Jam relieves Jam

My recent trip to India was filled with driver chronicles. I am not going to bore the general public with the story of another driver who drove us in Kulu Manali. But I do have to mention him. We had asked for a car with driver to take us upto Rohtang Pass ( a peak where it was possible to view snow in the Indian Summer) Rohtang Pass is beautiful, but getting there is no relaxing soak in the spa. There are roads upto midway up the mountain. After that, it is blind faith in your car driver.

Driver KM (for Kulu Manali or Killer Man) was lean, bronzed and had a mean cut running across his jowl, that served to accentuate a sinister look.  If you get a driver like ours, the chances of getting killed by his looks was greater than being killed by the lack of roads. Driver KM seemed to have taken strong training from Mafia overlords, Hollywood and Arnold Schwazanegger in the looks-could-kill department. While he claimed to have control over the vehicle, he seemed to be totally lacking in control on his own emotions. In hindsight, it might have been worse if his areas of control had been switched, but we heard from others that they got drivers who knew how to control both the car and their temper. Sad – still, life is a bargain.

Rohtang Pass took a good 3.5 hours from where we stayed in Manali. We left at 7 a.m. The driver opined we were late. “Jam lag jaati hai” he told us. He explained to us with a stern face that traffic jams were common, and frivolously leaving at 7 a.m. does not suit the strict guidelines set by a peak as severe as Rohtang Pass.

Whatever may be his shortcomings in the temper department, I must grant Killer Man that in the envisioning department he did not fail. We started back from Rohtang Pass on the narrow roads, and right enough there was a spot where progress stopped. When yaks carrying people overtake you on the roads, you realise there is a problem.

I “kya-ho-gaya-bhaiya”-ed him (what happened brother?) to find out what happened. I mused on how in India, one embraces everybody as family, and perfect strangers become your elder brother or maternal uncle in a jiffy. Driver KM’s jaws were firm –  he crytpically replied, “Jam lagi hai”. He seemed fond of the phrase.

I was confused, and being the sort of inquisitive bird that I am; I wanted to know what caused the jam. I hoped there wasn’t an accident of any kind. Driver KM was swift this time. There was hardly a second’s gap before he took to chastising me about speaking and thinking good thoughts. He said it would make me a better person. I had committed a heinous crime in suggesting there might have been an accident. Now, if there was an accident, it would be entirely my fault. I found the insinuations a bit unfair, but the only other option I had of getting back to my hotel was para-gliding down some steep cliffs and I wasn’t in the mood. So, I kept quiet and simmered in the background.

Conversation lulled for a while after this. I couldn’t bear it any longer and decided to investigate. It turns out that two large lorries with drivers having roughly the same ego as the size of their vehicles were attempting to cross each other on a road that would gladly accomodate two bicycles and a duck, but no more. So, the blokes sat staring at each other for an hour. Neither would back down, and neither would move. Vehicles snaked up for miles on either side, while these two egotists carried on their fun who-doesn’t-blink-first game.

I sighed good humoredly. I had to think happy thoughts remember? So, I sat and thought of Kissan Jam and all my favorite flavors. I like pine-apple and mixed fruit, don’t you?


After a jolly hour of this game, an officious looking person came and hustled everybody to get moving. He brandished his impressive moustache – a must when it comes to mediating between lorry drivers in India, and got the traffic moving without making either of them think like they were sacrificing in any way.
What can I say? My sweet thoughts relieved the jam. I didn’t mention it to Killer Man – some things are best left unsaid.
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The White Tiger Stops at Gray – Part 2

I now know what the writers of television soap operas must be going through. I mean, they stop at a crucial point, only to come back the next day to find another point at which to stop. Pretty hard task. I am going to do the square thing and proceed with the story after recapping the driver episode with you all, instead of this deplorable practice that SUN TV serial writers have of replaying the last 5 minutes and then going in for a break soon after.

So far, we have a driver who is bordering on giving me a nervous breakdown and my intestines are on the verge of collapsing under the strain of an upset stomach and  butterflies. Also to note that I am going back with my young daughter alone in the car for a good hour and a half to the airport, and I had begged the husband to keep calling me every few minutes.

I don’t know what I expected the calls to do – inform the police to strap up their hound dogs on the highway if I don’t pick up? Anyway, before going, I dutifully emptied the contents of the stomach lining again and hoped that while the lining grew back, there would not be much else to throw out and resolved that I will not stop en-route for any such requirements. I told the daughter in as much subtlety as possible to tone the conversation down. You see I’ve got to be careful while telling her this. Next thing I know, she’ll be asking the driver – “Driver Uncle, are you dangerous?” and we all know that not-dangerous-driver-uncles can turn dangerous when asked that question.

I don’t remember if there was a Greek hero who was honoured for having unending reserves of energy. It sounds like the kind of hero that Greek mythology would have liked. Anyway if there was someone like that, this driver would have been his avatar. Mere things like driving and being up and about the whole day did not seem to tire him. Catch me at the end of a work day, and you will see the drooping sunflower about to close up and leave for the day, not the bright sunflower beaming up at the sun. Not him however. He kept the charade up and blabbed to me about his life story again. I was quieter than usual, but simple things like that did not deter him.

I must mention that it started raining now. I peered out of the car, and the countryside was steadily darkening and the rain started a patter. Spooky Agatha Christie novels competed with Sherlock Holmes (The hound of the baskervilles I think is the one where the pouring rain forms the backdrop) and the Arvind Adigas of the World I cursed almost loudly.

The husband’s calls were coming in and so far I was asking the driver for location information and conveying them religiously to the better half. Given that each time he called, he was eating or drinking something, I am not sure how much of what I was saying was being absorbed. Once he said he was having tea, and then he was tucking into soft idlis, and then another time he was having coffee, and buying chips. Remember my bill of health in the gastronomic department? Empty – not a thing to eat or drink since a miserable black-tea-with-lemon in the morning and linings torn down. And every time the life savior called, he gave me a status update on what he was eating. Men and finesse I tell you.

“I love the rain. It reminds me of what all is possible on Earth.” The poet had commenced.

What did he mean by the promise of what all is possible on Earth? Did he simply mean the evaporation-condensation process or something else. He also added something about the place being really beautiful afterward. I had to agree. I love Earth soon after a rain too. Everything looks so clean and fresh.

We went on this way for a while – the poet talking, me barely nodding, daughter asking weird questions about the moon. I don’t know how long this happy state of affairs lasted before he told me his mother had died when he was three days old. He had been brought up by his mother’s sister. I felt a pang of sympathy for him.

“But I ran away from my aunt’s house when I was thirteen. You see my aunt’s daughters had attended their age and I felt awkward to live with them after that. It is embarrassing when…”

I almost gagged. I must take a minute here to bash this utterly nonsensical custom that is prevalent in South India with this “attended age” gig. Which other country in the WORLD makes such a huge deal of a natural biological process? I mean do we really need a band to come and perform when a girl attains puberty?  Do villages really need to gather round for food when this happens?

South Indians as a creed may not know how to enjoy their functions, but they certainly want their share of rituals and functions. They clammer for engagements and weddings and births and naming ceremonies and first birthdays. You see how this came to be? After the first birthday bash, there aren’t any rituals right up to the time the girl gets married – can be a long wait.  What about the male equivalent? Why not celebrate when his voice cracks or the first stubs of facial hair appear on his face? Huh?

Back to the point, this statement clearly had me on edge. I had no intentions of talking about the driver’s aunt’s daughter’s puberty. But what was I to do? There was a checkpoint of some sort coming up and he was slowing down for that. I wracked my brain a bit, and thought hard.

I was just pondering on this spot of a problem when I hit the perfect solution. Remember my telling you early in Part 1 that our family were a talkative bunch, and we were left trying to butt into the driver’s stream of talk for a few minutes of airtime? How does that happen? Simple – the fiend beat us to it at our own game.

So now I think, what tools do I have at my disposal to beat him at his own game? There are two occupants apart from me in the car. Though I can be impressive when I want to, and talk like the dickens, currently I was not interested in saying anything more than “Oomph” and “ah”, both unimpressive as conversation replacements you’ll agree. But I did have my daughter. If you tap her with the right sort of questions, she can perform to meet the expectations set by her genes. So, before the driver recovered from the checkpost, I asked her to narrate the Ariel story for (hold your breath) Driver uncle in great detail. I could have asked for any princess story and been safe. She went on about Ariel and Samuel or Samantha and Flooper and Ursula the sea witch for such a blasted long time.

You see what I’d done there? Driver Uncle was allowed to ask questions, but only about the story she narrated. So, filled up to his neck he may have been with Gujarat and fate and cousins attaining their age, he was stuck with a mermaid and a sea witch. Personally, I love Ursula the sea witch. Just her description and moral epilogues ran for a good 6 minutes.

We had reached an intersection of sorts – to the right seemed to be the first glittering lights of the airport, and to the left was a desolate road with nothing. There was no traffic anywhere nearby. The car slowed to a near stop: as if deciding and I gulped.

“Being evil is very bad. When you are evil, you will get destroyed right?” said my daughter summing up Ursula the sea witch’s fate

“Silence.

“Yes”. Pause.  “Will you be a good girl on the flight?” asked the driver.

The White Tiger Stops at Gray – Part 1

When Arvind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ won the Booker, I promptly read the book. White Tiger is about a driver who works for a rich Indian family,  and turns gruesome as he kills his US-returned employer for gain.

People have heard of the fact that I travel, and that I read when I travel. Well, this should have meant that I was slicing the encyclopedia and chewing the glossary as paan – information oozing out of very pore in short. On the contrary, I confess I have done little to improve my intellect with this spot of commute. I have dedicated myself to the lighter works of fiction that have worked to improve my imagination. Whether any of this imagination has been useful in any way constructively, I am yet to find out, but it has had a terrible effect upon my nerves.

Take the case of the Gray Tiger.

During my recent trip to India, we had hired a car for the day with a driver. The parents-in-law accompanied us too, and the car was generally full. This is when a character sketch of the driver is required information for the narrative to proceed. The driver was as talkative a bat as ever visited the driver-dom. The man had an opinion to offer on any topic and monopolized the conversation on any matter. I am pretty sure the man has never been inside a plane, but he could ramble on the comforts of his car over a plane for all of 12 minutes and 52 seconds. For a man to get this much air-time in our family is stupendous. We, as a family, are well-known for our loquacity.
We were deep in Tamil Nadu, and another point to note with this driver was the fact that he refused to talk in Tamil, or listen to Tamil songs. He talked fluently in English and seemed proud of having an audience. Being the kind of man who doesn’t waste an audience no matter how large, he also told us that, ‘I don’t ever listen to Tamil songs. If you want, I have old ghazals or this CD’.
I should mention here too, that on this particular day, my intestines were dancing the Wonka. I had steadily visited the toilets in every conceivable location, and was withering like a plucked flower in a vase without water by the minute. One can readily understand why I was not quite interested in knowing why the man did not like Tamil songs. If he did not like Tamil songs, that was his taste, I told myself. But the man insisted on using the cue to take the topic of conversation onto why he did not like Tamil. He told us he had travelled extensively in Gujarat, and also that he did not like the sugar element in Gujarati food. The mention of food was making me twist in agony again, and added to this was the question: why should one not like Tamil songs if one has travelled in Gujarat?

So, there we are, just watching the scenery flit by, and listening to this man ramble on in the background, when he starts to open up his life story.
“One can call it destiny or the dance of fate, but I had to quit the employ of the Sait family.” he said dramatically. He was plainly tempting us into just muttering a syllable of interest, upon which he would pounce like a bird of prey. Had I been Arvind Adiga without an upset stomach, I might have evinced interest, but as such the only things that held my interest were toilets with water in them. Looks like the family felt the same way too (not with regards to toilets, but the story). Usually we are all agog for a story, this time everybody looked resolutely at their footwear and wondered why I’d forgotten to pack the moisturizer (at least that is what I remember thinking before my stomach got affronted and drew attention back to itself). So the maestro was left high and dry and sullenly manned the car for sometime.

The guy was chatting with considerable interest with my daughter, who seemed quite oblivious to the silent stares I was boring into the back of her head, so naturally the mo.-in.law assumed he had children or at least liked them. The mother-in-law took it upon herself to steer the conv. towards more neutral topics and asked the fellow if he had family. The man came up with utter drivel as an answer to this question, something about matrimony being a jail term or unending agony or some such thing. I forgot what exactly it was, but I remember laughing out loud. It was all in very flowery language and clearly calculated to impress. Yes – I got it now.

It was a rather bad similie about marriage being like quick sand in the desert, when one is mirthlessly pulled in, as against quick sands in the forest where the agile can latch themselves onto hanging tree branches, and save themselves. Apparently, trees near quick sand patches do that. I did not know that, it was a revelation to me.

He then went for the “Oh, I am a single man – have been alone for the past few decades” effect. After which he sighed – a hollow sigh that seemed to emanate from his bowels.

If I hadn’t just seen him function as a car driver, I would have thought he was the star student at the Drama Academy.

I don’t know about you, but watching everybody else eat a “full meals” at a wonderful restaurant, while I drank black tea and lemon combined with this dose from the driver was making me uneasy. Why was this man saying he was alone and dancing with fate and tempting destiny by jumping into quicksand or whatever drivel he was going on about?

We reached our spot of interest as it were, and the husband and I decided to take a small stroll through an adjoining grove. You know, a spot of a romantic walk pondering deep philosophical questions. The jaundiced eye was keeping the lookout for quicksand holes too, so we could decipher for ourselves whether if one of us were to fall in, would the other haul us out. The quiet birdsong kept us company for all of a minute, and I addressed the dearest – “You know what?”

I can’t remember the last time I got a nastier jar in my life.
“Yes madam? Please tell me..”

What the…..hell – whose hand was I holding onto? The husband’s all right. Have I started hallucinating? Oh god – what now? My head did a 180 degree turn to find the ingratiating chap right behind us. It is a wonder he didn’t bump into us when I stopped. I mean – really!

Events turned out such that, I had to take the car back with the daughter in the evening alone for an hour and a half after dropping the husband and parents off, through a rural countryside. I don’t think I can find a person who cursed Arvind Adiga as wholely as I did for writing the book and myself for reading it. Unease had turned to plain nervous, and I am fooling the butterflies if I were to tell them they weren’t keeping me company that day.

I held onto the husband’s hand and asked him to call me every 15 minutes, and left gulping loudly.

— Stay Tuned for Part 2.

Honeymooning in the Hills

I’d been on a great trip like the voyagers of yester years and swept acrossvarious countries in the Summer. Well, I’d only been gone three weeks, and I had only gone to Asia. But the journey still felt like an epic one, and what better place to log it than my old blog? Now, I am going to go for the classic NRI effect and make a statement intended to annoy the masses: I had clean forgotten how hot the Indian summers could get. Folks who live there claim it has already cooled down because of the monsoons. But I thought it was still hot, very hot. We did our best to escape the heat and retreated to Kulu Manali.

Kulu Manali, I learned was the latest vacation hot spot. One evening, under the pretense of reading a book in the garden, I silently drank in the antics of a newly married couple playing basketball in the garden, and almost split myself sideways, while attempting to keep a straight face. The poor fishes were taping themselves playing, with witty comments about each other peppered with love dialogues. I could have told them that 5 years from now, they would squirm faster than a bunch of earthworms watching it, but that would have been plain mean of me. So, I did the next best thing and watched them.

I must say those honeymooners brought on a flood of memories. Before you recoil in horror, let me assure my readers that I am not here to tell you about the time my dearest and I recorded ourselves on our honeymoon. I do not wish to impose ……

I have probably remarked on this blog that I was brought up in the picturesque Nilgiris in South India. Ooty, the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’, was home to the southern half of the honeymooning crowd, and our home was often the abode for honeymooners who were the third related cousins to the aunt who was just two hops away from the distant maternal uncle (who incidentally also knew my paternal grand-uncle’s maama through adoption, did you know?) There have been times when folks would arrive on our doorstep with a letter of introduction from someone like this, and we would be entertaining them for their honeymoon. Or rather vice-versa. The children of the house were quite adept at studying the smitten behavior from the long-lasting, and had our own jokes running in the background. What I did not appreciate was the fact that the guests being honeymooners needed a separate room, and mine was offered up without the slightest word of consent from me. Indian hospitality I tell you – tut tut.

Some of them were decent guests and chatted up with us without having to touch each other every 5 seconds to make sure it wasn’t a dream. I am sorry to say this glowing statement of conduct did not quite pass for a few of them. What appalled me was the fact that these visitors would then go on to ask us to accompany us to show them around Ooty. Thank Heavens my father did not usually consent to these requests, but the fact that they would ask was enough to give me the jitters. I mean, what do they expect a school going girl to do with them while they walked arm in arm down a quaint lane in Ooty? The problem, I realise now, was the fact that we as a nation try to get the maximum bang for the buck. So, while honeymooning and linking arm in leg or arm as the case maybe, we should also drink in the Botanical Gardens – Botany classes, and the HPF (Hindustan Photo Films Factory – Engineering) and Marine Sciences in the dying Ooty Lake.

There was one moment when a pair of them came back eating out of one ice-cream. Caused quite a scandal in the 80’s I tell you.

THUMP!

A loud thump woke me from my reveries. Apparently, the female half of the couple had inadvertently basketed the ball from within 5 meters of the hoop, and the thump was a loud congratulatory smack, which the male half was promptly recording for future use. I looked up. The couple smiled and asked if I could take a picture of them. I smiled and obliged. They positioned themselves next to a largish rose plant and smiled at the flowers together while I clicked.

Honeymooning in the Hills is still in, and love is in the air.