Monsoon Magic

June 30, 2006
The monsoon is playing games with us. It’s hanging around, up there in the grey skies, hanging around and threatening us, promising a deluge of biblical proportions, but sending down just a few drops at a time, a gentle reminder of what it could do, as gentle as a tear drop and no more.

And still, every day, a month after the proclaimed “arrival” of the monsoon, heavy, ominous, grey thunderclouds drift over the city. The sun has been vanquished from the heavens and in its place are the implacable layers of monsoon clouds. Their bulging bottoms lower to the earth till they seem to be almost within touching distance; yet their lofty white heads stretch languidly into the heavens, beyond reach of any mortal being. In a leisurely fashion they drift across the sky, pushed along by the merry breeze, as cool and grey as the clouds themselves. 

Every day, it seems as though it must rain; those bathtubs of the gods must surely empty themselves on us today. But no – they drift along in the breeze, going their own lazy way, making space for occasional glimpses of blue sky and brief spells of welcome sunshine before being replaced by yet another blanket of warm, grey clouds.

Monsoon. Monsum in Deutsch. Mausam in Hindi. The season of rain, in any language. You love it, you hate it and you have to admit life wouldn’t be the same without it. It’s going to mess up the city roads and drainage; it’s going to catch you unawares and give you a solid drenching; it’s going to cause floods and loss of life and property and crop and livestock; it’s going to create mud slicks and traffic jams of gigantic proportions; it might even bring a mighty city like Mumbai to a standstill, keep its people away from home overnight, shut down all public transport and ground aircrafts.

But, even though we love to hate it, wrathful as it is, we also love the blasted creature. This is the respite from the summer heat that we all have been waiting for. This is the season of leisure and rejuvenation. Forests regain their greenery, reservoirs are refilled, the parched earth gets a new lease on life and humanity waits, humbled again by the power of nature.

Despite the disasters that inevitably accompany the monsoon each year, the rains signify so much to us.

Adventure: Even going to the neighborhood grocery store becomes a major undertaking as you negotiate overflowing drains, rivers gushing down the streets, stranded vehicles and ever newer potholes and uncovered manholes.

Romance: Bollywood caught on early and has made the most of it. How many movies can you think of featuring a damsel in a sexy, wet sari? How many songs of the “Ek ladki bheegi-bhagi-si” genre? But it’s not just the movies – how many memories do you have of luxurious, warm, wonderful hours spent with a special someone, watching the rain over a cup of something hot?

Joy: Think of children sailing boats in lakes that used to be the back yard; or returning from school a sodden, grinning mess of mud and water; or darting out from under a protective umbrella to splash and prance in gay abandon in the freshness of a sudden downpour. Think of dogs, chasing each other, laughing and rolling in the mud.

Beauty: Standing at the verandah door, or maybe at the window of some tall building watching it come down in sheets, blankets, curtains. Not mere buckets or tubs, but entire oceans of water descending from nowhere – dismal though it might be, there is an indisputable beauty in the sight.

Camaraderie: Who hasn’t been caught unprepared in a sudden monsoon shower? Whether you’re tackling a flooded road or cowering under a tree or temporary shelter of some kind, it’s an experience guaranteed to build instant camaraderie with your fellows in misfortune.

And there’s something spiritual about it too. The benevolence of the rain gods, or their wrath – whichever way you look at it, when the monsoons arrive, the gods are implicated in one form or another. Surely nothing short of the Almighty could be responsible for a phenomenon as incredible as the monsoon?

Invitation to Raj Bhavan

June 26, 2006
Well, it’s not every day that one gets an invitation to the Governor’s Residence – though, come to think of it, I’m not really sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing – so on the rare occasion when one does get such an invitation, one thinks twice about turning it down. In this particular case, I thought twice and didn’t turn it down. It was from my to-be publisher, who were launching a book at Raj Bhavan. Since I don’t want to put a foot wrong with my to-be publisher at this early stage, I decided to go.

The trouble is, it’s bad enough having to go to Raj Bhavan and rub shoulders with the likes of the Governor and the CM, it’s even worse having to go alone. And alone I would have to go, as the invitation was for the ungodly hour of 5 p.m. on a working day, and who other than people at my company would be free at that hour, I ask you? Well, not Amit anyway, so I gathered up my courage to tackle this formidable event alone.

So 4 p.m found me alone at home, facing that perennial and terrible question: what to wear? My dilemma was more complicated than usual. Jeans and sneakers suited my bike, but perhaps were not quite de rig for the occasion. Trousers and formal shoes might do, but I didn’t trust formal shoes for biking, and I didn’t trust the rain either. So finally I pulled out my glitziest bottle-green silk salwar kameez, put on some heavy gold and diamond earrings, applied a bindi and a slathering of lipstick, sprayed a liberal dose of perfume and combed my hair (the last being quite as unusual as any of the former activities). Looking super gorgeous and totally glamorous – or so I thought at any rate – I left the house and went looking for an auto.

See, usually I would have hunted for a digital rick, but this was not the occasion to be fussy, so I just made a beeline for the nearest rick. What do you know: the fellow didn’t know where Raj Bhavan was. Near GPO, I told him, and was greeted by another blank stare. Cubbon Road, I tried. Ok, he had heard of that, so we set off.

The auto’s meter had a mind of its own and it jumped at about one-and-a-half of the normal rate. I hate fighting with autos, but I also hate being cheated, so I debated what I should do and decided that what I would do was to just refuse to pay the 20% add-on over the meter amount. I figured that since I was heading for Raj Bhavan, I could always just duck inside the gate and he wouldn’t be able to do much about it, since I had an invitation and he didn’t.

As it turned out, when I proffered the metered amount, the fellow quietly accepted and even returned change, without adding the 20%. I don’t know whether he just didn’t know about it (well, I mean, he didn’t know Raj Bhavan, and there’s a road named after it!) or whether he was so dazzled by my beauty and blinded by my stunning sea green silk kurta that he didn’t think of it.

Anyway, I entered the gate through a minefield of security personnel, had my bag searched, was told to turn off my cellphone (which I dutifully did) and walked off in the direction indicated. There must have been seating for about 120 people in the hall, and it was less than half full when I got there. I seated myself and looked around me trying to figure out whether I was ridiculously over-dressed or not. The media folk were less dressed up than I was, but the others were well dressed. Everyone who was not Media and was not Organizer, seemed to be Octogenarian so I didn’t really fit in anywhere. Of course, I didn’t know a soul, apart from the Chief Editor who had interviewed me yesterday and who, after nodding at me briefly continued to be busy with bigger shots than I.

Having done my research on the internet at home, I was able to identify the CEO with whom I had been thus far corresponding. I had gone to the publisher’s website hoping for a photograph of the fellow. I did find one, but it was a broken link, so I had to do some troubleshooting to find the picture. With my many firsthand experiences of why images fail to show up, it was only a moment’s work to find the error in the path; then I had him in my sights virtually. So I had no difficulty spotting him in the flesh now. Of such minor victories does the aspiring writer’s life consist.

Everyone sat and waited and the hall filled up and right on schedule (that is, exactly 30 minutes late) the Governor and CM arrived together and we all stood and the national anthem was sung.

Thereafter things proceeded normally, which is to say it was as routine as any press conference or presentation. Everyone took turns to speak and introduce each other and then thank each other and everyone was presented with flowers and everyone’s photo was taken by the bevy of press photographers who moved around en masse like a swarm of bees. The publisher requested everyone to buy his books; the CM delivered a short speech in a mix of English and Kannada; the Governor threw a few side comments at the CM and – incidentally – at the PM. He rambled on for so long, and spoke of so many matters so completely unrelated to the matter at hand, that I feared he had forgotten what event he was at and that somebody would have to get up and turn him off.

At last it was over and it was time for tea and snacks. This was the part I had been waiting for. Not for the tea and snacks, but for the opportunity to grab a hold of the CEO and introduce myself to him. Being a shy person, I was doubtful whether I would really have the nerve to do this, but it was certainly in my plan. So I found a chair in a corner and dallied over the dainty plate of snacks, waiting for the CEO to finish with the more important hangers-on. I kept my eye firmly on him, watching his every move like a hawk.

Eventually my snacks ran out, so I moved to the tea-queue in the neighborhood of the CEO and kept myself busy with a cup of something hot and unidentifiable. Meanwhile, Mr CEO moved away from me and began drifting purposefully in the direction of the two co-authors and some bigwigs surrounding them. Once he got there, he would be inextricably entwined; it was now or never. I set down my cup, snaked my way through the crowds and inveigled myself into his field of view. He was being cornered by another large, aggressive woman (another aspiring author, no doubt) at the time, but I threw courtesy out the window and greeted him.

To fold or to shake? Hands, I mean. I moved to shake, he moved to fold. Then we swapped. Eventually we both ended up doing both. That awkwardness past, I announced my name and he placed me right away, which was nice. We spoke for probably two minutes, but it was enough. He had seen my second article in Indian Express (that came out yesterday) and he mentioned in passing that he thought I wrote good travel articles. He asked how it was going with “us” and I thought that was nice of him too. Then we were interrupted by Girish Karnad, so I took my leave.

Let me tell you, in case you ever need to know this, it is practically impossible to find an empty auto outside Raj Bhavan. It’s not a place that autos usually like to idle their hours away. To make matters worse, it’s all one way. So, in my shimmering green fancy dress, I walked all the way up the one-ways till the point on St. Marks Road where traffic starts going in the opposite direction (away from M.G. Road, I mean) before I found an empty auto willing to take me home.

Almost Multilingual

June 18, 2006
My mother tells me I was a slow learner. That is, I was slow in learning to read, and for a while they thought I must be dyslexic. To this day, I remember sitting next to my mother in the living room, clutching a book of Noddy and trying to decipher the words and make sense of the sentences. I suppose I must have been pretty old at that time, if I can remember it. My mother was patiently prodding me to spell out the words, work out the pronounciation, skip the meanings of the difficult words till I reached the end of the sentence, then work out the meaning of the whole sentence and come to some conclusion about individual words that I did not understand. This was a pretty complex affair for a child who must have been 4-5 years old (specially considering the screwed-up phonetics of the english language).

I now attribute later reading habits, which were voracious to say the least, to that early struggle for literacy. I think that once I learnt how to read, I was so thrilled (and relieved) that I just had to do it again and again, just to be sure that I still could.

In class, once I was past the dyslexic stage, I always had the upper hand in English. For one reason, we spoke English at home, not Hindi, Punjabi, or Bengali. This, because my father was a Bengali from Allahabad who knew Bengali, Hindi  and Punjabi; and my mother was a UP-ite born in Australia and raised in Canada (don’t ask!) who spoke nothing but English. My mother was happy to know no Bengali and my Father made no attempt to teach it to my sister and me, so until I went to school and encountered Hindi, English was my primary language. So in school, which was dominated by Hindi and Punjabi speaking kids, I consistently flunked in Hindi and I shone in English.

Another surprising outcome of my struggles with literacy was that I mastered spelling in English. Since spelling in English defies all logic (and since I’m now learning German, I can state this with firm authority: Deutsch is so wonderfully consistent about spellings and phonetics) I had come to the conclusion that the only way to get spellings right was to pronounce words they way they looked like they should be pronounced – enunciating each alphabet. This I always did silently, in my mind, as I knew that the “correct” way to pronounce most words was in all likelihood quite different. By this means, my pronounciation was almost impeccable and – showoff that I was in those early days – I loved to read aloud in class and participate in recitation, drama and other such activities. I also loved dictation tests, in which I usually got full marks, or, at worst 19/20.  This helped me overcome the disgrace of getting 3/10 in Hindi in three successive tests and not being able to string a single sentence together in our national language. (The fact that I was brilliant at arithmetic was a bigger help and won me a certain degree of admiration from peers, but that came later.)

In the playground, I picked up enough Hindi and Punjabi to be going along with. And at some point in school, I had a two-year face-off with Sanskrit. Though I subsequently forgot all the Sanskrit and Punjabi I had learnt, Hindi as  a language I continue to use. Hindi as a subject I dreaded and struggled with all the way through school and till the first year of college; after which, thankfully, it fell off the syllabus and never reappeared. Strangely enough, though, in my Xth standard exams, I scored higher in Hindi than I did in English.

After having the misfortune to marry a Bengali, I realized that I really would have to come to grips with my “father-tongue”. I simply could not go through life with a Bengali name and not a word of the lingo to my credit. So I bought some books and a dictionary or two and elected Amit as my primary teacher. Although, over the years, I have acquired a degree of fluency and sufficient vocabulary to muddle along, my grammar is still a mess and I suspect I must sound offensively inarticulate to a native Bengali speaker.

Living in Karnataka, I tried to acquire a working knowledge of Kannada as well. I attended weekend classes for six months, at the end of which my Kannada was far more rudimentary than my Bengali – but at least I can say “where is” and “how much” (though I can’t always follow the reply).

I think my greatest stumbling block with learning languages has always been speaking (what with my battles with shyness and a dash of stage fright). Because it is so difficult to string together a sentence that is meaningful and grammatically correct in anything like the normal span of time required to make a sentence, I have always hesitated to speak in a new language. And so, of course, I have never managed to really get any level of comfort in the acquired language.

So far,  my efforts at learning German are about par for the course. I have as much of a grasp of the concepts of grammar and syntax as anyone in class. That is to say, I am equally befuddled much of the time.  I can’t string together a spoken sentence in any reasonable span of time, but given ten minutes and a sheet of paper I can usually come up with some good stuff (that’s the writer in me).  So far I have committed myself to seven months of weekends, and got through about five months. If I can endure another two semesters (seven months) of this torture, I might be getting somewhere. Some day, I might even get the better of that dyslexia.


June 1, 2006
7 a.m. on the tennis court. Sweat in my eyes. I’m gasping for breath, but I don’t realize it. My arm feels heavy; it’s tired of swinging. My legs are tired of running. The crisp “tuk-tuk” of balls hitting the centre of other people’s rackets fills the air, but I am not aware of it. My mind is entirely focused on my ball. It swings tantalizingly in front of my hungry eyes, just inches from the tip of my searching racket. My body despairs, but my spirit won’t give up; goaded on by shouts of, “You can. You can!” from across the net.

The sun is just up, rubbing its eyes and yawning as it peeks into the crowded courts. There’s a cool, fresh breeze, pushing the grey monsoon clouds away and revealing patches of cerulean blue sky. Despite the sweat, the breeze takes my breath away as I stand by the sidelines, trying desperately to recover from the past five minutes’ exertion and prepare for the next round.

Most days, it’s not this… well, thrilling, for want of a better word. Most days, I get to rally with a marker, or with another player. If I’m lucky my opponent will be much better than me and will mostly be able to return my wild shots, so that I can concentrate on trying to improve my stroke.

But if I’m really lucky, I get to play with Tennis Sir. Sir is a master of his craft. When I watch him play with others, I can see sheer rhythm, sheer music in his movements. I’ve never seen him make an effort – every stroke is effortless, smooth as silk, gentle as a breeze. Of course he sometimes sends the ball into the net; of course he sometimes (rare though it may be) has to exert himself to reach a ball; of course he sometimes stands and watches a winner sail past him. But all said and done, he’s a master of his craft, and, to a beginner like me (and I’m not the only one), he’s practically god.

Sir must at some point have had a real opportunity to pursue competitive tennis. He must, I’m sure, have dreamt big – and perhaps he might have been able to make it to a certain level of recognition. But, for whatever reason, he never did make it. Now he coaches at a tennis court, teaching the basics to slow, lazy, middle-aged people like me.

What would you expect: Bitterness? Frustration? Remorse, at least? As far as the naked eye can see, Sir has no time for any of these. Of course, I cannot vouch for how he feels deep inside, but to all appearances he is the most comfortable, easy-going, cheerful self-assured and genuinely nice person you could ever have the good luck to run across, on a tennis court or off it.

Does he feel threatened by players who could potentially pose a challenge to him? I must say that I have not seen any such player, so I can’t say. But that does tell you a thing or two about his mastery over the game. Does he, perhaps, actively ensure that there’s nobody on his courts who can threaten his superiority? Not as far as I can see. He makes every effort to help Amit, who’s the best player on the court, to improve his game. And though I’ve never seen them play competitively, Amit tells me that Sir could defeat him 6-1 or 6-2 if he put his mind to it.

And yet, when he plays against me, or some of the other women and kids whom he coaches, he’s as gentle and considerate as can be. When he wants to be, that is. Other times, he’s merciless: he’ll make you sprint from end to end of the court like a ping-pong ball for five minutes at a stretch and never allow you to give up till you’re ready to drop – all the while shouting encouragement or throwing out good-natured challenges at you. He’s a naturally good teacher: offering encouragement, constructive criticism, and best of all, praise only when it is truly earned.

On one of our multiple public holidays earlier this year, the courts remained open. I asked Sir if he didn’t mind that there was no holiday for him when the rest of the city – or country – was on holiday. No, he said. When it rains, it is holiday for practically three months.

And yet, when the first showers came, even when parts of the court were water logged, he was there, doing what he could to provide dry courts to all who came. One weekend the courts were to be closed to players due to a tournament being held there later in the day. At the last moment, Sir declared that courts would remain open. Why? Well, he felt bad because we had all missed out on tennis for three days that week due to rain.

I have admired, even idolized Sir ever since the day I met him. But only today did something about him strike me more consciously than ever before: he’s happy because he’s doing what he loves, this much is obvious. But he’s also happy because he’s helping people do what they love. He’s not working with people at work; he’s working with people at play. He’s working with people who’re there because they want to be. He’s working with people who pay money to be there. He’s working with people who groan when it rains, because it means no tennis the next day; it means they can sleep late the next morning, instead of getting up at 5 a.m. to be at the courts at the crack of dawn. He may not be at Wimbledon, and he may not train anyone who makes it to Wimbledon either, but when his “team” brings that kind of commitment, enthusiasm, devotion to the court, when every single person is striving every single day to do the best they can, wouldn’t any boss be happy?

Come to think of it, I don’t know about that. But the point is, he’s not any boss – he’s Tennis Sir and he’s the best!

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