Loo with a view

by sidin in

So far this blog has a notorious reputation for almost never publishing the Part 2 of a blog post that I originally intend to write in parts. (Except the Letters from London. I suppose. Which aren't really serial-ish.) But the other day someone left a comment on old write up I put up. It was about a delightful week-long trip I went on to Colombo. The commentee wanted to know when I would write A Strait Apart - Part 2.

Chances are never. I don't think I remember enough of that trip anymore. Though I still have notes somewhere. On my old phone I think. So who knows.

But as providence would have it, someone who was on that trip with me suddenly sent me an email earlier today. The email had some picture attachments.

I'd borrowed Maria's camera at the National Museum in Colombo after running out of space on my own.

But as with most of my trips, and almost all photos I take on such trips, I'd completely forgotten about them minutes after boarding the return flight to Chennai.

Maria, none too unforgetful herself, also never emailed them to me. Till today.

I'd like to post just one of them. The most interesting one.

The National Museum in Colombo is as good as any museum of such scale in India. When I visited, the place was over-run by local school groups. However because this is Sri Lanka, and even the kids here are given a glass of coconut arrack in the morning, things were still languid, humid and relaxed. In one room, near the entrance, there was a flat screen TV in one corner looping a DVD on Sri Lankan history. In the opposite corner a museum staffer sat at a wooden table and snored luxuriously. And no one seemed to be bothered by this. There was no embarrassment or sniggering.

Sri Lanka is that kind of country.

But there is plenty to look at in the Museum. Sri Lankan might be a small country that is only half as big as Tamil Nadu--and even then 40% of that is Arjuna Ranatunga. But they have great history, wonderful architecture and were mean engineers in their time.

So as I was floating from gallery to gallery I suddenly noticed, lined along one end of a connecting passage, a line of toilet-like things. All made of stone.

Some of them were easily recognizable as 'excretion stations'. Others looked slightly more bizarre:

I don't know about you. But the above toilet looks a little bit like the PWD contractor was trying to make the most of an extra window and his lowest bid.

But in fact that toilet was found in a Buddhist monastery. I was told that toilets like this were found inside dwellings for monks that were otherwise devoid of any ornamentation. The only element of their living space that had any decorative stonework was this toilet you see here. Why was this so?

Apparently at the time non-Monks on the island were spending vast sums of money building palaces and castles and such like. Monks, as you know, abhor such ostentation. (Which is why that fellow sold his Ferrari remember?)

In order to ridicule the luxury of non-Monk homes, and drive home that such things were evil, only monastery toilets had decorative carvings. The monks hated luxury so much... they crapped on it.

On the way out I walked through the TV room again.

This time a bunch of children were watching the screen. Behind them one of the parents sat at the wooden table. And snored luxuriously.

But that's ok. Sri Lanka is cool with that.

Letter from London - 3: Unity in driversity

by sidin in

Beirut 1

The most time I've ever spent in a single city in the last 22 years, before packing up and moving somewhere, is the four years I spent in engineering college in REC Trichy. Otherwise it has always been brief stints of two or three years before education or employment or pub-lust, has me moving once again to Ahmedabad or Delhi or London.

I am not complaining of course. I think I enjoy this relaxing frequent nomadic-ism that ensures you never get too bored of any one city. Or language. Or food. Or Milan subway.

However this kind of thing does lead to some behavioral quirks.

For instance you are almost always coming across furniture or wall decorations or shopping mall sculptures that you are itching to buy--because it could make your house look like Frasier's--but can't because you'll surely be moving somewhere soon.

You are also constantly somewhat jealous of friends who've bought magnificent homes and splendiferous cars because they've decided they're never moving.  This feeling usually bubbles over violently when you see the magnificent wooden bookshelves they've installed in their hallways or living rooms. (Also a lot of people in London leave their windows open in the evenings. With all the lights on inside. Just going to the nearest tube station is a tortuous parade of bookshelves and open-plan kitchens and plush sofas and ottomans and wall hangings and such like.)

Personally this also leaves me constantly thinking of myself as a tourist. Therefore I am one of those people who shamelessly strike up borderline-intimate conversations with taxi drivers and auto drivers and waiters. I don't know if their views of a place are reflective of the average inhabitant's, but I've always had the most amazing chats sitting in the back of battered old car stuck in a jam on Wadala bridge.

For instance the very first day I went to junior college in Thrissur--11th class for you hep folks--I struck up a chat with the dude who was driving my auto from the bus stand near Swapna theatre to my college. The college scene in Kerala at the time was intensely political. There were huge left wing and Congress movements and a laughably small, token right wing set-up. Even before my first day in college I was leaning towards signing up for the commies. Because at the time they seemed pro-poor, anti-religion and corruption-free.

Not to mention all the movies in which Mohanlal portrayed a crusading commie.

As we rattled on in our auto we passed a small procession of commies protesting something or the other. "Are you a leftie?" I asked my driver.

"I am a member of the trade union. But am I friends with all of them," he said.

"The left is good for poor people..." I ventured, half as a statement, half as a question.

The driver thought for a while and then said something I've never forgotten. "They are the same boy. Both of them steal. But there is one difference. When the left win elections only the chief minister's children go to study in England. When the Congress win elections, everybody can steal a little. Everybody's children can at least go to an english medium school in Guruvayoor."

Later I realised that the commies were hardly distinguishable from the Congress hordes at college. But the Congress type tried to convince you to vote for a student councillor with beef biryani. The commies preferred to serve you with fresh cycle chains.

Then there was the cabbie guy in Mumbai who picked me up, late one night, outside a club in Bandra. I don't remember exactly which one. But I recall it was on top of an ICICI bank, and the dance floor had huge backlit manga cartoons on one wall.

That night there was a huge crowd looking for a ride, but somehow the cabbie gave me the once over and then told me get in. This "once-over" business in Mumbai is utterly revolting. And invasive. I believe I lost my virginity to a particularly slow, excruciating once-over on Marine Drive during my summer internship in 2004. Women have been known to miss their cycles after one.

After a general meandering chat about traffic and cabs and Bandra, I asked my cabbie why he gave me the once-over. He said he was making sure I was a 'decent party'. I asked him if he was alluding to prostitution. No, he said, he was alluding to couples who made out in the back of a taxi. "I don't have a problem with that. Children are modern these days. But how can I drive properly from here to Nariman Point if they are doing it in the back? Sometimes they make noise. It is very distracting. And then other taxi drivers make fun of you if they see. Why can't these boys and girls just wait for 45 minutes?"

We laughed the rest of the way to Wadala. Where I discovered he had a dodgy meter.

And so on to the guy who drove my mini-cab two weekends ago. Mini-cabs are the cheaper, shabbier cousins of the famed London black cab. The London cab, like so much else in London, is fiendishly expensive and best enjoyed from a distance. Public transportation is the cheapest way to get around. But if the night ends too late, or the day starts too early, then a mini-cab booked by phone is useful.

So last fortnight I went with Mr. and Mrs. Pastrami to a splendid and quite fru-fru night club. Which we left shortly because frankly we're getting too old for this shit. So we went back to Pastrami's house--yes, with bookshelves and even a fireplace--and threw back a few drinks. The missus, if you're wondering, wisely decided to sit at home, read a book, watch some comedy and do some baking.

Well past midnight, after the trains had stopped, I reluctantly called up a mini-cab. (The reluctance was due to mental arithmetic that multiplies mini cab charge by 80 to get approx. Indian rupee figure.)

They'd sent a spacious silver Mercedes-Benz that looked at least five or six years old but sparingly washed. The driver was a big, strong, lightly-bearded chap in a jacket and woolen cap. Who looked of vaguely mediterranean extraction.

After some silence we somehow started talking about something or the other. Maybe the weather. I don't remember.

"So are you married sir?" he asked.


"You went to a club tonight?"

"For a little bit."


"Ha ha. Yes."

"If I went to a club on my own my wife would cut my balls off."

And then he told me he was from Lebanon. And a big Amitabh Bachan fan. In turn I impressed him with my rudimentary Arabic--hummus, shawarma, tabbouleh, Abu Dhabi, Tahrir. The conversation turned to the topic of unrest in the Middle East.

"Like your country my country is also very beautiful," he said. "Good food, good nature, good women. No peace. No peace even for five minutes. You have no peace with Pakistan. We have no peace with Syria and Israel."

I asked him when he'd left Beirut and come to London. At which point he began telling me his story.

When he was 13-years old Israel invaded Lebanon. At which point my driver, let's call him Rafik, signed up for the Lebanese army. Five years later he fled to the United Kingdom seeking political asylum. The UK let him in but the asylum visa came with a ten year ban on going back to Lebanon. Rafik taught himself to become, of all things, a graphic designer for a magazine publishing company. He married, had children, and occasionally visited his sister who'd found asylum in the US. And then his company decided to shift base to Dubai Media City. Rafik followed but left and came back soon because he couldn't handle the people, the place and the distance from his family. But by then the economy tanked. And media, as you know, imploded. So Rafik now drives a mini-cab to make ends meet. It is not a terrible living, he told me. Yet he pines to go back.

"I want to go back. I want to die and be buried in Lebanon. You know what I mean? It is my country. This is not home. These people don't like you. They don't understand you. Some of them hate you..."

We spoke for a while about racism and home and London.

And then I asked him what he did for the Lebanese army as a teenager. He thought for a while.

"I was a sniper."

Whoa. I play as many sniping flash games as the next guy. The missus was a proficient sniper during Unreal Tournament LAN games in business school. But I'd never met a real life sniper.

"Did you... did you... kill a lot of people?"

"That is not a good question. We were at war. They invaded. I was a soldier."

But he no longer hated the Israelis, he said. At least not as individuals. Rafik said that he often ferried Israelis in his cab and some of them were also soldiers. In fact, he said, they'd often swap war stories, shake hands and chat like old friends.

And now, he said, the Shias and Sunnis were killing each other.

"But... how terrible to be made to kill people when you were so young... how do you deal with that..."

Honestly I was expecting a filmy outpouring of emotion. Rafik didn't say anything.

And then after a silence he rattled off a list of the guns he still had at home: Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles and hand guns. When he went to to the US, Rafik said, he still liked going to a shooting range.

"They are crazy there man. Before 9/11 you can buy a gun from anywhere. Any time. Go to a range. Shoot. It was crazy man..."

"But... what a horrible childhood to have..." I just couldn't get over the fact that he was a sniper and shooting people at an age when I was merely water-boarding my dad to get a GameBoy

Again Rafik didn't say anything.

Just before he dropped me at home he whipped out his iPhone and showed me an app.

"Unbelieveable app man. You just press on the picture of a gun and it makes shooting noises. And it is so accurate. You will not believe. It sounds exactly like a gun in real life. Kalashnikov... exactly the same..."

I paid him, added a generous tip and wished him good night and peace to both our countries. He called me brother. And then before starting his car he made a couple of shooting noises with his iPhone guns. And then my cab-driver cum graphic designer cum sniper drove off looking very pleased with himself.

Is there a moral to that story?

The only one I can think of is that I am perhaps much luckier than I sometimes realize.

Letter from London - 2: Two Christmas miracles

by sidin in

Well not so much Christmas miracles as much as heartwarming Christmas stories. Nothing miraculous happened in either case. (Except maybe the first. Where perhaps murder was avoided. But I am speculating.) Story 1:

So this happened to a friend's cousin. Or vice versa. But I am not making this up. It really happened. And it happened approximately an year or so ago.

This banker fellow has just moved to London from South Africa. Johannesburg to be precise. Now the locals call the city Jo-burg, but in tourist literature and travel agency brochures, Johannesburg is referred to as the murder capital of the world. (In the same, but much more ominous, way that Thrissur is referred to as the cultural capital of Kerala. Or Aurangabad is known by children all over Aurangabad as the optic fibre capital of India.)

So bad are things in Jo-burg that you can't call yourself a true-blue local till you've been murdered in the city at least thrice.

Ha. Dark comedy.

But uniquely for this banker chap he manages to live in Jo-burg for several years without once ever have been mugged or stabbed or ambushed.

So imagine his surprise when just a few days after relocating to London, presumably to help his bank further bankrupt this country, he is ambushed by a mugger somewhere near Shoreditch. (Shoreditch might sound exactly like the sort of place where you go to get mugged. But in fact it is an up and coming bohemian organic free range district. All the muggings in London actually happens in the Goldman Sachs building.)

In order to avoid racial or cultural stereotypes I'd rather not mention that the mugger was a massive, black dude with a voice so deep that only adults would be allowed to swim in it.

I reproduce the conversation for your benefit:

Mugger: Hey man. Hey. Give me all your money.

Banker: What the...

Mugger: I want all your money. Now. Now.

Banker: But...

Mugger: I'll kill you man.

Banker: Ok wait. I've just moved to London. I don't have any money. And I just have cards. Take my phone if you want.

Mugger. Show me your phone...

Banker: Here...

Mugger. What the @#$% is that thing? That doesn't look like a phone...

Banker: No no. It is. It is an iPhone...

Mugger: Don't @#$% with me. It doesn't have any buttons...

Banker: It doesn't need any. You can just touch it to do stuff...

Mugger: Show me...

Bewildered by the turn of events, the banker gives the mugger a quick three-minute demo of the device.

Banker: And one more thing...

Mugger: GASP!

Banker: It also has a camera and GPS...

Mugger: Man! I've never seen such at thing. This is awesome man...

Banker: Take it... Please don't hurt me.

Mugger. No man. I love this thing. We're friends now. You've showed me this cool thing man. I can't just take it from you. Let me pay you for it.

Banker: *WHAT THE...*

Mugger: Wait here. Let me go get some money. Don't go anywhere.

Banker: Go anywhere it seems!!! Ha ha ha. Of course not. I am now here till further notice. Feel free to take your time.

Mugger jogs away to get cash.

As soon as the mugger is out of eye-shot, the Banker evaporates.

Moral of the story: Steve Jobs delivers us from all evil.

Story 2:

My brother-in-law is a very honourable man. Yes he is a banker, but he compensated nicely this year by gifting me a wonderful coffee machine. Which he stole from his office.

Wonderful chap.

So last February he is on a plane to India. To get married. On the aircraft he is seated next to a 10-year old Sikh boy. They get talking and B-I-L learns that the boy was born in Jallandhar but has spent all his life in the UK. And holds a British passport. So he speaks both fluent Punjabi and fluent Contemporary Desi-Brit English.

Regular English: Mind the gap

Contemporary Desi-Brit English: Mind the gap innit?

Shortly before landing in Delhi the cabin crew distribute those disembarkation forms. Which, as you are aware, is a vital element of our national security strategy. For instance if a terrorist is found to have entered the country via air, the airport security officials can immediately jump to action. They can thwart the terrorist by taking large bundles of used disembarkation forms and throwing it at him.

So the 10-year old boy asks B-I-L for his help in filling the form:

Boy: Can you check if I have filled in this form correctly innit?

B-I-L: One moment... Ok. You have a problem. You've filled in your British passport number. But here you've checked the box which says that you are an Indian citizen.

Boy: Yes. That is correct. Innit?

B-I-L: Ah. But that is not correct. Do you have an Indian passport?

Boy: No. I have a British one ...

B-I-L: *waits*

Boy: ...innit?

B-I-L: Phew. Ok, so no. In which case you must fill in that you are a British citizen.

Boy: So what if my passport is British? I feel Indian. I am Indian. I consider myself an Indian citizen innit.

B-I-L: But it doesn't work that way. You may feel like it. But you have a British passport.

Dejected, the boy reaches for his ballpoint pen and pokes B-I-L in the eye with it.

B-I-L: HEY! Yes. Indian citizen. Yes. Go ahead.

Moral of the story: Passport is a state of mind.

Isn't your heart warmed by these touching, warm stories? Mine surely is.

Seasons greetings old chaps. Hope your holidays are wonderful and 2011 is full of joys and delights and satisfactions and prosperity. Innit.

Crazy things happen here...

by sidin in

The latest issue of Time Out London is a a special "Cheap Issue". It makes fun of women, makes lurid jokes and re-gifts copiously. Ha. Comedy!

But no. It is a splendid issue and I find myself finding so many interesting, yet affordable, things to do on every page. Bravo I say. And it couldn't have come at a better time. We've just completed paying the deposit on our rental flat here.

Let's not talk about it. Or I'll feel bad. And then convert to Indian Rupees. And feel 71 times as bad all over again.

So I was reading this issue of Time Out today when, on a whim, I decided to read the letters to the editor as well. (I know. Reckless.)

Which is when this gem of a letter, titled Police, camaraderie, action!, leapt out. I reproduce it here in full:

Anyone who thinks Londoners are not public spirited should have seen the scenes in Bayswater last week. A French school party's luggage was stolen as they loaded their coach outside their hotel. Workmen across the street alerted the victims, who gave chase. A street cleaner and a traffic warden joined in, detained one thief and recovered most of the cases. Police on foot were alerted by staff at a florist's and, while running to the scene, were given a lift by a passing cabby! The other thief was arrested. The teacher who stayed to give statements were driven to St. Pancras by the police to make his Eurostar on time. Well done, London!

Anon, by email

You can't make this stuff. Unless you are Priyadarshan.

Crazy things happen in London.

Well done indeed.

Letter From London - 1

by sidin in

Hello there from sunny/rainy/warm/cold/crisp/damp/expensive/expensiver London. Undoubtedly the greatest city in the world after Kochi and Trivandrum. For the last three weeks or so I have been embroiled in the controlled chaos better known as 'settling into London'. This involves steps such as

1. Finalizing on a neighbourhood to stay in.

2. Refinalizing a new neighborhood to stay in because previous neighbourhood is too expensive if your are not a banker, Russian mafia or, frequently, both.

3. Drawing up shortlist of one bedroom flats available on rent, from classifieds advertisements and online real estate websites.

4. Subsequently drawing up shortlist of real estate websites because most websites, the bastards, have homes listed that were put on the market sometime during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1847 1857 (computer error), and have long since been replaced by an Ikea outlet or some part of the Mittal household.

5. Visitings of shortlisted flats one after the other from morning to night along with a real estate agent who, unlike the ones in Mumbai, will honestly and apologetically say things like: "Sorry about this mess. But the current tenant is a student. So ignore the shoes in the freezer. That is the freezer. You can approach it through this trapdoor. Backwards."

6. Making an offer for a palatial 17 square foot one bedroom with attached bath cum study.

7. Getting rejected.

8. Making counter-offer.

9. Getting accepted.

10. Yay.

11. Too soon. Got rejected.

12. Depression. Beer.

13. Another offer.

And so on and so forth. Till you decide to get a mobile phone connection. Now you would expect the United Kingdon, a perfectly respectable First World Country with Worsht World Deficit, to have a top notch, cutting-edge, smooth as silk, spectacularly advanced telecom system. Thankfully this they do due to a refreshing lack of A Raja in this country. But instead of torturing you with bad service, a la Voda-Edge is down-fone India, they torture you by creating the most rigorous credit checking system in the world. These are some necessary but not sufficient conditions you need to satisfy in order to get a favourable credit rating and, therefore, mobile phone in the UK:

a. You must have a bank account in the UK that has been in operation for at least 15 years. Preferably 30 years. But it is best if you own the bank. Sidin Barclays Vadukut might work if you have photo id.

b. In this bank account you must have a minimum balance of several million pounds. Minimum balance is calculated by taking the value of the lowest balance in your account, over a rolling four-week period, and square rooting this number.

c. Now you must have a valid debt instrument of some kind in your name that you have used with honour and dignity for at least 6 months. Credit cards, home loans and large numbers of US dollars are all valid as debt instruments. Also, and this is sweet Monty Python irony, a mobile phone contract which is paid regularly on time goes towards giving you a credit history that you can use to get a mobile phone contract. What Godel, Escher, Suck On This, Bach irony.

d. Finally you must have lived in the UK for atleast 2 years. This is true even if you have just moved to the UK last Tuesday.

When the guy at Orange ran my credentials through his credit checking computer, it thought for two minutes before calling the police and reporting a burglary.

So instead of a post-paid connection, what they call 'pay monthly' here, I had to take a pre-paid connection, or what they call 'pay as you go out of business' here. This is terrible tragedy. With pay monthly plans you can pay just 20 or 25 GBP per month and get 600 minutes of talk time, unlimited texts and 1 GB Blackberry usage. With pay as you go plans you need to pay 7 GBP every second. Flat. Even if you are not calling anybody at all.

Numbered map of the boroughs of London

Which is why you see tourists, expats and recent movers to the UK often speaking in very loud volume in public spaces. They are not being uncouth. They are trying to save mobile phone charges by screaming at each other across short distances.

But once you get over these minor hassles, the UK is a really convenient place to live in. When landlords say 'Furnished Apartment' it is not like Mumbai where this means that you have most doors and one chair. No no. Not at all. Here this means you get a million varieties of crockery and kitchen tools and a flat screen tv and a boiler and even something called an extractor fan. I have no idea what this extractor fan is. But suddenly in the middle of the night, around 2 PM, it extracts something noisily.

All of this can sometimes be a little stressful. Which is why I am most grateful that in the UK a good beer is never more than two or three minutes away. You get booze everywhere here. Booze and coffee and sushi. Yes. Those three things. Everywhere. Tiny little shady supermarkets, run by guys who probably once were hedge fund brokers before buying pay as you go mobile phones, will have beer, hot beverages and plastic boxes of assembly-line sushi.

So what is there not to like? I will have to think about it.

Which I will do now over an artisanal ale or a small batch pilsener. And some California Maki Rolls.

Catch you later in the next Letter From London.


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