First Class!

April 27, 2006
We had a great deal of uncalled-for excitement at home on Tuesday evening. We were to meet a friend for dinner at 8.30. At 7.30, I took out the train tickets for our forthcoming Ranthambor trip, with the aim of sending the exact details to my esteemed parents, who are accompanying us on the trip. My heart almost stopped as I looked at those frail pieces of paper and desperately told myself that I wasn’t seeing what I thought I was seeing.

Seasoned travelers that we are, we had got ourselves entangled in one of the most common travel mistakes of all times. You know the one I mean: For example, if you want to travel on Saturday night and you find a flight or train leaving at 12.30 a.m. (or 12.05 or whatever) you have to remember that 12.0anything is actually Sunday morning, not Saturday night, so you have to change the date when reserving your ticket. Well that’s what we had done, and that’s what we hadn’t done. So, we found ourselves booked on a train back from Ranthambor to Delhi one full day earlier than planned.

When you consider that this is a three-night trip that involves exactly one stationary night, you’ll realize just how precious that one night is. Or “would have been”, from the looks of it.

It was Tuesday and we were scheduled to travel out on Friday night. That gave us all of Wednesday and Thursday and a few desperate hours of Friday to sort out our return journey from Ranthambor. Of course, it doesn’t take quite that long to book a ticket on Indian Railways over the Net; but, the requisite tickets should be available, which is not usually the case five days before travel.

After I had convinced Amit that I was really seeing what I didn’t want to be seeing (which was not an easy task) we frenziedly attacked the Internet. Very few seats were available, scattered across different trains, leaving at various times between 9.45 p.m. and 6 a.m. By now we were hyperconscious of the date/time differences and consequently kept looking up the wrong dates and times and arguing ferociously about them.

Nor was our job made any easier by the Indian Railways website. IRCTC played her little games with us, sometimes responding immediately to a mouse click, sometimes taking agonizing minutes to refresh, and sometimes arrogantly or coquettishly turning her ugly back on us and timing out altogether, forcing us to log in and plead fervently with her all over again.

Meanwhile, we tried very hard and unsuccessfully not to imagine that the few scattered seats we had so far found available were being snapped up at some ticket counter somewhere in the country even as we waited impatiently in front of our computer screen.

At last, it was 8.00. This meant we would be late to meet our friend for dinner, but at least reservation counters across the country would be closed. Now our only competitors for the precious tickets would be battling with the caprices of IRCTC just like us.

We found two two-tier AC seats available on one train and hastily booked them for my parents. Now, at least their return was assured. As soon as this was done, we found a train that actually had SEVEN seats available. Plus, unlike most of the other trains which were faster, this one actually took over seven hours to do the distance, which meant that we could even get a full night’s sleep.

We immediately booked four berths, ignoring the fact that my parents’ tickets had just been booked. Having booked in a hurry, we would have to cancel those at leisure.

And you know the best part? The four berths we had booked were… AC First Class! Now this is an experience I have long heard about but never had the luck to meet face to face. An experience of fabled comfort, luxury and wealth. I can hardly wait.

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The Case of the Smoking Hard Disk

April 16, 2006
The trouble with digital photography is that you get digital photographs. Digital photographs require digital storage. And, for any avid amateur photographer who can’t tell good from bad from positively ugly, and who therefore indiscriminately refuses to delete any photograph, even those resulting from an accidental click of the shutter, it requires an abundance of storage space.Now, as you all know, we are a fairly tech savvy couple, with a combined wealth of three laptops and a desktop, which total to about 150 GB (plus three CD writers). Not all of this is meant for photographs, of course – some of it must be reserved for office work. Still, if you discount about 20-30 GB for office work, we should have enough digital memory to store photographs for some time to come. Or so it would seem.

However, the fact remains that we are perpetually out of disk space and perpetually fighting over what little remains. (This is in part due to the almost total inaccessibility of the desktop. It is a Linux box, whose monitor has been stolen by the laptop, and which must therefore be accessed remotely by means of VNC or somesuch magic, even to the extent of booting it blindly.)

So, to solve the photo storage problem, we went and bought an external hard disk. A second external hard disk, to be precise, because I had bought one when I went on my extended vacation in the Himalayas. With these two we had an additional 120 GB to play around with, if only we could get them to work. We’d already had some trouble getting a consistent result from the first one: it frequently made a noise like a time bomb ticking and then refused to explode or do anything else (thus putting us in a state of permanent suspense). But with the new disk, we were full of hope. This one would surely work and solve all our problems. All we needed was an external case with a power cord.

We spent the next four weekends visiting all the computer shops in Koramangala, MG Road, Brigade Road and even going as far afield as Commercial Street – and believe me, that’s a lot of computer shops. It’s not that we didn’t find any cases; we found plenty. They just didn’t work! The first one we tried allowed us to read and format the hard disk, but not copy any data. After that, it was downhill all the way. By the end of our tour of computer shops, the cases, when connected to a power outlet, would immediately start smoking and promising leaping flames in the immediate future.

But the thing is, the hard disk wasn’t faulty. This we knew because we had tried it on a friend’s computer and it worked beautifully, both externally and internally.

By now, I thought we might be acquiring a degree of infamy among the Bangalore computer stores. I could see wires buzzing as the new flew around network: BEWARE THE YOUNG COUPLE WITH THE SMOKING HARD DISK!!! I even fancied I could glimpse some computer stores hurriedly downing shutters, the shop assistants scuttling nervously out and ducking into side alleys as they saw us approaching with hard disk in hand and grim determination written on our faces.

So we decided to try the hard disk out on our friend’s computer once again. If it worked, we might even persuade him to buy it off us. So off we went on Saturday and cajoled him into testing it. And guess what… his computer wouldn’t even boot up once it was plugged in!

Post Script: It wasn’t until much, much later that we conclusively found the problem. It lay not in the hard disk, but rather, in the casing. It was the case of the hard disk that was smoking – get it?


Fighting Shyness

April 12, 2006
Who me? Shy? Ummm… well… Ok.

Yes, I am shy. Extremely shy, in fact.

Do I hear startled, unbelieving gasps? Yes, this is one of my best-kept secrets. I’ve been told before that I do quite a credible job of covering it up. You see, cover-up is one of the best defenses against shyness… with a successful cover-up, you can almost believe it yourself.

I learnt the cover-up act on my first job – as a journalist. Well, you can’t be a reporter and still be shy – not if your first story involves going to Priya cinema in Delhi and asking college boys standing around there what they think of girls with muscles  (can you imagine?).

Shyness for me, is an extreme reluctance to put myself on show. It could be stage fright, presentation jitters, or just speaking up in front of people I hardly know. Naturally, it is exacerbated by having unconventional or unorthodox views, and since I usually do have unconventional or unorthodox views this is a frequent situation. Rather than bely my beliefs, I prefer to keep quiet, but if called upon to speak, or if it is something I feel I can’t keep quiet about, then I do speak – honestly, but with great trepidation.

Despite the trepidation I’ve been told that I come across with a certain air of authority (sometimes even when it’s a subject I know nothing about, like making tea!) which makes people listen to me. This is a skill born of interviewing big people on subjects you know nothing about. Like tyres and engine oils. Early in my journalistic career, I used to have to do these interviews with top guys in MRF or Castrol. And I had to come across like I knew something. I remember rehearsing my questions as I drove across Delhi to get to the interviews. And receiving answers as though I had known them all along. I guess I learned the art well.

I also learned to “psyche” myself. For music rehearsals, for instance, when I felt extremely nervous, especially in front of a new group of musicians where I felt myself not only the newcomer but also the rookie, I used to keep telling myself, “You’re the best. Of course you can do it. Just play. Just concentrate. Just count. You’re as good as anyone else.” Believe me, it helped.

Shyness essentially means extreme self-consciousness and I suffer from this even now. For instance with my new bike. I felt painfully self-conscious being a woman (and an old one, at that) trying out, learning and riding a “man’s bike”. I made sure I reached office early for weeks, so that nobody I knew would see me riding in.

In years gone by, I used to hate having to ask where the toilet is in a strange place; and heading towards it, with (as I thought) all eyes on me was enough to cause my face and neck to go red with embarassment.

Even now, I hate being the only woman in a swimsuit on a beach.

I feel trememdously reluctant to expose my body, even by wearing sleeveless shirts, shorts and the like.

Yet, if I am on a beach, I will be in a swimsuit, unshaven limbs and all, and I’ll forget about my self-consciousness in a few minutes and enjoy myself like nobody’s business. And I can tell or hear the most vulgar jokes without batting an eyelash. And nowadays when I’m driving I don’t even realize I’m on a “man’s” bike, far less registering any strange looks I may be getting.

I hate to visit new places, especially if I’m alone. Like a new bank or post office, or petrol bunk or even a new route to a known place. A new way of doing things is scary: it’s full of opportunities of getting it wrong and somehow making a mess of things.

Yet… I love to travel, even if I must do so alone. Strange.

Being noticeable – or laughable – in any way is always a painful experience. That’s why I’ve never acquired any degree of fluency in Kannada or Bengali. Having learned these languages as an adult, I make lots of mistakes and I feel shy to reveal my weakness, to make mistakes and possibly to be laughed at.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve taken up German. It’s only by doing it that one can do it, if you know what I mean. And so, I want to learn at least one language as an adult, where I get over the fear of making silly mistakes. So far the German class has provided exactly the right environment. I’m not shy to be the joker in the pack: the first to volunteer for all those activities where you’re most likely to make mistakes and become the laughing stock. Yes, I get laughed at, and I laugh along and I enjoy it! This is quite a revelation for me.

Last but not least in my shyness attributes is my aversion to meeting new people. More gasps? Well, it’s true. I’m uncomfortable with people until I get to know them well, and I get to know them well only very slowly. Seriously… think about how long it took for me to become good friends with any of you. The flip side is that once I get to know people, I’m totally comfortable with them and quite unselfconscious. Which is why you never suspect the shyness underneath.

And this is the person who created a reign of terror in KF. Who went off wandering the Himalayas for three months alone. Who learnt to ride horses and fall off them like a cat with nine lives. Who went river rafting with a gang of nine guys (and wore a swimsuit almost the entire two days).

Yes, this is she. She is shy, true, but she doesn’t let it stop her from getting what she really wants. Isn’t that great?


29 Questions

April 9, 2006
This is one of those questionnaires that periodically does the rounds of the Internet.  Of course, you are supposed to send it to so many people and they are supposed to send it back, but I’m short-circuiting the process by blogging it. If you read this, please do likewise.

This was sent to me by Christina, with the specific expectation that I would be the first to respond… and how can I let her down? So here goes…

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1. What time did you get up? 5.20 a.m. (groan!) … for tennis.
2. If you could eat lunch with one person, who would it be? A good book. Ok, I know that’s cheating, so I’ll put in Amit for this one, but honestly, a good book…
3. Gold or silver? Silver
4. What was the last film you saw at the movies? Memoirs of a Geisha
5. What is/are your favorite TV shows? Friends, Seinfeld
6. What did you eat for breakfast? Grapes (!)
7. Who would you hate to be stuck in a room with? Probably many people but nobody in particular.
8. Who/what inspires you? A person who has skill, determination, and an unshakeable conviction in themselves… in any field
9. What is your middle name? I haven’t one
10. Beach, city or country? Beach or country
11. Favorite ice cream? Chocoate
12. Butter or plain popcorn? Neither
13. Favorite color? Currently red (alternates with blue)
14. What kind of car do you prefer to drive? Bike (cheating again)
15. Favorite sandwich? A concoction straight from heaven which I once had in Paris near the Jardin du Luxemburg: it had some non-veg (ham or chicken or both, I don’t recall) and walnuts and thin slivers of apple and lots of other stuff…
16. What characteristics do you despise? Dishonesty and lack of integrity
17. Favorite flower? In nature: jacaranda, gulmohar, salvia. In a vase: carnation
18. If you could go anywhere in the world on vacation where would u go? Egypt, Rome, Himalayas, Masai… and so many more…
19. What color is your bathroom? Blue
20. Where would u like to retire? Ideally: in a village somewhere outside a large European city (with a comfortable climate). Failing that, a suburb of Bangalore will do, I suppose.
21. Favorite day of the week? Tuesday (work from home day)
22. What did you do for your last birthday? Had lots of food and drink… as usual
23. Where were you born? Chandigarh
24. Favorite sport to watch? Cricket (though I don’t really watch much sport)
25. Who do you least expect to send this back to you? Not sending it to anyone in particular, so hard to say
26. Person you expect to send it back first? Likewise… (Chris, I’m sure you got it right, but it’s only because I don’t have anything much to do…)
27. Coke or Pepsi? Either/neither. ThumsUp if possible.
28. Are you a morning person or night owl? Neither – but morning, if I must choose
29. Do you have any pets? None – unless you can count Amit…


Kabini Revisited

April 3, 2006
At 7.30 in the morning, the car was fully loaded with a battle-scarred backpack, several cameras, a tripod you could probably murder an angry elephant with, a tankful of petrol and the two of us, grinning cheerfully despite it all.

 

Kabini beckoned. We had been twice before, but it beckoned nevertheless. Greenery, wildlife, and good food were serious enough enticements, as were many of the things we wouldn’t have – no TV, no computer or internet, no newspaper, altogether no reminders of the outside world at all. On our previous visits we had had no cellphone connectivity, but this time this had changed: there was a tower a stone’s throw from the resort.

 

The Jungle Lodges Resort, when we reached after a pleasant five hours’ drive, was the same as it had always been. The cottage we were pointed to had an extremely spacious room with attached and equally spacious bath and a comfortable two-seater verandah. Everything was just so – neither plush, nor lacking any thought of convenience. Lunch was excellent and immediately made us irresistibly sleepy.

 

Jeep safaris at JLR are twice daily, starting early morning and mid-afternoon. We had two full days in hand this time, which meant we got four full safaris. As usual, we requested to be assigned to a small vehicle with as few others as possible. We got a jeep which we shared with two other couples, one of whom had a young boy.

 

The jeep had several interesting features. It had no doors or windows: you simply clambered in over the body and under the metal frame. The glove compartment housed a walkie-talkie set and for some reason which was not apparent, the glove compartment could not be closed. The back of the seat at the back kept falling down and periodically had to be pushed back and held upright. But the most interesting feature undoubtedly was the speedometer. When we were moving, it showed our speed as 0 kmph. When we came to a halt, the needle quickly swung anticlockwise and pointed to 130 kmph! When we did a U-turn to the left, I noticed, it moved smartly from 130 kmph around to 0 in the anticlockwise direction, thus completing the circle.

 

Jeep safaris are not all that easy, let me tell you. Standing up on the (torn) seat (with or without shoes) with the top half (or more, in Amit’s case) of your body sticking out of the top of the jeep is more or less de rig. This is fine, but for the solid metal bars that frame the jeep at the top and sides, especially when the said metal bars are taken in conjunction with the terrain we covered. The trail was a rough sand-and-stone path which were neither smooth, nor straight, nor level (despite all of which, they might still have put some Bangalore roads to shame). Standing up in one’s quadrant of the metal frame involved either holding on with both arms (and using as many other body parts as possible, such as legs, teeth, and hair) or risking being thrown around like a marble in a tin can (only, less noisy). During all of which, the neck swivels autonomously on the shoulders and the eyes bounce back and forth between the thickets on either side and the bare track in between.

 

That afternoon being the first safari of the trip – and me not having gone anywhere at all for quite some time – we both had trigger-happy fingers and the photo count shot up without us seeing anything more exciting than spotted deer (an old sikka a dozen), a lone tusker, plenty of black-faced langurs, and a chameleon which was startlingly green at that moment. No gaur, no sloth bear, no sambar deer, no wild dogs. Not even a tiger or a leopard or two.

 

The woods were already wearing a frilly undergarment of green. A few stretches were bare and dry and brown, almost crackling in the afternoon heat, but many areas had visible signs of life and hope in the fresh, new grass and leaf. The earth, too, was just a little moist and firm, not as dry and dusty as we would have liked. And, to add to our woes, thunder roared overhead and then a brief but serious spell of rain came crashing down on us, causing us all to duck for cover as the canvas top was hurriedly unrolled and closed in over us. Once it started to rain even a little, the vast herds of elephants who had been forced to graze on the denuded banks of the river, could gladly retreat deep into the forest, where the water holes would be quickly replenished and the sudden explosion of grasses and leaves promised a healthier supply of food. No wonder the rain had a perceptibly dampening effect on the crowd in the jeep – in more ways than one.

 

The next morning a dull grey sky greeted us, so we hadn’t high hopes of sighting anything very exciting. The safari was much the same as the previous evening, with the added attraction of some wild boars (which, quite frankly, I could have done without) and a small group of elephants that wandered across our path. The morning outing included an elephant ride (a “jolly ride”, implying no serious game sighting and on tame elephants to boot) and a boat ride to break the monotony.

 

We returned to “camp” for a late breakfast and an early lunch, happily growing fat and lazy on a surfeit of good food and complete lack of exercise. That afternoon, rubbing the midday sleep from our eyes, we set out on the third of our four safaris. I was well resigned to sighting nothing more than herds of deer, monkeys and perhaps a lone tusker or two, but Amit was all keyed up. We were sure to see “something” this time, he said. “Something” meant a tiger. He called it premonition. I called it optimism.

 

But, quite early on in the safari, he was proven right. We saw a tiger, we really did! The guide saw it first, of course, and he pointed it out to all of us. What excitement! At last: a real, live tiger! Little matter that the creature only turned its long body parallel to the jeep, gazed at us steadily over its shoulder for a moment, then turned its back on us and trotted off.

 

Disappointment! Not a single photograph had we managed between the two of us in those few seconds.

 

We waited and waited and waited some more, hoping his majesty would reappear. All of us were perched in some strange fashion on parts of the jeep not strictly made for sitting (or even standing) on. The guide was somewhat precariously balanced atop the jeep, legs spanning the back seat and stocking-ed feet resting on two round metal bars. The driver, who at the word “tiger” had abandoned the steering wheel and jumped on to the bonnet of his jeep without blinking an eye, had a few seconds later maneuvered his way above the windshield and settled himself comfortably on the rolled up canvas top, which had sheltered us from the sudden downpour the previous evening. The rest of us used our god-given padding to soften the inherently uncomfortable seats we had chosen, which consisted primarily of metal bars (the seats, that is, not the padding). Some of us were less fortunate than others in this regard (the padding, that is, not the seats).

 

Despite our patience and regardless of a number of warning calls from langurs and spotted deer in the neighborhood, our tiger declined to reappear and pose for photographs. Greatly disappointed, we all clambered down from our various perches and set off again.

 

It was almost dusk and our safari was drawing to a close when the jeep’s radio crackled once – unintelligibly – causing our driver to take off like a trained racehorse at the starting gate, with never a thought for the standing passengers who were tossed back like a torn pair of socks, and some of whom were almost deposited on the dusty roadside in the process.

 

His lunatic driving lasted all of eight-and-a-half minutes, and finally ended on the main road, which is the state highway to Kerala. Here, several other safari jeeps had pulled up and everyone in them was staring with rapt attention at nothing in particular in the bushes on the roadside. A leopard had been there, we were told in hushed tones. But, with all the goodwill in the world, we could see no leopard, or carnivore of any kind. Nothing but jungle.

 

Again, we waited. But nothing appeared. Eventually, we gave up – the leopard had evidently found some other form of entertainment.

 

The next morning was our last safari of the season. We had been disappointed to learn that another jeep had found another tiger the previous evening, and had taken “mast” photos of it to boot! We set off to search for this other tiger, our tiger, or the invisible leopard. Amit had slept soundly all night, with not a single premonition – despite my stern admonition to him to “premone” – but I was full of hope all the same.

 

When you want to see tigers, you see tigers everywhere. Innumerable times was I on the verge of exclaiming: Stop! Tiger!! Luckily I bit my tongue and later realized that what I had thought was a tiger was in fact a spotted deer, or a mongoose, or a log of wood, or – worse – a figment of my imagination.

 

I wasn’t the only one though. The driver and guide also, apparently, were suffering from delusions of tiger and raised our hopes a couple of times only to sheepishly admit their mistake a moment later.

 

So, after staking out a watering hole for a good 45 minutes and listening to the repeated warning calls of spotted deer, we finally came to the conclusion that tigers were in the neighborhood, but were not in our kismet today. We returned to camp, to another hearty breakfast, and then it was time to leave.

 

Amit and I had promised ourselves that once we saw a tiger at Kabini, we would not return. But, as we drove away through the forest, still looking through the undergrowth on both sides in the vain hope of spotting “something”, we agreed that that was a promise we were likely to break. Soon.


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