Here’s something we’ve learnt about the human body: In humans, as many as 100,000,000,000 cells die in each adult each day and are replaced by other cells.
So, with each dawn, with each new day, each of us is a variant of the person we were the day before, and we carry the legacy of that person. The important thing in our lives, therefore, is this legacy – what it is that we start each day with, and what we’re going to pass on to the next day’s variants so that the variants have a Happy New Day.
Why, then, do we save the resolutions, and the prayers, and the wishes for one day in 365? When each day is actually a life lived (well or poorly)? When each day is a journey with its ups and downs?
I think it’s because evaluation and assessment of each day, and the hindsight and foresight involved, requires the superhuman mental balance and effort that’re beyond the capacities of most of us. Doing it once in 365 days (if we do it at all) gives us the benefit of diminished hindsight (which explains why we repeat our mistakes) and endless foresight (which explains why we build castles in the air). All of us know how challenging self-appraisals and goal-setting are at work. Is there any surprise then, that we need the calendar to remind us that we should attempt to do it for our lives?
However, humankind’s strength is hope. We live in hope. And it’s in this hope that we find the sustenance to deal with each new day. And, once in 365 days we try to make time to share that hope with others, because hope shared is hope reinforced.
Let’s hope and wish one another, then, that in the year ahead we have more love than hate, more health than illness, more joys than sorrows, more illumination than darkness, more wisdom than foolishness, more empathy than apathy, more humility than hubris, more sense than nonsense, and (in the combination of all these) more benefit than loss.
First, something that can grip you by the throat –
The Power of the Dog(Rudyard Kipling, 1865 – 1936)
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie—
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.
When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find—it’s your own affair—
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.
We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long—
So why in Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?
And now, the story of Kefa:
Part 1 – Coming home
It was a rainy morning at the start of September. There was a small, wet, dark bundle in the corner of the bus shelter. If anyone had paid attention they would’ve observed that the bundle was trembling, and whimpering frequently, and that it smelt, strongly, like wet blankets. But no one stopped to observe the bundle. Buses came and went, people got on, got off and generally went about their business as if there was nothing unusual about a wet, whimpering, bundle in the corner of the bus shelter.
Finally, a couple of hours later, one of the persons who came to catch a bus (a tall young man in jeans and a t-shirt, with a satchel that reached his hip) noticed this bundle, and thought there was something there that demanded a second look. He squatted next to it and looked at it closely. What he realised took his breath away. The bundle was actually four tiny pups, clinging together for warmth and a feeling of security. They were newborn he assumed, since they were really tiny and since their eyes were still shut. They were not only wet, they were hungry. He figured so from the way they were nuzzling each other as if they were seeking their mother’s belly. The smallest of them, sensing a presence nearby, stuck a foreleg out. The paw hooked into the loop of his shoelace. It was almost as if (so the young man perceived) the little one was demanding to be taken home!
He stepped outside, and looked in all directions to see if he could spot the mother and remind her of her responsibilites. There was no other dog in sight. He supposed that she was out foraging, and decided to wait with the pups until she returned. Half an hour passed with no sign of a mother. The young man thought that this meant one of two things – either something had happened to the mother and she wasn’t coming back, or, even worse, the pups had been abandoned here by someone who kept the mother but didn’t want to deal with the pups. Either way, he thought, they wouldn’t survive left where they were.
So, with an unspoken assurance to them that he’d be back, he ran home as fast as his long legs would carry him. He burst into the house, alarming his mother for a moment (until she realised he was OK). He explained the situation, and asked for a carton in which he could place the pups. They found one and he ran back to the bus shelter with it. He’d been away about ten minutes, and he hoped the pups were safe.
They were. At least, they were just as he’d left them. He gently picked up each pup, wiped it as dry as he could with his t-shirt, and placed it in the carton. Each one squirmed, chest thumping, in his unfamiliar hands. When their mouths came into contact with his fingers or palm they carried out a desperate exploration in the hope of finding a food source. (When they didn’t find any, the whimpers developed into soft wails.) When he had all four in the carton, he closed the flaps, and walked home with it, trying to cushion it as much as possible on his forearms.
At home, he and his mother first fed the pups, getting them to suckle on cotton swabs soaked in milk. They also examined the pups with delight – the warmth and softness of their bodies, the dampness of their little noses, their tiny pink tongues, the velvet feel of their paws. After a while of oohing and aahing, his mother started the conversation that he’d hoped they wouldn’t have so soon.
“Have you thought of what you’re going to do next?”
“Well,” he hesitated, “I thought we could keep them?”
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that”, she said. “They all need to be looked after really carefully for a while, and they’d suffer if we didn’t do that adequately”.
“At least until we find homes for them?” he asked.
“No”, she said, “we may not be able to do that soon enough. I think you should take them to the animal care centre at the Blue Cross.”
“Can’t we keep two, at least? I promise to look after them. Please?”
“Well, since you put it that way, OK, one. But, the others go to the Blue Cross, first thing tomorrow. So, pick the one you’d like to keep.”
He had no difficulty making that decision! He cuddled each one. He wished he could look into their eyes, but they were still shut. He considered their colour (they ranged from light brown to brownish-black). But all this was out of curiosity; he had already made his choice. It was the tiniest that had reached out to him, and he assumed that the tiniest would be the one that needed most nurturing. So, he picked up the runt, a boy, brownish-black, and thought “OK fella, you’re it!”
He skipped college the next day too, and called a friend over to help him take the rest to the Blue Cross. The neighbour (who had observed the previous evening’s events) had asked to keep one. So, one stayed, one went to another home, and two, in the carton, were taken to the animal shelter at the Blue Cross.
A feeding routine was quickly established. (There was no need for a playing routine, since the pup was kept engaged every moment when he was not sleeping or feeding.)
The young man had obviously been giving serious thought to a suitable name. At breakfast the next day he announced that since (i) the pup smelt faintly (and pleasantly) of coffee, and (ii) the coffee bean was originally from a principality called Kefa, in Ethiopia, this pup would be KEFA.
The logic of this set of statements being absolutely clear, there was no debate.
And so it was that Kefa found his home – the place where he would open his eyes two days after his arrival.
Part 2 – Puppy days
In short order, Kefa determined that his family had three full-time members…
– his brother (he had to be that, since he’d brought him home, since he was always ready to play and to engage in some rough-and-tumble, and since he surreptitiously provided frequent treats),
– Mom (she had to be that, since she was of gentle touch and voice, and since she was absolutely dependable, providing his food and drink at regular times – times that he learnt to use to set his circadian clock),
– Dad (he had to be that, because he was the one who, except for the occasional enoyable moments of stroking and patting, would spend his time on exclamations such as “No, no, no!” or “Come back here with my socks!” or “Bad boy! This isn’t where you should pee or poop!”),
…And three other members (since they shared the same smells) who came home in between longish periods away….
– another brother, also willing to play (but in his own way, getting Kefa to do stuff outdoors, rather than wrestling indoors),
– two sisters who, when they were not debating whether he was blackish-brown or black-turning-brown and whether his eyes were brown or brownish-blue, took turns cuddling and tickling him (at least as long as he was light enough for them to lift with one hand).
It was a wonderful time. Kefa enjoyed the affection and attention of his brother and the other five satellites as much as he enjoyed observing them in their orbits. He empathised with them when they were, occasionally, too dumb to understand his needs. On his part he understood everything about them – when they needed attention, when they needed a lick and a hug, when they would prefer just quiet companionship, and even when he should make himself scarce.
He even understood Dad’s attempts to ‘discipline’ him. He realised that ‘discipline’ on his part would make Mom and Dad’s life a little easier. So he figured out that sofas and beds were not meant to be made use of when Dad was around, or when Mom was overworked.
However, smart though he was, he just couldn’t figure out this thing about socks. Why would anyone leave these wonderful, smelly, tasty things around at floor level, if it weren’t for Kefa to chew on and leave holes in? After all, didn’t they give him his food and drink at floor level? Didn’t they toss treats onto the floor sometimes, for him to grab? Weren’t socks, then, treats too? Well, obviously, he was the only one who thought so. Over time, though, the rest of the family realised that socks on the floor were an open invitation, and started to keep them in difficult-to-reach places.
He thought home and heaven were one place, until his family started to take him out for walks. He then realized that heaven was larger. It was present in spots that his family, for some inexplicable reason, called ‘poles’ or ‘posts’. Just because they carried lights and wires at the top?! Their actual purpose, he knew, was at the base. They were repositories of the most heavenly aromas known, designed to bring colour into anyone’s life.
One day, when he was about eight months old, Kefa, without realising it, lifted a hind leg to contribute to the collection at the base of the ‘pole’.
Puppy days were officially over!
= = = = =
Watch this space for forthcoming posts with the rest of Kefa’s story. (And I’ll try to keep them coming without very long intervals!)
But we can’t leave this space without a couple of dog songs, can we?! So, here’s Cat Stevens with “I love my dog”, from his 1967 album ‘Matthew and Son’.
If you’ve chanced upon this post, I’m glad you have!
It may make a little sense by itself. But, if it doesn’t seem to add up, do have a look at my previous post, Le Trio Aventureux, which is the ‘prequel’ to this one.
I’ve borrowed the title from Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam). He sang his song “On the Road to find out” in 1971. The title and the lyrics do express, at least partially, our reasons for our small adventure of December 1972, a cycling trip from Chennai to Bangalore and back, that this post is about.
So, first, here’s the song. (It’s from his album Tea for the Tillerman).
Cat Stevens (then)
Yusuf Islam (now)
And now – to use a much misused idiom – I’ll cut to the chase!
It was 4.30 in the morning when I left my place at Nandanam to embark on this adventure.
There was no fanfare, except in my head. But there was an affectionate send-off from my mom, who walked down to the gate with me, took me through a quick checklist, gripped my arm for a couple of seconds, and waved me off.
Every inch the army mother, you’d think! Stiff upper lip, and all that! (Actually those are just cliches. The truth has always been that most mothers, and army mothers no less, ache to deliver a hug at such times but are unsure whether they should, because 18-year-olds who imagine they’re making the transition into men are unpredictable fellows – might respond as children who hold on tight or as unthinking adults who deliver a gentle brush-off.)
I don’t know about now, (since it’s been years since I last lived in Chennai) but in those days 4.30 am (though only the crack of dawn) was well into the morning for a good number of folk working hard for their living. While there were only a few motor vehicles that went by (mostly buses), there were a good number of pedestrians and cyclists about – carrying newspapers, milk, vegetables (kaay-keeraiiii!) flowers (kadamba-mallliiii!), rock salt, and a host of other things that help households start their day. And there were the ladies and girls of the houses out at their doorways or gates, sprinkling water to damp the dust down, and laying down their ‘kolam’ (chalk-dust art) with amazing deftness, in patterns that were mostly traditional, but sometimes innovative.
Uday, Madhukar and I were to rendezvous at 5 am. With the roads somewhat free, I sailed through T’Nagar, Nungambakkam and Chetput into Kilpauk, arriving at Madhukar’s place by 4.50. He was already waiting at his gate, with his cycle loaded. Uday arrived just 2 or 3 minutes later. Madhukar called out to his mother, who emerged in a jiffy with 3 glasses of Bournvita. We would’ve gulped it down, but had to sip since it was steaming. In about 2 minutes, we were ready to go.
We left just a couple of minutes after 5 am, Mrs. Kamath waving at her gate. Dawn had broken, and we had the beginnings of daylight. With a few minutes of riding we came onto Poonamallee High Road, the arterial road connecting to the National Highway. There were quite a few other cyclists out on the roads, mostly tradesmen going about their business, so we weren’t paid much attention save for the few that we got for what must have seemed unusual attire – shorts, hand painted T-shirts, and field caps!
We pedalled at a brisk pace and quickly passed the brick kilns at Aminjikarai on the outskirts (in those days) of the city. Soon enough we were out in the countryside. We rode through Poonamallee (which was, in those years, just a little more than a village by the highway) towards Sriperambudur.
(That’s how we set our immediate goals, from one town to the next. The possibility of charting a course through a series of staging points is just one of the reasons that road trips, of any kind, will always be more engaging than interstellar voyages!)
By 7 am the sun was well and truly up.
When we were about 10 kilometers short of Sriperambudur, two cyclists overtook us (with ease! And we thought we were cycling at a brisk pace!)
They slowed down in front of us, waited until we came level before they started pedalling again beside us, and chatted with us for the next couple of kilometers (about 5 or 6 minutes, measured in time). Going by the speed they were cycling at when they overtook us, they could easily have been racing cyclists, but they weren’t. They were wiry men (perhaps in the mid-20s), barefoot, in checked lungies covering loose shorts, and they were fishy smelling (though not fishy looking). Both of them had large, fully laden baskets on the carriers behind them, and bulging canvas bags slung from their handlebars. We didn’t have to be geniuses to know that they were carrying fish and shrimp; anyone with a nose (even if stuffed) would have been able to tell.
They figured that we were college students from the city. When we told them that we were cycling to Bangalore they asked us why. For fun, we said, and to satisfy ourselves that we could do something that required toughness, stamina and endurance. They looked a little perplexed.
We asked questions of them which they answered willingly and cheerfully. In brief, here’s what we learnt. They were from a village just outside Sriperambudur, and their family had stalls in and around the town, where they sold seafood. Twice a week (with other men of the family taking their turns on the other days), their routine was something like this – Leave home at 2 in the morning. Cycle to the fishing harbour in Chennai (about 52 kilometers). Get there by 4 or 4.15 am. In about 45 minutes, make purchases of fresh catch just landed. Leave by about 5. Get back to Sriperambudur by 7 or 7.15 am. All in a morning’s work!
They’d have loved to coast along and chat a bit more, they said, but they had to get going – business called. They wished us well, as we did them, and took off, the distance between us lengthening at a pace that made us feel like the amateurs we were.
We looked at one another with jaws dropped. Those guys were covering a minimum of 210 kilometers in 2 days every week on their cycles, and with heavy loads, at that! Let alone the distance they must have been cycling over the other 5! No wonder they’d looked perplexed when we told them we were on an adventure. They must have wondered what toughness, stamina and endurance we were talking about!
About 10 kilometers past the town, we stopped for breakfast. Reclining under a tamarind tree by the highway we consumed our sandwiches and washed them down with Glucose-supplemented drinking water. We took about 20 minutes, by which time an audience had gathered – about 8 to 10 silent little children who must’ve thought that watching 3 freaky looking types stuff their faces with white triangles was definitely more interesting than trailing behind buffaloes and goats that were (presumably) being taken down the road from point A to point B, time not being of essence. We stood up when we finished, dusted off the seats of our shorts, and, more with the intent of making human-to-human contact than anything else, one of us – Madhukar, actually, with his 28-intact grin (no wisdom teeth yet) – asked “What games do you kids play?” To a child, they froze, momentarily, before they dissolved in giggles and ran off after their animals, as fast their little feet could carry them.
Let me interpret those actions for you:
Freeze – Hey, this thing speaks!
Giggle – It speaks Tamil!
Run off – Then these must be just ordinary creatures in weird clothes, not worth wasting time over!!
Right through the trip, to and from Bangalore, we encountered curious groups like this one, whenever we stopped by the roadside – whether it was when we stopped for a break, or to fix a puncture (happened just once, surprisingly), or (as the euphemism goes) to ‘answer nature’s call’. In the last case, though, since our postures and our vacant stares into the distance indicated the obvious, the kids wouldn’t stop, they’d just chase each other down the road chuckling.
(No matter what you’ve heard, folks, and in all seriousness, kids in rural India are just as genteel and sensitive of delicacy as anyone else.)
A little digression here. The thought of children and playing brings to mind another Cat Stevens song from 1970 – Where do the Children Play.
Listen to the lyrics. They represent what he perceived then – something that still holds true, perhaps even more so.
This song is also, originally, from Tea for the Tillerman. This video is from the Earth Tour that he undertook in 1976:
And so, we progressed, our next target being Ranipet, which we hoped to reach by about 4 in the evening.
It was strenuous going, but truly enjoyable. The 3 of us would have 10 minute conversations, pulling one another’s legs and recounting happenings at college and elsewhere, and we would lapse into 30 minute silences in between when, while the body was pedalling away, the senses would take in colours, shapes, outlines, and smells, and the mind would process the totality.
It was during those silences that I realised a basic life-truth: there’s nothing that helps you connect with yourself more than being alone (though not lonely) out in the country for a while, with the only sound being that of the flapping of your homemade foreign-legion type cap as the handtowel streams out behind your head.
And here’s another song from 1970 that presents a similar sentiment – Out in the Country, from Three Dog Night, from their album It Ain’t Easy.
Three Dog Night
It was in this pre-lunch phase that I pulled off what, for me, was the ultimate in stunt photography (not your everyday photographs of stunts, mind you, but, more exciting, stunts to take photographs)! I cycled ahead of Uday and Madhukar and, pedalling at 20 kmph, steering my cycle with my left hand and holding my camera in my right, I swivelled around 180 degrees to photograph the 2 of them. You can see the results of that snap below. The blur may make it seem as if we were travelling really fast, but the lack of focus tells you that I just couldn’t hold the camera steady.
the stunt photograph of U & M
At any rate, as you can see, I caught them posing (Uday) and smiling (Madhukar) for the camera in the instant before their faces took on a look of alarm. It didn’t take long before I knew why. (And when you consider the angles in the photograph and combine that with the recognition that, in India, we stay on the left of the road, you’ll know why as well.) The cycle flew off the verge into an irrigation ditch by the roadside, and I ended up spreadeagled in the dirt, on my back. There was no water in the ditch, just earth, so I ended up with only scraped elbows, a muddied back, and temporarily injured pride. (As is evidenced from the rest of the photographs in this post, the camera remained intact.)
It took us 10 minutes to get going again, by which time, of course, we had our audience!
At around 1.30 we stopped under a tree for lunch. We’d been in the sun for quite a while by then, and we were perspiring profusely. It was really pleasant in the shade. There was a very mild breeze blowing, but it did help us cool off. (We’d considered taking off our T-shirts for a bit, but were deterred by the little group that was gathering.) We devoured Mrs. Kamath’s ‘parathas and sabji’, which seemed to taste even more delicious outdoors than at Madhukar’s place. We drank our ‘Glucose D water’. I then recalled the medical expertise that had been passed on by my sister. She’d said “When you engage in strenuous activity for prolonged periods and sweat a lot, take a little salt to make up for what you lose in sweat, so that you reduce the possibility of cramps”. So, I swallowed a teaspoonful of salt (difficult though that was, and though I almost brought up my lunch), much to the amazement of my friends. I then offered them the packet of salt, the spoon, and the advice. “Idiot!” they said. “She probably meant a couple of pinches, not a whole year’s supply in a teaspoon!” They followed that with a few crude jokes at my expense, about the nature and density of the fluids I’d be passing over the next few weeks whenever I ‘answered nature’s call’.
Anyway, we got going in about half an hour after I took a photograph of the other 2. It’s the one below. (Madhukar changed his T-shirt for the photograph. It wouldn’t do, he said, for posterity to see him in a sodden shirt.) Thinking about it now, I wonder why it didn’t strike us to show one of the watching children how to use the camera, so that the 3 of us could be in the picture. As it is, I’m represented by my duffel bag – the white one that you see on a cycle carrier.
U & M – in their T-shirts that I’d handpainted. Too bad we didn’t know of GQ then.
As we were approaching Ranipet, perhaps 15 kilometers out, I started to feel very feverish and tired. I felt l wouldn’t be able to continue that day. My friends were solicitous, and kept me going. They didn’t jump into reminding me of our original plan of getting to my grandmother’s home at Chittoor by evening (and they even refrained from bringing up the matter of a teaspoonful of salt). “Let’s get till Ranipet,” they said. “Let’s decide on things once we’re there”. We got to Ranipet around 4 pm, as planned. We stopped at a little wayside teastall. I propped my cycle against a post and lay down on one of the benches to rest for a bit. The next thing I knew, Uday was shaking me saying “It’s nearing 5. You think you can get up?” I walked over to the tap and washed my face. Actually, I was feeling much better. We had some of Uday’s sliced cake and biscuits with tea.
I had the tea with sugar, not salt.
We got going again at 5 pm. I found that I was not feeling just better, I was feeling fine. So fine that I started off at a pace that had my friends saying “Hey! Slow down! We didn’t get an hour’s sleep like you did!”
But, generally speaking, we did achieve the fastest speed of the day (and let’s not make comparisons with our fish-vendor friends). The cool of the evening helped, and we were also driven by our intent to minimise the time that we would spend cycling in the dark.
That 45 kilometer stretch was serious stuff. We were in single file and concentrating because we were pedalling fast, and the highway, winding gently through rocky outcrops, was narrow in various bits.
Once darkness fell we had to slow down. The headlights of oncoming vehicles (mostly buses and lorries) were blinding, causing us, on some occasions, to dismount and get off the road till we could adjust to the dark again.
We got to the outskirts of Chittoor by 7.30 pm, and to my grandmother’s place by 7.45. I had wanted to surprise my uncles and my grandmother, so I hadn’t told them we were coming. My uncles were relaxing in the frontyard when we rode in and got off our cycles. It took them a minute to identify me. Once they did, and I’d introduced my friends to them, the handshaking, backslapping and general noise just didn’t stop. The commotion brought my grandmother out of her kitchen. She didn’t seem too amazed! Gave me a big hug, and then gave Uday and Madhukar big hugs when I introduced them.
Then, true matriarch that she was, she then took charge of us. Got the boiler going so that, after the coffee and snacks that she seemed to conjure up, we were able to have a warm bath. By 8.30 she had dinner ready, and some truly sumptuous stuff, at that. She had us sit in the kitchen and served us herself, sitting next to us while we ate so that she could keep refilling our plates until we begged her to stop. She then had spare bedding laid out on the living room floor. Since we’d told her that our plan was to leave by 7 in the morning, she insisted that we go to bed by 9.30 pm, with Amrutanjan applied on our foreheads, throats and chests (ample precaution against possible colds or sniffles).
Not that we resisted. The day’s effort had caught up with us, and the 3 of us fell asleep the instant we laid our heads on the pillows – out like a light, as the idiom goes.
A gentle hand on my shoulder woke me up at 5.30 am – my grandmother’s. She was up before anyone else! I woke up the other 2. We had exclusive use of the facilities and therefore had ample time to get ready. By 6.15 she served us dosais for an early breakfast, and a dose of her amazing coffee. She had also packed idlis with ‘podi’ for the road.
She decreed that since ‘rahu-kalam’ began at 7 that morning, we should leave by 6.50 – and so we did, after donning sweaters (to counter the ‘early December morning’ nip we would face once we got onto the hill (or ‘ghat’) section beyond Chittoor). She also directed one of the farm-hands to accompany us, on his cycle, for about a kilometer since, she said, it was not ‘auspicious’ for an odd number of travellers to begin a journey!
Superstitions are such complex things, aren’t they? We don’t believe in them (or, at least, our rational mind tells us not to), but when someone we love or hold in regard does, we acquiese, since their happiness and sense of satisfaction is far more important to us than mere rational argument.
For those of you whose recollection of the geography of the Deccan peninsula is hazy – the hills on the road between Chittoor and Bangalore are part of the Eastern Ghats, the range that forms the rise from the eastern coast to the Deccan plateau. So, heading east to west (Chittoor to Bangalore) you ascend to the plateau, about 800 metres above sea level by the time you reach the Karnataka state border a little beyond the town of Palamaner (so, more ups than downs), and, on the return, you descend.
By 8 am we were into the hills and pedalling with all our strength, struggling with our first steep climb. We had slowed to almost a crawl. An old man standing by the side of the road stepped onto the road in front of us and motioned that we should stop (we were virtually at a stop anyway). “If you find it difficult to pedal up the slopes, don’t try,” he said in Telugu. “Get off your cycles and walk with them up the slope. Even though they’re loaded and you’ll have to push them, that’ll be easier and faster. When you get to the top of a rise, get on, coast down the other side until the road rises steeply again. Then get off, and do the same thing. This way, you’ll get to Palamaner without causing some injury to yourselves.”
It doesn’t matter what one’s intelligence (or lack thereof) and level of education may be. Sometimes one misses the obvious, and it’s only when someone else points it out that one realises its truth and ends up feeling like an absolute idiot!
We thanked the old gent and followed his advice. At the top of that rise we decided we needed a break for pressing reasons.
One of us – in conversation with the jockstrap
Having dealt with urgent matters, we decided to fortify ourselves for the assault on the rest of the ghat section by polishing off our supply of idlis
Then we resumed movement and progressed slowly up that 30 kilometer stretch – push a lot, coast a little, push a lot, coast a little… – over what seemed like countless (but were actually about 18) upward gradients that varied, in length, between 200 and 2000 metres, and, in degree of slope, between 15 and 25 depending on length. We reached Palamaner, quite exhausted (but with no injury to ourselves) around 2 pm.
This time, we halted for an hour. Lunch was at a little ‘meals ready’ type hotel just outside the town. The meal included what we declared (unanimously) was the ‘best curds and buttermilk on the planet’. The reason was not far to seek; it was in the next yard, in fact – a dairy farm that was also owned by the hotel owner. To make sure that the place would be ever remembered, a photograph was taken:
U & M – at The Source (of the best curds and buttermilk on the planet)
Onward then, to Mulbagal, just across the border in Karnataka. We started from Palamaner at 3 pm. It was back to relatively easier cycling, since all the steep slopes were now behind us.
While we’d passed various milestones in the 2 days of our trip so far – a couple of hundred or so – we had resolved to record, in photographs, our presence at the major ones, those marking the state borders. We couldn’t photgraph the one between Ranipet and Chittoor (Tamiland/AP border) the previous day since we’d passed that one in the dark. So, this one was the first:
U & M – at the AP/Karnataka border – this is a photograph that should make it to the cover of Forbes, don’t you think?
We got to Mulbagal by 5 pm. After a brief halt for refreshments we set off for Kolar, and reached there by 7.
A stop at Kolar was not in our original plan, but we were very tired and decided to stay there the night and get to Bangalore by lunchtime the next day. We found the Traveller’s Bungalow (in those days there were such things run by the Public Works Department!) and took a room there for the night. It was not five star quality, but it was a neat bedroom, with fresh linen and a clean bathroom, much like one in an average middle class home. We slept well and were served a South Indian breakfast (upma, vadai and coffee) at 7.30 in the morning. For all this, the room and the food, we (the 3 of us together) paid the princely sum of 15 rupees! We felt we had got value for money.
We left Kolar at 8.30 am. Just before we started, Uday took a photograph with me in my foreign-legion type cap, since that hadn’t been photographed till that point. Here it is:
M & self – don’t miss my foreign-legion type field cap.
The ride to Bangalore was easy and uneventful. We got to Ulsoor by 12.30, as planned. We then split up. I went to an aunt’s house in Ulsoor, Madhukar went to an uncle’s house, while Uday went home. I don’t recall, now, which parts of the city they went to.
We spent 3 days in Bangalore – went around on our cycles, visited the parks and watched a couple of films. (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was one of them, I don’t remember what the other was.) In that time, we also finalised our plans for the return trip that Madhukar and I would be making. (Uday was staying home for the rest of the term break, and would come back to Chennai by train, for the start of the new term.)
This time, we planned, we’d make the trip in 2 days, since we’d be descending the ghats.
On the day, packed and victualled, Madhukar and I met at Ulsoor lake at 6 am, and started off from there.
This time the focus was on speed. We had our backs bent and heads down, and we put everything we had into our legs in our effort to maintain a really brisk pace. What I remember of that Bangalore – Palamaner stretch is the strenuousness of that effort. I recall that we really sped, the first couple of hours. We halted at Kolar around 8.30 am, for breakfast, and at Mulbagal around 11 for a breather and a snack.
We stopped at the border milestone for a photograph –
M – at the Karnataka/AP border
– and then pushed on, and reached Palamaner around 1 pm.
We got going again at 2 pm, after lunch, and within a few kilometers, came to the first steep descent.
This was what the 2 of us had been looking forward to! (On our way to Bangalore, as we had pushed our cycles uphill, all we could think about was the fun we were going to have on the return.)
We stopped at the top of that first slope and had a little chat. We agreed, like good and sensible cyclists, that “We must be careful. We must use our brakes while coasting down the slopes, so that we keep speed under control, and reach the foot of the ghat section without any mishap. And let’s put away our caps, spectacles and anything loose so that they don’t fall off as we go down.”
And so began the ride of our lives! Once we started that descent, we didn’t so much throw caution to the winds as have the winds snatch it from us! I don’t know which one of us decided to let go of the brakes first, but in less than half a minute, the 2 of us weren’t coasting down the slope, we were flying headlong down it! Everything by the roadside was just a blur. One look at Madhukar told me what I probably looked like too. His hair was absolutely horizontal, yanked backwards from his head. His T-shirt was plastered to his chest and billowing out behind him. His all-star grin was almost a grimace, with the wind pushing his eyes into slits, stretching his lips, and filling his cheeks. He had a vice-like grip on his handlebar to keep the cycle in control. And there was this long whoop – whether it was from him, or from me, or from both of us, I still don’t know. The velocity we gained by the time the downward slope bottomed out was enough to take us up the following rise without our having to make any effort.
And all this wasn’t for just this one slope, but for every one that followed till we levelled out at the foot of the hills.
We didn’t have speedos on our cycles, but let’s do the maths. We covered those 30 kilometers in 40 minutes which means, when you factor in the slowing down on the upward slopes, we must have touched 65 to 70 kmph on the downward slopes. That may not seem like much on paper, but, on basic bicycles, on an open road with no other wheeled traffic to measure ourselves against, and with the hollowness we carried in the pits of our stomachs, it felt like the speed of sound! And 40 minutes of that, with just enough gaps now and then (on the upward slopes) to be able to draw breath!
I don’t think I’d ever have the words to truly describe that experience.
We stopped for a few minutes after that manic ride. We were speechless. Not only because we were breathless, but because we didn’t know what to say to each other. We could only grin like clowns.
It was only after we got going again, and some semblance of mental normalcy returned, that we realised just how lucky we had been to have avoided stones, ruts, pits on the road, anything and everything that could have caused a blowout or a loss of control with tragic consequences.
I have not done anything as mad since.
By the same token, I have not had a greater thrill in or on any vehicle, wheeled, winged or afloat, since.
And, all through that thrill, I had the refrain of one Steppenwolf song running through my head, “Faster, faster, faster than the speed of light!” (It was only some years later that I found that the song was actually ‘Faster than the speed of Life’!)
It’s from their album The Second. Here it is, played off an LP.
Well, back to the rest of the trip.
Everything after that amazing ride was sedate in comparison. We got to Chittoor by 5 pm. As a result, apart from enjoying my grandmother’s TLC, we also played a few hands of rummy with my uncles, with pakodas as stakes.
Since we were able to hit the sack early, we were able to get up early enough to start by 6 am. An ‘auspicious’ start this time, since we were an even number!
We crossed into Tamilnad around 7.30, duly recording that milestone in a photograph:
That’s me, at the AP/Tamilnad border
My recollection of that day’s cycling is really hazy. I guess that’s bound to be the case since we were still, in a sense, in a hangover, each of us going over the previous day’s experience again and again, in our minds.
Chittoor to Ranipet to Sriperumbudur to Poonamallee to Chennai. It must have been very much like our first day out, with the required breaks, I suppose, but not much registered, with the exception of the unintended halt we had to make an hour past Ranipet when Madhukar’s cycle had a rear-wheel flat. We pulled up at the side of the road, propped his cycle on its stand, and with an almost professional briskness, pulled out the tube, used water to find the leak, pasted a patch onto it, reseated the tube in the tyre, inflated it with the hand pump we were carrying, and resumed our journey.
All this, of course, to the silent appreciation (we assumed it was) of the inevitable group of children who’d gathered to watch.
It was dusk by the time we entered Chennai city limits, and the streetlights were on by the time we reached Kilpauk, about 6.45. Mrs. Kamath insisted I stay for a quick cup of tea, after which I left for home.
I got home to a warm welcome not only from my mother, but also from my dad, who had managed a week’s leave to come home from his border area location.
It was 7.30 pm on the 31st of December 1972. What an end to the year!
You might ask how I’m able to recall most of that trip so vividly, though 4 decades have passed. I guess it’s because it has always meant a lot to me. It was the one experience that helped me learn that there are no set or defined ways in which one gains confidence in oneself. It doesn’t have to be through a competitive or even comparative environment. It can also be in goals that one sets for oneself and sees through, with effort that is entirely one’s own.
Enfin, an instrumental composition by the Mahavishnu Orchestra (MVO to their fans), called Open Country Joy. When you listen to it, I think you’ll agree it’s a fitting piece to close this post with.
The title has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to it, n’est-ce pas? A certain mystique? (That’s why we use French words and phrases in English – to spice things up a bit!)
Well, the phrase translates to nothing more than ‘The Adventurous Trio’, which wouldn’t have drawn too many readers in by itself, considering that, except for the truly gung-ho, outdoors types (a rapidly shrinking tribe), ‘adventure’, for most of us, has come down to events such as changing one’s own flat, hitching a ride to the nearest autorickshaw stand when one’s car or bike breaks down, trying street food in a new locality, drinking water straight from a municipal tap, or actually striking up a conversation with a stranger in a bus or train.
(Of course, ‘adventure’ has always also been used in the negative – for the events that befall us, or that we participate in, when we encounter the somewhat seamier side of society. I’ve never felt comfortable with such use – it robs the word of its value.)
True adventure (the positive kind that leaves you with a sense of having proved yourself to yourself), however, now seems to be the preserve of the aforesaid ‘rapidly shrinking tribe’. The rest of us have excuses: no time, no money, no one to team up with…. . The honest truth, however, is: no idea, no energy, no inclination! We’ve got so caught up in (and used to) life that is, paradoxically, fast-paced yet pedestrian, that we don’t even realise that we (and only we) can brighten our own lives.
We don’t have to live a life that’s filled with amazing adventure. Even if it’s just a little bit, modestly adventurous, once in each phase of our lives, it would help us build and sustain confidence in ourselves, and give us some sense of control over our own existence.
Here’s something that many of us grew up with, in the 50s and 60s – The Happy Wanderer. It’s a really old song. The original is a German song from the 1850s. The English version, first broadcast by BBC, appeared in the 1950s. However, it’s still as fresh as ever, and is the perfect song to get children interested in outdoor adventure.
It was one that invariably came to mind when, as children, we were out hiking, or trekking, or even on school picnics.
And here’s a song by Donovan, from his album ‘Open Road’. Though it’s called New Year’s Resovolution, it’s essence is a message that’s perennially relevant – Break Free! He sings – “..do what you’ve never done before…”.
So here’s an adventurous trio (and a little bit about their current situation) –
Le Trio Aventureux
On the left: Uday Bajekal – alumnus of Rishi Valley School, Madanapalle; now senior finance wiz.
In the centre: Roy Reddy – alumnus of Kendriya Vidyalaya, IIT, Madras; now senior JOAT(mon).
On the right: Madhukar Kamath – alumnus of Kendriya Vidyalaya, Tambaram, Madras; now senior ad-world honcho.
(In all cases: ‘senior’ as in ‘senior citizen’!)
And here’s how we set about a small adventure we had together. –
The three of us were classmates as undergraduates, At the time of our adventure (December 1972) we were in the second year of B.A. (Economics) at Loyola College, Madras (now Chennai). While Madhukar and I were day-scholars at that time, Uday, whose parents were in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), was a resident of the college hostel.
It wasn’t academic interest that we had in common – Uday was actually interested in Economics; Madhukar studied it because he was determined to use it to get ahead in life; I read it because I had to pass the exams!
Non-academic interests were what we had in common, cycling being one of them.
Uday and Madhukar had Hercules and Raleigh cycles, as I recall. In those days we considered those two brands to be as close to perfection as anything man-made could be. My cycle – the one you’ve met in an earlier post – was an Atlas, and it was well-known in college. It was a lady’s cycle that I had tried lending some masculinity to by stripping it down to its barest essentials, its only accessory being a grey canvas knapsack suspended from the handlebar!
Our cycles were our legs. They took us everywhere, everyday . Distance was never a criterion. Each of us averaged about 15 to 20 km a day on weekdays, and 30 to 35 a day on weekends. We empathised with other cyclists, sympathised with the cycle-less who were dependent on the city bus service, and were (quietly) disdainful of those students who used motorcycles and scooters to get around. (Isn’t it amazing how little one needs, to massage one’s ego – or anyone else’s, for that matter?!)
For those of you who’ve lived a cycle-deprived existence, let me assure you – it’s never too late to welcome one into your life. Life on a cycle can be (and always was) great fun!
A little digression, with such fun in mind:
The Pushbike Song
An Australian band called The Mixtures came up with ‘The Pushbike Song’ in 1970, and had a short black and white clip to promote it. (Such promotional clips, which we now call music videos, first appeared in the 1950s. Let it never be said that this blog is not educational!) Here they are – song and clip.
The version that most of us heard over the radio, though, was a cover by a British band that called itself Mungo Jerry. You’ll find that version too, on Youtube, with some slapstick video to go with it.
Back to ‘Le Trio Aventureux’ –
One evening, sometime during October or November ’72, the three of us were shooting the breeze in Uday’s room. In the course of conversation, Uday mentioned that he would be taking his cycle back to Bangalore, by train, when returning home for the December vacation. One thing led to another, and in the space of half an hour, we arrived at a plan – the three of us would ride to Bangalore, and, after a day or two there, Madhukar and I would ride back to Madras.
(There’s a lot to tell you, with the rambling and all. So, in this post I’ll tell you about our preparations, and I’ll tell you about the exciting trip in the next one.)
Impolite responses to our plan ranged from “You guys crazy, or what?!” and “You’re going to end up with sore butts!” to some that went up several degrees in impoliteness. There were also appreciative ones such as “Wow! That’s great!” and “I must try doing something like that, too!”
When we told our parents, though, there was only one question – the same one in all three homes – “Must you?” It took a little convincing, but they did accept, soon enough, that we must. They had some worries – such as the possibilities of exhaustion and heat-stroke, and they gave us suggestions on how to deal with those. Amazingly (and this tells you something about their confidence in us and in the road-users of that era), the possibility of a mishap on the road was the least of their worries.
The first matter, of course, was finance. We didn’t need much. Just for chow along the way, and for emergencies. We figured that about 50 rupees apiece would do (this was in 1972, remember). While my parents were quite willing to chip in, I decided (in the glorious idealism of youth) that I would earn the money. So, I set about making paper smileys (the smiley wasn’t an item of mass production in those years). Using coloured glazed paper, a cap from a Quink bottle, and a razor blade, I made 600 of them. I sold them at 10 for a rupee – to classmates and friends.
smiley, close up
By the time of our departure, I’d sold 550 of them, resulting in a net earning of 45 rupees after accounting for what I’d spent on the sheets of glazed paper. (The 50 that I was left with found their way onto the jackets of all the LPs I owned at that time, and onto some of those I bought later on.)
Smileys on LPs
There wasn’t much discussion over the choice between the two routes from Madras to Bangalore – via Chittoor and via Krishnagiri. We decided on the former since, of the two, it was the one with more tree cover along the highway. It would take us through Chittoor where we would be able to stop at my gran’s place for the night (for some TLC). And, it would take us through Uday’s territory, the Madanapalle hills (ghats, as we call them here), where the ups and downs would be fun (we thought). The plan was that we’d cover the distance (Madras – Ranipet – Chittoor – Palamaner – Mulbagal – Kolar – Hoskote – Bangalore, about 350 kilometres in all) in 2 days.
Equipment wasn’t an issue, simply because we had no access to any fancy stuff in those days! Things like cycling helmets and knee-guards were considered necessary only for those in Olympic events and the Tour De France. We did, however, acting on the advice of my concerned sister (who was then pursuing her MD), buy ourselves athletic supporters (a.k.a. jockstraps). We used them too! Living proof of this is in the healthy kids the three of us have helped contribute to the world!
All-white clothing was automatic. Activity shoes came in only one type in those days – white canvas shoes (a.k.a. PT shoes). Exercise clothing (shorts and T-shirts) was invariably white too. With the idea of adding a dash of colour, I offered to paint designs on the Ts. Uday and Madhukar were, understandably, sceptical of my skills with a brush, but, buoyed by the spirit of the occasion, gave me a T-shirt each. So, we ended up with white Ts with large orange doodles on the front and back. To protect our craniums from the sun, we got ourselves caps. The now ubiquitous baseball cap was then an imported rarity. Ours were khaki field caps, purchased at Moore Market. Uday also had a large floppy hat of indeterminate origin.
I stitched a hand towel to the rear edge of mine since our medical advisor (my sister the physician) had explained that it was important to also cover the back of the neck to guard against sunstroke. This earned a few laughs from friends, when I wore it. My self-assurance, however, came from the knowledge that I was keeping alive a time-honoured tradition that (going by that encyclopedia of all things military – Commando comics) began with French Legionnaires in the Arabian desert.
French Legionnaires in ‘Beau Geste’
French Legionnaire in ‘March or Die’
Considering that cycles don’t break down (they go on for ever) our emergency kit consisted only of stuff to patch punctures, and Dettol and Band-Aid to patch ourselves. We also carried a strip of Anacin, and a small packet of table salt (as advised) to ingest in case conditions got very sweaty and the resultant loss of salts caused cramps.
In the week preceding the trip, we ‘built stamina’. Each morning of that week, we met at Chetpet at 6, and cycled a couple of hours at a steady clip, covering 40 to 50 kilometers depending on the route we took. By the 5th day or so, we were doing the 50 with ease and were feeling absolutely invincible!
We were packed and ready by the night before we started. Each of us had a little duffel bag tied onto the cycle carrier. Mine carried breakfast, sandwiches of 3 kinds, which my mother had prepared. Madhukar’s had lunch, which his mother had prepared – parathas and 2 mouth-watering Konkani ‘sabjis’. Uday’s had snacks – he’d bought biscuits, sliced cake, and savouries – for in-betweens. (All food was for the first day.) Each of us also had a plastic 5-litre ‘jerry can’ filled with water, tied to the cycle frame. I had my camera, an Agfa Click III, a simple ‘aim-and-shoot’ appliance that took 12 snaps to a roll of film. I didn’t pack it. Since I wanted to be able to take candid shots, I had it in a case that I could carry on my chest.
I went to bed by 10, but I wasn’t sleepy at all, and I’m sure that’s true of Uday and Madhukar as well. I was just waiting to get to the rendezvous, Madhukar’s house at Kilpauk. But I must’ve fallen asleep very fast, and I must’ve slept very soundly, because the alarm seemed to go off almost immediately (at 4 am), and I was out of bed in a trice, raring to go!
(I know it seems abrupt to end this at this point, but I’ll take it forward from here in the next post.)
I’ll close the post with a song that probably captures, best, the mood the 3 of us were in on the eve of our trip – Steppenwolf’s song from 1968, ‘Born to be Wild’. The clip is from the film ‘Easy Rider’,
Some random thoughts about the context in which we received this song: Everyone looks back at the decade between the mid 60s and the mid 70s as the period when the world changed, a period of social and cultural revolution, especially for teenagers and young adults. ‘Born to be Wild’ turned out to be an anthem of sorts, for many of us, in our years through college – a song that we related to because we thought it captured the moods of both change and adventure. We pretentious youth liked to consider ourselves agents of change. Well, we were certainly part of that change – most of us were the paper boats swept forward by the waves that were generated by the few who (now that we look back, we realise) had the gumption (or foolhardiness) to actually stand up and rebel.
To those of you who found this post because you were looking for Stanley Kubrick’s erotic thriller, my apologies. But, stay awhile. Though there’s no (intended) erotica here, who knows what else you may perceive?
I thought I’d use this post to toss together a few of my ideas about perspective and perceptions. These two photographs are part of the mix. I’ll come back to them a little later in the post.
sandpile, from a distance
pavement, after a drizzle
Perspective and perceptions. What’s the distinction? Well, in my book, perceptions are the ways in which we interpret things, and perspective is the way we look at or approach things, thereby causing our interpretations or perceptions.
I do not intend to dwell on the necessity to expand our perspective and to share and understand perceptions. There’s ample advice of that kind all around (Would that we paid heed to it!) I’m happy just sharing some of the ideas and experiences that cause me to reflect on things (and thereby contribute to my perspective). …..Didacticism, when it happens on this blog, is only incidental.
I’ve used the phrase ‘eyes wide shut’ because it’s an effective way of indicating that there’s often a lot around us that we don’t perceive, either because we’re so caught up with ourselves (and our new body part, the smartphone) or because we refuse to see it.
Let me tell you about the lady at Dilsuknagar.
(D’nagar is a predominantly residential locality in the south-east of the city of Hyderabad. It’s the size of a large town. It’s very very crowded, and has, along its main roads, many educational institutions, restaurants, retail establishments and hospitals. Traffic is manageable between 11 pm and 5 am, but is absolutely maddening at any other time.)
Back to the lady I’m talking about. She sits at one end of a block of shops, by an autorickshaw stand, at a really busy road junction. There must be at least a hundred people that pass by her every minute (and I mean that). Yet, no one seems to see her, even though she sits in absolutely plain sight, in such a public place, and even though she’s attractive.
I was guilty of that too. I noticed her only on the tenth or eleventh time that I passed through that junction.
She sits on a square slab of stone in what looks like a saree, with its ‘pallu’ draped across her shoulder and over her head. She’s constantly looking at something to her left, and is as oblivious to passing people as they are of her.
Here are a couple of photographs:
Lady at Dilsukhnagar
Lady at Dilsukhnagar – close-up
I was, and still am, truly amazed. She’s (at least to my untrained eye) a good piece of sculpture, all from one piece of rock. Most people around haven’t seen her (and many go ‘ho hum’ when you draw their attention to her). The few who’ve seen her don’t know her name, where she belongs, or who the sculptor was. All they know is that she’s been around at least a decade or more.
(In a sense, perhaps she’s benefitted from the indifference. Maybe that’s what has actually kept her from being defaced or vandalised!!)
How many, or how much, of the obvious do we miss? What is it about us that we often fail to notice the good things that exist around us, or that people around us do? Wouldn’t it be great if the media actually spent some of their collective energy in making us aware of these things? ‘Good tidings’ doesn’t always has to be an evangelical term, does it?
Thankfully, we do see the good in things, sometimes. Hopefully, we will not lose the ability or cease to recognise its value.
Bob Thiele and George Weiss were two people who saw the good. Here’s a song they wrote – ‘What a wonderful world’ – performed by the one and only Louis Armstrong.
Santana’s first album (artwork)
Then there are the things that we miss at first, but do see or realise when we look closely, or pay attention, or ask for explanations. This picture is a good example of that. It’s the Lee Conklin artwork on Santana’s first album.
There’s the other side of the coin too, of course – perceptions some have that we often don’t, either because we’ve got ‘eyes wide shut’ or because we don’t share (consciously or otherwise) their way of looking at things (their perspective). …..But sometimes we do.
The Night Ferry – Michael Robotham
To demonstrate the idea, here’s a small extract from a book I’m currently reading – ‘The Night Ferry’ by Michael Robotham, an Australian novelist. (I trust I’ll get a tolerant nod from him for the use of his lines.)
Here we go. (The narrator is a young woman, and Cate, also a young woman, is her very close friend.)
…She (Cate) could .. make herself miserable by imagining that our friendship would be over one day.
“I have never had a friend like you and I never shall again. Never ever.”
I was embarassed.
The other thing she said was this: “I am going to have lots of babies because they will love me and never leave me.”
I don’t know why she talked like this. She treated love and frienship like a small creature trapped in a blizzard, fighting for survival. …
Interesting little piece, isn’t it? You realise there’s perspective and perception on both sides – the narrator’s and Cate’s. What I find fascinating, though, is the last sentence, and not just for the brilliant analogy it presents. With it, Robotham helps his readers understand the kind of insecurity that many people have about love and friendship – that they’re very difficult to find and very vulnerable, (easily cheated, easily led astray, easily harmed, easily lost, easily taken away), and that they need to be cherished and treasured, whatever the cost.
You see what happens once you understand this? You then begin to understand something apparently inexplicable – why some people, so self-assured and capable on their own, lock themselves into relationships where they play second fiddle, or, worse, demeaning ones where they are subjected to disregard, sometimes humiliation, even abuse.
Disconcerting territory? OK. I’ll move back to something less uncomfortable.
J J Cale (1938-2013)
J J Cale (1938-2013)
Here’s a song that gives us a sense of ‘there’s more in this than meets the ear’ – J J Cale’s ‘Money talks’. His song is from 1983, but this is a live version from 2001, when he was 63.
While it presents, in wry fashion, a universal perspective, it also presents a few perceptions that should be obvious, but not everyone has seen. For instance: “…you’d be surprised the friends you can buy with small change…”!!
Another one that gives you such a feeling is ‘My favourite things’, the iconic song by Rodgers and Hammerstein, made popular with the film ‘The Sound of Music’.
The lyrics seem deceptively simple, don’t they? What about “….brown paper packages tied up with string…”?
Don’t move on till you’ve heard John Coltrane’s brilliant instrumental version.
And, certainly not least, there are things others see that we don’t, and vice-versa.
If certain schools of psychologists are to be believed, such perceptions are indicative of one’s ‘psychological make-up’ or the state of one’s mind. I’m not too sure that it’s always that complex, though. I think that such perceptions could also be, very simply, indicative of one’s previous experience or exposure.
1st of the Rorschach cards
Let’s take the first image from the Roscharch test (or the ink-blot test), for instance.
Studies tell us that ‘bat’, ‘butterfly’, or ‘moth’ is how most persons tend to see this image. Well, the first thing that struck me was ‘wolf’. So, is the state of my mind really different from those who saw something else, or is my view different from those of the others simply because wolves are what I’ve read more about, and seen more images of, than bats, butterflies or moths?
To give you another example of what I mean –
At the start of this post are two photographs I’d taken in the recent past. I took them because, in both cases, something struck me about what I’d been looking at. Have a look at them. Expand them if you’d like. Think about them a bit. Does something come to mind? What do you see? When you’ve finished, scroll down to the end of this post where I’ve indicated what I saw.
I’ll close this post with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both sides now’, in which she presents her version of both sides of the ‘perception coin’.
Joni Mitchell – Clouds (artwork)
Here’s her original, from 1969, when she was 26:
Something to think about, isn’t it, this business of perspective and perceptions? Whichever ‘way you look at it’, though, I’m sure you’d agree that we’d all be far better off than we currently are, were we to keep eyes, and minds, wide open!!
So, what do you think?
State of mind?
Perhaps, merely the result of a febrile imagination?!
The obit that you see here tells you who this post is going to be about.
Obituary in the newspaper of 21 Jan 2015
In common, I’m sure, with many fathers the world over, my father was a truly wonderful parent. Beyond that, he was a truly wonderful human being.
Some ofyou visiting this blog, dear readers, may be among those who knew him, or whose paths he‘d crossed. You would have your own memories of him, and you may read this post with nostalgia, perhaps even with joy. Many of you, however, did not know him. Perhaps, through this compilation of snippets from the story of his life, I can take you through a few of the experiences that made him who he was, and give you some idea of what was so wonderful about life with him.
My picture wouldn’t be complete, though, if the anecdotes were not accompanied by some of the music he enjoyed. He wasn’t a music enthusiast, as such, but he enjoyed two forms of music: pieces from military bands, particularly with bagpipes, and ‘bhajans’ or devotional songs (the first simply because the army was his life, and the second because he was quietly devout and perhaps because they linked to the mythological stories he’d known since childhood).
So, here‘s a favourite of his on bagpipes – Amazing Grace (off a 45RPM record, no less!)
I’ll begin the stories with two‘stranger-than-fiction’ ones from WW II.
Dad had joined the army (as an officer in the Royal Indian Artillery) immediately after graduation.
(While all of you are probably familiar with the word ‘officer’, I may need to throw some light on the use of the word ‘men’ in certain contexts hereafter. In traditional military jargon, ‘men’ includes all soldiers, irrespective of gender, who are not officers. In modern-day armies, however, since ‘men’ may include women, the word ‘troops’ is often used instead.)
The war against Japan was at its most furious. Dad’s regiment was in the jungles of Burma, trying to shell the daylights out of the Japanese. …….
But let me digress a bit and tell you how I got these stories from Dad.
It was 1968. He and I were in one of the queues at the booking counters at Madras Central Station. I noticed that a grey-haired gentleman in one of the parallel queues was looking at Dad intently. I told him about it, and the result was that there were then two people looking at each other intently! After a minute or so of this, the gentleman stepped out of his line, and made his way to ours. Almost at the same moment, both spoke hesitantly to each other. He said “Reddy Sir?” while Dad said “Pillai?”. Then they fell into each others arms as long-lost brothers would. They laughed. They thumped each other on the back. They held each other at arms’ length. They devoured the sight of each other. And they spent the next 15 minutes catching up in Tamil (which I didn’t understand at that time). Later, on the way home, I asked him what all that was about. He told me that Pillai and he shared a special bond that went way, way back.
And here are those stories –
In military organizations, an artillery battery is a unit of guns, mortars, rockets or missiles so grouped in order to facilitate better battlefield communication and command and control, as well as to provide dispersion for its constituent gunnery crews and their systems. While, the standard is that a group of batteries constitute an artillery regiment, there could sometimes be such a formation as an “independent battery”.
Wracked by exhaustion, diarrhea and dehydration after three days of near continuous firing (and being fired at,) the battery (the term is also used for the team of officers and men who man a battery) were huddled in their trenches trying to catch some much-needed sleep. It was a moonless night, and pitch dark. Around 1 a.m., Lieutenant Reddy, his fitful sleep interrupted by his protesting bowels, clambered out of his trench with his spade and a handful of old newspaper and staggered to the treeline just beyond the periphery of the encampment. He dug his small pit in haste, dropped his pants, and squatted in relief. In the absolute still of night, the small sounds that followed alarmed the closest sentry who, in spite of his best efforts at keeping awake, had nodded off at his post. Imagining a score of Japs ready to burst out of the undergrowth, the terrified soldier yanked a grenade off his belt, pulled out the pin, and flung it into the trees, towards what he thought was the source of the sound.
Nothing happened for a few minutes. Neither did the grenade explode, nor did Japs come screaming out of the trees. Then the sentry saw a shape approaching in the dark. He shouted out a challenge, only to be greeted with a nonchalant “Stand down, Pillai, it’s only me, Lt. Reddy!” The conversation that followed immediately thereafter, in Tamil,must have been on these lines –
“Sir, Sir, is it really you?”
“Stop blathering Pillai! What do you mean? Of course it’s me!”
“No, Sir. What I mean is…… I threw a grenade in your direction!”
“C’mon Pillai. Your aim must be bad, but wherever you threw it, I’d have heard it explode!”
“No, Sir. What I mean is…… it didn’t go off. It was a dud!”
and so on…. .
At first light the two of them went looking for the dud. (Pillai was still in a state of shock and absolute contrition.) They found it about three or four metres from the spot where Lt. Reddy had been. He tried to cheer Pillai up by pulling his leg – “Thank God your aim was poor, Pillai! Dud or no dud, that thing would have cracked my skull if you’d been on target.” That didn’t help – Pillai dissolved into tears!
The war ground on. The Allies started pushing the Japanese back and regaining bits of Burma, inch by inch. The Japs, of course, were no pushovers, and were extracting quite a price for every inch.
One day, a month after the dud grenade incident, the battery were under severe artillery fire from the Japs. The shelling was as severe as any they’d faced in the war up to that point. They, both officers and men , were cowering in their foxholes, praying that none of the shells bore their names. Lt. Reddy heard a shell explode close by, and a loud shout of pain that followed. He poked his head out and looked around. He saw, about thirty metres away, a smoking crater, and identified a trench very close to the crater as the one from which the shout must have emanated. He pulled himself out of his trench and, holding his helmet to his head, sprinted across to see if someone was hurt and needed help. As he reached there and jumped in, a shell came whistling down and exploded IN the VERY trench he had just vacated! A few soldiers from nearby foxholes jumped out and ran to their Lieutenant’s trench, with one of them shouting, in Tamil, “Reddy sir poitaar! Reddy sir poitaar!” (Translation: Reddy sir’s done for!) And, out popped none other than Lt. Reddy, from a nearby trench, calling out “Pillai, Pillai! I’m here, I’m OK, and there was no one else in that trench!”
So, now you know why Pillai (who left the army a few years after the War to return to his village in Tamilnad) and my father shared this bond that would never ever fade. (You’ve probably also figured out, by now, one of the possible reasons for Dad’s quiet devoutness.)
And now, here’s an instrumental version of one of Dad’s favourite bhajans –
Raghupati Raghav…. (played on the ‘shehnai’ by one of India’s legends – Ustad Bismillah Khan)
Moving on with the stories –
Immediately after Indian Independence in 1947, the Royal Indian Army became the Indian Army, and some ‘Indianisation’ became necessary. This meant that, apart from a few other things, the language of communication (including command, instruction and exhortation) between officers and their men would now be Hindi. Those who weren’t familiar with Hindi (mainly those from the non-Hindi speaking areas in South India) were asked to learn the language in two phases – first, to speak (compulsory), and then, to read and write (also compulsory).
Capt. Reddy and friends, before the Hindi examinations
They weren’t given much time to pick up speaking ability. ‘Crash’ classes were imposed, conversational practice was enforced and, in short order, the abilities of the officers were put to test. The test was: address a gathering of all the men of the regiment, on a topic that would interest them.
Captain Reddy had picked up enough spoken Hindi to manage. One of his colleagues, Capt. J..N.., however, had not. They put their heads together. The ensuing conversation was probably something like this –
“Chandra (my Dad’s nick name), I just won’t be able to manage. They’ll throw me out of the army!”
“I’m sure it’s not as bad as that, J… , surely you can manage enough to scrape through?”
“Seriously, I won’t be able to. And, anyway, is this the Indian Army or the North Indian Army? It’s just not fair!”
“Maybe we can write out a speech and you can memorise it!”
“How’d I memorise it when I don’t know the language? And even if I could, they’d know, for sure, that I’m merely reciting stuff that’s not my own.”
“Not if you know what you’re talking about, and you’re enthusiastic about it. Let’s see. If you were to speak, in English, about something you’re really interested in, what would that be?”
“Football!! I would be happy to talk about anything related to football.”
“So, here’s the plan. You plan a speech in English, on a football game. Write it down. We’ll get one of these Hindi wizards to translate it into Hindi, and to write it down in Roman Hindi. You memorise that and then deliver it to the men with gestures and with animation in your face. That should do it!”
“Sounds feasible Chandra, but….”
“No, buts! Let’s do it!”
So that’s how the speech was prepared. (Roman Hindi, for those of you who haven’t come across the term, is Hindi written in English!)
N… then sat up for a few hours the night before his ‘test’ and memorised it.
The day dawned. At the appointed time, he marched up to the lectern with confidence, faced the gathered men, and waited for the master of ceremonies to introduce him as the next speaker.
The MC, the seniormost JCO in the regiment and old enough to be Capt. J… N…’s father, announced “Aur abbh, N… sahib hamay chattri ka fauj par bhashan deyngey! (That’s Roman Hindi for you. It would translate to: And now, N…. sir will speak to us about paratroopers!)
Whether he did this in good humour, or by evil design, would never be known. (Senior JCOs, who often teach young officers a lot of what they need to know about life in the army, are also known for their occasional propensity to throw babies into the deep end!)
Capt. J…. N… , behind the lectern, and Capt. Reddy, sitting in the front row, froze! The one looked at the other with panic in his eyes. After just a few seconds of locked gaze, Capt. Reddy lifted his right hand just a little bit, cupped it, brought it down to his thigh slowly, and then made skittering motions with his fingers.
The light came back into J….’s eyes. He might have been slow at picking up Hindi, but he certainly wasn’t slow at picking up mime!! He started to speak. In very halting and laboured Hindi he struggled through about 5 or 6 sentences in which he talked of a platoon of paratroopers who took off for a practice jump, and of how their jump brought them down to an open space near a village, where boys were kicking a football around. He spoke of how they joined the boys, made two teams, and proceeded to play a football match! The rest of the speech, as the cliché goes, was the stuff of history!! The regiment listened to something they could really relate to, and Capt. J… N… passed his test!
Capt. Reddy and friends, after the Hindi examinations
Now, here’s one more tune, an instrumental version of another of Dad’s favourite bhajans –
Vaishnava Jan To…. (played on the wooden flute by Prasad Bhandarkar).
Back to the stories –
In the late 1950s, Lebanon was one of the world’s hotspots (just as it has been a number of times thereafter). Things came to a head in 1958, when civil war erupted between Christians and Muslims, with the former receiving open support from the Western bloc and the latter receiving it from the Arab world (and, tacitly, from the Soviets). The U.N. called for a truce and sent in an Observer Group, in the hope that it would discourage outside powers from providing military aid, and would thus help ensure that the truce was maintained.
India, Sweden and Ecuador contributed small groups of officers from their armed forces to the U.N. Observer Group. Dad, by then a Major, was one of the officers from India deputed to the U.N. as an Observer.
This story is from his tenure in Lebanon.
One day, Major Reddy and his partner (also a Major) from the Swedish contingent, were in a Land Rover patrolling the Lebanon-Syria border. They were in a locality known to be the stronghold of a local Arab warlord, on terrain that was dry and rocky, The ‘road’ was a dusty track, winding its way between rocky outcrops. As they drove around a blind corner, they found the way ahead blocked by an open Jeep packed with armed Arab tribesmen. They pulled up. Wishing to avoid trouble, they decided to reverse and drive away, but found that another similarly packed vehicle had pulled up behind them, to block a retreat. Outnumbered, bound by U.N. regulations that stipulated that they could not use their own firearms unless actually fired upon, and unfamiliar with the local language, they stepped off their vehicle, hoping to negotiate with the men through gestures. However, a tribesman got off one of the Jeeps and walked to them. He gestured that they should get back onto their Land Rover, that he would come with them, and that they would follow the Jeep in front.
The two Observers went along in this small convoy, in a state of some anxiety. (That their guide remained as inscrutable as the Sphinx didn’t help.) While they did know that cannibalism was not a prevalent practice in the Middle East, they did allow themselves to imagine the lesser horrors that could be waiting for them. After about twenty minutes on that dusty track, they realised they were approaching a village. They also realised that they could hear, from the village, wild drumming. They glanced at each other with fears multiplied. Suddenly they weren’t so sure about the meat-eating habits of Arabs!!
They entered the village and found that it was festooned! Every hut had colourful little flags strung along its walls. As they turned into the village square they were greeted by the sight of a large party of unarmed men, at the centre of the square, in robes that were not just a clean, soft, white, they were obviously ceremonial, since they were embellished with gold braid. The drummers generating the wild rhythms were at the corner of the square.
The convoy stopped, and as the two Observers alighted from their Land Rover, they were approached by the man in the robe with the most embellishment. He was swarthy and thick set, perhaps in the early fifties, and had scars on his face that evidenced a very violent history. He also had a mouthful of misaligned and badly stained teeth, all in plain view since he bore a grin that spanned the Mediterranean. Trailing behind him was a young man, of slightly better appearance, in slightly better shape, but in humble posture. The older man embraced the two Observers in typically Arab style and then launched into a series of enthusiastic statements punctuated by smiles and gestures of welcome, pausing every now and then to allow the young man to translate.
In essence, what he said was:
“Welcome to my humble home. My daughter was wed, this morning, to the son of the chief of our tribe, and we are celebrating in a manner worthy of the occasion. We were about to partake of our feast when my lookout spotted the trail of dust that you were raising as you came down the road. I used my trusty binoculars to identify you, and directed that you be greeted and guided to our village. You are in our land with the mistaken but noble notion that you can help us reach peace. And while I think that your efforts will bear no fruit, the nobility of your purpose makes you our honoured guests. We wish to share our joy, on this happy occasion, with you. I would consider it an honour to have you at my plate.”
Bemused, the pair followed their host. Anxiety now gave way to relief and inquisitiveness. They were led into a largish hut which presented the best of Middle Eastern luxury – rich carpeting, exquisite screens and drapes, burnished brass, and the like. The place also smelt (at least to Maj. Reddy) heavenly – of freshly baked bread and exquisite spices. They soon realised why the host had said “at my plate” and not “at my table”. Groups of six or seven persons sat, on the floor, around large plates (about a yard in diameter). The host’s ‘plate’, of course, was only for the host, his interpreter, and his two guests from the U.N. When the meal began, warm, soft ‘naan’ (bread) was placed before each person, and a large copper bowl of piping hot lamb curry was placed in the centre of the plate. The diners were presented with bowls to wash their hands in, and were free to attack the fare thereafter – breaking off bits of naan with their fingers, plunging them into the curry to soak up the gravy and pick up pieces of meat, and then transferring these to their mouths. The two Observers had to be careful not to wrap, in their bits of naan, the fingers of co-diners who might also be reaching into the bowl at the same time! That they were privileged was clear from the fact that the lamb’s head was in their dish, and that the host pulled the eyes off that head and offered one to each of them with reverence. The interpreter, apart from translating the host’s occasional comment, also informed them of basic tribal etiquette – that they should indicate that they were honoured to be offered the eyes, that they should make gentle squelching sounds while eating to demonstrate their enjoyment, and that they should bring up a healthy belch at the close of the meal to deliver genuine appreciation.
To sum things up: a good time was had by all, and the two Observers were seen off by the host with gifts of dry fruit, nuts, and sweetmeats – enough to feed their entire team for a week!
I haven’t gone over all the small detail. Suffice it to say that, in all the years since then, whenever the topic of hospitality came up, Dad always said that the warmest and most genuine hospitality he’d ever experienced was at that Lebanese wedding feast.
The bit about the dusty Lebanese road draws me to something else – Dad loved road trips, whether on two wheels or four. He got to do a lot of that in the army. Thanks to his interest, we, the family, also got to do quite a bit with him when he was on leave. Road trips with him were a truly enjoyable experience. He not only regaled us with stories from mythology and from his childhood, (he was a wonderful storyteller) he also taught us a lot – about vehicles, about riding and driving, about the areas that we passed through.
Let me tell you about one such trip.
This was in the mid 1960s. He was a Colonel then, and we were stationed at Wellington in the Nilgiris (a range of hills in South India) where he was an instructor at the Defence Services Staff College. He had obtained a few weeks’ leave to take the family on a brief vacation to Chittoor (paternal grandparents), Guntur (maternal grandparents) and Hyderabad (big, old, town to gawk at). He also decided to take the scooter along (the family vehicle at that time was a three-year old Lambretta). He would ride with one of the family (wife and four kids) on the pillion, while the others would travel by train. Everyone wanted to be the one. My mother and sisters complemented their claims with the sentiment that we hear so often now – why should boys have all the fun? So, ever one for inclusion (long before the term entered the everyday vocabulary of development theorists), Dad decided to draw up a plan that would include all. Maps were rolled out. Road routes and train routes were examined, to check for points of coincidence. There being no internet in those days (yes, there was a time when the world actually functioned without the ‘net’ and mobile ‘phones) current road conditions were ascertained through trunk calls made to police stations at select points along the route. Distances and running times were computed. Within a few exciting days, the plan was drawn up:
from Wellington to Bhavani with one of my sisters,
from Bhavani to Chittoor with my brother,
from Chittoor to Hyderabad via Guntur with me (a long stretch – the privilege of the youngest),
the return from Hyderabad to Bhavani via Chittoor with my mother (a really long stretch – the entitlement of the better half), and
from Bhavani back to Wellington with my other sister.
What a trip! Even if spread over 3 weeks, 2200 km on a scooter!
Since, at that time, none of us other than Dad could handle a scooter (except to wash it) he would be doing all the riding. (He was in the mid-forties then.) This didn’t cause him the least anxiety. In fact, this was probably why he’d planned the trip in the first place!!
Roads then were not what they are now. State roads were, typically, only wide enough to take a bus (which meant that if you encountered one, you went off the road respectfully), while National Highways (luxurious in comparison) actually had enough width to allow more than a bus, though two would have been a tight fit. Of course, motor vehicles on the highways were only a fraction of what they are now, but animal-drawn vehicles and life forms on the road were very many more then, than they are now.
So, I had Dad all to myself (and, hopefully, he thought he had me all to himself) for two days and 650 kilometers, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that, apart from having a wonderful time, I learnt more from him in those two days, than you would think possible for a twelve year old.
He taught me some of the essentials about motor vehicles – how to check and clean fuel lines, the carburetor, contact points and the spark plug; how to replace a wheel and patch a puncture; how to listen and feel for signs that the engine is so hot that you run the risk of its seizing.
He taught me about safe riding – about centre of gravity, its relevance while taking a curve, and how it’s effected by the posture of both riders; how to cope when you encounter blinding headlights; that dangerous spills on the road include not only oil, but anything loose and dry.
He taught me some highway etiquette – that vehicles with heavy loads and high centres of gravity, and those climbing gradients, be given the right of way; that people on foot, on bicycles and in animal-drawn vehicles have as much right to the use of the road as those on or in motor vehicles; that people crossing a road, including and especially old persons and children, are none other than those who’ve temporarily entrusted their lives to you; that, when on the road, you use not only vision and hearing but also a sixth sense and the understanding of human nature to develop anticipation and good judgement.
He taught me that there is much, much more to our world, and to life, than just humankind.
And now, here‘s another of his favourites on bagpipes – Mull o’Kintyre.
Let’s move to the 21st of July 1969. We were in Secunderabad, after Dad had completed a tenure in command of a Mountain brigade.
Brig. Reddy inspecting a gun emplacement
Brig. Reddy at the headquarters of his Mountain Brigade
Brig. Reddy (left) in conversation with Gen. Manekshaw (later Field Marshal), then C in C, Indian Army
At Secunderabad, Dad was participating in a programme on Logistics Management at the institution that would later come to be known as the College of Defence Management.
It was about 3 in the morning. We were at home, wide awake, and experiencing something surreal. We had crowded around our radio (TV hadn’t intruded into our lives yet) and were listening to the VOA broadcast from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, tracking the progress of Apollo 11 and the moon landing.
The whole situation – the very thought that what was once so far was now so near – was unbelievable! Even Jules Verne and H G Wells had not prepared us for anything like it! We listened to that commentary, speechless and motionless, right down to those two famous lines from Neil Armstrong – “The Eagle has landed” and, thereafter, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”
With that, Dad switched off the radio, heaved a big sigh, and said “It’s anticlimactic after all that, but we have to get to work today!”
But, even after he said that, he remained seated and quiet. After a few moments I asked him what he was thinking about. He chuckled and said “My mother’s best stories were woven around the moon, and so are mine, when I relate mythological ones. I was thinking, now that we’ve put our hands and feet on the moon, and its mystery has gone, what sorts of stories will children get in the future?!”
He then went on to say, in a tone of contemplation, “And there’s another aspect to all this. You know, when you’re part of a change, you don’t realise it, because you’re engaged in whatever’s happening and what needs to be done. Take WW II for instance. For those of us who were a part of it, only when it was over and we followed geo-political developments thereafter, did we actually realise that we were going to see a very different world. But this moon landing – we’re viewing it from the outside, and even as we ‘watch’ we know we’re seeing the world change, before our very eyes. I was thinking of how things have been, and trying to visualise what will be. It’s difficult, because we have no reference points, no comparable situations. It reminded me of when I felt this way earlier. That was when we read about the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That time, too, I felt the world wouldn’t be the same again. Change is often exciting, but it isn’t always comforting. I know there will always be change. I know that’s a fact of life. But, when it’s human-generated change, perhaps we should try to control its pace.”
At that time, fifteen years old, I wasn’t sure I understood what he said. Certainly, I didn’t realise its import. Now, all these years later, I think I do.
By 1970 Dad was a Major General commanding a Mountain Division. During the Indo-Pak conflict of 1971 he led his division into Bangladesh as part of the Indian military effort that led to the liberation of that country. By early 1972 the division had returned to its peace-time location in the lower reaches of the Himalayas. By mid-’72 he was given a new assignment at Lucknow, at the Central Command headquarters. We, the family, visited him, and spent a couple of weeks with him in the Himalayas, before he relinquished command of his division to take up his new assignment. His last few days there were filled with official ceremonies and traditional farewells (in some of which he addressed the men in Hindi, and did that reasonably well!) The morning of departure dawned. The first part of that journey would be by road, on the winding mountain roads down to the railhead at the foothills – about 150 km, but a six-hour drive, not only because of those roads but also because of what I’m going to describe. We were in a mini-convoy of 3 Jeeps – Dad and my mother were in the first, his ADC (aide-de-camp) and I were in the next, and Dad’s baggage and his new acquisition, a Lhasa Apso pup, were in the third. Every 10 or 15 km along that road, for the first 70 or 80 km or so, there were groups of 10 to 20 soldiers waiting. As the convoy reached them, they would stop Dad’s vehicle, one of them would reach in to garland him and three or four would press forward to shake his hand. The vehicle would then be allowed to pass, sent off with shouts of “Reddy Sahib Amar Rahe” which (though it literally translates to a wish for immortality) is actually the traditional wish for a long and healthy life. (As in: Long Live Reddy Sir!)
I thought this amounted to taking the traditional farewell to slightly extreme lengths, and in my brash, all-knowing-teenager fashion, said so to Capt. S…. the ADC. He turned around (I was sitting at the back), gave me a withering look, and said “This isn’t part of any ceremony or tradition! These men are from different regiments that are part of this division. They’re here because he meant a lot to them, and they want to wish him well. If you’re interested, I’ll tell you why.”
Chastened, I asked him what he meant. Here, in essence, is what he said: “During the operations in Bangladesh, the entire division had advanced into that country, headquarters and all. Being among the first Indian Army formations that went in, we were the lead lines on one side of a pincer movement, closing in on the Pak forces. Since we were on the offensive, and in a tight time-frame, the effort was to keep the advance going without let up. This meant that the frontlines and the support segments were pushing hard, often stretched thin, and invariably with no more than minimal rest. While a divisional commander’s role involves, essentially, decision-making including planning and strategy, Gen. Reddy would, in addition, make time, everyday, to visit the men at different points on the frontlines. He would do this, always, in the company of the local commanders, so that he was complementing their efforts and not sidelining them. He would speak to the junior officers and men, (sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups), ask about the effectiveness of weaponry and ammunition, appreciate their efforts, seek their impressions on the levels of enemy resistance, and assure them that the crucial needs of their formation would be taken care of. In the process, even though he was not their direct commander, he endeared himself to every one of us on the frontlines. So, while he might not have known every one of the men in his division, every one of us knew him. We are proud to serve in an army that has leaders like him.”
Maj. Gen. Reddy and his team, seeking the blessings of a higher power before leaving for Bangladesh
Maj. Gen. Reddy in front of a captured tank after the liberation of Bangladesh
I had reason to recall this story a few days after Dad passed away. I was going through a few old books he had. One of them is “Normandy to the Baltic”, an account of the D-Day offensive by Field Marshal Montgomery. Dad had not just read the book – he had studied it! There were pencilled notes in different places in the book. I’ve taken a photograph of the particular note that reminded me of the Bangladesh story. Here it is:
Morale is the greatest single factor in war. High morale is a pearl of very great price. High morale is based on Discipline, Self-respect, Confidence of the soldier in his commanders, his weapons, himself.
This note, I think, sums up Dad’s approach to people he lived and worked with. While its relevance to his wartime days in the army is obvious, it’s also clear to me that, viewed metaphorically, it is a set of principles that he believed in, and lived by.
Maj. Gen. Reddy receiving the Param Vishisht Seva Medal from the President of India, Mr. F. A. Ahmed
Now, here’s another of Dad’s favourite bagpipe tunes – “Atholl Highlanders” by the Pipes and Drums of the Black Watch.
Dad retired in 1975, after 3 decades in the army. It took him some time to get used to civilian life, where the rules (when any) are as malleable as silly putty, and to a pensioner’s life, where people pay attention to you only if they know you from the days before your retirement. He did, in time, make the necessary adjustments. Certain occurrences in his retired life hastened the process, and I’m afraid I was responsible for what might have been the first of these.
It was in Chennai in 1975, a few days after his retirement. Having found employment with a public sector bank, I was going to start working in a couple of months. To celebrate my (to be) status, Dad had helped me acquire an old two-wheeler. (It was a Bullet. It was ancient, but it was my first bike, it made me feel like the king of the road, and I loved it!) Dad and I were going somewhere, at about 2 in the afternoon. We had stopped at the traffic light at Simpsons (what used to be called ‘Round Tana’ in those days). Dad was behind me, sitting with arms akimbo. The light turned green and I took off, eager to demonstrate, to the others on the road, my prowess with this wonderful possession. Within seconds there was a scooterist beside me, yelling at me in Tamil “Idiot! See what you’ve done!!” I looked back to see Dad, a few metres away, sitting on the road, legs out, supporting himself on his hands! Four-wheelers behind him were honking impatiently, while 2 wheelers were weaving their way around him. I pulled my bike onto its stand and ran back, reaching him even as a couple of pedestrians did. He was OK, just a little dazed. He picked himself up, dusted the seat of his trousers, and said “I’m OK. Let’s go.” I was profuse in my apologies. I realised I had accelerated with a jerk, and Dad, who wasn’t holding on, slid off the rear of the bike onto the road, ending up in the embarrassing position that he did. He didn’t say anything else. He just patted me on the shoulder and repeated “Let’s go”. We started off again, with the sound of “Muttal!” (Tamil for ‘idiot’) ringing in my ears. After a few minutes, Dad said, behind me “I knew that I’d have to come down to earth after retirement. I didn’t foresee, however, that it would be so soon, and with such a thud!”
Neither did Dad relate that incident to my mother or to anyone else, nor did he ever remind me of it, or give me cause to think that he remembered it. I think he felt that I had learnt something from it, and that was enough for him.
There are many other stories I could tell you, but I think these few serve my purpose, which is to give you some idea of what was so wonderful about life with him.
I’d like to close, though, with a funny and unique line he sometimes used. This was something that he said he’d picked up when he was at P S High School in Chennai (then Madras) in the ’30s.
The line is –
“Thinkaadha thought ellaam thinki thinki grievineney O God-ey”.
It is gobbledygook when you first hear or read it. When you look at it closely, however, you realise that it comprises English words presented in what seem like Tamil, Japanese (or Chinese) and Sanskrit intonations. His translation of this was “Do not think those thoughts that, when you go over them repeatedly, cause you to grieve and say ‘O God!’ “
A photograph from a year ago
From the way he lived his life, and from the way he guided us, I have understood what he meant – Look back at the past for the things you treasure and for the things that you have learnt, but never to grieve, regret, repent, or throw your hands up in helplessness.
We hear you, Daddy. I know I’m speaking for all of us in your family when I say – We miss you. We always will. But we hear you. We have the strength and confidence you helped us develop, and we will move on.
“Thinkaadha thought ellaam thinki thinki grievineney O God-ey”.
A few visitors to this blog have suggested that I add a ‘sticky post’ (one that would always head the page) to give new visitors an idea (warning?) about what the blog holds. Never one to frown at borrowing ideas, I’ve borrowed the idea.
So, here’s what this blog’s about –
While my work (namely the stuff that I do to bring home the bacon) has involved a fair amount of writing over the years – correspondence, notes, reports, minutes, legalese, academic content, training manuals, and so on – I haven’t written much for public consumption.
I’ve kept telling myself, though, that I should write a few more times – to put down things that I recall or have arrived at – for those who may find something in my writing that interests them, for those close to me, and for myself. Those close to me will, I hope, feel obligated to read my stuff, and may then marvel at how someone who didn’t have much to say so far except to students in class (where he doesn’t know when to stop), now feels free to write for anyone willing to read.
Well, I guess I’ve reached the age where a foot in the mouth can’t kill me.
Therefore, dear reader, I subject you to this blog.
What will I write about? I’ll ramble. Rambling, I suppose, is what bloggers do, and must be one of the joys of blogging. However, I’ll try not to get into totally mindless rambling, and it’s to remind myself of that resolution that I’ve titled this blog as I have. The title represents the tempering of the somewhat extreme but more common thought – Nothing To Lose. I won’t be going that far, not just yet!
So, let’s see…
– Music, musicians, events, stories – rock, jazz, and blues; Western and Indian classical.
– Good reads – the classics, contemporary fiction, essays, poetry, everday philosophy, history, current events, and opinions that matter.
– Travel – the little I’ve done, what I’ve read about, and day-dreams.
– My Generation – our quirks, our goof-ups, and the bits we got right.
These, and more like these, are the things I intend to write about in future posts. I’ll write when the spirit moves me, and I hope it moves me often!
When I began this blog, I’d resolved to upload at least one post a month. I managed that for the first two months, and then went into hibernation for a good year-and-a-half till November this year when I uploaded a third post.
I had, however, out of curiosity (laced with hope, I suppose), kept up with the statistics on the blog. I found that, even over these eighteen empty months, there had been at least one or two visitors a day and, curiously, most of these ‘faithfuls’ were from Brazil!
While I’m happy that my blog draws visitors from Brazil, I have a faint suspicion that this may not always be because of the content. Whatever else the reasons could be (including misdirection), I hope they’re on this side of legal!
And so – the idea for this post! Since folks from Brazil are visiting (or stumbling upon) this blog, I’ll take the opportunity to do my bit to strengthen Brazil-India ties!
Ola Brasil !! I’m sure there are things about India that you love, but you can tell us about them. From our side – How do we love thee? Let us count some ways! (Thanks, Elizabeth Browning!)
I’ll leave it to others to talk about economics, science and technology, BRICS, Embraer, and the like. I’d like to talk of a few things we have in common and a few joys, things that would appeal to the mildly inquisitive – whether Brazilian or Indian!
First – Coffee !
Most of my generation, particularly in South India, grew up believing that our beloved ‘filter coffee’ was the sixth element, and that it was as uniquely Indian as idlis. Chikmagulur was considered the holiest area on earth, since Baba Budan hailed from there, and the Indian Coffee Board was headquartered there. Imagine our surprise when we learnt that, across on the other side of the world, Brazil was where 80% of the world’s coffee was grown. We had a big brother (sister)! With coffee as common language, we’d never be foreigners if we ever went there! And that surprise turned to a happy sense of bonding when we learnt that our ‘coffees’ had somewhat similar parentage:
seeds were smuggled out of Mocha in the southern part of Arabia (modern-day Yemen) and brought to India in the 17th century (by the aforesaid Baba Budan, a holy man of those times, who, thanks to his Promethean endeavour, was definitely a saint thereafter)!
seeds were smuggled out of French Guiana and taken to Brazil in the 18th century (by Francisco Palheta, who had to seduce the wife of the governor of French Guiana to do so)!
Oh! The lengths that true patriots go to, for their countries!
Shared Portuguese heritage !
“Vasco Da Gama of Portugal discovered the sea route to India” was the line from history that was dinned into the heads of those of us who learnt our Indian history during the period when we were so grateful for our newly gained freedom that we could talk of our erstwhile colonial occupiers without any rancour.
And then, with World history, we learnt that what is now Brazil was ‘discovered’ (or chanced upon) by another Portuguese adventurer, Pedro Alvares Cabral, who was, amazingly, in command of an expedition to India! Having staked his king’s claim to (yet to be named) Brazil, he then resumed his voyage and found his way to Calicut in India. He left his mark here as well.
a carrack (portuguese globe-trotter_16th century)
The historical difference, of course, is that the Portuguese in Brazil (the colony) and the indigenous folk formed a large nation of their own, wresting independence from Portugal, while the Portuguese in India, though they sowed their oats and left their names at various places in South India and on the West Coast, were overwhelmed by the English. They were allowed that one small colony, Goa, which was later ‘liberated’ and became part of the Indian union in 1961 (though Portugal gave up her claim to the colony only in 1974). However, the Portuguese heritage remains (and is enjoyed and valued) and, small though Goa may be, Goans have played a significant role in the building of modern India in very many ways.
We’re very familiar with thongs in India. They’re rubber slippers with thin forked straps. We used to call them “hawaii chappal” and our kids now call them ‘flip-flops’. But their generic name, folks, is ‘thongs’. Even the Romans are known to have worn leather versions – leather soles strapped to their feet with strips of leather cord, or thongs.
Thongs (hawaii chappal)
Thongs are popular in Brazil too, we understand, especially (as we learn from encyclopedic sites on the internet) on the beaches (Copacabana and Ipanema, for example). This could be puzzling, though. Why would you use slippers at the seaside when unshod feet enable you to really enjoy the sand and the foam?!
In India, it’s a game everyone could afford to play, (if only they had access to playing space). In certain Indian states (Goa being one) football is almost a religion. And for those of us who follow the game with any degree of interest, the Brazilians have always been key figures. Only one, however, owns our hearts.
For a decade and a half between the 1960s and 70s, all a movie hall owner had to do, to ensure a full house, was to run a documentary including even a few minutes of a match involving PELE, after the main feature had been shown!
We grew to love this magician who, without any apparent effort, wove his way through the opposition like a knife through blancmange, who, with what seemed a mere touch of his foot, had the ball whip into the net around (sometimes through) outstretched goalkeepers, and who, (shockingly, by modern-day standards) remained as humble in his frequent victories as he did in his occasional defeats.
Words would fail me were I to attempt more description. The following link has a video that presents the highlights of the 1958 World Cup final that the 17 year old Pele won for Brazil. I think you’ll agree that it says it all!
Today, the younger football fans in India rave about Ronaldo, Neymar, Ronaldinho and Kaka, among others. For me however, and, I’m sure, for many others, Pele is truly The King, of all football!
And, though last, certainly not least (especially for me) –
Jazz Musicians !
For many of us in the early 60s, The Shadows (who played guitar-based instrumentals) were the ones who introduced us to electric-guitar versions of famous tunes from around the world.
One of their tunes, called The Girl from Ipanema, caught my fancy. As my interest in music grew, I learnt that the original was composed by a Brazilian, Antonio Carlos Jobim, in 1962. The original Portuguese lyrics were by Vinicius de Moraes. A 1964 version of this song, sung in English by another Brazilian, Astrud Gilberto, took the world (at least, those in the world who listened to jazz) by storm. The song was awarded a Grammy in 1965.
[[- The story behind this wonderful piece of music is equally wonderful. It’s like a fairy tale – 2 friends who see a pretty girl go by, are inspired to create a piece of music in her honour! The music becomes immortal and along the way brings recognition to the pretty girl who goes on to become a goodwill ambassador for Brazil! It’s worth reading the complete story. Here’s where you’ll find it:
Just as the jazz world was recovering from the impact of Astrud’s voice, came, close on her heels, another Brazilian, Flora Purim, who has lent her voice not only to jazz, but also to fusion and rock! (Flora’s husband, Airto Moreira, also Brazilian, is a jazz and fusion percussionist who has played with leading instrumentalists and bands). I first heard Flora Purim sing (and Airto play) on the eponymous “Return to Forever”, the seminal album by Chick Corea and Return to Forever. They generated a truly unique sound. So unique in fact, that you don’t find too many other bands and singers performing ‘covers’ of RTF songs. Flora Purim’s 72 now, and even though her performances in recent years have been few and far between, she remains a key figure on the jazz and fusion scene.
While there certainly are other great Brazilian composers and musicians in contemporary Brazilian music, I’m familiar with only these few in international music, who feature on various albums in my collection of jazz. This is enough, though, to tell me that Brazilians have had as great an impact on international music as Indians have had.
– = – = – = –
So, is there a message in this post, dear reader? One wasn’t really intended, but perhaps we could get to this:
People tell us that the world is getting smaller, thanks to global interaction and the internet. What should ‘smaller’ mean? That the world’s getting more cramped with not enough room for all of us? Or that opportunities for people to people contact are increasing? I think it should be the second. If the second is the case, then we shouldn’t be looking at it only as ‘the world getting smaller’. It should really be perceived the other way around too – global interaction and the internet can enable each of us to expand our own world, to expose ourselves not only to political, economic and academic thought, but also to culture and tradition, to gain perspective and understanding.
Only when we get there can we move from thinking “Our nation – Our world” to “Our nations – One world”.
“Right here, Right here!!” I rejoiced, on entering the World War section of the Museum of Flight, when my wife and I visited that museum in Seattle a year ago. My exuberance prompted a tolerant smile from her, and, I suppose, a faint hope in her that the other visitors wouldn’t pay much attention to a greybeard behaving like a schoolboy.
Since there are mixed contexts here, some backtracking would be in order.
In common with many other readers, I began my reading habit with books by Enid Blyton. (Why isn’t there a Nobel prize for Contribution to Childhood?) I soon expanded my reading lists to include a variety of ‘adventure’ books. The two series that captivated me for most of my years in middle and senior school were the Biggles books, by W. E. Johns, and the Hornblower books, by C. S. Forester.
What I loved about these books was that they were perfectly suited to my tendency to ‘live the adventure’ in a world of my own.
(This was something I believed I was unique in, until I came across Thurber’s Walter Mitty some years later, and, with that, the realisation that I was, almost certainly, only one among many. For the likes of us, intoxicants, psychotropic substances, even Second Life, hold no appeal at all, since we need nothing but a well written book to break free, to draw inspiration from, or as a creative base.)
But I digress. Back to the world of Biggles – full name: James Bigglesworth – the subject of this piece. (I’ll introduce you to Hornblower later sometime, in another post.)
I’ll leave it to you to find out more about the author and the series (three cheers for Google and Wikipedia), and the stories themselves (read a couple of books). Suffice it to say that, filling his books (especially the WW I stories) with a wealth of simply explained detail, Johns seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. This made it very easy to ‘live the adventure’.
With these books my imagination took to the skies. I imagined the bumpy take-offs and landings on rough airfields, the freezing air at 10000 feet, the deafening sound of air-cooled rotary engines (my own and those of passing aircraft), the explosive chatter of machine guns, the pungent smell of lubricant, fuel and cordite, the boom of ground artillery aimed (vainly) at me as I flew overhead. I imagined dogfights involving (what I thought would be) climbs, dives, spins, loops, Immelmann turns. I imagined zeroing in on ‘kills’, and following the screaming and burning aircraft down to the ground in the hope that my adversaries would escape death or fatal injury. (Fantasy apart, I think those books helped me understand, at least in part, what the term ‘an officer and gentleman’ meant, and the values that it implied.) I imagined rough landings, even crashes, from which I walked away (sometimes hurt but always steady).
I grew familiar with colourful names like Red Baron and Flying Circus, and with the names of the iconic aircraft of the two WWs (the Bristols, Sopwiths, Nieuports, SPADs, Spitfires, Mustangs, Yaks as well as the Albatrosses, Fokkers, Focke Wulfs, Messerschmitts and Zeroes). I was a regular visitor to libraries, poring over atlases to pinpoint WW locations, and over encyclopedias to find pictures of WW aircraft and flying aces.
Simple line drawings of biplanes and Spitfires became my trademark doodles for a few years, and have, since, remained among my favourites.
And so, when we stepped into the WW section of that museum of flight, it seemed like a dream come true! They have restored specimens, and some full-scale replicas, of WW I and WW II aircraft, photographs, biographies of air aces, spoken and written accounts by some of them, black and white documentaries, and clips from aviation-based war movies. To complete the atmosphere, they have, playing in the background (as if at some distance in the skies above), recorded sounds of aircraft and dogfights. The icing on this cake is the SIMULATORS (in the form of mock fighter cockpits with controls, that face 72” screens) that, in simulated short flights, dogfights, aerobatic displays, even crash landings (!!) enable you to get the feel of flying and ‘being there’ – and how!!
In addition to all this there were, that day, about 15 primary school kids at the museum. In single file behind their teacher and with outstretched arms, they were all (including Teacher) enthusiastically pretending to be planes as they were led past the exhibits, miming banks, yaws, climbs and loops. Some were even giving him correct answers as to which moves by a pilot would result in which actions!
The place was a time machine!! I can’t describe it in any other way! In transporting me to the war years it also transported me to the fantasy world that I’d lived in as a boy.
Closing time was 5pm and we stayed until the museum security reminded us where the exits were. Needless to say, it was a wrench to leave.
(Before you move to the rest of this post, here are some photographs from that visit.)
[[– I know half the people on the planet are, or have been, fascinated by flying machines. Jefferson Airplane sang a song for all of us! It’s called ‘Planes’. Here’s a link to a video. (The visuals are just a collage. Listen to the lyrics!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0gnnVcOLNc –]]
So, this museum visit – a ‘nostalgia’ trip, would you say? I would say so too!
‘Nostalgia’, the Webster tells us, is ‘the pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again’. Some say that nostalgia is a temporary escape from reality, some that it results from the belief that one prefers the past to the present, some that it demonstrates one’s inability to relate to the present.
However, I have a particular perception of what that word encompasses. I don’t think any of those are the case. I think nostalgia sums up the situations, the experiences and the people that one looks back at fondly because they have armed us with the energy, the attitudes, and the ideals that have helped us, and continue to help us, deal with our circumstances, overcome our fears and difficulties, and go through our lives with a measure of confidence. In short – that of our past that sustains us through our present, and keeps us optimistic as we look to the future.
And now to “….where the hell was Biggles….”
Some of you would recognise this phrase from Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull’s marathon song ‘Thick as a Brick’. (This is not to be confused with its sequel – Anderson’s TAAB2 of 2012.)
If you haven’t heard the song yet, you should – it’s an amazing piece of rock music with lyrics that offer multiple interpretations, (should you be inclined to attempt interpretation).
I’ve used the line to start with because, though Anderson may have used it in a different context, every time I hear the song, this particular line brings back to me the image I’ve always had of Biggles, the flying ace – in his cockpit as he taxis in after a sortie, in flying gear,his goggles atop his leather flying helmet, his face generally grimy from oil-spray and exhaust fumes except around the eyes, where the goggles would have provided protection.
I’ve brought the line in again to share a different set of thoughts, more in the sense of Anderson’s context.
His particular verse is:
So! Where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?
And where were all the sportsmen who always pulled you through?
They’re all resting down in Cornwall
writing up their memoirs for a paper-back edition
of the Boy Scout Manual.
Some take this to be Anderson’s averment of the meaninglessness of icons or heroes. Doesn’t the ‘…always pulled you through…’ seem to indicate otherwise, though?
But let me contribute my ‘chavanni’s’ worth on the relevance of icons – I think the range between degrees of ‘meaningfulness’ is, in this case, the range between the terms ‘worship’ and ’emulation’.
In hero-worship we consider our icons with awe, and believe they are superhuman and therefore beyond emulation. As a result, when in circumstances that we feel are beyond our capabilities, we wish our icons were by our side to see us through. “Wish you were here”, is the thought. And sometimes, the thought that they are by our side helps us bear with these circumstances till they pass (and, one way or another, they do pass).
In role-model emulation, while we may consider our icons with awe, we believe that they set certain standards or make us aware of certain possibilities to which we can lift our own capability and effort. “Thanks for showing me the way, I think I can take it from here”, is the thought. And sometimes, in coping on our own, we achieve levels that we think our icons would themselves have been proud of.
So, if our heroes weren’t there when we ‘needed them last Saturday’, it was merely because our response to our situation was “wish they were here” when it should’ve been “what would they have done had they been here”.
It’s not as if each of us is fixed at a certain point in this range, however. Most of us move between its various points, sometimes praying and hoping (looking to our icons), sometimes learning and performing (looking to ourselves).
On occasion, we’re smart enough to realise that we are best served by the latter actions, supported by the former. The thing to do, perhaps, is to increase the frequency and regularity of those occasions!
sings Paul Rodgers in the Free song “Sail on”. (You could catch a live version of this on YouTube, but I haven’t provided the link because the audio quality isn’t great.) While, in the song, and in the perception of most, the line could mean that we often have to work hard for what we desire, I’d like to give it a different spin – as a line in praise of looking for second-hand (or, to use the current euphemism, ‘pre-owned’) things – and, through that spin, meander to a somewhat larger thought.
Some of the most valued things we’ve gathered at home through the years (for instance – our tireless motorcycle, our rugged display case, our rock-steady turntable, many of our books, LPs and CDs) were discovered through the classifieds, unearthed in thrift stores, flea markets and pavement shops, or found at auctions and garage sales.
Why have I not used words such as ‘bought’ or ‘purchased’ even though we must’ve used money for these acquisitions? Simply because such words suffice only for the dreary business of mere commercial transactions, and not for sheer ADVENTURE. And, believe me, we’ve had some thrilling adventures!
I’ll take you through a couple which are typical of most of the others. And then I’ll tell you why I think they are nothing but adventure.
I really got hooked onto rock and blues early in the Woodstock era – in 1971 (my first year at college). Radio stations would play these amazing new sounds that captivated me entirely. This was stuff the like of which had never been heard before. I would spend all my free time (which was a lot) either glued to the radio, listening to VOA, BBC, Radio Kuwait, Radio Deutsche Welle, and such, or at the USIS or British Council libraries, (no computers or internet in those days!) devouring Records and Recording, Music and Musicians, Downbeat, Rolling Stone and any other music magazine I could lay my hands on. However, it wasn’t till 1976, my first year at work (at a princely wage of 800 rupees a month), that I could think of starting a collection of music to go with the small Philips stereo system that my sister had let me have.
Madras had an amazing market in those days – Moore Market, near Madras Central station – a huge building that had a variety of shops in it, and a couple of parallel lanes behind it that were lined with shops selling used things.
One of these shops (I never really noticed whether it had a name) was a favourite haunt of mine, as it had second hand LPs of all genres of music. The guy who ran the shop (and I never knew his name either – to me he was The Record Guy) knew just a little about pop and rock, but he certainly did know where to get LPs from! He would pick up western music from families emigrating to Australia or the West; from newly-marrieds who’d returned from the West and whose spouses didn’t quite share their preferences in music; from indulgent parents who suddenly dumped their kids’ record collections, convinced that rock and blues were forms of music designed by SATAN (no less) to lead their lambs astray; from sailors who were in port (while their ships discharged and took on cargo) and needed money to paint the town red. I really haven’t a clue of how he heard of his sources. The results however were the gems that could often be found at his place.
And so to a typical adventure, back in 1976 –
I was left with sixty bucks by the end of the month, salary coming in again in a few days. I cycled over (you’ve met my cycle in my previous post) to The Record Guy’s place after work on Saturday afternoon. Greeted him as I would a close friend (the bounden duty of a regular). Went over to the bin with the western music, and started flipping through the LPs.
Went past various sundry albums… Bee Gees (wouldn’t be caught dead with that)… Ventures, Golden Guitar (hmm.. perhaps if nothing else)… Anne Murray, practically new (pass..pass..)… something else… something else… Saturday Night Fever, also practically new (unhunh.. unhunh..)… Aqualung (Holy Smoke!! Tull!! Palpitations! But keep moving! Keep moving! Don’t let on that you’re interested)… something else… (fingers shaking, face must be red, is my hair standing on end? Hope he doesn’t notice!)… something else… Wake of the Flood (Grateful Dead!! Hold on to that bin! Don’t collapse. But don’t stop! Keep going! Heart pounding! Keep going!)… flip through to the end of the lot in the bin, almost forty of them, without even noticing them. (Obviously! With eyes glazed over, what else? Now, turn around casually, stretch arms, link fingers behind head and look around vacantly, move hands to pockets, get a grip on your vocal chords and start what you hope sounds like a bored conversation with The Record Guy.)
“What brother! Nothing of interest today. You haven’t got fresh stuff since God knows when.”
“Are you blind? There’s a brand new Anne Murray there, and that big hit Saturday Night Fever. Both came in yesterday. They won’t be around long, I can tell you.”
“Hmm… (Back to the bin. Pick up those two. Look at the jackets with interest. Take the discs out carefully, look at them closely, nod in approval, put them back in the jackets.) … very good condition. Maybe I should take them before someone else does. I’ll give you sixty bucks for them, that’s all I have.”
“Are you mad? (Guffaw, guffaw). I can get forty for each of them. But you’re a regular, so I can let you have them for thirty five each, and that’s the best I can do.”
(Plead a bit. Accuse him of being unfair. Pretend to tug on his heart strings. If he gets the impression that you’re desperate, he won’t budge.) And he doesn’t.
“OK. Obviously you won’t let me have them. But since I’m here, I might as well pick up something.”
(Pick up Aqualung and Wake of the Flood. For God’s sake, don’t squeak or let your hands shake. Put on your most bored voice.)
“So what’ll you give me these two dusty albums for?” (Nothing that gentle soap and water can’t handle)
“They may be dusty, but they’re in good shape. You said you had sixty bucks. I’ll let you have them for that much.”
“Now, you’re the one who’s mad. No one will give you more than twenty for each. I’ll give you forty.”
“Sorry. Really sorry. Forty’s less than I paid for them.”
“Come on. I wasn’t born yesterday. Anyway, I’ll give you forty five.”
“For fifty five you should give me the Ventures album as well!”
“Listen. I’ll give you the three for sixty. Now, if you don’t like that, forget it. Let’s talk about the Cooum instead.”
And so it came to pass that two of my most treasured albums found their way into my young collection, along with a little bonus in the form of The Ventures, for sixty rupees.
(Listen to the tracks on the links below, and you’ll see why they’re such great albums.)
So, Sounds pretty neat, yes? Well, the ploy works sometimes, but flops as many times too! And that just adds to the adventure. But, I’ll come back to that, after I tell you of a more recent episode – as recent as earlier this year.
My wife and I were at Thane, Mumbai, a couple of months ago, visiting relatives. One evening, we were at a shopping arcade. The ladies were looking at some kitchen things. I was outside looking around, and spotted the store of a waste paper dealer. There was an old bookshelf in the store, with about thirty books and the legend ‘For Sale’ scrawled on a piece of cardboard that must’ve been torn off an old notebook. I drifted over and peered at the books (in fact, looked down at them – I didn’t really expect to see much in a waste paper store) through the lower halves of my bifocals. I identified a Sidney Sheldon (yawn), a couple of Lustbaders (have already read one, may try the other), a few Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews (don’t kids pick up second hand books these days?) and – I couldn’t believe my eyes – an almost new hardback of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations! The negotiations that followed were similar to those I’d had thirty seven years ago with The Record Guy, and have tried ever since with varying degrees of success and failure. I eventually came down to the book I really wanted, almost as if it were an afterthought.
I left the store with the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius in my hand, a broad smile on my face, and great joy and anticipation in my heart – all for a pittance of seventy rupees!
Now let me tell you why I consider these, and others like them, episodes of adventure.
– To start with, you set out for a second-hand shop or market, or stumble upon one, as a discoverer would – without a clue of what you are likely to chance upon.
– There’s subterfuge to be maintained (at least until, through frequent visits, you’ve built the kind of rapport with the shopkeeper where both of you can assess each others’ expectations). This subterfuge demands: an air of ‘I’m here because I have some time between more important tasks’, a bored look, a flat tone of voice, absolute control over eyes, eyebrows, lips and potential tremble, and the ability to give the impression that one doesn’t really need the object of negotiation and is willing to walk away.
– There’s the thrill of going through the stock: recognition of pieces you know of or have read or heard about; identification of those that you would want to find out more about; exposure to ones that you think seem interesting enough to take a chance with.
– There’s the skilled (or desperate) negotiation that follows.
– Depending on what the object is worth to you, there’s sometimes a seemingly ethical dilemma (am I taking too much advantage of this guy’s goodness and/or ignorance) when you know you can drive the price pretty low. This is fleeting, though, since you quickly assure yourself that no dealer is going to part with any of his stock unless he makes SOMEthing, however little, on the deal.
– There’s joy when you close the deal, or heartbreak when it slips from your grasp.
– When you take the acquisition home and experience it, there’s exultation when it meets or exceeds your expectations (and you feel you have a ‘steal’), or a feeling of disappointment when it falls short (but you don’t think of it as a rip-off, because you know it was one of those times that you erred in judgement, made the wrong call).
– Sometimes you try to find out if the object is otherwise available in the regular stores or other thrift stores, and if it’s not, that’s double the thrill because you know you just managed to be at the right place at the right time. If it is available, you might find that you saved quite a bit on it and (if you’re a scrooge like I am) you’re jubilant that you were able to do so.
Doesn’t this add up to adventure? For me, it certainly does ! Perhaps a shade less exciting than white-water rafting, para sailing, or fighting a gorilla bare-handed and bare-chested, but adventure nevertheless!
But, (on a slightly serious note) the greatest value of such acquisitions, I believe, is that each one provides us with a memory that we cherish and an experience that we relive when we look back at what life has given us so far.
We know money can’t buy us true love (The Beatles, among many others, remind us of that). We’re also told that money can’t buy us happiness. Well, perhaps not as such, but… . One of the pieces of prose that I handled in a recent class presented the idea that our money is well spent not when we acquire mere possessions, but when the expenditure affords us memories and experience.
I can’t agree more; that’s just the stuff I’ve been talking of! And it’s not about money only – let’s remember that money has value not in itself, but as a resource – it’s equally (and often more) so about any resources that we expend, such as time, effort, patience, emotion, as you would see from the adventures I’ve narrated.
So, here’s what I’ve arrived at. Since happiness lies in experience and memories, it is entirely possible and highly likely that, when resources (including money, irrespective of how little or how much) are well and judiciously spent (isn’t that one way of looking at the term ‘well-invested’?), you could end up with results that prompt some happiness.