February 18, 2011

A Cricketing Metaphor

Since the time Cricket broadcasters and Indian advertisers deemed it fit to push L-shaped ads, Pop-up ads, Exploding ads, Crawly ads in the middle of a delivery of all things during the recent India – South Africa cricket series, heralding a new low for even the greedy broadcasters and the even greedier BCCI, reducing the cricket telecast to interspersing cricket between unending intrusive advertising rather than the other way round, I’ve come to dislike brands who intruded into my viewing pleasure so blatantly and put me off all things cricket in print and on TV.

I steer clear of the clutter now, and am apprehensive of switching on the TV for fear of running into yet another segment of Dev’s Devils from 1983. I’d want India to win this year’s World Cup if for nothing than at least so we’d spared of the aging narrative of the 1983 team repeated ad nauseam each time the World Cup swings into view. I’d rather have Dhoni’s Dhulaiwaley given the bar stools four years hence, not that they’d offer any more insight and drama on the studio camera, but at least the faces would be different.

I think it’s a good enough reason for me to cheer the Indian team on. And this coming from someone who, barely out of primary school, sat through the grainy broadcast of the 1983 final on EC TV where the players were indistinguishable from the Lord’s grass, cheering them on on the strength of radio commentary since the fierce hiss on the only TV in the neighbourhood had all but turned the commentary on TV barely audible.

Fortunately, the streets are relatively free of cricket advertising heading into the World Cup unless you’d consider the India Today cover plastered on a Telephone Box at the corner of Nanabhai Lane in Fort a part of it.

Even so I’m delighting in the snatches I overhear on my way about the city. And none more so than the exchange between two youths I overheard recently on my way up the crowded stairs at a suburban railway station.

In rush hour local train traffic I negotiate the stairs connecting the over-bridge servicing railway platforms more from instinct than anything else. The steps are barely visible among assorted feet jamming the stairways.

On reaching out to steady his friend who stumbled on a step behind me, nearly falling in the crush of bodies, the smiling saviour could not resist quipping in jest:

Rough Wicket Hai,
Gir Jaogey.
Simple Delivery Bhi,
Googly Hai.

And the magic was back on. Show me the remote.

February 15, 2011

Home On Uttrayan Eve in Ahmedabad Pol

He saw me much before I noticed him. His window on the first floor overlooked the turn that led into Kuvawalo Khancho, located in Doshivada ni Pol in Ahmedabad’s old neighbourhood of Kalupur, not far from the Shantinathji Mandir in Haja Patel ni Pol we had passed through earlier.

The narrow lanes breathed history, their legacy and antiquity on display as much in the wear of doors splintering from age as in intricately carved woodwork gracing facades and balconies of homes variously dating back through the centuries beginning in 1760 or thereabouts.

Too often in India, where the antiquity of a neighbourhood or a house is in question, the earliest recorded date of construction is likely to be the earliest surviving record, unless the owner happened to engrave the year on the wall.

At the point where the Calico Dome lay crumpled, retained as much for its former architectural significance as for its significance and role in Ahmedabad’s textile legacy, we had crossed the Relief Road apparently built to ‘relieve’ the main thoroughfares of traffic but Amdavadis will joke that while the intention was noble at the time of its construction years ago, the Relief Road is now the most crowded, and it’s likely a smiling Amdavadi will quip, “No relief on Relief Road,” in an accent that is decidedly Gujju, the OOOs arcing through the air in abandon while delightfully reminding of a jest for life.

However we saw little or no traffic on Relief Road that morning. It might’ve to do with our taking to the road early. Even for the enterprising Amdavadi, eight is a tad too early to be plying his trade. Moreover it was the eve of Uttrayan or Makar Sankranti as it is known elsewhere in India when we found ourselves in Kalupur, a time when much of Gujarat, and Ahmedabad in particular, forgoes all worries and responsibilities to take to the roofs to fly kites.

Much of everything comes to a standstill. The Manja makers were busy at work lacing kite thread with powdered glass for use in flying fighter kites on Uttrayan the next day, a Friday.

Resting his face lightly on a wooden length framing the open window, and prone on a bed set at the window his was truly a room on the roof. The blanket was askew at where he had likely stretched his limbs upon stirring to life at the stroke of dawn. If his window were facing the east the clothes hanging from a line outside the window might’ve shielded him from the awakening sun.

I had sensed eyes on me as I approached the turn in the lane and instinctively looked up seeking the gaze before finding it framed in a smiling face pressed to the wooden lengths.

It’s easy to guess in the manner of a school boy if he has any intention of going to school that day, or if it’s a school day to start with. For one it’s unlikely he’d be smiling and lingering in bed if there’s a roll call to answer later. And nothing in his demeanour indicated he had to answer one that morning. Even so I couldn’t resist asking him since it was a Thursday.

“Not going to school?”

“No,” he replied, smile widening. For a moment I thought he might be actually pleased to be reminded he didn’t have to go to school that morning. Reliving it must somehow double the pleasure to a school going lad.

“Isn’t Uttrayan tomorrow?” I persisted.

“It is. But we’ve holidays starting today. Three days.” The smile never quite left him. Apparently, Vasi Uttrayan, the day following Uttrayan, was a holiday as well.

Thursday. Friday, and Saturday.

Then there’s the Sunday.

January is a nice time to be going to school in Gujarat I thought as we parted, skipping along, dodging cows and silence in equal measure.

Glossary: (1) Khancho is Gujarati for ‘Open Space’. (2) Pol is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Pratoli’, meaning ‘Gate’ or ‘Entry’ to an enclosed area, here Pols are micro-neighbourhoods with houses on either side of a street, with access controlled by the gate. (3) Manja is kite thread developed to sharp edge using powdered glass bound by adhesives, including rice paste. (4) Mandir is Indian for temple. (5) Uttrayan or Uttrayana denotes the period (six months) when the Sun travels North on the celestial sphere, the beginning of which is celebrated as Makar Sankranti or Uttrayan.

February 09, 2011

Trucks Roll On, Roll Off Konkan Railway

Before the Konkan Railway came into being, connecting Mumbai with Goa along the Konkan coast, I would travel to Mumbai and back by bus, along roads winding through villages and hamlets hidden among trees and interspersed among rice fields. To watch a villager walk by in the backdrop of mountains would be watch tranquility nudge time along.

Sometimes the bus would pass close enough for me to make out the farmer’s features as he ploughed his rice field in ankle deep slush, goading his oxen on with short guttural commands. In the next square would be another farmer with his bullocks, the scene repeating for many miles along the Konkan stretch.

The sameness never jarred, instead it sought to connect me with a tradition, even if fleetingly, that’s barely changed since the time humans first began to work the land, rooting them to the earth just as surely as wings root birds to the skies, and as irresistibly as a bend in the road draws a wanderer’s feet to it.

If the skies were blue and an occasional cloud were to be making its way across, the water in the rice fields would reflect it just as clearly as if I were craning my neck out the window to sight it in the skies. And in the water I could see the breeze I felt on my face pressed to the window.

The pastoral scenes along the Konkan stretch filled in the hours well. Soon enough the rumble of the bus became a steady hum, receding to the back of my mind like an insistent fly buzzing about in a room stilled by the noon silence. I might’ve been in a theatre watching a slide show of picture postcards play out and not know the difference.

The Goa - Bombay journey was a long one, and the only time I was brought up to a thudding break in the middle of the scenic slide show was when the driver would occasionally swerve wildly to sway out of the path of an oncoming truck joyously muscling his way past a terrified bus-load of staid passengers. I’ve had my share of these untimely thrills over the years to an extent that I began to keep a wary eye out the window for an oncoming truck if only to give me a momentary head-start for a bracing impact, helped no doubt by the occasional wreck left to rust along the Bombay - Goa route, macabre installations that might yet be turned into art someday if only to remind a traveller of the perils that his Karma might’ve in store for him.

I needn’t have worried much, for I’ve lived to tell the proverbial tale. It’s just that having shifted to traveling by the Konkan Railway, and my encounters with trucks on the highway having reduced to seeing them waiting alongside bullock carts at railway crossings, watching my train thunder past, I was nevertheless reminded of my highway journeys when, three years ago, the Mandovi Express I was traveling by pulled up alongside Konkan Railway’s RO RO service for trucks, shortened from Roll On - Roll Off.

The Roll On - Roll Off flatbed rail car was headed the opposite direction with its cargo of thirty trucks transporting goods when we passed it shortly after leaving Khed.

Doors open, the drivers and cleaners were probably twiddling their thumbs, or maybe playing cards awaiting Kolad, their Roll Off point 145 kms. short of Mumbai. In all likelihood they’d Rolled On at Verna in Goa, or maybe at Suratkal, 20 kms. off Mangalore.

The Konkan Railway operates the Roll On – Roll Off (RO RO) service for truck transportation between (1) Verna – Kolad, (2) Suratkal – Kolad, and (3) Verna – Suratkal. The Verna – Kolad stretch is 421 kms., while the Suratkal – Kolad route spans 721 kms.

A little over a year ago reports had suggested that Konkan Railway had made profits to the tune of 120 crores from their RO RO service over ten years, the service having commenced in 1999 before recommencing after a minor suspension of service in between.

The trucks have to obtain height clearance before they’re permitted to Roll On the rail car at the loading point to ensure a safe clearance through the slew of tunnels along the Konkan Railway route.

It must be a welcome change for drivers to sit back and take in the picturesque Konkan stretch from the safety of their cabins as the rail car proceeds to their destination along the coast instead of keeping up through the day, and the night hunched over the wheel.

Needless to say it saves drivers long hours of driving, cuts down on transportation time between the destinations serviced, saves trucks from the wear and tear of the road, and the owners of fuel costs, bypasses check posts and the inevitable greasing of sundry palms along the way, primes the business for quick turnarounds on account of reduced travelling time, and most importantly reduces the probability of accidents resulting from reckless, drunk, or fatigued truck drivers. The opposite is also true, saving truck drivers from accidents resulting from reckless, drunk, or fatigued drivers behind the wheels of sundry motor vehicles.

Watching the trucks idling in silence, I couldn’t help wonder if my own journeys by bus might not have benefited by fewer ‘thrills’ on the highway if this service was up and running back then. It’s another matter really that if Konkan Railway was around ‘back then’ I might never have traveled between Mumbai and Goa by bus to start with, though I’d continued with traveling by bus to elsewhere.

Watch Video: Roll On, Roll Off (RORO) trucks, Konkan Railway

While 30 trucks ‘removed from plying on the highway’ might seem too few a number to make a significant difference to the health of other motorists on the highway, and which might indeed be the case more so now than when I used to travel infrequently to Bombay and back by bus as a school boy, it’ll nevertheless make highways safer considering the service runs each way and is set to be increased with rising demand for the same besides the likelihood of being adopted across the country.

February 06, 2011

A Sabarmati Moment

Later, stepping past the entrance and onto the freshly washed tree lined approach reflecting the morning sun in tiny pools of water each time a light breeze blew in from the river, nudging leaves into letting light course through and momentarily relieve the shade of its cool, moist grip, I paused to watch a young boy trail a kite behind him. He tried in vain to interest his pet dog in his morning endeavour but it had other priorities than follow a paper kite.

Watching the kite rise up behind him the boy ran up to where the path forked at the Upasana Mandir, the ashram prayer ground where inmates of the Sabarmati ashram used to gather with Mahatma Gandhi for morning and evening prayers and his sermons, before turning and running all the way back, scattering squirrels back up the trees. In the shade of trees, the prayer ground overlooks the Sabarmati river.

A lonely figure of a young woman of foreign origin sat hunched over a book in the warmth of the sun, oblivious to the shrieking of parakeets perched on the concrete wall channeling the river onward.

In an opening between raised platforms a wide flight of steps led down to the river. Scattered on the steps were youth in deep contemplation, gazing fixedly at the shimmering waters of the Sabarmati, their whispers if any lost in the breeze. The only sounds floating up were of parakeets squawking urgently, followed by those of crows. Even the steady crush of leaves as sweepers cleared the litter seemed to emerge from the trees, of which a wide variety was represented, among whom the Neem and the Ashoka seemed to be particularly favoured.

Flowers were many, in kind and number, drawing Sunbirds into their midst. It had taken me only a few moments after stepping out the rickshaw to find out that while times had changed, timelessness had not.

February 03, 2011

On The Streets, Stray Dogs Ensure Welfare Of Humans

Sometimes the obvious is not nearly as obvious. It’s entirely possible in this age and time to ‘know’ about ‘everything’ at the click of a link and yet not know a thing about most things that matter in ways beyond the cursory as we happen upon them when going about our daily lives.

I’m inclined to believe that this might be truer of those of us who live in Mumbai or cities like Mumbai where making time a premium commodity, to the exclusion of the timelessness of the laidback, is considered a necessary virtue and held up as a standard to emulate. Any exception to the contrary is likely dismissed as a ‘wasted life’ even if not said so in so many words.

This was brought into sharp focus by Abodh’s post the other day.

On occasional walking forays about the city I'll sometimes pause to meet the eyes of a 'stray' I’ve noticed from my earlier walkabouts, delighting in a secret way the sense of permanence the assortment of wet noses and friendly tails bring to nooks and corners of the city they’ve come to inhabit alongside humans who live and work on the streets. In those occasional moments it never occurred to me to contemplate on the depth of bonding that stray dogs and cats will share with those who begin to care for them from mutual familiarity on the shared street, at least not in the way Abodh experiences in his work with stray dogs in Mumbai.

While I knew of the bonding on the street between 'strays' and humans as a fact, I realized I didn’t know of it from experience.

Reading about Rambo, Tiger, Soorya, and Ronnie whom Rajan, a rag-picker, named after his son who died aged two, and other kindred souls like Karunakaran Pillai in Abodh’s warm reminisces in his First Aid Sundays with Street Dogs and Humans merely reinforces the fact that all that seems obvious at first glance isn’t really that obvious the first time around.

While Abodh’s narrative plucks tentatively at heartstrings, there’s nothing tentative about the warmth the stray dogs bring to lives on the street.

It’s in the light of his poignant reminisces in the post linked above that the annual calendar brought out by The Welfare Of Stray Dogs (WSD) takes on a different meaning.

Extending WSD's assertion that: Stray Dogs Are A Breed Apart, I'd add: For More Reasons Than One.

Here’s where you can still buy The Welfare of Stray Dogs (WSD) Annual calendar featuring strays with stories in their eyes.

A peek into the WSD Annual Calendar:

Below: Isfahan, a ‘Rags to Riches’ story, came from a Mumbai street.

Below: Rocket, now the ‘King of the Couch’, was born in a WSD kennel.