Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Memoirs of Chennai

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the epic of belief; it was the epic of incredulity. It was the season of light; it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair.
Charles Dickens

These opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities nicely summarize my life in Chennai.

Life in Chennai! That phrase sounds so big, doesn’t it? It should seem odd too, considering that I lived in Chennai for only two months. But then probably I had some of the most memorable experiences of my life in those two months. Experiences that made me both love and hate Chennai at the same time. Some of my greatest joys and deepest sorrows have become synonymous with Chennai. A small but immensely important portion of my life is contained in those two months. The funny part is that I ended up there by accident. It sometimes feels really odd to think that some people don’t believe in destiny!

I went to Chennai because some careless fool in my company had mixed up my data with somebody else’s while feeding it into the database. I was allotted a training location which must have been the choice of the other person. Anyway, I was made to understand by the politicians in the HR Department of our Kolkata office that once the training was over, changing my posting location to Kolkata is going to be a piece of cake. And I did badly want to come back to Kolkata, as the sudden death of my grandma a few weeks earlier had rendered our house in Hooghly vacant. Someone had to stay there and take care of that house.

So I boarded the train for Chennai from Howrah on the 13th of July, 2005 with the air of a tourist visiting a new place for a short period of time and reached there the next evening. Chennai as a city I’ll probably describe in another post. That Sunday, the 17th of July, I had an experience which I’ll never be able to describe. I saw the sea for the first time in my life. I am neither a poet, nor an author. So I cannot describe what I felt, and I won’t even try. What’s more, it was the Bay of Bengal, which is known for its rough waves. I called home from the beach and had an excited conversation with my parents. We (I and my friend and roommate Amit) stayed at the beach long after dark, looking at the lights of distant ships. As I walked in the sand and let the waves play at my feet, I couldn’t help thinking about the tsunami that had devastated those very beaches a few months ago, taking thousands of lives. I felt we were at some zoo, looking at some giant sleeping in a cage. Normally he is playful, harmless, and unable to reach out much beyond his cage. But he has the capacity to break away every constraint, and more power than man’s wildest imaginations, a little of which he showed on 26th December 2004.

Our training started the next day. If the two months that followed seem like a dream to me now, they certainly looked like a nightmare then. Daily my cell phone alarm rang at 5:30 am. Amit and I were ready and out on the street by 7:15 where we were joined by Shreevallabh and Naveen. Then we went to Sangeetha Restaurant and ordered rend idlis, thenga chutney mottum for each of us, and tanya tanya bills (two idlis with coconut chutney only, and separate bills). Our bus arrived at 7:45. Once inside the bus, I would go to sleep, waking up when we arrived at the office at 8:20. Then we would have classes till 8:00 in the evening, with a one-hour lunch and two small coffe breaks in between. We would have dinner again at Sangeeta, or maybe in the office itself, and then come back home exhausted at 10:00. But then I had to wash clothes, study a little and solve the daily SU-DO-KU, so… miles to go before I sleep!

In between this hectic schedule I had so many enjoyable moments: Mahabalipuram with friends, bathing in the sea there, the Pondicherry trip with Shreevallabh, climbing the hillock at Pallavaram alone, visits to the temples and sweet shops and the Snake Park, lunch with Swati and Zeb, playing knee deep in the sea whole evening with Swati and Akash and then having dinner together, window shopping at Odyssey’s bookstore, chatting on free SMS whole day and night, and above all, the long walks along the Marina Beach on the weekends, collecting seashells (keeping the dead ones and throwing the live ones back into the water)… they were too good to describe. We had lighter moments in the office too… fire fighting lessons in ERT class, sleeping in all classes, mini project under Dinesh Bhatt, and everything in Prashanthi’s soft skills class.

This was also the time when I learnt that I was a ‘resource’ whose posting in Hyderabad was due to the ‘business requirement’ there and not due to anybody’s mistake. So I would have to go there after all. We experienced the joy of getting a salary for the first time, yet were in shortage of money as we couldn’t withdraw that salary due to bank problems. And then, my uncle died on 1st September. It was a shock which again, I can’t describe and I won’t even try. But one thing I’m sure of. I can never think of Chennai without also remembering this painful incident. This, coupled with the feeling of helplessness on being so far away from home in a strange land with people speaking a strange language and eating strange food, made me go through the gloomiest period of my life. And by then our assessment was near, and I had to really concentrate on my studies. Thankfully I passed the assessment on 6th September.

I had fallen in love with Chennai on my first visit to Elliot Beach, but that love had suffered a setback during the subsequent months. I rediscovered that love in the ten days that followed our assessment. Every morning, I would wake up before dawn and walk down to the beach with Shreevallabh and my camera (the sky remained cloudy without exception, and my wish of photographing the sun rise from the sea was never fulfilled). We returned early in the evenings. This was also the time when my friends were buying gifts (mostly Saris) for their family members with their first salary before leaving Chennai. I didn’t buy anything, as I had certain restrictions on buying new clothes due to the death of my grandma, but that did not prevent me from going shopping with them. But my favourite shop was Odyssey, the huge bookstore beside Sangeetha Restaurant. I suppressed my urge to buy a few books as I already had enough luggage to carry to Hyderabad and there was no point in increasing it unnecessarily.

I left Chennai for Hyderabad on 14th September with Shreevallabh, Kohinoor and Spandana. I left Chennai with two suitcases, one kitbag and a lifetime’s worth of memories. Some of them good, some bad. But to myself, I only repeated the SMS message that I had sent to all my friends on the last day of training… “Do not cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.

And to Chennai, I said, “Poitwaren” (Tamil phrase for Goodbye, which literally means “I’ll be back”).

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The art of cooking

Here is your book, the one your thousands of letters have asked us to publish. It has taken us years to do, checking and rechecking countless recipes to bring you only the best, only the interesting, only the perfect. Now we can say, without a shadow of doubt, that every single one of them, if you follow the directions to the letter, will work for you exactly as well as it did for us, even you have never cooked before.
-McCall's Cookbook(1963)

These lines have been quoted at the beginning of a very famous book, a book that is called the Programmers' Bible. So, cooking and programming aren't really as different as they seem to be. And as you can see in the picture, I got interested at quite an early age (I'm the interested kid in the picture, not the one actually cooking). So, I thought cooking my food would be the right thing to do after coming to Hyderabad. At least it would be a righter thing to do than eating the food available here. And I had my cousin's (the other child in the photo) example to follow: he has become an expert cook after going to the US. So one fine day, I started cooking.

Now since I am a programmer, I prefer to follow a certain sequence of steps when I want to cook a new dish. Here are those steps:

1. Email mom and ask for the algo... er...recipe.
2. Get a print out of the recipe and highlight the ingredients needed.
3. Go to a shop and buy those ingredients.
4. Cook the dish, keeping the print out in front. If I get stuck, I call up mom and clarify.
5. Delay till the flatmates are very hungry. Then announce that the food has been cooked horribly today...they should gulp it down somehow etc. This never fails to draw appreciation from the eaters.
6. Serve the food.
7. Eat it.

So far I have learnt to cook rice, fried rice, dal (pulses), cauliflower curry, cabbage curry, okra, cabbage cutlets, pancakes, gourd, bitter gourd, poppy seeds, egg curry, chicken curry, mutton curry and several other dishes that are my own concoction. Ah yes, I forgot to say luchis i.e. pooris made of white flour. That's what I made for dinner tonight. They were almost round this time, reasonably soft and one of them even puffed up while frying. The last time when I made them, that is the first time, they were too crisp. And their shapes were amazing! I mean believe it or not, one was shaped exactly like the map of Australia, and that too happened unintentionally. Each one had a unique shape, and 'round' was not one of those shapes.

Since I started cooking, four people have left our flat. Three of them have left their job and moved out of the city. The only person staying with me is the one on a diet. I hope that this has got nothing to do with my cooking! As far as I'm concerned, I'm very fond of my food, and I've gained a lot of weight in the last few months. I like cooking as well as eating. Cooking is at least easier than programming... the eaters don't throw errors when you do something wrong.

My solitary flatmate is out of station for a week, so the flat is all mine now. This is the proper time for me to improve and improvise and I'm making the best use of it. I even invited a friend for dinner on Saturday night. It was fun (except for cutting the onions; that made me cry as usual).

So my advice to all non-cooking readers is, "Start cooking. If you cook well, you'll gain a lot of good friends. If you don't, you can get rid of a lot of bad ones."

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Night falls on the world around me. I am sitting in my front of my PC. My flatmate goes to sleep in his room. I am browsing folders, surfing the net. Copying photos from my digital camera to the hard disk. An old friend logs into Orkut, and we start a scrap-war. An unexpected name or two pops up in Yahoo Messenger, and we get into a conference and photo-sharing. Some not-so-close friends also pop up. I'll stay invisible to them.

I work a little on an animated greeting card for a friend, then a little on a code. John Denver and Kishore Kumar sing softly out of my speakers. I read an e-book, then play a rubber of bridge. I read a few blogs, then take some online tutorials.

I'm feeling sleepy. I know I have to go to the office next morning, so I must go to sleep now. But sleep relaxes only my body. For mental relaxation I need to unwind with my PC.

I start making mistakes. It is 2:30 AM. I start dozing off on my chair. Finally I get up, clear up a place large enough to sleep at the centre of my bed (usually it is full of old newspapers since I am too lazy to get rid of them after solving crosswords), get into bed and turn off the light. But the room is not dark. My computer, monitor, speaker and mouse are emitting a soft glow from their respective LEDs. My passion for photography gets the better of me... I click a photo of the dark room lying on my bed.

When I'm almost asleep, I only just remember to set the alarm on my mobile.

Then the alarm rings, and I wake up.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

An unusual experience

I am writing this post because if I don’t, it will be unfair. So many people write about the inefficiency and rudeness of government employees. I have done it so many times myself… discussed with friends that the government employees are all lazy. They are not concerned about the business, so they do not need to be polite towards the customers. Today, however, I found that there are at least some government employees who are trying to prove us wrong. People who are doing their work properly.

Most importantly, they are doing it with a smile.

I’m referring to the staff at the Cyberabad post office.

I was supposed to get a letter from my father by speed post a few days ago. When that did not arrive, I took the docket number from my father on phone and went to inquire at the post office today. I have office five days a week, so Saturday morning is the only time when I can go to the post office. Or so I thought before going there.

On reaching the post office, I was told to go and meet the post master. He offered me a seat and punched the docket number into his PC. The output said that the letter had been delivered ten days ago. Going by the prevailing market standards, I expected him to do this much and no more. But he called someone and told him to find out the copies of the records for that day. These records indicated that the letter had indeed been delivered. However, I could not be sure because working in the typical Indian style, the postman had not obtained a signature of the receiver on the copy (to be completely fair, this tendency of not adhering to the minor rules is seen throughout India in private and public sector concerns alike). The post master then requested me to ask my watchman and make sure that the letter had not been received by him.

The watchman, of course, vehemently denied receiving any such letter, and miraculously, his Hindi-speaking skills suddenly disappeared at this point of time. Since I haven’t learnt enough Telugu to speak sensibly yet, I gave up cross questioning him and returned to the post office.

This time the post master again told me to sit and wait for the postman. When the postman came, he asked him about the letter. The postman couldn’t remember much, of course. So he noted down the docket number, and told me to come on Wednesday. He would fetch the original records from the General Post Office by then. That would contain the signature of the receiver.

This presented another problem. When would I come on Wednesday? I had office. On being asked this, they said, “No problem sir, you can come in the evening. When does your office end?” I said it would not be possible as my office hours ended at six. “No problem sir, we stay open till ten in the night!” was the reply. I was so astonished at this that all I could do was to thank the post master and come back.

I don’t think I’ll get my letter back, because I have a hunch that the watchman received it and then lost it. I don’t know whether those people will really remember to get that record on Wednesday. But even if they don’t bring it, whatever they did today was beyond anything that I would have thought possible in a government office in India. And their behavior was amazing. It was good to see that there are still some government employees who treat their customers at least like fellow human beings. And I can say with absolute certainty that I have never seen such nice behavior at any post office that I have visited in Allahabad, Hooghly or Kolkata.

That is why I felt I must write about this. The media usually highlights only the bad side of the story. Because of that, a few good people like these post office employees of Cyberabad or the bus conductors of Hyderabad or even the policemen of this city, who are very well behaved, get discouraged. So it was my duty to laud their efforts, even if only through this little-read blog.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Hyderabad: Through the eyes of a North Indian

The cultural difference between the northern and the southern states of India is so huge that anyone arriving at one part from the other will feel as if in a foreign country. For me, however, the arrival at Hyderabad was quite the opposite experience. I felt I was back at home. Reason? Simple. I was coming after spending two months in Chennai.
The sound of people speaking Hindi was music to my ears. You have a better chance of hearing a cuckoo in winter than a person speaking Hindi in Chennai. Then there were the signs. From advertising billboards to street directions, everything in Chennai is Tamil. Most of it, in any case. The little that isn’t Tamil is English. Hindi? Whoever’s heard of such a language? Even the well recognized brands like Coca Cola, ICICI Bank or Pizza Hut had their hoardings in Tamil. But here in Hyderabad, although Telugu has an edge, Hindi and English signs can be seen all around.
Anyway, I don’t intend to compare Chennai and Hyderabad here: that’s a comparison that I have to make too frequently these days. Instead, I’ll describe a few things that I, as a Bengali who has grown up in UP, finds unusual.
The first thing that struck me on arriving here was the traffic. I mean in a figurative sense, of course! At first sight, the traffic here seemed to be chaotic to the nth degree. However, a closer study over the next few days revealed that there are two simple road rules in Hyderabad. Follow them, and you can survive here. They are:
1 Drivers’ rule: The road is meant for driving, and has space for everybody. It is quite wide, and has two lanes, and two pavements. So drive where you please, as you please. No side is wrong side. While overtaking, the left is as right as the right. As long as you don’t crush people, you can’t do anything wrong. Which brings us to the second rule…
2 Pedestrians’ rule: Want to cross the street? Go ahead and do it. What’s the use of dilly-dallying on the sidelines? No need to see if the road is clear, because it will never be. It’s the drivers’ responsibility to see that you don’t get crushed. Just do it.
So a person riding his motorbike on the wrong side footpath may seem odd in other cities, but not in Hyderabad. Here it is as normal as cars taking U-turns on flyovers, or passing through a red light at forty miles an hour. I haven't been able to get used to these rules, especially rule 2. The problem is, when I get used to it, I'll become vulnerable in any other unruly city.
Enough on traffic. Let’s move on to the second thing that bowled me over. It was the food. After spending two months in Chennai, I was of the opinion that I can endure any kind of food. And Hyderabad is famous for some dishes. So imagine my shock when I couldn’t finish my lunch on the first day because it was too hot and spicy. Next day I was cleverer, so I ordered only curd rice. The curd rice arrived, full of finely chopped coriander leaves and green chilies. After eating a few spoonfuls, I surrendered. Since then I’ve found it easier to learn cooking (via email from my mom) and I prefer to taste my own culinary misadventures rather than someone else’s. if we keep aside the slightly disturbing fact that over the last six months four people have left our flat and another one has gone on a diet, I am quite satisfied with my cooking skills. Also, everything in Hyderabad has a sour taste. Everything except the water they put in the phuchkas (That's the bengali name for pani puris, or gol-gappas, as you better know them). That water is pure sweet in taste. No wonder I'm living without phuchkas for the last six months!
Another thing that’s worth mentioning is the Hyderabad rickshaws. If I find the man who designed them, I'd surely reward him for innovative design. Their seats are about six inches higher than their footrests. So you have to virtually squat when you sit on one of those (I haven’t had the chance yet). Imagine doing that wearing a skin-tight jeans or well ironed suit. I think further comments are unnecessary. Each auto rickshaw driver of Hyderabad is very sincerely trying to get his name in the Guiness Book of World Records for carrying the maximum number of passengers at once. So while an unambitious auto driver carries only three people in the rear and two (excluding himslf) in front, the more talented ones do not start their vehicles without four in the backseat, four in the front seat and a guy or two hanging from either side.
The people of Hyderabad are quite nice. Here I saw lady bus conductors for the first time. All bus conductors' behaviour here is exemplary regardless of their sex. The bus conductors of Delhi and Kolkata can really learn a lesson or two from their Hyderabad counterparts. Here, the same route bus comes in three categories... Metro Express, Metro Liner and Ordinary. Although they follow the same route, their comfort, speed and number of stops varies according to their category. Needless to say, speed and comfort comes at an extra cost.
Hyderabad is a large city, and it won't be possible to describe everything of this place in a single post. I'll be writing about different aspects of this city, maybe in some other post, but before I end, I'd like to narrate this small incident. I was buying vegetables from a small temporary shop in our locality. I tried to know the prices by asking the shopkeeper lady,"Gobi kitna? Gajar kitna?" and so on. She responded by saying, "Cabbage 8 rupees sir, and carrots 6 rupees a kilo." Well, English-speaking green-grocers are not among people whom you meet everyday in the North. Hats off to Hyderabad!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Joy for readers...

Blogging is like votebank politics, really. Seems my last two posts haven't gone down too well with my readers. Especially after reading the last one some people actually threatened to stop reading my blog. That is why I've decided to switch back to the narrative style that has been appreciated by many people in the past (Strangely, people praise you on your face, but avoid leaving any record in the comments section!). So I'll be doing something which I had decided not to do when I had started A Joyful Experience. I'll be writing what others like, and not whatever comes to my mind. But that's part of the game, I guess! I hope even that will be as joyful an experience for me.

I'll post my next write-up soon.