Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Traveling Thoughts 2

Continued from Traveling Thoughts 1

We entered the bar. From outside it gave a very grim look. As if the place was engulfed with a lot of the sadness. The brightly glowing signboard did not make it less gloomy. There were similarly, similar to jheechin, dressed girls sitting outside. All equally young. All equally good looking. Inside it was dark. A strange kind of dark, I imagined. A small collection of very old and rarely used drinks was what gave that place a semblance to a bar. A very dusty looking refrigerator. Three four stools next to the bar table. In the far corner two small sofas which could be curtained of to make a small private section, if required, as I found out later. The place was not happy. It was a place where one could pretend to be happy but it was a grim, dull, loud and empty place. A place from where you get out with a relief, like being released from a dark cell of a prison.

So there I was, without the intentions of ever getting there. It was a strange walk. On the way there were two or three beggars asking for money. I ignored them, walked at a distance the moment I saw the begging bowl extended. The money which I paid for the drinks in the bar would have been better spent somewhere else. But it was an evening for fun not to find the good in me and the world. There was a game to be played. I found myself in the middle of three girls. Jheechin had removed the jacket she was wearing and was now clad in the bare minimum clothes. Tattoo on her lower back, a Scorpio trying to find its way down, was shining even in the relative dark. I found out as the game went on that the business model of the bar was manifold. They were pros so that was one source of income. Another thing was to earn by selling as many drinks as possible. Not as many as the customer wants to drink but as many as the customer can be made to pay for. Jheechin stood next to the stool I was sitting and did a little dance jig to some Chinese song being played. Another girl climbed on the stool behind and gave my shoulder a rub. I smiled and shifted myself slightly away. Since I was in a bar I was meant to have a drink, though jheechin on her way to bar has indicated her special likeness of me and of many of her ideas for the night and drinks were not a part of those plans. Not forgetting I was in China I bargained over the price of beer. It was a bit of overkill in bargain but it saved me five Yuan a drink.

It was the first move of many jheechin would make. She jumped onto my lap and with a wicked smile said, “Buy the girl drinks”. I gave her a while before pushing her back to her dance floor. “I only buy for her” I said pointing at jheechin and talking to bartender. There were lot of protests from all and after showing the contents of my wallet when the bartender told me the price of the drink she was already preparing herself to serve to all and after whatever calculation she did in her head and after she had offered me a 10 Yuan discount on her initial price I ended up buying four drinks, three for the girls and one for the bartender who was also a girl by the way. That left me with the money to buy two more drinks at the going rate. Those went to jheechin as the game was played.

The meeting with client has just finished. There were still nearly four hours before the flight back to Beijing and after taking leave from my colleague KC (was it Khoung Chang I wont be able to tell but I am glad most people in SLB use acronyms for there names here) I headed towards Bombay. I had seen it during my previous night’s walk. This is an official trip to China. I was to go offshore for work. I could not. Reason: not able to get required Chinese documents to go offshore on time. So I whiled away few days in Tanggu office while the other guys did the job hoping if they needed any help I can support on phone. The phone call never came. I was glad it didn’t. Only I know I suck at this part of my job, dealing with a crappy software and I have a big project due in few months on the same. How I will ever finish that only God knows? Even though there were many problems the client was a bit nasty and did not give much time to the guys to call back and discuss the situation. Eventually the manager here decided to make some use of me and sent me to Shekou to a client meeting which he himself was supposed to attend. It went well, I guess, and with a promise to the client that we, SLB, will look at the problem and get back to them with some solution I took my leave.

The first sip of the masala tea was like a sip of heaven. It has been more than a week since I had any tea and this cup promised to be a good one. Chinese tea isn’t what I can enjoy. If the cup of tea was anything to go by Bombay promised to be a good restaurant though I kept my fingers crossed. It was early for the usual lunch crowd, if there was any. I was the only customer and the manager spoke English so it did not take me long to start a conversation. I praised the tea though mentioned that in China it is very good but in India it will be just OK and gave her few tips to make the tea even better. On enquiring I found out that the chefs were Chinese. The manager tells me that these chefs have been taught by Indian chefs for over four years and because of Olympics the two of them could not renew their visas while in China and hence are in India right now sorting out their paperwork.

The interior of Bombay tries to give a feel of an Indian restaurant. The jhoomers on roof, the very Rajasthani style paintings on the walls, the brass glass on every table carrying napkins in place of lassi, and the menu card which promises everything you have been hungry for over a week. Trying to be a vegetarian in a place like China is tough but I think even Indian non-vegetarians are no better here. It is just not the way an Indian will eat his/her food or so I think. The music was not to my liking and the manager gets that sorted out. Chinese singers disappear and Dard-e-disco blares out of the speakers and dancing to the tunes, on the TV screen, is all muscles and six pack abs Shah Rukh. According to the manager he is very famous around here and also, what is the name of that girl, soooo bherrrryyyy buutifooool, she is trying to pluck the name out of her memory. She is gesturing at her eyes and making a big circle around her face with her hands. “Aishwarya Rai”, I help her. Yes, she is very very beautiful according to her. I tell her most of the Indians agree with her and none more than Abhishek Bachhan these days though this last bit I thought about now. Dard-e-disco is followed by ‘nagara baja’ and after few new numbers which I can’t associate with any of the movies I have seen, Aamir Khan makes an appearance with Subhan Allah. I am enjoying it much more than I have enjoyed Hindi music in any of the restaurants in India. Subhan Allah.

There comes the papad with hari chutni. I order veg-biryani. The manager brings another cup of tea. “This is free”. She seems to be in a good mood. When you are happy the others around and the world around attempt to make it better, sometimes. There is good around if we just not go looking for it. The biryani turns out to be pretty good. I finish it to the last grain of rice. Laze around for a while, make some idle conversation with the manager and after talking for a few minutes with an Indian family which has just walked into the restaurant, who invite me to join but which somehow I decline, and walk out to find the skies a little cloudy and a strong wind blowing.

During the build-up to Olympics I happened to watch many debates on Australian TV about Olympics being held in Beijing. There were many issues around at that time. The bigger issues are still there and the people who were suffering then are still suffering, whatever was wrong then is still wrong, but the media has moved on as the Olympics are part of a glorious chapter of history now. But during those discussions a point would always be raised about pollution in China and Beijing’s promise of delivering a green Olympics. There were people and few athletes reporting from Beijing that it is a little tough out there for athletes because of pollution. I always thought that must be just the kind of news reporting we have these days and it cannot be that bad.

Traveling in a car across various cities of China proved that those reporters were not making false claims. At certain times it got so bad on roads that I found it hard to breathe. A sense of suffocation, a feeling of your lungs revolting and a very strong smell of hydrocarbons. Those in favor of Beijing 2008 would say that China has made a big improvement in the years since being awarded the Olympics. I wonder what it was like before. The cities in China, especially Beijing, have been made green as I observed traveling around. But most of the trees around the cities though standing green were standing with supporting structures, telling the world that a big effort has been made and forests have been uprooted and re-rooted in the cities. The number of people who use bicycles in China is amazingly large. There are special lanes around the roads for cycle users. But for these cycle users I would have choked, I wonder.

There is a Manto story about a guy who used to listen to the sounds of the night. He lived in a part of town where the houses were very dense and roof of one house touched roofs of many other houses. Those were the times when there was no regular electricity supply to his town, Lahore if my memory serves. People used to sleep on the rooftops. And if any family had a young married couple they had the rights to the rooftop. This young man grew up listening to the sounds of the night, squeaks of the charpais, muted sighs and grunts of pleasure, the whispered conversations of the couples. He shared an unknown relation with all on the surrounding rooftops. And then one day he got married. As he stepped on the charpai on his wedding night for the first time he heard his bed squeak. From that moment on he was aware of the sound of his breath, the whispers created by his body movement. The moment he would want to make a move towards his newly wed he would grow still. He knew there were others listening. And he knew certain things are meant to be personnel and not shared across rooftops. This went on for few nights. The story ends with the guy going crazy or running away, I cant remember exactly.

Last night in China my hotel room was no better. Few nights in a room like this would definitely make me crazy. The guy on the room above was all ready to bring his bed crashing down with the roof. The room next to my head had the loudest screaming lady. It was late in the night night and I had to start early the next morning. I tried hard to shut out the sounds with the blanket. There would be a break but either or both sounds would return. I ended up banging on the wall to tell them there were people trying to sleep. There was hardly anything I could have done to the guy on the room above.

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