Writer’s Block

October 14, 2009

For the last several weeks, I’ve been feeling that I’ve run out of things to say. When I do think of something to write about, the words dry up before I can get them down. Nothing really seems worth the effort of writing about.

So… well, I’m not ready to say goodbye to this blog of mine right now, but I am probably not going to be a very regular blogger for some time going forward. If you’ve been checking my blog faithfully every day or every week, you might want to try just once a month or so for a while.

Bye for now…

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Book Review: Slumdog Millionaire

October 9, 2009

This is what I read on the long train journey to Delhi ten days ago.

I wasn’t greatly impressed with this movie when I saw it back in February. It wasn’t the much-talked-about depiction of poverty and slum life that got me; I just didn’t think much of the story, nor the manner in which it was told. But I resolved to read the book, some day. I decided that the long train journey was a good opportunity. I obviously couldn’t study on the train, there are always numerous distractions, especially with the kids.

Within the first couple of pages, I decided I liked the book. I’m rather wary of Indian writers in English, the more so since the rude shock of reading Chetan Bhagat recently. But I liked the style of this book, light and racy, but not pretentious. I don’t often like books written in present tense, and even less so books that mix up present and past tense without respect for actual chronology; but I decided I’d overlook that for the moment. The writer managed to slip in a few excellent witticisms early on, which had me hooked, though they dried up after a bit. Still, I generally found the style quite readable.

The storyline, of course I knew, having seen the movie, but I soon saw that the book handles the theme far better than the movie does. The book is written not in chronological order, but in broken up bits and pieces, ostensibly in the sequence the questions are asked. (You have to be familiar with the general concept of the book or movie for this review to make any sense.) I’m not actually a great fan of this chopped up chronology, but in this book it does work, sort of, given the context of the quiz show. I feel that if the movie had been made in the same way, it might have been much more interesting. The movie could also have added suspense by removing the police investigation, which, in the movie, adds no value, and leaving you guessing at each stage whether or not the hero will be able to answer the next question. At any rate, the chopped up jigsaw-puzzle chronology worked fantastically in Pulp Fiction, which I think is the supreme example of this kind of jumbled timeline and apparently disconnected events. Whether Slumdog Millionaire could have come close to it or not, I don’t know, but, given that the book is written that way, it was worth trying.

The book also has more interesting events and more varied characters and situations, many of which the movie does not make use of. The movie, therefore, ends up much the poorer than it might have been. The romance in the book is much less improbable, even, in fact, less romanticised than it is in the movie. The situations in the book – the chawl in Mumbai, Neelima Kumari, the contract killer, the Australian spy, Father Taylor… each of the characters an d situations comes with its own social context and its rich ambience, that makes for a pleasingly rich and varied tapestry.

My one complaint with the book is that, at times, it ranges far from the boundaries of the probable and the believable, especially with the voodoo episode. Its one defence is that the audience, Smita, usually reflects the skepticism that the reader may feel, acknowledging the far-fetchedness of the scenario. The voodoo episode in specific, is also one step removed in being the story of some total stranger and not something that happens directly to the hero or even to anyone he knows. It can, at a pinch, be written off as the ravings of a drunkard.

I appreciated the twists and turns that take place in the quiz show – how, at first, the anchor actually helps the hero, then, towards the end plays a dirty (and not very convincing) trick on him. The twist in the tale, where our hero pulls a gun on the anchor, while also not very convincing is at least satisfying in terms of plot.

So overall, I’d say that they book is much better than the movie. I don’t think I’d have thought very much of the book if I hadn’t seen the movie first though – the movie made me set my expectations really low for this one, so I came away feeling quite… if not happy, at least relieved.


What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (Continued)

October 7, 2009

At last, we reached the platform for the last ride, our journey back to Bangalore. It didn’t start well; we waited on the platform for more than half an hour without getting a glimpse of the train. By the time it rolled in, it was already past the time of departure. In the end, we left only 15-20 minutes late. But, by then it was past 9, we were all hungry and the kids were tired too. We gobbled up some snacks that we were carrying and put the kids to bed – still hungry, they claimed – by 10. It was 11 by the time we got dinner, and midnight by the time we turned out the lights.

On this train, we had no problem with the air-conditioning. We, unfortunately, did not get a two-person cabin; but the other couple who should have boarded at Bangalore didn’t, so for a while we dared to dream of having the entire four-person cabin to ourselves. The dream was short-lived; the first night some three-tier passengers, perhaps traveling on the wait list, got bumped up to AC First. Theirs was a short stay: the joined us at 11 p.m. and disembarked (detrained?) at 5 a.m. Later in the morning a woman with two small kids and an ayah joined us, and they stayed all the way to Bangalore. We, smartly, manipulated ourselves into a two-person cabin when one fell vacant that evening, and from then on, things were easier.

That day was very comfortable for me, because Amit finally took pity on me (I’d been busy with the kids the whole day, every single day, for the entire ten days we’d been away) and volunteered to handle all toilet calls for the day. This should have been a good thing, but trusting small girls to their dads in the cramped and generally distasteful public toilets in moving trains is so not a good idea. On the very first toilet excursion with Tara, I heard loud wailing coming down the aisle, followed by Tara’s distraught appearance, followed by Amit holding up one shoe and wearing an expression of disgust and exasperation. It turned out that Tara had managed to send the other shoe down the hole. (It was the Indian style toilet that he’d taken her to… On my advice… Because I’d done it a hundred times without facing any problem.) Bathrooms on Indian trains have bottomless holes; some poor farmer or railway labourer will one day find a single child-size shoe in good condition adorning the railway track in the middle of nowhere. Maybe he will know of a one-legged child who can benefit from it.

Meanwhile I, within seconds, and with an insufferably smug air, pulled out a spare pair of shoes for poor Tara and brought the smile back to her face. And Amit’s. He still had to manage the rest of the toilet calls though – and thankfully he did not allow any more shoes to be sent down the hole, because I had only one spare pair of shoes between the two of them.

We had heard, vaguely, even before we left home, that there had been heavy rain on our route and trains were getting held up. Still, we were surprised to hear that our own train could not go on its proposed route. Between Hyderabad and Bangalore tracks were flooded and even some part of the road had been washed away. Our train had been diverted away towards Vijawada and Chennai. S&S, checking over the phone and internet, told us that night that our train was being declared as running 23 hours late! Twenty three hours!? What would we do for food? And would the gas for the AC last that long??? And wouldn’t the toilets run out of water, as I recall well from long train journeys of yesteryears?

In panic mode, Amit began to work out alternatives. He is wonderful at such operations. Telephone calls flew thick and fast between him and S&S in Bagnalore. Simultaneously, whenever he had coverage, he surfed the Net desperately, trying to find out the latest information. Would we go as far as Secunderabad? Then could we take a bus or flight from there? No, no buses were plying, the road was closed. Flight would set us back a cool 32 k! Then, it turned out we wouldn’t get to Hyderabad-Secunderabad at all. We were going through Vijayawada. Again, Amit considered bus and flight. Then we heard that we might be going through Chennai. Then we could certainly hop off the train and take a flight. Anything, to avoid spending an extra 23 hours in the train, coping with the energetic and frustrated twins.

Meanwhile, I? I was sitting and watching the panic mode in mild amazement. I have an old-school mentality. We’re on the train, right? So we stay on the train at least until we reach Bangalore. Then, we hop off at the most convenient platform and flag down a passing auto. If we get a little late, we get a little late. If we get very late, we go hungry. If we get very, very late… well, we’re in AC First. Surely they will not let us die of hunger. (Not that those in lower classes will die of hunger either – vendors know an opportunity when they see one.) We were not, as far as I could tell, one of the unfortunates stuck in the flood who had to have food air-dropped to them. We were still going to be passing through railway stations like Vijawada – surely they’d load food as required. And gas for the AC.

In the end, it turned out to be much ado about nothing. We got into Bangalore a little over three hours late. Instead of waking up early at 6.30, we slept late, had a leisurely morning, and were home before eleven. There was a slight risk of starvation – we weren’t served any breakfast – but I’d had the sense to keep some slices of bread and jam for the kids, and a couple of bananas. What’s more, the staff did come around at about 9 a.m. with a couple of boxes of upma for the kids – which was very thoughtful and nice of them, considering nobody else was getting any food. And considering they’d already been tipped and couldn’t have been motivated by any such consideration (I’m such a skeptic).

Of course, we heard of other trains that had been stuck in flooded parts for hours on end. Our own train going from Bangalore to Delhi was held up by 23 hours or so. But, well… those are things that happen to other people. We only suffered a minor three-hour-delay and came back poorer by one shoe and hungry for breakfast.

And yesterday evening, Amit booked the train tickets for our next holiday in December. Boy, some people just never learn.


We’re Going By Train: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

October 5, 2009

I mean, flights get delayed, diverted, crash, or sometimes simply disappear. Trains? Well, they’re usually at least half an hour late, and very occasionally disastrous things also do happen… but they are generally a safe, comfortable, slow and almost boring means of covering large distances, aren’t they?

That’s what I thought. But I’m not so sure any more.

We actually had four train trips on this holiday: two long-distance, from Bangalore to Delhi and back; and two short ones, from Delhi to Chandigarh and back. We traveled all along in the lap of luxury – theoretically, at least – AC First on the long distance legs, and Executive Class on the short trips. It was the AC First Class journeys that were quite “interesting” both ways.

AC First Class berths come in two flavours: two-person cabins and four-person cabins. Theoretically, they come equipped with running water in a tiny sink, long, broad, comfortable bunk beds, a mirror, electrical sockets, a tiny cupboard, hooks, shelves, reading lights, and – best of all – an indicator showing whether the two bathrooms are occupied or vacant at any given moment.

AC two-tier comes with much fewer frills. There might be electrical sockets, but none of the other amenities. Worse, all the berths in the coach are separated into cubicles of four each, with nothing but curtains in between. Since the curtains are quite flimsy, they don’t provide much privacy at night; and since they are generally left open all day, it means the kids can run the length of the coach all day. This is not a good thing. In AC First, the cabin is their kingdom, and, though it means they are a little cooped up, it is much easier for us hapless parents to manage.

On the way out, we got a four-person cabin, and one of our cabin-mates was an old woman who conversed fluently, albeit with a strangely anglicized accent, in English, Hindi, and Bengali. She was deposited on the train by her son, a young and polite person, two minutes after the scheduled time of departure. Her tardiness was apparently due to traffic jams of epic proportion caused by the usual rush-hour conditions and greatly exacerbated by the heavy downpour and water logging that had also greeted us on our way to the station. We, of course, being experienced and paranoid travellers, left home a good two hours before ETD, and were probably amongst the first to board the train. We had settled in, changed Mrini out of her wet clothes (the rest of us having remained mostly dry thanks to the small, old, and defective umbrella I always carry in my handbag), given the kids dinner and demolished a packet of ‘nibblies’ by this time. So we smugly sympathised with the old lady’s wet, bedraggled, and mildly stressed state.

Apart from being rather talkative, the old lady was in no way an inconvenience to us… Until, late at night, she kept the light on and rummaged endlessly in her various bundles, searching, I surmised, for some particularly elusive pill or potion.

The kids stayed awake till well after ten. When I went to the bathroom, preparatory to going to sleep myself, I came back to find Amit and both kids fast asleep. This was inconvenient because both girls were in my bunk, the top bunk. I clambered up and squeezed in along with them, hoping Amit would awaken and take one of them on to his bunk. But he didn’t, so I spent the whole night squashed up and expecting to fall off at any moment. Naturally, it was not conducive for a good night’s sleep.

It was warm at night, which was unusual. Usually at night with the AC on, it gets so cold that you curl up under the blanket and still turn into kulfi (frozen dessert) by morning. In the morning, it continued to be warm and got warmer still. Apparently the AC wasn’t working. “We forgot to fill gas in Bangalore,” we were told. “We will do so now at Ballarshah.”

Ballarshah would come around 1.00 p.m. By then, temperature in our little airless iron oven would be soaring and we’d have the unique pleasure of being simultaneously slowly roasted and suffocated in our luxurious ‘AC’ First Class cabin.

By 11, we, along with several other smart passengers, had requested the attendants to downgrade us temporarily to AC two-tier. Just until the problem was fixed, of course. Smart, but a bad idea. With only about 20-odd passengers in the coach to start with, relocating several and with some others disembarking along the way, there were only a handful of passengers left in the entire coach by lunchtime. In India, it’s a numbers game, always. If you don’t have the numbers, nobody is going to do anything for you.

So the problem didn’t get fixed. It turned out there was a leak in the AC gas container. Perhaps they knew about it all along; someone even said that the coach was to have been changed before starting, but, for reasons unknown, it wasn’t. By evening, we had been formally relocated to AC two-tier, and given a letter that would entitle us to a refund. With the grant of a refund letter, we had no further basis for argument, so we all settled down to the downgrade in various degrees of disgruntlement.

Our new lodgings were crowded and messy, so around 5.30, we took the kids back to the deserted AC First coach, and there, in an empty coupe, the twins played sweetly with their toys in the heat, while the staff sprawled in the other empty cabins. That was the happy, blissful part of the journey, unbroken by interruptions of any kind.

Back in AC two-tier, we had been given two berths, upper and lower, right at the end of the coach. The door opened inwards – and frequently – disturbing us with a blast of warm air and, after we were asleep, a bright glare from the corridor lights as our curtains were rudely nudged aside in passing. So, what with all that, none of us got much sleep that night either. Maybe that was why, when we got off the train early the next morning, we left one of our many bags behind. What’s more, we didn’t even realise it until we alighted from the taxi at Amit’s father’s house, about an hour after we got off the train.

The bag had all of Amit’s clothes in it, and a precious and expensive set of Bose headphones. The latter was too valuable to let go of, the former too difficult: Amit, thanks to his extreme height, cannot get readymade clothes, so all his clothes have to be tailormade. Replacing this set, far from being a fun outing, would be a chore of monumental proportions, quite apart from the financial implication.

So Amit went racing back to the station where, after a couple of hours spent looking, asking, running to the yard and returning empty-handed, and trudging despondently to the platform where we had gotten off the train, he finally found it safely in the hands of one of the train attendants, who handed it over with a smile. And so that journey at last came to a happy end.

The two journeys to Chandigarh and back were, by comparison, uneventful. AC worked, food and drink was plentiful, and even the toilets were amazingly clean. I managed to lock Tara and me into the bathroom once for several worrying and embarrassing moments, while I visualised shouting to the staff for help. However, I took heart from the many visible scars of prior battles and, after a few minutes, I managed to extricate us with brute force but without breaking anything. (I seem to have ‘gets locked in the bathroom’ written in my destiny; if you missed my previous experience, go read it now.)

Ok, now we only had one more train ride to undergo and then we’d be back home. The end was, finally, in sight. And after such an eventful journey out, the way back was – by the law of probabilities – bound to be easy. We might even get a two-person cabin all to ourselves. And the AC would work the whole way, no doubt. Surely there’d be nothing to write about there. That’s what I thought.

(To Be Continued)


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