Shooting Pains (BH: D320)

June 21, 2012

"Sir, I guess you didn't recognize me!" he said beaming while sinking into the visitor's chair. Long strands of well oiled hair flowing away from a reflector quality bald head. A mouth wide enough that the full set of teeth stand separated from each other so that they can cover that cavern.

"No," I didn't recognize him.

"I am the famous production executive for Divakaran TV serials." He went onto reveal his famous name.

"Good to see seniors like you are considering coming back to school." I shuffled the papers to make sure I can give him the right one from Mech, Elec or Comm admission forms.

"Ayyo Saare, Good Joke. I am not here for admission.""Then?""We need the college for filming. Our new megaserial is in progress: Ammayiammayude aliyanmar (The mother-in-law's brothers-in-law). Family subject. Megahit!"
"Why do you need a college for that?"
"Hero is in an engineering college, Sir. Heroine is in medical college."
"Terminally ill?"
"No, student!"
"Same difference"
"It is a professional love story that way."
"We have exams going on now, so it will be a hassle to have the crew around."
"We don't want to disturb anything. Only stock footage enough. One classroom, one lab, one corridor, main entrance, one exterior."
"Which lab?"
"Engineering lab"
"All of them are..."
"Then, any lab"
"What do we get out it?"
"Publicity Saare, free publicity. 15 seconds "thanks" before the title card. Then the college name board shown before each scene set here."
"I see" I said, but I must have appeared unconvinced.
He continued."7:30 pm prime time serial. 90% female audience Sir. Good buzz."
"We will need an undertaking?"
"For what, Sir?"
"What if there is a suicide in the story and it becomes linked with the college name? What if there is violence? What if the college reputation becomes damaged?"
"Nothing like that. It is a novel that appeared in Madhuramanoranjini magazine. Haven't you read it?"
"Sentimental, sweet story Sir. No gangrape, murder, suicide, violence."
"Yea, we should include those also!"
"Actresses will be here, Sir"
"That doesn't make any difference."
"Kumari Kanakambari, Parithapakarimol..."
"They are?"
"Cine artists, Sir. They are our heroines."
"The filming can only be on Sunday."
"Fine!" he was thoughtful for a second. "I will have to arrange extras as students then."
"Yes please. And only if we have an undertaking with other clauses by Friday."
"That is no problem. We will sign anything you want!"
"One page agreement would do"
"That may not be possible, Sir. We never write anything that short. At least 5 pages....with commercial breaks"

Looking Up (BH: D319)

June 20, 2012

Yesterday evening I found myself in the lobby of the Sci-tech museum. I have been here during school days. Trips to the planetarium were a novelty then.

This visit I notice how nothing about this place conveys science and technology. Mundu and saree clad employees walking lethargically around, constantly watching the clock. There is none of the scientific enthusiasm that is infectious among the staff who work at foreign museums.
"eda, nee register book eduthondu vanna njan ninakku pathu mohanlal padathinte ticket eduthu tharam" (If you bring the attendance register here, I will buy you the tickets to 10 Mohanlal movies) a dare was in progress so that the end of the day signature could be put in the attendance register.

4:40 my 4:30 appointment kicks in. The director is an unassuming gem of a gentleman. Rarely does one come across folks with so much passion about their career. Science education in the public sphere in India stands on the shoulders of a few such men...mostly shoulders hunched over, overwhelmed by the 'red tape' epidemic spread out on their desk with new signature sucking file viruses being brought in by the innumerable staff who find a 'government job' in all such institutions.

We discuss the scientific temperament or the lack of it. We discuss telescopes. He amazes me with the story of the construction of the first indigenous telescope dome! Great 'jugaad' sample, using a boat maker to mold the curved structural elements.

He is also fashioning a radio telescope made from one of those old abandoned huge dish antennas. His eyes sparkle when he gets around to mentioning his plans with the Celestron C-14 and the science labs project in progress for the village schools in the state.

He orders two reluctant staff members to take me around. They warm up a little bit when they realize I am the crazy fellow who send the weirdest email the office has ever received. I see the 11 inch and the 14 inch babies. I see the incomplete dome that's undergoing repair for a weight balance problem.

My focus on the instruments surprises my guides. "Usually people are only interested in seeing the city's view from this height. They want to try to figure out where their home is. Nobody is interested in looking through the telescope!"

I walk back trying to figure out the best possible balance of investment between optical and radio telescopes. "Trivandrum gets only 50 clear nights a year," I have been warned.

One final meeting for the evening later, I am back in the same year. Mascot hotel. First real life meeting of three people who met on facebook. Kingfisher, fish fingers and beef fry. Happy Reunion! 

Reading Day (BH: D318)

June 19, 2012

Kerala celebrates 'Reading Day' today as part of the Reading Week. It is dedicated to the memory of P.N. Panicker, the man behind Kerala's proud and illustrious 'Granthashala/Vayanashala' (library) movement that covered 5000 villages.

'Read and grow, think and become wise' was the slogan Mr. Panicker gave the Malayalee community. His self-less work in its first half was fundamentally responsible for the ease with which Kerala could attain total literacy before the 20th century ended.

Mathrubhumi's Vidya supplement has run some articles on the reading habit. They mention Charles Dickens and Faraday, two poor boys who became successful simply because they loved to read whatever they could find. Faraday worked at a book binders and it was the articles on electricity that he found in the Encyclopedia that he was assigned to bind that changed the world as we know it.

A huge cut out of an open book has been erected at Kanakunnu Palace entrance to celebrate the week. Couple of book fairs are going on in the city.But the name 'Reading Day' takes me back to Texas A&M. The one day break before the final semester exam was named the same. It was a day the campus would have a deserted look and the library would be packed. 

It was also the day mostly when the final year aerospace vehicle design course went out to the riverside campus to fly their r/c model airplanes. A great day of celebration for the whole families who would gather by the runway sandwiched between the horse farms maintained by the veterinary school.

The sputtering little gas engines always made the horses curious. The more silent electric engines that were used in later years didn't grab their attention. But the obligatory ass that is always kept with a horse herd was keen on those engines.

It was Mr. Lund who explained to me the concept of the ass on one of the occasions that we were out in the field putting up fences as the prep work for the flights. "Horses get spooked very easily. And they thunder around the field, the entire herd, at the slightest bother. The donkey is the massive pacifier. It doesn't react to pretty much anything. Its dumb stance calms the horses down!"

This 'Reading Day' I am acutely aware that I had been spending time with books in the last 3 weeks. Malayattoor classic "Verukal", comparable to but not as extensive as Hailey's Roots has been on my bedside for a while now.

But I take solace in the fact that my time is being spent at least partly towards establishing a state-of-the-art library. I guess the trees can wait since the forest is not to be missed out on.

Vainu Bappu (BH: D316)

June 17, 2012

As the evening session of a mostly rainy Sunday progresses outside, I will note a few things about Vainu Bappu. Manorama newspaper was considerate enough to remind Keralites about him on his 30th death anniversary with the Sunday supplement's cover feature dedication.

Not many know that this father of modern Indian astronomy is a Malayalee. Well, he is a Malayalee much like how M. Night Shyamalan is a Malayalee. Venu Bappu was born in Madras and raised in Hyderabad. But his parents were from Thalassery and his wife, Yamuna, who is alive and well, is from Mayyazhi. 

His dad used to work for Nizamia observatory, Hyderabad and was a believer in numerology. Hence the spelling switch to Vainu for his son, Venu. A brilliant student, Bappu managed to get his findings to Sir Harold Spencer Johns of Harvard when he visited India. Impressed, Sir Harold made sure that  Mr. Bappu made it to Harvard on a scholarship in 1949.

There with his fellow researcher, Olin Wilson, Dr. Bappu discovered the Bappu-Bok-Newkrick comet. In 1957 came Wilson-Bappu effect that opened up the field of stellar chromospheres, as wikipedia puts it.

By 1951, he received Carnegie fellowship and a chance to work at the 200 inch telescope at Palomar. He was 24! 

But Dr. Bappu decided to be back in newly independent India, a land with an illustrious tradition of original astronomy that had unfortunately decayed over the centuries into the unscientific business of astrology. Starting with the observatories in UP and Nainital, he went on to establish the Indian Institute of Astrophysics 1971. 

Following his untimely death at the age of 55, the government honored him by naming India's largest optical telescope, the 90 inch one, at Kavalur, Tamil Nadu after him.

Manorama article discusses several endearing traits of the man who loved children and worked hard to inculcate a reading habit in them. His passion for science can be instantly recognized from the anecdote about the 16 km bicycle trips he made on each day to attend a three day seminar by Sir C.V. Raman.

Thiruvananthapuram is a city of many 'moods'. There is Pla-mood, Puli-mood, Arassu-mood, Naruva-mood and so on. Venjara-mood has practically become the wider city limit these days. This Malayalam 'mood' can be roughly translated as the 'base' but then these days that word has the sinister al-Queda twist. Once upon a time, the little hamlets in these parts must have been defined by those trees: Pla (jackfruit), Puli (tamarind), Arassu (Peepal). I am stumped about what Naruva is. In Divehi language of Maldives, the word means the cardinal creeper with deep red flowers that humming birds love. 

Walking in the zoo and museum campus after rain this morning, I realized that I love shapeless trees. Perhaps they remind my brain of itself: thick in parts, twisted at others, dropping roots and vines all over the place, green, brown and a handful of flowers!

A family of lion-tailed macaques were celebrating the diffused cloudy morning light on a tree within the zoo premises that was a bit too close to the compound wall for comfort. Took a couple of snaps. They noticed and obliged with a pose. Typical celebrities! 

Walking a round of the Kanakakunnu Palace, thought I saw a film actress.  Once while having dinner at Taj in College Station, Sharath B's sis had mentioned that this actress was her friend. I would have confirmed if she hadn't insisted on keeping her head down and headphones plugged in while frantically burning off a generous posterior today. 

Three ladies, with costumes giving away their varying degree of commitment to the morning exercise, one in saree, second in churidaar and the third in track suit, crossed the aforementioned actress and recognized her. By the time they reached me, walking 10 meters of so behind the aforementioned posterior, they dropped the comment: "Veluppankalathu thanne enthoru facewashinte manam kanda!" (Look how much she smells of facewash early in the morning itself)

Bappu's wife fondly remembers him as a man who seemed never to get angry. I guess a mind that has opened itself to the infinity of space, would hardly fret about the ephemeral affairs of men.

Why we do what we do? (BH:D315)

June 16, 2012

A short two column inside page news couple of days ago caught my attention. It is about a bizarre accident in central Kerala. A 74 year old couple were trapped in the bathroom. 74 is not their combined age. Each of them was 74.

The husband was suffering from some kind of stomach issue. He was retching the harm away to glory in the bathroom when his old wife went in to help him. She slipped, fell and in doing so inadvertently closed the door.

The previously weakened door knob came undone when they attempted to open. It must have been a fairly significant investment in the house if it had thick teak wood door with automatic locks even for the bathroom. Speculation of foreign-resident well-off kids is natural. 

The old couple survived three days inside on tap water. It speaks volumes of the neighborhood that nobody came around the house wondering where the couple had abruptly disappeared for three days. Finally, in a glorious act of strong marital strength, the couple themselves managed to get the door opened and lived to tell the tale.

I am aware of several old parents who have been housed in state-of-the-art, spectacular abodes here by their successful children making a handsome living abroad. Humble suggestion to leave the bathroom doors flimsy enough, bathroom floors rough and relationship with the neighbors smooth. Otherwise, there might be events that raise the unsettling question: Why we do what we do? And none of us want that addressed!

With the political impasse about garbage clearance in the city entering 8th month, fevers of all kinds are spreading. Mosquitoes, unlike the Thiruvananthapuram corporation officials, have no qualms about working overtime. In this dismal scenario comes a grand statement from none other than Kerala's Health Minister.

Minister V.S. Shivakumar has declared that homeopathic preventive medicines have been found extraordinarily effect against all kinds of epidemic fevers whose fear has gripped the city.

How Wonderful! Of course, he makes no mention of how the efficacy has been "found!" If he says so, it must be so, after all he is the man in charge of  the state's health. I guess I will simply add the amount of sugar in my tea and coffee. Should be 'homeopathically' remedial enough!


Noting down (BH: D314)

June 15, 2012

I have been seeking a time of the day or part of the night when I have energy and enthusiasm left to put down the daily note. Answering phones and meeting people is far more draining that MATLAB coding. Looks like pre-breakfast compromise on the newspaper reading time is a solution for the timelessness. Will see how it goes for the next few days. Otherwise a device that can help compose during the commute.

Early morning yesterday, I was back at the Mutton stall. It was open but unmanned and 'un-meated'. The assistant sat on the 'shop step' across from the street reading Mathrubhumi paper.

Perhaps, at 6;15 am, he was reflecting on how 'gunda' gangs have taken over much of the butchering activity in the state. The particularly gruesome political murder 41 days ago is still fresh in everyone's mind. 52 slashes with swords on a man. 

He tells me that the main meat man has gone to get the goats readied after the government inspection. Sure enough, a rickshaw custom-made pulls up with a plastic container full off 'products'. The skinned, meaty chunks come out first and go straight to the hooks. The assistant goes about slicing away hanging bits and other parts which have stand-alone sales value.

Each piece has three or four big blue government approval seals. The ink spreads giving a blue blood illusion after death. "The doctor must examine before and after. It is so time consuming," comes the complaint.

Next he materializes what looks like balls inside dirty, wet socks. I have no clue what that is. The fact that I am on the phone with a vegetarian half way across the planet is not helping either. Made an inquiry with knitted eyebrows and thumbs up which translates to 'what?' in this part of the world.

"botty saare botty" came the reply. Ah! the stomach. The raw material for sausages etc. The organ that stays leafy vegetarian for the goat's life. Except may be bits of paper and plastic these days.

Finally, the soup bits arrive in a bucket. The final expressions frozen on the faces. Hoofs that trotted and leaped and landed safely. 

I focus on the phone as a head gets its final face-lift. The toothy fatal grin gets a CGI horror movie effect when the beard comes off with the skin. Rest of the procedure is clinical. Strength of the skull testified by the height to which the knife must be raised.

Soup at 11 am was good. 

Little Advaith is bringing back old lullabies and classic Malayalam 'baby talk' back in the house. There are songs or statements that go with every single activity of his day....which is hardly couple of hours of non-sleep time that he uses to take in this planet before going back to sleep land when his brain rearranges all the observations. When that activity proceeds in the head, his face is nothing short of 'Navarasa nayagan' going through all the nine expressions in a matter of seconds repeatedly.

He clearly identifies four animals in the house. 
There is the animal that feeds him milk. He can smell her from across the room. 
There is another animal that bathes him, cleans him up (he is very particular about that) and feeds him a second type of milk. 
Then a hairy animal who carries him around and talks the most to him.
Finally another hairy animal who is not a continuous presence, loud and obnoxious when he is around and of no particular use! I hope to grow out of that impression in a few years!

Connect and disconnect (BH: D 312)

June 12, 2012

I meet at least a dozen people everyday these days. Most of them come into my cabin to sell something. Others come in because they want something. It is scale of the needs that is mind boggling.And these people exist side by side in the same city. They speak the same language and might even look very similar to a foreigner.

First in walks someone with a few hundred thousand rupees worth of equipment to sell. He is not alone. He has his own assistant tagging along.

We discuss the future of classrooms, the impending inevitable 'smart' revolution with 'remote' teaching. Perhaps Upanishads were taught remotely too from the Rishis who preferred staying up in the Himalayas but beamed themselves metaphysically in front of eager students.

A lot of 'ya-yas', 'absolutelys' and prolonged 'rights' pepper the meeting. Visiting cards are handed over reverentially with both hands perfectly as it must have been taught in some personality enhancement course, evening or weekend, for otherwise busy professionals. Firm shake hands to end the meeting.

The next visitor couldn't be any more different. Clad in a graying saffron, if such a thing is possible (well it is, I saw it!), lungi and a yellow silk shirt, dirtied from years of abuse, torn at the armpits and with four of the front buttons missing, he walks in.

"Saare, saaranallo ippo....?" (Sir, you are the now) substantiating that deeply philosophical statement with a swirl of the palm indicating the space 'here' to go with the 'now' (ippo) in his question.

I nod. Indeed, I am the now!

"lavan sheriyalla saare" (That guy is not good) He is not referring to Lavan, the son of Rama,
"levan?" (he who?) I ask
"ivide vellam ozhikanum kalayum vallom parikkanum nirthuthiyavan" (the one who is here to water and weed the lawns)

Ah! a staff rivalry! Again!

I remain mesmerized for the next few minutes at his expressions as he narrates a tale of the gross violation of professional ethics by the gardener. I manage to maintain a very serious expression. I shouldn't divulge that just yesterday I had heard a similar complaint about him from the 'lavan'. That all he does is switch on the water pump early in the morning and then walk around doing nothing the whole day!

He finishes up with a recommendation to summarily fire the 'lavan' and extend those duties also to his wife who is currently caring only the south-side lawns.

Obviously, she should be paid more for the added responsibility.
An amount that is less than half a percent of the sum that I had discussed in the earlier meeting for enhanced learning environment.
Priceless education!

Newsreaders (BH: D311)

June 11, 2012

An intense nostalgia is invoked when one hears a familiar TV newsreader's voice spill into the street from some home during a night stroll. Innumerable nights over the years come flooding back.

None of the news is remembered. They've always been something about politics that didn't matter in the long run. Not worth remembering. Yet memory seems to have preserved the doppler effect on a newsreader's voice when one walks by a home with an open window or an exceptionally loud TV.

Why is there so much attachment to these voices? Is it because they have invariably broken trains of fretting and frivolous thoughts? Were they the favorite refuge for a brain returning home tired from a day of education but remembering only snatches of breezy conversations? 

The newsreader voice distracts from the umpteen romantic re-imagining of conversations that were much too dry in real. Perhaps the unnatural nature of electronic reproduced sound from a distance triggers some alert.

It was Hemalatha's voice that broke into my consciousness. She has been reading news, as the teenagers say, like forever! I remember her marriage to fellow newsreader Kannan was a favorite bit of Thiruvananthapuram trivia in the early 90s.

It is Rajeshwari Mohan's voice that I remember the most. I wondered what happened to her. Googling told me that she won an award in 2007. I haven't seen her reading the news lately. 

Then there was Maya who migrated to private channels from the Doordarshan. Balakrishnan still sports thick, black hair and beard. His voice deep and clear as ever. 

Before the Malayalam newsreaders became popular, the entire nation had only the National channel's Hindi and English readers to watch. There was a particularly gloomy Sultana that I remember from the Hindi side. English stars were Rini Simon, Neeti Ravindran, Udaybir Sarandas, Minu Talwar, Sunit Tandon and so on. So many names I don't remember. Faces and voices, I do.

Waiting to see who the newsreader would be was itself a ritual at home in those days. News hardly mattered. Kids were instructed to look up to these celebrities to learn pronunciation. 

Nowadays, the abundance of channels have made sure that news, once again, doesn't matter. Unfortunately in the bargain, newsreaders too have lost!

Membership (BH:D310)

June 10, 2012

For the Sunday, Malayala Manorama decided to pay tribute to Palakkad Mani Iyer, the Mridangam maestro whose birth centenary falls on June 10. Three of his illustrious disciples including his son have written short, sweet notes remembering the legend of percussion.

A particular incident that stuck to memory is a concert in Mumbai which was disturbed by a local train chugging along in the nearby track. As soon as the locomotive passed, Mani Iyer recreated the vehicle's rhythm on the mridangam. The man was meticulous about choosing the wood and trees for the instrument. His dream of a sandal wood mridangam remained unfulfilled.

Mathrubhumi newspaper paid tribute to veteran ayurveda gem, P.A. Warrier of the Kottackal VaidyaShaala. The man is past 90 but still performs his duties clockwork. He credits his adherence to routine as the secret of good health. Waking up sharp at 3:45, by 8:15 he is at work. "It is like I have three kids," the physician says, "one of them, the hospital, earns me money while the other two, the school and the theater company drain me!" More days of good health and service to him.

The Hindu Sunday magazine reports about the still not research abundance of Buddha statues in a remote village near Tirchi. Headed and headless, there are a few of them that have become local deities called 'Buddha Sami'. It is believed that the ascetic Theravada Buddhism was popular in south India  till 7th century, but these remnants indicate strong presence of Mahayana sect with its superhuman Buddha image.

My little nephew first Sunday at home meant a steady stream of visitors all day. Relatives, friends, well wishers all. The morning session was packed with yet another edition of the 'Decline and Fall of the Nair caste." Just when I thought things can't get any dumber, there was a heady dose of astrology in the afternoon.

Delectable bamboo rice 'payasam' in between the unavoidable listening was the saving grace. to  Luckily Shri M showed up with family in the evening. Escaped with them to DC books.

Parking near Statue Junction is tight even on a Sunday. With a new car that is get a hang of the driver's habit it becomes even more difficult. Two squatters on a shop front, ardent observers of the city life that flows by especially if it wearing a saree, got the scare of their life when some American style 'less than a foot from the curb' parking was attempted.

Signed up for the DC membership which qualifies me for Rs. 300 worth of books every year, 20% discount on Malayalam and 12% discount on English books. Celebrated the entry into the club by getting discount on Malayattoor Ramakrishnan's Verukal and S.K. Pottakkad's 'Oru Deshathinte Katha', both classics worth possessing. 


Tholpavakoothu (BH:D309)

June 9, 2012

Read in the Hindu Metroplus that Lakshmana Pulava's troupe would be performing Tholpavakoothu (leather puppet play) at Vyllopilli Samskriti Bhavan this evening. Showed up by 6pm.

Mr. Pulava was getting ready behind the stage. He had a couple of minutes to spare.

"Are these leather?" I opened with an ignorant question pointing to the numerous 2D puppets lying on the stage floor as if resting before their show.
"Yes. It used to be deer skin in the past. Now we use ox skin."
"I see that they are intricately colored. Will that been seen in the shadow?"
"Yes. Deep skin was very thick. Ox skin shows the color more prominently in the light of the oil lamps."
20 oil lamps were being prepared behind the white screen atop the black stage  separator.
"How many are in the troupe?"
"There are eight of us."
"What kind of music do you play?"
"Traditional music is used."
"Are there standard songs for the puppet play?"
"Yes, we have. Several of them based on the Kamba Ramayana."
"What is the story today?"
"We'll do a quick Ramayana in 1 hour 15 minutes featuring some interesting episodes."
"I am glad I came for the show. I read about it this afternoon in the Hindu."
"I am glad there is publicity. When we performed in 2008, there was virtually no audience."
"How regular are your shows?"
"We do shows frequently in temples of Palakkad Shornur area."

Later in the introduction, he mentions that 108 temples have regular shows. The legend goes that since Goddess Bhadra Kali was fighting Darikan at the same time as the battle of Ramayana, she missed it. So Shiva ordered the performance of the puppet show so that the Goddess can know the full story.

The performance was a heart warming spectacle. The language was a curious mix of Tamil stylized Malayalam, sort of the one Kamalhassan's cook character speaks in Michael Madanakamarajan. 80% of the singing and dialogues sounded improvised. The puppeteers were astounding in pulling off a perfectly timed show that included plenty of fireworks, literally.

We had a full house and plenty of kids. The fact that the show thoroughly amused the kids in the age of cartoon network speaks volumes of the quality of real life animation pulled off by these artists. 

Since I haven't read Kamba's Ramayana, some of the episodes intrigued me.   Ravana in this version carries of Sita along with the hut, there was no concept of Lakshamana's famous line. Maricha tells Ravana that they'll meet after death even before he sets off on his mission. Soorpanakha has an original grudge against Rama. Hanuman defiles Ravana's wife to initiate a curse that predicted Ravana's death soon after his wife is dishonored. 

The dialogues in the Bali-Sugrava fight was genuinely funny. A jester character called "Kudakkaran" (umbrella holder) was introduced in Ravana's court scene. Some hilarious lines for him. Apparently he has invented some new Raagas in Carnatic music named 'Kettalodi", "Kazhutha kamboji" and "Manampurattal" There was even a full fledged folk song thrown into the performance.  Wonderful experience.

Yesterday, I visited the famous Technopark campus for the first time. Dived into the basement of one of the enormous concrete cuboid that finds little redemption in being named Tejaswini. First hand experience of one of the young, techie India's original sanctuaries. None of the city's major garbage problem seems to have come inside these gates.

Section 144 has been declared in the city and garbage dumping is now a criminal offense. A move that comes mostly because the mayor herself has caught fever. If only the mosquitoes knew to spare the corrupt!

World Archives Day today. The 'Mathilakom' records of Padmanabhaswamy temple dating from 1305 AD are being digitized. 30,000 palm leaf "churanas" each with 1000 records. Stupendous task. Thiruvananthapuram will get two new museums soon. Signature museum featuring samples of famous signatures and Freedom Struggle museum. 

Hamlet Breakfast (BH:D 307)

June 7, 2012

Witnessed a sunrise over the distant misty faint Western Ghats this morning. Gorgeous. A view comparable to that I had from the Ayur resort at Munnar. Except this one is just 13 km away from home.

I have become a regular through 'remote' villages just out of the way from the city. Stopped by 'Devi Hotel' in one such hamlet for breakfast. 'Puttu' and 'Appam' were on offer. We decided to order both and split along with tea.

White tubes of 'puttu' look like hefty degrees handed out by KKK if they have a graduation ceremony. The watery brownness of the 'kadala' curry was enough for us to decide on ordering egg roast instead. Egg roast, the national dish of Kerala according to Vir Sanghvi. 

I paid no attention to the taste. Not simply because a police constable was eating next to me. Even the other customers were equally interesting. Couple of them left in a huff cursing the owner who doubled as the server for the delay. "Nammal ravile jyolikku ponoranu...kaathirakkan onnum pattula" (We are laborers who need to get to work in the morning...we can't wait!) they cursed while leaving. 

An old man on the bench across from us, chewing on his appam, was fascinated by the array of gadgets Saiju produced from his pocket. The "chechi", the lady of the hotel, which I presume doubles as their home as well, busied herself with spreading new appams and de-tunneling 'puttu' from the tube. 

It is only when tea was delivered that we realized that the wiry, 30 something gentleman with a prominent red streak on the forehead, attesting his early morning temple visit, was the designated server. Breakfast seems to be a perk. With his rejoining the duty, the owner went back to the billing front table. Breakfast for two for Rs. 65.

In the afternoon, showed up at the bank to withdraw a transfer done to my account. It was 3pm. The cashier lady showed signs of unease which looked ready to spawn panic. I was carrying no gun and double checked my reflection on the glass window to ensure that I wasn't looking sinister. She leaned over to the next counter and said, "madam, kashu theernu!" (Madam, there's no more cash)

The "madam" mentioned above took a look at the screen, the drawers of the worried cashier and my withdrawal slip. "Ravile oru withdrawal undayirunnu. athukondu ippo ithrayum kashundo ennariyila. akathu nokkanam!" (We had another withdrawal this morning. So I don't know if we have this much cash. Need to check inside) Madam was apologetic. Never before in my life had I made a bank run out of money! Win!

Lest it be adequately 'big to fail', I told them that I can come back tomorrow. At that exact moment, it dawned on the cashier that her table has one more drawer. Out it came revealing another bundle of 500s. Couple of whirrings of the counting machine and my eternal dream of collapsing a bank got postponed...yet again!

Got a few minutes to myself this afternoon. Read a couple of Art Buchwald pieces. One titled 'News on the beach' from 1974 is priceless. Having a spouse with a sense of humor seems like a pretty good reason for marriage....perhaps it will be the only reason in the end!

The March of the Monsoons (BH:D305)

June 5, 2012

Woke up to a loud crashing sound this morning. 4:25am. Assumed the tarpaulin temporary structure erected outside near the kitchen to boil water for the baby and new mom had collapsed. Like all assumptions, it was no way near the reality.

A Jackfruit branch heavy with 5 super-size fruits had torn off the main trunk. It  hung precariously from the electricity cables coming into the house. Watchman pressed into operation. Wearing rubber slippers he goes about hacking the branches till the main branch is light enough to be lifted off and grounded. The front of the house looks like a orgy of goats who have food fetish.

While riding to campus, small talk with the young driver. He works part time in the bread factory near by. If 7 hours from 5pm to 12 midnight can be called part time.
"How much do you pack in that time?"
"We are six guys. We go around 2500 packets. Usually the production that happens during the day is according to the orders received. So that number is no fixed."
"How much do you get paid?"
"300 as daily wages and extra for each pack."
"At what rate?"
"33 paise per packet"

Easy calculation to see that he makes more money from that job that his day job.

"How far have you studied?"
"B.A...in Malayalam"
"University College"
"Do you have the degree?"
"No, didn't clear one final year paper."
"Which one?"
"Are you planning to write it?"
"It's been three years. My father is not well enough to work. So I have to support the family."

Breadwinner, the word floated to mind. Not a good joke.

I have been noticing small trucks and carrier autorickshaws laden with jackfruits on this road mostly because we get stuck behind them in slow moving traffic. I try hard not to let this visual bring back the image of aunties pushing their way into marriage feast hall. I wondered aloud where all these jackfruits were taken.
"The bakeries in the city supply them to the homes in this area. Housewives get Rs. 10 for cleaning up one fruit and chopping it up ready to be made into jackfruit chips."

When Malayalees encounter the frequent classic example of the much studied unscientific phenomenon of 'Synchronicity', they usually remark, "Paranju naakku vayilottu itilla" which literally translates to "As soon as I had put my tongue back in the mouth after saying" meaning something happened unexpectedly right after it was mentioned.

I don't know  why we continue to insist that we speak with our tongues coming out of the mouth. And I wonder if there is an equivalent saying about thoughts and thinking. You know like 'as soon as I had put the thought back into my memory' or 'as soon as I had put the conscious mind back into the unconscious.' Anyways, as soon as I had finished reflecting how hot and stuffy the afternoon is, Sharath B shared a tweet with a link to Reuters saying that monsoon has arrived to southern Kerala.

Sure enough I was sitting in southern Kerala. I can see the green carpet stretching over the plains surrounding the southern tip of the Western Ghats through the window. Sure enough there was no rain.

But then...there...at the farthest edge of the horizon...at the optically technical infinity....it was all grey.

The sky painter's blue brush had run dry and dull at those limits. They were coming slow and steady. The winds of Hippalus that brought with them cultural multitudes to the shores of this land.

Glacial pace of the life affirming pregnant grey. It will be night before it gets here.

Chalamy's birthday today. Been part of that cake cutting for many years. But only while flipping through the Deccan Chroncile while waiting at the Cafe Coffee Day did I come to know that he shares his birthday with Rambha!

Back to School (BH: D304)

June 4, 2012

330,000 young ones made their way to first day of first standard today in Kerala. Yet another school year begins. I wish they would all become first class students. Luckily, the monsoons have been delayed for a couple of days from full fledged onslaught. But lack of rain wasn't much relief from the horrendous traffic situation. 

For some reason, all the major schools in the city are either located right on the main road or in rather narrow inroads where it is nearly impossible for two vehicles to pass each other. Nobody made it to time for any appointment this morning. First hand experience for me in front of a nursery at Jawahar Nagar. Particularly bad since parents will the largest vehicles in the city send their kids to school there.

At the lower primary school near Nemom, band music greets the young ones. Government school fees stand at free to Rs. 16 compared to Rs 16,000 and upwards in private schools. No questions asked about which products eventually form guiding policies for the whole nation.

I have also been in back to school mode in the past few days. But it is a school that is being created as we go along. It is a priceless experience getting into planning, laying down and implementing long term vision for a new engineering college that aspires to be a university eventually.

Since the freshmen (and women) of this college currently wear uniforms, the 'back to school' feeling is rather strong. It is an all-consuming, totally enjoyable gig! Oh and I get a spectacular view of the green carpet of tree tops that covers the plains around the southern tip of the Western Ghats.

My little nephew had his back to home experience from the hospital. For the whole weekend, I got to observe firsthand tonnes of stuff learnt from latest evolution and anthropology books. My brother-in-law loves it when folks tell him that the baby looks just like him. The baby for his part apparently behaves just as his dad did in his first few days on the planet, with two fingers of the left hand in the mouth and the index finger of the right in his ear. 

He assumes a deeply thoughtful expression when he craps. Do babies come ready for MBA these days?!

Traveling Insurance Salesman (BH: D302)

June 2, 2012

Few months ago, in an uncharacteristic moment of overzealous enthusiasm, I volunteered to renew the life insurance sales license for my cousin's company. Last month he took some steps to ensure that I delivered. A badly mangled e-version of an English textbook and chapter by chapter pdf files of the Malayalam version showed up in my inbox shortly afterwards. Followed by an excel file of 475 sample questions.

Since the school days I can remember, I am the king of planning to study. Initially, I draw elaborate plans allocating hours for each chapter. Days will pass without any real studying but totally intense reallocation and reoptimization of time to be spent chapter-wise. This will continue till I have only two or three days before the test. Then a paradigm shift happens in the study program. Chapters are thrown out of the picture and new methods like checking out only the chapter summaries and graphics emergy. 

When I received the text message saying I was to take the Life Insurance Corporation's agent testing on June 2 at 4:30pm a brand new plan was hatched to read through only the sample questions. Then my little nephew arrived on the planet and I was left with just today to do any reading up.

Reading through 475 questions with answer key happened in 4-5 hours during the day. By 3:45, I was at the NSEiT testing center three floors above the Indian Coffee House near Spencer Junction. The watchman outside was dozing off. I shouldn't have woken him up.

"Eppazha?" (What time [is your test]) he spat out.
"Athinu ippazhey enthina?" (Why are you so early then?)
"Poyittu naalu pathinu vaa" (Come back at 4:10)

I went downstairs for a coffee. Only a few tables occupied at the IndianCoffee House. The menu outside told me that the most expensive item available is chicken biriyani for Rs. 85. Drank sweet hot coffee. 

When I went back upstairs, the stairs near the corridor were occupied by a bunch of people busy studying for the test. They had notes and tables and charts. They had underlined and highlighted, well thumbed through textbooks. There was more than a tinge of panic in their voices. It was the air outside most high school classrooms just before the final exam. 

Apparently, these folks had been to a coaching center. A representative from the coaching center was giving pep talk. One student appeared to have lost all hope. "Ravile teacheru chodichappo ennikkoru chukkum arinjoodennu manasilayi!" (When teacher quizzed me this morning, I realized that I know nothing!) he said with a jovial disappointment before panicking about having left his calculator downstairs in his scooter. "veendum 350 roopa pokum"(I will lose 350 bucks again!) he summed up his sentiments about the exam fee as he went to fetch the calculator.

Women in the group were busy discussing dates as women tend to do. "Teacher said 1955 was a really important year!" said one. "1938 and 2002 too" chimed another one. 

It occured to me that had this been a ranked test with fixed seats for passing, I shouldn't take it. Here were folks who genuinely needed the job. This was going to be a main part of their livelihood.

The security guy was much friendlier after washing his face. While we were signing in, a young man, presumably from the same coaching center as the bunch outside, came out after clearing the test. "I got only 50%. It is very tough!" he said. 50% is the pass percentage. "If a studious guy like you managed only 50%, we are all doomed!" the confidence level among the ladies nosedived. 

7 of us took the test at 7 of the available 15 terminals. Most of the folks took the exam in Malayalam. 1 hour. 50 questions. I was out on 20 minutes. 90% of the questions were from the question bank I had read. I made 82%.

"Kazhinja?" (finished?) asked the security guard.
"Hmm" I turned my mobile back on.
"Pass aaya?" (Did you pass?)
"Ethra mark kitti?" (How much did  you score?) The man went into the standard Indian parent mode while I waited for the printed certificate.
"enpathi randu percent" (82%)
"anpathi randa" (52?)
"enpathi...ettu randu" (80...8...2)
"appo ethra question kitti?" (So how many questions did you get right?)
"Kollalo...njan ivide jolikku vannittu aarkum naalpathu kittiyila...35, 36 okke ullu" (Good...ever since I had been working here no one has scored above 40, it is usually 35, 36!)

I wasn't feeling so good about the test at all. I had bewildered those panic-stricken ladies even more by walking out in 20 minutes with a high score. If some of them have to pay the exam fees and study harder again, it would be bad. For them the job really matters, Rs. 350 really matters.

But then I had to get out quickly to see my nephew. for me, that really matters!