Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Of claws and paws

Episode 1: Fair-feather foes

Murphy, I stand corrected.

A couple of weeks ago I blamed Murphy for my delinquent Net connection. I had switched from a dial-up to a cable connection, expecting salvation to follow. But three excruciating weeks later, I was still beset with the same woes. I’d log on for a couple of hours and suddenly find myself bereft. From gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands, I graduated to choice cuss words. The carefully cultivated composure would evaporate every time I found the cable operator’s phone switched off. Finally, one morning, I got him on the phone…

He hurried over to my house before I could chew off his other ear. He set off tinkering with the wires while I scorched his back with the ferocity of my gaze. He examined the cables studiously before turning to face me and stammered, “I go check cable box outside."

I waited. The eyebrow stayed arched, the foot continued tapping. He came back, looking like he’d been in a scuffle. “Well,” I asked icily, “did you fix the faulty cables?”

“Medem, wire was ok. But pigeons had put off switch.”

I snarled.

He took a step backward and continued, “Pigeon make nest in cable box. They was putting on-off switch. But now I take out them and lock the box.”

He picked out feather bits from his shirt cuffs and then pointed to the screen, “Net bees working now.”

I stared at the screen dumbfounded and deflated. A conspiracy by pigeons!

And I thought the worst they could do was aim their droppings at you…

Episode 2: Chivalrous Canine

Sometimes I almost forget I live in a city. My house is surrounded by not one, but two gardens. Now, garden is a lofty term. It might conjure up images of rose bushes and manicured hedges, picket fences and such… Nothing of the sort. The area is overrun by towering Asokas, mango, jackfruit and papaya trees, a coconut palm, some wildflowers, some colourful shrubs, a few willful vines and some thrilled weeds. In short, it’s a forest. Albeit, a well watered, well maintained one.

Naturally, one third of those who got off the Ark have taken up residence here. Over the years, our guest list has included dogs, cats, rodents, squirrels, lizards, frogs, bees, bats, birds, earthworms, slugs and on a couple of occasions, snakes.

Recently, however, the stray dogs had begun to assume ownership of the building premises. And they had somehow figured that the best time to settle disputes was somewhere between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.

A compound wall was built and heavy metal gates were put in place, so that our building came to resemble Fort Knox. Still there were a couple of strays who inevitably found a gate ajar and slipped in to reclaim lost ground. One of them was Tawm.

Limpid eyes, wagging tail, brown and white fur, Tawm. His sole daily agenda was to find a comfortable spot outside our door and stay immobile there, no matter what the provocation. There were times when he was chased outside Fort Knox, but he inexplicably found his way back.

Last week, I was as usual, rushing off to work. I slammed the door shut and geared up for the leap up the stairs, when the indolent Tawm beat me to it.

“Outta my way, Tawm,” I growled. But he sauntered ahead right up to the gate. I clucked impatiently, when a slim paw landed on the gate. Holding the gate with his front paws, and hobbling on his hind legs, Tawm swung open the heavy gate before my astonished eyes.

My jaw was hanging almost as much as his. “After you, woof woof,” he said, still holding on to the gate while I stepped out daintily.

All daintiness was forgotten when I spotted the auto. Arms flailing, half-yelling I thought I’d got the driver’s attention. But just then, another office-goer charged out from the building ahead and leaped into the auto. Pretending he hadn’t seen me flag it, he studiously examined his hands as the auto trundled away.

I was about to spew a string of curses when I spotted Tawm watching me calmly.

“It’s a human’s life”, he drawled and moseyed back to the gate.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Out of college… Into the fire

Last week, I had an appointment with a certain Mr. B in an ad agency. While the receptionist paged him, I went and sat in the lounge area.

“Are you here for an interview too?” asked the girl waiting there.

No, I reassured her quickly, and then asked, “Are you?”

“I’ve come for a summer job,” she said. "But the person in HR is in a meeting. And I’ve been here since 10.30”

I looked at my watch incredulously. It was 2 p.m!

“Does he even know you’re here?” I asked aghast.

In a choked voice, she replied, “He met me for 5 minutes but had to go back into the meeting. He said he’ll be back in 1 ½ hour, but it’s 2 hours now.”

I felt really sorry for her. I knew exactly how endless the meetings were. It was more than likely though, that the HR dude was either trying to avoid her or had forgotten about her.

So I gently suggested, “Look, why don’t you go home? Make an appointment and come on another day?”

Her face twisted with bitterness and fury. “How do I know he won’t do this again? No, I’m going to wait and give him a piece of my mind. Is this how they treat people who come for internships?”

While I admired her attempt to stand up for herself, I also thought she was being very naïve. What would HR dude do? Apologise profusely? Hire her on the spot? Give her cab fare home? In fact, the longer she waited, the closer she’d come to dissolving into a mass of tears.

Her rant continued, “He didn’t even do a formal interview with this other girl who was here in the morning. And poor thing, she’d come ALL the way from the suburbs!” (Hmm… I thought South Bombay types!)

“I mean how important can these meetings be,” she asked with a sneer. “Can’t they just take a break and attend to people who’ve come to meet them?”

I was truly dumbfounded. Did she even know what she was getting into then? Summer interns were a whole rung below the dregs known as trainees, in agency hierarchy! In all probability, if she got the job, she’d spend her summer photocopying documents, running errands and getting shooed away by busy execs. But here she was fresh out of college, thinking the world was her oyster and that the corporate world was waiting with open arms.

I remember being a victim of that fallacious thinking myself. I was a heady mix of naiveté and idealism. I’d met a Creative Director who liked my work and told me that the Vice President wanted to meet me. I was over the moon. The VP made appreciative sounds while going over my work and then seemed lost in thought. I hardly dared to breathe. Finally, he said, ‘You know I’d like to hire you as a Senior Copywriter. I’m trying to think how to fit you in.” From a nobody in Advertising to a Senior Copywriter! My eyes were as large as saucers and I remember thinking, ‘This is a g-o-d. When I become a famous copywriter, I’ll definitely remember to credit him.’ (Ok, so I was naïve, not humble ;) He asked for a couple of days to work it out. I could have skipped the 30 kilometres home.

Coincidentally, I met someone from that agency in the next few days. And I seized the opportunity to extol the virtues of ‘God’. He gave me a look usually reserved for those in padded cells. “X?! He’s the sleaziest guy in the industry. Steer clear of him.”

Kerr-RASH! Lesson learned.

Around the same time, I had an appointment with a super-hot CD in a super hot agency.

“Why do you want to join Advertising?”, was his first question. I stammered out my reasons.

“It’s an agonizing vocation. I still spend nights cursing myself for joining Advertising.” This from someone who’s a sought-after writer. He continued, “The high you get from cracking a good idea is so incredible, that you’ll sell your mother for it. But when your ideas get shot down, it’s like having a baby and watching it get butchered.” He was scaring me not just off advertising but childbirth as well!

He didn’t give me a job but put me onto a friend who did. So that scarefest was probably worth it.

Coming back to the poor summer intern, I found her still sitting forlorn in the reception an hour later. She was scribbling something, sad poetry perhaps, in her diary. Go home, I urged her again.

No, he can’t do this to me. I’m going to blah blah blah.

Ok honey, good luck! Happy learning…

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Sorry Enrique… but I’m Not In Love

Enrique got me in the news recently.

It was quite unexpected. I’ve been avoiding him ever since he said he was coming to Mumbai. And all along, I’ve been stonily indifferent to his breathless entreaties, ‘I can be your hero baby’…

So I was a tad uncomfortable queuing up for passes for his show at the music store. Working in close proximity to a music store and having friends who are besotted with Enrique can be doubly disadvantageous. Still, I am the obliging sorts.

As I waited, I spotted an odd couple. The girl wore a lavender shirt and black trousers. Ditto for the guy. Peculiar dress code, I thought. At that moment they turned. Lavender Boy was gripping a video camera and Lavender Girl, a boom mike. And they were making a bee line for me…

Lavender Girl: I’m from Aaj Tak. Are you buying passes for the Enrique concert?

Surprised Lee: But these are for a friend, not me.

Lavender Girl: That’s ok. We just need footage.”

I’ve been called ‘background’ and ‘extra’ before. ‘Footage’ was a new insult.

I was about to protest again when the latent wicked streak began bubbling. The idea of ‘acting’ like a smitten groupie appealed. I once had a bit part in a winning play in College. And the arclights hadn’t dimmed ever since.

Ok, I will be Footage, I told Lavender Girl.

Out went the I-wish-I-was-elsewhere look. Replaced by an ‘Enrique-you’re-my-hero-baby melting-eyes tremulous-mouth’ look. Lavender Boy swung the camera this way and that to capture each nuance.

The guy in front of me bought 13 tickets worth Rs.1200 each. I hoped the camera didn’t catch that momentary flicker in my lovelorn gaze. The counter staff was saying, “Everyone’s buying the Rs. 1200 passes. We’ve only sold 9 booklets of Rs. 800 as compared to 20 of Rs. 1200." Wow, Enrique sure doesn’t miss ME.

It was my turn. The staff handed over the passes with a flourish. I accepted them with a flourish.

The boom mike was thrust under my nose. A small knot of people had gathered to watch. I patted my unruly curls in place.

Lavender Girl: Aap ye concert mein kyon jaana chahte hai?

ULP! I belatedly remembered it was Aaj Tak. I would have to speak in Hindi. My Hindi is a trifle rusty, corrupted by Bambaiyya and susceptible to gender bloopers when nervous. But seasoned performers aren’t fazed by trifling issues like these.

Hammy Lee (in Hindi): Um… I’m a big fan of Enrique. I love his songs. I love his music videos.

Lavender Girl: Most of Enrique’s fans are teenagers and teenyboppers. So what makes you such a fan?

Indignation momentarily nudged out nervousness and lovelorn-ness.

Indignant Lee: Lady, THOSE are laugh lines. And these glasses give me a severe look. So just what are you trying to insinuate?

But Indignant Lee only sputters and fumes in silence.

Hammy Lee: Erm… I’m a big fan of Enrique. I love his songs. I love his music videos.

Lavender Girl: “Have you been for other concerts before?”

Having almost got attacked by crazed fans at a UB40 concert some years ago, I didn’t care to repeat that experience. But while we’re acting here…

Hammy Lee: Yes, I’ve been for UB40… and Bryan Adams.

A belated, unsuccessful attempt to sound cool.

Lavender Girl gestures to Lavender Boy to stop filming. Whew, I thought, about time. The act was beginning to wear thin.

Lavender Girl: Could you please say on camera that you liked these concerts and you’re sure that Enrique will be even better?

Indignant Lee: What?! You’re asking me to lie? On national television? Is this HOW you gather news?

Lavender Girl: Rolling…

Hammy Lee: Yes I loved Bryan Adams and UB40 and I’m sure Enrique isse bhi better rahega.

Note to viewers: If you’re catching the news on Aaj Tak on the pre-Enrique concert hype and spot one respondent from Mumbai with red cheeks and a very very long nose… that’s me.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

It's only words - I

First love

I have only hazy memories of the first time I was swept off my feet. But my aunt tells me I must have been 3 or 4 years old. I'd tagged along with her to her friend's house and after a while was nowhere to be seen. Assuming I'd gone down the stairs alone, they launched a frantic search. Imagine their chagrin, when they found me in one of the rooms itself, leaning over a table, swinging a leg and with total absorption, 'reading' a thick tome. I don't remember the title, but I recall being enthralled by row after neat row of alphabets and the wafery thinness of the pages.

Another memory is of a kiddies party perhaps not long after. The hostess held two cheerfully wrapped gifts and asked me, "What would you like - a game or books?" No conflict here. Thrusting my pudgy hands out, I earnestly lisped, "Bookths" And that's how the collection began... with Thumbelina, Little Mermaid and Beauty.

Toys came and went, but my precious bookths were carefully preserved. The first day of summer vacations saw an unvarying ritual: notebooks and textbooks were gleefully expelled and the motley collection of storybooks would be brought out and lined against the wall. The Library was open!

At school, the library was tucked away in one quiet corner. And my favourite moment was when we all had to troop out in a queue and climb the 54 steps or so from the Primary Section to the Secondary, where the library was located. Mystery, fantasy, adventure - all in one little room. Even the archetypal villain - the librarian. She not only rationed the Enid Blytons, but also shoved into our unwilling hands, books on animals, birds, science and even novels in Hindi and Marathi. Admirable intentions, some might think, but not us who shrank from these surrogate textbooks.

I bided my time until I became the library monitor. And then craftily went around distributing all the books I wanted to read to my classmates. Through the week I'd swap books with them and thus, swiftly worked my way through the Blytons, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drews, Richmal Cromptons and Wodehouses. Sometimes I'd even prop a novel between the pages of a textbook during a boring class and once suffered the ignominy of standing outside class when caught doing that.

The collection stayed very modest, until i discovered the detour from College to Marine Lines station. Two second hand bookstores lay in wait on that detour with books piled precariously almost up to the ceiling. Many an afternoon was spent craning and contorting, thumbing and sneezing in those musty bookstores. Rarely did i leave without carting away armfuls of trashy fiction, classics, thrillers and some rare reads. The 2 1/2 hour daily train rides were scarcely ever felt.

With English Literature, I had a reading list and therefore, a legitimate reason to indulge in my hobby. But my mother remained unconvinced as she saw empty spaces at home vanishing. She complained to Dad, who acted swiftly, but not in the way she expected. A bookcase was constructed which was dubbed rather fancifully, 'The Library'.

What kind of books do you read, I'm often asked. And here's where I flounder. The thought of limiting oneself to a certain genre is preposterous. At some point I savour Indian writers, then start craving the classics, until I get a whiff of travel writing. From there, I might hop on to short stories, dipping into inspirational and spiritual literature. There was once the war phase, where I devoured everything in sight on the Second World War and the Vietnam War. And occasionally, there's the regression to the Enid Blyton era, where I long wistfully for the Wishing Chair and the Magic Faraway Tree.

It's a journey I don't question anymore. In fact, sometimes I feel that it isn't me choosing a book but vice versa. With increasing regularity, I 'chance' upon books whose message I need to hear or books which set me off on a new path.

And along this path are also strewn quirks of various sorts. The egregious memory turns elephantine when it comes to books I've lent. I've been known to stalk people who fail to return my books in time. And then there's the meticulous cataloguing of every single book by name, author and category. Each new entrant is allowed into the Library only after it's sheathed in plastic. And I know the almost precise location of each of the 807 books right down to the shelf, row and surrounding books.

Obsession, thunders my mother. I wickedly point to the Erasmus quote pasted on the Library, 'When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.'

Somehow, these lines reassure me that I'm not alone.

It's been six months since I started the blog. And when i think about it, the urge to write has undoubtedly been inspired by everything I've read and enjoyed all these years. The journey continues...