Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Vanishing Act

A friend’s girlfriend gifted him Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Elephant Vanishes’. What was she thinking? Maybe she did not mean to do ‘the act’ at the time. Maybe it was just a ‘good’ book being carefully selected for the guy of the moment. In any case, intentionally or not, planned or not, the vanishing act happened.

Personally, when it comes to ‘judging’ a book, when required to ‘comment’ on a book, I have got a very limited skill set. Qualifying a book as good or bad is hard task for me, providing a literary and critical review is still something that I can only do in my head. Whether the book is worth the time and effort of a person, in simple terms of yes or no, I can say with some certainty. But then again that will be my take on the book and generally the trend has been that there aren’t many takers of my takes (digressing to avoid the unavoidable thought that popped up just now and referring to the Supreme Court verdict – there will always be enough keepers for any ‘keep’ no matter whose ‘keep’, plus what about all the men who are kept? anyways…).

Coming back to books, let’s take, for example, Chetan Bhagat. He made himself ‘someone’ with five points. Infact got more than five points for the effort, which he deserved to an extent. So, I would say the book is worth the time and effort. Now, from there it all goes downhill (not that downhill is a bad direction all the time but for the Holy Ganges and Chetan Bhagat it seems to be the case). ‘One night’ was certainly not worth the night of effort I put. ‘3 mistakes of his life’ was my second mistake. However, the title of the second book seemed prophetic when I read his third mistake ‘2 states’. Did you notice these numbers in the titles of his books? I just did! Something to do with being an engineer? Maybe. In any case, what my ‘opinion’ on my senior’s oeuvre (to use the fancy word) would be – first book worth your time, other three – let them be his mistakes only.

And yet, to emphasise again, this would be my take. Your take, opinion, view, perspective, thoughts, whatever we may call that may be different.

But we are moving away from the vanishing act. Before Chetan takes another para (all my sympathies are with him in regards to the ‘3 Idiots’ fiasco) let me get back. The object here was not to discuss any particular author or a book, it was to look behind the object of gifting a book and the vanishing act that is not foreseen, forethought, foreplanned (if that is a word!), etc. etc.

I know a guy who gifted two books to this girl he saw, went around, was friends with for a while. Let’s just say that it was me. That way we can look at it more closely. It was to be their (our, I should say) first meet and there was quite a build-up to the meeting. Not knowing what to buy (for some reason I was sure that one needed to get a gift) I opted for a safe option - get her a book (it would be a gift as well as some sort of statement that I am into books, if you know what I mean). But picking a book was not easy. It can’t be the ‘Love Story’, too obvious and the poor girl dies as well. It can’t be a thriller – it’s a gift for a girl. It can’t be a classic – too much of propriety involved there. It can’t be Wodehouse- no propriety there. It can’t be ‘Gone with the wind’ or ‘A Suitable Boy’ – come on who gifts someone they want to say they like or love or something of the sorts, over a 1000pages of such small font!! So after racking my brains for a long time I decided that the book has to be one that I have not read. The ones that I have read will always have something against them. So, out of the few books that I could recognize and had not read ‘Love in the time of cholera’ stood out. Haven’t you seen Serendipity? And Garcia was supposedly a ‘good’ writer.

Big Mistake. Never ever gift a book if you haven’t read it. Plus, if you think about it, even in Serendipity the-girl-who-gets-the-guy is not the one who gifts this book to him, it is the-girl-who-does-not-get-the-guy who gifts that book. But we don’t really pay that much thought when the things are going alright. It’s afterwards that we sometimes focus on our blind spots. The last word of book is something that I should have seen. ‘Forever’ is a tough promise to keep.

After spending half an hour on the treadmill thinking about this whole gift-a-book thing I am still not sure what book can make an ideal gift. At least if one is not sure where that particular relation is heading. There are many harmless ‘good’ books around. I know for sure many girls give many a harmless sort of gifts to keep the advances in a check and also not giving the poor fella a firm negative. Maybe guys do something similar as well but I am not sure their minds are that developed yet.

The second gift (book that my friend gifted) was the kind of book that makes for quite a harmless gift. Infact it works as a proper gift even if it is a meeting gift or parting gift. The title was something like “In the midst of a winter”. Story of some young boys playing baseball and there was a lot of snow involved in the story. I have long forgotten the story. But this was a book I had read before. It was a book about keeping faith. Now that is the kind of theme that’s OK. But how we can say that we want a harmless gift at the time, it’s the benefit of hindsight that isn’t such-much benefit after all.

Some library went bankrupt across the seas in some country. They auctioned the books. One container full of the books found its way on a ship bound for India. At the auction in Bombay a bookstore from Pune got the container load and these books were found one day on a Pune roadside. I remember three books that I bought (there may have been more). One of these was “In the midst of a winter”. Where is it now? Somewhere ‘in the midst of a winter’!

I read “Love in the Time of Cholera” long after life had moved on in more than one way. I think The Elephant Vanishes would have been a much suitable gift.

I sit on the top of the hill and look down into the elephant house where they have chained the elephant of hope. Its keeper is present there next to it, reality they call the keeper. As I sit there I see strange happenings that the town will hear about in the morning but not know how it happened. The thing that I will not share with anyone, afraid I won’t be believed. Till of course I find a reason to do so (maybe write a story about it). The elephant of hope is tied with a steel chain to the concrete post (as usual). Reality the keeper brings water for hope, puts some leaves on its side, the last rituals before its time to rest for the day. But as the elephant of hope drinks the water ‘the thing’ starts happening. I was thinking about her for some reason when I am brought out of the trance with what is happening down in the elephant house to hope. As if in a continuation of my thoughts of her, the elephant of hope starts diminishing in size. As hope shrinks the keeper of reality stands there adjusting the leaves as if nothing is out of the ordinary. And then it is done. Only the reality and the chain that had held hope was all that remained.

It was the vanishing act I could tell no one about.

PS: The Elephant Vanishes is a ‘good’ book and worth one’s time (in my opinion).

Saturday, October 23, 2010


An early morning flight more often than not implies a round-about mid-night wake-up alarm. And the company driver was stricter than one would find usually and deposited me at the airport at 2:30 for a 4:30 flight when in this airport a 4:00am check-in would have been well ahead of time. Most likely they fly a single digit number of flights from this airport in a whole day. As was the case I along with two other company employees found myself sitting in departure area with plenty of time to spare. I still had few chapters of David Copperfield on the other side of the bookmark and I was happy to busy myself while the two companions talked about the fishing gear they had purchased and were carrying with them on way to their respective homes.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear the driver exclaim ‘David Copperfield’ as I took the book out of my bag and started reading during one of the trips from office to the hotel. He followed that with “very good tricks, you learning?” At least that sounded like a question to me and not to be found wanting, although I was still in the early stages of the book, and not knowing that this David Copperfield will not be doing any tricks, the kind my driver was talking about, I smiled and just nodded. Another person in the office happened to know the author and commented at David Copperfield being very famous book of Charles Dickens. I was getting a little impressed with the local knowledge of Charles Dickens. Very unexpected for Ashgabat. Maybe it was just that the drivers had never seen a Sardar/Sikh before but they all wanted to make some conversation. Only problem was their limited vocabulary of English and my complete and utter ignorance of any of the languages they could speak. The book in my hands offered a one-two line conversation which kept them happy and which I did not mind. Maybe they all talked about this strange looking guy and also discussed the book as it was strange the way they all talked about it. But then I had it. This third guy made me suspicious that it was not the same David Copperfield they were talking about. “David Copperfield, very famous”. And that’s when I had to take help of the life-saving google and the mystery was solved.

It has been nearly three months since the last line on this article was written. The trip to Dubai seemed to have pushed the Turkmenistan entry really back in the pile of back-log. The article was to talk about “the crazy girl” and to some extent about the wanderlust of Punjabis. Yet, I only managed to get myself to the departure lounge and solve the mystery of David Copperfield. Any-what-how-ever, it is time.

It was a surprisingly cheap flight (USD19.00) from Ashgabat to some town close to Balkanabat. The three-months-delay side-effects. The names have slipped out of the, by nature very erratic, memory. Still. It was a two hour long flight. Decent planes. Alright service. Apparently a part of the propaganda of us being a very developed country was to allow the poor to fly. They could make a return trip (equivalent of Delhi-Bombay trip) costing equivalent of six kg of apples!!! Apparently, who need good food when the flights are subsidized? Anyways, after the flight the ride to Balkanabat was another two hours and one hardly crosses a living thing the whole way. It may be called a beautiful landscape if it was not so empty or maybe it was somewhat beautiful because it was so empty.

We reached Balkanabat and were soon close to the final destination, Schlumberger base (office, workshop, camp all in one enclosed area). I was in the state of being in and out of sleep, neither here nor there, by the time we reached close to the base. The driver made a sound which I heard as “the crazy girl”. I thought I saw a girl standing on the right side of the road. But, I was not very alert and after a few hundred yards or so we turned right and entered the company base.

It is an excellent place considering the out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere location. The camp (or living) area is very well maintained and a lot of water is wasted every morning and evening to keep the place green (the general landscape lacks the green element as well). Room, canteen, office, workshop, office, more workshop, more canteen, more room, some office again and on and on. Few days went by before I realized that I have not stepped out of the base. And another few days went by before I actually went out. In any case, one evening I did step out of the base.

The base is right next to the railway lines and as one steps out the railway station is visible about a mile straight ahead. It has a very Indian rural railway station look. Only the yellow signboard with station name seemed missing. And then there were cows crossing the lines, just to add to that feeling of recognition. So after giving a fair share of attention to the railway station and the cows and the surroundings in general I walked ahead and turned left. The company base is one side of the city. Rest of the city was now straight ahead and was flanked by a hill on the other side. Zoom to the max and click. One just can’t help being a tourist.

As I walked towards that mountain I passed many heaps of discarded metal, concrete and all sorts. Place looked like a junk yard. There were dogs on the road. Dogs with a GRRRRRR in their throats and sufficiently large bodies to make you look behind left or right every now and then. A guy sitting next to a door waved acknowledgement. I nod and move on. People here in this part have not seen many sardars. Their reactions vary from normal to highly abnormal. Girls giggle, sometime even laugh, boys try to keep a straight face but find it difficult and can’t help nudging their friends to catch a look of the specimen. Children start pointing at the funny fellow. The best or rather the worst has been a little boy of seven or eight turning back, finding a very different face in front of him, shrieked and ran to his mother. I try to keep a straight face through all but mostly I can’t help smiling, though many times this annoys me as well.

As I walked I realized that on the left side of the road, some distance ahead, there stood a girl. Slim, average height, long hair and with a very long chain in her hands which she was swinging around in circles. Coming nearer one could see that she was talking and being alone it meant she must be talking to herself. ‘The crazy girl’ I suddenly remembered. I tried not to look/stare in her direction and kept walking straight ahead. At the first round about I looked in all directions, found the roads to be too long to be conquered, and turned back. As I turned back I noticed the girl again. She had few dogs around her. Remembering the GRRRR I was a little apprehensive for the girl. But she seemed not to mind the dogs. They all looked quite peaceful near her. A little puppy was limping towards her. She (for some reason) took a break from the chain swinging and saw the puppy limp towards her. She walked forward and picked the puppy and went and sat on the roadside. After a minute or so, she let the puppy go, got up walked back to her place and started talking to herself and swinging the chain. I kept moving straight ahead and passed her. As I crossed the group of dogs I realized that little one that was limping was not limping anymore.

I came out of the base in the evenings once or twice again and the girl was there. From a distance I could see that her company of dogs was always around. On the day I left for Ashgabat we left early in the morning. She was not there. The dogs were all sitting here and there sleeping, tails tucked in, drooling tongues, GRRRR in their throats.

And after few days, an early morning I found myself sitting in the departure lounge of Ashgabat airport waiting for my flight to Baku reading David Copperfield with two other Schlumberger colleagues on their ways home discussing the fishing gear they had recently bought. It must have been 30 minutes or so since I started reading that I was asked a question in a language I least expected for the place I was at. Generally, they say that Punjabis are found everywhere. I have tested this hypothesis and found that to an extent it was true but not always. For example in Baku in nearly six months the only sardar I have seen is when I look into the mirror. Same was true for Turkmenistan. No sardars here as well (apart from me of course). Hardly any Indians for that matter. Baku, though, does boast of some Indians. In any case hearing, “beta koi pani di botal hai” at Ashgabat airport was a surprise and I looked up from my book and found a sardarji standing next to me. An old man, with hardly any black in the beard, wearing a kurta pyjama and a distant look in eyes. He was asking for a water bottle, an empty one to be precise. It was early morning and it was his time for the bowel movements and in his world they need water afterwards, toilet papers don’t suffice. It was quite a request.

In ‘Tales from Ferozeshah Bagh’, Rohinton Mistry, tells a tale of an Indian who goes to Canada. This particular Indian finds it hard to “take a dump” on the western style commodes. He can only do it squatting. This leads to a lot of embarrassing situations and in the end he decides that he can’t become westernized as he can’t do it the west way and packs up everything and decides to go back to India. on the flight back (most likely before the flight takes off) he eats something which causes some stomach trouble and the toilet of the airplane didn’t allow him enough space to squat and in the end he, one way or the other, succeeds in doing it the west way. But by that time he is already on his way home.

Why I mention this here? No reason in particular. And I did not think this when the gentleman asked me for the bottle.

I did have a water bottle but it wasn’t empty and I did not want to give him the drinking water I had carried along. Had he been somewhat younger I would have just rubbished the request. But here was an old man, truly Punjabi and desi by nature. Travelling to or from some part of world where he clearly did not belong. What were his reasons? I do not know maybe even he himself don’t know. Maybe, just because it was ‘the thing’ these days. Going to Kaneda, Jurman, Amrika. The wanderlust doesn’t leave space for reasons.

I told him to wait and went to the canteen in the lounge, asked them for an empty bottle and the lady there was kind enough to fish one out of the heap of bottles in rubbish bin. This I passed onto the gentleman and he was on his way to ‘relieve the pressure’ from his life. ‘Bahar jana’. That is what we say back home. For both the things, taking a dump and travelling out of our country.

I looked around and found that the sardarji was not alone. I noticed a group of over twenty Punjabis, men, women, boys, girls, sitting in a corner. Turbans, flowing beards, Punjabi suits, duppatas. To avoid the usual situation of having to make a conversation with my own type I busied myself with the book and did not look left right up or back till my flight was announced.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Five Years

This entry in gone by Dickenson-Austen era may have been titled with use of word vanity or pride or any other near synonym. But I will just let it refer to the very obvious of titles and try to hide (or maybe not) the self indulgence of the entry in the lines instead. I may not have written this entry had it not been for the small email on the group and that got me thinking on doing a slightly larger version of ‘the thing’ and in the process get back to blog world after a reasonably long gap. Anyhow.

So, it’s been five years since I joined the current company I work for/with/at. 17th Oct 2005 (seniority date as they call it). The probability of this event at that time (when I was in prime of my job hopping days-10 months with Tata and six months with EVS) on the likelihood scale was ‘highly unlikely’. But then stranger things have happened. When writing that little email the main two things that I mentioned were the resignation letter around end 2008 (which for various reasons didn’t achieve the goal it was meant to but achieved one or two other ends including stock options (yeah more money), a transfer, etc. etc.) and the experience of writing a resignation letter (having worked on the draft for three months although in the end it ended up as a one liner, no point being all nice and complicated when resigning I thought, after all the hard work on various drafts). That experience came in handy when Shyamala showed me her resignation letter and which I found out did not say what she wanted to. So, re-writing her resignation letter ensured she did get what she wanted (a transfer to India). Apart from that resignation letter mostly it’s been an alright-OK relationship, these five years have been.

But these five years have had many many other highlights and lowlights. Considering the fact that the company and the job was dream job for most of IITians during the days of job hunting I think landing this job was in itself a highlight.

Five years is a long period. This blog started almost with this job. The first entry was written while travelling from Bombay to Kakinada for the first time. And if one thinks about it I did manage to stick around a company long enough to get a business card. Five continents and 14 countries (I have kept a count), countless places (obviously I have not kept a count), and nearly through a second passport (no need to keep a count) means that the tag of the globe trotter has been partly earned (though how much of these places I have been to have I actually seen is a totally different question, a globe-trotter may not essentially be a globe-explorer).

Mind clogs up, it draws a confused blank. When one would think its five years that one has to talk about and there should be enough to write about. People can write novels on an hour’s happenings. But I guess it’s still a long time before I can bring out the happenings of last five years as a memory. It will be ‘finding’ a memory when sufficient time has elapsed. Right now there is just too much of Schlumberger in the last five years and that’s not a very good sign if I sit here on a Sunday and write about the ‘big blue’.

Though I have to be thankful to the ‘big blue’ for very many things. And the first is my first air journey. They had paid for Delhi-Bombay round trip for the interview. It’s a totally different thing that by now it appears that I have had enough of economy class. The novelty wears off and it wears off faster if you have sufficiently long legs (or the flights are long, don’t get me started on what happens if legs and flights both are long). Then there are the wonders. Atop Eiffel and the Great Wall. And the best of all the sea, the oceans. Working in the middle of the monster is a thing in itself. Many a sunsets and sunrises surrounded by the lashing waves, pure unadulterated joy. Million moons on the surface of waters. The whale jumping out of the waters to do whatever she wanted to right there in front of your eyes.

“But in spite of the passage of many years and long wandering, the pull of the home remains. No exile can escape the malady of his tribe, that consumption of the soul.” Nehru’s words bring the lense of perspective in focus, or rather takes any focus away. Every wanderer at the end of the day, month, year, season, wanderlust, turns back (or perishes in the hope of getting back). Walking down the streets of Perth and avoiding a street which is not well lit, hoping to find someone to talk in Hindi/Punjabi at the office, having to explain that only salads is not what vegetarians eat to every other inquisitive idiot, having to explain to all American junkies that baseball is not really comparable to cricket, and the Latin Americans can’t really believe that any game can take longer than 90 minutes, and among a list which includes many other ridiculous questions (oh really, the hair stops increasing in length after a while!!!), all the tiny things and details bring home the fact that ‘home’ is faraway. Yet these are momentary lapses and unsavoury indulgences in nostalgia.

Let’s try to conclude in a cheerful way. Of course one should never let out the fact that a person’s life, to use the too often used word (is it?), sucks. Actually, ended up taking a break here. It’s a serious business. Coming up with some eureka moments. Plus I don’t want to run around naked. Ah. Naked reminds me of something. After watching a game of baseball (the Drillers, Tulsa, Oklahoma) and then an hour or two at some bowling alley we headed towards the destination where most of the company trainees head during their first trip to Tulsa. A strip club. You have to agree that definitely cheers one up. That and a visit to the Hooters. So, we are in the queue to enter the club (for some reason I keep typing clud!!!), we as in the six students and our class instructor (a lady, but nothing scandalous as I found out later, these strip clubs are visited by equal numbers of both sexes). So, we were in the queue and when it was my turn they refused me entry (as I was wearing a ‘head scarf’ according to the security). Well it was nothing new in the USofA to be discriminated for one reason or the other. But this guy had a different reason. He explained that there are local gangs with the identification being the color of head scarves and they have had trouble in the past so no entry till the head is covered with a scarf. Now that’s a shame. Isn’t it? Having come so close to the Big (and some were really big as I found out later) American Dream. Although a bit (actually a lot) disappointed I put up a brave act and told the guys to go ahead and not change their plan because of me. But the treat was on our instructor and she would not let a ‘head scarf’ ‘screw’ up the plans. One of the guys in the group had a baseball cap and she somehow convinced the security manager that as long as I keep the baseball cap on I was OK. Finally, I could live those few hours of my great American dream (though with a baseball cap on).

Having read Tolkien one just can’t help but quote the master every now and then. Here is hoping that he was right when he said ‘Not all who wander are lost’.


Sukhdev Singh is milking a buffalo when I call him. We are speaking after a long gap. His voice carries the same cheerful energy I remember....