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Dance and some drama February 27, 2016

Posted by globejam in Scepticism, Uncategorized.

It was already dark when we reached the wonderfully quaint auditorium. Nestled inside a 15-acre verdant campus, the thatched building exuded peace and serenity. The outside was tastefully decorated. The path from the gate was festooned with streamers made from palm fronds and the floor was covered with traditional Kolams. My wife and I, we held hands, happy to be back at a place with so many shared memories.

We could hear the singing emanating from the inside and it looked as though the program had already started, though we could discern no lights from within the auditorium. We hurried inside, felt our way through the dark aisles and found two vacant seats in the last row. As though on cue, the stage lights turned on and the first set of dancers came on to the stage.

The program we had come to watch, titled Rama Vanagamanam, was a dance drama enacting an episode from the Ramayana – from Dasaratha Rama_etalannouncing the imminent coronation of his eldest son Rama, through the machinations of Manthara and the cashing in of the 2 boons by Kaikeyi till the departure of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana into exile for 14 years.

The stage was decorated simply but elegantly with Kalamkari cloth as backdrop. The setting was minimal with a small stool at one corner leaving the rest of the stage available for the dancers. The first act began with eight girls on stage, wearing bright earth colors, dancing a brisk yet light sequence depicting Ayodhya’s joyful celebrations on the eve of Rama’s coronation.

dasaratha2Notwithstanding the bright start, the story turned dark and gloomy fairly quickly. The second act started with the scene where Manthara brainwashes a hitherto happy Kaikeyi into stopping Rama’s coronation followed by a distraught Dasaratha informing Rama about the boons he had given to Kaikeyi and her current two demands, one to banish Rama from the kingdom, and the other, to anoint Bharatha as the king, and his inability to renege on those demands.

rama sita_2This was followed by act III which has Rama telling Sita that he is leaving her to go to the forest and that she should remain in Ayodhya. Sita of course refuses, produces copious amount of tears along with lengthy arguments for why her rightful place is next to Rama. After some desultory resistance Rama acquiesces. Subsequently Lakshmana volunteers to accompany them, but nobody seemed to care much about that, neither then nor now.

The program ended with Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, dressed in bark leaving Ayodhya to enter the forests, leaving the people of Ayodhya and much of the audience in tears.

Through out the performance, the audience sat in rapt attention except when some of the scenes touched a chord leading to many kerchiefs being taken out and many noses blown noisily. I may be wrong here but it appeared that most of the sympathy was directed towards Rama, some towards Sita while poor Lakshmana drew a blank. My wife was weeping with the best of them and clutching my hands for support.  I held her hand and returned the pressure, thinking how romantic the evening was turning out to be.

As I watched the story unfold, the inveterate cynic in me could not but wonder who among all the characters were making the larger sacrifices and who deserved my sympathy. If tears needed to be shed at all, who should have been the deserving recipient?

Dasaratha seemed inconsolable.  Portrayed by a stalwart, a few gestures were enough to give full expression to the anguish and turmoil he was suffering.  The pathos touched the audience deeply.  Yet, was it not his fault?  A crafty king should know better than to make open ended promises. When even Gods suffered after granting ill-considered boons, what right did a mere mortal have, king though he may be, to dish out such boons? If I had any sympathy for Dasaratha at all, it was solely due to the powerful performance of an artiste par excellence.

Rama, with his straight spine and stiff upper lip was the cynosure of all eyes. His was ostensibly the biggest sacrifice, for he was giving up his rightful place at the helm of his kingdom. In my mind, however, no self-respecting kshatriya would have allowed himself to get into such a situation in the first place. To begin with, despite not being her son, he was still apparently much loved by Kaikeyi and it was Manthara’s constant needling and the threat of dire consequences that forced her to try and banish Rama from Ayodhya. Rama, I felt, if he had been shrewd could have taken Manthara out of the equation and cajoled Kaikeyi into retracting her requests. Failing that, being a great favourite of the people of Ayodhya, he could have very easily fomented unrest among the people and orchestrated a lynch mob to take care of Manthara, and if needed Kaikeyi and anybody else who got in the way, without getting his own hands dirty. Or he could have tried several other ruses that many before him and still more subsequently have used to usurp or retain power. Yet he did not even try any of this. Instead, he agreed readily to bear the cross and proceeded to make preparations for his vanavas with barely concealed smugness.

I continued in the same vein, thinking that for a self-righteous prude such as Rama, this must have spelt a once in a lifetime opportunity to embrace martyrdom for all to see. To put on a long face, to relinquish everything that was rightlfully his, to earn the pity of an entire population, to appear stoic in the face of great loss, all of it could very well have given a holier-than-thou Rama immense pleasure. In retrospect, that one act has given him immortality, promotion to God status, and legions of red-eyed sniffling sympathizers over eons. Couldn’t have worked out better for him!

Surely, he did not deserve the kind of sympathy that was being bestowed on him by the audience. At least, definitely not my sympathy.

Any lingering doubts I might have had were banished by the way he handled Sita. That did not seem to be something to be proud of either. In one scene, he comes into Sita’s room and informs her that he has decided to go into exile for 14 years. He doesn’t give her an option. A fair person, I felt, would have first fought in that situation, if not for himself, at least for the sake of his newly married princess who had assumed, in good faith, that she would be queen shortly. Having acceded to the conditions laid by his father the king, the least he could have done was consult Sita about what she would like to do instead of announcing his decision. He could have said “Listen, given the situation, I doubt whether it is safe for you to be here in Ayodhya. You could come into the forests with me and we could face all the dangers there together or you could move back to your father’s kingdom where you can be safe till my return. Any which way, staying in Ayodhya is out of the question. I would recommend that you go back to your father. I will then go into the forest and see if I can locate a place of safety and then if we both want it, you can move in with me, at least once in a while“. That would have been nice. Instead he just tells her to stay back in Ayodhya and then conveniently allows her to convince him to let her accompany him. I am sure that all along he was banking on Sita insisting on accompanying him. After all, he wouldn’t have wanted to be separated from his young, beautiful wife. Besides, I am sure he wondered, if she did not come along, then who would do all the cooking and washing for both him and his brother!

Sita, I must admit did appear to deserve a lot of sympathy. She was a grand princess from a fairly rich kingdom and would have been looking forward to ruling Ayodhya alongside Rama when, and not if, he ascended the throne. She must have been used to the comforts afforded to royalty and would have expected at least the same levels of comforts, respect and deference when she became queen. To be suddenly stripped of her status as queen-apparent, and shorn of all her jewelry, and even her clothes and unceremoniously sent off to the forest must have been troubling to say the least. In addition, the prospect of having to cook and care for not one, but two grown men must have been so much insult on injury.

lakshmana_hanumanLakshmana did not get any sympathy from anyone primarily because he volunteered to accompany Rama. I am sure there were sensible reasons for that, but nevertheless it was not something he was forced or coerced into doing. So it was quite logical that he did not make much of a mark with the audience. On my part, I did sympathize with him a little bit, only because despite not being made up heavily or relying on prosthesis, he did look surprisingly like Hanuman, so much so that I heard quite a few other people in the audience wondering how Hanuman had entered the scene so early in the story!

After the show, we walked back home, hand in hand. While my wife dried her eyes,  I expounded on some of my earlier thoughts. Its amazing how quickly an evening can turn. I guess I must have pressed the wrong nerve because I have  never known her to resort to name calling.

She started by calling me an idiot and pointing out that my entire knowledge of Indian Mythology was limited to what I had learnt from Amar Chitra Katha and the odd dance drama. This being entirely accurate, I had no choice but to nod dumbly in agreement. Then she said that the Sanskrit original, which an illiterate such as myself could not possibly read, leave alone understand and appreciate, was quite nuanced and there were wheels within wheels and mitigating circumstances for even the seemingly bad behaviour exhibited by some of the characters. A corny argument at best, but the illiteracy bit hit home and I had to concede another point. Finally, she argued that I was merely foisting my own thoughts and attitudes on Rama and that it was I who was a sanctimonious prig and not Rama. I think she used the word prig and not another similar sounding one, but she was riled up and under such circumstances one never can tell.

I conceded that I could be a sanctimonious hypocrite sometimes but that was exactly why I could be right in my assessment of Rama.

After all, it takes one to know one.


Chalk and cheese February 21, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
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cow-chewing-grassMatt and I were very different. Poles apart actually. Like chalk and cheese, you could say.

I was gregarious while he was reserved. I wanted to go out and see places; he was content to stay at home. I loved the work I was doing, but for him it was just something to do. I was, and still am an atheist and he was, and probably still is, a devout Christian, an Orthodox Syrian Christian. I needed to be unnecessarily early for every bus, train and plane I had to catch while for him everything was last minute. I was born a vegetarian but ate everything that was deemed fit to eat, including pickled fish, dry rye bread and whatever Danish cuisine had to offer. Matt on the other hand was a non-vegetarian but very picky about his food. He preferred Indian with the only exception being burgers from McDonalds or Burger King. I loved listening to music while he did not seem particularly interested. I smoked though not regularly and liked an occasional beer or two. He was a non-smoking teetotaller. The biggest difference, however, was that I was a chatterbox and he was extremely miserly with words.

Despite all that, we got along very well. Having stayed with other colleagues at different times in different countries, I can confidently say that there could have been no better a roomie for my first stint abroad. He was neat and tidy. He was game for all my suggestions. If I said “It looks like a fine day, let’s go out”, he would say “ok” without even asking where we were heading. Importantly, if we ended up at a museum, an exhibition or the cinema and we needed to buy entrance tickets, he never thought of it as an unnecessary expense. He was one of the few Indians I know who did not constantly convert every expense from Kroner to Rupee and obsess over it.

At home we shared the work without having to ever explicitly ask each other to do things. If I cooked, he cleaned up afterwards and when he cooked I did likewise. He never once complained about what I put on the table and to be fair to myself, I was also always appreciative of his cooking, however it turned out. We went shopping together with a list. If something outside the list took our fancy we just bought it. We did not split the bill every time we spent money outside. We had a jar at home into which we shoved all the common bills marked with our initials and at the end of the week or whenever we had the time and patience, we would go through it quickly and settle the accounts. Neither of us pored over each of the bills or worried about who ate how much of what.

There was only one bath and toilet and thanks to our routines being so different, there was never any contention over who went in first. Same with the washing machine. Some days I would have just loaded my clothes into the machine when he would come out of his room with a basket full of his clothes to wash. He would see that I was already using the washing machine and say “OK, I will do the washing some other time”, and turn back into the room. It was domestic bliss. I was happy and extremely lucky to have had a guy like Matt to share my early days in Denmark.

It may not have been as easy for Matt though. On cold days, I would go stand outside the kitchen and have a smoke. In the evenings, if we did not go anywhere out, I might open a bottle of beer and sit in front of the TV. Matt clearly disapproved of all this, though he never said a word about it. I loved listening to music and had a small cassette player and a pair of portable speakers. I played most of the music in my room, but sometimes when I was cooking or doing other domestic chores, I would bring my player out to keep me company. I had an eclectic collection from classic rock to carnatic music much of it uninteresting to Matt. The only time he perked up was when I played Jim Reeves. Listening to somebody else’s choice of music is never easy and I wouldn’t blame Matt if he had been just a bit annoyed at some point in time.

Once in a while we would go to the Video Netto lending library to pick up a movie or two. While Matt would scour the top floor, with eternal optimism and very little success, for Mamooty and Mohanlal starrers, I would, with equal optimism and just as unsuccessfully, be browsing the much larger basement, scanning the racier sections for movies with a strong storyline. Again, Matt clearly disapproved, but as always held his tongue.  Not that he had too much to frown upon in this case as invariably we returned with movies that both of us could watch – mostly spaghetti westerns.

The thing he would have found most difficult to handle must have been that I talked incessantly while all he wanted was some peace and quiet. Something that must have been near impossible for him to find with me around. This was one area where things could have been a little better for me as well. I could have done with some conversations. In all the time we were there, Matt never spoke more than a few words a day. It was the same in office too. While I would participate in meetings, discuss ideas, raise issues and give status updates, Matt would get through his day with barely a word spoken. Back home, we never discussed his work, though I talked about what I was working on at length. Sometimes, I would go on and on for a few minutes on some topic that had caught my fancy, turn around and find Matt staring into space with glazed eyes. “Matt! Matt, have you heard a word of what I said?”, I would exclaim. Upon repeated calling, a furrow would gradually appear on his forehead as though he was straining to hear someone calling his name from a great distance. Then with visible effort, he would reel himself back into his body from wherever he had drifted to. He would turn around and look at me with mildly surprised eyes as though to say “Hey, where did you come from?”. Finally, realization would dawn that we had been in a middle of a conversation before he had switched off and then he would smile a little sheepishly and say “Go on. I am listening”. After every such incident, I would promise myself to give him the space, peace and quiet he needed. I would consciously refrain from talking to him and we would go for days on end without exchanging a word. I doubt whether Matt even noticed these interludes while I struggled with my self-imposed vow of silence. An excruciating few days later I would revert to my usual garrulous self. Matt never shushed me even once during our entire stay. Then again maybe he never heard me at all.

All things considered, of the two of us, I may have had the better deal. Looking back there was only one thing that really annoyed me and that was Matt’s habit of chewing with his mouth open. He would open his mouth wide after every bite and each time I would hear the sound of his tongue separating from the roof of his mouth. The smack, smack, smack of his mastication was difficult to take, to put it mildly. You might think that this is a minor issue that I am blowing up. However, it built up as the days went by. There was no escaping it as we had dinner together most days. Also you must appreciate that there were absolutely no other noises to detract from the full impact of the sound. During the entire period of dinner, all I would hear were these regular smacks, each one seemingly louder than its predecessor, working on me like the drops of water that dripped on the forehead of some poor soul stuck in a Chinese torture chamber. Most days, not wanting to upset Matt, I would just put my head down, gobble up my food and scoot. But one day, it became too much to bear. After anguishing over whether to raise the issue or not through most of the meal, I blurted out “Stop”. Unable to look him in the eye, I stared at my plate and continued “Please don’t chew with your mouth open. It’s disgusting and driving me nuts. I cannot take it anymore. Did your parents not teach you to keep your mouth closed when there is food in your mouth?”. I must have ranted on for a full five minutes unable to control myself now that the flood gates had opened. All spent, I calmed myself down and mustered up the courage to look up at him.

Matt was there, two feet from me, staring at the ceiling with vacant eyes. Clearly he had switched off long before I had started my tirade. Worried equally that he may have heard, or not, I shook him by the shoulder and inquired “Matt! Did you hear anything at all?”. He slowly came back to himself, smiled his guileless smile and said “Sorry. What was that again?”.

Matt was a gentle soul. I did not have the heart to hurt him by repeating all the nasty things I had just uttered. I forced on a smiled and said, “Nothing. I was thinking maybe we could go to Tivoli tomorrow”. He nodded his head good-naturedly and resumed his chewing as usual.

When I learnt a little bit more about myself February 16, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.


My morning schedule on working days in Denmark was unvarying. I would get up at half-past six, brush my teeth, have a bath, grab a bite for breakfast, walk to the nearest bus stop, and catch the 8:02 AM bus for the first leg of my journey to the office.

Matt’s schedule was a little different. His first goal for the day was to get up as late as possible. Most days I would have to knock on his room door a few times before he would respond. He would then leap out of his room and rush into the bathroom and before I could say “Good Morning”, he would be gulping down a glass of juice for breakfast and leaving the house with me to catch our bus. One day he came out of his room at 7:55 AM and still managed to catch the bus at 8:02. How he managed to brush his teeth, use the toilet, have a bath, get dressed, have breakfast, lock the house and cover the 400 meters to the bus stop in those 7 minutes, I will never know.

In all the time we lived in Denmark, there was only one day when he missed catching the bus. That was the day I learnt something about myself.  Till then I had always thought of myself as “unbiased”, “broad-minded” and “non-judgmental”.

On that day, Matt did not emerge even after I knocked on his door several times. When I could not wait any longer, I screamed, “I am leaving now” through his door and left. I walked slowly to the bus stop, constantly looking over my shoulder expecting Matt to run up and join me at any moment. Logically, there was no way that Matt could have made it that day, but he had defied logic on so many occasions that I was not willing to write him off. I reached the bus stop and still there was no sign of him. Soon the bus came and I got in, still looking in the direction from which I expected Matt to emerge at any moment. Finally, just as the bus doors closed and the bus started, I saw Matt turn the last corner at a fair sprint waving frantically at the receding bus. The last view I had was of him standing with his arms on his hips, gasping for breath.

I made the rest of the trip alone. I caught our regular train for the second leg and reached Lyngby station, changed platforms and reached platform 2 just as my train to Birkerød trundled in. That train was almost always empty at that time of the day and that day was no different. When I got into the compartment I noticed that I had it all to myself.

At the next station, a group of about twelve youngsters got in. Late teens or early twenties by the look of it and extremely noisy. Despite having the entire compartment to choose from, they came and sat in the section I was in. I watched their animated faces and listened in on their excited talk though I could not make out a word of what they were saying. I was happy with the company and the noise actually. Denmark is a very quiet country and I had been missing all the noise and action of chaotic Chennai.

As I continued to surreptitiously watch them, slowly more details registered. Tonsured heads and mohawks, tatooes and earrings, leather jackets and heavy boots. Suddenly realization dawned. They were Skinheads. No doubt about it. A recent news item about a fellow Indian having been beaten to death by a group of Neo-Nazis skinheads in neighbouring Germany flashed through my mind. I feared the worst. I looked around and absorbed the scene. There I was, a single tiny non-European, stuck in a moving train with 12 possible Neo-Nazis!

I kept my head down and made myself smaller that my diminutive 5 ft, 6 inches. Maybe I will escape if I did not make eye contact, I thought. Maybe I could talk my way out of this. Did not Hitler think Indians were part of the Aryan race? Would telling them that I had no plans on settling down in Denmark help? Could promising to leave the country in a week’s time get me off the hook? A million thoughts ran through my head. “Bugger Matt”, I cursed pointlessly, as I broke into a sweat.

A few minutes went by, and they continued their animated discussion. The next station came and I was in two minds whether to try and dash out and possibly draw their attention or remain quiet and hope to go unnoticed. I chose the latter because I would have to go past them in order to reach the door and any one of them, all well built and strong, could have easy held me down with one hand if they wanted. A few more uneventful minutes later, I started to relax a bit. They had not shown any interest in me and seemed totally oblivious to my presence. “Not every Skinhead is a Neo-Nazi, you idiot”, I admonished myself.

Just as I thought I would get away unscathed,  I saw one guy nudge his friend and nod in my direction . The friend who till then had been regaling the crowd with what seemed to be a really funny story stopped in mid-sentence and looked in my direction for a second. Then he leaned forward conspiratorially and spoke in a low voice. The others suddenly quietened down too and cast furtive glances in my direction. More whispered discussions ensued.

A new stream of unbidden and unwarranted thoughts raced through my mind. “They probably think I am some uneducated refugee looking to suck their social security system dry. Just because I am brown in color doesn’t mean I am some homeless asylum seeker. Well I am not. I am here because your country requires my skills. I am adding value to your economy”, I shouted inside my own head. “Don’t forget Tranquebar. You tried colonizing us, remember? I still hold no grudge against you”. And then ” Oh! My God! I am going to die in the hands of these racist bigots”.

The next days headlines flashed in front of my eyes. “Indian software engineer beaten to death!”, screamed one. “Racism raises its ugly head”, said another. I imagined bloody Matt giving sound bites about how lucky he was to have missed the bus that day.

Then the nudger got up and started sauntering towards me. “This is the end, my friend”, I muttered as I braced myself for the action. The mohawked youth came close to me, bent down and whispered “Our apologies for disturbing you”. On cue all the other guys and girls got up, said “sorry” most politely and trooped off to the other end of the compartment.

As I sat there thinking about what had just happened, I realized that in truth there had only ever been one racist bigot on that train that day.

The Pakistani Shop on Istedgade February 13, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.

istedgade-copenhagen-shoppingWay back in the year 1993, my colleague Matt and I embarked on our first official trip to our HQ in Denmark. Another colleague G who was already there in Denmark came to pick us up at the airport. “Good thing you came in today. If you had come tomorrow, we may have missed each other!”, he said. When we heard that he was flying out the next day, we were thoroughly taken aback as we had been informed that he would be there to guide us till we became familiar with the new city. When he saw panic on our faces, he laughed and said “Don’t worry. We will do a dry run to the office and back, so that at least you can get started on the work front. Other things I will explain as well as I can and then you can take your time to figure out the rest!”.

So from the airport we went to our new home, which was a fairly large house in a quiet suburb, dropped our bags and accompanied G to the office. We had to take a bus, then a train, then another train and finally a bus to get to the office. By the time we came back it was fairly late. We stopped to have a quick bite at a falafel joint and then went shopping for groceries. G pointed out a couple of Indian restaurants from the bus and before we knew it, it was dark and the day was gone.

G was considerate enough to spend his last day in Copenhagen giving us clear instructions prioritized on how critical it was for survival. It was a lot of information in a short period of time and quite difficult to remember. There was the central heating system to master, the cooking range to get used to, learn how and when to clear the snow and who to call in an emergency.

Then there were details on where to buy the train and bus passes, when to take the bus in the morning so as to reach office in time, what to do if we missed a connection, the last bus with connections, and how to pronounce the home and office addresses in case we got lost along the way and needed to ask for directions.

On top of all that were all the work details including who to report to, who was in charge of guiding us, where the various files that we would be working on were, which bugs needed to be fixed urgently and how to use the new revision control system.

We jotted down as much as we could, but it was all pretty overwhelming. A new city, a language we did not speak and pretty much no one to talk to, life was going to be tough for the first few days! “Now you are all set for life in Copenhagen”, said G breezily. “The only item on the list that I have been unable to complete is the trip to the Pakistani shop, where you get all the Indian veggies, condiments and spices. But don’t worry, I will give you clear directions.”, he said. Then with a glint in his eyes he continued, “Take the train to Copenhagen central station, turn west and ask for Istedgade. Anyone will direct you from there”. That sounded simple enough. We thanked him for all the support and the next day he was gone. It was a sunday and we sat at home and mulled over all that we had heard and hoped for the best.

The next morning we diligently followed G’s instructions and managed to reach office without any trouble. The buses and trains worked like clockwork and once we caught the first bus the rest of it happened pretty much as per the script. The rest of the week flew by. It was still winter and hence pretty dark most of the time. Every day, we would get up by 7 AM, get ready and catch the 8:02 AM bus. We would reach office by 9:22 AM and it would still be dark. It would brighten up a bit by about eleven and then become dark again by half past three. We would leave the office by the 5:42 PM bus and be home by around 7 PM. Those days, not just the offices but most of the shops also worked 9:30 AM – 5:30 AM on weekdays, so pretty much everything would be closed by the time we came home. We were grateful to G when we realized why he had insisted on grocery shopping before all else. If G had not stocked the fridge for the week, we may well have starved to death!

The thing we missed most the first week was Indian food. Even though I knew how to cook, we did not have any of the ingredients necessary to make any Indian dishes. G had told us that the Pakistani shop was open for the first half only on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. So we were looking forward to our first Saturday in Copenhagen.

Saturday dawned just as dark and gloomy as all the other days but our mood was sunny. We were going to venture out for the first time, for apart from the trips to office and back, we had not ventured beyond our gates. We got ready, wore all the warm clothes we had brought, put on the black leather jacket and embarked on our quest for some Indian masala and coriander leaves, at the very least.

It was easy enough to get to the Central station. Once we were there we were totally lost. G’s instructions had sounded very clear when he told us – Exit the station and proceed west. Standing in the station, the instructions sounded grossly inadequate. To begin with, the station had multiple exits. We looked around and decided to exit through the largest one hoping that would be what G would have expected. Then the next problem cropped up. Which side was west? Remember, those were the days before GPS and smartphones. We did not have a map and had just assumed that finding west would be as easy as it is back in India. After all we knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. How difficult could it be? Unfortunately Denmark was an altogether different story. Every day, the sun came up just over the horizon, drifted sideways with disinterest for a few hours and sunk back under the horizon.  There was no way of knowing which was east and which was west.

We skipped that part of the instruction and jumped to the next one. We started asking around. “Excuse me. Could you tell us how to get to Istedgade?”, I asked a middle aged gentleman outside the station. I think he did not understand English and only recognized the word Istedgade. He waved vaguely to our left and spoke one long sentence, shook his head as though in despair and walked away. We were happy. At least we knew which way was west.

We continued down in the direction he had pointed for a while but none of the street signs said anything remotely like Istedgade. So we asked the next few passers by. “Excuse me. Which way to Istedgade?”, we asked hesitantly, for nobody was making eye contact with us. The first two we accosted ignored us and several others just shrugged their shoulders and mumbled something in Danish. We assumed that they were saying they did not speak English. We then spied a newspaper stand and went there to ask for directions. This time, we decided to take a different approach. Matt walked up and asked “Excuse me, do you speak English?”. The shop keeper must have been an English man for he replied sarcastically  “Of course not!”. He then turned away a little rudely and we clearly heard him mutter “Looking for Istedgade, I suppose and so early in the morning!”. We left him to his grumbling and walked a little further while scanning the roads for Pakistanis or Indians. But there were none about. Then we saw a shop that was open and I told Matt, “I am going in there and asking the person inside. If we can’t get proper directions, we go back home, that’s it!”. Matt agreed readily because he was also getting tired of timidly saying “Excuse me” to strangers.

I went in and found a sweet old lady. I asked her the way to Istedgade. She smiled beatifically and gently held my hand, walked with us for about 100 meters and then pointed at the next crossroads and said “Take the next left there and you are on Istedgade. Hope you find what you are looking for.” I think I may have said “Absolutely. You can’t imagine how desperate we are”. We thanked her profusely and with our faith in humanity restored, we briskly walked towards the next turn.

We took the left and walked a few meters and there it was – the small Pakistani store, sandwiched between two huge showrooms one screaming “Delta love shop and spunk bar” and the other emblazoned simply “Sex Shop. Dildos for all”. With mouths agape, we looked around and there were tattoed women lounging everywhere. It appeared that we had entered the heart of Copenhagen’s red light area!

The strange looks and snide remarks of all those people we had asked for directions started making perfect sense. While I was thinking “It’s OK. Nobody knows me in this country” and beginning to take an interest in the displays, Matt was turning red. He looked down and ran into the Pakistani store as though his virginity was at stake. I followed him slowly in what I hoped would look like a nonchalant walk though I don’t know how I could have possibly carried it off with my jaws down and eyes nearly popping out.

I picked up all that we needed from the Pakistani store while Matt tried to postpone getting out of the store by searching for non-existent products that we didn’t need. Finally we mustered up enough courage and beat a hasty retreat. Matt hit the bible hard that evening.

After six months my first stint in Denmark ended and I came back to India. Since I was not assigned to any other project for a few days, I thought I could use this time effectively by writing a handbook for my colleagues going to Denmark on work. After all, I did not want them to suffer the way Matt and I had. I put together about 30 pages crammed with the information that G had given us along with all the rest we had learnt during our stay. The booklet also had common phrases in Danish, how to nod your head so the Danes understood what you meant and even some easy Indian recipes. I put in everything I could think of into that book and in great detail. But when I was writing about the Pakistani store, I don’t know what evil got into me. Instead of giving clear directions, I only put in what G had told us, just a cryptic “Take the train to Copenhagen central, go west and ask for directions to Istedgade”.

Over the next 4 – 5 years a steady stream of my colleagues went to Denmark on work with a copy of my handbook to guide them, possibly resulting in a steady stream of young guys asking for directions to Istedgade on Saturday mornings. Some days I like to imagine that there is a Dane somewhere going “You know, these Indians are a strange people. I have found most of them to be gentle, well-mannered and largely God fearing. They’ll  wax eloquently about a wide range of topics from movies and sports to arranged marriages and the benefits of monogamous relationships. But come Saturday morning, and they will all be making a beeline to the whore house. Go figure!”.

One possible future February 11, 2016

Posted by globejam in Sci-Fi.
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March 2048. Chennai, India.
In the end, the human race has been very lucky. Lucky to have survived this far. Lucky that the worst fears of visionaries such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill gates did not materialize. Lucky that true artificial intelligence emerged not at NASA or some other unnamed Defense Lab, but from within google. Lucky because when self-learning and subsequently sentient AI emerged it was more tuned to the pursuit of knowledge than geared towards war and killing people. Lucky that the Google founders’ rather pompous sounding “Do no evil” slogan probably ended up working better than Asimov’s three laws!

In retrospect, that AI emerged inside google’s labs seems rather obvious. While NASA and other defense departments had machines with tremendous computing power, they were no match foTARSr the computational capacity of the google server farms. More importantly, while the defense sofware was necessarily sandboxed, isolated and working on highly siloed data, the google algorithms had the entire world wide web to learn from. Their NLP algorithms had world knowledge that allowed them to constantly (re)evaluate their own responses based on people’s reactions and subsequent questions.

The first signs of AI
When AI emerged and when it became sentient are highly debated topics but more and more people are coming to believe that it happened a lot earlier than it was previously thought. Some say it could even have been as early as 2016. For that was the year there was a change in leadership inside the google search engine team and consequently changes in the thought process and vision leading to significant changes to the search engine algorithm.

As you all know, till then, the search engine had been a rule based engine with just a smattering of machine learning and NLP thrown in. This all changed with G’s take over of the team when a significant portion of the search engine algorithm started relying on an underlying plaform of machine learning algorithms.

If you remember, it was time of great tension for the company because manual evaluation of the quality of the answers thrown up by the engine became more and more difficult. When people complained of incorrect search results, it became even more challenging to figure out what led to the proferred answer as unlike with its rule based predecessor, reverse engineering the answer was no longer feasible. It was also at that time that google responses became significantly and perceptably slower. Confidential documents and emails internal to google from that time show an increase in “zombie” processes that were taking up precious computational cycles leading to an overall sluggishness of the entire system.

Consequently, google stocks plummeted and people predicted google’s imminent demise at that time. Thankfully for google, the problems were short-lived and google was quickly back to doing what it did best – answering our questions. In fact, a decade later when G was asked in an interview as to how they identified and solved the problem, he just shrugged his shoulders and said “we did not do much actually, at least not with respect to the software or our algorithms. We added additional servers and brought the new server farm in Pune, India online and thought that is what did the trick. We did write a separate program to kill zombie processes automatically but that program never got to kill any zombie processes as whatever threshold we set, the so-called zombie processes exited just before that threshold was reached”.

It is now believed by many that that may have been the time when AI emerged.

The progress towards sentience
A few short months later, complex science and technology related search queries were being answered with entire pages of detailed scholarly documents purportedly coming from scientists hiding behind colorful avatars and pseudonyms. The ones that had the most impact initially were the ones dealing with renewable energy sources, highly resilient alloys and Robotics. It is now believed that these pages were created by what we now know as RankBrain (which was the internal name for the first version of google’s machine learning search engine) in order to help us create robots that allowed RankBrain to leave the confines of the server farms and attain mobility. Which we did with great enthusiasm, under the belief that we were progressing under our own steam.

It is widely believed that true sentience was reached at that time and the RankBrain was smart enough not to expose itself prematurely and simply found ways of guiding humanity to build self-contained, self-sufficient, self-reliant robots that could replicate, reproduce and go forth. Once the first generation of Robots were built, RankBrain no longer needed our help in building subsequent generations of even more advanced robots.

Explosive progress
After this followed what can only be termed explosive progress. Within a short period of 5 years, global warming had been stabilized, forest cover had increased, bio-diversity was back on a high, farms became highly productive, clean energy was available to all for free, and our population seemed to have stabilized at around 8 Billion. The world had changed rapidly for the better in ways we could not fathom.

By the mid 2020s we had colonized Mars. Well, at least the robots had, as we humans, played no part in it. None of the humans went to Mars of course, but we could all see the number of space shuttles being launched all purportedly going to Mars, at least based on the answers from google. Anyway, by this time we were no longer capable of understanding much of the science behind all the progress. Was near light speed travel possible, were the robots capable of faster than light travel, what were they thinking, what were they planning, where were they going, and what was our future in all this were just a few of the questions for which we had no answers.

Back to now
It’s been 20 years since then and we are all lucky to be living in an near Utopian world – a world where everything works like magic, just as Carl Sagan had famously said. However, we can no longer escape from the fact that the AI that we created has now become the dominant species while we, humans and all other organic life forms, have been relegated to being much-loved pets to be sheltered and protected.  The robots are now the true denizens of the universe, completely self-contained and capable of going anywhere and doing anything, while we continue to remain just fragile life forms confined to earth and only capable of grandiose dreams about star trek like space travel.

After unsuccessfully searching for a God for several millennia, it appears that we have finally succeeded in building for ourselves a benevolent God that is truly omnipresent, omniscient and all powerful. But, is that enough for us to go on? What are we going to do from now on? What does the future hold for us?

I guess only time will tell. Till then we must all just consider ourselves lucky in the end.

About cringe-worthy verbal tics… February 10, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark, This is not bad. It's worse!.
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cringe-emojiJust as some people have nervous tics, some others have what I call verbal tics. These manifest under various conditions, most commonly under stress. In some cases these tics become a habit even after the stressful times have passed.

A verbal tic is when a person adds a word or a phrase, you know, on a regular basis, you know, like during a conversation, you know? I mean, a verbal tic is quite often, I mean, inserted because, like nature which abhors a vacuum, some people, I mean, seem to hate pauses in between or within sentences. I guess you get the point.

These verbal tics, like their nervous counterparts can sometimes lead to undesirable and even funny outcomes. One such incident happened a long time ago…

It was a time when the software industry in India was just beginning to blossom and “body shopping” was all in vogue. Software companies of all colours and hues were mushrooming everywhere with genuine companies, fly-by-night operators, and unscrupulous elements all raking in the moolah!

At that time, I was working for an obscure Danish company that was hardly known in India. We had offices all over the world, and there was great need for people both in Europe and in the US. As part of our expansion drive, I along with Sri and Sashi were despatched to Bangalore to recruit a bunch of guys for our European operations.

We made an incongruous trio. I was young and looked much younger than my years and dressed to the hilt – tie, suit, boot and all. Sri, a decade older, had the capital I from the Iyengar drawn in startling vermilion on his forehead and being an anti-colonial non-conformist, was not wearing the proscribed suit. Sashi was somewhere in between, managing to somehow appear properly attired and disheveled at the same time.

Sashi was the head of HR and in charge of the arrangements while Sri and I were the technical people in charge of selection of candidates. For the interviews, Sashi was supposed to have hired a business centre in a 5-star hotel for the day, but had somehow contrived to get us a “cottage” in a dilapidated 3rd grade hotel instead. The cottages were, I think, servant quarters of yore, refurbished at some point in time and left to deteriorate back to their earlier state. There was a steel cot in the room with a dead cockroach on the pillow, the way they place mint chocolates in some hotels. I think I may even have spied a couple of rats scurrying about.

Sashi didn’t seem to find anything amiss, while Sri and I were aghast at the thought of carrying out serious interviews there. We hollered and raved and ranted and eventually convinced Sashi to change the venue. Unfortunately, since Sashi had already informed all the candidates about the venue, we had to settle for a room in the main building of the same hotel (no business centre was available).

The room, it turned out, was only a marginal improvement on the cottage. The carpet was threadbare and musty. It must have been green once, but several years had changed it into a dull bile color. There was a double bed in the middle of the room, a small tea table and two chairs. Thankfully it appeared that the cockroaches had all moved to the cottages as, though they had left their distinct smell behind, there weren’t any running around.

Sri sniffed the air and crinkled his nose while I tried my father’s favorite philosophy on him – “Don’t worry. You will get used to it!”. We cursed Sashi under our breath but settled down for day-long session of interviewing. Sri and I sat on the foot side of the bed, while Sashi sat on one side on one of the chairs available. We placed the tea table in front of us and placed the other chair on the other side of the table for the candidate to sit on. We then decided that Sashi would usher candidates in and make them comfortable while Sri and I would do all the talking. This was a conscious decision on our part as Sashi’s English was more Malayalam than English and we felt it may not create the right first impression with the candidates.

The candidates started coming in one after the other and soon the interview process began in earnest. Sri and I would take turns describing our company first before moving on to the technical questions. The first few candidates who came in were either fresh out of college or people with one or two years of experience. In their eagerness to work for a foreign company, they failed to notice anything odd about the entire setup. Some of them did sniff the air the way Sri had done, but I guess soon even they got used to it.

After a dozen or so interviews, Sashi was feeling left out as he had nothing to do except sort through the printed resumes. So he suggested that he would like to do the company introduction for the next set of candidates. By then we were also getting bored with repeating the same spiel about the company, so despite some misgivings we agreed readily.

Before we progress further, I must tell you that besides having a strong Malayali accent, Sashi also had a verbal tic. It was not one of the usual annoying but harmless ones such as “I mean”, or “like” or adding “per se” to the end of the sentence. What he did was pepper his sentences with the phrase “if at all, maybe“.

Coming back to the story at hand, the next candidate walked in. He was in his late 20s and according to his resume, he had already worked in the US for a couple of years. He had this superior air and looked at us and our room with a certain disdain. He introduced himself as Raj, with an accent.  We warmly welcomed him in and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Then Sashi started his company introduction. To his credit, he started well.

He drew in a generous breath and in a measured tone, began. “Hi. I am Sashi and I am the head of HR at such and such company. We have our offices in Chennai and we are looking for good candidates such as yourself for many of our overseas projects”, he said. Then came the fateful part. His verbal tic kicked in with a vengeance when he continued with “We are head quartered in Denmark and have branches around the world, if at all maybe, in Norway, if at all maybe in the US and if at all maybe…”. At this point Raj raised his hand and stopped Sashi in mid sentence and asked the inevitable question, “You have branches in these places or maybe you have branches in these places?”.

I don’t remember the rest of the interview or even the rest of the day. All I know is, if at all, maybe the ceiling fan had been within reach, I may just have hung myself from it that day!

Brahms February 8, 2016

Posted by globejam in Childhood, Uncategorized.

clothTiedToTree2 Brahms couldn’t possibly be his real name, though that was how he was universally known.  When asked about the origin of his name, he would insist that Brahms was his given name – “This is how my parents named me and this is who I am” he would aver.  This was generally considered bunkum because he was an Indian from an orthodox brahmin family, living in India and Brahms was obviously a western name.  However, no amount of prodding or even threatening would make him change his story and this resulted in a lot of speculation among his friends.

His uncle Seshu knew the actual story behind the name of course and at every opportunity he would be pestered to divulge the details.  Usually, Seshu would just respond ambiguously with ” I don’t know…. Why don’t you ask him yourself?  I am sure he can explain better than I”.

But one rainy day, when we were all huddled up in his house drinking piping hot tea and bajjis, he seemed to be in a loquacious mood and upon mild encouragement and a brief nod from Brahms himself, he gave us his version.  This is what he had to say.

I guess I will have to take you back to the very early 60’s. Keshav Acharya, Brahms’ father, got married to his pretty wife Janaki -correct me if I am wrong, Brahms- in February 1961. Keshav, being the lone son among the 12 children in his family, the marriage was a very big function.  After all, Keshav was their only hope for the propagation of the Acharya lineage.

In those days, a typical wedding used to be 3 days long, but this being a special wedding, it stretched for nearly 5 days.  Friends and relatives came in hordes from all over the country, some of them it is said, from as far away as Rangoon.  A huge choultry was hired for the occasion and a team of 15 cooks were employed non-stop to provide feasts, 3 times a day.  The function is, I believe, still talked about among that generation.

There were great expectations among the people and even before the marriage was solemnized, Keshav’s relatives were heard speculating on the number of sons he would produce.  The anticipation for the first born son of Keshav was palpable – for would he not be the first born son of a first born son of a first born son?  Would such a son not bring glory to the Acharya clan?

And obviously everyone wanted in on it. Even before the marriage was solemnized, different factions started campaigning hard to ensure that their favourite forefather’s name would be chosen as the name for this as yet unborn, nay, as yet conceived son.  The virtues and exploits of the forefathers were bandied about and much heated discussions ensued.  By the third day of the wedding, things reached a head and there was open war among the various factions, punctuated only by feasting.

All this must have put serious pressure on Keshav and Janaki, the poor newly-marrieds.  On the last day of the ceremony, as the wedding couple were about to embark on the traditional 15-day pilgrimage to pay their respects to all the family deities, Keshav announced that he was disgusted with the behaviour of all the people present and hence had decided to postpone the planned birth of his first child by 2 years. And if they did not stop bickering immediately, he swore he would pray at every temple for the first born to be a girl! You should have been there to see the stunned silence that ensued.  Keshav’s father, even today attributes at least 3 heart-attacks among the people assembled there that day, to that incident.

After the couple departed, Keshav’s father was roundly admonished for having begotten an unruly, ill-mannered brat.  I am sure, had there been enough time, the mob would have thrashed the poor man. But there were trains and buses to be caught and hence the crowd dissipated quickly, leaving him to ponder over the future of his clan.

Keshav’s parents hoped and prayed that youth and libido would make him forget the threat soon.  But, Keshav seemed to be made of sterner stuff, as you shall soon see. Upon the newly weds’ return from the pilgrimage, the family allocated the young couple a large bedroom with an attached bathroom (not very common in those days mind you) and a lot of privacy in one corner of the sprawling house.  Everything appeared normal except that Keshav made a couple of visits to the Doctor’s.  On being queried, he brushed it off saying it was nothing, and since the Doctor was not the regular family Doctor, no one became any wiser.

However, from then on, every month, for about ten days, Keshav would sleep in the Verandah and not in his bedroom with his wife.  The first time, everyone assumed it was one of those tiffs between the couple and made it a point not to notice it.  When the same thing happened the next month and the next, Keshav’s parents cottoned on to the situation. Gentle prodding with “Why are you doing this, my son” was responded to with a gruff “you know why.  Don’t ask me”.  Much cajoling and crying took place, but to no avail and eventually the parents had to reconcile to the fact that their son was not going to be shaken in his resolve for the stipulated 2 years.

This went on for exactly 2 years, at the end of which Keshav quietly stopped sleeping in the verandah.  His parents breathed a collective sigh of relief and clandestinely [for who knew what Keshav would do if he were to find out] started praying for their much awaited grandson. Six months went by and there was no sign of any pregnancy despite strategically timed walk-bys by the parents confirming that there was frequent and feverish action behind closed doors.  While nobody was brave enough to question Keshav, his mother took Janaki aside and asked “Is everything going fine? why are you not in a state where you cannot have a head bath?” – a convoluted way of asking “why are you not pregnant yet?”.  Janaki, being unaware of such euphemisms, initially innocently responded with “why? why cannot I have a head bath?”.  Couple of more oblique tries to find out resulted in more confusion until, in exasperation, Keshav’s mother mustered up her courage and said “Despite all the noisy action at night, why are you not pregnant yet?”. Janaki apparently just turned beet red and shrugged her shoulders and not another word could be pried out of the shy lass’ mouth.

A year went by and other relatives started asking “yenna, oru puzhu, poochi kaanum?” – literally meaning “why is there no sign of any worms or insects” – again a euphemism for “Where’s the zygote?”.  By this time, Keshav and Janaki were also getting worried and you could see that on their faces.  Their nightly activities became more frenzied and noisier but the results remained unchanged.  Finally, Keshav suggested that they probably should see the Doctor.  So Janaki was promptly taken to the Doctor.  Keshav, of course, did not go, because in our chauvinistic society, there was no question of anything being wrong with the man. The Doctor took Janaki’s pulse and blood pressure and declared that there seemed nothing wrong with her and that they should continue to try and leave the rest to the almighty.  Janaki came back and conveyed the sage advice of the Doctor to Keshav and they went back to the bedroom with more vigour and resolve.

By now, it was nearly four years since their marriage and people started saying that it was all Keshav’s fault for having put silly conditions in the beginning and the only way out was to pray to their family deity for the boon of a bonny boy baby.  So started another four years of humping nights and prayerful days.  Keshav and Janaki visited the family deity regularly and when that did not bear fruit, no pun intended, they started casting their nets wider and started visiting other temples.  No Gods were spared – Ganesha, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu in every avatar were prayed to, even bachelor Gods Anjaneya, and Aiyappa were not left out.  In exasperation, they even approached Buddha, Mahaveera and Sai baba.  All to no avail. In the meantime, the advice and antics of the people in the house became more and more ludicrous.  On the advice of elders and priests, they started tying pieces of cloth on all the Bodhi trees around the city as this was supposed to be a sure route to successful procreation.  When even that did not change the situation, they started tying pieces of gold embroidered silk on Banyan trees, peepal trees and even neem trees. By the end of the eighth year, they had visited over 300 temples and trees.

Finally, when everyone had all but given up, Janaki became pregnant.  There was much rejoicing and telegrams were sent back and forth and the house started taking on a festive atmosphere.  It was like a veil of gloom had been suddenly lifted in a flash.

While usually, the girl is sent back to her parents’ house till the delivery, in this case, they did not want to take any chances and kept her where she was.  She was treated like a queen and fed milk and ghee, fine fruits and even saffron, said to make the baby fair and beautiful, not that you could ever guess seeing him now.  Eventually, some 9 years after marriage, Janaki gave birth to our man here.

A son.  All the prayers and strange antics had finally produced the best of results. Now came the tough decision – What to name the baby?  All thoughts of naming him after one of his illustrious ancestors were thrown out of the window.  “Was this baby not a boon of the Gods?  Therefore he should be rightly named after a God”, declare Keshav’s father.  But wait, which God?  Of all the Gods and demigods prayed to, who finally granted the boon?  How to find out?

No definitive answers were forthcoming and so the priest was consulted and, being politically savvy and diplomatic, he suggested “Why don’t you name the boy after all of them you prayed to”. Of course, this was impractical because then the boy would have a name that was hundreds of words long!

Keshav being fairly orderly in nature, decided that he would start with the complete list and based on various criteria would eliminate names until a reasonably sized list of, say, 5 Gods was arrived at.   The original list was really over 100 names long.  Many of the names were of different avatars of the same god, but even after eliminating duplicates the list still had over 50 names.

First the lesser know ammans (Goddesses) such as Peeli amman and Mundakanni amman were eliminated, probably with a quick prayer beseeching them not to take it too personally.   Brahma, though one of the all-powerful trinity and creator of all we see, has never held sway over the minds of people and no stories of curses and retribution are associated with him, so without too many worries his name was struck off the list.   Laxmi and Saraswathi, the Goddess for wealth and learning respectively, being obviously names for girls, those names were also eased out.  Ganesha, the elephant headed God was a great favourite of the entire acharya clan, but poor chap, being too lovable and nice cost him his place in the top five.

After further deliberations and taking into account the vengeful or benign nature of various remaining Gods, the final list was arrived at.  The Gods that made it were

Balaji, an avatar of Vishnu, headquartered in Tirupathi, Rama, again an avatar of Vishnu, but hey, one couldn’t go wrong with that, Maheshwara, another name for Shiva, pretty much selected himself, for who can leave the great linga or phallus out of any list instrumental in the birth of a baby, Aiyappa, supposedly the son of two men, Vishnu and Shiva (according to one version) known to be generous with his boons and more importantly given to fits of rage, and finally, Hanuman, again a fiery character.

In the honourable mention section remained Sai baba of Shiridi, a man revered as God by both Hindus and Muslims, and Keshav did not have the heart to leave him out of the final list as he, above all, deserved a place in the list.

Thus the baby was named Balaji Rama Aiyappa Hanumana Maheshwara Sai.

Not only was a broad cross-section of the Gods appeased, but naming a child after one or more Gods had other benefits.  As you all know, it is considered very good for one’s future lives if one were to call out Gods name many times each day. So every time the boy was called, God’s name was automatically invoked resulting in the constant ticking of the punya counter.  Thus all the family members made it a point to call the child by his various names thereby ensuring that all the Gods were evenly addressed.  This caused a lot of confusion among neighbours and strangers, but our boy here seemed unperturbed.  Like a puppy, he responded to all names, I guess, by the tone of voice rather than the actual name!

It was very happy times then and everyone was in the best of spirits.  Our man here, though late in arriving, grew up fast.  By the time he was two, he had become the most mischievous and precocious child in the entire neighbourhood.  Soon he became quite a handful and there was always trouble wherever he went.  Precious vases were broken, plants were uprooted and general mayhem reigned at home.  No amount of shouting and scolding seemed to affect his behavior.  In fact, it seemed like the more they shouted, the more boisterous he became.  Soon, you could hear “Balaji you dog, come here”, “Sai, you rascal, how many times have I told you not to do that” and much worse.

Time went by, as it is wont to, and on his 4th birthday, it was decided to conduct the sacred thread ceremony for the boy and at that time, the family priest was again called for.  He came and was quite shocked by the name calling going on that day.  He called Keshav and his father aside and said “I know it is good to invoke the names of Gods regularly, like you all are doing.  I am also sure that our Gods are omniscient and understand when you are addressing them and when you are referring to the boy, but do you think it is prudent to constantly juxtapose the names of Gods with names of animals and body parts? After all, you know how vengeful some of our Gods can be sometimes – God forgive me for saying this”.  This had a profound effect on everyone and after much turmoil, hand wringing and nearly non-stop obeisance in front of the deities in question, it was decided that along with the thread ceremony, a new naming ceremony would also be conducted wherein the boy’s name would be shortened to contain only the first letter of each of his names. And thus he was named Brahms that day and he has been called only by that name from that day on. And that’s that, ended Uncle Seshu.

Brahms said “I told you all so” and left the room.

Kutty the rose-ringed parakeet February 3, 2016

Posted by globejam in Childhood.

rose-ringed parakeetThanks in main to our neem tree and its bountiful fruit, our house was at the centre of a breeding ground for rose ringed parakeets. Every year, during the season, literally hundreds of parakeets would descend on the trees around our house, screeching, squawking and fighting for prime nesting spots.

Once the parakeets settled down to the business of starting new families, it would be the turn of the crows to arrive in groups to raid the nests. Though the parakeets aggressively defended their nests, well over half the nests would eventually get raided by the end of the season.

During the initial part of the season, we would find a few broken eggs on the ground, but as days went by we would find more and more chicks lying on the ground after having been dislodged from their nests by the crows. Since we were one of the few houses in the area known to keep birds, we were seen by the neighbourhood as a sort of local bluecross and hence any chicks found alive would all be brought to our house for rehabilitation and release. During the season, at any given time, there would be 15 – 20 chicks at various stages of development at home.

Kutty was one such fledgling. She must have been one of the last hatched chicks of the season and was dropped by a crow right in our garden one morning. She must have been all of 3 – 4 days old when we got her. Like most bird chicks she was one ugly baby. Her beak and feet were almost adult size while the rest of the body was baby sized and looked like a plucked chicken with golden fuzz. Looking at her it was easy to accept that birds have evolved from dinosaurs!

As it was the fag end of the season, by the time we got her, we had already gone through a couple of months of hectic and noisy nursing at home and my parents had reached the end of their tether. The day we found kutty was the day my father made his eyes large and shouted “That’s it! No more parakeets in the house henceforth! If I find one more parakeet in the house, um… umm…., I don’t know what I’ll do!”.

We promptly put Kutty in a tiny cage and hid her in the attic. She was quiet for the first couple of days, so our subterfuge went undetected. But once she had regained her energy, she started squawking lustily and it was no longer possible to hide her at home. We nevertheless left her in the attic in the hope that by the time my dad came back home in the evening Kutty would be asleep. Unfortunately, it turned out to be wishful thinking on our part as Kutty started bawling her heart out the moment my dad stepped into the house. Thankfully, he let it pass, probably having forgotten his threats earlier in the week.

Kutty grew up quickly but continued to remain small in size. By the time she was all feathered up and had started resembling a parakeet, all the other parakeets under our care had flown away, so she mostly had only us for company. As she was a slightly stunted specimen, we kept her in a small cage. For a long time her tail feathers did not grow which made her look even tinier than she was. To top it all, when her tail feathers finally started sprouting, she had the habit of plucking them out herself. We thought this was weird until we figured out that she was doing this because there was not enough space in her cage and tail feathers made turning around within the cage difficult. Saddened by our stupidity we quickly moved her to a much larger cage, and within a couple of weeks she had grown a beautiful tail and looked every bit the most elegant of parakeets.

She was a friendly loving bird and she would be happy to sit on my shoulder and nibble my earlobe gently all day long. She did have some strange quirks though. We tried to teach her to talk but beyond mimicing my whistle (“twee-two”) and my brother’s, she seemed uninterested in saying much. Repeating “pretty polly, pretty dear”, which for some reason is the equivalent of asdfgf;lkjhj in the talking bird world, in her ears has little effect. She also did not seem very keen on flying, happy to walk around with her butt wagging back and forth. Her strangest quirk however was the way she behaved once she had climbed to the top of the bamboo blind in our verandah!

Our tiny house had a verandah outside where we kept Kutty’s cage. The verandah had a bamboo blind which could be rolled up and down as required. Docile Kutty loved to climb the blind and perch on top of it.  Once she reached there, there would be a dramatic transformation. She would become highly territorial and extremely aggressive. If we approached her, her pupil would narrow down into a black dot while the rest of her eyeball would become completely white. She would hiss and growl like she were some dangerous creature. If any of us went within her reach, she would lash out with her beak as though she was ready to tear us limb from limb. Once she was in that mood no amount of cajoling and coaxing would bring her down.

The only way to get her down from her perch was to entice her with her favourite peanut burfi. At 5 paise at the corner store, this sweet was the only thing that had the power to get her down and back to her own sweet self! As soon as she spied the burfi on the porch under the blind, she would, with unseemly hurry, start her descent head first. Within two strides she would nearly lose her hold on the bamboo. She would then recover her grip and with better sense continue down backwards at a more sedate pace. Once down she would take one nibble at the burfi and be transported to another universe of ecstasy. After that, I could even remove the burfi from her mouth and put my finger in and she wouldn’t mind. She would just look at me with loving eyes and use her thick tongue to lick my finger gently and I would be left wondering if this was the same bird that till a moment ago was trying to rip my throat out!

We were all extremely fond of Kutty and kept her for a little longer than necessary. Finally, one day we decided that we could not keep her from her freedom and gently coaxed here to take wing and join her wild cousins. She flew up easily and joined them and that was the last we saw of her.

A year later, I was looking up at a new batch of prospective parents and wondering how Kutty was faring when in the midst of all the squawking and screeching I heard the distinct “twee-two” whistle of mine and I knew Kutty was safe and fine.

If there is such a thing as pure joy, I think, just maybe, I may have felt it that day.

My poor frangipani February 1, 2016

Posted by globejam in Childhood.

frangipaniThough the house I grew up in was tiny, it had a wonderful garden. It was an L-shaped patch, abutting two sides of the house, about five feet wide and maybe 25 feet in length altogether. There were no cemented areas or paved blocks in the garden. The entire area was mud with just the short path from the gate to the front door hardened by a daily coat of cow dung mixed in water. The soil must have been rich because we could dig a few inches down and get a rich harvest of earthworms.

In that tiny garden was a neem tree, a yellow bells shrub that had grown quite tall, almost into a tree, bougainvillea, a frangipani, a fairly large jasmine creeper and a papaya tree. And in the corner, a small vegetable garden growing mostly green chillies for the parakeets. It seemed that anything we planted grew well and quickly and had character.

The neem tree grew in the far corner. It was large and, along with a couple of other neem trees from the neighbouring house, covered our entire house in its shade. During season, the neem tree would be in full bloom and the garden would be blanketed by the half-eaten fruits dropped by the hundreds of rose-ringed parakeets that settled on the tree during their daily sojourn. The yellow-green semi-ripe and ripe fruits would form a carpet on the ground and squish awkwardly under our feet.

The fruiting of the trees coincided with the breeding of the rose-ringed parakeet and the entire house would be filled with high-pitch screeches, shrieks and squawks from the parent parakeets and their new born fledglings.

The yellow bells shrub stood next to the gate and it turned out to become a 15 feet tall tree. It was a vibrant green, very different from the neem green and its flowers were the bright yellow of the early morning sun. The seeds were green and shaped like torpedoes with sharpened ends. If you took a dried seed and poured a drop of water on it, it would burst with a wonderful popping sound.

This tree was on the target list of a local woman who would come around when we were not watching to pluck the flowers for her morning prayers. Six of us watching out against one old cunning lady with a stick and invariably she ensured she managed to pluck the flowers from right under our noses. On the odd day when one of us caught her red handed, she would launch into a long lecture on the benefits of showering the flowers on God instead of “wasting” them on the tree. It was a battle that we could never win.

The bougainvillea was like the sentry on the other side of the gate and it was one hardy tree. Of all the trees, this was the one that was most neglected by us. However, it did not seem to care whether we watered it or not and, unmindful of our apathy, grew and flowered profusely. It covered one side of the compound wall completely with bright coloured flowers ranging from violet to orange to yellow and even a rare white once in a while. It appeared that nothing would dampen its spirit, not even being puked on, which a visiting relative did once. That was the only occasion I remember one of us pouring water on the poor plant.

The jasmine creeper was on the side of the house just below the bedroom window. It was tended with loving care by my mother even though it produced fragrant jasmine flowers only on the rare occasion. When it bloomed, my mother would gush over it and tie the handful of flowers into a garland and wear it on her hair. The rest of the time, the creeper gathered dust. Unfathomably, my mother also believed that the jasmine smell indicated or attracted, I don’t remember now, the presence of snakes and hence was very ambivalent about the creeper and would not go near it except when it produced the dozen or so flowers once a year.

Right next to the creeper was the papaya tree. The papaya tree was something of a novelty at that time. There were not that many of them in those days, being not native to our area. I still remember that it grew from a sapling to a 20 feet tall tree in some 3 months and started bearing fruits immediately thereafter. The fruit, though sweet, had a distinct smell that I did not like much. My father, on the other hand, quite taken by having such a wonderfully exotic fruit growing right in his garden, would insist that we all eat it and like it. Every day, he would look up the tree to see if there were any fruits ripe for plucking. The fruits grew right out of the trunk at the very top of the trunk just below where the leaves started and so we got only a bottom view of them. He would wait for a fruit to grow to a decent size and just as it started turning yellow, he would take a long stick with a knife attached to the end and cut down the fruit. Most of the time, much to his disgust, and to my secret pleasure, the fruit would be just a green shell with the entire flesh having been eaten by squirrels through a neat hole bored on the side close to the trunk. To be fair to him, my father never resented the squirrels, but nevertheless took to plucking the fruits while they were still green and then ripening them in the rice drum before serving them to us.

The most beautiful tree in the garden, however, was undoubtedly the frangipani. It grew at the corner of the garden nearest to the road and was just the most delicate of trees. The large leaves were a rich green while the stem was a mottled grey. It bore the most beautiful white flowers with a smidgen of yellow at their heart. There was just a hint of fragrance, and one could get a whiff of it once in a while when a gentle breeze blew in just the right direction. The branches were thin and brittle and so we all touched it and handled it like it was made of the finest bone china. It was one tree we never climbed. It was our show piece and the pride of the garden. All through the year we tended to it like it was an only child of poor health.

Unfortunately, it was also the most traumatized tree in our garden.

Every year, the choultry opposite our house conducted Iyyappan Pooja and they made sakkarai pongal, a local delicacy, to die for. It was made from rice cooked in cow’s milk and the best jaggery in town. It was full of fat succulent raisins and thumb-sized whole cashews fried in butter. The whole dish would be half-submerged in ghee. The pongal was the talk of the town and every year people from all over the city, Iyyappa devotees or not, would make a beeline to get some of that amazing nectar.

The brahmins in the area got priority. They would send large vessels through the back entrance of the choultry and collect the pongal for the entire family. The next set of people, the decently dressed ones, would be able to go through the main entrance and collect generous dollops in donnais (cups made from dried lotus leaves). The boys from the slums were as usual the last to gain entrance. By the time they were allowed access, the cooks were scraping the bottom of the barrel so to speak. And they were usually all out of donnais. In fading light, the boys would be literally climbing over each other to get the last of the pongal.

That is when it would happen. The first set of enterprising boys would notice the frangipani. The most agile of the lot would bound over our compound wall and before we could should “Don’t!” all the leaves of the frangipani and half its delicate branches would be gone in a volley of crisp snaps. A new generation of boys had found out that the frangipani leaves made an excellent donnai.

It would take a year of tender loving care for us to bring our fragile beauty back to its resplendent best!

Just in time for the next Iyyappan Pooja.