours. (c) drink plenty of water. I don’t know how it helps, but it really really helps.

Weather – is very strange. It was hot in the day for most part. It was cold enough in the night to wear thermals in some places. So – (a) carry long sleeved cotton clothes for the day. Keep a jacket handy in case the weather suddenly drops (b) carry woollens for the night (c) gather up all your sunscreen, chapsticks and moisturiser and then go out and buy somewhere (I finished a big jar of Nivea Crème in just ten days). It is really dry (d) pack your cap and sunglasses.

Other stuff to carry – (a) Money. Credit cards not popular. Saw only one ATM in Leh (b) bedsheets/sleeping bags - most places had quilts that definitely made me want to put another layer between me and it (c) mineral water. Usually available everywhere, but sometimes the road trips are long and you are so dehydrated your consumption goes up (d) food is not great in some places. Carry along ready – to – eat foods if you are very particular. In Tso Moriri and Tso Kar, food is served in the camps where you stay at ridiculously high prices (250 Rs for a meal of dal, rice, French fries and veggies). If you are on a budget, better to carry food along for these days (e) wet wipes – some places too cold to even wash your face (f) torch lights – most places switch off electricity in the nights (g) lots of music CDs if you are on a road trip (h) eye drops and nasal drops. Eyes tend to water if you remove your sunglasses. Noses get blocked because of the desert dust.

Random stuff to remember – (a) Take guides for monasteries. (b) non-veg food not too good. Only veg food available outside of Leh. (c) hand baggage not allowed in the return flight from Leh. Only cameras or women’s purses allowed.

What to do – We did a road trip since it was the first time for all of us. Treks are also recommended though walking in this altitude would require some acclimatisation. Broad categories of places to visit – (a) lakes – Tso Moriri is the most stunning of all. And has a stunning array of birds in and around it. Tso Kar is a stop over on the way to Leh from Tso Moriri. Pangong is however the most popular since part of it falls into Tibet and everyone loves to say that they saw China. (b) Monasteries – unless you have a good context of Buddhism, most of them are wasted trips without a guide. Hemis was a bit dilapidated but had a good museum (with some excellent bloopers – later on that). Thikse, Lamayaru all feel the same without a guide. Shey Palace was again dilapidated. Stok Palace is where the current generation of the deposed Royal family lives. Some interesting exhibits available. Very nice rooftop café there. Alchi was awesome even without a guide but do get one (c) valleys – we saw Nubra. Stunning place. Did not make it to Dah-Anu which is a cradle of Indo-Iranian faces (d) white water rafting and cycling - did not do these but plenty of opportunities available

To shop – usual touristy emporiums run by Kashmiris exist. Pashmina sweaters and shawls are famous and require some shopping around. Tons of Tibetan Refugee markets where you can pick up curios. I also liked the normal shops in Leh’s main market where the populace of Leh shops. Some decently priced smart sweaters and clothes available if you can fit into small clothes.

Recommended reads – Ok, I really did not read any books but wish I had read something on Tantric Buddhism. Carry literature on Ladakh birds. It is good fun to identify some of them. Bookshops in Leh have decent stock of books on Ladakh if you are particular.

30-Jul-2008

Post holiday blues

Being back from a long and awesome holiday is the perfect recipe for getting post-holiday blues. It has been less than twenty four hours since I stepped back into Mumbai from the pristine mountains of Ladakh. I am already choking at the idea of going back to work, getting my house organised, sorting out my mail and reconnecting with the outside world.

Ah, what fun it is to have no clue if your government survived or not. And to find out two days later at a remote town called Tangste where the waiters kindly interrupt their watching of ‘KavyAnjali’ soap on Star Utsav to update us on national affairs.

Imagine bursting into spasms of laughter. Having to hold your stomach since your side is aching. And at what would be considered a silly joke in normal life.

Just hanging around in the middle of a cold desert while your driver patiently stalks a black necked crane for half an hour with your camera. And then comes back and sheepishly informs you that he forgot to put the camera in zoom mode. When you have nothing to do and nowhere to go, time really does not matter.

Stopping at roadside streams to wade through the icy cold water, running down steep sand dunes, drinking endless cups of tea, having bumpy rides on Bactrian camels, waking up at six every morning and not being cranky from lack of sleep, looking at the Tso Moriri lake and wondering exactly how nature managed to achieve that particular blue of the waters and the red of the barren mountains.

You wonder how your motley gang of five will get along, everyone not having met atleast one person in the gang before. Then things just fall into place and countless hours are spent in cracking wise remarks, berating each others taste in music, fighting about who will sit in the last seat at the back, swapping stories about life back home, getting tons of information on tea, cars, cameras and then suddenly bursting into spasms of laughter…

I love it when life temporarily presses a pause button and just lets you be. And sweetly throws you with a bunch of people, who for all their madness are just the type you wanted to be with.

25-Jun-2008

Food and fun

Every now and then, offices come up with themed weeks to celebrate some cause. Mine is no different and this week we are in the midst of celebrating our brand colours. The week began with a competition. Employees were encouraged to bring food in our brand colours. For obvious reasons, there was no dearth of green coloured contributions. However, the blue coloured ones were a challenge. The most enterprising of the lot had made parathas with beetroot and jamuns that gave a rich blue tinge. I watched fascinated as the other dishes appeared – blue cakes, blue pancakes, blue sev puri. However, when it was time for the free food counters to be thrown upon to the audience, I did not judge. Filling my plate with all the delectable and weird stuff was the work of a moment. Then, engulfed in my personal reverie, I spent a good fifteen minutes stuffing my face and pondering upon the wisdom of telling the participants stuff like ‘thanks for lifting my Monday blues with these blues’.


The last time there was an office celebration, I had been a participant. We were all split into groups. Each group had to paint a pot, make an object with oil paper and create a rangoli with the materials available. I came back from a meeting to realize that I was captain of my team. My enterprising team members had spent the afternoon laughing at other teams’ inadequate efforts at creativity, clearly unbothered by the fact that we had nothing to show at all. I quickly passed on the oil paper work to a colleague who usually dressed well (after all, he must have a good sense of colours and designs). I took on the pot painting job myself. The rest of the boisterous, mostly mid-twenty guys were given the rangoli job. With twenty minutes to finish time, we all worked furiously, but independently and deposited our contributions just in time.

One team had an elaborate rangoli with bits of oil paper sticking to it and the decorated pot in the middle. Another had a uniform colour scheme throughout. I looked at my team’s contribution. A limp bit of oil paper was floating on the wall behind the rangoli. My brightly painted yellow pot, celebrating India’s independence was below it. And then there was the rangoli.

As my colleague pointed out, her five year old daughter did better in art class at school. There was a flower. A geometric design. Something that looked like a cricket bat. It could have been modern art. On the other hand there was a strong case for it to be classified as futuristic art. The kind of stuff that could feature in science fiction novels. At any rate, when the judges came by, they were not impressed by our theme of ‘lateral thinking’.

But we really couldn’t have cared less. The food stalls had opened up and some divine sandwiches, sev puris and chocolate milk shakes were being given out. As the other teams yelled loudly at having been declared winners, my own team bonded quietly over the noises of us chomping. We had realized that there was likely to be a shortfall in some of the dishes, and we wanted to gobble up as much as we possibly could.

Food was plentiful yesterday too during the arts and craft competition. It had been organised for children of employees but for some strange reason, the hall was filled with employees putting together handcrafted lamps, bags and even a robot (yeah, we are good at the sci-fi stuff). Only one colleague had brought her four year old son. Despite all her entreaties to him to draw a melting igloo to represent global warming, her son decided to follow his own plan of drawing a rocket. It was quite an elaborate rocket with grooves. There was also a ladder next to it. After much persuasion by his mother, he finally drew a tiny igloo that looked like it had melted from the blast of the rocket rather than macro issues. In the end, he spelt his name backwards in big bold letters ‘AYRA’. I love kids. Esp when they prove to hyper-competitive parents that drawing something that links up to a big world issue is just not fun. My colleague found it funny too and both of us laughed over the sandwiches while Arya’s head bobbed up and down as he coloured the rocket.

In the end, I must say that notwithstanding a healthy cynicism towards such themed week celebrations, I do enjoy the binging that comes with it. My own personal theme could probably be summed up as – free food? Bring it on!

17-Jun-2008

Overdosing on Bollywood

One surprising consequence of moving to Mumbai has been the closer contact I seem to have developed with Bollywood. No, I don’t get invited to Page 3 parties. Infact, the only celebrities I have seen so far are so minor, I am embarrassed to flaunt the ‘sightings’. It’s just that I get this feeling that suddenly there is too much information on Bollywood and related stuff around me.
The main culprit behind this is the city’s leading newspaper Times of India. TOI takes its role as the chronicler of Bollywood stories very seriously. I get updated stories on what the Bachchan clan is upto almost every other day. On the occasion of the Junior Bachchan’s first wedding anniversary, the media went into raptures trying to capture the topics discussed on the teleconference that Bachchan family had. Apparently the Juniors were vacationing in Miami whereas the Senior Bachchans were in Mumbai. The technologically savvy family (Sr Bachchan even has a blog!) decided to hold a teleconference in an intimate gathering of just fifty newspersons so there could be a very intercontinental (and very public) transfer of love and affection. TOI, I am sure, must have been at the head table. It is bad enough that an entire family is daft enough to do this. But it is worse to see it covered in such loving detail.
Last month, I finally decided that just because I was not going to get The Hindu in the mornings, there was no reason to torture myself with TOI. I changed my paper to Hindustan Times in a bid to read about politics, the nation, inflation, U.S. elections, local Mumbai rains and so on and so forth. While the quality of news is better, I am still up-to-date on the whole ‘Is Ash pregnant’ debate (At last count, she wasn’t). You just can’t escape Bollywood in Bombay papers.
The cumulative effect of all this is that Bollywood has permeated into other aspects of life too. The conscientious CEOs, bankers, ad men and sundry denizens of the city get their morning dose of Bollywood and before you know it, authorize ad campaigns with Amitabh advertising chocolates and Shah Rukh advertising powder. When the companies can’t afford the A list actors, they make do with the C list ones. I watched with amusement as primetime TV and the local newspaper covered a split between Arbaaz Khan and Malaika Arora (a third rate actor and his wife, an actress popular for her item numbers). It turned out to be a ‘hoax’ and a ‘well-done’ advertisement for some beauty product. The next day, the newspaper carried indulgent write-ups by various columnists on how it was a great gag. Seriously, do these people believe that anyone outside of Mumbai know who Arbaaz and Malaika are? Or even care whether they are splitting up?
With the IPL wave riding high, there has only been more of it. The game shows all seem to be populated with them. The quizmasters and judges are actors. The participants are often actors too. The FM channels hold Bollywood quizzes. The bill boards throw their faces at you.
I like Hindi movies. Infact, I am capable of watching even the terrible ones from the 90s where Karishma Kapoor had caterpillar eyebrows or Akshay Kumar used to wear baggy pants. Yet with an increasing awareness of and exposure to Bollywood, the good old romance of watching near-strangers play make-believe characters in make-believe movies fades rapidly. I hate having to watch out for the on-screen chemistry of Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor or wonder if Preity Zinta’s role was edited in order to give Rani Mukherji greater screen space. Shah Rukh’s cute prattle has turned into an annoying background noise now that it is heard in large doses. If only all of them would disappear and just fill the screen for three solid hours where it would be easy for me to pretend they are the girl next-door or the maniac murderer or the doting father-of-two or the evil scheming mother-in-law. After all, that was the purpose for which they were originally given an identity.