Friday, May 27, 2005

That thing I did...n't.

"So what is the craziest thing you have ever done?"

I balked at the question. These life-scanning questions have always taken me off guard. Thankfully, I have not been faced with many of them in life, but whenever I have, the whole room seems to do the shimmy, and I feel the urge to grab the table and gasp, "Can you stop the room, please? I'd like to get off."

It's not that I have not done many crazy things in life (well I haven't, but that's a different matter, as you will soon see). In fact, my worst nightmare was when, as a graduate trainee in my first company, I was sent alongwith thirty other trainees to this personality development programme, where I was asked to, among other things, draw a sketch on a newspaper, walk around a room blindfolded, give impromptu speeches, play a guitar minus the guitar and music, and - the painful part - answer questions like "What is the happiest moment you've ever had?", and worse, "What has been your greatest achievement to date?"

The point that I have tried to make - and have completely missed - in the previous paragraph is that I somehow find it a little disturbing to answer questions that require me to scan my life in the space of a minute and pick out local maxima in the curve related to the question asked. Very exhausting. I am amazed that people actually manage to do this in the space of a heartbeat. My mental machinery, when subject to such loads, goes: craziest let me see... what can that be? Riding a bullock-cart in the middle of the city? No, that wasn't exactly a bullock-cart.. it had leaf springs and stuff. Pulled by a bullock, no doubt, but probably does not qualify. How about that Diwali night when I inadvertently set fire to my uncle's house? Nah, the fire was doused before it actually reached the house... it was the shamiana, and who knows, maybe it would've burned the shamiana off, without harming the house. Nobody waited to find out... my relatives are rather hasty. And it wasn't crazy. Stupid, yes, but not crazy. Nopes, that can't be it. What about the college fest where I played the only Bond girl with a moustache? Hmmm... maybe. But it was a movie spoof - you're expected to play crazy there. And playing crazy when expected to play crazy = not crazy. So there goes that. I knew I should've gone on that stupid trek to Rajmaachi. That would've definitely qualified. Can I just pretend... no, there's Kakkar - he was on that Trek. He even rode his bullet up that track. Maybe I should've bought a bullet, too. Could've joined RoadShakers and died a wonderful death. Bloody heavy machine. Sigh. How about -

By which time the people around the table had gone on to other topics, so that when I came out of my reverie, I believe I may have caused a bit of a jar in the conversation. Kakkar, I think, was saying something about Bob Dylan.

"He may sing it badly, or he may not sing it at all - in fact, he may have just talked the song, but it works for me! I just love the way he sings."

"I once sang 'American Pie' out loud and offkey at Thousand Oaks after the DJ had switched off the music. We were begging him to play it, but he refused, so. The whole song. Halfway through, everyone in the pub was begging for the torture to stop." My moment of glory, and I intended to bask in it.

This caused a slight break in the conversation, but the people I drink with are very good at this sort of thing. The break lasted probably for a few milliseconds.

"Really? Alone?"

Anurag, now, is the bright sort of chap who gets to the nub of the thing faster than quicksilver, and this probing question was from his corner of the ring. Rather unfortunate for me.

"Er... actually, there were four others with fact, Kakkar was there, too. He kept going back to the line where he meets the girl who sang the blues..."

"Janis Joplin." said Gina. How she remembers these things is a mystery. "That was supposed to refer to Janis Joplin. The King was Elvis, the Jester was Dylan - he took the thorny crown from the king, there's Lennon, reading a book on Marx..."

"Really? I thought - " and conversation resumed.

And that was that. Twenty-six years, and not one crazy thing. Should try riding my bike on the divider in front of Inox. Here cometh the weekend.

Heyyy - hang on - there was this night when my roomie (not anymore, though - the chap got married and dislodged himself from the apartment) and I pushed a scooter along the highway all night, right up to the next morning, because his was the 1985 Bajaj super model, the kind that does not have keys (or turn indicators, and his model also lacked a taillight, and soon after we got on the highway, a headlight), and he did not want to leave it around. It did not matter that the scooter seemed un-start-able by any mortal power. Seven hours trudging through the rain. Does that count?

If it doesn't, you can find me on that divider.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Sinister habits

"How much for the bunch?"

"Five rupees."

I held out the money.

"You're an educated boy, right?"

Now this was not a question one would expect from the local jasmine-seller (different from a florist in that this man sells mostly jasmines and other flowers that look suspiciously like jasmines, at least to the layman), but in spite of (a) being in my early-teens and (b) inexperienced in dealing with potentially hostile people like the local jasmine-seller, I was known to maintain my sang-froid in sticky situations.

"Yes," I replied stiffly.

"Don't you know how disrespectful it is to hand over money with your left hand?"

I looked at the offending limb and saw that the man was right. Later, replaying the incident over in my head, I realized that it was the fault of the tailor, who kept the wallet pocket behind the right trouser leg. But, then, trousers hadn't originated in South India, and wherever the damn things had been invented, I am positive that it was not considered a violation of the local etiquette to use the left hand in day-to-day transactions.

Coming back to the present, (or rather, the past, if your frame of reference is today), I mumbled an apology, handed over the fiver, wishing that it had been four-something, so I could've told him to "Keep the change, you filthy animal!", and bicycled home, in time for my mum's evening pooja, for which the flowers were needed.

The problem that I had often faced as a kid was shifting customs. The years spanning my primary education - and some of the secondary, too - were spent in Bombay, which for a kid like me was a city of crammed-together flats, friendly neighbours, slightly strange friends (which kind of happened all my life), and holi! However, being as I was from Tirunelveli, the summer vacations were spent there. Now Tirunelveli at the time was as diametrically opposite a city to Bombay as could be. Roads free from traffic (and tar), hot, dry afternoons, lazy evenings, and the occasional irate jasmine-seller.

So much for the romantic descriptions. I'm all for the works, but I tend to get carried away a bit and the reader is left lost in the ravine. So, I'll get back to the story at hand. Now I was in the ravine, and... wait. No, that's a different story. Erm... ah, yes. Since I was flitting between the two cities, I often had problems with the local etiquette. For example, in Bombay, if a kid were to address anyone on the street, it would be "Uncle" or "Aunty" depending on the apparent age and the apparent gender of the addressee. Now this is all right as a kid, but once you sprout stubble, it is not advisable to call a slightly older-looking chap "Uncle", or worse, call a lady "Aunty". Disastrous effects are almost assured in the latter case. Probably why the Army trains kids within its influence to call anything that moves "sir" or "ma'am" depending on the case.

In contrast, in Tirunelveli, any stranger is "Anna" (elder brother), or "Akka" (elder sister). Which was not too difficult, considering. Also, since the language was also completely different, I could learn, without confusion, politeness in both languages. However, actions speak louder than words... whoops, sorry, I mean, actions are tricky things, lacking a language segregation. A harmless signal for hitching a ride at region (a) can be interpreted as a jeer in region (b), often resulting in injury to the surprised hitchhiker.

Similarly, we South Indians are a little touchy about using the right hand for the right sort of actions. Preserving the decencies of narration, I will refrain from mentioning the origins of the custom. So it was rather unacceptable to hand over stuff with the left hand, pick food with the left hand, write with the left hand, change gears in the scooter with the left hand, etc.

Okay, so I was only pulling your leg about that last point. But you get the hang of it. In fact, this was so engraved on the young and impressionable minds of the region that they were more thorough on this concept than on the concept of right and left. When I was teaching the kid of a family friend to ride the bicycle, I almost dropped both in shock when I said, "Turn left", and the girl paused, brought her right hand up to her mouth a couple of times in a food-eating gesture (accompanied by something that sounded like "num, num", which, I believe, was how she thought she sounded when she ate), nodded her head, said "Ah! Okay!", in the manner that Tycho Brahe may have exclaimed when in the middle of his class, he suddenly realized what was wrong with the concept of platonic solids he was working on, and proceeded to turn left (the kid, not Brahe).

Unfortunately, I was not similarly gifted, and this aspect of my otherwise irreproachable manners was often brought to light at my grandma's dining table, when I reached for an idli from the pile in the bowl with my left hand.


Ow!" I muttered, rubbing my wrist.

"Never use your left hand to touch food. Don't you know that -" and, depending upon the age and the religious knowledge of the admonisher, I would receive a crash course on the goddess of food, her quirky natures, etc. I would nod numbly, reaching for the idli. My grandmom makes amazing idlis, which sublime in the mouth, making you forget any amount of physical abuse your body has endured, like slaps on the wrist.


"Now what?"
I hissed. Idlis or no idlis, there is only so much a boy can take.

"Echhi kai!" - now, there really is no euphemism for the translation, but to put it mildly, the term refers to a hand which has deposits of saliva on it, owing to the fact that when one eats with the fingers, one needs to insert a few fingers into the oral cavity and close the mouth over them, and then withdraw the fingers to prevent the food (especially curd rice) from spilling out. Anyways, though the eating of idlis does not entail the actual insertion of fingers into the oral cavity - at least, it wasn't my style - there are people who are a little finicky about the thing.

"So I can't pick up the idli with my right hand, and I can't pick it up with my left hand. Great."

Now, back home, my mum used to cleverly overcome this minor point by using a large spoon of sorts, which in turn could be held by the left hand, if you're not a purist. However, that turns out to be a rather huge "if".

"What am I here for? If you need an idli, ask me. I'll serve." And an excess of idlis appear on my plate.

The customs are slightly quirky, but I forgave my ancestors. One has to take the rough with the smooth, especially if the "smooth" part includes those idlis. If any of you happen to pass through Tirunelveli, drop in to my Grandma's place, and try them out. And keep that left hand away from the table.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Goodbye to all dieticians

Tomorrow morning, I am supposed to have, as soon as I wake up, some lukewarm water with honey and lemon, a couple of dates, walnuts, almonds, and some sprouts. This is to be followed up after half an hour with three slices of brown bread, some cottage cheese, a whey protein shake, more sprouts, one egg white, and umpteen other things that I would include if I wasn't so dead bored of reading my dietician's sheet.

I had not met a dietician in my life till about two days ago, and the one I met made me wish I'd maintained that status for a much longer time. They are quite a singular category, if they are mostly similar to the one I met. Shrik tells me that dieticians are to be kept at arm's length, and made allusions to a dietician who apparently terrorizes the protagonist in Wodehouse's "The indiscretions of Archie" (which, incidentally, is available online - for FREE!), but even without his advice, there is no way I would talk to a dietician longer than necessary.

To start at the beginning, the Lord said, "Let there be light!" And He saw that the light was good, and... wait, got carried away a bit there. Now where was I... oh, yes, the beginning. It's like this: I have been grossly underweight for the past twenty-five-odd years (apparently I was kind of healthy till my first birthday), and I finally decided to attack the problem head-on. I thus joined a weight-gain programme at a nearby gym... for the fourth time. However, this gym had what all my previous gyms lacked sorely - a dietician.

Feeling pretty much like the guy who has spent the week leading to his appointment with the dentist brushing thrice a day and flossing at traffic lights in the hopes of reducing the effects of three years of dental neglect, I walked into her office, thanking my lucky stars for the recent vacation and the good home-cooked food. Unfortunately, like with the guy meeting the dentist, the effect was microscopic, not to be discerned with the naked eye.

Thankfully, she did not comment, and went straight to the questionnaire, which had questions like "What time do you wake up?" "How many chapatis/slices of bread do you have for lunch?" "What was the average surface area of those chapatis?" and other probing enquiries about my personal life that I have never had the courage to disclose to my closest friends.

Finally, moving to the end of the questionnaire, she asked, "What is your mood when you eat?"

Now this had me stumped. I am used to reading when I eat alone, which is quite often, so I guess it would depend on what book I'm reading at the moment. I tried to explain that my mood had less to do with the food and more to do with the entertainment, unless of course I was having really good south indian food, especially curd rice and -

"Shall I write 'okay'? Your mood is 'okay'?"

My discourse on the subject of mood swings was brought to a grinding halt.

Two days later - today - I was told to pick up my customized diet chart, the gym being all about personal attention given to the customer. I entered her office again.


"Hi... (consulting chart)... Senthil, get on the weighing machine."

Now this was a little unexpected. I had been weighed in for the records a few days back, and here she was, asking me to kick my shoes off and hop on the scales again. Must be for eliminating errors caused by local seismic disturbances, I thought, kicking off my shoes and hopping on the scales.

"So what's the weight?" She asked.

I told her.

A frown creased her features. "It's reduced. Why has it reduced?"

After recovering from the initial shock of seeing a drop in weight after a week of shoveling in mum's food, I reminded her that she was the dietician and that I had joined the gym to find an answer to that very question, and had already spent extravagant amounts of money on it.

"Where is your diary?" She snapped.

"What diary?"

"The diary I asked you to bring. You're supposed to write details of what you ate in it."

"I was not asked to bring any diary." Accusations are taken better when made in the passive voice.

"I told you - ah, anyway, write down the list of stuff you ate today."

I wrote.

Another frown. "This is not what I mentioned in your diet."

I agreed with her, saying that she was probably right, and asked her to give me my diet sheet so that I could make a comparison myself.

"But I gave you the diet sheet."

The penny dropped, in both places at the same time.

"You probably have me confused-"

"Ah, I got you mixed up-"

"-with someone else!"

"-with someone else!"

"I'm so sorry, it was another guy, and he looked exactly like you, and he, too, had joined the weight gain programme!"

I remarked coldly that if he had looked exactly like me, he had to have joined the weight gain programme.

"Oh, no, I didn't mean that..." embarrassed silence.

But in the end, she has had the last word. Printed. On the diet sheet.

If the diary she's given me had had a 'remarks' section, I'd mention in it today's dietary observation: Whey protein shakes are made from rotten eggs.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

King Bruce's spider

Well, I'm back... decent vacation, that... except for the weather, missed trains, and a few other things I shall post about later, maybe, in a moment of weakness. The important thing is, I am back... with another attempt at rhyming 'moon' with 'spoon'. Whoa - I know, I know, but a man has to try, try, and try, and then give up.

However, to people who still bother coming here, rest assured that my next post will not attempt to be lyrical.

Shells, rigids, and a trailer

Ten metres. The trailer stretches
From end to end, without the cab.
Umpteen sets of engineering sketches
Were all I had; that, and my lab.

Not really a lab, but more or less-
Master FEM, my tool for the job,
"Model the thing now, don't make a mess,"
Was what I was told, with a pat on the nob.

I meshed and I meshed, through night and day
Section create, connect each node.
Chassis, floorboards, panels, all lay
Assembled, at last, I applied the load.

Normal modes and linear statics;
Not too much sweat, myself I told -
But hark! The shadow of dynamics
Loomed overhead, I ceased to be bold.

I curse, I swear, I rant, I rave,
At my computer - it always ignores
The plight I'm in, one foot in the grave,
It cares two hoots - at times, it snores!

Finally, 'tis done, 'tis finished, the worst
Is over now, no errors, says the log...
Now for the report, I tell myself, but first
Things first, it's time for a blog.