Thursday, July 29, 2004

Two for the road…

Over the years I've used several euphemisms for the Bombay Curse. 'Reading time', 'thinking time', 'nap time' – I've called it. But there's no escaping the tedium of the daily commute. On most days I stoically submit to the three-hour bedlam, but on two occasions last week, I was almost grateful for it.

Episode 1: Taxi Philosophy
Time: 9:00 p.m.

A steady drizzle pounded the pavement. I made a dash for the solitary taxi parked close to the office entrance. When he heard my destination was the nearby railway station, he disdainfully waved me away. I was about to mutter darkly when impatient honking interrupted me.

Another taxi had appeared and the driver was craning out of the window, beckoning me. Half-expecting to be refused, I belligerently called out the destination. He nodded and turned the meter.

His uncharacteristic willingness already had me on the back foot. And then his next statement knocked me over.

"Insaan apni maut nahin chun sakta, to savari kyon chunta hai?"
(A person can't choose his own death, so why get choosy with passengers?)

Coming from a Mumbai cabbie – a species known for their hauteur – that was profound. I checked for signs of inebriation, but he seemed sober. If anything, he was lost in thought as he negotiated the traffic.

"Madam, Bharat ki aabadi kitni hogi?"
(What's the population of India?)

I had barely recovered from the previous statement.… 1 billion, I blurted.

"Billion matlab? Mujhe karod samajh mein aata hai."
(What does billion mean? I can understand crores.)

I wrestled with the numbers a bit and then said, 'Billion matlab sau crore'.

"Aur Amreeka ki aabadi kitni hogi?"
(And what's the population of America?)

I felt like an unprepared contestant at Mastermind.

"Tees karod," I bluffed confidently.

He mulled about this for some time, while I braced myself for the next salvo.

“Sirf tees karod? Wahan ki gaurment har aadmi ki acchi dekhbal karti hogi, na?”
(Only 30 crores? The government must be taking good care of the people, mustn't it?)

And then having worked it all out, turned around and triumphantly told me, "Aabadi his sabse badi majhboori hai, madam."(Population is the greatest disadvantage.)

I was expecting a rambling debate on politics, but his simplistic deduction was beguiling. I couldn't help smiling. The conversation would've been interesting if I didn't have to alight just then.

I was pulling out the change, when he started honking again. A couple with a sleeping child had just been waved away by another fickle cabbie. He beckoned them. Without waiting to hear the destination, he turned his meter.

Episode 2: Auto Philanthropy

Time: 1:00 a.m.

I was headed home from a dinner that had gone on a little too late. We were passing a deserted stretch when I noticed the auto driver peering at me in the rear view mirror. I've done a few late nights in advertising to know how to handle creepy drivers. I stared back coldly.

He anxiously asked, 'Madam, time kya hua?'

Without taking my eye off him, I told him it was one in the morning. There were icicles hanging on every syllable.

He looked almost relieved, "Mujhe do bajhe tak vapas ana hai. Mera kutta biscuit khane aayega."(I've to return by two a.m. My dog will come for his biscuit.)

Was this some sort of code, I wondered?

I didn't have to speculate for long. He happily told me. He usually parked his vehicle outside the colony, from where I had got on. At 2 a.m., he'd make his way to the tea stall and when he returned, he'd unfailingly find the driver's seat occupied by a stray dog!

No amount of prodding dislodged the dog. Finally, he'd pull out the biscuit bought at the tea stall. The dog would climb down onto the floor of the auto, munch on the biscuit and then go off to sleep. The driver would squeeze into the back seat.

What happens if you get a passenger and can't return in the night, I asked?

He smiled, “Woh mere liye subah tak rukega. Isliye main wapas aane ki dekhta hoon.”
(He waits for me until the morning. So I make sure I return.)

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Allez, Lance, Allez!

‘Since when have you been interested in sports?’ asked my dad, surprised, as I beat him to the newspaper today and turned to the last page.

For someone who professes zero interest in any sport, I’ve been scanning the sports pages with an uncharacteristic zeal lately. The reason: Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who’s racing to an unprecedented 6th consecutive win in the most arduous sporting event in the world - the Tour de France.

I’d heard of Lance Armstrong fleetingly as a cancer survivor-turned-Tour winner. But it was only when I recently read his biography that I understood just what cancer survivor meant.

Oddly enough, his book is titled, ‘It’s Not About The Bike’. I say odd because his life story reads exactly like a bike ride on the Alps – tortuous uphills, heart-stopping downhills, insane hairpin bends and blinding pain.

Born on the wrong side of the tracks and raised by a single parent, Lance fortuitously discovered a talent on the bike. He raced out of a life of mediocrity and into the elite corps of cycling. In 1996, at age 24, he was the number one ranked cyclist in the world. He had everything – a dazzling career, a lucrative contract, a spanking new home. And then cancer knocked.

For Lance, life didn’t come to a standstill, it catapulted downhill. One day he was diagnosed with testicular cancer with metastasis to the lungs, and the next day he was in surgery to remove his testicle; a week later, the cancer had invaded his brain. He had less than 50% chance of surviving. Could life get worse? Apparently, yes. He discovered too late that he had no health insurance. And his key sponsor, Cofidis, was sidling towards the exit.

Even if he did survive chemotheraphy, there was every chance that he would never cycle again. And if Lance Armstrong wasn’t a world class cyclist, who was he? He writes, ‘I was brought low; this disease would force me to ask more of myself as a person than I ever had before.’

4 cycles of chemotherapy decimated the cancer, poisoned his blood and changed him irrevocably. “Getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he writes. It not only made him more appreciative of life, but also motivated him to start the Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer research and awareness.

Now, many people survive cancer, god be praised. But not one among them goes on to participate and win the world’s most gruelling test of human endurance - the Tour de France.

Initiated in 1903, the Tour de France covers 2,110 miles. That’s 21 days of cycling covering the circumference of France, mountains included, in the heat of summer. ‘It’s a contest in purposeless suffering’, he writes, ‘But it may be the most gallant athletic endeavor in the world.’

And here is what his statistics read like:

'93 - Did not finish
'94 - Did not finish
'95 - 36th
'96 - Did not finish
'97 - Did not enter
'98 - Did not enter
'99 - 1st
'00 - 1st
'01 - 1st
'02 - 1st
'03 - 1st

As today’s Times reports, ‘… only a disaster in the last stage could stop the American… from sealing his record sixth Tour de France victory.’ He’s won three consecutive stages this year, excluding the penultimate stage win. And he has an impressive 4 minute, 9 second lead over his nearest rival. In short, he’s coasting to victory.

But here’s the part of his story that I found most interesting. When he was declared clean of cancer, he didn’t just throw off his catheter, jump onto his bike and ride into Tour legend. For one long, painful year, he battled something more confounding than cancer and chemotherapy – survivorship. ‘In an odd way, having cancer was easier than recovery – atleast in chemo I was doing something, instead of just waiting for it to come back,’ he writes.

After surviving cancer, riding a bike seemed so trivial. He’d have nightmares about cancer returning, he’d get overtaken by old ladies riding on a bicycle. When he finally pulled himself together and announced his return, sponsors didn’t fall over themselves to sign him. And after a punishing training schedule, when he started winning races, critics accused him of taking drugs. But despite being the most tested athlete in the world, he’s never failed a dope test.

It’s true, however, that Lance has an unfair advantage over his rivals. His heart is almost a third larger than that of an average man. His muscles produce less lactic acid. His VO2 Max levels (the maximum amount of oxygen the lungs consume during exercise) are twice as much as a healthy man. But what gives him the edge is his extreme commitment to the sport. When his rivals take a break in winter, he rides alone in the sleet and gale-force winds. His trainers have to beg him to take a day off. In an interview he talks about his schedule, ‘People ask me what are you doing on Christmas Day? What are you doing on January 1st? Riding your bike? Absolutely.’ When asked whether it was necessary to adhere so rigidly to his training schedules he counters, “Depends whether you want to win. I do.’

I hope you do too, Lance.

Update: Vive la Lance! Six time winner of the Tour de France!

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Water way to spend a Sunday!

Imagine walking backwards on a slippery, slimy, moss covered rock. Even as you take a few steps, a thick jet of water hits you square in the face. Now, imagine the rocky patch you’re ‘walking’ on is at an angle of 90 degrees…

This could give you some idea about ‘waterfall rappelling’!

It was Adventure Sunday. And 14 of us were seated at the base of a 55-foot waterfall at Karjat. The fall split into two torrents, thrashed down the mountain and then relaxed in a little pool, before streaming down between the trees. The resulting din drowned out every other sound.

We gazed at the waterfall, spellbound, and peered a little nervously at the thin, white rope which hung over one of the falls. “That rope can take up to 1400 kgs,” said J, astutely reading our skepticism.

Now, I’ve rappelled before. It’s exhilarating but not especially difficult or even as strenuous as say, rock climbing. Essentially you’re fitted with two ropes – a rappelling rope, by which you lower yourself down, and a belay rope which is controlled by a ‘belayer’ at the top. The latter ensures that even if you lose your footing, you don’t hurtle down the mountain.

The waterfall, however, added a thrilling element to conventional rappelling. The all-familiar anticipation built up as I strapped on my helmet and harness.

I started tentatively, trying to remember all of J’s instructions. The slimy moss tickled my bare feet and I clenched my toes to get a grip. I descended, one tiny step at a time, gripping the rope so tight, my fingers cramped. Suddenly, a powerful spray caught me smack in the face. The freezing, pelting water erased all instructions. I gasped, my foot slipped, I let go of the rope and crashed into the rock.

Thud! Glub glub glub…

The belay rope held while the water hammered hard on my helmet. I regained my footing and continued, wetter and wiser.

Rappelling works best when you work against your instinct. The normal tendency is to crouch, and stay close to the rock. But it was only when I straightened my knees, and leaned back until I was almost perpendicular to the rock, that I could balance myself. The rope swung to the left because of the force of the water, but I stayed on course, maneuvering myself to the bottom. The group cheered enthusiastically.

‘Good?” asked J smiling.

"Just warmed up…" I replied, shivering.

The weather which had been sunny and cloudy this far, suddenly changed. The heavens opened up and a misty breeze set our teeth chattering. One of the girls, a chronic asthmatic, began feeling a little breathless. 6 people whipped out their inhalers! I was surprised. An ex-asthmatic myself, I had a morbid fear of getting drenched. But these intrepid, foolhardy souls convinced me that I was at the Convention of Suicidal Asthmatics.

After lunch, we tried the second, more powerful waterfall. This time I felt more confident.

“Don’t look below or at the rope. Focus on your feet,” directed J.

I dutifully looked at my feet and almost leaped off the cliff! My feet had dislodged a colony of tiny black worms, and they were now clinging to my feet.

“Eeeeooowwwaaaaaargh!” I screamed and shook one foot violently, and then the other.

J got a little worried seeing my frenzied dance on the cliff edge. “They won’t do anything to you,” he insisted. Heck, they were doing plenty just by being on my feet!

I was stuck between a rock and a squishy place.

I still don’t know how I overcame my squeamishness, but with gritted teeth and bitter curses, I started rappelling. The surging torrent washed away the critters (and probably carried some into my mouth! Ack!) The spray stung at first and then felt like a ton of bricks. I had to turn my face away in order to breathe. But this time, I got the rhythm. My toes found footholds, I leaned back into the harness and fed just the right amount of rope to maintain balance. It was exhilarating and disappointing to reach the bottom.

A third ride down the fall and I just about had my fill. I leaned back against a rock in my soggy clothes and actually fell asleep. Mountains and dense greenery obscured the view on all four sides.

It was my friend B’s first tryst with the outdoors. She sported bruised knuckles, grazed knees and sunburned cheeks as she came up to where I was dozing.

“Leela, I feel like quitting my job and doing this for the rest of my life,” she whispered, her eyes shining.

Ah, I thought, another one bites the dust.

Friday, July 16, 2004

You've got spam

I will be forever grateful to the malfunctioning junk mail filter on my account.

Had it been operational, I would have lost out on some invaluable insights, perhaps even a lucrative career opportunity. (Thankfully, serendipity whacks me on the noggin from time to time.)

It used to be an unerring ritual. Log onto, gasp at the counter which said 42 new messages, gleefully welcome the sudden surge in popularity… only to discover one bounced mail, one forwarded mail which I’d first read in 1998 and 40 junk mails!

Naturally, I said some uncharitable things about spammers and their offspring, which I now regret. I also wish I hadn’t been so hasty in filing them in the Trash folder.

Spammers, my ‘research’ has shown, have an astute awareness of human psychology. Far from the faceless, joyless intruders they’re made out to be, spammers are in fact a professional, helpful lot with a lively sense of humour. My research also negates the notion that spamming is a random, ridiculous activity. There is clearly a method, which few people have cared to observe.

I’m now thinking of publishing my penetrating insights in a slim volume titled, ‘Everything I know about advertising, I could have learned through Spam Mail.’

Here is a sampling of it...

Rules for Effective Spamming:

1. Always follow the golden rule of marketing: Offer a product or service that a consumer REALLY wants…

Insanely cheap, Original Software!
(‘800 WORLD BESTu softwarec with 90%t discountm’) (sic)

Instant University Degrees!
(‘All certs are genuine & real which it can be found in University record.’)

Drugs which promise an impossibly upbeat sex life
(‘Do you want to pleasure your partner every time?’)

2. An unusual name is more likely to grab attention…

Try names like…

Unseeing V. Nosebleed.

Endeavors J. Humiliate

Numbers Meeks

2.1 Sometimes, the name can also give a clue about the contents…

Rod Small

Johny Ronni

Lisa Gay

3. Once you've got a winning name, you need a winning subject title.

The golden rule here is – Personalise…

"Leela, do you need medication?'


“What r u up to these days?”

It helps sometimes to express urgency…

“Please come…”

Or willingness…

“I can watch”

A simple message can be livened up with the use of emoticons

Best offer of this year ;-)

Remember, humour lowers the barrier between you and your audience, and makes them more receptive to your message…

Are you satisfied with the smallness of your johnson?

Grow a thicker pecker

Small Small Little Dikky?? lol Granola

4. When it comes to content, make your message pithy and compelling, with a call to action

no degree = no job = no money
get an instant university degree = higher salary
no required tests, classes, books, or interviews!

5. Give your prospective customer more than he/she expects.

One way to do this is pepper your incredible offer with platitudes and thought-provoking quotes…

800 WORLD BESTu softwarec with 90%t discountm

Light, God's eldest daughter, is a principal beauty in a building.

Babies haven't any hair, Old men's heads are just as bare, between the cradle and the grave lie a haircut and a shave

6. Turn spell check and grammar check OFF. When in doubt between using a comma and a colon, use both…

Please spend few momentsa of yours preciousl time to check our offerq- it is more than worthu it!

Pleaise followl here nowe!

Get a bu"lky p:0l'e ; vdeenujwfhplb

Help relieve your inexpen;sive '; creavwo

7. Sign off warmly…

Hope my little tips help you out.

I hope we can get in touch. I am usually online.
-kisses, Rachael

Perhaps there’s a future in spam mail consultancy for me. I could tour with the book, do book readings… Maybe even convince those two blokes to do a ‘Chicken Soup for the Spammer’s Soul’. Spammers have for long battled feelings of rejection and low self esteem. This could be an opportunity for me to give back to the spamming community who’ve so generously given me more than I could ever have asked for.

Spammers of my account, ho’pe my l1ttle t.ips he>lp u o,ut ;-)

Friday, July 09, 2004

Zen and the ken of dental maintenance

What’s the best part about dental surgery?

As of now, I can’t think of a reason. But this much I can say, a bi-cortical surgical implant isn’t as bad as it sounds. After 5 injections, you don’t feel a thing. The malevolent, gleaming steel implements hold no terror. The snarling drill doesn’t give you the heebie-jeebies.

I’m inexplicably detached as the dentist asks her assistant for a blade. And I can tell my gums are being sliced open only by the movement of her hand and the slight tugs I feel. John Denver is crooning, ‘Sweet Surrender’ in the background. The lime green and white interiors of the clinic are remarkably calming.

We both gaze at my Orthopantomogram (the full mouth X-ray). It grins back eerily.

“We’ll drill all the way up into the bone and then we’ll place the screw there,” she says. I nod matter-of-factly.

For someone who’s fastidious about brushing and flossing and bi-annual clean ups for years but is still regularly trounced by those vile bacteria, an unemotional standpoint is the best. Besides, the bi-cortical implant was a final attempt to correct the vestiges of an accident-prone childhood. A face-first encounter with a stone bench way back in school had left me minus a pearly white.

“Your bones are very good,”
she says.

So the mouth did turn out something good after all. But it seems a bit funny… A dentist complimenting you on your bones is much like a neurologist admiring your kidneys or a proctologist raving about your complexion. I try to smile but the probe sticking out of my jaw gets in the way.

A titanium screw is reverently brought forth by the assistant. It’s fitted in the newly excavated good bone. Silver, acrylic and now titanium… Must admit, I feel a little cyborg-ish. Part human, part metal.

I forbade my tongue to find out what the mangled upper jaw feels like. But when the dentist offers me the mirror, I take it. It not as bad as I visualized. The titanium screw glints and the black sutures have successfully stemmed the bleeding. I wonder what it will feel like when the anesthetic wears off…

“Avoid solid food or anything that will cause pressure on your teeth today,” she says.

“Does that mean I can’t crack open beer bottles,” I joke. Only it doesn’t sound funny. With a numb jaw and a lip hanging lower on one side, all that emerges is a slurry sough, ‘wuff wuff wiffle wiffle weff weff’.

She prescribes painkillers and other antibiotics. And then tries to ease things by cheerily announcing, ‘You can have as much ice-cream and milk shakes as you want.’ She waits for my eyes to light up. When they don’t, she looks bemused.

‘Wiff wiff..,’
I try to explain, ‘I don’t like ice-creams or milkshakes.’

‘But you must have it,’ she persists. ‘You need to eat cold foods.’

When icecream and milkshakes get listed below Combiflam and Novoclox on the prescription, then you know that a little cheer has just left the world.

But the good patient (with good bones) that I am, I stop off at McDonald’s on the way home and place my order. I slurp the softie and toss away the cone before beginning on the milkshake. Doctor’s orders…

Update: Guess who's sporting the sultry, sought-after, bee-stung pout this morning? Move over Naomi Campbell and Angelina Jo-lee!

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Just for the record

A degree in Psychology, a few years in a career which attempts to understand and influence consumer behaviour… and yet the question bamboozles me, ‘Why do people behave the way they do?’

There I was, setting my parents teeth on edge by zapping channels furiously when I came across the odd sight.

A woman was standing on a dais, a look of intense concentration on her face, even as her jaw moved up and down like a piston. Then, she opened her mouth and pulled out a glistening, pink gobbet of bubble gum. Crickey, I shuddered, hope it’s not a bubblegum chewing relay. It wasn’t.

She flattened the squelchy blob and covered her nose with it, patting it down securely. Then, she started blowing a bubble through her nose. The compere, who I previously hadn’t noticed, was giddy with excitement, ‘… will Elaine set the record today?! Will she enter the book of records?!...’

I watched gobsmacked as the bubble grew… and grew… and grew. ‘It’s bigger than her head!!!,’ screeched the compere. If it bursts now, she’ll surely need plastic surgery, I thought. And a wig as well. The twin heads – one auburn, one pink – bobbed uncertainly until the attendant recorded the dimensions of the latter. ‘She’s done it! A new record!!’ babbled the now-delirious compere. Elaine beamed and bowed like she’d just been handed the Olympic gold.

Bubblegum Nose Blow?!
I understand the deep driving impulse to be different, to make a name, to grab whatever chance at fame. (Refer my transformation into an Enrique groupie!) But had we run out of record-defying categories already? Had we stretched all the bounds of cycling backwards, eating glass, pulling cars with teeth and baking largest cakes? And how does one come up with an idea like Bubblegum Nose Blow? Does one maintain a training schedule? What happens when a neighbour walks in on your practice session? And seriously, what NEXT?

The answer was revealed after the commercial break.

A couple stood on the dais this time. Uh-oh, I thought. The woman placed a deflated balloon between her lips. When the manic compere gave the signal, the guy clamped his mouth on the woman's nose and blew hard. The limp balloon swelled up. What looked like a revolting mating ritual was in effect the ‘Tandem Balloon Nose Blow’. When the balloon had been stretched to the limit, the attendant with calipers took the measurements. <“46 inches”, hollered the compere. The couple hugged breathlessly, assured of their place in history.

A few years from now, I foresee their son getting into a game of one-upmanship with the neighbour’s kid.

Neighbour’s kid: ‘My dad can hold his breath underwater for 10 minutes.’

Couple’s son (sneering): ‘Is that all? My dad can blow a balloon through my mother’s nose!’