Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Small Towns

After one of my classes, I was the last person to leave the classroom, so I switched off all the lights and ACs in the room. At least, that’s what I thought I did. What I in fact did was flip some master switch which cut the power supply of the entire institute. Both floors. I emerged from the classroom into Stygian darkness and (I imagine) scores of accusatory glares.

“Umm, was it me?”

Someone went back inside the room, tripped over a few chairs, cursed a bit, and electricity and normalcy were restored.

If I did the same thing at the Calcutta centre, I suppose people would have been somewhat irritated at this exhibition of over-enthusiasm and sheer stupidity. I might have got a few contemptuous looks, and soon enough people would have got back to their business. Not so in Bhubaneswar.

The other teachers and administrative people were more bemused than anything else. For the next fifteen minutes, we discussed nothing else. But what they found most surprising was that I, as a faculty member, thought it was my duty to turn out the lights.

“Are faculty members in Calcutta expected to switch off the lights at the end of a class?” they asked.


Mrunmayee told me that it is scandalous for girls in her town to get up on the front seat of an auto. Earlier she would never dream of doing so, but five years in Calcutta had wiped out the effects of her socialization. Just after college got over and she returned home, she was going somewhere with her mum, and they hailed an auto which had no space in the back. Without thinking, she got up on the front seat, and nearly gave her mum a heart attack.


I have not seen too much of Bhubaneswar, but I’ve seen enough to have a basic idea about the layout of the city and the names of the more important places. I would sometimes play a game with my students just to amuse myself. “Do you stay in Bhubaneswar?” If they answered yes, I’d ask, “Where do you stay? Kalpana? Vani Vihar? Rupali? Near the Railway Station? Acharya Vihar? Rajmahal?”

After four or five tries, I would generally hit upon the right answer. “Yes, I stay near Rupali,” they’d say. Or “Yeah, my place is not far from the station.” But it is possible that out of exasperation some of them randomly said yes to one of my guesses, just to get me to stop.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

And Speaking of Bourdain...

Last August’s issue of Writer’s Block, our college magazine, carried a survey where we asked people (among other things) to furnish a wishlist for our hostel mess menu. The ensuing article had the following controversial section:
Some clamoured for Idli and other unpronounceable South Indian dishes, while one respondent suggested Dalma, which is apparently an Oriya delicacy. However Shekhar Sumit (a.k.a. The Quaker), an authentic Oriya, informs us that Dalma is in fact “worse than brinjal”.
Oriyas of all ages were up in arms at this slight against their regional dish, and the Quaker was widely denounced as a traitor and a disgrace to Oriyahood. Since then, I have nursed a desire to taste Dalma and form my own opinion of it. At Bhubaneswar, I was told that the midday prasad at the temple of Ananta Vasudeva was my best bet if I wanted authentic Dalma. For the nominal price of thirty rupees, look what they served!

And this was just the first helping. The meal included three kinds of sabzi, two kinds of dal, rice, pickle, curd, chutney, payesh, sweets, and of course: the legendary Dalma. Unlimited quantities of everything. The only downside was that I had to eat this spread at high noon, in a temple compound with a stone floor and no cooling system. I was sitting on the floor and bending over the food, and the sweat kept dripping off my nose and making plopmarks in the gravy.

But it was worth it. I can finally say that I have tasted Dalma, and I am in a position to pronounce that it is Not Bad At All. But for the record (I hope you’re reading this Quaker), I also like brinjal.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

When they go to the dentist and say it’s the jamun tree

When I told Mrunmayee I was going to Bhubaneswar, she invited me over to her place. However, I had just one day free for taking in the sights, and in a city crammed with Kalinga architecture, I had no intention of spending that precious day indoors. So I told her I was more interested in sightseeing, and invited her to tag along. As soon as I finished outlining my (admittedly rather hectic) itinerary, she suddenly remembered a dentist’s appointment. “Why don’t you come over after you are done with sightseeing,” she said. I ask you! Is this the famous Indian tradition of hospitality?

Most of my day was spent gawking at ancient temples. At 43 degrees Celsius, to walk barefoot on the superheated stone floors of temple complexes out of architectural and not religious interest takes a special kind of faith.

I had a relatively easier time at the twin hills of Udaygiri and Khandagiri, situated a few kilometres west of Bhubaneswar. The hills are honeycombed with caves carved out by Jain monks in the 2nd century BCE. When I went there, I found to my dismay that the overzealous Archaeological Survey of India had numbered the caves. I hate it when they do this to me. It arouses in me an uncontrollable need to start with Cave 1 and proceed in order, not stopping until I’ve seen every single cave.

The worst instance was at the Kanheri Caves in Maharashtra, where after a 9 km noontime walk through a forest in the height of summer, I reached the hill to find myself confronted with 109 caves, all numbered. These were meditation cells for Buddhist monks, so they were spartan and all rather similar. Still, I had no choice but to clamber all over the hill, visiting every last godforsaken cave. In one secluded cave, I came upon a young couple having sex. The bed-couch-table-kitchen routine must get tedious after a point. I suppose a 3rd century Buddhist cave is the next logical choice.

Udaygiri is also famous for the Hathigumpha inscription: a 2166 year old inscription in the Brahmi script on the brow of a cave, eulogising the Kalinga king Kharavela. There was a plinth with a translation of the inscription, which I liked better than the more commonly-cited translation. It had phrases like “he throws the city of the Musikas into consternation” and “with their coronets rendered meaningless, with their helmets cut in twain”. I like translations that retain the flavour of the period and context.

A monkey once wrote that a lawnmower takes 24 hours to go from Bhubaneswar to Calcutta. Being the canny traveller that I am, I took a train instead, and it took me 7 hours to get back.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Word of Advice

When going out for a spot of exploration in an unfamiliar city, please try to ensure:
a) that you keep track of where your meanderings are taking you; or
b) that you remember the address, or the locality, or at least the frikkin name of the hotel where you are staying; or
c) that you know the address of the office of the company which booked you into the hotel.
If you fail to follow (a), (b) or (c), at least ensure that you are carrying your cell phone.

I’m at an internet cafe somewhere in Bhubaneswar and I can’t find my way back :(

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Two Questions

On Dr. Ambedkar’s birthday, for want of anything better to do, we went for a family outing to Falta, a port and industrial town located about 60 km from Calcutta, near the confluence of the Hooghly and Damodar rivers. The place is of moderate historic interest: it was here that the East India Company set up camp after its defeat at the hands of Siraj-ud-Daulah in 1756. It’s also a good spot for bird-watching.
En route, at two places about 14 km apart, we spotted a doll impaled on an iron spike, and another doll strung up by a noose above a garbage vat. Question one: what is the reason is behind this mindless violence being perpetrated on innocent dolls?

I have a strange soft spot for hotels which are slightly unprofessional. Too much, and it becomes a serious inconvenience: I remember a hotel in Darjeeling where I had to take a bath in cold water at 4 a.m. (two degrees above zero) because the water heater was not working, and another in the Relli valley where we arrived to find that everything was locked, not a single staff member was around, and two families had been booked into the same room. But slightly unprofessional hotels, restaurants and suchlike are rather cute. Hotel Rajhans, where we had lunch, was one such. Look at the menu card.

Chicken lollipop is an hors d’oeuvre made from the middle segments of chicken wings. One of the two bones of the middle segment is removed, and the flesh is pushed to one end of the bone. It is then coated in a spicy batter and deep fried. It is a popular item in Indian Chinese cuisine, served with Sichuan sauce.

‘Chiken lolipup’ and ‘Chiken lalipop’ are presumably misspelt names for the same dish. Question two: why is there a twenty-rupee difference in cost between the two?

As Tommy would say: Yes, I am easily amused.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Canarese Obstinacy

Because I signed up as research assistant on a government task force on Centre-State relations (yes I’ll do anything for money), I recently had to read the bulk of the Constituent Assembly Debates of India. Plowing through 165 days’ worth of debates could have been a drag, but every now and then, funny passages would crop up to relieve the tedium.
Mr. T. Channiah: (Spoke in Canarese)
Mr. H. V. Kamath: Mr. President, the Honourable Member knows English and I suggest that you request him to speak in English.
Mr. T. Channiah: I have got option to talk in any language. I like (continued to speak in Canarese)
Mr. Shankar Dattatraya Deo: Sir, We must at least be told in what language the Honourable Member is speaking.
Mr. President: My information is that he is speaking in Canarese. (Laughter)
Shri Mohanlal Saksena: How do we find out whether he is talking in Canarese or not?
Diwan Chaman Lall: On a point of order, Sir. Are there any arrangements for a translation to be made into some understandable language of the speech that my honourable friend is making?
Mr. President: There is no arrangement for translation. If an Honourable Member chooses to speak in his own language, I cannot prevent him. The other members miss the speech and the speaker himself is not in a position to influence the bulk of the members present here. So the loss is more on the side of the speaker than on the side of the members who do not follow him. I don’t wish to interrupt any member who wishes to speak in his own language.
Mr. T. Channiah: Thank you, Mr. President. (continued to Speak in Canarese)
Mr. M. S. Aney: Sir, on a point of order. Are you in a position to know whether he is speaking relevantly or not?
I could not proceed beyond this point because I was laughing so hard the tears were streaming down my cheeks.
If you’re an outsider, or a certain kind of pessimist, you might read the extract above and form a low opinion of the Members of the Assembly. “What folly to leave the destiny of a nation in the hands of such buffoons,” you might be thinking. But that wasn’t the point of this post.
The point of the post was this: that it is somehow fitting that the Constitution of India – rambunctious, exuberant, fissured, chaotic India – should have been drafted by a bunch of 299 idiosyncratic, garrulous and argumentative people such as this. India has been described as a functioning anarchy; the phrase is a fitting description of the Constituent Assembly Debates too. In the face of disagreements, tomfoolery and obstinate Canarese gentlemen, they somehow managed to come up with a Constitution that has served us reasonably well for six decades.
Going through the speeches, I found a wealth of self-deprecatory wit and good-humoured badinage. At a session five days after independence, the following exchange occurred.
Mr. H. V. Kamath: Mr. President, I submit that the loud speaker system is not behaving as well as it used to till the 15th.
Mr. President: It has caught the infection of being independent. We are going to have it checked up and put right.
A short while later on the same day, the President urged the Members to cut down on rhetoric, formalities and points of order “because the deadline is looming, and there is very little time.”
But time enough to crack a joke on loudspeakers, I thought, and the thought was strangely comforting.
At his closing speech during the final session, Shri T.T. Krishnamachari said:
[T]here have been contradictory criticisms, one cancelling the other, and perhaps if the whole lot of criticisms are put together, it might be that we might feel – the Drafting Committee and the Members of this House might feel – that we have not done a bad job after all.
No, gentlemen, for what it is worth, I can answer you today. You did not do a bad job after all. And it looks like you enjoyed every bit of it.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Just Careless

Just Baked is a bakery retail chain launched by Bisk Farm. Their flagship store at Minto Park has the sign pictured on the left. The building next-door, which housed the original store, has the sign pictured on the right.

Evidently, for the just shifted sign, they tried to mimic the lettering on just baked. Just of course could be copied directly. But shifted is a total eyesore! The ascender-height is different, the ‘d’ has a loop unlike the ‘d’ in ‘baked’, the ascender of the ‘t’ (compare it with the ‘t’ in ‘just’) reaches all the way to the ascender-line, and intersects the cross-stroke right in the middle. Most horrifyingly, the ‘e’ is written in a completely different manner! An ordinary lowercase cursive ‘e’ instead of the epsilon in ‘baked’.

I know lettering can be difficult to reproduce, especially if it was not you who did the original lettering, but you can at least get the simple things right. I hope they are more careful with their cookies and cakes.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The 296-rupee trip

Now that college is over, people have panned out all over the country to return home, start work or pursue higher studies, which means I now have standing invitations to visit and stay in many different cities. Free food and lodging – what more could a traveller ask for? In the soul-stirring words of Toad of Toad Hall,
Here today - in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped - always somebody else’s horizon!

Or in other words, I am in the GAME baby!

My three day trip to Ranchi cost just Rs. 296. To put that in perspective, this is just less than a lunch buffet at Mainland China, and slightly more than the cab fare from my place to the station. What follows is a breakup of the expenses.

Howrah to Ranchi: INR 200
I bought the ticket at Bolepur station, exactly three hours after I first hit upon the idea of going to Ranchi. For some reason they charged me ten rupees more: the return ticket cost Rs. 190, but maybe that’s because it was bought at the station of departure.

Food and beverages: INR 11
I had all my meals at friends’ places. Said friends had fed their parents (possibly exaggerated) legends about my appetite, but prolonged road travel tends to diminish it somewhat, so I was a shadow of my usual self. Instead of being thankful for small mercies, their parents – being parents – constantly complained that I wasn’t eating anything. The eleven rupees were spent on Pepsi.

Transport in and around Ranchi: INR zero
Three of my friends arranged for vehicles for my three days in Ranchi. I usually prefer to take public transport when travelling because it helps me get a better feel of the place, and more importantly because I can never afford the other kind. But everyone I knew in Ranchi steadfastly insisted that there was no public transport available to the places I wanted to visit. I pleaded with them to arrange for a cycle, but they claimed that wasn’t possible either. This I found decidedly suspicious, since they seemed to have no difficulty arranging for cars at a moment’s notice. It was probably all a ploy to keep me in check.

For some reason, houses in this colour are popular in Ranchi

Entry charges: INR 80
We went to see a few dams and a couple of hilltop temples on the first day. (Irrelevant information: Jawaharlal Nehru once said that dams are the temples of modern India.) Dams and temples obviously have no entry charge. I bought tickets for everyone for the rock garden, paid for myself at the zoo, and some more for paddle boating on the lake inside the zoo. This paddle boating somehow holds an irresistible attraction for me. I’ve paid to ride on paddle boats everywhere from Himalayan lakes to artificial ponds; all paddle boats without exception leak slightly and the rudder turns only one way, but I can’t seem to get enough of them.

A spot-billed pelican at Ormanjhi Zoo

Miscellaneous: INR 5
We went to a crocodile farm the day after Sarhul. Some tribals who were beating drums and dancing in the forest stopped our car to tuck a sprig of holy leaves into our windshield wiper, and I gave them five rupees in exchange.

Ranchi to Howrah: INR zero
Aastha’s dad insisted on buying my return ticket. I had an upper berth, which is pretty good, but as the train was leaving Ranchi, I noticed that the corresponding side lower berth was empty. I parked myself on it and prepared to defend it against all comers. In my experience, of all the ways to travel, there is nothing on earth to touch the side lower berth of the sleeper compartment of an Indian train. I was up all night looking out of the window. The wind kept blowing my hair into my eyes. Outside, the night sky was studded with hundreds of stars.