Service? What’s That?

September 19, 2007

Huh! It’s raining again. There’s no telling about the weather in Bangalore, I can assure you. Today, after one full week of heavy, grey skies every day, we woke to a bright, clear sky and warm, welcome sunshine. The few puffy white clouds on the horizon didn’t look like trouble. But it’s just after 2 p.m. and it’s raining already.

Before I could finish complaining about it, it’s stopped and the sun is shining again, but I don’t trust it any more, fickle creature that it is.

Spent the morning doing mundane things like picking up my bike from the service centre and giving my phone for repair. The blasted thing has stopped vibrating. Do you know how awkward it is, to walk into a crowded service centre (sorry, Care Center, I should say) and say out loud, “My vibrator isn’t working.” Luckily, if you say it nonchalantly enough, in Bangalore, not too many heads will turn. Phew.

Service centres suck in virtually every field that I’ve had reason to test them out. Maybe it’s the price you pay for a population that crossed a billion several years ago (and shows no signs of slowing down); maybe it’s the price you pay for having won over a large percentage of the market to your particular brand of whatever; maybe it’s just chronic Indian inefficiency, but for whatever reason, after sales service sucks. Big time.

The Honda guys, who usually only make me wait half an hour to 45 minutes to pick up my bike, outdid themselves by losing my Job Card and taking half an hour just to find it. Then, they took equally long to find the bike. Then, they claimed to take it for a “test ride” and two guys (two? why do two guys need to test it?) got on and drove off and after 15 minutes, only one returned – doesn’t take a genius to see that that test drive doubled over as a drop-off service.

The Nokia Care Center was worse. I reached a little after 11 and there was a list of 40-odd people ahead of me. I added my name to the growing list and was told (by another irate customer) that they had only “processed” 15 customers in the last two hours, so I calculated on a four-hour wait. “Luckily” I was called after a mere two hours. I noticed that it was not that the people were either lax or chaotic in their work. They worked patiently and systematically enough and miraculously there were no raised voices or fisticuffs. What I don’t understand is why they don’t speed up the process – I could think of ways too boring to describe here – and at the very least, document by the use of decent signages, what the process is.

Thank goodness I’m unemployed – it would have caused me major angst to waste two good hours on a working day or, worse still, on a Saturday sitting in a large, crowded hall on extremely uncomfortable moulded plastic chairs in which my feet don’t reach the ground. (As an aside, I wish chair designers would realise how short many Indian women are and start designing chairs that might occasionally not result in deep vein thrombosis after a couple of hours.)

At least everything got done and I got home before the brief spell of rain.

Egypt Beckons

September 7, 2007

It’s true that it is still a good seven weeks away, but at least it’s on the horizon – our next vacation, in Egypt.

Of course, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip as the saying goes, and the slip that is immediately visible is that my dear husband is planning a business trip to Tokyo just before we leave for Egypt. He says he’s going to be back a full day before we actually leave… but that’s the kind of program that’s so very likely to slip. At least it’s not a trek this time – for our treks, there’s always a million things to be done by way of preparing, packing etc. For a normal, ordinary, city-hopping tour, it’s much easier.

Then again, it is Egypt. This is a big thing – it is probably the foreign country that holds the greatest allure for me. Of course, given an option between Egypt and Rome, I’d have been in a real quandry, but now it is easy, because we’ve already been to Rome. That, in itself, is a very good reason to want to go again, but Egypt is the one country that actually manages to triumph over a second visit to Rome.

It is part good luck and part good planning that I happen to be embarking on the Archaeology module on Egypt a few weeks before we actually visit Egypt. I’m not sure if studying the archaeology of Egypt just before going to visit is actually a good idea or not… but I guess it can’t hurt. I have, of course, already read up a bit about the history and cultural context of ancient Egypt – starting with a huge, thick, and totally fascinating text book on the mysteries of the Great Pyramid written a long, long time ago, which I read probably back in the late ‘80s, when I was about 13.

Whenever we plan one of these totally ambitious, highly unlikely type of holidays, I always hold hope in check – chances are, something will crop up that renders our program defunct in some way. The result of this approach is that, when it finally begins to look as though we are actually going to be able to pull it off, I get all excited and completely disorganized and dreamy about it. That’s the stage I’m at with Egypt right now.

We still haven’t got the visa, but I’ve gone and put out a question on my Archaeology mailing list for advice on sightseeing in Egypt, and I’ve got several responses, including one or two highly detailed and enthusiastic ones. Despite whatever random background reading I have done about Egypt till date, I have very little by way of solid knowledge about the geography of the country – which spectacular temple lies where, what other wonderful sights are close by, and how long does it take to reach those places from Cairo? I’m currently trying to plug the holes in this sketchy map, and come up with a decent itinerary.

Mind you, I’m not usually so meticulous in planning foreign travel. Usually, I’m happy to list a set of cities I’d like to visit, and find out what’s worth seeing and doing there once I get there. After all, Lonely Planet is always at hand to provide the details. But this time, it’s different. This is Egypt we’re talking about. I have seen photographs of places that I absolutely MUST see before I die – now I have to track down those photos, identify the places, find them on the map, and work out how to get to all of them and spend sufficient time at each so that it doesn’t turn into a whirlwind, whistlestop tour.

It’s practically impossible, in a mere two weeks. I mean, just think: Cairo. Pyramids – lots of them. The Sphinx. Memphis (I’ve heard it’s not worth visiting, but just the name is so evocative). Thebes. The Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Queens. The temple at Karnak. The temple of Abu Simbel. The temple of Ramesses II. The Colossi of Memnon. Akhetaten. Alexandria. The Sahara desert. Camels. Oases. The Nile. The Delta. The Beach. Mountains. Cairo. The Pyramids…

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

September 2, 2007

I finally finished reading the last of the Harry Potters. Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead, and, moreover, if you’ve not read the Deathly Hallows, what follows will probably not make any sense at all.

(By the way, does anybody else think that Deathly Hallows was not the most suitable or the most exciting title they could have selected for this book?)

I have been slowly doing a deep dive into Harry Potter over the last three weeks, what with re-reading all the previous books in sequence. This, I think, was essential to a full appreciation of the last book; unlike the earlier books, I’m not sure how well the last book stands on its own for readers who haven’t read any of the foregoing books. Not that this is a very serious complaint; not that I think such readers are very many.

Of course, once I started reading the last book, I read it straight through the day with only a half-hour break to rest my tired eyes. There is, of course, a lot of suspense and excitement in reading a book in bits and pieces over a period of several days (or longer); but there is another kind of thrill in just immersing yourself in a book and letting that world be the only world for a few hours, when nothing else matters except. As a consequence, my head today is full of Harry Potter and I can think of nothing else. (This book must be banned!!!)

Anyway, the book does get off to a thrilling start, I’ll say, with the escape of Harry & co followed by a bevy of Death-Eaters. I found that the action died down a fair bit later on, though, with long periods when nothing happened except that the three heroes bickered and squabbled and went on innumerable camping trips. I really enjoyed the dragon-back escape from Gringotts, though. That and the escapade in the ministry with the three of them disguised as three different people were in some ways the highlights of the book, for me.

I liked the way JKR works out the “logic” of a lot of the magic stuff – for instance, the business about who earns which wand and why and, most importantly, why not. I like the logic of the whole Voldemort/Harry battle, where Lord V can’t kill Harry simply because Harry is willing to die, is less scared of death than Lord V is. I liked the fact that Harry’s last conversation with Dumbledore is essentially in his head.

But then, there’s that confusing bit of logic about the splinter of Lord V’s soul lodged in Harry, which enables him to read Lord V’s thoughts. I’m not sure that little bit of Dumbledore’s logic was required there at all. I think it would have worked just as well to just say that the very fact that Harry was prepared to die for the sake of all the others, made him invulnerable to Lord V, who, after all, was fighting with only one-seventh of his thoroughly rotten, evil soul; and made the others also pretty well protected from the power of Lord V’s curses. But well, since JKR wrote it that way…

The great thing about JKR is though, that she managed to bring in this “love” angle, the concept that selfless love for another, love to the extent of being willing to die for the sake of another, essentially self-sacrifice, is all-powerful, a sort of protection, (which has, doesn’t it, echoes of Christianity?)… – she manages to build on this concept without ever making it overly sentimental, overly sanctimonious or pious or self-righteous. It could so easily have gone wrong, to bring this soppy concept of love and self-sacrifice into this work, but she manages it and it’s none the worse for it.

And then, of course, there’s that other concept, so very lightly touched upon – that remorse, true and deep and painful, can redeem even Lord V’s hopelessly lost soul.

The other greatness about JKR is the way she builds the people. You can feel how real many of the characters are – you just know what they would do, what they wouldn’t do, and what they might do. Like, you know when Ron leaves, that he will be coming back. You know that when Ginny is waiting outside the Room of Requirements, she’s not just going to stand there and wait. You know that Lord V will punish people who fail him; Harry never would, even though Hermione destroys his wand! When Mrs Weasley jumps into the fray with Bellatrix, when she sees her daughter under threat, there’s no surprise. When Narcissa Malfoy lies to Lord V, the one who always knows when people are lying, there’s no surprise. Even when Xeno Lovegood tells Hermione that she needs to open her mind a little, you feel yourself nod along, smiling.

Many of these personalities are carefully built over the entire series. I had mentioned earlier that I liked the development of Ginny and the Harry-Ginny relationship through the series. I have to add that the role Neville ultimately takes on is also, somehow, very believable. Percy’s return to the fold also is not surprising. Ron’s irritation with Harry and departure from the team is sort of realistic – three teenagers cooped up for several months together, something’s got to give. I must say that I had expected the Deluminator and the Snitch to play a bigger role though. Of course, since the Snitch, along with its il-lethal contents, was ultimately left in the Forbidden Forest, it has laid the groundwork for a sequel at some later date, similar to the Lord of the Rings.

Speaking of which, the bit about the effect the Locket had on all of them was strangely reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings. Luckily it did not play a very pivotal role in the tale.

The various aspects of Dumbledore’s past and personality that are revealed in this book are also very illuminative. Perhaps like any child growing up, they help Harry to see Dumbledore no longer as something of a God, but a person with a real history, with some mistakes, with some weaknesses – essentially human, and wise.

Snape, of course, is done just beautifully. It is not really surprising how Snape turns out – I had guessed some of it; right up to the start of this book, I never believed that Snape was definitively on Voldemort’s side, though in this last book it became rather impossible to hold on to that belief. But the beauty of Snape is that he never does a volte face; he never becomes a nice person; he and Harry never begin to like each other; but at the end Harry at least understands Snape and respects him – and so does the reader.

So many morals in the story – I think I need to read the whole series again just to focus on the many, many morals that emerge. But JKR’s skill is that the morals are rarely in-your-face; rather, they lie sublimely just behind the fabric of the story. How people who are hateful are not necessarily evil (Snape); people who are good are not necessarily likeable (James); how trust and teamwork can conquer mistrust and fear (Harry versus Voldemort); how important it is to have mercy (Harry with Wormtail and with Malfoy and Goyle); how kindness and consideration can win you friends where rough and inconsiderate behaviour can just as easily turn potential friends into enemies (Dobby, Kreacher); how much a person can do for the one they love (Snape for Lily more than any other instance in the book); how even shallow, evil people essentially care for their children above all else (the Malfoys) and how this makes them human, as opposed to Voldemort, who cares for no-one but himself and remains sub-human; how loyalty won by fear and intimidation is essentially no loyalty at all (the Death-Eathers versus Dumbledore’s Army); how some people you just can’t trust, specially if you’re not really so trustworthy yourself (goblins); and how evil is ultimately self-destructive.

It is worth noting that Harry & co very, very rarely use the unforgivable curses and that even though he is laughed at for using Expelliarmus against the Death-Eaters at the start of the book, it is Expelliarmus that Harry uses at the end, and that alone is sufficient to destroy Lord V.

It is also worth noting that Harry himself destroys only one of the Horcruxes – the diary, in book two (with, of course, much help from Fawkes). Of the other six, Dumbledore (the ring), Ron (the locket), Hermione (the cup), Crabbe (the diadem), Neville (the snake), and Voldemort himself (himself) destroy one each. In other words, both sides do their bit.

I must say, I wish the last chapter, the post-script, as it were, had been different. I would have liked to know what happened the next year. I’d’ve wanted to see Hogwarts restored, McGonagall the Headmistress, Harry & co back at school to complete their NEWTs, Slytherins and Gryffindors rebuilding some broken fences following the leads of Malfoy and Harry, maybe Malfoy and Hermione as head boy and head girl (!), and Harry, at the end of the year, electing to stay back as the Defence Against Dark Arts teacher, now that the curse on that position is broken. Anyway, it was what he did best.

Oh well, I suppose one just has to assume all that and settle for the picture of happy domesticity…

Meanwhile, I have a question: At the end, Harry returns the Elder Wand to… where, exactly? Where did it come from? Does he put it back in Dumbledore’s tomb???

I’m sure that as the book rattles around in my head for a few more days, I’ll think of more things I want to say about it. That is the greatness of JKR. It’s certain, also, that the English language will never quite recover from this assault on its vocabulary – some words, I think, are here to stay.

PS: I have lately taken to stepping forward with determination, destination and distinction (or whatever) and trying to Disapparate from one spot and Apparate at another. Somebody please stop me before I end up splinching myself!

Washed or Unwashed?

September 1, 2007

The other day, my cook brought me beef biryani. Yes, we eat beef. Do I hear gasps of horror? Well, anyway. She does bring us biryani from time to time, but she seems to be bringing it more often the longer she works with us. If she keeps it up at this rate, one day she’ll be getting us home made biryani three times a week, and consequently will not have to do any cooking here at all. Her biryani is generally delicious and not overly oily either, so I’m not complaining.

Anyway, when she brings biryani, I get the impression that she expects me to turn it out into a bowl and return her own bowl to her. She is, of course, perfectly well able to turn it out into something herself, but perhaps this is not the right way for me to accept a gift? So, I turn it out into something and compliment her extravagantly (but sincerely, mind you) on the aroma, appearance and quantity.

Now, I was brought up to believe that if someone brings you food, you wash the vessel, and then fill it with something and return it. The something should ideally be some home made speciality, or, if not, something sweet, like fruit, dried fruit and nuts, or in the worst case, chocolate. If you didn’t have anything handy, you kept the dish until you had something suitable. In the worst case, you could return the dish right away, provided it was at least washed and clean.

I’m not sure whether this was a “northie” custom, a “hindu” custom, a “western” custom, or simply a custom that ran in my mother’s family or even, unlikely though it seems, was made up by my mother. But this was the custom I was brought up to.

So, having emptied the dish, I set about washing it, as I have done in the past. My cook objected. I thought that she was simply shy to see me getting my hands dirty, when she was there to do the dirty work. There is, even now, some sort of attitude that it is undignified for the “memsahib” (for want of a better word) to do menial work.

So I waved her objections aside and started to wash the dish. Then, with an apparently even greater degree of discomfort and vehemence, she insisted that I desist. “Why?” I asked her. “Oh, if you wash it, the love goes away,” she said.

I gaped at her. This was a new one on me. But she reiterated it, so I hastily dropped the half soaped dish and left her to it, feeling quite abashed. I hadn’t intended to wash away the good will with which she had brought the food.

I wonder: is this custom a “southie” custom, a “muslim” custom, an “indian” custom (that I have been so far unaware of) or simply a custom specific to my cook and her family?

So you see my problem – what on earth do I do about future offerings, specially from other people? My own instinct and upbringing say it is dirty and ungracious to return dishes empty and unwashed. But on the other hand, if the person is going to take offence at me washing the dish, hadn’t I better return it unwashed? But if I do so, won’t they go back and say, “What dirty people, they didn’t even wash the dish and return it!”

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