Monday, December 27, 2010

The Very Little Punjab I Saw

I was in Punjab the last week and despite my best intentions and my mother's constant badgering, I managed to see only very little of it. In fact, I would not be surprised if someone were to walk up to me, bang his or her fist on the table and assert that I had not been to Punjab at all. My original destination in Punjab was Ludhiana, but after a few days of the utter boredom of being cooped up in my cell, my laziness was trumped by the craving for the new, the fresh and for anything that did not have four whitewashed walls.

The one thing I had been looking forward to a lot in my trip to Punjab was to get a good look at a few girls and see for myself whether the word of mouth was good to believe. It was. Punjab features, in various varieties of appearances and sizes, everyday girls on the streets, in malls, looking out from the balcony or in somebody's mobile phone. They sashay in a swirl of colour, in their elegant salwar kameezes and in jeans in the more urbane parts of the state, moving like queens of city, head held high and with steps as firm as a mountain goat. Their faces can launch any number of ships and trawlers from any number of harbours as they breeze through the crowded markets in search of Flying Spaghetti Monster knows what. They are ephemeral and almost ethereal, with a quaint and ancient charm upon them. A glow seems to permeate through them, a halo of glory surrounding them. In more realistic terms, they are surrounded by well built, well to do Punjabi brothers who, in all probability, have a few Kirpans on their bodies. You would do well to keep away from them.

A characteristic Punjab shares to a great degree with Kerala is the number of booze shops that dot the streets and even places where there are no streets. For every hundred meters you travel, you are guaranteed to find at least three booze shops, though the three of them tend to be more or less adjacent to each other, a logic that evades me to this day. Unlike Kerala, the government does not seem to be taking any initiative to sell liquor and thus pocket great profits I am sure is to be gotten from the good people of the State. In Punjab, private dealers abound. There is no Beverages Corporation that holds monopoly over sale of wines and spirits. Thus, in the land of five rivers you find thriving in the business the likes of Gill Brothers, Bajaj and Co., Chaddha group and may other small timers. Add to that shops which would rather go with the the plain and straight forward 'English Beer and Wine', the 'Country Beer and Liquor' offering the native style and traditional touch and the all encompassing 'A to Z Liquors'.

If there were any statistic for number of booze shop in a given unit of area, I am pretty sure Punjab will trump all. While the shops in Kerala almost blend in to the background, almost indistinguishable from other establishments but for the long and disciplined queue, Punjabi booze shops make it a point to stand out. They are well lit and neon and other luminary mechanisms are employed to proudly display their names, their purpose and the various brands they happen to possess. They stand out from the rest of the crowd of shops and the very appearance seems to invite every passer by to drop in for a drink, or at least take a bottle or two for the folks at home.

Then I went to Chandigarh.

I went on a long distance route plying bus, part of a bigger scheme of things named PunBus. The bus ride puts on display for you the many features of Punjab, including the wheat fields and the booze shops I have mentioned above. Chandigarh is roughly, a two hour ride from Ludhiana and it is a pleasure to be in the planned city.

Much of the tourism potential of Chandigarh lies in the fact that it is India's first planned city. In a nation which is not exactly famous for planning, being orderly or any other virtue in the same category, Chandigarh comes as a refreshing whiff of fresh air. When one enters in to the city, it is like a whole new world. One feels like Alice, or like those kids in Narnia. It is a place truly apart from the rest of the country, a haven of the orderly and the neat. one gets a feeling of being in a well maintained place, where the roads are spick and span and there is not much traffic, pollution or any sort of hurrying. One could eat of the pavements in Chandigarh. It came as no surprise to me when a signboard told me that Chandigarh was found to be the cleanest and greenest city in India.

One can see Le Corbusier's genius through out the city, in its well planned roads, aptly situated structures and a general look of lush greenery and a spirit of relaxation. Of course, there are spaces at certain points where you can almost see Le Corbusier thinking, "Now what will I do with that 30 cents? I already have three parks. Enough with planting trees. Oh dash it, we will just allow people to park their carriages and horses there. Humph!". The place is a marvel.

Chandigarh has many parks and grounds were people (mostly old people and tourists) can relax, while away time and bask in the sunshine when it is not too hot. There are umpteen gardens and other places that exhibit flora. It is as if when Corbusier was at his charts, plotting out a road here, a legislative council there, a couple of associates came up and said, "It would be nice to have a garden of rose, some acres where there is nothing but rose, in all colours, in full glory...", only to be cut off by the next man who thought there was nothing like bougainvilleas and any city without a bougainvillea garden was not worthy to be called a city. Tired of all these rants, Corbusier seemed to have made each man;s wish come true with various gardens here and there, of roses, bougainvilleas and many other flowers.

One of the biggest attractions of Chandigarh is the Rock Garden, a forty acre expanse built entirely from home and industrial wastes in to a charming and innovative spectacle. The vast maze like structure was built secretly by Nek Chand Saini an was finally discovered by the government in 1975. They had the sense to recognise a good thing when they saw one and took the garden in to their own hands and made it a major tourist spot. It is a breathtaking place, where one wonders about the sheer audacity of the idea, the huge proportions of the place only adding to the bewildering charm.

Punjab is a great place to be in, though it was cold as freezer during the time I was there. I escaped before January set in and Mother Nature really cranked up the iciness. Of course, it is all compensated with the melting heat of the summer. Punjab certainly was a great place to visit, though I am not sure I am ever going up there again.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Loose in Ludhiana

Last week, I shipped myself off with the mater to Ludhiana, where the brave people of the Christian Medical College attempts to make my sister the absolute terror and harbinger of doom to millions of people. In simple words, the job would be called a dentist. Ludhiana, as you may know, lies in the state of Punjab; as north as North India gets if you were to cough surreptitiously, scratch your nose and forget about Jammu and Kashmir.

The transport mechanisms in place in India made it pretty hard for me to get to Ludhiana, probably in the altruistic thought that the farther away I am from my sister the better. The whole procedure was done in several steps. First, I had to take a flight to Delhi, about which I was pretty psyched. It is not everyday that one gets to board an aircraft, let alone one with in-flight entertainment options. If one were not traveling through a travel package offered by one's parents' employers, I would advise them to take a train out to Delhi, which would take you three days if you are lucky.

Once I landed in Delhi in one piece, I was required to reach the New Delhi Railway station to take a train, mysteriously branded as an express, to Ludhiana. Once you reach the railway station, it is as easy to reach the college in question as it is to learn to ride a pantomime horse. You sit in the assigned seat, in the case of reaching the college, the seat is in an auto rickshaw, and get out when you have had enough.

Ludhiana is a bustling city of considerable proportions. Like that oft repeated cliche on India, Ludhiana has two faces- Old Ludhiana, where the streets are narrow and markets are smelly, and New Ludhiana where there are swanky malls and the wide well laid roads are dotted by Audis and BMWs. As it was, I did not get to see much of either as I was largely cooped up in my cell (officially known as Guest Room 2) with the outside temperature at 13 degree centigrade. The mercury dropped to 5 when the solar steeds fled with Helios' chariot.

The College itself is a small place and is more like a boarding school than a college, though if you were to ask me the difference between the two I would have slink off slyly. The place is infested with Mallus; there are more Mallus there than there are types of cheese in France. Once you enter the hallowed gates of CMC, that is almost the only thing you can hear. You walk around and you hear familiar strains of the language. At first, you think to yourself, "Aha, us Mallus are everywhere". Then you hear it by the canteen, from underneath a few trees and some excited whispering from shady nooks and corners and you think, "Well, that is really a lot of Mallus. Good for them". After a couple of hours, you realise that the place is virtually a district of Kerala that happened to be in Punjab due to a quirk of fate.

It is slightly on the disconcerting side when you have lived your whole life in a certain place, then wound up in a class constituted majorly by the people of the above mentioned state and then go to Punjab to find that the same old folks have set up base camp there too. One tends to wonder as to the whereabouts of variety and whether spice has been totally eliminated from life.

Elsewhere in Ludhiana, I sullied with my presence a department store and something caught between a mall and a department store as the female contingent of the family went about shopping, willing stuff to drop off the shelves into their baskets.

One thing that really caught my attention in Ludhiana was the almost total absence of buses in the city. You could not find a local bus if you went about with a magnifying glass on all fours. The bulk of the local transport is on what is known as 'share autos', where auto rickshaws are like small buses; they ply a route and you can get on if if you are on the same route and there is space to sit, all for five or ten bucks. There are buses of course, but they all ply to other cities like Chandigarh or Amritsar. If you want to go from the railway station to someone's place a couple of kilometers away, you would not find a bus to save your life.

Then of course, there are cycle rickshaws, where old, dilapidated and probably malnourished old men pedal like there is not tomorrow, bearing you on equally dilapidated seats in the back. On humanitarian grounds, I refused to board those contraptions, though once again the female contingent showed no remorse in doing so. Doubtless, they will throw the economic side of the issue at me, arguing how we are depriving the old men of a livelihood and their family of bread by refusing to solicit them.

Ludhiana is probably vast and rolls on for kilometers and kilometers but I preferred to stay cooped up in my cold cell and think of the Thar desert. Except when I got lost, coming back from Chandigarh. But that is another story for another day.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Film Festival- Wish I Were Here

The International Film Festival of Kerala, 2010 kicks off today here in Trivadrum and I am sure it will be a rocking show. Today's newspapers are filled with details about various movies that are to be screened in this eight day gala and the whole affair brings back to me pleasant memories from 2009, when I was a regular delegate at various cinema halls across the city during the film festival.

This year, I shall not be infesting the seats at the venues owing to my forced absence from the city for a considerable part of the festival. Seeing the pictures and the news in newspapers makes me wish I was at Trivandrum from the 10th to the 17th. However, blood being considerably more viscous than water, I am forced to ship off to Ludhiana to see my sister. Agreeable trip, one might say, except that it forces me to give the festival a miss in the bulk.

Last year, 2009, I attended the IFFK on every single day, sometimes delicately jumping over hurdles such as protests by my parents and....umm.. yea, protests by my parents. Some really good films and a general atmosphere of bonhomie and goodwill at the film festival more than made up for everything, indulging me and my eyes in some visual delight.

The films were as varied and different as the mornig birds cries on a Saturday morning at an Indian village, truly proving that variety is the spice of life. The films were from various parts of the globe- the quintessential Iranian movies featuring some great stories and actors, Eastern European ones showcasing the unique socio-political climate of a region caught between two blocs, South Asian movies reflecting the social issues such as poverty and corruption that have become everyday occurances, Latin American movies rich in colour and detail, African movies that throw some light in to the dark continent... The list is pretty huge and not one that sticks to my sieve like memory. It suffices to say that the festival opened to me vistas and windows that to which I may not have had another opportunity. It threw open before me a whole new canvas called Art Artis Gratia. Art for Art's sake.

If you read the papers around here you may garner many nuggets of information such as how the IFFK often focusses on the Third World, or how its movies often feature a socially relevant theme, or how it is one of the best film festivals in the country. But what clinches the deal for an average movie watcher like me who does not possess an intricate and in depth knowledge of movies and the way they are made is the atmosphere that prevails at the festival. It is not a festival where VIP delegates parade themselves in the theatres, watching movies and commenting on how deep the theme is or how the director has managed to inculcate the intricacies and delicacies of turbulence of the protagonist's mind.

It is, for a major part, an informal affair. A place where anyone is welcome and everyone with a pass can go in, grab a seat and watch till their eyes drop. A certain feeling of bonhomie and goodwill, an almost bohemian atmosphere prevails around the place while the city attempts to be at its best behaviour for eight days.

I will never forget the day, when I had to skip breakfast at home in my hurry to reach a theatre in time and, after a movie that lasted for two and a half hours at the Kalabhavan, skipping across the road to feast on some suptuous biriyani at Azad. If there ever was a heaven on earth, it was then and there.

IFFK 2010 promises a great deal and if it is anything like 2009 edition, I am sure it will be a great show. The pictures in the newspapers makes me wish I could stay, but alas, one cannot hope to have everything in life. May be, in 2011. More movies, more biriyanis.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Local Adventures

Chapter 1

On a dark lonely Thursday night, I was set up in my base camp (also known as The Unused for Ages Room in the House) trying to figure out what purpose mining camps and mills served in a game of Age of Empires. Cutting in to the silence (a silence whose perfect nature was periodically cut in to by the trumpet calls of AI wanting to attack me), something went “Ringgg, Ringgg”, an object I quickly identified as my mobile phone.

Pressing the green button, my aural nerves were greeted to a sound that said “Basil James”, in a sort of leery and creepy voice one would associate with one of those apparitions in a Shakespearen play. The voice belonged to my friend Gooth (I am glad to say that leery, creepy voice was something he put on and not a natural condition). He wanted to inform me about some quiz at the Mar Ivanios College in Trivandrum.

I knew the iota of a quizzer remaining within me would force me to put on some pants and go for the binge with my long time partner Achu.

Chapter 2

As you may have divined from a long association with me (or short association, depending on your luck), I am a native of Trivandrum. One of the afflictions the place has gathered over the years (or charms, depending on the way you look at it) is its tendency to decide once in while that its residents should keep off transport every now and then. The city (if one may call it so) seems to be of the opinion that its people should take frequent holidays from traveling to certain locations and instead lean back and put their feet up.

While you may not find a man anywhere near this place who is a bigger proponent of leaning back and putting one's feet up, the attitude the city takes can be tiresome when one really needs to get something done.

The quizzer in me kept its date and prodded me until I lifted myself up from a cosy bed and got myself in to a presentable form. I set out for the quiz at Mar Ivanios. I have been on the road to Mar Ivanios so many times in my life, the place being a frequent destination while I was in school, I am pretty sure I could drive a three tyred car without a windshield to the place in my sleep. Therefore, I was pretty surprised when the conductor of the bus I was in motioned me to get off at a stop more than a kilometer away from my destination. “But this is not the place!”, I tried arguing. The conductor acceded to my argument.

Upon the submission of a relevant query, I was informed by the man in charge that buses need roads to move on and the point on which we were at the moment was all the road that could be obtained there in the near future.

Left to walk more than a kilometer, I surveyed the landscape. I felt like one of those half-hearted explorers looking at the Amazon from their jeeps deep in the jungle. It was a vast expanse of light brown, a colour that one would particularly desire not to find on tarmac. I set foot, hoping for the best and less than adequately prepared for the best. Hoping for the best was soon proved to be a bad decision as I was forced to hop from less muddy spot to less muddy spot, avoiding the more slushy parts in the interest of a semblance of cleanliness, which as you may know is next to a semblance of godliness.

Now I knew how one of Noah's sons would have felt after the great rain and floods. Only that, in my case it appeared that there had been a steady and heavy downpour of hot melted chocolate. What used to be roads were now unrecognisable masses of slush. Hiroshima would have looked better after August 6, 1945.

I did the best I could, but still managed to get considerable amount of mud and other brown coloured, Flying Spaghetti Monster knows what, stuff on me. By then my feet could have merged with the ground and no questions asked. With a crushed spirit, extinct dignity and really muddy feet I walked in to Mar Ivanios College.

Chapter 3

The quiz I was supposed to be taking part in was a part of a much larger orgy, known as Elixir 2010. It was “a pan Indian Economic fest” according to the Department of Economics of the college, the organisers. If nothing, they surely revolutionised the meaning of 'pan Indian'.

While the people who had turned up for the quiz were whiling away their time waiting for the binge to start, I was somehow shepherded in to a hall were, I was promised, I would be treated to some high quality debate by the best talents across the country. Though I took the last part of the last sentence with a liberal dose of sodium chloride, my expectations were at a reasonable level. The topic of the debate was whether a better model for developing nations was India or China.

Some excerpts from the event.

Some dude trying to attack China on the one child policy:- “The birth of the childrens of the country have been suppressed.....”

Some other dude trying to point out India's internal security problems:- Are you saying that Maoists have some blatant ideals?”.

Meanwhile two dudes got in to feverishly hot argument about which nation was better. They argued for so long that seasons changed outside; the old rector died and was replaced. They banged tables and spanked the air. They took threatening stances, like the poses people in M&M movies strike just before the major stunt sequence in the market. They traded arguments. Things seemed such a level that the guy in favour of India addressed India as 'my country' and China as 'your country'. The dude representing China too resorted to a similar nomenclature.

The moderator kept trying to get a word in sideways. Warning bells and final bells rang galore. No one seemed to pay heed. The audience tried to clap the contestants off their trivial fight. They shrugged it off. At that moment, I decided I had witnessed enough debate to last a couple of lifetimes. I slowly slinked off.

Chapter 4

It is almost 24 hours since Gooth called me. I can hear my mom shouting incessantly in the background about something I cannot decipher. I seem to be the guilty party. Like those debating dudes, I pay no heed. Rather, I turn my attention to what the Mountain Goats have to say about the best ever death metal band out of Denton. Oh, how I wish my phone would ring now.