Sunday, February 29, 2004

Under the Over… With Friends

The table for five had been booked.

I stepped out of the bright sunlight into the cool, tranquil interiors of ‘Under the Over’ - the Italian bistro at Kemps Corner.

‘Er… where’s the table for five?’ I asked the steward, as my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting.

‘Anywhere you like, ma’am’, he replied courteously. ‘We’re empty at the moment.’

Feeling a little conscious about being the only customer, I picked a table with a good view of the entrance. The traffic passed by soundlessly. The girls came in one after another almost immediately. And the placid quiet of the place was broken with effusive and delighted greetings. The attendant with the water jug waited unobtrusively, probably thinking, ‘Old friends…’

The quiet returned once more as we pored over the menu. Occasional glances were cast at the entrance. The lone male member of the group had yet to arrive.

We were deciding the flavour of the Mashed Potatoes when he walked in. And the decibel levels shot up again. The waiter stepped backward hastily, and watched the guessing game that the last entrant was subjected to. He gamely tried to guess one giggling girl from another, with marginal success.

‘Are you ready to order the Mashed Potatoes now?’, asked the waiter politely, once the brouhaha had subsided.

The orders were placed. I asked for an old Under the Over favourite - Spaghetti Siciliana. Every other place I’d tried it at had successfully disappointed me. But out here, they got it right. Always.

But meal apart, it was the company I was savouring. We had the entire bistro to ourselves. The conversation ranged from the everyday to the eclectic, old bosses and new jobs, travel tales and racy gossip. One person was missing all of this back in Delhi. A quick call to her brought her right into the centre of action. Details will follow, we promised her, five versions of it.

Orange Panties for dessert?! The chef would’ve been apoplectic if he heard our version of Orange Pancakes! But he might have forgiven us if he saw how we made short work of the brownie groaning under the weight of ice cream and chocolate sauce.

Time which had stood still until now suddenly broke loose. Lunch hour had ended ages ago. It was time to get back to work.

The five friends stepped out. Friends brought together thanks to a common hobby – blogging. This was our first offline meeting, the first of many I hope.

Anita, Subs, Uptowngirl, XXX, Rashmi… it’s been such a pleasure!

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Back to skool!

It was the much-looked-forward-to holiday in the middle of the week. My aunt, a school teacher, dropped in to spend the day with us. And after a while, she did what most teachers do on their days off. She pulled out a thick wad of answer papers and the dreaded red pen. I hurriedly wore a busy look to stave off requests to help with corrections. It was a precious holiday and I didn’t want to be reminded of school!

But on seeing her shake her head and occasionally clutch her greying hair, my curiosity was aroused. A sneak peek revealed that it was a Class II English grammar paper.

Grammar! The bugbear of every student! A subject which drives grownups to their knees! And these were mere 7 year olds, delicately treading a minefield of Opposites, Plurals and Genders. Curious about how they braved their way, I started leafing through some of the corrected papers. And came away with some thrilling insights…

The first error I spotted was in Opposites.

THICK x FAT


Surprisingly, the next 7 papers also had the same error. And then I noticed other similarities as well. I was mildly shocked to discover that they’d been copying. Wasn’t Std. II a little early to start? Or was I the na├»ve one here?

Some answers, although erroneous, revealed considerable ingenuity.

CLEVER x DISCLEVER

BEGIN x UNBEGIN

ASLEEP x INASLEEP

And one blunder which was nonetheless apt was…

CLEVER x BULL

I couldn’t resist chortling at some of the bloopers in Gender.

SIR x MADMAN

FATHER x GRANDFATHER


Plurals also had several howlers, the most notable being…

SHEEP x SHEEPISH

Guesswork showed up in some answers, with side-splitting effect.

So, a GARDENER was the head of the school.

And a COBBLER operated on an aeroplane.


In Make Sentences With…, one smart kid thought he’d hit upon a sure shot formula. The words were Study, Apple, Leader, Tall. His answers were…

This is a study
This is a apple
This is a leader
This is a tall.


This is a zero, said the menacing red marker, which was looking for ‘meaningful’ sentences.


Some answers were poignant, and revealed the child’s unique insight.

One who sells flowers is MOTHER.

One who teaches in a school is MISS SHILPA.

One who leads a team is INDIAN

One paper stood out in terms of originality. No copying, for this child. Irrespective of the question, the answers were a breezy free association.

Opposites:

FIRST x FOUR

LONG x LION

ASLEEP x APPLE

BEGIN x BANG


Similarly with Gender:

DOG x DICTATION

SIR x SINGER


If there were rewards for originality, I was looking at a class topper!


But the answers that had me doubled up and almost on the floor were:

Gender:

DOG x GIRL-DOG

Young ones of:

DUCK x DUCK GIRL


The hilarity was tempered a bit when I saw the answers to ‘When do we celebrate Independence Day?’

Incredibly enough, DECEMBER 25, NOVEMBER 14 AND AUGUST 14 were the most popular answers, with August 15 falling somewhere on the lower rungs.


My initial resistance notwithstanding, I couldn’t help thinking about my own school days. Despite being a fairly decent student, I can’t say I ever enjoyed school. I found it terribly dull and unstimulating (something I realised when only when I joined College.) My classmates still reminisce fondly about school being ‘the best time of our lives’. But not me. The only pleasant memories I have are of time spent in the library or of playing throwball in the all-too-short Games classes. The rest of the time it was a feverish race to stay on top of all the homework and rote-learning.

The only time my mind was even awakened to the possibility of a world beyond, was in a Geography class in Std. IX. (Perhaps, the travel bug germinated from there. Thank you Miss Jacinta!)

The last question in the Std. II papers was ‘Write 8 lines about your school’. One line stood out in one of the papers, ‘MY SCHOOL IS A HARD’.

Ha! Out of the mouth of babes…

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Scuffed shoes and an unending road…

One of the questions buzzing in my head the day before the Marathon was – could a city with a hugely strained infrastructure pull off an International Marathon, which entailed cordoning off a whole section of roads for over 7 hours? Granted that it was a Sunday morning, but hey, this IS the city that never sleeps! So were the city officials up to the task?

I found out in the wee hours of Sunday, 15th February, when our cab hit the first blockade near Metro Cinema. Elaborate security was in place. Police vans were patrolling the limits. Our baffled cabbie asked, “Kya ho raha hai?”

I knowledgably rattled off, ‘Aaj daud hai, Azad Maidan se Worli tak’. He turned around, gave me a sneering, ‘subah-subah-koi-mila-nahin’ look and drove off.

At Azad Maidan

Despite the early hour and the soporific pipe music that was playing on the PA system, the atmosphere at Azad Maidan was electric. Runners were warming up, others were chilling out. Some looked superbly fit; others, a little soft around the middle. The dichotomy was most visible in the gear. Nike, Adidas and Reebok logos flashed prominently on some physiques, whereas others sported simple vests and unbelievably, canvas shoes!

But the most respectful looks were reserved for those with yellow running bibs – the Full Marathon runners.

P, M, my brother and I – running buddies since the last month – were relieved when at 7 o’ clock, runners were asked to assemble at the starting point. “If we start on time, we’ll be able to finish before the sun gets unbearable”, was M’s logic.

The air was taut with tension. With over 3,500 excitable runners together, the shoving and jostling increased with every passing minute. It was impossible to see what was going on ahead. But the moment the blue and green helium balloons soared up into the sky, and the helicopter whirred overhead, we knew it was THE moment!

… and GO!


The throngs set off like it was a 100-metre dash! Only our reminders to each other to ‘start slow’ prevented us from getting sucked into that pace. 10 minutes into the run, at Flora Fountain, the crowds had thinned considerably, giving us ample room to run at our own pace.

Incredible sights and sounds

The excited bellows of 'Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya’ were soon drowned out by galloping footsteps. At Fountain, a brass band in full regalia, struck up an invigorating tune. Just the right note on which to begin a marathon! And for the encore, two more brass bands livened up the long stretch on Marine Drive. Seriously, whoever thought of this deserved a medal.

No star athletes were in sight, but nevertheless, there were interesting people around. A middle aged runner assumed the role of cheerleader, and started clapping enthusiastically, attempting to get the somnolent gawkers to follow suit.

I was a bit startled to find myself next to a leering Osama. It turned out to be mask worn backwards by a runner, with comical effect. And if Osama was there, could his nemesis be far behind? One pony tailed runner had a poster tacked to his back which had Bush’s mugshot with ‘World’s No. 1 terrorist’ emblazoned on it.

‘Bankers do it… with interest’, read one T-shirt. Some sported corporate logos, some promoted a cause. The sponsors made their presence felt on every possible surface. But the simplest yet most practical message came from The Clean Mumbai Foundation. ‘Mind the banana peel’ – runners were cautioned!

And speaking of peels, exactly WHERE was all the litter which made Mumbai famous? Where were the hawkers, the jaywalkers, the polluting traffic? Any WHY OH WHY couldn’t they be locked there everyday?!

Up the hill

The turnoff towards Babulnath signalled the end of good times. Two ominous slopes lay ahead. This was where runners were separated from the also-ran. A loud cheer went up. Was it for us, I wondered hopefully. But no, it was for the marathoners who’d completed ¾ the distance in the time we took to cover 1/4! Just a glimpse at their sinewy limbs and powerful strides was both humbling and inspiring.

Since M, P and I had run on this slope before, we’d planned to go easy on the uphill and then zip down the incline. But a minor cramp in my right side meant I couldn’t charge downhill. A fierce ache was also issuing from my right ankle. It was difficult to drink water on the run and stopping wasn’t an option. So I turned my focus on the Worli flyover – the halfway mark. Just get there, and the worst will be over, I encouraged myself.

Only 11 kms to go!


Turned out I was wrong about the worst. Two treacherous slopes awaited us on our return too. I gasped and wheezed up Peddar Road, past many a runner who thought it saner to walk. This is what you’ve trained for, I reminded myself.

Exhaustion was setting in and I was running out of morale-boosting strategies. That’s where the wonderful people of Mumbai chipped in. A group of women stood singing, ‘Hum honge kamyaab’. A guy butted in, singing, ‘Hum hai kamyaab’. And I suddenly felt incredibly recharged. Another person was holding aloft a yellow poster which read, ‘Don’t worry that you may loose (sic) because you have already won our admiration.’ People called out, ‘Good going 3546! Keep running!’ Then of course, there was the promised positive energy from friends all over. That kept the momentum going for a long long while.

The last push


Back onto Marine Drive and the sun was straight in our faces. It was going to be a very long 7 kilometres. Another loud cheer went up. A vehicle with a timer whizzed by, followed closely by a runner. The timer showed 2:00 hours and the runner, I assumed, was leading in the marathon. Even after 35 kilometres, he looked indefatigable.

My legs and lungs had settled into a weary rhythm. Water wouldn’t quench anymore. Most people were walking, some limping and a handful were determinedly running. I was shocked to see some running barefoot. Was there no limit to the amount people would push themselves??

Maybe it was exhaustion or delirium, but I couldn’t spot any familiar landmark which would indicate we were nearing the turnoff to Churchgate. I asked P, ‘Have we reached Marine Drive?’, and he nodded confidently (and I later realised, ignorantly as well.) But that kept me going until we reached the actual turnoff.

Home run


The brass band was whipping up a frenzy, which worked better than steroids could at that moment. Churchgate, Eros and Fountain whizzed by. The roads were almost empty now and far (too far!) in the distance, my eyes finally picked out the FINISH LINE!

500 metres from mecca, and a tidal wave called ‘The Dream Run’ was unleashed. The marathon runners were swept to the fringes while the 15,000+ mob swarmed both sides of the street. Thankfully, we missed the worst, as we sprinted the last 100 metres on our last legs, literally. Relief overshadowed triumph when P & I first stepped onto the electronized mats under the timer. 2:34:02! M had completed it 3 minutes earlier, while my brother clocked an unbelievable 1:57. Better than our estimated time of 2:45, we exulted.

Post-script

Headed back home, our cabbie grumbled as he had to negotiate through some back lanes of Mumbai. When another cabbie asked him what all the fuss was about, he launched a full invective with, ‘Arre, daud tha. Akkha Mumbai bhag raha tha. Kya maloom kyon?’ My brother and I exchanged grins.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Just did it!

... in 2 hours, 34 minutes and 2 seconds!

Thanks to each one of you for the good luck wishes. It sure helped!

Friday, February 13, 2004

Just do it!

Training manuals and sports instructors don’t recommend it, but running a marathon calls for a certain pre-requisite – blissful ignorance.

When I signed up for the Mumbai International Marathon early in January, there were many things I didn’t know. For starters, there was the big question mark about running. I’ve never really run. Ok, not if you count the customary dash for the 8.22 local, and the paltry 10 minutes on the treadmill. Running entailed stamina and discipline and fell somewhere in the realm of ‘serious fitness’.

The second question mark came after kilometre. For someone who computes distance by railway stations and travel time, discerning the distance in one kilometre was tricky. Leave alone 21 kms. - the length of the Half Marathon, for which I’d signed up.

Third, how did one go about training for a marathon? The website proposed a 10-week training period. And here, I was looking at 4 1/2 weeks. How did one train anyway? Was there a recommended diet? Gear?

But one thing I DID know was that when I first read about the Marathon early in January, I began to think ‘What if…’ with that familiar feeling of fear-tinged excitement, which has preceded most other adventures.

The decision was made. Entries were mailed. Then came the challenging part – duelling with a mind over a body.

The last month has been filled with exhilarating and liberating discoveries. The question marks have drawn their answers. The moment I lace up my shoes and go through the routine of warm-ups, there’s a certain impatience to begin. To discover the limits of the day. To register the feeble protests of the various parts of the body and to gently tune them out. To collapse in one aching, gasping heap only to forget it all and start over the next day.

Nike’s first ever advertising effort was a poster which featured a runner against a headline – THERE IS NO FINISH LINE. When I came across it many years ago, I thought it was a profound statement about the joys of running (in the right pair of shoes, of course!). More recently, I’ve discovered it’s really about the absence of mental finishing lines. If Terry Fox could run it on one leg, and people the world over have battled life-threatening infirmities to successfully complete it, there are few excuses left anyway.

Two days from now, 20,000+ runners will take to the streets in ‘Asia’s biggest marathon’. The mob features some high-profile international athletes, corporate heavyweights and movie stars. But rubbing shoulders with them will also be the physically challenged, people with heart ailments, street children and rank amateurs like me.

The marathon, after all, is not about running. It’s never been. It’s about belief.

And yes, ignorance too…

Sunday, February 08, 2004

There’s something about Memory…

A couple of days ago at work, I stopped to read a new notice in the glass-enclosed bulletin board. And then something rather peculiar below that notice caught my eye.

It was a pair of spectacles hanging on a pin!

What was a pair of spectacles doing on a notice board?!! And while we’re asking questions - why did they look exactly like the glasses I’d been frantically hunting for in the last few days?!!

The admin head looked at me sternly when I asked for the keys to the glass enclosure. “Where did you leave them?”, she asked.

“I have no idea”, I replied with wide-eyed honesty. "I could’ve sworn they were on my desk."

But for all my wide-eyed honesty, I don’t for a moment credit my personal effects with itinerant tendencies. Far from it. In fact, lost-and-found is a leitmotif in my life.

Now, some might mistakenly call this quirk of misplacing things a habit. I demur. It’s a fine art, honed by years of meticulous practise! Glasses, watches, bags, pens, folders, books, jewellery, keys… have all assisted in upholding this art. And if losing things calls for a certain skill, finding them fortuitously requires an even more critical talent.

I once had a rather bulky planner which never fit into my bag. So I carried it in my hand, reminding myself to ‘be careful’. It escaped my careful grasp not once or twice, but an unparalleled seven times! And seven times it was returned to me!!! By friends, colleagues, strangers… Twice, I travelled to the nether regions of Bombay to retrieve it from cab driver’s shanty dwellings.

The eighth time I successfully lost it!

I’ve analysed this trait extensively and have come to the conclusion - I don’t really forget, I only remember a wee bit late.

There was this time, when I sat up for days making personalised Christmas cards for friends. I was about to buy stamps when I decided to visit my aunt in Sion. I alighted from the auto and precisely 9 seconds later, I remembered the cards in the back of the vehicle. For the next hour, I ran half-tearful all around the Sion junction. It wasn’t one of those fortunate days. Still, for a few weeks I kindled the hope that the driver might post my cards.

“Your head’s not on your shoulders”, is my parents’ explanation of the missing link. There’s an unwritten policy at home to never shut the door when I leave. Because I inevitably turn up a few minutes later for my cell phone or glasses or wallet and on one occasion, for my shoes. My brother jocularly computes my ‘latency time’ – the time taken to remember what I’ve forgotten! Recent calculations have shown a marked improvement, but I know better than to trust that.

But seriously, my memory is far from egregious. For instance, I have an almost prodigious recall for names, birthdays and phone numbers. And as an effective counterpoint, I’ve developed an ease for multi-tasking. And there are some areas where I’m so fanatically methodical and organised, that I can find precisely what I’m looking for in the dark.

In a way, this quirk has also served as invaluable spiritual practice. Detachment from the material world comes more easily to me now. And after every episode, I console myself by quoting ‘What does it profit a person to gain the world but suffer the loss of his soul?'

Coming back to the glasses, I walked away from the admin head’s table telling myself sternly, keep your head on your shoulders and your glasses on your nose. I remembered the injunction all day, especially when I left the office. And then recalled leaving them in the washroom. Thankfully, I retrieved them before they reached the glass enclosure.

Practise, they say, makes perfect.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Kolad Magic!

You know the ‘adventure weekend’ is off to a good start, when at the first dinner halt, you find the tables are set on 20-feet high stilts. And after you’ve climbed a rickety ladder, your order is taken by the manager, who could pass off for a benign politician. And when even the whimsically ordered fries turn out to be exceedingly good!

The menagerie:7 happy adventurers, two guides, one attendant, two vehicles and 3 bicycles.

The destination: Kolad, a dozy little town 3 hours away from Mumbai, and just off the Mumbai-Goa road.

The plan: Drive to Kolad, take turns to explore the countryside on cycles and camp in the wild.

It was midnight when we reached Kolad and found a little spot off the main road to camp. The air was redolent with the thick sweet scent of wildflowers. A delicious nip hung in the air. That, and the starry night sky lured some of the bravehearts to bring their sleeping bags out of the tents.

In the morning, a curious knot of village children gathered at our campsite. We must have provided an amusing spectacle as we wrestled with the tent pegs, did warm ups and tested the cycles. After a hearty breakfast, the first three cyclists set off, while we tailed them in the two vehicles.

It was a pleasant, sunny morning. The roads were in superb condition as we zipped through hamlets with quaint names like Paoor and Kudli and Sanasvadi. When I got my turn at the pedals, we’d reached the ghats and the start of a gentle incline. For the next two hours, one enticing thought kept me going as I gritted my teeth, tormented my muscles and worked my way uphill – that I’d soon be rewarded with a heart-stopping downhill slope, and I’d rip through it with my eyes streaming and hair flying!

At one point, as I stopped to catch my breath on a narrow pass, I came upon an unfamiliar sound in the air. A silence so deep and pervading that it seemed to go on forever. In that timeless moment, the only movement came from a tiny yellow butterfly flitting in the yellow grass and from my heart doing the lambada in my ribcage. It was one of those soul-perfect moments that one seeks endlessly but only rarely stumbles upon.

Just when I’d run out of gears and my legs were all wobbly, I spotted that elusive downhill slope. And as it turned out, the group had broken for lunch. That’s Lucky Leela for you!

After a Maharashtrian-style lunch replete with bhakri, fiery chicken curry and a mug full of toddy, we retreated to a shady copse to escape the fierce noonday sun. Later, we rode some more, until we arrived at a perfect night stop - a flat plain which dropped steeply into a lush green valley. No tents, we decided, let’s sleep under the stars. We stretched out lazily to watch a glorious sunset, munching on ‘Melange de Jaipur’ (a needlessly fancy name for Haldiram’s Bhujia Sev!)

The incandescent gibbous moon rendered torches unnecessary. And a crash course in astronomy and dinner later, we eased into our sleeping bags, waiting just long enough to sing a cacophonous ‘happy birthday’ for A at the dot of 12.

… and then all hell broke loose!

The mild, pleasant breeze transformed into a furious, raging hurricane. It was like a dozen freight trains roaring by. I opened one eye and peered out of the sleeping bag and was instantly pelted with a mixture of hay and loose mud. The flapping tarpaulin began to sound like a thunderclap. No rain Lord, we prayed, no rain! The wind had swelled our sleeping bags, giving it a balloon-like appearance. And we fervently hoped that we wouldn’t have to climb down the gorge the next morning to recover our bags and shoes! Still, I not only managed to sleep intermittently but also to have bizarre dreams.

Sunrise the next morning had no effect on this renegade wind. Was this a message to beat it? We wasted no time in setting off.

From the mountains, we detoured to the sea. To a town called Shrivardhan, 40 kms away. Another fiery Maharashtrian lunch later, we hightailed it back to Bombay.

As we neared the city limits, long-silent cell phones started beeping out belated messages. And items from my To-Do list started popping back into my head. It was back to the grind, but one was ready for it now…