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Read. Suffer. Try to Enjoy.

When The Levee Broke...

Thursday, April 19, 2007
All the brouhaha over the whole Birds And Bees education thing being too Birds And Bee-ish (clever play on words, no?) for our 'Indian culture' is something which is so trite, that it warrants a slightly nostalgic perspective. Ergo, erat... (and I'm sorry... that's all the Latin I know... if it is Latin.)

I am a proud member of that corrupted population, which actually had 'that education' as part of the syllabus, and I have not really turned out (much) the worse for it...

We had a session in the 9th standard, and given the whole 'hormonal-all-boys' school thingie, it really wasn't quite on time. The whole curiosity part had started off way before that, in the 7th. When there was no Internet. Faced with that, the only option you had, was to consult those grand daddy guides called Fantasy and Human Digest (innocuous name right? The name was the only thing that was innocuous about that mind you... with some really stunning prose. No pix.) available for the princely sums of 20 and 25 bucks respectively. Smuggling the smut in after a furtive purchase from the 'regular' footpath vendor would be a very secretive (and hypertensive) affair. Tucking them behind the bigger sized 'workbooks' usually was pretty difficult. Reading them under the desks while class was in progress was even more so.

But once into them, it was a fascinating trip into fantasia. The irony was that even our addled adolescent brains could make out that the stuff printed in there, wasn't really ALL REAL. (And we are not talking about airbrushing here. Just to make it clear). Especially the 'user's questions' columns... (How did schoolboys like us manage to score with unbelievably attractive older neighbours? How?!! And was she telling the truth about that dog episode?!) As an alternative source of info, some friends and the school library had these printed encyclopaedias (yes, they used to be printed on paper once upon a time)... but the ultra-dry, clinical tone of the descriptions was just not juicy enough for our 'refined' tastes.

For the visual angle, we had good old Star TV. Riviera, The Bold And The Beautiful, Santa Barbara, and the odd late night episode on Zee TV (Shaadi Ya...?) did a damn good job, let me tell you that. And Star Movies with it's late night shows till they started to you know... pixellate.

Given all this background, we were kind of 'aware' by the time we hit the 9th standard, but somehow there was this uneasy feeling about it all... that what we knew kind of 'wasn't totally there'. Till some seniors tipped us off about what was to come. A proper classroom session on you know... snigger snigger snigger. We felt really squeamish, and we weren't *too* sure of what it would turn out to be... but still, some cerebral cortex was really working overtime, flooding us with all those happy chemicals.

Till the big week finally arrived. Going alphabetically, the 'A' division was first. After they were done with it, started the rumours.
"They were actually showing a 'live action movie'!!!!!"
"There were naughty posters!!!!"
"There were live strippers jumping out of a cake as a grand finale!!!!"
(Well... maybe not the last one...)

Jumping Jeetenders!!!! For those saddled with horrendously prudish cable waalahs who would mercilessly beam Manoj Kumar movies past midnight thereby you-know-whatting all over the efforts to stay awake till then, this was too much happiness to take. The rumours multiplied exponentially over the week, till we were expecting nothing short of a proper Roman orgy by the time we were up for it. The teacher announced "It's time...", and 47 flushed faces lit up like them Indian cricket team effigies after every overseas trip. In spite of herself, the teacher remarked to a colleague.
"Look at their faces! Look at their faces! See how happy they are!! (tinkling mellifluous laughter)"

Blushing furiously, we all but trampled over each other as we rushed into the cool, dark audi to check out "Sally", the heroine of the movie (Trust us to know what her name was. Heh heh.). To be greeted by a slightly bemused, old Italian catholic priest, who could barely suppress his laughter once he saw the looks on our faces. He took one look at us, and proceeded to give us what he was there for. Without going into the gory details, a lot of misconceptions did get cleared up in the next 3 hours. A very classily done affair, and he didn't flinch once at our 'questions'. And yes, the movie was good too. Somehow, we didn't really snigger or hoot as much as we thought we would. Caught up in the moment? Not all of us though, there was one guy who had insisted on carrying his Geometry text-book along for the show. Yep.

Once the testosterone levels were somewhat back to normal, we realized the single biggest irony of the whole thing. The priest was a celibate. And an MD in Birds-And-Bees-ology to boot.

posted by Tapan at 4:53 PM

Locomotive Breaths

Monday, April 02, 2007
Had been to the railway station recently to drop off an aunt. One look at the general inviting atmosphere, and the whole scene in general, and train-journey-memories came stampeding back like Gujjus attacking an Udipi restaurant on a weekend. Some recollections follow...

Dropping air fares and rise in incomes is a real travesty when you can probably extrapolate that there might be an entire new generation down the line which might never experience the joy of travelling by good ol’ Indian Railways. They might pack in the odd train journey here and there because they have to, and not because they HAVE to. Know what I'm sayin? A 1000-buck price differential versus a gain of 22 hours or more? Easy decision there… but missing out on the sheer circus? Grave loss.

Back in the day, all train journeys would start with an agonizing wait for tickets. Oh the uncertainty… much before the Internet ka naya zamana, you were totally at the mercy of the travel agent or the over-friendly tout at the booking counter (heck, this is true even now…). More often than not during the summer months, you’d end up with the dreaded RAC/waiting list curse. And then you’d spend the rest of the time wishing ill on the other travellers, just so that your holy self could get a confirmed seat prior to D-day.

Come travel day, and invariably, there would be friendly crowds thronging your every step, everywhere. How a family of four can rack up a luggage load the size of a proper nation which porters would be lugging like Egyptian slaves of yore will remain an enigma till the end of time. The worst part? The family whom you’d mentally go “Tsk! Tsk!” at would invariably end up right in your bogie, and even better, bang opposite you. and then the process of 'luggage negotiations' would start.

Pointing to your small little bags shrivelling under your seat, they’d go "Yeh aapka hai? Thoda sarka lo." Then they would squash their mighty pieces, till you could almost hear your miserable little bags howl in protest. Once the baggage issues were 'settled', would come the period of uncomfortable silence. You know, generally sizing each other up, and trying to guess vocations/economic strata etc. etc.

The TC would breeze in and breeze out, always with a couple of RAC hopefuls in tow, staring hopefully at him and you, alternately.

Unlike airplane seats, the train seating arrangements would make it mighty difficult for you to avoid eye contact and keep to yourself. You’d get a crick in the neck, unless you had a window seat. But even that afforded you shelter from eye contact for a brief while, if at all.

The thin ice would gradually give way to a lot of inane banter (depending on how well you hit it off of course), with discussions ranging from philosophy, to politics, films, music, cricket, governance and what have you. At the end of it all, you'd exchange addresses and phone numbers, with promises to meet up again. Pity that never ever happened. Once you were at the end of your journey, it pretty much was it. Finito. Functional relationships, these train journeys.

And the Devil help you if you were stuck with a couple of idiotic, ill-behaved kids. What the parents found indulgent and cherubic, was sure to make you wish you could slap them (all) over and over and over again. Especially irritating would be the kids' fascination to clamber up and down to the topmost berth and down, and flash you an angelic smile every ****ing time. You'd smile back. Evilly. Black heartedly too (sic?).

One not-to-be-missed part is the whole vend-o-rama. Vendors in assorted shapes, sizes and raspiness of vocal cords materialize out of nowhere at all times of the day, trying to sell you something or the other.

"Chayaaa... Chayaaaa... Cofeeeeyah... Coffeeyah."

"Coldrinxxxx, Coldrinxxxxxx!!!! (tinkling sound produced by dragging the metal opener against the glass necks of them bottles)"

"Wada bolo wada..."

"Breadamlate, breadamlate"

"Garma garam bhajji bolo bhajji"

"Puri bhaji, puri bhaji"

"Sandwisss, sandwissss"

In an endless, deafening, jarring loop. From dawn till dusk. Rasp. Breathe. Repeat.

Then the delicacies of the Pantry car. Ahhh... sheer gastroenteritic bliss. The only thing dirtier than the foil packing would be the uniform and/or the hands of the guy (especially the grimy fingernails) serving it to you. If you're capable of stomaching this stuff, you pretty much have intestines of diamond-dust-coated-platinum in addition to certain other parts of steel. Let's just leave it at that.

Now certain families did not believe in the Pantry/Vendor deals. Instead, they would whip out steel dabbas (nay residential towers) with enough chow to feed an army of disillusioned IT professionals (am guessing that would be a metaphor for "a sizeable number of people" there, right?). And when they would finish ploughing through the 15-course contents, as you stared at them much against your refined upbringing, they would be ready for more. You half expected the matriarch to whip out a stove, and the assorted roti making paraphernalia right there and ask, "How many more would you like?". (By that time, I would be staring mournfully at my as-dry-as-Brit-humour curd rice/idlis, slightly smelly coconut chutney, Parle-G biscuits, Parle Poppins and slowly turning bitter (again like an IT professional) lemon rice and feel the tears drip down my South Indian cheeks).

Then that 'train smell'. It's unbelievably inherent, that you can even smell it on the ticket once you buy it. About half an hour into the journey, it assails your nostrils... and then slowly permeates your DNA like some sort of Ramsay-ish ghostly fog. Slowly but surely, it settles into your hair, your fingernails, your clothes, and every pore of your exposed and non-exposed skin. It's omnipresent in the sense that even the (hard) water from the rusty sinks smells like it. Till you become distinctly antsy and visions of luxury soaps, turkish towels and long cold showers start to haunt you till your pupils dilate.

"But why can't you have a shower in the train itself?!", you might ask. Cos "There is no bathroom..." says the bald kid in the Matrix. What you have instead is a fantastic pair of loos... which are so elegantly simple in human waste management, that it hurts to think how underrated this so very Indian underlying concept is (glorious pun there... there is nothing 'underlying'. Get it?). In the interests of your delicate sensibilities, it will suffice to say that you're not supposed to 'use' them when the train is at stationary (tee hee hee) a station. Go figure.

If you have a window seat (you blessed soul you...), the best possible thing to kill time is just stare blankly out of the window. The scenery as it rolls by can be hypnotic and breath-taking, once the urban hideosities are out of sight of course. The rural areas with lone straw houses in the middle of nowhere, lush green fields, parched wastelands with baleful straw covers, plodding bullock carts, village folk washing clothes at water bodies, livestock feasting contentedly on god-knows-what, urchins grimacing and pulling faces at you as you whizz by, a lone cyclist on a dirt track, oblivious to everything save the rhythm of his jangling contraption and probably the voices in his head. The whole thing is so surreal, and you genuinely start to think about the kind of lives they lead. Such a glaring contrast to your existence... It's even better in the rains, and when you are standing at the door, just soaking it all in.

But probably the best thing I have seen to sum up the entire experience is as follows. A guy was sleeping while the usual 'Chaaya, Coffeeyaa' vendors were seducing the gentry with their 'quality' wares. He woke up a little late, and just missed these guys. It was time for his morning fix, and he was kinda desperate. Along came the friendly official Railway chai-waala. Money given up, a cup of nectar poured out.

The guy takes one sip, and goes "Pfffttttt!!!!!" like a character in an Asterix comic. Fine brown tea-smelling mist settles down on co-passengers' faces who wipe it away, murder in their eyes.

"This is AWFUL!!!! You call this tea?!!! It's more like pee!"

The chai-waala flashes his pearlies, bats his eyelashes and retorts,
just before fleeing like the wind.

"What to do saar... Railway ka chai hai. Aisa hi rahega."

The guy is stunned speechless. Then slowly but surely, the entire compartment bursts out laughing. I was too.

posted by Tapan at 10:23 PM