Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gandhian Hospitality

The octogenarian was called Maash (the local lingo for Master) by everybody because all his life he had taught in the primary school. Except for the two years he was in jail for participating in the freedom struggle. Always clad in spotless white starched khadi juba (kurta) and mundu (dhoti) with broad black border, Menon Maash was a true Gandhian. In the statewide the struggle for prohibition (of liquor) led by stalwarts like A P Udayabhanu, M P Manmathan and I K Kumaran, the activities in the village were spearheaded by Menon Maash.

When young Unni sought his daughter Malati’s hand, the joy that Maash experienced knew no bounds. He had known Unni as a newborn and ever since. He was hard-working and was the first in the village to go to a college. After post-graduation, he had landed a coveted job in a multinational company. That he was well-mannered and educated, two values Maash cherished, was enough for Maash. That Unni was well-employed was the icing on the cake. He married his daughter to Unni at a simple ceremony in the local temple.

What Maash did not know is that Unni had acquired taste for an occasional drink, thanks to his exposure to corporate life in metros. During his first visit to his daughter’s new house, Maash was scandalized when he set his eyes on the impressive array of bottles of various shapes and sizes kept in a well-lit cabinet in the drawing room.

Seeing the shocked look on her father’s face, Malati explained to him that social graces in the corporate circles demanded that they have a well-stocked bar and offer a drink to colleagues, business assoiates and friends when they dropped in.

‘Does that mean Unni drinks too?’

He does have a drink or two at parties and in weekends. Malati’s reply turned the puzzlement on Menon’s face into a frown of disapproval. Nevertheless, he had to lump it: Unni was the husband of his only daughter. You have to change with the times, he reconciled himself to the new mores.

When Malati and Unni came home on a short vacation, the first after their marriage, the martinet that Maash was had mellowed and had become more permissive.

He arranged with his wife to give the grand-nephews and grand-nieces an early lunch and send them out to play. A little before their own lunch that afternoon, Maash stealthily closed all the windows so that passers-by would not be able to see what was going on in the house. He placed a glass tumbler and a jug of water on the table.

Thereafter, he called Unni and told him in hushed tones, ‘I’ve kept something special for you.’

Though somewhat intrigued by this behavior, Unni followed his father-in-law to the room. Menon Maash took the bunch of keys that had been tied to the corner of his khadi mundu, chose the right key and proceeded to open the wooden almirah.

Suddenly, he remembered something and took a black metallic object from the left pocket of is juba and placed it next to the tumbler. Unni looked at it. A wrought iron bottle-opener. (The meticulous man that Maash was, had borrowed the gadget from Kumaran, who made a living by selling soda-lemonade-orange-crush along with groundnut and sweets and song-book during the intermission in the movie hall nearby.)

Opening the almirah, he continued, ‘This is something I have never touched in my life. But you are Malati’s husband, and as a father-in-law, it is my responsibility to entertain you.’

He extracted a parcel from the top shelf and unwrapped the newspaper packing. A bottle of beer. Naturally at room temperature.

Maash said, ‘Unni, I am doing something which is against the principle I have lived by.’ He then opened the bottle, poured no more tham fifty millilitres of the golden liquid into the tumbler, topped it up with water and offered it to Unni.

Maash then placed he crown cap on the bottle, pressed it hard so that it closed the bottle well, wrapped it in the newspaper and put it away in the almirah, telling Unni, ‘I may forget, but do not hesitate to remind me when you come for the Onam holidays. You can have some of it then.’

As Unni gulped the drink that his father-in-law offered, he wondered how the 'Onam drink' would taste.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Haircut by Menaka

Saturday afternoon. Hari came back from office and announced that he would go for a haircut in the evening.

Bhawani said, ‘You too can accompany him and get your hair cut.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘It’s not due yet.’

She tried to reason out, 'Your last haircut was in India. You mean you’ll wait till end-October for the next?'

‘Bhawani, you know that once I am happy with a tailor or a brand of toiletry, I don’t like to try out a new one. Ditto with hairdressers. My haircut will be done by none other than our friendly neighborhood barber Babu in Trivandrum.’

‘You can’t speak Viet Namese. If you feel you need a haircut a month later, you’ll have to seek Hari’s help to take you to the saloon. Better go now,’ Bhawani again tried to persuade me.

I did a quick mental math: my last haircut was about a month before we left India. We had been in Vietnam for a fortnight and would not be back in India until after two months. Three months and a half would be too long a gap between two haircuts, I reckoned. I was not too sure I’d be able to last that long. Yet, I stuck to my guns and said, ‘No haircut for me in Viet Nam.’

Bhawani left it at that.

When Hari got ready in the evening for the visit to the hairdressers, I too jumped into the car. Let me see how the place looks like, I thought.
The car took us through broad streets, past the sports complex to Ngoc (pronounced ngop), a saloon. Hari parked the car and in we went.

There were over a dozen reclining chairs, all with soft upholstery. A third of them were unoccupied. Hari sat on one of them.

I surveyed the premises. One of the attendants was a young man, all the others being pretty young things (PYTs). They were all smartly attired in black trousers and lemon-yellow shirts with ruffles and frills instead of collars. The white aprons the PYTs sported while on the job bore the legend ‘Ngoc – The Professional Hairdressing Artists’. That surprised me because though the Viet Namese use the Roman script, hardly any of them speak, forget reading and writing, English.

Some of the clients were in near-horizontal position. Two of them were lying with their eyes closed, being subjected to facial. Three were being attended to by PYTs with tiny headlights beaming from their forehead. Curious, I looked closer, to find the 'artists' peering into the ears of their clients, long slender stainless steel instruments in their hand. They were cleaning the ears of the clients. (Later Hari told me that pedicure, manicure, shampooing, dyeing and massage are all provided in such outfits.)

I looked for a visitor’s chair or the area where clients would wait, but found none. Hari said, ‘You can sit on one of the vacant chairs. You need get up only if a customer comes and finds he has no free slot.’ I complied.

A little while later, one of the PYTs came to me and asked me something. Realising that what I said in reply would not matter (for, she would not understand me), I nodded. She switched on the trimmer and went about her job. In less than ten minutes, I was done. I looked at Hari's chair. Though he had started early, it was still in the work-in-progress stage.

My attendant returned, with the headlight and other gears and motioned me to another chair. I had no intentions of yielding to further ministrations by her and conveyed the idea to her by putting on my footwear and stepping out.

When we returned home, Bhawani was surprised that despite all my protestations, I really had had a haircut, after all. Before I could say anything in defence, Hari said, ‘When the PYT at the saloon proposed, Daja could not say ‘No’ to her!’

‘That is an old technique even the gods used to employ. Remember Devendra assigning the celestial dancer Menaka the duty of disrupting the penance of Vishwamitra?’

I am not sure if it was Radhika or Bhawani who said that. All I know is that the joke was at my expense.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Viet Nam Diary ... 1

The first thing I learnt about Viet Nam after coming here is that the country is not called Vietnam; it is Viet Nam – two separate words of one syllable each. Most words in Vietnamese – sorry, Viet Namese (Should it be Viet Nam ese? I must ask somebody.) are monosyllabic. Like Ha Noi, Sai Gon or Ho Chi Minh. In this exercise, they go great lengths, it seems, because Café become Ca phe and Hotel becomes Ho tel in Viet Namese. (I will be lucky if at the end of my two-month stay here, I do not become Raj Ag Oph Al Anh!)

Another is that the spelling may not have much to do with the way the word is pronunced. The name Trang is pronounced Chung (u as in umbrella) and Dung is pronounced Yung (u as in pull). The road we stay in is called Ngu Yen Hong. The first ng is also pronounced as the ng in young.

Quite often, the last letter is not pronounced. Thus, though Buon Me Thuot, the town we are in, is spelt varyingly (including Ban Ma Thot), it is pronounced Bo Ma Tho. (We’ll call it BMT, though, for convenience.) This is true not just of Viet Namese words, but of other languages. Like ‘peanut’ is ‘peanah’. And passport is 'pah po'. The language has no script. They use the English alphabet in conjunction with several signs like ^ ~ . ` - ? and '. Some of these accents placed above, some below and a few across them (sometimes in conjuntion) to indicate the intonation.

BMT, located 450 metres above sea level, is the capital of Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands. With a population of 400,000, it is the fifth largest town in Viet Nam. There are hardly any old buildings because the Americans had razed the entire city to ground before they left in 1975. It looks like a planned city. Though most of the buildings are new, there are no condominiums.

The roads are really broad. At each intersection, there are road signs. They indicate not just the names of the roads, but the widths of the road, the footpath on either side and the median if the road has one. There is strict hierarchy in the placement of the signs at crossings: the one indicating the name of the broader, more important path is always on top.

Hardly anyone speaks English, but they are very friendly towards foreigners. With our arrival, the population of foreigners in BMT has doubled. (Foreigners, mind you, not Indians.) All of a sudden, we have become head-turners and traffic-stoppers!

Dac Lac is coffee country – and it shows! Each lane can boast of a café (Ooops! I should have said Ca phe) if not more. Main roads have several of them, at times two of them sharing a wall. Hari says (He works for a coffee company and should know) that before 8 am every day, 60,000 cups of coffee are sold through these outlets. Radhika says the drawing rooms of several houses have been converted by enterprising housewives into eateries.

Viet Nam being on the eastern cost, day breaks very early. By quarter past five, fitness freaks are out on the roads heading for parks, playgrounds and gyms. There are several parks and joggers’ tracks all over the city. Plus well-appointed badminton courts, football grounds and indoor stadia maintained by the government. These can be used by the general public practically free of payment. What strikes one is the care with which the public uses these facilities.

The indoor stadium closest to where Hari lives has seven shuttlecock courts and doubles as a football ground after eight in the night. The shuttlecock players start leaving by quarter to eight. They do not linger on and delay the football. Five minutes to eight, and one caretaker removes the nets, rolls the poles from the centre to the sides while another pushes the goal posts from the sides to the extreme ends and by eight, the ground is ready for football!

In the city square, we saw a gleaming steel structure surrounded by a few huge bonsai trees. (You read it right, huge bonsai trees.) It had two doors and looked like a telephone booth. Something was written in the local language on its wall. It intrigued us, but we could not ask anyone. It took us three days to discover that it was a free public toilet! A far cry from the toilets we can smell from a hundred metres.

Perhaps because most people own two-wheelers and use them for local travel, city buses are hard to come by. Though the roads are wide and in excellent condition, they drive at moderate speed and with great consideration for the pedestrian.

. . . . . .

I realise have not said anything about the people yet. Watch this space.

A Prodigy's Past

It was suddenly that Gregory shot into limelight. People thought he was something of a prodigy, for he had been promoted as Deputy General Manager in the bank he worked for, at the young age of forty-three (We are talking of a public sector bank!) That was when he had put in twenty-three years’ service. The average age at which people reached that level was forty-eight, after putting in service for about twenty-seven years.

On promotion, he was deputed to another bank in the same group. He reported to the CEO of the bank he was sent to. After exchanging pleasantries, the new boss spent some time with him to ascertain is strong points and interests. The tete-a-tete would enable him to decide which portfolio the young Gregory was to be assigned.

At the end of the thirty minutes, rounding off the interaction, the chief asked, ‘We don’t seem to have met earlier, do we?

Gregory replied, ‘Sir, we have met. In fact, you were the one who taught us credit appraisal in 1970 in the Staff College in Hyderabad during our intermediate course.’

The Staff College was run by the holding company for the benefit of their staff as well as those of the subsidiaries. And the faculty was, predictably, drawn from the holding company.

‘Let me see,’ he replied. After reflecting for a moment, he said,’ Yes, I was indeed a faculty in the Staff College from 1969 to 1972.’

‘... But I do not remember your face one bit…’ he said, adding, ‘Tell me the names of some of the others who were there along with you in your batch?’

‘There was Bishen Singh Bedi, the test cricketer.’

‘Yes, Bedi was there in one of the batches I taught credit appraisal to.’

‘There was M G Ramakrishna.’

‘Oh, he was a smart guy, but he left us and joined one of the Arab banks. Last heard, he was CEO of the Indian arm of that bank.’

‘Ashok Dhar was another in my batch.’

‘Yes, the tall guy from Kashmir? I think he is in Toronto on a foreign posting.’

‘And K S Subramaniam’

‘The chap who was an IPS probationer. He has just been posted to the Staff College.’

‘Jayashree Venkitaramani was with us too.’

‘The one who was a journalist? She is the AGM (Public Relations) at the Central Office.’

He seemed to be a veritable walking encyclopaedia of the whereabouts of officers. Either this man is blessed with incredible memory or he keeps a close tab of people, I thought.

He seemed to have read my thoughts. ‘Personnel Department at the Central Office used to report to me in my last posting,’ he said, implying that this explains the mystery.

Before Gregory could name the next, he said, ‘They are all from one bank; tell me the names of some from your own bank.’

‘Yes, Maj Kumar, if you remember.’

‘Oh yes, he was a short service commissioned officer. Extremely smart. Used to be a ladies’man. Where is he now?’

‘He is Chief Manager in a branch.’ (That was a couple of levels below DGM.) ‘And there was Suresh Kapoor.’

‘He has not been too lucky in is career. He is languishing in an even lower rank.’

‘I see. Who else?’

‘Senthil Nayagam.’

‘Oh, the one who was nicknamed ‘The evangelist’? He was a powerful speaker. His way with words must have taken him to great heights, I’m sure.’

‘No, sir, he missed promotions a couple of times. Disenchanted, he quit.’

‘There was a guy, an engineer, with a receding hairline. He used to play great tennis.’

‘You mean Ramesh Bhargava?’

‘Yes, that’s the name. Who can forget his witty one-liners? I have spent many a delightful evening with him. He must be GM by now?’

‘He got into trouble because of some bad loans and is under suspension.’

‘No mala fides, I hope.’

‘None, he’ll come out of it.’

The boss sat back and remarked, ‘Surprising that I seem to know every one that you mentioned, but I just do not recollect you one bit. You must have been a lacklustre guy!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Corporate Training and Cornflakes

This morning we had cornflakes, toast and fruits for breakfast.

‘Will you have hot milk or cold to go with the cornflakes?’ Radhika asked me. I opted for the former. She withdrew to the kitchen. I was lost in a reverie.

The year was 1969. I was in Patna, undergoing induction course for Probationary Officers of a major bank. The recruits, fresh from colleges, were touted as potential senior executives of the bank. We were being groomed to take on responsibilities.

It was a residential course intended to prepare young recruits in every way for the long career ahead. Public speaking, table manners, group discussions and toasts after dinner were all built into it. The training methodology was state-of-the-art in the days we are talking about – flip charts and white boards.

We were a mix of young men from all over India. Most of the participants belonged to, were educated in or at least had exposure to metros and large towns. In fact, the selection process (consisting of a written test and an interview) was heavily loaded in favour of the urban candidates. It was not often that a country bumpkin would make the grade.

I had lived all my life in Kerala and had no urban upbringing. It was my first trip outside Kerala where I belong to.

On the first day, we had assembled in the dining hall for breakfast. White-liveried bearers with read-and-white headgears, red-and-gold cummerbunds and sashes flitted about with glass jars of cold water. I went and occupied one of the six chairs placed around a circular table.

I was awed by the fine chinaware, gleaming cutlery and the starched white tablecloth and napkins, but pretended as if I was used to all that. As I was about to sip the orange juice, I saw a group of young men ambling in, talking loudly and laughing. They must be the faculty at the Training Centre, I told myself.

They came and occupied the other chairs around my table. They continued their banter, mostly in English, lapsing into Hindi at times. Despite my diffidence, I introduced myself to them. That was when I realized that they were also participants like me.

After finishing the orange juice, I opened the glass jar containing cornflakes and put some of it into my bowl. I took a bit of it in the table spoon and put it into my mouth. It was crisp but felt dry. As I was about to put the next spoon of cornflakes into my mouth, the person occupying the chair opposite mine said, ‘You’re supposed to put some sugar and milk in the cornflakes in the bowl before having it.’

Not wanting to confess ignorance, I said, ‘I know, but I like it this way.’ And laboured through the bowl of cornflakes.

When Radhika brought the hot milk for my cornflakes, she caught me smiling to myself as I recollected those days. I told her why.

Let me add a postscript: during the whole of the month-long training period, if the day’s breakfast menu had cornflakes in it. I made it a point to avoid the table where any of these five colleagues sat.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Open Sesame, Viet Nam

In our bid to cut costs, we had booked ourselves by Tiger Airways from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). We had been warned about the inconveniences that we would have to put up with in this sector. Right from having to report at a lousy terminal to limited baggage allowance to hefty penalty if the limit is exceeded to having to pay even for the water served on board.

We were, however, in for a very big surprise. The ‘Budget Terminal’ was better than most terminals in India. Tiger had certainly cut corners where possible (like the boarding passes which were on continuous stationery unlike the thick cards you get in the ‘full-service’ airlines, but it hardly mattered).

The seats were as comfortable as any Airbus 320 aircraft. In fact, compared to the cramped seats in the ‘full-service’ provided by Jet from Chennai to Singapore, these were really good.

We were surprised to see that all flight crew and the ground duty staff – barring a few doing low-end jobs and pilots – were women. They were smartly attired and went about their duties with clinical efficiency.

It was a different story in HCMC though the aircraft touched down a few minutes before schedule. We were to be given the visa on landing. On handing over the relevant documents, the cop on duty motioned us to a row of chairs.

As we waited, a woman of a different nationality who had obviously been waiting for long and had lost her patience, got up from her seat, walked up to the counter and enquired about the status of her visa. The cop spoke no word, gave her a dirty look and rudely gestured her back to her seat. As I did not want such ignominy to be heaped on me, I waited patiently. The formality, which, according to me, should not have taken more than five minutes, took a good one hour.

The next port of call was the immigration counter. When we reached the spot, there was a long queue because ‘the system was down’. What surprised me was not that nobody seemed to be doing anything about it (We are so used to that in India), but that people seemed to be resigned to the fact and waited … and waited. The personnel manning the counters just sat there doing nothing, waiting for the system to come alive. It took over an hour for the snag to be resolved.

Passengers waiting for the computer system at Tan Son Nhat air terminal,

HCMC to come alive to complete the immigration formalities,

There was no way we could pass on the message that we were held up to Hari and Radhika who were waiting for us in the terminal. (Later we realised that there was no need for that: such delays were usual.)

By the time we were cleared by the immigration, the registered baggage, after a few free rides on the carousel, had been removed by the security personnel and given to the ‘Lost and Found’ section. We collected it and joined Hari and Radhika who had been waiting for us for two hours.

Scrabble - A Near-Impossible Placement

This post might interest Scrabble aficionados. They would certainly have played games in which all the one hundred tiles have been used up. And instances may be numerous where a bingo (making a seven-letter word) or two have been scored.

This is something I found in my scrapbook. I am not sure if I 'invented' it during one of those lonely Sundays afternoons in Calcutta in the early 1970’s when I had nothing else to do. It is equally possible that I copied it from somewhere. (The latter is more likely, given that I am not all that inventive.)

Have a look at this formation:

Unfortunately, I do not have a clearer picture than this.

The interesting feature about this grid is that all the letters in a standard Scrabble game have been used. The blanks have been used as I and A. Formation of the words has been done strictly complying with all the standard rules prescribed for forming words. This is theoretically possible if the appropriate letters happen to be picked up by the players in succession.

A possible order in which the words are formed is:

As you can see, there are fourteen words of seven or more letters. I guess the highest possible number of seven-letter words have been formed.
The only problem is that the probability of two players picking up the tiles required for this formation is zero. I know it is not zero, but those who say it is not will have to calculate and tell me the exact probability.

As there are 100 tiles consisting, inter alia, of three B's, twelve E's, three H's, and four D's, the probability of the first player picking up one E, one G, one N, one Q, two U's and one blank (not necessarily I that order) from the one hundred tiles would, if I am not mistaken, be (12/100)*(3/99)*(6/98)*(1/97)*(4/96)*(3/95)*(2/94) = 0.000 000 000 064 255 350 419 873 374 551 141 572 335 707. (Till someone proves me wrong,I will stick to this number!)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Some Morbid Thoughts about Romance

This post is based on a report in a recent issue of The Strait Times, Singapore which I read today. To me, it is also the most gripping tale of romance I read in recent times; and though both the hero and the heroine die at the end of the story, I do not think it is a tragedy.

She was seventy-four. He was eighty-five. She was a dancer. He was a musician.She was condemned to die. He was condemned to live. Diagnosed with terminal cancer of the liver and pancreas, her days were numbered. On the contrary, his end, he felt, was not near.

Over the years, he had gone nearly blind and his hearing had nearly failed. He had to depend on her and now she was herself on the deathbed.They had been married for fifty-four years. Her end being imminent, he faced the prospect of life without his soulmate, something he could not bear. He talked to her and they jointly made up their mind. They made a pact: to die together.

There was a snag, though. As most other countries, Britain, where they lived, too does not allow assisted suicide. The liberal Swiss laws allow you to assist in suicide provided there is no profit-motive. They travelled to Zurich, where Dignitas, a voluntary not-for-profit group arranges, death in a clinic for a fee of USD 7,000 per customer. Dignitas makes a digital recording of the deaths, to protect the doctors and the nurses from charges of coercing the patient.

The couple chose death by barbiturates. They drank a small quantity of a clear liquid and lay down on the bed next to each other, holding hands. They fell asleep, and in minutes, they were both gone. Their son, who was beside them in their last moments, described it as a ‘very civilized final act’.

Civilised? Is not ‘assisted suicide’ another name for murder? Is euthanasia justified?‘Death on demand’ is a principle protagonists of euthanasia like Dignitas believe in. Some countries like Netherlands allow those suffering from unbearable pain to snuff out their lives. A patient in Oregon can opt for euthanasia if two doctors give him no more than six months.

Paradoxical it may sound, but replacement of treatment with palliative care, removal of the feeding tubes, withdrawal of the ventilators, etc can be merciful choices. However, each of these is a slippery step, riddled with legal, moral and ethical issues.

Hers might have been, but his was not even a case of euthanasia. Even if her ‘assisted death’ could be justified by declaring euthanasia legal, how could one rationalize advancement of his death? Despair (that your spouse is terminally ill) and sorrow (from a partner’s demise) are certainly not sufficient grounds for facilitating death, are they?

Yes, says Ludwig Minelli, founder of Dignitas. You cannot restrict the right to assisted death to just terminally ill persons. Personal autonomy and dignity are precious values. The society has no business to assign a higher value to my life than I myself do, to the point of protecting me from myself. Wry concepts like sanctity of life make no sense to a person in excruciating pain, incurable agony and suffering, says Minelli.

If a bereaved widower sees no reason to live any more, if a travelling salesman reduced to a breathing heap of bones in a nasty accident sees no future, if the cost of postponing death is prohibitive, I think Dignitas is the answer. Would you turn to Dignitas? I will.

(The characters in this real-life story are Sir Edward Downes, former conductor of Britain’s Royal Opera and Joan, a former ballerina.)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Whose Folly - Overbury's or Ours?

August 1984

As we drove down north along the coastal road from Calicut to Cannanore one evening, we passed Mahe and were approaching Tellicherry. (I ignore the fact that jingoists and fanatics masquerading as lingua-patriots have replaced these beautiful and popular names with Kozhikode, Kannur, Mayyazhi and Thalassery respectively.)

On the right was a hillock sloping down to the road, and on the left was a splendid spectacle: a precipice and beyond, the Arabian Sea, now a cauldron of molten gold, with the evening setting fire to the clouds and the skies.

Drinking in the visual treat, one nearly missed the small dilapidated structure nearly smothered by the wild growth of bushes in the foreground. ‘What could that be? A tomb or a mausoleum like the ones you see in Delhi?’ I wondered. There was nobody to clear my doubt.

Later, I asked someone and I was told it was called Overbury’s Folly. That certainly sounded an unusual name! I was intrigued. Further enquiries revealed that it is named after its builder, E N Overbury, a Briton who served as a local judge at Thalassery in the 1870s.

Overbury wanted to construct a picnic spot at the cliff. Some people considered it a stupid idea and dissuaded him from the venture. Though he started the project in 1879, he had to abandon it for some reason, though some time, labor and money were wasted in the endeavour, proving the detractors right. They derisively labelled the incomplete structure ‘Overbury's Folly’, I was told. Incidentally, this story, shorn of some details, appears in the wikipedia (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overbury)

Overbury's Folly is an unfinished construction, or architectural folly, that now serves as a recreational park located in Thalassery, south India.
The folly is located on a hill near Thalassery District Court and is adjacent to a park. It slopes down from the sub-collector's
bungalow to the rocks below and is named after its builder, E. N. Overbury, a Briton who served as a local judge at Thalassery in the 1870s.
In 1879, Overbury wanted to construct a picnic spot at the cliff. He couldn't complete it, but the spot later earned the name "Overbury's Folly". The folly commands sweeping views of the
Arabian Sea.

Convincing enough an explanation, I reasoned to myself. The learned judge had erred in estimating the scope for and viability of a picnic spot there, but he had the sense to drop it when wisdom dawned.

June 2009

Early morning. We were driving down in the reverse direction. I looked to the right. The sea was very much there, but the foreground had had an image make-over.

The domed structure had been rescued from vice-like grip of the bushes. Overbury's Folly had been renovated. It is a tourist attraction now, frequented by local people as a place to relax in the evenings. A seaside open-air coffee shop has also been opened on the folly.

In the evening, I was looking up the dictionary for the word ‘foley’ and I chanced upon the word ‘folly’. Imagine what I saw! Incredulous, I referred to the encyclopaedia. This is what is said:

In architecture, a folly is a building constructed strictly as a decoration, having none of the usual purposes of housing or sheltering associated with a conventional structure. In the landscape gardens in England and France in the 18th century, they often represented Roman temples, and symbolized classical virtues or ideals. Other 18th century garden follies represented Chinese temples, Egyptian pyramids, ruined abbeys, or Tatar tents, to represent different continents or historical eras. Sometimes they represented rustic villages, mills and cottages, to symbolize rural virtues.

Later, somewhere else I read that a ‘folly’ is a structure erected at a spot from where you can have commanding views of picturesque surroundings.

What we understand by Overbury’s Folly does not seem to be the folly that we think it is, after all!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

National Holidays

When I was posted to Patiala in the early 1990's, everybody was against taking my family along and risking their lives because Punjab was grappling with the terrorist problem. Ours is a close-knit family and we were not used to long spells of separation. My wife and kids would not have agreed if I had heeded those warnings. NOr would I be happy away from them. So I paid no heed to attention to the advice of my well-wishers. (I must add that the five years I spent there were the best years of my life, the ones I cherish most even today.)

Thus it was that we came to stay in a well-appointed bungalow in Punjabi Bagh, a respected residential locality. The kids were admitted in the Kendriya Vidyalaya and my wife found herself a job in the Our Lady of Fatima High School and Convent. We were totally new to Punjab, but settled down in no time.

Life was placid, though occasional gunshots and news of violence did wake us up at times. One thing we missed was my friends and relatives in Kerala. We were in splendid isolation. In fact, there were hardly ten Malayali families in the whole of Patiala, not reckoning those in the cantonment who were a community unto themselves.

We were therefore delighted that Ipe would be driving down to spend the weekend with us. Ipe was an old friend and colleague. He was the life of the party. My family had, to borrow a term rom the Theory of Sets in Mathematics, a one-to-one correspondence with his. My wife Bhawani and Ammini were good friends. In fact, they were at the same stage of pregnancy at one time. Which meant that Hari and Miriam were of the same age. Their respective siblings Gautam and Anu too were contemporaries. Naturally, we were all looking forward to their visit.

They arrived in the evening on a wintry Saturday . We had a great time together, a few drinks, jokes, fun, games and dinner.

The next morning, after a late breakfast, we decided to go for a drive in the 'city'. Hari, then 12 years, was eager to be the guide for the 'conducted tour'. As the car traversed the roads of Patiala, he would point out to structures old and new and identify and describe it to the visitors. That is the Moti Bagh Palace' housing the Netaji Institute of Sports, on your left is the Rajindra Hospital, inside that wooded area is the Gymkhana Club, the road on the left leads to the Dukh Niwaran Gurdwara, he would go on and on. My driver, Gurnam Singh, a native of Patiala was there to supplement the information and add some tidbits.

Pointing at an ancient building, Hari exclaimed, 'Uncle, look there, that is my school'. Ipe could not believe what he saw. It was a circular, single-storeyed structure, which hardly looked like a school. 'That is the Kendriya Vidyala?' Ipe was incredulous. 'It looks more like the soldiers barracks!' he added.

Hari affirmed, 'Yes, uncle. It is called the Leela Bhawan Palace. It has 360 rooms!'

Gurnam Singh was ready with more information. 'Yes, sir. Hari-beta is right. It was surrendered to the Government of India after independence. Before that, it was used by the Maharaja of Patiala to accommodate his concubines.'

'I have read The Prince by Diwan Jarmani Dass and know about the colourful life these kings led, but I did not know he had 360 of them,' said Ipe.

'Oh yes, one in each room,' added Hari knowledgeably.

Ipe did a quick mental calculation and asked, more to himself rather than expecting a response, 'How about the remaining five days?'

'Gandhi Jayanti, Independence Day, Christmas, ....' Hari did not know why the remainder of his reply was drowned in the collective guffaw of five adults.

Friday, August 07, 2009

A Hat and a Boat

As I potter about in the bedroom of my brother-in-law’s apartment in the sylvan Bukit Batok suburbs in Singapore, I spot a tan broad-rimmed suede hat (you know, the kind that cowboys wear) on the wall. I have never seen my brother-in-law sporting a headgear, nor is he known to be adventurous in matters sartorial.

My curiosity is stoked, but I can’t ask him because he is not at home. I ask my niece who says that all she knows is that it has some childhood association. I make a mental note to ask him when he returns.

In the evening, as we treat ourselves to some chilled beer, I pop the question.

He takes me back to his school days. He was in Class III in a Calcutta school. The School’s Annual day is also a children's day out. After the big event, his parents took him and his sister to the New Market for a little bit of shopping. As they were coming out, his eyes fell on a tan broad-rimmed hat with a red feather stuck to it. The boy imagined himself wearing one and riding a horse in the wild west. He wanted one. He asked his mother.

She negated the proposal with a firm ‘No’. He turned to his father, No luck. He then did what any seven-year old in his position would do: he stayed put, started screaming and throwing tantrums. He refused to move unless his demand was met. The parents would not relent. They walked on. He did not move. He thought that after a while, the parents would give in.

How wrong he was! They walked briskly, dragging his sister along, but not looking back even once. When they were nearly out of sight, he realized that his Satyagraha was not yielding the desired results. He decided to give up his protest. But not before taking a pledge to buy one for himself when he could.

That reminds me of my boat. When I was a kid of eight, my father had taken us one evening to the All-India Exhibition. There were potato-peelers and coconut scrapers, boiled egg-slicers and vegetable shredders, bedsheets and garments, saplings and grafted plants, and, of course, toys.

One stall had a one-foot deep hole of about five-foot diameter which was filled with water. Several tiny metal boats in bright colours were floating on the surface of the water, a few of them spluttering and busy moving about. On closer look, I espied a tiny bowl with some oil and a burning wick in it.

I badly wanted one of them, but was not bold enough to make a request to my father. I made a feeble representation to my mother who told me why it would not be bought: children should not be playing with fire; or water, for that matter. The real reason, now I know, was that my father would not like it. He was careful with the hard-earned money and would not waste it on such trifles. All I could do was to lump the desire.

Three decades later, we (my wife and son) were at a fair in Trivandrum. It had rained in the evening and there were puddles. Negotiating puddles with a shopping bag and an umbrella, with a four-year old in tow, is not an easy proposition. So we had to avoid stalls in front of which water had collected.

As we walked past one such stall, I heard a splutter that triggered off old memories. I turned back quickly, and before I knew it, I was in the stall. My purchase was done in a jiffy and I was out of the stall as fast as I had gone in. After that, I could not wait to get home. I told my wife that it was a toy for my son.

When we reached home, my son was sleepy, but I was in a hurry to commission the boat. As my wife got busy in the kitchen, I filled the large plastic basin with water, placed the boat on the surface, poured a little oil in the bowl and lit the wick. The boat spluttered and moved. My son’s face lit up too.

In a week, my son got fed up with it and like all young boys, was happier with newer toys. But not me.

I did not know that my wife had observed that I was taking much longer than usual in the bathroom. Till one Sunday forenoon, when she caught me red-handed. I was in the bathroom playing with the boat.