Sunday, September 27, 2009

SPREADING CHEER IN TUY HOA

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What struck me at first sight at a Tuy Hoa (Pronounced Twee Hwa), the friendly little coastal town we went to for a weekend, was the hundreds of locals who walked barefoot. They were on their way to or back from the wide beach where, on the coarse golden sands, hundreds played football while an equal number swam in the shallow shelf that extended, maybe half a kilometer into the placid sea.


Tuy Hoa has no pretensions the capital of a province should have. It is a non-descript little town between Qui Nhon (Pronounced ‘Key gnon’ – ‘gn’ as in cognac) and Dai Lanh beside a huge river.



The major – perhaps the only – place of tourist interest is the impressive Nhan Cham Temple Tower. You climb to the tower through a small but beautiful botanical garden. The terrace on which the 8th century temple stands commands a panoramic view of the town, the sea and the river.



Presenting a study in contrast to the earthy temple is the neighbouring modern monstrosity called the White Monument. It reminds one of the Opera House in Sydney and has massive concrete flagellae perhaps meant to sync with the waves that form in the sea.

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We stayed at the brand new KaYa International. As it had just been opened for business, everything was squeaky-clean. The bell-boy, barely out of is teens, who showed us our room either must have taken us to be country bumpkins or was meticulous to do what he was told to. He demonstrated the operation of the electronic key to the room a couple of times and smiled shyly when Bhawani indicated that we had already been exposed to such technology.



That night, we dined at a humble restaurant on the beach. As the Viet Namese have their dinner before half past seven, there were no other customers when we walked in. This was where I have seen the least time being taken for conversion of raw material into ready-to-eat cooked food. The bearer-cum-owner showed us the live crabs and in less than five minutes, the crustaceans were before us doused in ketchup, being cooked in beer right in front of us.



A small group of men who obviously had more drinks than what was good for them came in and sat at a nearby table. It was when they had a round of beer that we came into their radar. They said something among themselves. The youngest among them walked over to with his beer mug, sat with us and tried to converse. He said he worked in the University Library. ‘Cheers!’ he raised his beer mug and insisted on clinking against the ones held by each one of us, irrespective of what – or whether – we were drinking.

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He had heard of India. Hari said, ‘Un do is the Viet Namese for India’ (‘un’ as in under and ‘do’ ad in dome). Our newly acquired friend was delighted. Up went his mug again, ‘Cheers!’ and one more round of clinking followed. He tried to sustain a conversation using his limited vocabulary.



Hari’s knowledge of Vietnamese would have helped, but our man would not speak anything other than English. He would struggle for words; Bhawani would supply many in succession. He would frown in exasperation when the right word was not forthcoming. And when she supplied the word he was looking for, he’d be relieved and his beer mug would go up again with demands for more clinks.



We had nearly finished and this comical cheers-and-clink routine was tending to get a little boring. So we got up and bade him goodbye. He ambled back, chin up, to his friends who were visibly impressed by his prowess over the language!



As expected, none of the hotel staff spoke or understood English. In the restaurant, it was buffet breakfast. The fare daunted the staunchest carnivore and I settled for salad, fruits, toast and marmalade. I thought I cold have a scrambled egg – just one egg in view of the cholesterol which had to be kept in check. Bhawani said she too would have one. I went to the eggs-to-order counter. The middle-aged chef smiled sweetly and, as if to confirm my requirement, she picked up one egg and showed it to me. I nodded agreement. Three minutes later, I get two fried eggs, sunny side up, on one plate!



As you drive away south towards Buon Me Thuot, you cannot miss the massive Seated Buddha on your left. You can see it from kilometers away. It is not a statue, but a grey rock on the incline of a lush green mountain. Nature created it and worked on it for decades, nay centuries or even millennia to give it the present shape.



Breathtaking views of the sea and the fishing harbours await you further south, as the car cruises along the smooth road that runs through the hilly terrain with the verdant hills on the right and even more verdant valleys to the left.

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HEHMMHS

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My son’s house compound in Buon Me Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands Viet Nam shares a wall with a private playschool. Every morning between six and quarter past, children in red-and-white uniforms are brought by their mothers or fathers on two-wheelers. The tiny tots, hugging their schoolbags and flasks water-bottles romp about. There is cacophony in the neighbourood – cackle of toddlers, last-minute advice of mothers to the kids and the roar of the revving motorbikes as the parents return, leaving them behind.

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My mind travels back half a century.
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Thanks to the transfers my father, a central government employee, was subjected to ever so often, the list of schools I studied in is fairly long. They range from one adjudged the best in the district to another with a hoary past, having been founded by the European missionaries.
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My father had been transferred to Cochin by the time I passed out of Class VIII. His office was in Mattancherry, then part of the bustling Cochin town. (The neighbouring Ernakulam had not yet wrested its prominence from the twin.) We took up residence in Mattancherry and I was admitted to the nearest school. Proximity was the only factor that weighed with middleclass parents in those good old days. Reputation, alumni, lineage, snob value and other features which schools these days pride in apparently had not yet been invented.
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Thus was it that I joined the school that I passed my SSLC out of. It went by the somewhat longish name Hajee Essa Hajee Moosa Memorial High School. Even the abbreviation HEHMMHS was more than a mouthful.
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It was certainly no Sherwood or Doon, Mayo or Yercaud. It was not even comparable to the Britto’s in Fort Cochin or The Gujarati Vidyalaya or the Tirumala Devaswom High School closer by. There were many successive years when the school went ‘out for a duck’ in SSLC: no student presented by the school making the grade.
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The silver jubilee year, 1961, the year I passed out, was exceptional: out of the 52 that appeared, eight passed and one of them in first class. Pass of 16% was the highest in a long time. I recall that on the first working day of the next academic year, we were felicitated like war heroes. In a show of real sportsman spirit, all the 44 classmates too turned up to cheer us!
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It might have been a poor cousin of other schools and people had general disdain for its alumni, but it was always dear to me. The school was established by a benevolent businessman for the benefit of what is these days described by the media as ‘members of a certain community’. (How na├»ve the people in the media can get! They seem to think that this expression shrouds the ‘certain community’ and its members in anonymity!)
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However, I have not seen a more cosmopolitan school than HEHMMHS. It had teachers and students who spoke different languages – Kutchi to Konkani to Urdu to Malayalam to Gujarati – and professing diverse religions. It was indeed a melting pot.
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As the next generation in the founder’s family diversified into movie-making and the then sunrise industry of seafood, they could not devote their attention, time or money for the school. It was but natural that it soon fell into decadence. It was perennially starved of resources. There was no replacement for the teachers who left or retired and there was no material for the class earmarked for craft, sports and games. Predictably, the school did not have a laboratory.
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However, the teachers made up for all that. We had a devoted bunch of teachers. They went any lengths in their efforts to teach. And they encouraged the wards to do what they were good at. Like, the ones who were athletic were allowed to practice as long as they wanted. They romped home with prizes and championships at inter-school meets. The artistically gifted were encouraged and they went on to pick up prizes at the school your festivals. Though campus politics had taken toots elsewhere, those in HEHMMHS had no time for all that after their sports, music and plays.
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Mr Namboodiri who taught us Hindi would put the textbook aside and ask Mujib or Rex Joseph to sign a Hindi song. After the liting song from Chaudwin ka Chaand or Mughal-e-Azm, was rendered, he would explain the meaning and the figure of speech and take us through the nuances of the literature. Tell me, how many of you who have studies Hindi through textbooks know the meaning of words like tabassum, aftaab, ikraar, izaazat, nargis or kashish?
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If the Highland lass in William Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper is still before my eyes without my ever having set my eyes upon her, it is because of Mr Venceslaus in his starched white khadi shirt. With him teaching English, school was fun. While explaining the word ‘erase’ (as I ‘erased from memory’), he linked it to the pencil eraser (which we Mallus refer to as ‘rubber’ – little realizing that to most people in this world, it is a contraceptive device). When he spelt it for us – aar-you-ebb-ebb-ee-aar – we knew something was wrong, but did not know what exactly it was.
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And there was the stern and portly Mr Joseph who taught us History and whose cane taught us discipline, and Mr Sadanandan who used to recite Malayalam poems so mellifluously that teachers in the neighbouring classes would pause to listen. If anyone can draw a perfect circle freehand on the backboard, it would be our Mathematics teacher Mr Govindankutty Menon. Our reticent Headmaster Mr Mohamed Ali (Mammalikka to the promoter ad hence to everybody else) led the great team.
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On Fridays, the lunch recess was from 12:30 to 2:30 (instead of the sual 1:00 to 2:00) so that those belonging to a ‘certain community’ could offer their prayers.
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However, the attendance in the senior classes in the school would to trickle to single digits on Friday afternoons because of a neighbouring institution which had an organic link with HEHMMHS: the Star Theatre. It was on Fridays that the movie shown in the previous week would make way for a new one. Many would go for the movie and the others, confident that given the thin attendance, it would be only revision in Physics and Biology that would take place in the post-lunch session, would go home too.
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That brings us to Mrs Hallegua, our Biology Physics teacher. As she could not cover the syllabus because of the mandatory revision on Friday afternoons, she would hold extra classes on Saturdays (‘At 10.30, after the Church, please’). She could hardly move, or even breathe, because she was so obese. It always baffled us how the rickshaw-puller, half her weight, would haul her from her Jew Town home to the Synagogue, thence to the school and back.
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Whenever I see schoolchildren in smart uniforms trooping out of buses clutching schoolbags and water-bottles, I am reminded of those days in HEHMMHS which made me what I am.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Son et Lumiere

Even today, I cannot keep awake through a whole movie – perhaps a throwback to the nap I had in my first movie experience!


That was in 1953 in Cannanore.


Bangalore-Cannanore Highway which touches the hamlet where I was born was no wider than a panchayat road. Come every first Thursday of the month, the sound of drums would herald the arrival of a bullock cart. Stuck on the outer walls of its cabin made of split bamboo-reeds would be posters showing stills from the movie being released the next week in the cinema-hall in the town, a good 15 kilometers away. The drummer and the cart driver would distribute what was called ‘cinema-notice’ – bills advertising the movie. These were leaflets printed on newsprint or cheap rough paper in pale pink (We called it ‘rose colour’), yellow, green, orange or blue.


Urchins would chase the cart, begging for the ‘cinema notice’ which would have pictures of the hero and the heroine, and sometimes the villain. On the other face of the bill, the synopsis of the movie would be printed (for some curious reason, entirely in present tense). There was a catch, though: at a critical point of the storyline (Like, ‘Justice Shekhar and his wife die in a car accident’ or ‘After many years, Asha runs into Kumar at the railway station in Bombay’) it would snap, followed by the phrase ‘Rest on the Silver screen’.


As I had been prohibited by my the seniors in my family from running after the bullock cart (‘like those urchins’), I never got a cinema notice for myself for a long time, though some kind-hearted classmates used to allow me to look at the pictures and read the story. The first ‘cinema notice’ that came into my possession was that of Laila-Majnu. To acquire the coveted green bill, I had exchanged a valued collector’s item of mine: the gold-and-silver foil with the picture of Mahalakshmi stuck to my grandfather’s dhoti when it was new. I folded the new acquisition into four and kept in my Civics text book.


Having acquired it, I was in a flap: it had the picture of Nageswara Rao and B S Saroja (Or was it Anjali Devi?) locked in an embrace. In the 1950’s, in the milieu that I lived in, this pose was the equivalent of a Playboy pin-up, if not outright pornography. I was scared I might be caught, but did not have the heart to throw it away.


A distant uncle of mine, a veteran of the First World War was the first who had seen a movie in the circle that I knew. The term he used for movies was ‘bioscope’. The first bioscope show he had seen was in a German town. It consisted of two parts and lasted all of five minutes! One showed a horse carriage on a lonely road leading to a mansion. The other was of two men in animated conversation (There, of course, was no sound!) This uncle used to explain how the soldiers from different countries were entranced by the images that enlivened the screen.


It was another younger uncle who took me for the first movie that I saw. I was so overwhelmed by the outing that to this day, I cannot recall the name of the movie or its contents. All I remember is that it was a Tamil movie and that we saw it sitting on a bench, that it had a lot of fights and ended in a marriage.


After an early lunch, we got into a bus bound for the town. It was a rickety contraption which ran on coal. Mattresses filled with coir, placed on wooden planks resting on iron strips welded to the running board served as seats with wooden backrests. An ex-serviceman with a handle-bar moustache (so called because its twirl resembled the handle-bar of a bicycle) regarded the rest of the world with absolute disdain, sitting regally in the driver’s seat.


The conductor sat at the entrance and collected the fare from the passengers and issued tickets. The cleaner, who himself could do with some cleaning, as his clothes, face and limbs were covered in soot stood, stoking the coal in the ‘barrel’. I was issued a half ticket, saving my uncle a princely sum of two annas (Today’s 12 paise); I had to sit on his lap in the crowded bus.


The bus coursed its way through the apology for a road bounded on either side by the green foliage of the typical rainforest, densely populated by trees whose canopy of leaves did not allow sunrays to penetrate.


As we walked from the bus stand to the hall, we could hear the devotional ‘Jnaanappazhatthai pizhunthu…’ being belted out by K B Sundarambal. My uncle, knowledgeable from earlier visits to the cinema-hall, informed me that this was the first song to be played everyday. This was followed by a romantic song and then a comic-sounding one.


By then, we had purchased the tickets (five annas for my uncle and half of that for me) and got in. Seated on the sand-strewn floor were those who had paid only two annas for entry, booing, shouting and clapping. The ‘silver screen’ immortalised through the cinema notice was there, tantalisingly, before us. (Unlike the present days, it was not behind a curtain that went up – or parted – to the accompaniment of soft music and tiny star-like lights that blinked and shone while the lights in the hall dimmed and darkened.)


Suddenly, the loud song came to a close and the booing and the claps stopped. Silence fell. The lights went out, plunging the hall into total darkness. The viewers waited, but nothing happened. And the booing gained fresh impetus, only to die down as some white stars, plus signs, random numbers and marks of punctuation flickered on the screen.


Horses and soldiers, camels and deserts, kings and queens, rains and lightning, winds and dust, scenes changed in quick succession. The dialogues were in Tamil and I could not make out a thing. I enjoyed the song sequences and the sword-fights. Those in the stalls too shared my taste, for, they clapped and whistled when these scenes appeared.


Soon, or soon it seemed, there was darkness and momentary silence broken by hooting, whistling and clapping. These interruptions were because the cinema operator had to change the reels. The pandemonium would stop when the screen came alive again. This kept happening every ten minutes or twelve.


The lights came on again. Loud music blared both inside and outside the theatre. I thought it was all over and got up. My uncle said there was more to come: it was only the interval. Several people got up and went out for a smoke, though there was no need to do that: even more had been enjoying the weed while the movie was on. My uncle said we would stay put where we were, lest someone else come and occupy our seats. (Refinements like the tickets being assigned seat numbers were obviously a later development.)


During the interval, my uncle spent half an anna on a ‘songbook’ containing, apart from the lyrics of the songs in the movie, details about the cast, director, script-writer, lyricist, music director, playback singers and the others behind the venture. (I recall the expression on his face the next morning when he discovered that the whole thing was printed in Tamil – a language he did not know!) He bought peanuts and orange and lemon drops for a quarter each, too.


One more round of lights-out-silence-booing-and-clapping-silence-movie routine and we were into the second half. To this date, I have not forgiven myself for having slept soon after the second reel change in the latter half. But the practice continues.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gained in Translation!

The wrong end of the stick which Shashi Tharoor finds in his hand, thanks to the ‘cattle class’ controversy, reminded me of a similar situation I landed myself in, a decade back. And for very similar reasons.

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It was my first posting in North India. My assignment would involve continuous interaction with the trade unions of the officers and other employees. The job called for good proficiency in the local lingo. Given my RDLS (Regional Language Deficiency Syndrome), I was naturally apprehensive.

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Perhaps sensing my trepidation, he summoned Mr Pradhan, who was in charge of personnel. Introducing me to him, he said, in a bid to allay my fears,: you will be ably supported by Mr Pradhan. He was home-bred and knows how to go about things. I said it was fine and assured him I’d do my best.

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As we walked back to my office, Mr Pradhan told me: the unions are quite strong and militant. An indiscreet move, and they would pounce on you. He told me the story of how the netas had marched a donkey into the office of one of my predecessors and told him that further discussions could be had with the quadruped. They were miffed by the remark ‘Gadhe jaise baat kar rahe ho’ (You’re talking like an ass) and had walked out a little earlier. Though not quite relevant, he added that the animal, nervous in the unfamiliar ambience it was herded into, discharged body fluids and solid waste on the carpet, which stank one whole winter.

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Things went on smoothly for the first six months. No confrontations, no dharnas, no strikes. The honeymoon was short-lived, though.

One day, the Chairman of the employees’ union came to me for some favour. It was beyond the pale of the reasonable and could not be done. I told him so, politely but firmly. He grinned sheepishly and went out, saying, ‘Sorry Sir.’

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That was that, I thought.

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That was not that, I realised the next Friday. At the next formal meeting with the union, after the usual pleasantries, the agenda items were taken up. About an hour into the meeting, something came up which, in my view, was totally unreasonable. ‘No discussion on that,’ I said.

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The neta got up and said, ‘If you are not willing to discuss this matter, I am walking out.’ This sudden and unexpected turn of events baffled even the wise and sedate Mr Pradhan. Before he could smoothen the ruffled feathers, all others got up, as if on cue, and shouted, ‘Hai, Hai!’ (Shame, shame!)

Extending a virtual olive branch to the neta, I told him, ‘Varmaji, my doors are always open for you.’ I am sure the entire retinue had heard me, but they trooped out.

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Well-versed as he was in their ways and strategies, Mr Pradhan knew Varmaji was a seasoned leader who would not stage a walkout on a non-issue like this. To him, it looked like a well-orchestrated drama. He asked me in a hush-hush tone, ‘Did you recently refuse something that Varmaji had requested for?’ I told him ‘Yes’, and mentioned the details.

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Mr Pradhan had not completed saying, ‘Okay, I’ll tackle it, Sir,’ when the intercom buzzed. The boss. ‘Please come over.’ There was a sense of urgency in his voice.

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The entire management team was present. I smelt crisis in the air. The boss was fire and brimstone. ‘I believe you showed the door to Varmaji? You have put all of us in a spot by insulting him. Varmaji is a respected leader and you ask him to get out? You are the last person I expected this from.’

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The others tch-tched as the boss paused to catch breath. I tried to put in a word edgewise, ‘They are misrepresenting matters to you. Mr Pradhan was present there, you can ask him.’

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Mr Pradhan was summoned. Turning to me, the boss said, ‘You don’t say anything. Let him narrate what happened.’

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And he rendered a faithful account of what transpired. He explained the whole sequence of events – in a mix of Punjabi, Hindi and English. Mr Pradhan concluded the narration with, ‘Toh saab ne dassya, Varmaji, darwaza khula hai, and Varmaji was offended.’

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'‘You said that?’ the boss frowned at me.

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I protested: But I said that in English; I said ‘Varmaji, my doors are always open’, indicating that in case he had a rethink, he could always come back to me.

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'Ha Ha ha …’ the boss guffawed. ‘Idhar Punjab mein tumhaari angrezi kisko bujhta hai? Tumne kaha Door is open for coming back, usne samjha, darwaazaa khulaa hai nikal jaane ke liye!’ (Who knows your English? Varmaji thought you were showing him the door!’)

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Monday, September 21, 2009

1984?

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I am tempted to write that we travelled through the length and breadth of Viet Nam, but it would be as much of a terminological inexactitude (President Richard Nixon’s euphemism for a plain and simple ‘bluff’) as saying that someone travelled through the length and breadth of Kerala. Look at the map of Viet Nam: like my home-state, Viet Nam too is like a shoelace and has no breadth – only length!

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We spent most of the past forty days South and Central Viet Nam where we covered Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City), Buon Me Thuot, Da Lat, Plei ku, Phu yen etc. We will be spending a few of our remaining Viet Nam days in Sa Pa, Ha Noi, Ha Long – all in the North. This whirlwind tour was possible only because Hari’s job takes him all over the country. He does most of his travel by his Innova driven by his trusted driver Dung (Pronounced ‘yung’ with the ‘u’ as in ‘put’).

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Like the Mary’s little lamb of the nursery rhyme, we too tagged along. During all this criss-crossing, we had come across hardly any cops. The only posse of policemen we saw was at Ho Chi Minh City Airport. There was, of course, the odd sergeant on the highway with a speed-gun nab a car clipping over the prescribed maximum.

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This was very different from what I had read and heard. The newspapers and the periodicals I had read spoke of the ‘big brother’ keeping a constant watch over you in communist countries. Be careful of what you utter in public, even walls have ears, I was cautioned. ‘You know I am discreet, Hari; and even if I do open my mouth, nobody would know what I said because none of them know the languages I know,’ I had joked.

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We were in a town called Plei ku in the north of Gia Lai Province in the Central Highlands area. The place is a plateau at am altitude of 800 meters able mean sea level. It tends to get very hot during the day, but is very windy in the evenings and therefore pleasant. There is nothing much to see there, but we had to stay because Hari’s work there stretched for three days.

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On the second day there, we had dinner with Amaresh, a friend of Hari’s. The spring in his stride, the speed at which words issued forth from his mouth, the way he moved about, all reminded me of the phrase ‘livewire’. ‘I have a maid who cooks sambar and rasam of the type you get in Chennai,’ he said. (In fact he said ‘Madras’, not Chennai, pronouncing it as MeD-ROss).

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It was 9.30 pm, late by Viet Namese standards, when we finished dinner. We were well into the last course when our host suggested that asked us if we had seen the lake in Plei ku. We hadn’t.

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Amaresh said, ‘Good. We’ll go now.’

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Bhawani asked him, ‘Would there be lights?

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‘That’s the best part. It’s dark. In the early morning when the sun is still low in the sky the sun beams reflect like a silver band on the lake. It is the untouched charm of Viet Nam. In dark nights, it’s even more beautiful.’

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Dung having been dismissed for the day, Hari took the wheel and off we went. Taking a left turn from the main road, we drove through what seemed to be an endless forest, guided by Amaresh who knew the route. The pitch dark was punctured only by the beam of the car.

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Suddenly, the road ended. In front, there was a raised platform and to the left was something that resembled a watchman’s kiosk. There was no light outside, but a solitary bulb lit the inside and there were voices from within. It was a television. The door creaked and a head peeped out. He must have heard the doors of the car. It was not possible to take a good look at us in the dim light. The head withdrew and the door creaked again.

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A flight of stairs led to the roofed platform. True to Amaresh’s words, the view was breathtaking. The mountains and the pine trees cast a reflection on the still waters which could be seen only if you strained your eyes. One could sit there for any length of time and consider the riddles of nature.

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Located about seven kilometers from the town, T’nung Lake, also known as Ia Nueng, Amaresh said, is surrounded by pine forests and mountains. It covers 230 hectares, expanding up to 400 hectares in the rainy season, and about 30 meters deep and serves as the city’s reservoir.

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It wasn’t really a lake, it was actually a huge crater caused by a volcano which erupted millions of years back. Geologists believe that there is a dormant volcano underneath the lake. Rainwater had flowed into the crater, making it a huge water-body.

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According to local folklore, a fierce quake erupted and destroyed the ethnic village named T’nung where everyone lived happily together, turning it into ash. When the fire was finally doused all that remained was a deep hole. The survivors stood besides the deep hole and cried, filling the hole with their tears and turning it into a lake.

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After spending less than half an hour, we decided to return. We had barely got into the car when we saw a pair of headlights speeding towards us. ‘Visitors to the lake at 10.30 in the night?’ I wondered.

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It was not a car; it was two motorbikes carrying two cops each. The door of the kiosk creaked again and the head emerged. The cops asked us in Viet Namese, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here at this time?’ Hari responded, ‘Du lich’, which is Viet Namese for ‘tourists’. They saw we were foreigners and wanted to see our passports.

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They seemed to be satisfied. As all of us were already in the car and about to leave, they allowed us to go without further questioning, but followed us for all the five kilometers till we reached the main road, and ensuring that we were indeed headed in the direction of the hotel we had said we were staying in.

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How did the cops know that five foreign nationals had entered the city reservoir area on a dark night at 10 pm? Did the watchman in the kiosk report to them? Were we under surveillance? We shall never know.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Battle over Cattle

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We are a dour people and can’t take a joke. Or else, why would we be up in arms against an innocuous remark by someone in a social networking group? But then Dr Shashi Tharoor is not a ‘someone’; he is a sun rising on the political horizon of India (and, more significantly, for the rising son, a threat looming large!)

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On Twitter, journalist Kanchan Gupta (Associate Editor, the Pioneer) asked Shashi Tharoor on 14 September 2009 at 11:57 PM on if he would be travelling by cattle class during his next visit to Kerala. Tharoor’s tongue-in-cheek twitter reply was: ‘Absolutely in cattle class, out of solidarity with all our holy cows!’

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This is humour. Friendly banter. Good back-slapping fun. Nothing less, nothing more. (For the uninitiated – and this may include the Congress High Command - ‘Cattle class’ is an internationally popular slang for the standard class, lowest class or the Economy class.)

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Now, what’s wrong with that?! Anybody – and that includes a minister – with a reasonably good command over English idioms and phrases will jump to give such a reply! You say ‘cattle’ and a witty person is most likely to think of the exclamation ’sacred cow!’ or the expression ‘holy cow’.

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It’s even more likely to happen when you are writing at a micro-blogging site like Twitter where you have to sum up what you have to say in 140 characters or less! Tharoor gave a clever reply to a simple query. He spoke so much in so little.

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I consider it quite acceptable and think it has nothing to do with hurting the political sensibilities or offending the religious sentiments of people. It is humour: appreciate it or ignore it! But the Congress is doing neither. It has misunderstood the comment and thinks Tharoor is ‘referring to a certain person as cow!’ It says ‘high command will decide.’

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He asked for it. Shashi Tharoor, back to India after decades in the US, forgot that India is not the US and the Congress party is not the Democratic Party and he is not President Obama. When he got onto Twitter and started tweeting regularly to an ever increasing number of followers (164,548 at last count), the Congress High Command was obviously not amused.

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When the number of his followers crossed one lakh, alarm bells started ringing. Outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Tharoor, a political novice, had become the first leader to connect directly to so many Indians, and that too interactively on a daily basis.

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His soaring popularity, highlighted regularly by the media, created a new star in the Congress overnight. More significantly, it also made many Indians acutely aware of the distance and the disconnect that existed between them and the much more youthful Rahul Gandhi, the uncrowned king of the country.

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The High Command had to do something. Sure enough, it reacted a few days back by publicly ordering him out of the five-star hotel he was staying in. He would have to shift to a place like the rather humble Kerala House where not only was there no gymnasium, Tharoor even had to eat food in the canteen like, and with, the real ‘aam aadmi’.


It is clear that Tharoor did not get the real message then. His explanation that he wanted privacy for which he was paying from his pocket and that in order to keep fit, he needed to use the gymnasium did not wash.


The Congress was not going to let him get away. It was just waiting for that inevitable slip that would give it just the opportunity that it needed to censure him even more severely and put a firm end to his twittering ways.


He did that and more in his reply to a tweet about travelling in Economy Class as a part of the austerity drive launched by the Congress High Command. It did not matter that he was not the first to use the ‘offending’ expression ‘cattle class’; he was only repeating the words of the journo. It did not matter that it was repartee and wordplay.


The Congress party hit back hard saying that his remarks were ‘unacceptable, given the sensitivity of all Indians and not in sync with our political culture’. The ‘political culture’ bit is the operative part. How can any Congressman dare to even remotely compare Sonia Gandhi with a cow? Criticising the party's Holy Family is blasphemy!


Tharoor, in his subsequent tweets, says:


1. learned belatedly of fuss over my tweet replying to journo's query whether i wld travel to Kerala in "cattle class". His phrase which i rptd


2. it's a silly expression but means no disrespect to economy travellers, only to airlines for herding us in like cattle. Many have misunderstd


3. i'm told it sounds worse in Malayalam, esp out of context. To those hurt by the belief that my repeating the phrase showed contempt: sorry


4. i now realize i shldnt assume people will appreciate humour. &u shouldn't give those who wld wilfully distort yr words an opportnty to do so


5. holy cows are NOT individuals but sacrosanct issues or principles that no one dares challenge. Wish critics wld look it up


But then who has the time or inclination to learn the nuances of the language when the brief is to destroy a rising star?


I am sure this is not the end of the story. I will not be surprised if he is given a ‘punishment transfer’ to the Ministry for Rural Development and soon finds himself travelling in real ‘cattle class’: a bullock cart, on the dirt tracks that you find in India's hinterland. Any bets on the timeframe?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nam Nam Nam Nam - A Viet Namese Primer

The disembarkation card the pretty airhostess of Tiger Airways handed us over when the aircraft was preparing to land at Ho Chi Minh City Airport was bilingual. In such situations, for want of anything better to do, I do two things: the first is to look for typos; the other, to compare the English words and the corresponding words in the 'other' language, to find similarities between the two.

This time I was not lucky on either count. No typos, no similar words. They I decided I could try learning some Viet Namese words. 'Nam', I found, was Year - as in Date of birth (Date/Month/Year).


Soon, it was touchdown time. Presently, we were in the terminal building. After the immigration and customs formalitis which took an unduly long tme, as we waited for the carousel to bring our registed baggage, I thought I could go to the loo. Proceeding in the general direction, I saw two doors adjacent to each other bearing the words NU (with the picture of a woman) on one and NAM (with the picture of a man) on the other. Pretty obvious.


Then it struck me: the two words - the words for year and man in Viet Namese - are the same! I know there are a few words in most languages which have two or more meanings (Without them, life would be hard for the punsters!) but usually they would be used in only one very commonly understood sense. Like in Sanskrit, Raatri (or nisha, rajani or nisheetHini etc) means night, but all of them mean turmeric too. It must be tough, I thought.


But surprise was yet to come. A couple of days later, I accompanied my son Hari to the vegetable market in Buon Ma Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak Province in Central Highlands. (He causes a flutter wherever he goes in Viet Nam, as he stands a jaw-dropping six foot three inches tall in a land where the average adut male height is 5' 3". I often see that by the time the jaws are hoisted back to their normal position, they drop again when he opens his mouth: he likes to show off the more than usual proficiency he has acquired in Viet Namese language in less than nine months of stay here!) He asked for a kilogram of broccoli. The piece that the vendor picked weighed a kilo and a half. Hari said, 'Don't cut it, I'll take it, though it is 500 grams heavier.' I thought I heard the word 'nam' there. When I asked him, Hari told me, Nam means 'five'. And he added, 'Nam' can mean South, too.

I wondered: If someone wanted to say in Viet Namese that a man had lived in the South for five years, what would he say?

That was not the end. We were in an upmarket cafe in Da Lat that serves coffee in different forms - espresso, mocha, cappucino, cold coffee, chocolate coffee, cafe au lait, etc. I opted for coffee with milk and a lot of ice and Bhawani for hot coffee. Hari translated our choice for the benefit of the attendant: 'Ca phe sua da for him and ca phe nam for her.'

It is a testimony to the strength of my mind that I did not faint when I realised that 'Nam' also means hot!