Friday, July 22, 2011

No Man's Land

2 countries, 1 border, 500m apart, after sundown, and only the mafia for company... and if you’re an Indian in a foreign land, nothing goes your way...

It was evening and we were on schedule to reach the Sadao border before sundown. It had poured heavily all day and the evening had given way to a very pleasant breeze. As the van raced towards the finish line, fate had different plans.

I am currently holidaying in Penang (Malaysia) and like most, couldn't resist the chance to make a weekend detour to Phuket (Thailand). My friend, Flo' Mendes, and I had a blast, dancing, partying for a full 3 days and were finally returning, much tired and sleep-deprived.

Now visa and immigration laws are interesting. While most countries claim they are thorough about checking documents before handing out visas, they can still be quite a pain to deal with at the time of entry. Somehow, that rule does not apply Europeans and Amriki junta. Maybe they ran an algorithm to derive some fact which says that those guys are not human enough to commit crimes or be entering the country to cause trouble.

On multiple occasions, even while crossing into Thailand, I was put through a 'special' interview to find out why I wanted to have fun in Thailand and why it was that I had chosen their god-forsaken country for a weekend getaway! But I guess its a common thing now for Indians. Not just is our country a target for terrorists, the entire citizenry has been labelled mischief-makers.

As we crossed the Thailand border, into no man's land (NML), we halted a bit at the Komplex (a mall sort of), the only place for some duty free shopping. As a tourist, while entering any country, you are required certain documents, one of the more important ones being a return ticket. I held mine in my hand with my passport while I browsed a wide selection of daaru that you can buy, but not carry into Malaysia (being a Muslim state). Sometimes I just wonder if the shops are set up simply to mock us.

While I would usually like to think of myself as a 'safe' traveler, somehow, when I finally came out of the Komplex, my ticket was gone. I looked around, a little shaken, but I was too happy to find my passport still there and guessed the missing ticket wouldn't matter as much and we made our way to the Malaysia immigration.

Once again, I was made to wait at the Malaysian border in a separate room, as they took my passport for 'checking' while Flo' got his stamp, along with another Irish guy and an Indonesian family (all of whom were traveling with us on the van). After almost half hour, the official returned saying that they would need to see some other ID (because I guess passports aren't internationally accepted anymore as valid proof :-/) to confirm my identity. I really wanted to point out to him that I had a valid Malaysia visa, and stamps from UK, USA and a bunch of other gora countries and that they couldn't possibly treat me like this. But, knowing better, I remained shut, handing them my driver's license. Another million passed before he came back. As fate would have it, he asked to see my return ticket, almost with a knowing smile that I would not have it.

An hour later, I was outside, back on NML, after my many requests and explanations of having lost my ticket fell on deaf ears. I offered to show it them on my email using their computer. But they were adamant they wanted to see a physical ticket. Period. At this point, the van had left, with some passengers grumbling about getting late to catch a movie! Even though he had officially been stamped and entered Malaysia, Flo' had stayed back, refusing to leave until I get my entry. Whatta guy :)

By now it was already sundown and the stretch of road had bare minimum lighting. Maybe they have bill-sharing issues. We walked to the Komplex, only to find it about to close. Looking for the ticket seemed a little pointless in a three floor mall, and I decided to ask one of the stores to print it for me. 10 shops later, all with Internet access, it was clear that none of them wanted to help print a ticket. Every time that word was used, they got freaked out and said no, as though I had asked them for some bomb recipe!

Finally, tired and irritated with this treatment, we sat outside, hoping some fresh air would bring some new idea. And just then, came this guy, barely speaking English, making signs of an airplane and a blank piece of paper. In times of distress, most of us lose our common sense, or whatever little of it we posses. I jumped at this chance which seemed like the only way I would be getting out of this mess. When he quoted me his price, even Flo', who earns in Euros, was a little taken aback. 800ringgits (that's like Rs.12k!). There seemed no point debating with a person who didn't understand English, and with night drawing closer, risking the border closing down. He gestured us to wait at the Malaysian border while he went off towards the Thai border.

We waited and waited. And waited a little more. No sign of him. It was almost 11pm now and the Malaysian border official told Flo’ that he would have to cross over now or risk felony charges. It was a weird moment. And it wasn’t as though he had been left with a choice. While I tried to control my heartbeat, he was a little less cool, muttering French abuses to the both countries and the immigration system. (Here’s something funny about him. He had been in Malaysia over 2 months now, but did not have a Malaysia number, his France number did not work here and in general dint communicate with his family. I guess Europeans are built that way). So, with no means of communicating with each other, he finally crossed and took a cab and left. It was a pretty emotional moment and I might have even said a couple of filmy dialogues like “If I don’t make it, please tell my family.....” etc. Made sense that time, I was dealing with the mafia!

I walked back to the Komplex, alone. From a distance, I saw they were all having a beer fest. They had taken my money and were now blowing it away. If its one thing I hate, its being cheated. In a fit of rage, I walked up to them, very very pissed. Bad decision.

Already drunk, the mafia people were in no mood to answer my questions, not that they could understand what I was saying anyways. I made signs, asking about the ticket, and they ignored me again and again. Finally, one of them took notice and went to his bike. My relief was momentary, as I saw him return with a chain saw. Eff, I said to myself. I could have just walked off, but now I would be hacked and dumped - in no man’s land! He threatened me with it bringing it tantalizingly close to my throat as I frantically gestured for apology. But I guess I had psyched him out. After many sorries (I at least knew how to say sorry in Thai :)), he retreated his weapon, and said 200ringgit. F***.

I walked away from the Komplex, shaken, shuddering and scared to death with a little chillar in my wallet. I had decided, I had to go back to Thailand, whatever that meant. Apparently, immigration laws allow you to cancel the stamp of outgoing-transition if you do it within the same day in case the other country refuses entry. But I only found this out a few days later after returning to Penang. If I had known this, I would have gone back much earlier.

I spoke to the Thai officials about my ticket problem, and for the first time, saw them actually trying to help. They allowed me to cross into Thailand without the stamping procedure, asking me to be back before midnight. Thanking my first piece of luck, I rushed, looking for a place to print my ticket. Finally, after much searching, found a cafe where I printed it. Phew.

Rushing back, I realized it was almost 11:30 and the border would be closing. And going by my streak of ‘amazing’ luck, I could very well be denied entry even before that. This time around too, the Malaysian official was less than friendly. He checked my ticket for a full 10 minutes, checking as though I might have made it on Photoshop, and giving up only just few minutes before midnight, he stamped my passport. I could have kissed him.

I walked out, took a cab and was off to my hostel within minutes. Finally, out of No Man’s Land...

This is the story of one person, me, someone who had the money to feed the hungry mafia...
This is also the story of Indian tourists and how we are treated all over the world...
I strongly suspect foul play in my ticket getting stolen... Maybe I am just being paranoid...
From racist attacks, to employment prejudice to menial treatment, it happens to us again and again... Our ambassadors get treated rottenly, our people are victims of hate crimes... Why don’t we raise our voice? Don't we all wish it was different, just for once...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

You Know You Are in Rajasthan When...

A recent trip to Jaipur took me down memory lane.. A place I spent all my childhood summers..

You know you are in Rajasthan when,
You get off the aircraft and walk to the terminal...
You come to baggage lounge with only 1 flight landing in the past 2 hours...
Outside the airport, you suddenly miss the honking of cars,
And you miss the rickshaws and taxis...
You get home braving the sandstorms...
When a cooler instead of an A.C. is suddenly a luxury...

You know you are in Rajasthan when,
You meet with innumerable uncles...
And aunts waiting to stuff you with delicious meals...
The houses are huge...
And you can probably play hide and seek and not be found for days...
Innumerable cousins whose names you cant remember...
And guests come and go as if it were their house...
When a cup of tea is always available in the kitchen, 24x7...

You know you are in Rajasthan when,
Traveling by rick is rare..
Where everyone has their bikes or moped or 'luna'...
Where ICSE and HSC disappear...
Where NCERT textbooks can be found in every store...
Where every person claims to know about VK Bansal...
Where if your name is Ankit Gupta, you will do well in IIT for sure :P
Where notebooks are still called 'copies' and term 'textbook' is non-existent...

You know you are in Rajasthan when,
You go out to a store and bump into a distant relative...
You go out to dinner and bump into a bunch of your old friends...
And you treat each other as though nothing's changed :)
And families still go out for meals together...

You know you are in Jaipur when,
You go Gaurav Towers...
And see it change from a tower to a full fledged mall...
The basement video game parlour is gone...
And there's a bustling supermarket instead...
You call a friend and realize all your childhood buddies are still in touch...
You make plans to meet and no one ditches them...

You know you are in Jaipur when,
You feel you've left Rajasthan far behind...
The place is spick and span clean...
The roads are concrete and there are actual working signals...
But the driving sense is still crazy..
And people dont really mind others driving on the wrong side...

You know you are in Rajasthan when,
You go to the movies and people are not fighting to get in...
But there are shops outside selling tickets illegally...
And policemen drinking tea next to them...
And you know somethings will never change...

You enter the theatre and suddenly,
You've traveled miles!
The sandstorms are history,
The seats are comfortably plush,
The air-conditioning is on full blast...
You enjoy a movie filled with whistles and cat-calls,
Remembering the familiar scenes...

But once the movie is over,
Out you are on the street again,
Honking horns, cattle on the road...
And you know for sure,
You know you are in Rajasthan... :)

This ones for all those who have lived, studied and spent time in Rajasthan... You know it!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I Miss My Life at Kota - a Tribute

i miss my life in Kota
i miss the nightouts playing 3-2-5…
i miss sunday galas at amar dhaba, eatos, wimpy n convenio...
i miss bits n bytes (the shadiest internet café)
i miss snooker at talwandi
i miss jodhpur-sweets ke samose n kachoris
i miss the flood that stopped bansal for 4 whole days (true story!)
i miss the piggies of vigyan nagar
i miss the messes although ive forgotten their names
i miss RK sir ke funde ‘arrrre zara visualize karo’
i miss roaring ‘maaro, maaro, maaro’
i miss NINJA’s tond, his laziness
i miss SR and Bissa and their fundu style of teaching
i miss VKB’s duryodhan story, bhajan, ABCDEFG...LOMENOP...
i miss AKKKKKKKK ;)
i miss PKB’s galiyan and shouting
i miss the sleaveless Micky Mouse
i miss ‘niharikaji’ and VKB’s games with her
i miss KVP RAO
i miss POOJA di’s ‘feeling aayi ki nahi’
i miss mausiji, narendra  n mahavir
i miss sodium (NA) - ”sab maaya hai, aap log desh ka ujjwal bhavishya hain”
i miss ‘phodu phodu’
n i miss phod diya phod diya too
i miss yuvraj, aka sameer bansal
i miss batch shufflings
i miss tests
i miss IL, DAV, MIT
i miss it all...

The new look Bansal Classes

i remember everything
i remember ninja ki taang khichna
i remember VKB ke mic pe gaana gana
i remember class main sote hue pakde jana
i remember bimar padna aur ghar pe na baithana
i remember godavari ke pass chambal pe jaana
i remember the landlords, i remember the 'to-lets'
i remember kota mein kitna lukkha kaata
i remember i-card ka lafda
i remember doosre batch mein pakde jaana

i remember the kota railway station
i remember allen ki bandiyan
i remember times at mallik.. the gaming, the profanity
i remember aerodrome circle
i miss 5-A-25
i remember VKB ki chair
i still remember the all-expenses-paid convocation party
i remember poha n lassi
i remember aakash theater .. and many more
i remember resonance main jaake aise hi class karke aana

i remember papa ke kota aane ke pahele DPPs tickmark karna
saari sheets, tutorials, QBs fold karna, uspe beech beech main ‘IMP-IMP’ likhna
i remember raat raat bhar gappe ladaana, taash khelnaa

i remember much more...
i miss kota every day, every second..
i miss the girl i never told how i felt abt her...
i miss my friends...i really do...
and many many more, who made the journey easier...
i miss kota and always will...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Chinese Bhel

It was a student’s dream come true. One genius spark somewhere in the middle of Semester-III exams, a few months of research and development, and a bit thought to put in a paper on it worked well. We packed our bags and were ready to fly out to attend an IEEE conference somewhere in the middle of nowhere in China. After a grueling trip planning session (most of which consisted of laughing at the etymology of weird names of Chinese cities), we were off to Chengdu in early July, 2010.

We chose to take the path less treaded. Our journey to the military and educational capital of China took a checkpoint at Hong Kong, probably the only place where English is not an alien language. This half of the journey was pretty calm: one sleepy overnight Kingfisher flight with awesome Indian food. Possibly the last edible intake we were going to have in the next few days. The second half of the journey was slightly more challenging. It involved a train journey across the China-Hong Kong border followed by a flight to our destination. We got off at the magnificent airport which is built completely on an island. After a decent meal with whatever ‘safe’ we could find out, we headed for the Hong Kong train station by taxi.

After first getting on the wrong train and returning, we had the misfortune of some foolish custom officials who needed an hour and a half to determine that our baggage had nothing in it that would make the mighty Chinese economy bleed. Needless to say, despite our rushing to the Shenzhen airport, we missed our flight. Luckily, the sympathetic flight officials put us on another flight that would take off in the middle of the night. We spent the rest of the day exploring the Shenzhen terminal and eating fries off McDonalds, which was the only vegetarian food we could find there. Finally, we reached Chengdu in the dead of the night and took a ride to the hotel in a scary taxi, with the driver trying to take another passenger from the middle of the highway. Safe and sound, the journey was complete.

However, the very next morning, it all began again. With enthusiasm we hurried to our hotel breakfast, only to be dismayed. A plethora of scary and unimaginably inedible substances graced the dining hall. Very rarely, we come across a situation in life which hits us hard. We realized the impossibility of getting anything close to our liking, forget a decent vegetarian meal. After much debate with the chef, which involved extensive use of a Chinese dictionary, we managed to procure some milk and cheese, and that was breakfast!

We proceeded to the conference venue which was a setup at the local university. Before that, it took us almost 15 minutes to try and explain the taxi which university to go to. At the registration desk, we finally found, what were probably the only few English speaking outcasts of China. We also bumped into people of many different ethnicities, cultures and renowned researchers from around the world. Then, we were off to the market to shop. One thing that struck us immediately was how neat and clean the roads were. We also realized how rash and crazy the taxi drivers were. Well, some things never change!

The malls we visited were massive storehouses of gadgets, Chinese copies of international products and “Anmani”s, all at dirt cheap rates: a shopper’s paradise. Back at the hotel we got down to our final preparation for the following morning’s presentation. However, there was one more hurdle still to be crossed.
The Chinese government regulates everything, including freedom and privacy. We were shocked to find a government note saying “All internet activities are being monitored” followed by a long list of what’s legal and what’s not. And slightly disgruntled when we found Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all blocked. To counteract these policies, there are many sleeper cell movements running in and outside of China which allow citizens to bypass these firewalls using proxy servers. We used one of these to finally post a status on Facebook. After much deliberation we were well prepared for the D-Day.

At the university next day, we met more Chinese students who shared their side of the story. A lot many of them were actively pursuing English as a major. Clearly, they realize the need to learn a true global language. We feasted on the cake and coke that was in an unlimited supply at the venue. Our presentation went smoothly and there was a considerable applause for our idea. It turned out to be a superb exposure to young minds like us and we even got to interact with some of the bigwigs from IEEE.

Finally, it was time to return. Our return journey thankfully wasn’t as eventful or adventurous as last time. A safe flight with Indian food again brought us back to home sweet home. Once again we were submerged in the fumes of rickshaws and littered roads. In retrospect, it was a great learning experience and we await another day when we get a chance to visit China again.

Signing off, from the land where Google searches for “citizen freedom movement” redirects to the Chinese government policy’s homepage.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Of Letters, Sms and Tweets

When my parent were young, everyone wrote letters to each other. I have many handwritten letters from people and even though some of them may be torn or faded, the memories they evoke are rich and resonant. The most treasured letters are naturally from  brothers when they were growing up, and family and distant friends. Phones were not so common then.They were the days of postcards, inland letteres and stamps of all colours. Not all the emails, tweets, smses that come my way these days can quite evoke the magic of those handwritten letters.

No one quite anticipated the letter’s sudden demise. So, not many preserved the letters we received. Luckily my parents did, though I wish they had kept some more of them. Today, when almost all communication is only verbal or virtual, one misses the intimacy of handwritten words. Once in a while I chance upon them while searching and am amazed at the patience, the gentleness, the unspoken bonding of a time when people sat down and wrote their hearts out to their friends, family and lovers, in their own hand. Some like Amitabh Bachchan still do, in his characteristic calligraphic write. But less, I guess,now that he is busy conversing with the whole world at large through his blog.

Letters, unlike blogs, were not meant for people. They were always one on one. I have personal letters from Indira Gandhi telling how disappointed she was when my grandfather gave up poetry. I have letters with drawings, countless doodles from Husain, each one a charming missive. Some of my grandfather's friends used to send him handwritten poems  every now and then ( I  remember something nice myslef last year :) ).

There are no letters, no words I have to decipher meanings from. In fact, all communication today is more obvious (and more guarded) and even though I respond to tons of sms, emails, tweets I get from friends, acquaintances, colleagues, I can sense I am missing something out there. All I get on my birthday are scribbles, flowers, chocolates, books, CDs, aftershaves. Among my cherished gifts are still pens. I still preserve the Sheaffer my aunt  gifted me. I collect any hand written books I can lay my hands on, be it the Irodov's or  some beautiful, lost literature.

The technology of communication has vastly improved. Smses will soon cost only a paisa. Email is free. So are tweets, FaceBook postings. But I miss the personal touch of the handwritten letter, the poem, the manuscript, the drawings, the music notations that my parents have. They bring about a sense of belonging and remembrance. No flowers, no chocolates, no CDs can quite compensate that.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

When relationships end...

When a relationship ends, one person tends to shed it faster, while the other wades through the pain and grief of parting When Priyanka Chopra and Harman Baweja split, she moved out faster and more smoothly from the relationship than Harman did. In a recent interview he talks about his suffering during the shooting of What’s Your Rashi? “"I knew what was happening” he says, hinting that Priyanka was carrying on with Shahid right under his nose.

Priyanka, on the other hand, well into another relationship, was seemingly insensitive to Harman’s suffering. When Kareena and Shahid split, Kareena seemed to move on more smoothly into a new relationship, while Shahid seemed to linger on in the now defunct relationship for a while longer.

Almost always when a relationship ends, one person tends to shed it faster, while the other wades through the pain and grief of parting. How you respond depends on your personality type and state of dependence on your partner. It can also be impacted by the manner in which the parting happened. Did he/she unexpectedly walk out of the relationship while the other was unprepared? Or, was it a slow and helpless falling out of love on both sides? Did one cheat the other in any way? Was there respect in the ending?

What helps the process is if the break is for the right reason. If two partners decide to break off to move on to more positive and fulfilling stuff, the parting is likely to be amicable. However, if one walks out seeking to hurt or ‘punish’ the other, the parting and subsequent interaction is bound to be acrimonious and painful for both. In order to have a peaceful after, it’s important to weed out the negativity along with the relationship.

In deference to the relationship and earlier shared love, it is incumbent on the break-up pair to ensure the impact on the other is minimal. Some people find it helps to have a “Transition Relationship”. Almost always in a break up, one person has found someone else to love, while the other is smarting under disbelief and grief.

The hurt person may attract such a temporary relationship. It is commonly looked upon as a miscalculated " rebound relationship". However, I prefer to look upon a transition affair as a helpful hand life extends to get us through a difficult period. And since such help is needed for just a while, these relationships, by their very nature, are short lasting.

The most critical thing to remember in the midst of the grief is that time heals all. There comes a time when tears dry up, the heartache stops and what remains is a regret for what could have been. Unless of course you have reason not to let go that last link with the relationship. As with actor Rekha, who often creates embarrassing moments by keeping alive the memory of her decades-old affair with Amitabh Bachchan. Big B though, seems to have moved on!

One moves on and stops grieving, no matter how sharp and unnerving the parting. Knowing this as a reality in the middle of your tragedy helps. But what helps more than anything else is if both partners accord each other due respect and make an effort to help make the parting easier.

You cannot predict or dictate how a relationship ends. But you can certainly choose to let go of it with dignity. It is important to first accept that the relationship has actually ended. The support of friends and family is something that should be actively sought to help tide over the worst of the crisis.

Under the stress of a breaking relationship, tempers can be mercurial; try and avoid getting into fights, and make allowance for the other partner’s irrational words and actions; it will help you remain sane.

Try staying away from reminders of happy times, at least for a while. Those memories will bring a smile later, currently they will only make you miserable. Do not try to “remain friends” — at least not at this stage - it’s unnatural when you are smarting and can perhaps come later.

If handled carefully on both sides, parting though still painful, can at least cease to be a lifelong trauma. And perhaps when you look back in the autumn of life, it can just be a sweet sorrow.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Is Mumbai like that only?

Although I am a true-blue Mumbaikar, I am confused. While the media and outsiders never fail to hail the ‘spirit’ of Mumbai, others (mostly non- Mumbaikars) blame all our ills on our apathy.

Now how can we be spirited as well as apathetic? Both are mutually contradictory. While spirit denotes energy and zest for life, apathy reflects disinterest, dispiritedness or detachment.

For us Mumbaikars, it’s not as much a question of apathy to issues, lack of concern for others, or unwillingness to take up cudgels as much as it’s a question of survival, of getting on with the business of making money. Each and every action of ours has been shaped by our daily struggle, our thoughts and non-actions determined by our grind in the great metropolis.

Just consider a few aspects if you will:

When you get in and out of a crowded local train risking limb and life, the last thing you want to do is to take up arms against the Railway ministry and shout `Mamata Banerjee Hai Hai’. The commute may be cattle class, but we have no time to stand and shriek. The boss is there to scream if we are late at work. It’s not apathy, its called work ethic.

When the rains flood our streets and ruin our homes and lives, we curse the rain gods and we rail against the authorities for not doing enough to upgrade the infrastructure and keep us safe. But a day or two later, we shrug our shoulders and get back to rebuilding our homes and lives. We know the ways of the BMC, the state babus and netas. One in a hundred may not be corrupt; one in a thousand may actually be doing good work. But who has the time or energy to seek out these people when time itself is such a premium in this city? It’s not apathy, it’s time management.

When there are so many sick, destitute people on the streets, how many do we help with a rupee or two? How do we differentiate between a genuine beggar from a racketeer? It’s not apathy, call it street smartness.

When burglars, bank scamsters and fraud builders take us for a ride, we file cases, chase police officers and media for help to retrieve at least a part of our savings or investments. That is not the famed spirit of Mumbai; it is our pragmatism, our self-preservation. For without money, you can’t do anything in this financial capital of India.

When terrorists strike, many of us cower and cringe, a few brave ones fight back, but the entire city is united in its defencelessness and shared sorrow. A year later, the media may make a big issue of 26/11, but the common man’s attitude may seem blasĂ©, even stoic: Kya karein hum? Aisa hi hota hai? That, for the average Mumbaikar, is neither apathy nor spirit; it just means getting on with life.

And so it goes. I guess it is easier to assign pat attributes to a city and its citizens, to reconfirm smart stereotypes when one is not living in that city, or even if one is a denizen, is alienated from the mainstream.

Cynicism is not a loaded word to describe our negative attitude. It is a cloak to cover our bedraggled souls. Only if you believe that it’s each man for himself, and that where there is life there’s hope, then you can see that apathy and spirit are two sides of the same coin. A coin that is tossed by the Mumbaikar every day. Heads we win, tails you lose.

Don’t damn the Mumbaikar, but don’t praise him either. He’s like that only.