Sunday, February 23, 2014

Of T.Akka and Telephones

I remember her vividly. I don't see a reason why I should. But I do.

Every summer, until I finished high school, we split our summer holidays between the Andhra coast and the Karnataka coast travelling second class on long train journeys from wherever we happened to be stationed at then. The journeys were almost never without event, colored largely by my mother's anxiety at seeing my father step off the train in search of idlis to feed the brood. Idlis were the only train food we children(my two sisters and I) were allowed by mother. 

I digress.

This is about Telephone Akka,Palakol, West Godavari District,(where my grandparents, migrants from a wholly different culinary culture had migrated to in the early 1950s). Telephone Akka, who never aged. While we furiously outgrew our favorite clothes, T.Akka looked the same every year. Not that we were particularly attentive to detail, but since all three siblings concur on this point, am assuming there must have been some merit in this observation. 

Grandfather's Udupi restaurant in the heart of Andhra was doing as well as the 1980s would allow it to. Well enough to afford a telephone anyway. The telephones from the era followed the same aesthetics that came to define another beloved symbol of that era, the Ambassador. Generous curves, stately heft and an aura of indestructibility. There were two phones at their home, one in the hall, and another in Grandfather's bedroom.

Not having a telephone at our own home, the contraption in the privacy of the bedroom afforded me immense possibilities to spend a quiet afternoon gainfully occupied, confirming that dialing 100 would indeed, following a couple of rings, like in the movies, be answered by a strident "Policetation! Cheppendi".
The accompanying local telephone directory was used to dial the numbers of random but similarly upstanding members of my grandfather's social strata inasmuch that they too could afford a telephone. Frantic "Hello, yavarendi. Yavarendi" responses were responded to, first with raspy nervous shallow breathy sounds and as the many exploratory attempts went unpunished, unconvincing adult voice impersonations(followed inevitably by amused self congratulatory giggles). 

The adults adopted an economy in expression rarely associated with my family, when using the telephone. We children were forbidden to use it except under strict supervision to say Hello to father calling from a STD booth (he usually returned home after his railway security escort duties for brood were done). 
I still have trouble making phone calls when I have nothing to say and one overpowering memory from childhood is a bunch of indulgent adults telling me to ask father if he had dinner or if he was riding the scooter carefully and all I managed was a shy Hello.Hello at which point my father would be exasperated and ticking off seconds he was paying for, ask to handover the phone to my more verbose and vocal sisters.
The telephone was respectfully covered with white embroidered lace and placed on a velvety mat. Everyone bustling by would stop to adjust the lace cover, if it had slipped off, exposing some part of the instrument to the vagaries of the Costa summer. Somewhere in the 1990s lace slipped out of fashion as preferred dust deterrent ,reflecting the changes in the aesthetics of a generation seduced by all things plastic and lace found a new calling as preferred choice for middle class ladies' honeymoon lingerie until then, I imagine, monopolised by burlap cotton sacks.

I don't exactly remember when I first saw/met(never spoke to her) T.Akka. All I can say is that the earliest memories of my grandparents' house predating her fleeting presences are few, if actually any. T.Akka with her SINGER sewing box.
Every month, once or twice, T.Akka would arrive unannounced to the house, when we were playing under the parijatha tree in the courtyard or lost in comics bought for the train journey which we reread again and again.
Immaculately draped in pastel toned saris, the pleats millimetrically aligned in flowing layers, she carried a little bag on her shoulder and glasses which now seem rather large for her face. I've never seen her break into a smile. Strange for a girl of twenty and a bit. She walked into the house and after a brief exchange of perfunctory greeting with whoever was in the hall, got straight to the job.
She placed the bag next to the telephone stand and deliberately opened it to extract a SINGER Sewing box. A red box with SINGER written in an archaic font. She placed the box next to the telephone and then slipped off the lace, carefully folding it. She then opened the box like a surgeon and extracted from it, a little blower, the size of her index finger. She squeezed the head in little squirts pointing the end at various tricky crevices in the phone where dust would settle in like the cradle, the mouth piece filter and such like. After a few more squirts, she would ceremoniously place the blower back into the SINGER box and then extract a bottle of Dettol and cotton wool. She wiped the entire set, including the spiral umbilical cord between the handset and the base. She probably took a good couple of minutes working her way over the phone after which she would wait for the antiseptic to dry out completely. She would then place her Dettol bottle back and subsequently extract a vial of rosewater. She would pluck another wad of cotton and soak it with the rosewater and then repeat the religious cleansing of the telephone.
Finally, extracting another piece of lint free cloth(not unlike the ones that are thrown in for free by opticians), she would rub down the telephone .The air, now permeated with the smells of a Madras Apollo hospital florist.
She would then repeat the exact same process on the telephone in the bedroom and then leave without ado.
I've never seen her getting paid, though I am sure she was. 
On days when we were not at home when T.Akka arrived, I would suspect she had come by the tinge of rosewater hanging in the air. A quick sniff of the telephone from close quarters would confirm my suspicion and I would inform grandmother that I knew T.Akka was here if only to hear her tell others in the room, what a fine sense of smell I had. 
And all this would repeat the next time, she came home.

I dont know if T.Akka remembers me, but I do remember her vividly. I suspect with good reason that she would not remember me, which would be as good a reason for her to think I don't, in case she does remember me,but I do(remember her). So good reasons can usually go take a long hike, when it comes to all matters memory toned.

Sometime after high school, I stopped going to my grandparents place, instead opting to cauterise my brain in a cram school through the holidays and the broken link has never quite mended since. I've visited them four or five times thereafter (they thankfully visited us more often) and like the telephone which now no longer warrants a special place in the hierarchy of middle class megalomania that it used to in the 80s or the services of T.Akka, have filled the glorius summer holiday sized hole in my years with less impressive fillings none smelling of rosewater on a summer afternoon.

I will continue hoping T.Akka is fine wherever she is growing old gracefully in them perfectly pleated saris and wishing her present summer days have less cause for regret than mine.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Bicycle Blues (True story bro.)

It's been a while since I've returned from cycling up in the Himalayas. Long enough for immediacy and the seared shadows of the mountains to have dimmed in the whirl of the daily commute and glare of naked light bulbs of yellow expectations.

There is so much that will remain unsaid here. I am not a notebook and a pen person, so the names of little hamlets and the mountain people are already fading.  The nine days I cycled there, are all blending into each other and distorting my recollections of sunsets, prayer flags, wind sculpted ravines I'd then imagined plunging into and landing painlessly on a family of shocked plump marmots.

However, there is a little stretch of the trail I'd like to put down on record.

I shall fast forward to the aforementioned little stretch, between Pang and Debring, two outposts in the bizarre mountain desert wilderness, both blessed and damned at the same time. Timeless, except they are force fitted into the present by the yellow Maggi packets in the little road side shacks.

The first days on the trail had been singularly taxing, much like a baby just out of the womb, I gasped and gasped for air which I barely inhaled before I had to cough it out or wheeze judiciously to keep the cough from wearing me out. I took a couple of days to settle into some breathing rhythm where I could manage significant displacement without having to stop.

We started for Pang from a place called Whiskey Nallah(named so because an Indian Army truck bearing nightcap supplies for soldiers hereabouts toppled and spilled it's contents into the cold desert dusk), where we had spent the night.

We started early, the sun had just started to rise and there was a crystal crust of frost on the seat as we mounted the cycles, pedaling up the Lachlangla Pass in a stiff trundle. We reached Pang a little after noon, not without incident, having to deal with a couple of flats and a couple of tyres actually ripping at the seams and then climbed up a few steep kilometers into the plateau of the Moray Plains.

Moray plains.

After the longest time of pedalling at the lowest gear and terrain more suited to mountain goats than anything humans could engineer, there lay a brilliant stretch of black tarmac, straight as it could be, shimmering and disappearing into a madly fluttering haze at the horizon. Flanked on either side by signature landscape reminiscent of imagery from epic Mongol sagas. Vast emptiness, textured silences and a tinge of green coaxed out by the summer sun.

The air seemed to buzz with an almost unnatural energy and as we loitered at the summit. For the first time in all these days on the trail, all my aches, the dodgy knee which I had injured fording a mountain stream  somewhere below, seemed to fade away and like a crazed Pamplona bull just out of the pen, I shot into the road in a blood tinged rush, cranking up a gear every few pedals.

The whole scene was set to a blues soundtrack running in my head. I dont think I can remember if there was a particular one, but I shall pick Howling Wolf's Wang Dang Doodle as most likely.

There I was slicing through the thin,still mountain air. Howling Wolf's swagger in my shoulder posture. I was the Mongol horde charging to plunder, I was Dylan writing Visions of Johanna, I was Arthur swinging the Excaliber jubilating in it's perfectly balanced arc , I was Paul Simon's Boxer winking at the women in diaphanous tight dresses and their come-ons on Seventh Avenue, I was the rifle shot that killed an antelope in a Hemingway short story.

I, for that briefest of moments, was everything I wanted to be and could be.

And then there was a fierce gust of head wind, that slammed into me from nowhere and time froze as I was stopped dead in my tracks. One moment speeding down in a visceral day dream, and the next suspended in perfect equilibrium, all the energy pumped into the pedal, emasculated without malice, by the gust micromanaging my inertia to a standstill.

As the gust swept by chuckling, I put my foot down more in shock than anything and the thin film of sweat evaporating on my cooling forehead being the only sensation I registered.

I think I must have laughed at it all. There was no one around to confirm. But I can I imagine I did. 

The rest of the journey is possibly inconsequential to what will be my memories of the trail. Numbers like 5400m at the highest point may probably tell a story. Bragging rights for bar stool conversations.

When at the end like they say your life flashes before you, in what I'd like to believe will be a set of photographs set to the comforting whirr of a projector beaming pictures on the favorite wall of your childhood home, I'd like the operator to really linger for a bit on breathtaking landscape of the moments on the black tarmac, as I have one last chance to chisel out a hitherto unseen detail and then fade to black to a familiar and dear blues riff and ...

For context: In June this year, in the company of three other friends, I cycled from Manali to Leh and since then have been left with the lingering feeling that I may have done the coolest thing I'll ever do and learning to live with that while I plot to ensure that this will not be so.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Of delayed trains and an early breakfast at Denny's

I met Anna Pianzola in the summer of 2004.  Some people would say that this isn't a long time ago. Maybe it isn't. But with time ever slowly accelerating as I enter my 32nd year, the past is receding away faster than ever, like it has been for the past few years, like it will be tomorrow ticking faster than today, everything seems so long ago and worse.. concocted. But I digress.
I met Anna Pianzola with her grey irises symmetrically strewn with black shards of Veneto glass on the last train back from Nikko on an August Saturday night.The Tobu line train to Asakusa at the fringes of the madness that is Tokyo to be precise.
It maybe summer in the plains, but up in highlands of Nikko, fog was rolling in, and the train with dew drops sticking to it's sides like beads of sweat on the back of a particular lissome lady who will remain unnamed , settled with a sigh. People more anxious than usual (the last train has that effect, much like when you decide to marry for reasons other than love) hurried in to catch a seat for the three hour ride back into the Tokyo night.
I found a seat by the doorway of the last carriage( I've managed to find a seat in the last carriage of most trains in Japan). Just before the train was scheduled to depart, two women came running into the platform with their day packs slowing them considerably. One woman was much taller than the other. The shorter one was Anna. They got in as the station master politely apologized into his tinny Tannoy for any inconvenience caused by the slippery stairways and that the doors would shut for a departure in the next minute.
As the train departed, a drizzle ,which soon turned into a sleety downpour with raindrops splattering the panes and them slowly sliding away backwards like helpless panicking lovers,  clouded the countryside.
We only got as far as a few kilometers past Shimo-Imaichi when the train slowed down and eventually squealed to a full stop. Shortly a tremolo voice (very apologetically) announced that, there had been a landslide and the tracks needed clearing. A crew was on the job and he'd report the progress periodically. Or that was what I thought he announced (my Japanese was laughable then, it is merely bad now).
An old, heavily made up lady donning a green surgical mask with her picnic bag and her older mother in a wheel chair stood leaning against a pillar next to Anna with a deep frown on her forehead. I walked up to her and offered my seat. She refused at first, but was happy to take up on my offer once I insisted. Her mother, in the wheelchair, insisted I take a lion's share of the almonds she had in a pouch.
Fair bargain. But more importantly, there I stood next to Anna (feeling like a creep, for this subterfuge, but in my defence I probably would have given up my seat even if it wasn't for Anna) and for the first time studied her from close quarters. There were drops of the rain nestling in little pockets in her tightly pleated brown hair. Probably twenty and Italian (Guidebook one carries gives away a fair bit. Hers was a 2003 Japan Rough Guide in Italian). Freshly waxed arms, clear skin and those eyes . Her companion was Nordic and what humour writers would call big boned.  But this isnt about her. It's about Anna.
"How long do you think we'll be here?", Anna asked her big boned friend.
"Couldn't for the life of me figure what the guy announced", she shrugged in reply.
"There has been a .land..landslide", I stammered and weakly interjected.( Opening lines have never been my forte and sadly never will be)
"Oh, that sounds bad", she said with the searching look of a person who'd only just seen the person who'd spoken to them.
(Over the years since, I've known many women who have perfected this to an art form, and I've learnt to be a little less disappointed with being an invisible presence to pretty women).
"Did he say by how much we are delayed? We have a train to catch from Asakusa", she continued.
"He said, help was on the way. So I guess, we shouldn't be here for too long."
"That's good to hear.", she said, as that constant wingman of mine, uncomfortable silence, slid in between us.
"You travelling in Japan", she asked after a while.
"No, I am here on business for a few months", I said, hopefully,with a not too audible sigh of relief.
"You are Indian, aren't you?", she continued.
" Yes. Been here a couple of months now. And you? I guess you are Italian"
" Yes. I am. And my friend is Swedish. We met in Tokyo and are travelling together. I just finished a semester at med school in Torino."
"A doctor then."
"Not quite yet. I am planning to move to the US on an exchange program, so I guessed I could use a holiday before that"
I'll spare you the details of the small talk, though sometimes small talk is all we have. We were there for the rest of the night after the worsening weather made clearing the debris, the driver announced, increasingly dangerous. The lady in the wheelchair had run of almonds. She was probably wishing she hadn't been as generous as she was with her gratitude (But at some point in all our lives, who isn't)
Anna and me talked through the night as her Swedish friend pretended to be consumed by a deep dreamless sleep. We talked of the war, volcanoes, sakura, sake, home and for some reason soaplands and Mishima(who I'd just discovered)  .
I most admired her for her fortitude in the face of the certain to be missed prebooked train connection. ( One doesn't just miss a train, in Japan, it can mean having to skip one's next vacation altogether). Admiration is an admirable and a very convenient projection of many unarticulated emotions.
At twenty two(I'd like to think I was younger , but sadly not) ,many a confused Indian adult of my era didn't understand, or didn't want to , or was too squeamish to consider consequences that intimate conversations in a warm last carriage of the last train could spawn.
Articulating desire tastefully, burdened by nonsensical, though hopelessly binding self imposed moral codes , is still a challenge. Then, one just didn't try.
So there we were at three in the dead of the night, meandering around long conversations without dead ends, me not being certain where it would take me(or us?).
Eventually at four , the train started to move and this made me anxious. I could sense the same in her, but I can be easily accused of seeing things that aren't if you knew me well enough.
Nothing breaks a spell like daylight. Dawn heightens the spell, only for the daylight to bring it crashing down with the attendant clarity and reminder of things to do like breakfasts to be had, clothes to be laundered, trains to be caught.
We reached Asakusa around five in the morning.  She had to go on to Ueno where she'd left her bags in a cloak room and then head to Kyoto.
On the platform, we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers and made promises to meet the next weekend at Asakusa for the annual fireworks which she said she was looking forward to.
We never met again. Promises made on railway platforms are rarely kept, very unlike what happened in a certain Linklater movie.
A couple of years later, out of the bleeding blue, she wrote to me asking how I was and asked me to visit Turin for the winter Olympics. This was the first I'd heard from her since we last saw each other. At twenty four, I knew a dead end when I saw one. I never replied.
That morning after Anna and her big boned friend left for Ueno by taxi, I decided to take a long walk through the familiar bylanes of Asakusa, now devoid of the usual throngs. I went to the shrine passing under the gate of thunder, Kaminarimon, and made a wish at the offering box and then went looking for a Denny's because pancakes drowning in maple syrup are the answers to most of the world's problems(not that I had any problems I intended to solve with their aid this early in the morning)
And, oh, my wish was answered a few years later, so maybe there's something there.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Inventory for a monsoon fortnight

Sandpaper - backpack backpouch
Tubes 6
Spoke spanner
Swiss knife
3 allenkeys
Puncture kit
Chain links
btwin below seat pouch
Rolson hammer
Cycle pump big
2 brake cables
5 gear cables
Sleeping bag
Bottle cage
brake shoe
Gel seat cover
Red cycling gloves
Sleeping neck pillow
Fleece gloves
Fleece scarf
Camping hat
Cycling shorts 2
Wilson pants
Disposable gloves
Rubber bands
Cleaning toothbrush
Miners lamp
6 tshirts Green screwdriver.
Jute turtleneck
Normal Shorts 2
Boxer 1
Underchunders 9
yomiuri giants towel
safety pins tablets
Cable ties
multi tool
Duct tape
insulation tape
Ashwin's Ayupatthichurna
Contact lens
Spare glasses
Columbia rain jacket.
Marquez and Updike
55 250 Tele
Tamron wide
2 flash cards
3 decks Playing cards

Shared from Google Keep

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Prelude to an unexpected death in a mango orchard.

Sitting underneath a mango tree,
Eyes closed, counting stars in daylight.
Shafts of sunshine. Shimmering komorebi.
Distant sounds of a Ray Manzerak Moog solo,
Discordant night music around what might be noon.
The stars continue to fall from the sky, all make believe.
Shattering on the ground ,
Lying in glittering shards, bottles thrown by drunk Gods.
Her diaphanous muslin heart,
The osmotic quality of her treacherous love.
Permeating reality, obscuring imagination.
Heaving hurting lungfuls of humid tear soaked air.
Opening her eyes , eyelashes bunched,
she turned another page of her heavily marked Bell Jar.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

As we dance to the masochism tango

Sliding down a rainbow, splashing into giant vats of cold liquid gold, we scream a happy breathless scream. We then run, bathed in gold into the cornfields, the fresh, dewy, ripe cobs whipping against our faces, us dripping gold. We swiftly ford an ankle deep stream running alongside two big friendly retrievers. One was named Fickle and the other Fuckface. No one told us that.We just knew. Fickle and Fuckface panted white wisps of heavy breath into early spring morning air. They chanced upon a fat rabbit and they broke off and chased it into the shrubs and all that remained of their presence were the gently settling stalks of dandelion that had been disturbed when they burst through the underbrush.
We ran along the stream until we came upon a sunny grassy knoll. We scrambled up and sat down to catch our breath, the fast drying gold now flaking finely on our faces and forearms. She prised out the gold dust under her fingernails with a little sharp twig. The sun shone warmer as she placed her palm across the back of my neck, flicking the back of my ear lobe gently with her thumb. We drank from the stream with cupped hands and washed all the gold off our faces, the gold forming a shimmering pool on the gently undulating surface.
She wanted to swim. I said I can't. She smiled and said she knew a spell which would help me. I said I didn't believe in spells. Her high timbre laugh rang out and she said that for a guy who'd just slid down a rainbow, I was strangely obtuse. I admitted she was right and asked her to teach me the magic words. She said she didn't want to swim anymore. This suited me just fine and I slept with my back against an oak tree, her hair sprawled on my lap. I dreamed of an ending to this dream. I wanted to ask her how it would all end. I didn't. It would only make her sad. I dreamed a foggy vale and Fickle and Fuckface, next to each other, silent and eager. I didn't see me. I didn't see her. I knew she'd left for a place called dawn where past, present and future are tangible and encumbered by reality.

The sun warmed my eyelids. The pressure cooker whistled softly and constantly. TV sounds. I woke up and as I brushed lazily , I decided I'd been reading too many of em blasted South Americans. Tom Lehrer's Masochism Tango played on the radio as I scrolled through the messages from her piled up over the night on my mobile phone. She had detailed her nightmares in them. I sighed as I replied that I'd call her in a while.