Monday, December 29, 2008

And on the fifth day, they rested

This is our day in Ooty. No formal plans have been imposed on us, we are free to do what we want. Some of us have formed small groups, some have set out in pairs, many are doing their own thing. No prizes for guessing which category I fall into. The rest day has been perfectly timed. By yesterday evening, everyone had been pushed just up to their limit and even ten minutes more would have been too much. But people who choose to cycle 919 km are not what you’d call normal, so one group has decided to take a break by running up Doddabetta. When I left the hostel, another one was talking about relaxing with a little light cycling to Pykara Lake (about 30 km). Several people had already taken energetic walks by seven in the morning (including – hold your breath – me).

Ooty is sub-zero cold, there was frost in the night. The hostel is an indifferently maintained Colonial bungalow, a grand old house full of draughts and ghosts (and cyclists, now). It is highly picturesque but not comfortable in extreme weather when the fireplaces can only be ornamental. But I like it, in spite of its inconveniences – it feels like visiting your grandparents or something equally nostalgic, a sentiment that seems all-pervasive here.

It’s there in the giant Christmas trees growing everywhere, the pines, the hill roads, the lake, the names of the places, the architecture, the roads, the weather, some of them not even consciously remembered. In my walk from Fern Hill to Charing Cross, I stopped at a cafĂ© and it felt as if my book was waiting for me to return here to finish.

Yesterday, Thejesh and I went looking for tea soon after we got here and ended up climbing through a fence into an overgrown graveyard on Fern Hill because I like old churches and reading gravestones (each is a story, most of them not sad, just natural parts of the passing world). Among the ones that were not faded, were many from the time of World War I. An unexpected find was the grave of Vivekananda's stenographer, complete with an epitaph written by the great man himself.

I was persuaded to go out for yet another walk later and saw the stunning Fernhill Palace. It used to be the Mysore Maharaja’s summer retreat and may or may not be a hotel now (even the security guards seemed undecided on this point). While we wandered around the palace, we heard the Ooty train go past and the whistle sounded like a steam engine! As soon as I finish posting this, I will be rushing down to the station to take a photo of the four o’ clock train.

This morning I happened upon two other old churches, among much else, one with a million steps to collapse on, the other with a startlingly bare altar. I think they’re renovating, but for a moment when I turned my camera towards it and saw just bare wall, it seemed like the apocalypse.

Tomorrow we’re on the road again. I hope to do some of it on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. It’s 100 years old this year, shortly to be 101. But away from the hype of the newspapers, it doesn’t even feel like the ending of the year, just as one day following another as it should.

I’ve been walking all day, with a bottle of water, an apple I found in my bag and random fruit I bought on the way. It’s been a long time since I went on a holiday on my own, so I’ve had a wonderful day.

Day four: Climb every mountain

Coffee estates gave way to tea, green hills to blue mountains and the toughest stretch of the Tour was also the most beautiful. Once in the Nilgiris, the cyclists rode past eucalyptus plantations, a wildlife reserve, stretches of picturesque water, forests of tall conifers, verges littered with pine cones. It was like entering another country. The hair-pin bends were murderous, as were most of the drivers on the road, but the road itself was excellent.

It's hard for me today to talk about the cycling and say anything I haven't said before. An impressive number made it all the way up by themselves to 7000 feet above sea level. Watching them climb today I felt personal pride in each of them that they got this far. A few of them collected some bad experiences, with people on the way booing and jeering – it’s baffling that school of thought that greets everything new or different with scorn and ridicule.

But apart from the sheer feat of cycling up, there was also the pleasure of the ride. Very few riders did not stop to smell the roses today, with even Raj defying his heart-rate monitor and jeopardising his average statistics, to take a photograph or two. Ravi, Kaushik, Francis and Avinash, to name just a few, actually took little detours into tea estates. Others took a break for a sunlit tea at a roadside shop. Matthew stopped to eat some freshly harvested carrots, maybe others did too after we passed. Nelly spent several unsuccessful minutes trying to find a way to get up to a wooden platform at the edge of the wildlife reserve. Even those of us in the cars took off down impulsive paths today. Hrish, Chetan and I went on a mini hike up to a rocky view point overlooking Madhumalai forest (we saw elephant dung on the way, but the animals themselves remained elusive).

I was with the Flaunge videographers today, seeing the Tour through their eyes. It was much the same as the other days except that we did not hand out cooling drinks to the riders. The most significant difference was that we were in a jeep hired in Sultan Bathery for the day (I suspect I was invited along to be translator). A Kerala-registered jeep taxi on a highway defies the very laws of physics and we travelled at warp speed whenever we didn’t have to slow down to film a passing cyclist. At this point in my post, everyone who knows me is expecting to hear that I was violently car sick. Well I wasn't, ever, but the effort has left me feeling as if l cycled all the way to Ooty, except without the endorphins to reward me. I've arrived here with a whole journal of new methods for dealing with car sickness but forcing the mind to prevail over body around a million intense hairpin bends has taken it out of me.

Tomorrow will be a great day looking around Ooty. Murali just asked me whether I want to check out the botanical gardens with him on a borrowed bicycle. I would have gone with pleasure, if the terror of ruining someone else's precious machine weren’t a much stronger force than all others. I have plans of my own anyway – there’s a new place to see, or at least a place to see with new eyes, and as always, I have family here, though this time they are ghosts. So I will be out bright and early to see them all.

But that’s in the future. Right now, exhaustion threatens to overwhelm, and it feels as if I've been on the road ever since I was born. The camaraderie around the bonfire tonight was wasted on me, even the extremely funny story of one cyclist falling on another due to forgetting he was wearing cleats. I retired to bed early, but from what I could hear before I fell asleep, it sounded like lot of the riders had many talents apart from being able to cycle up a mountain and most everyone had fun, probably happy in the knowledge that they have a day’s break before doing it again. I know that the thought that I don't have to get in another moving vehicle for a whole day makes me euphoric.

Climb Every Mountain, The Sound of Music, 1965

Day four: Blogger blues

I've never written like this before – with minimum time for processing, editing or proofing. Each post I write is shadowed by the knowledge that my best expression of it will come two weeks later, after it's had time to distil. My impressions each evening are too many and too raw to do justice to right away. So each day's post is a deadening feeling of not having written as well as I would have wanted to.

I'm also not quite clear on how to work this strange not-quite-marketing, not-quite-journalism, not-quite-me thing. On the one hand, my background means that. in spite of myself. I work for the benefit of the firm, rather than comment casually on it, as I would have otherwise. I make up nothing, leave out no salient facts, but I automatically arrange them for maximum enhancement of brand image, exercising marketing discretion without conscious thought. On the other hand, I get very annoyed with anyone who tells me what I should write, and the ones who are displeased or puzzled after I post. I want to say: this is my blog, my voice saying what I want it to say, I'm not bound by any rules.

But I find that I have to say that to myself too, more often than should be necessary. It doesn't matter though, since I'm more than capable of ignoring the voices in my head as well as the ones outside! Or, of course, I may be just depressed right now because my fellow blogger cycled today and made it all the way to Ooty.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Day Three: Green hills and Gatorade

When we left our homestay outside Madikeri, the sun was hardly strong enough to combat the cold and the valleys were foaming with mist, looking for all the world like God's pensieve – it was the time of morning that encouraged fanciful thoughts (another such time is when the night is no-city-within-a-hundred-miles dark and you are sitting at the edge of the light from the bonfire, especially if you have family members who are addicted to NGC programmes about marauding man-eaters).

Down to Gunikopal must have been a joy for the riders, dodgy roads notwithstanding. The scenery was stunning throughout, the route winding through coffee estates or forest, mostly, but the road was very bad in many places, so many riders spent a lot of time riding in the back of the Tempo. Overall it was a strange riding day.

Wynad has its own share of coffee estates and some of the roads looked so much like the ones we just covered in Coorg, that it felt like we were standing still. But the crossing into Kerala is not an imperceptible one, it's a whacking great checkpoint that we nearly drove through due to not paying any attention to the policemen. It was that sort of day.

We were not rewarded by the sight of elephants or bison or deer on the forest road. We heard a lot of birds and giant bamboos that knock in the wind, sounding eerily like a spa soundtrack. I regaled my companions with my theory that the Magic Beanstalk was based on this bamboo, since I've literally seen how fast they grow. There're several outside my window at home and they grow perceptibly, significantly taller each day. I'm not sure they believed me.

Anyway my Malayalam came in handy at the checkpoint and quite often in our subsequent quest for Sultan Bathery. This is familiar country in more ways than one. It's many years since I've driven to Kerala, but I know this route well. I know the colours – white jasmine, pink hibiscus and orange exora. I know the smells – crushed leaves and coconut. I know the dangers – I could write a long and colourful dissertation on Kerala's highways, but that's already been written several times, and continues to improved upon every time an out-of-state license plate escapes a deadly bus or truck by half a millimetre.

We stopped for a bite at Kattikulam, about 50 km from the destination, where our arrival, sojourn and departure were watched with avid interest by almost every local available. We either happened to hit upon the only dubious Kerala Paratha maker in Kerala or my memory of this meal on the road has been rendered rosy by nostalgia. I strongly feel it's the former.

Avinash was the Puncture Guy today (at least, among the ones on our watch). He seemed mighty cheerful about it, waving us onward the second time we saw him. There was a surprise break for watermelons courtesy of Dr. Arora and Mrs Katiyar who seemed to have an entire orchard of them in the car!

PS: Apologies for not replying to comments - it’s all I can do to hold a signal long enough to post. I have managed to read one or two. Anand, you can get a few details on Prashanth’s blog (URL alongside) and there should be something on the TFN website by now. You can also follow all our Twitter posts simply by searching under "tfn08".

Day Three: Until next year, Ullas!

I sadly record the withdrawal of Ullas from the Tour. He had a bad fall today. Nobody is quite clear about how it happened, not even the eye-witnesses. One moment he was upright, the next he was not. We came round the corner minutes later to find him being given First Aid in a luggage truck that happened to be handy, in shock, face bruised, wrist possibly broken and a tooth lost. The doctor and the ambulance were on their way. We left soon after they arrived and met him again this evening, looking much better but with his diagnosis of broken wrist confirmed. He is a game and enduring rider, keeping up with the built-for-speed road bikes on his not-quite-so mountain bike. I will miss the cheerful smile as we crawl past him every 20km or so, his answer to our "All well?" almost always an enthusiastic thumbs-up. He feels it very keenly that "this is the end of the Tour for me".

PS: The picture alongside is Ullas resting against a support vehicle outside the restaurant, just about 20 minutes before his fall.

Day two: Accidental angels

On either side are high eucalyptus, thick-trunked forest plants, unknown (to me) trees with heavy foliage and thickets of something tall and thorny. Blue lantana covers the ground. The air is the refrigerated smell of leaves breathing. The forests gratified us with a sign saying "beware of wild elephants", though the animals themselves did not grace us with a visit. (I did hear a very Malayali panchavadyam from a passing Aiyappa temple, which usually augurs well for the sight of at least a domestic elephant but nothing. In the little towns and on the hillsides, houses have gardens and the gardens have plants that overflow onto the road, into the forests almost (some of them were almost exclusively giant poinsettia, one of them included a calf browsing among the potted plants.)

The roads sweep over and around gently rolling hills. It was a beautiful day to be out cycling in Coorg, no matter what your riding nirvana.

For some, it's about the road, what kind it is, what challenges it offers, how far it goes. For others, it's about the scenery the road passes through. To a few, it's about themselves and their bicycles, about pushing and pushing hard. From the mood after the ride, it seemed as if they all got what they wanted today.

We set out from Mysore at seven. Since Prerna, Ram's wife, was following the Tour in her car by herself, Tejesh, Prashanth and I (the three communicators) joined her. But suddenly we were loaded up with Aquafina, Gatorade, glucose and cake-like things, just in case we were called upon to assist and succour. That turned out to be often. We went ahead and stopped at a "good spot" to photograph the riders, and this made us the support car by default for the faster riders in front. It felt good to have an active role in the Tour, to be in the right place, at the right time when someone needed something.

As the second day of the Tour ends, everyone is getting into their stride. Many of us are learning as we go along, this being the first of its kind being attempted here. The enormity of the enterprise is only beginning to show now, and therefore, the courage and breadth of the minds that conceived, and are executing, it.

Day Two: Slideshow

Iggy had no punctures today (he had three yesterday).
Seema was back in the saddle with the best of them in spite of what should have been a traumatising accident just 37 km outside of Bangalore.
Dr. Renu Arora has patched up a surprising number of people already, as well as riding 200km herself.
Little Ria Arora's quiet time with her Gameboy while waiting for her mother to arrive was hijacked by an enthusiastic discussion on the testing of games. The lucky kid gets to ride in the ambulance.
Gatorade is the most requested drink from the support cars.
Samim was the first to finish (by several hours), again.
Raj Nair and Dipankar came a close second, again (Raj feels that he should probably go slower because everyone else seems to turn up with an interesting story while all he does is finish early).
Joshine was the first woman to finish, again. We passed her on the final climb into Mercara, our car straining a little with the load, and she was not even out of breath when she said "See you on top".
Neither was Ravi, who we'd passed half a km earlier, riding as easily as if it was a flat track.
We were nearly killed by two buses (not at the same time) on the sharp, blind corners that are a specialty of this part of the hills.
Pradeep in the role of chief organiser is working on being in seven places at once – with some success.
The Homestay that we're spending the night at on the Calpa Vruksha estate is a peaceful clearing with a stream running through it, surrounded by forest (the silence is annointed by the complete absence of ringtones – there is no signal whatsoever).
Nilgiris' food for today was idli-vada for breakfast and biryani for lunch. Both were excellent – it's some of the best frozen food I've eaten and I am the undisputed connoisseur of those.
Cycling is a great sport – it allows you to eat indiscriminate quantities of the good stuff, and several times a day if you wish.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Day One: Bangalore - Mysore

It's been the strangest day, as most days are that start at 3:30 am. Looking back, a lot of the morning is a bit out of focus and badly framed. I seem to remember my Dad telling me that the person flagging off the Tour is the Additional Director General of Police. "Additional" doesn't sound right and I'm too peaceful here under the big trees of the Windflower Resort to ask keen-eyed questions. His speech was short and pithy. I'm glad my parents came to see the flagging off of TFN even though they only returned from their Christmas party after one. I missed the magnificent sight of fifty-five cyclists sailing out of the gate together because I was worried about the confusion about my own transport, but I remember that many of Bangalore's cyclists enthusiastically escorted the official TFN riders for a while. But even that early, traffic separated and strung out the riders into a long, sparsely beaded chain. But we regrouped at Bangalore University and set out again in two batches; the Road Bikes were separated from the MTBs. This, I conclude, is because the Road Bikes are astoundingly fast.

I ended up in Vivek's personal support car, essentially shadowing him, and at one point he was doing 55km/h on a fairly flat road. I'm glad I was there. I saw the first leg of the Tour from the intense perspective of what it was like for one person. In the process I also gathered what it means to be a support vehicle for endurance riding. Water, juice, water, water, glucose, water, water, salted water, water, water, bananas, more diluted juice, water, water, energy bar, water. And one formal snack stop (where I think I was one of the first at the trough). The final climb, up Chamundi Hill (I want to say 1000 meters, but I could be wrong), was clearly as much a matter of mental endurance as physical.

The hardest part of my day was being cooped up in a car when others were out there riding in the open air. Following the nimble Road Bikes has the same hypnotic quality as watching dragonflies. Even during the struggle over the hill. On the occasional stops to render assistance and succour, the air was so refreshing outside, even in the surprisingly hot winter sun.

Fast facts: Mysore is elegant, serene and green. Mandya is still full of sugarcane fields. Chamundi Hill is full of pilgrims in dangerously driven taxis. According to Vaz's high-tech meter, he burnt 7641 calories today. The highways are as infested with lunatics as ever in motorised vehicles – one of them mangled Seema's Specialized; the only reason she's alive and riding tomorrow is her helmet.

I wish, I wish, I wish I was riding.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The tour, now open

As an ex-inmate of an ad agency I've always seen press conferences from a strange angle - an uncomfortable one, the sort that gives you a pain in the neck and offers a rather jaundiced view of the proceedings. This is the first time I've been on the side that was making the news, experiencing the pride and glory.

Watching the TFN conference, I had the feeling I remember from my time spent backstage – watching the house fill up on opening night, there was always a specific moment for me that was the point of no return, when I knew the show must go on now, regardless. At that point, the crazy adrenaline spurts calmed to one focused flow and training took over. I wonder if the organisers and the cyclists of TFN felt that way today.

For me there were a lot of new images, words, concepts. The enthusiam in Iggy and Vasu when they insisted on introducing me to a Colnago before I'd been there two minutes. Vaz who drove down from Chennai but will ride back in the new year on his new Trek. Arun saying that we've all driven through the Nilgiris but on this trip we get to touch it, smell it, savour it. The fact that 3500 litres of Aquafina will go with us. The real emotion in Ravi's voice when he said that part of the ride would be a category-three climb, a type that features in the great Tour (at Cote de Chatillon-sur-Cluses, to be exact). The very cool Manipal ambulance stealing the show. The flavour of Nilgiris' flaky pastry that is really the taste of waiting with friends for a movie at Rex on Brigade road. Through it all, the silent, purposeful cameras of Hrish and Moti.

Pradeep handing around Christmas cake. Diksha, taking the time to ride at least a part of the tour in spite of having exams. The general sense of camaraderie and effervescence. Learning that Venky, who I will inadequately describe as a professional cyclist, has lent no less than five high-end bicycles to the tour. The reporter from the Times asking how many present cycle to work every day and almost all hands in the air. The surreal backdrop of the Cake Show, which should really be called the Sugar Show; the more fantastic creations are made of little else.

Mostly, it's an uneditable slideshow in my head, but what stands out sharp and shining in the afternoon sun are the machines. Today there were two Meridas, two Specialized, two Colnagos and one Trek. Bicycles of all descriptions, that bear as much relation to the ones we rode to school on as my little hatchback does to a McClaren Road Car. They are all fascinating, they are fluid, they are beautiful. But with a silent apology to the trusty BSA SLR that I lived on for 10 years, I gave my heart to the Colnago. It is, unsurprisingly, Italian.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Are we there yet?

Between the decision to do something and the doing of it is a wasteland of time and space. But, as my cool countdown clock says, there're still five days before the Tour kicks off. I'm too restless to form words so I will leave this post to Freddie...

Bicycle Race, Queen, Album: Jazz, 1978
Apparently (found out just now) they launched the song with a bicycle race between 65 naked girls. No, it's not that sort of video.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Why would an introvert who's also shy go out of her way to travel for seven days with a group of strangers guaranteed to make her feel even more out of place than usual?

As TFN approaches, I can hear the familiar whoosh of the excitement being overtaken by fear. What will I talk about? What if nobody wants to talk to me? Should I go up and talk to them? How? What if I look foolish? (God, what if I am foolish?) What if I get forgotten at a rest stop and they have to come back for me? Oh the horror of that.

It hasn't even begun yet, and I'm already comforting myself with the thought that it has to end sometime, it will pass.

On the other hand, some important person said something to the effect that if you're not a little bit scared all the time you're not really living. Actually, I may have read it on the back of a beer can. But still. It's something.

I seek stuff like this out all the time and then go through intense anticipatory suffering. Standing on the edge, paralysed by the fear of falling, all those questions used to end very often in "What if I just don't go?"

But cowardice is not an option anymore, having grown up and all that. At least I can separate imaginary dangers from real ones now (most of the time). And anyway, my best shell is a highly sociable one - it prevents any beautiful friendships from forming because it works by converting people into an audience, but it certainly keeps me from turning around and making straight for the burrow. The problem is I have no way of controlling which shell will be used when.

I just had a truly happy thought - after two days, they won't be strangers, though of course they may still be scary. That should pass too in another day or two. That's an interesting, mature view - I may really have grown.

Or maybe not. Also as usual, I may be scared but I'm not sorry.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

You ride, I write

10 days from the start of TFN, a large number of people, largely unknown to each other, are working towards the same goal. As Radio Indigo sets up its mobile communications and Flaunge, their cameras, an ambulance crew at Manipal's department of sports medicine prepares for a seven-day vigil on the move. On one side of town, Wildcraft assembles a phenomenal amount of gear. On the other, the Diet Pepsi brand team puts together their own. Nilgiris nutritionists put finishing touches to the menus designed for endurance cycling, while Nilgiris bakers bring to fruition the piece de resistance of the 34th Annual Cake Show - and 10 days from now, a tour that hopes to become one of Bangalore's annual legends will set out from an event that is already one.

In the centre of this web, where everything begins and ends, 40 cyclists are training hard. Across the city, the country, bicycles are being tweaked, limits tested, briefings begun, equipment and fitness checked and re-checked. There are literally mountains ahead.

I write. It's what I'm here for, to tell the story that those who are too close to it cannot see. For someone who's spent all her adult life in the communications industry, this is a new and fascinating branch. And since my recent years have been given to the bureaucratic side, it's exciting to be in the "field" again. So while I test my datacard, re-examine my camera-to-laptop connectivity, readjust my battery settings, what I do most of all is train. Study the subject, feel it. Gain different perspectives on it. Find out what others have said about it (after all, you don't want to repeat what's already been said). I listen to conversations on Bikezone, at parties and around watercoolers, and suddenly, I'm interested in Rajesh's gear upgrade and curious about why one would choose not to ride one's Colnago. These are not things I would have cared about before, or indeed known. But I'm working, and I've always needed to know more than I need to know!

We're a large group, but perhaps we're not all here by accident. All of us seem to share one quality - a driving need to do what we do, well.

Incidentally, in the course of my research, I was interested as always by the almost infinite number of ways in which one subject could be treated. These are just three examples among the many I came across.




Monday, December 08, 2008

Dubai feeling the heat

"Last week the owner of a Mediterranean-style villa on one of the Palm Jumeirah's beachy fronds facing the Atlantis dropped his asking price from $4.9 million to $3.6 million and then $3.13 million, and offered to throw in his Bentley as well. "Our client has his money stuck in the markets and he desperately needed it to run his business," says real estate agent Anthony Jerish. "Still, nobody bought it. Maybe we will sell the Bentley separately. I don't know." No, this isn't the old Dubai at all." Says an article in Newsweek.

Discount sale plus free car with purchase. You sell your Bentley for some cash to tide you over. You have a Bentley in the first place. It still sounds very much like Dubai to me.

The article is very interesting and seems to spell doom, but what came through, rather surprisingly, was that Dubai's party was not over, just that the club may be closing for maintenance.

And Dubai needs to weather this, for all our sakes. The city is about naive pleasure-seeking, unashamed self-indulgence, over-the-top grasshopper-style living. It is the world's most fantastic Disneyland and if we come to the stage when the playgrounds need to be dismantled and sold for scrap, there will be no hope left.

We need the Fashion Weeks, where flocks of people spends days agonising over whether winter is about frill or flounce. The magazines that have nothing more portentous to tell you than that the season's hottest colour is one that makes you look like a corpse left in water. Impractical shoes, unattainable cars, unnecessary embellishments - these are very important; little reassuring pockets of positivity and optimism, as uplifting as any "inspirational quote".

That single-minded joy in creature comforts and shallow unconcern for the rest of it is an affirmation of the human spirit. It's one of the qualities that's got us this far. Dubai is the poster child of this. It must continue to party.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Going under canvas

The Universe recently realised that I'd been blogging since 2004 and decided that it was time to make it worth my while.

So today my blog post won me the coolest thing I've ever seen. Actually, it won me one of those yesterday, when another blogger and I were picked to go on the seven-day Tour of Nilgiris. To do the blissful job of writing frequently and copiously what we want about it, as we like, on our own blogs.

But today, two of those cyclists of Santa Clause took us to Wildcraft, deep in the wilds of Jayanagar (though not on bicycles) to pick up the tangible prize – a three-person, three-season tent!

Rajesh Of The Store actually opened it up and pitched it to show us how (a good thing too; I read the manual later, and no spawn of man is likely to gain shelter that way). As with all people whose work and play have come together, he was so involved that even I learnt how to pitch the tent. He also volunteered instructions and tips on wind, cold and heat, and interesting titbits calculated to keep me awake in it, such as "keep away from fire, it can burn down in 24 seconds". I secretly noted that it's probably worth braving another trip to Jayanagar so I can ask him all my dumb questions about trekking in snow, without fear of ostracism.

Once he'd got it up and ready, the four of us just looked at it in silence for a minute or so – each of us feeling that same urge to a) leap inside to see what it's like and b) pack it up, strap it on and go climb a mountain, ford a river, cross a jungle and sleep under the stars in a deep, quiet meadow.

I can't explain the feeling when you see it all standing up, especially when you've done it yourself (it is such a work of art that I was able to pitch it all by myself the second I got home).

My Dad is delighted with it and wants to pitch it properly outside to test it. As you can see in the photograph, he feels none of the inhibitions we had in the store, and has lost no time crawling into the tent, while keeping up a running narration on the difficulties of the canvas tents he used to pitch. Well I have some experience of those myself, all heavy wooden poles and skin-lacerating ropes and giant pegs that fought back violently.

I love my tent.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I can hear the bells

When Polly Evans said “It’s not about the tapas”, I took it to mean that it was about cycling through the Pyrenees. I felt again, vividly, the burning in the calves on the climb, the fearful joy of the descent, the open air, the unshadowed sun.

Then, an old cycling companion met the bug again and turned into the grown-up version, startling rattlesnakes regularly in California complete with helmet and puncture kit. His enthusiasms tend to drag me along for the ride, so I was fascinated to find that cycling had gotten a lot more… well, complicated, for lack of a better word.

Then came the day when I wheeled another friend’s bicycle out of the garage (rescued it, really, from a dried-bougainvillea grave; the owner hadn’t touched it for a year). The familiar tick-whir, tick-whir touched off a thrumming that came clear and sweet across the fifteen years it had been since I last rode.

“Ride out to find out what it is to be free. New times, new feelings, discovery”. It’s the oldest jingle I remember, for a motorcycle whose name I’ve forgotten – Discovery, perhaps – and it was a war cry, an ache, the anthem to which I learned how to ride. It’s true that my bike facilitated a certain amount of truancy and lawlessness that would have been impossible otherwise, but it was always about the open road, the unique pleasure of cycling.

And that, in the final analysis, is what the Tour of Nilgiris is really about. It’s a seven-day bicycle ride across the misty green Blue Mountains, starting out on Christmas Day and ending 919 km later where the New Year begins. The personal quest of a small group has grown into a 40-member tour, with a list of sponsors (including, quite appropriately, Nilgiris Supermarket) and a medical team that almost rival the Cricket World Cup, but the fundamental heart remains in the right place.

Also, it’s not enough anymore to say: “I want to ride up yonder mountain… coming?”. There needs to be a reason, a rationale, a message. It’s a practical necessity. If Edmund Hillary had been talking to corporate sponsors he could hardly have left it at “Because it’s there”. Why, that’s not even enough for one slide! So TFN is alright because a) the heart, as I said, is fine and b) their “go green” message is sincere, and who better to preach than those who practice it?

The idea is not startlingly new, just a good one, slightly forgotten.

In the beginning, there was no TV. Before God said “Let there be multiplexes”, there were wooded trails, muddy ponds and bicycles. Whitefield was less than a suburb and India was not even an emerging market (I hear we’ve fully emerged now; if we were a baby turtle, we’d have just begun the perilous journey to the sea), so we spent our time outdoors. Apart from cycling for the sake of it, we also cycled to school, to the shops, to the club, to each other’s houses… so why not to work?

TFN’s view on the subject is “If a bunch of ordinary cyclists of differing age groups can do 919 km over rugged terrain, surely anyone can cycle 10 km to office and back each day?”

Not everyone will do the entire 919 km. Riders can join in and drop out at any stage of the tour. Unsurprisingly, they got a huge response and had to make a “next time” list. There’re probably enough participants for two "next times". Everybody wants to do a tour of the Nilgiris, and since cycling takes you so close to your surroundings, the romance of the ride fits perfectly with the charm of the old colonial hill stations, the sheer beauty of those hills.

I remember several childhood holidays there, blowing my breath out into clouds and thinking to myself that the quality of the cold was different. Just strolling along the edge of the golf course in Wellington was exhilarating, imagine cycling through the hills.

I can feel the pressure of the handle bars beneath my hands and the texture of the road rushing beneath the tyres, as the bike coasts round curves in a land where you seem to breathe in the endorphins directly from the air.

The thing about cycling is – once you know, you never forget. That's a quality the Nilgiris share.

Democracy is coming?

“I guess it’s time now for us to decide whether we want to continue to be an Ancient Civilisation or a nation.” The last line of my uncle’s mail and the link he sent in it suddenly resolved a vague train of thought that started in Victoria Terminus, the first of the attacks on Mumbai.

There have been so many bombs in the recent months that we’ve gotten used to that sort of news now, though not inured to it. But this was different. Terrorists don’t hold out and fight back. Nobody walks into VT with machine guns. Rabbis don’t become hostages in Mumbai. Leopolds is a relaxed evening. Colaba Causeway is a casual stroll. The Taj and the Oberoi are… inviolate. There are many accounts of guests hearing the noise but assuming it would be sorted out. Well, of course. It’s what I would have done too – you’re at the Taj, after all. I think it was the cold dismantling of emotional institutions, more than anything else, that made this particular one stand out.

Though I have only contempt for the practice of labeling everything “9/11”, the spurt of real fear when I first heard the news echoes what I felt that Wednesday evening, standing at a bar in Muscat with a similarly TV-less friend, watching in silence as the Trade Centre collapsed. They have since showed it over and over again, until the visuals have lost the sting. That cannot change the enormity of the moment, when you knew the world was going to change, something was going to give.

I don’t know if we will come through for ourselves finally, whether our collective Indian consciousness will be able to look up from writing editorials, memorials and letters of complaint, and actually do something, but we’re definitely going to come closer than we ever have before.

Pictures were taken from a forward I got. I have no right to them whatsoever.

Democracy, Leonard Cohen, Album: The Future, 1992

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Magic beans

Article published in Little India ("Largest Indian publication in USA") in May this year under the title of "My Paper Google", and yet to be paid for.

I rushed to my laptop in a panic while cooking something complicated, to look up "blanching". And ended up very annoyed because I got onion peel on my precious keyboard. Much later, I remembered that I've had a sort of paper Google for years which tells me all I could possibly want to know. And it's survived worse disasters than onion peel.

My mother got this battered blue book when it was new, a present from her cousin in the early years of her marriage. When I left home to set up a kitchen of my own, she gave it to me.

It's a combination of old-fashioned recipe book and surprisingly modern how-to manual on setting up a new life. In the section called Basic Kitchen Aids" – which I read six months after I needed it – I recognised my mother's organised kitchen and therefore the things I had unconsciously bought anyway.

There is also crucial cooking-for-dummies information. The ounce to teaspoon conversion rate, for example. And how to tell a "moderate oven" from the other kinds. Descriptions of different cooking methods, alphabetically listed. What to do if you've over-salted a curry. How to rescue something that got burnt at the bottom. Fascinating tit-bits (of purely academic interest until very recently) such as: citrus fruits dipped in warm water are easier to juice, an egg-shell added to boiling bones helps produce clear stock without skimming, a wet knife slices hard-boiled eggs neater.

There is even a brief but illuminating bit on throwing parties. The advice ranges in tone from the understanding but implacable tenets of my great-aunts: "No matter how shy you are do not forget that they are your guests and you are the hostess" to the eminently practical voice of my mother's sister: "Serve a dish you are confident about so you can enjoy your own party".

The recipes are interesting (now and then I recognise something that has been the staple in our home all my life), but being an indifferent cook – if at all – they have spent more time on my bookshelf than in my kitchen. I've read the book cover to cover of course, but only because I read everything, compulsively.

"The accumulated experience of many a home-maker has gone into the contents of this book" says Rachel Alexander in the preface. She used the current word for housewife 34 years ahead of its time and seems to wear confidently her title of chairman. Possibly she was too busy being one to bother with the mere semantics of chairperson. She belonged to a magnificent generation.

The names in the acknowledgements belong to strangers, but they call up reminiscences like photographs. I spent many childhood summers with one great-aunt or the other and – as the most easily persuaded of the grandchildren – have accompanied those energetic old divas on a million duty visits, tea parties, ladies' lunches, fundraisers and the like. In my early teens I was even occasionally despatched alone as the representative. (I wonder how I could have turned out so socially recalcitrant, but perhaps my rabid introversion is because I've finished my quota of niceties).

It is called "A Guide to Efficient Housekeeping and Good Cooking" and was published in 1973 (a month before I was born) by the YWCA-Chennai as a fundraiser.

The cover shows age, but the book is neat and poised, the papers never askew or unkempt. After a lifetime of wear and tear, the spine is still straight and the spirit, indomitable. Whenever I open it, the pages susurrate like starched cotton sarees rustling around tea-trays on verandahs.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

To the great dinosaur park in the sky

I break my inexplicable silence to say a sad goodbye to Michael Crichton. He wrote many, many books and I've read most of them with relish. Only two were about dinosaurs but that's who he is to me – the dinosaur guy to a dinosaur fan. In memorium, I will lift the equally inexplicable book embargo in my life and re-read Jurassic Park this weekend. And it will still be the gripping, thrashing chase it has been all the other 50 times.

I'd always hoped that another book in the series would come out at some point. But now I'm left with the same hollowness I felt when I came to the abrupt, premature end of The Salmon of Doubt and Sunset at Blandings, the recognition that the only minds that could satisfactorily complete them are irreversibly gone.

Maybe it's actually the great publisher's party in the sky. How horrible.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Goddess of Learning

Saraswathi Puja has moved with the times; it now acknowledges digital as well as printed sources of knowledge. And since these are also the tools of my trade, they did for the Ayudha Puja as well.

Puja-room doors, I learnt recently, are a formalized, thriving industry. There are shops, even entire streets, dedicated to them. You can buy a whole door or you can buy decorative bits, as my parents did, and create your own around the antique wooden figurines that you’ve never quite known what to do with. But you can see why it’s such a big business. The door lifts the little puja-room to temple level, giving the space within a sort of sacred weight.

The Goddess seems to have stepped up service levels because it’s barely two days and I’ve won a blogging prize already – and real money too, not a poxy plastic pen-shaped trophy.

I continue to learn many things every day, very little of which is fit for public consumption.

Getting by

My posting has become erratic of late and the reasons are as follows:
a) Relocation
b) Learning a new job
c) Getting used to commuting to work again
d) Getting used to sitting in an office again
e) Not belonging to any social group yet
f) The changing moods of BSNL
g) Inexplicable sleep deprivation (technically I’m getting enough sleep, except I’m not).

I’m not only not writing, I’m not reading either. Haven’t read a single book in a month. This is significant when you consider the fact that it used to be almost one a day. A month! And that includes comics, children’s books and re-reading of Harry Potter. I’ve only read magazines. This is how the other half lives.

Also, after all these years of complaining that copywriting stifles my own writing, it turns out that writing all day, every day keeps it alive. Now that my job does not involve writing, I'm practically illiterate.

Mostly, I need to get out more, maybe go trekking in the Hima-layers.

Monday, September 15, 2008

License bekaa?

The Regional Transport Officers' coven (Karnataka chapter) has decreed in their wisdom that a valid passport is not proof of citizenship, let alone birth. You ask what higher proof of identity there is. Well, apparently, your school leaving certificate is more important than your passport. More important maybe than the fact that you were not only born but are alive and present to prove it. In spite of the fact that the piece of paper has not been invulnerable to corruption. Perhaps the left hand of the Indian Government should consider an orientation programme for the right hand.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Knight Bus

The air-conditioned, well-sprung, pain-free bus service is officially called Vajra Vahini – apparently it means hi-tech bus – no doubt in honour of the BPO salaries that created the niche for it. It is also listed as the Red Bus in the complex filing systems of the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation. But it's known and revered on the street simply as "the Volvo".

Tickets cost three times more than the regular. For that, you have the privilege of cushioned seats, civilised handrails for the occasions when you need to stand briefly, scrupulously clean interiors, blindingly polite drivers and conductors. They're always in a good mood because they're not yet blasé about being in Business Class. The drivers' arrogant handling of the automatic foreign machine and the conductors' carefully casual wielding of the electronic ticket dispenser are touching. And the pride is infectious.

It's the sort of bus service where you say good morning to the driver when you get in and thank him when you leave. It's the sort of journey where you take out your iPod or laptop and sit back in the certainty that you will arrive on time, your high heels intact, not a hair out of place. You might emerge from a musical daydream to notice that traffic is backed up on the bridge ahead but it never occurs to you that you might be late because of it. Strangely, you never are. The "chosen one" attitude of the driver and conductor seems to work in mysterious ways.

On the other end of the public transport food chain are the private buses, by and large just piles of highly coloured scrap metal held together by grease and willpower. The equally greasy purveyors of the service hustle for custom at every stop, as good humoured about their lot as the Volvo lords with theirs. The fare is so low that the only seat you're likely to find is a precarious perch on the noisy engine and you might be sharing that with a clutch of live chickens. If you're misguided enough to take out your iPod, you'll spend most of your journey satisfying the curiosity of your fellow passengers.

The utterly ragged flower-seller sitting next to me suddenly produced a mobile phone and made a business-like call. When she was done she looked thoughtfully at the laptop bag and asked me if I was "IT". I admitted that yes, I did belong to that bizarrely jet-lagged tribe. I then confirmed that yes it is morning in America when it's night here. She wanted to know how long this had been going on. I did not feel up to a geography lesson so I blamed it on the British. She came, inevitably, to whether there was a husband waiting at home. And opened her basket to offer me the last remnants of her day – a small circlet of tuberoses - to wear for him. Yes I'd gone for the advisable rather than the truthful.

This is why I sometimes deliberately leave the sanitised, climate-controlled IT corridor – to reassure myself that India is still outside, a little bruised, browning at the edges but still fragrant. The local time is 9:30 pm. The outside temperature is 23 degrees. Celsius.

I think maybe I also do it as an acknowledgement of a time when Whitefield was not economically viable for the government and it was the private buses that filled the bloody great gaps. Not only were they more frequent but their service continued late into the night, long after the official "last bus" had gone – essential when you're a trainee in an ad agency.

The Volvo passed us somewhere on the home stretch. By then the fragrance of India had given me a raging headache.

The Knight Bus

Friday, September 05, 2008

In the lee of the jihad

The evening breathes deeper. The air grows still. The setting sun floats lightly on the water. All along the pier the tiny abras are quiet. On the other shore, the large dhows stir comfortably. Silence soothes the glass facades of the office blocks across the creek. No tourist cruises or merchant barges mar the last minutes before Iftar. In this pocket of time, the world becomes what it should be. Voices are gentle. Hearts are untroubled. Minds are reflective. When the muezzin calls and the single canon shot announces the end of day, the weathered men in the wooden boats will lay out their fruit and invite anyone passing to share the breaking of the fast. At street corners and in convenience stores, there will be free pastries and water for all. All across the city, the tables will fill up and the darkening sky will be sweetened by the convivial fragrance of shisha.

Last year was my ninth Ramadan in the Middle East and the magic of the holy month was still as fresh as the first one. In the hospitable lands, God was a kind stranger with a pot of coffee and a bowl of dates, religion was the liberal curiosity of children.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Walk right back

So I finally conceded my personal and private stand against putting one more car on the road and walked into a showroom to buy my first car. The distances are not commutable any other way, not if I want to do more than get to the office and back, and do that with some sanity left.

A recent survey says that most Bangaloreans will not give up their own vehicle for public transport; they won't even car pool. One of the reasons cited is that there aren't enough buses. This is patently untrue. There is a plentiful and well-connected bus service. There are even different classes of bus travel for the more fastidious. The perceived lack of buses is the result of other, very real, very visible problems.

1. Bus-stops
They have shelters that look good but aren't much use when it rains and too small for peak hour crowds. This leads to large numbers of people milling around on the road around the bus-stops getting in the way of the people in the cars – not one of whom, unsurprisingly, is inspired to risk the bus. There are no signboards that indicate what route numbers come there or where they go. So someone who's new to the city has a bad experience to begin with and will of course get some own steam as soon as possible.

2. Behaviour of bus drivers
Buses do not always stop at the bus stops, they stop about fifty meters before or after. Nor do they wait to see if anyone is hurrying to catch the damn thing. It makes the whole experience needlessly stressful. The driver's job is complicated by the fact that bus-stops are often situated too close to turnings, exits or traffic lights. If the driver has a green light he won't bother stopping. If it's red, he will open the doors at the light and passengers have to negotiate traffic to the safety of the footpath. Which brings us to…

3. Footpaths
There aren't any. What we have are disaster areas – unpaved mudslides, unevenly paved obstacle courses, booby traps with bloody great holes in them. Taking public transport involves walking a bit and I was forced to get new shoes that violate all my aesthetic sensibilities because my beloved skinny heels are unsuitable for cross-country adventures (I had a few).

4. Behaviour of auto drivers

This is why nobody will car pool. You don't want to be left dependent on them. There are some good ones but mostly they don't bother with meters, demand whatever comes into their heads and generally make getting from A to B more difficult than it has to be.

These things are much quicker and simpler to solve than building a metro or a flyover. So why not just do it?

Walk Right Back, Everly Brothers, 1961

Dear die-hard Hindi-speaking immigrant,

It's called Kannada. The 'a' at the end is pronounced. It is a language. It is spoken in the state of Karnataka of which Bangalore* is the capital. Try to grasp it. Do not get huffy when the indigenous population cannot understand your Hindi. It is not widely spoken here, just as Japanese is not widely spoken in Seattle.

These indigenous people are called Kannadigas. If you look closely at the two words you will see that they are in fact different. Please learn how to say them – it's only polite.

Now that you've migrated you've learnt that not everything south of the Vindhyas is Madras. In the same way, everything south of HAL is not Whitefield. Please learn the proper names of places so that those of us who do live in Whitefield do not have to have metaphysical conversations with auto drivers.

*You are here. No, it isn't a suburb of Gurgaon.

The people of Bangalore (who are really quite an easygoing, hospitable bunch if you would just relax and stop shoving us about, demanding chaat like mother makes it.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Forgive us our trespasses

The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Whitefield was built to accommodate the early Anglo-Indian settlers who weren't Church of England. Like most churches in India, it remains extremely well-attended.

Midnight Mass here used to be a quaint social occasion. You wore your Christmas Best. You wished everyone in the courtyard after mass. You congratulated the pastor before you left. If you were sixteen you ensured you got a pew with a view so you could check out the cute visitors that almost every family had at Christmas. You sang the carols, recited the responses, made eye contact during the sermon and gathered at the club for wine and cake afterwards. That would inevitably change as the congregation increased.

Today a procession of priests conducts the mass in three languages. There are monitors outside, three choirs with a full orchestra and a sound system fit for rock concerts – this is wonderful. Those who attend still follow the original pattern of behaviour, except for the gathering at the club. That is wonderful too.

What is not is that the church is being razed to build a new glass-fronted complex for communal religious observance. It also means the uprooting of much of the church's venerable mango orchard – from which my brother, my neighbour and I once stole bagfuls of raw mangoes simply because it was closely guarded. We did this by scaling a vertical granite wall and crawling in tall grass, a crack operation orchestrated by the intrepid neigbour, who would become my sister-in-law seventeen years later.

The church compound includes a little hill – called, of course, Calgary Hill – on which someone was once inspired to install the Stages of the Cross. The trees that grew thickly on it have been thinned a bit because the local romances tended to be conducted in the undergrowth here. I have a vision of the church wardens running up and down the hill with bird dogs, flushing out the courting couples before every service. The view from up here is still pleasant. From a distance, the world looks blue and green, as long as you don't look west, where, quite appropriately, the first of the tech parks gleams. (The compass on my keychain insists it's technically northwest, no matter how much I shake it.)

This is the old grotto at the base of the hill. It is as nice as it always was, but needs a security guard now, which makes it difficult to just sit aimlessly on one of the benches enjoying the sun.

The new grotto, I think, is the resurrection scene, but it could equally be one of the more obscure passages in the bible, especially as the afternoon clouds come rolling dramatically in. But the last few of the indigenous folk still walk to every service, in all weathers. They were here before the peacocks were introduced into the church compound. They're still here after the peacocks have unaccountably disappeared. In response to my good afternoon, she said with the detached sympathy of the very old:, "You must find it greatly changed my girl", and walked on. The rain held off until she was inside the building.

Blog Archive