From Darkness to Light…

August 20, 2010

…and back to darkness again.

There’s no point complaining about the number of hours that we have or don’t have electricity each day. Everyone’s complaining, especially the newspapers. So on Saturday – the worst day for us so far, because weekdays we are out of home and on Sunday the electricity gods try to be a little kind – last Saturday it went like this:

• Wake up at 5.30, it’s dark outside and dark inside.
• Get back from tennis at 8, as I come in the door, power goes out.
• Get back from the hospital in time for lunch at 1 p.m., electricity takes a lunch break too.
• Get up from a nap at 4 p.m., electricity goes to take an afternoon siesta.
• Get back from a birthday party at 7 p.m., electricity goes for a cocktail break.
• At 9.40 p.m., kids in bed and asleep, we’re just thinking of settling down with beer and dinner, sanguine that we’ve paid our electric debt to society and should have a fairly “empowered” evening at least, when… electricity bids us goodnight and goes out yet again!

It’s never been this bad. Saturday was so extreme that Amit burnt up the phone lines trying to get an inverter installed on Sunday. Obviously, nobody really wanted to work on Sunday, which was also a national holiday, so various promises were made and broken, while we held our breaths waiting for the next power cut. Luckily, on Sunday, we had only about three hours of power cuts, so we were relaxed and happy by the time we went to bed on Sunday night. (Just imagine!)

On Monday evening, after burning up the phone lines a bit more, three men and an inverter arrived at our front door. Finding no response on ringing the bell, they went around to the back door! This, because we changed our infernally noisy bell on Sunday evening, and, after working nicely the first couple of times, the new bell went on strike and doesn’t work at all. Anyhow, having got us to answer the door, they came in and proceeded to set up the inverter in our living room. It took them a couple of hours and it was close to 10 p.m. by the time they were done, but we were lucky: there were no power cuts while they worked! For the first time in days, the cook, the cleaning woman, and the kids could do their work in a well-lit environment, instead of by candlelight.

Great – so now we have several hours worth of backup lighting.

It has not escaped my attention that by installing an inverter, we are stealing power from the grid when power is supplied (at peak hours) to use it when power is not supplied (also at peak hours). So we are not contributing anything to the power-saving efforts at all. We are just storing up power to use at our convenience. It’s almost like hoarding power. It’s so not green. But when you have two lousy hours at home with your kids each weekday evening, and you are otherwise doomed to spending those hours trying to keep your kids engaged by candlelight, with the attendant risks of something catching fire, to say nothing of wax drops all over the floor and furniture… well, beyond a point you tend to take a rather selfish view of things. At least I do – I’m no saint.

On Tuesday morning, I went for tennis, leaving Amit to handle two power cuts. After the second, when electricity returned and he turned off the inverter, boom! Darkness!

He checked the various electric points not connected to the inverter. They worked. Electricity was back alright. Only, the inverter hadn’t realized it. So none of the points connected to the inverter worked unless the inverter was switched on to give backup power.

Great. So now, after we had used up the few hours worth of backup lighting, we were going to be powerless again. Meanwhile, the fridge was not getting any power and by the time we came home that evening everything would be a mess. Sigh! I rushed around creating an alternative power solution for the fridge and getting horribly late for work.

On Tuesday afternoon Amit called up the inverter guys and explained the situation. Tuesday evening, a very young chap who looked like he shouldn’t be eligible for a driver’s licence yet drove up to our home on a two-wheeler loaded with two inverters. He fiddled with the inverter and informed me that the batteries had not been connected with terminals, but with wires instead. That was bad, but what was worse was that when he switched off the inverter, boom! The lights stayed on. Damn that Murphy’s Law!

It took me a good ten minutes of embarrassment and fumbling explanations (I hadn’t been home when the problem occurred, remember) to be able to reproduce the problem. In the end, in fact, he figured it out himself, and once he had reproduced it a few times, he was forced to conclude that it wasn’t simply a figment of an overactive female imagination or just plain female ineptitude (I could tell that’s what he thought by the way he rolled his eyes when everything worked perfectly), but was an actual problem. One he didn’t have an answer to. He tried to blame it on the missing terminals, but I wasn’t exactly buying that – it looked like a flaw in the machine to me.

Amit, on the phone from office, forced the boy to take away the defective inverter and told him to come back the next day with a fully-functional piece. The poor kid lugged the inverter down and out to where his bike was parked, but a few minutes later he knocked (banged, rather) on the door to tell me there was just no way he could take three inverters on his bike. I had pity on him and allowed him to leave it on our doorstep, though he had already signed something saying he was taking it with him.

The next day, Amit got on the phone with the inverter shop again and very politely (so he says) gave them what for. I stopped payment on the cheque. Combined, the two strategies were alarmingly effective. They sent two of the original three chaps over with a new inverter and battery (but no terminals). Another couple of hours of installing and testing ensued. At the end of it, they convinced Amit that the inverter’s current – apparently whimsical – functionality was as per its design and specifications. They must have been right, because Amit is a tough nut to persuade, and in fact he made a call to the biggest boss of the shop before he would accept the explanation. Don’t ask me – I was busy giving the kids dinner and putting them to bed and having my own dinner.

And all through all of this, the only power cuts we had was when they turned off the lights to test the inverter. In fact, since the inverter got up and running on Wednesday night, we still haven’t had a single power cut. It figures: Murphy’s Law. But I have news for you Mr Murphy. The power cuts will be back. You won’t outsmart the electric gods. This is one game you can’t win.

Why Aren’t We Doing Anything About Water?*

July 21, 2010

Water, water everywhere, said the man. Coleridge,that was. He might have been right in his day… and in a way he’s right today as well. With global warming, there’s going to be enough water in the world all right, only, “not a drop to drink”.

Everyone says the next world war is going to be about water. But I’m actually not even talking about a global scale. Let’s just take Bangalore. I heard a while ago that the state government has given up even attempting to provide Cauvery water to whoever it is supposed to provide water to – I mean, areas where the Cauvery water is supposed to reach. It has given up and it has said, in effect, “let them eat cake”.

In this context, that means two things. One, if you aren’t getting Cauvery water, buy it from the tankers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that means. It means more and more Cauvery water gets siphoned off to the tanker businessmen, who then split the proceeds with the water supply guys. It also means that the water supply guys figure out that they might as well start charging residents a little something extra to supply the water which they are supposed to supply. Because, if they don’t supply water, then residents will have to pay the tanker fellows anyway, so why should only the tanker businessmen get rich?

The other thing it means is – if possible – even worse! It means, the state government is going to encourage people to sink borewells. This is truly horrible. Just when the government should be thinking about managing the ground water in a half-way sensible and organized way, they’re saying, oh what the heck, go ahead and rape it.

I’ve heard many a time of borewells going dry and people digging deeper and deeper to find water. The other day someone mentioned that water was found at a depth of 4000 ft. To be honest, I know nothing about what depth water should be found at and how bad, exactly, 4000 ft is. What I do know is that this kind of “every man for himself” policy is the worst thing the government can do when it comes to managing a scarce natural resource.

It’s easy to criticize and not so easy to come up with answers, I know. And I know I don’t have the answers. But I do have a question or two.

Why, why, why, are we doing nothing about conserving and recycling water? Why is there no awareness campaign. Surely people are feeling the pinch – I’ve seen people queueing up for water at neighbourhood taps; I’ve seen people pushing water through the streets on carts and cycles; I’ve seen the terrible proliferation of dirty, noisy, diesel-fume-pumping tankers in our neighbourhood, where people used to wash their driveways in Cauvery water. So it’s not as if there is no crisis, or as if the crisis is not right now. It is here and it is now. Why is nobody taking any notice of it?

Leh, for instance, has an acute water shortage all the time – mostly due to its geography. Practically the first thing I became aware of when I got off the plane, was posters plastered all over town telling people to conserve water. When your message is stamped on the bleary consciousness of a newly-arrived, oxygen-starved tourist, you know your message is getting across loud and clear.

In Bangalore? Nothing. No notices, no campaigns, no noise at all. There was a feeble drive towards rainwater harvesting, but that seems to have petered out as well. As for conservation – people behave as if they’ve never heard of the term. There is wanton, criminal volumes of water spent on washing driveways, to say nothing of cars. I know of people who bathe – proudly – two, three, four times a day. People encourage their kids to play with water. People run the washing machine when it has only two-and-a-half items in it. If there’s a tap running, nobody turns it off. If a pipe springs a leak, nobody cares. This, even in my own office, where there are people employed to deal with that sort of thing, and where water comes in tankers and is charged by the drop.

But then what about the tankers? They spill water so liberally on the way that by the time they reach their destination, they probably have only half a tankful. They still charge for the whole load, so they don’t care. The sooner it runs out, the sooner they get called in for the next load. And what are the state authorities doing about water shortage. Well, in our own backyard, practically, they’ve seen fit to tear up all the grass from the park and replace it with newly-planted grass, which they now water for hours on end, even though this is the monsoon season and anything green that can grow, grows – thrives – without needing any extra watering. Ok, I’m no horticulturist, so maybe I’ve got it all wrong and there’s a very good reason for planting and watering grass in this season, but still… people are queueing up for water, people are drinking muddy water! Do we really need to tear up grass in a park and plant new grass right now?

Sometimes I feel so impotent – there’s so much to be done, and all I do is write. Sigh.

*In this blog, I have mostly made a conscious decision not to comment on current affairs. But once in a while, on certain issues, I feel I must say something.


June 10, 2010

A few years ago, when it had rained like hell in the afternoon, I left office early to beat the traffic and flooding and ended up in a most memorable but not very pleasant situation.

Yesterdat was a sort of sequel to that day.

When I saw the rain pelting down at 4.15 p.m., I again decided to leave early. As I drove through the downpour to the chidren’s daycare, I began to wonder whether it had been a wise decision. Then I saw the traffic backed up ahead of an underpass. Great – if this was what it looked like now, what would it look like when all the office traffic came pouring out?

It took me 15 minutes to crawl along till I came up against the root cause: the underpass was flooded. In fact, it was not an underpass so much as a river. On the other side of the road, a couple of vehicles roared past, raising a huge tidal wave of muddy rain water. At the entry to the underpass, various small cars had stopped and drivers stood around shaking their heads skeptically. I could see a Maruti Omni and a Canter lorry floating in the middle. In front of me was a large truck. He waited several minutes before wading in and roaring through.

Now what should I do? Trucks are high enough, they can get through. And if they get stuck, they can go to Plan B. But what would I do if I got stuck? My beautiful trousers, new socks, and formal black shoes would be wrecked as I stood around and pleaded with hangers-on to push my car through. And then I’d be stranded. Amit was busy in an office meeting and would be of no help whatsoever. How on earth would I get home and what would I do with the car?

But there was nothing to be gained by just standing there. Every minute, more vehicles were getting added to the never-ending queue of vehicles stretching behind us. And the water was not going to abate any time soon; there might even be more rain yet.

And the girls would get impatient. They’d need access to food and toilets.

I crawled to the edge of the water and got into first gear. There was a technique to driving through water, which my parents had taught me years – decades – ago. You had to keep one foot lightly on the brake to close the brake shoe and prevent water from getting into the brakes. This also had the effect of increasing the revs, preventing water from entering via the exhaust.

I took a deep breath,floored the accelerator and released the clutch. We raced through the initial stretch of water. Then, the depth of water increased and my car slowed down. Damn. I shifted my left foot to the brake and we almost stopped. Damn – that wasn’t what I wanted. I floored the accelerator again, and put my left foot back on the clutch. That increased the revs and hopefully prevented water from entering the exhaust. In any case, in another few seconds we made it through and then I had to brake sharply to avoid ramming the car in front of me, who had stalled after getting out of the river.

I was shaking with relief – as if I’d just driven through a ring of fire. The kids were firing questions about my sudden change in driving technique, which I tried my best to answer while still thinking of what would have happened if I hadn’t made it. In the rear view, I saw another car, a Maruti Omni, stall in the middle.

Having emerged from the flooded underpass, I saw the backup of vehicles on the other side of the road stretching for hundreds of metres. It was not even 5.30! It was going to be a very long evening for a very large number of people.

Beyond the underpass, there was no traffic on my side of the road at all. But at one busstop I saw a vast number of people waiting hopelessly. It was sad… the buses, which might actually have got through the water without any trouble, were completely stuck in the jam with no hope of getting through.

As for me, I made it home in record time after that… but there are no guarantees.

What the …!!!

May 17, 2010

Bangalore has an electricity crisis. So does the rest of India. There are people who only get electricity for a few hours a day. I know this. So I have no reason to complain, but…

In our old home, we had the great good luck to be one of two or three small towers that were affected by a faulty power transformer. Let me put this in perspective. We were a select 1% of our neighbourhood to be affected by this particular faulty power transformer. Yes, ONE percent. And we had to be in that elite one percent.

What this meant was, we had power cuts just like everybody else. We had the load-shedding like everybody else, we had the unscheduled power cuts like everybody else, we had the shutdown for maintenance power cuts like everybody else, we had the disruption of power supply due to an enormous storm like everybody else, and we had the tripping of the whole frigging grid due to some major calamity at some power plant somewhere, like everybody else.

What we ALSO had, was the faulty transformer, which broke down from time to time. Because we were only a paltry one percent of the neighbourhood who had to suffer due to this particular problem, we were never high on the priority list. I can understand that – when you’re struggling to fix all those other major problems, you don’t have too much sympathy for a lousy one percent sitting and sweltering somewhere. I can understand that… but I don’t have to like it.

The damn power transformer used to break down every few days, which resulted in frequent and very long power cuts to very few households. The guys would come and fix the problem, but it didn’t last; a few days later, it would be broken again. The building manager told us there was a small part that was faulty and needed to be changed. The KEB (Karnataka Electricity Board) people were aware of it, they just weren’t able to actually change it. “How small?” I wanted to know. “Can I, like, walk to an electrical shop and buy it?”

But with a power transformer, you have no idea what “small” means. It could be a matter of a couple of tons and run into six figures.

So, while everyone around us had electricity, we sweltered.

And of course, this coincided with the period when I was a SAHM, so I had the whole entire day at home to sweat it out. It also coincided with the period when I was trying to work from home for a period of several months. Obviously, I fretted and fumed while the work piled up, deadlines loomed, kids slept sweetly, the laptop ran out of battery, and the UPS for the modem bleeped and died.

So finally when we moved to our new home, I thought, “ok, at least we are away from that blasted transformer now.”

Summer rolled around. We revived our plans for solar power yet again. The plans have been in the making for three years now, and we’re no closer to actually getting some sunshine in our dark lives. We were obviously already in the thick of summer load-shedding (which began early this year, albeit with a welcome break during the BBMP elections) when Amit got to work on the solar power project. A chap came and talked to him, he sent a couple of quotes, and there the matter rests. Meanwhile, the power cuts proceed apace. Now that none of us is home all day during the week, we don’t feel it so much. Office, thankfully, comes with air-conditioning and is impervious to power cuts (however ruinous that may be for the environment).

Which makes weekends harder to bear.

On Saturday, we had power cuts from 9-10 a.m., 1-2 p.m., and then from 3 onwards. We thought the power would be back by 4, but decided to take the kids swimming just a little before 4. When we got home at 6, there was still no electricity. Strangely, though, one room still had electricity! Amit investigated and found the cause – workmen had been doing some work outside the house during the day. They’d messed around with the trip switches (MCBs, I think they’re called) in the main fuse box. By the time we’d found and fixed the problem, it was past 7. But well – this was a very local problem and we can’t blame anyone other than the workmen for it.

Then came Sunday. All morning, I was practically holding my breath wondering when it would go, but it didn’t. Great. At 3, we woke up the kids from their afternoon nap to take them to a magic show (that’s another story) and it still hadn’t gone. Not so great… it clearly meant there was disaster in store.

And there was, but not in the way I’d have expected.

As we drove back from the magic show, the rain that should have happened in reasonable quantities a couple of weeks ago, unleashed its pent up fury. It came pouring down in sheets of grey, with the wind driving it into our windscreen with vengeance. Naturally, the first thing that happened was that the trees started to bend and break. We had a small twig fly into our faces, followed seconds later by a sizeable branch. Luckily the branch landed on the intersection of the bonnet and the windshield – if it had landed in the middle of the windshield we would have been in trouble. As we continued on our way home, we were forced to take several detours, major and minor to get around fallen branches and broken trees.

At last, we reached home… to find… a power cut, of course. We’d seen at least one tree that had pulled down a power line, so the cause here was not hard to guess. What was hard to guess was when we could expect power to come back. It was not impossible that we’d be “powerless” all night.

In the end, we almost were. Electricity returned briefly at 9.30 but the voltage was too low to run fans, let alone TV or fridge. I was really worried about the fridge. K had come and cooked for our lunch, dinner, and Monday’s lunch on Sunday morning. If electricity didn’t come back, all the food would spoil and then what would I give the kids for lunch tomorrow??? By 10, it went off again, and we gave up and went to bed in the dark. At least it was cool enough, after the storm.

Sometime late at night, I woke up and heard the fridge running, and after that I slept happily.

Now, like I said at the beginning, I know the power situation is bad and there are people a lot worse off than us. And I know that after a storm like that, there’s bound to be power outages and really, the KEB folks do the best they can in those circumstances. The papers said a huge number of trees fell and electric poles were damaged. So you just have to accept that sometimes these things happen. But despite all the mitigating circumstances, the constant, unpredictable power cuts for hours on end made it a thoroughly frustrating weekend. Amit has been resisting getting an inverter on the basis that what we really need is a solar power system, but I’m fast reaching the end of my tether.

Day Care: Do They Care?

December 1, 2009

So we had decided on this daycare for the kids. You know the one – big, fancy, expensive, dead convenient, being in the same campus as both our offices… We bought ourselves a three-day trial period. Well, I still have only a verbal offer and the entry load at this daycare was coming to something over 80 k for the twins, so a trial period definitely makes sense, right?


The kids clearly liked the place. It’s large, well set up, clean, has nice child-sized toilets (clean) and places to climb and things to jump off of. Oh and there were these toy car things they could drive that they fell in love with. They didn’t talk to anybody much there, but as long as I was giving them lunch and they could play with the toy cars or climb and jump off things, they were ok.

Amit and I weren’t so easily impressed. Though the place appeared very professional and everything, I felt it was run like a factory. There was nothing really bad about it (apart from the food; I’ll come to that later) but there were small, niggling things that weren’t quite right. One or two of the attendants didn’t seem to be the kind cut out to be working with little children. One attendant had her own child there and this skewed things. She could not give her daughter sufficient attention, but neither could she treat her like just another child there.

There was a general one-size-fits-all kind of approach there that I felt was not exactly suited for kids of this age. One day, they twins were all happy and excited and showed no signs of wanting to sleep after lunch. The attendant’s response? “Oh no, they have to sleep, or they will disturb all the other kids here.”

I mean, yeah, she has a point, but shouldn’t there be some other solution? Like giving them something to do, or taking them to another area where they can play?

I heard a couple of the other attendants threatening the kids with “if you don’t fall asleep right now, spider will come.” If there’s one thing I want to protect my kids from, it’s from this kind of pointless threatening and fear-phobia approach.

The kids were all put to sleep on mattresses spread out on the ground. For a place as large (and expensive) as this one, you’d think they’d have sufficient mattresses. They didn’t – the kids were crammed together about five on a mattress. They could hardly move.

And then there’s the food. These folks actually discouraged us from sending food for the kids because (one size fits all) they provide food. We saw the menu, and I wasn’t impressed. Kids need proper meals – fruit, veggies, dahi (curd/yoghurt), in addition to the staple dal-rice. They need fibre in their cereal – unpolished rice or whole wheat, not just white rice. Still, I thought, maybe they do actually give all that on the side, they just mention the main dish on the menu. After all, they can’t be giving only rice and sambhar, or only paratha and curd. Our girls are used to five-course lunches. We even give them non-veg – or at least egg – once or twice a week. But no, they said, you can’t send any non-veg. Ok, I thought, let’s see what their food looks like. Maybe it looks really healthy, with lots of veggies hidden in the sambhar or in the raita.

No such luck. The food on the plate looked a lot worse than it looked on the menu. Pulao and raita (rice with mixed veggies and curd with raw veggies like onion) looked to me like white rice, plain (thin) curd, and a few green peas tossed in for colour. Sambhar-rice looked like rice with thin, colourless dal.

What’s worse, on our first day there, they gave the same food for lunch and for the tea-time snack! On our second day there, lunch was the same as on the first day. There was a five-year-old at our table who commented on it… so at least we know that they don’t actually usually give the same food every blessed day. But hullo! How about adding some nutrition to this food? These guys are supposed to be in the child care business.

Afternoon snack was also horrifying. One day it was biscuits, another day it was rice kheer (rice pudding). Refined sugar, polished cereal. How about a little fruit? Or at least good old bread-n-jam, which is at least better than biscuit, especially if you make a real effort and get wheat bread.

I had thought that since they provide food, I could just send the fruit and veggies to supplement, but after seeing what their food looked like, I realized I just couldn’t.

So anyway, I packed them lunch every day. Only, the food is cooked the evening before, refrigerated overnight, and packed when I go to pick them up from school around 11.15 a.m. So it’s still quite cold when they are ready to eat around 1 p.m. So, heat it, right? We have this useful little box called a microwave, which is killing the environment but we all use it just the same, right?

On the second day at lunch time, their attendant told me very firmly that, sorry to say, we need the microwave to heat the food for the infants. So could you please send their food at a ready-to-eat temperature? Thank you very much.

When you’re giving a place 80 grand, you’d think the least they could do is to buy a second microwave, right? Yeah, right.

When I told Amit this, he was disgusted. It was Friday afternoon by this time, so we spent the weekend and Monday morning phoning around, and on Monday afternoon I dropped the kids at this daycare, then drove off to inspect another one nearby. It was a much smaller affair, homely – not actually a home, though it was based out of what was originally intended as a house – far from perfect in terms of the infrastructure, but somehow cosy and warm. Because it was a house in design, there was a small outdoors area with a small sandpit; the big, plush daycare had no outdoor area at all, so this was better than nothing. The toilets were adult sized, fitted with child seats. The dining table was in the kitchen. There was a fridge and a microwave, and the woman in charge had no reservations about using either. There were about ten kids, and three caregivers. They didn’t provide food, for which, after our first experience, I was thankful, and they had no problem with us sending non-veg for the kids. The woman also assured me that I needn’t send any fruit as she always had fruit available for the kids. This, of course, put this place way up there at the top of the list as far as I was concerned.

So today I dropped the kids off at this new place and sweated it out in the car outside all afternoon. The woman was very keen that I not hang around for long, as she said it made it more difficult for kids to get settled in. Tara was somewhat upset when I left, but by all accounts she quickly settled down, ate lunch, and proceeded to play the entire afternoon. This was not a problem – the sleeping kids slept in another room with the door closed and were not disturbed. When I went back in some time around 4.30, she was completely happy and at-home there, and didn’t bother too much about me.

So, all in all, this place seems more convincing than the other. Amit and I both really liked the person in charge (while we found it difficult to like any of the women at the first place). It is a ten minute drive away from our office complex, unfortunately, but perhaps that is a small price to pay?

And there is a smaller price to pay in a very literal sense as well – this place costs less than half of the other on a monthly basis, and has none of the entry barriers that amount to 80 k in the other place. So it makes sense to go with it for a while and see if it works, don’t you think? After all, the place with only one microwave and plenty of attitude isn’t going anywhere and we can always go back there later on if we wish.

The kids have put up a sterling performance in all this. They’ve been almost unmitigatedly cheerful and easy-going. Despite being left alone this afternoon at this new place (and Tara being a little upset by it) they were all ready to go back to the first place at the end of the afternoon, just so they could play with some of the toys over there!

I still feel a little selfish for wanting to go back to work… but I think that eventually the girls will begin to love day care (as they already love school) and that it will do them no harm in the long run. Or at least that’s what I want to believe right now. I just hope we’re doing the right thing and choosing the right daycare. It is so hard to trust our little girls to somebody else’s care.

Restaurant Experience: Completely Avoidable

September 23, 2009

Amit decided that it was time we went on another ‘date’, so S&S were called in to babysit last weekend. We planned to watch a movie, but the only one that looked interesting didn’t run at a suitable hour at the movie hall nearest home, so we decided to just do dinner instead. A long, leisurely dinner with drinks, appetizers, main course, and dessert, stretching over three hours or so, we thought, would be nice. So we thought.

I’d never been to Sahib, Sindh and Sulran before, and since it was quite nearby, we decided to go there.

As soon as we walked in, I didn’t like the place. It was dark, crowded, and noisy. There was a row of tables down each side of the hall, and a row of two-seaters squeezed in between. We, naturally, were in the squeezed-in row. The table was so small that once the excessively large plates were in place, there was no space left for the food. Every time they brought a dish, they took away something else. First they took away the complimentary bread platter before we were done with it, and later they actually removed my un-used side plate prior to serving the main course! Maybe they just should have removed the dinner plates altogether and let us eat straight out of the serving dishes. They were keen enough to do so, whipping them away before the last bite had gone down. And I do mean ‘before’ – they almost succeeded in removing my appetizer before I was done with it. Some nifty wrist work on my part saved the day that time, but the bread rolls we really did lose.

Service was so good it was bad. There seemed to be an excess of waiters who were all very quick and eager. Apart from whipping your food away from under your nose, they flourished the menu before you were quite seated, brought each dish almost before you’d ordered it, and generally managed to courteously and efficiently rush you through your meal, apparently in an effort to free up the table for the next taker. And takers, strangely enough, there were plenty of.

The drinks we ordered – Bloody Mary for me and something exotic with vodka for Amit, were completely lacking in alcohol. Amit’s, in fact, seemed to be coloured sugar-syrup. He took a sip, I took a sip, and we both rejected it absolutely and totally. Mine I drank for the tomato juice – though it was an outrageously expensive glass of tomato juice.

The food was ok – not bad, but not good enough for the price tag. Other equally pricey restaurants, and even some less expensive ones, manage to dish up more subtle and exciting flavours in their food. At half the cost, the food could have been conssidered decent.

The only good thing I can say about the place is that, when Amit rejected his drink, some senior person, presumably from the bar counter, was sent over to enquire as to the nature of the complaint. He didn’t react to the charge of their being no alcohol in either of the drinks, but offered Amit some other drink, which he refused. They had the good grace not to bill us for the rejected drink, though, so that was decent of them. Only trouble being, if we had wanted not to be billed for a drink, we wouldn’t have bothered to order it.

In the end, what with the high decibel levels and the too-small table and the over-eager waiters, we skipped the dessert and were out of there in about an hour. So much for our long, leisurely dinner.

So, if you’re considering dinner out at Sahib, Sindh, and Sultan, my advice to you would be: don’t even bother.

What’s In A School, Anyway?

June 28, 2009

Before we started doing the rounds of the schools trying to get the twins in, I wasn’t very concerned about school. I didn’t believe it was necessary to get them into the “best” school. As far as I was concerned, any school that was middle of the range would do. What did “best” mean, anyway?

To me, when it comes to schools, “best” would probably mean a large school, with enormous grounds, good sports facilities, and generally excellent infrastructure. That means clean toilets, well-equipped science labs, plenty of extra-curricular activities which are given sufficient priority. And, very importantly, well-paid staff. I’d expect teachers to like their subjects, enjoy teaching, and to encourage curiosity and questioning in students. In my experience as a student, it is difficult, but not impossible, to find teachers like that.

I didn’t aspire, necessarily, to the “best” school for my children. I don’t quite know why. Perhaps because these schools tend to be expensive, and hence elitist. I would want my kids to know and mix with people from different economic and cultural backgrounds, to realize that every birthday doesn’t have to be celebrated at McDonald’s, or, worse, TGIF.

Perhaps because I don’t really believe that it is important to always get the “best” for your children; rather it’s important to get them what is good enough, so that they are not brought up in an altogether exalted environment. They should be able to deal with everyday realities like things breaking – literally or figuratively.

I also felt that, even if they weren’t in the “best” school, they’d learn enough at school to be going on with. Whatever they didn’t learn in school, in terms of values, communication skills, social graces and the like, I was willing to risk betting that we could teach them at home. And in terms of just academics, I wasn’t too concerned. As long as I can teach them to be regular, disciplined, conscientious, and, hopefully, interested, the rest would follow. Besides, I’m not worried about them coming first or second in class – as long as they genuinely learn and have fun. What I’d rather see them doing in school, is making friends, learning to interact, learning to play, learning to question and find answers, learning to win and lose and laugh and cry. In other words, learning to live.

For that, I figured, a good enough school would be good enough.

But then we got caught up in the usual rat race of admission and hearing from others about how great this, that, or the other school was. And suddenly “best” became whatever everyone else was talking about. In fact, from what I could make out, “best” came to mean “most difficult to get in to”.

By that definition, our kids have gotten into one of the “best” schools. This school is so “best” that people either swoon over it, or have never heard of it. You know the type – like the restaurants you can only go to by invitation: you’re either dying to get in there (because it is so damn difficult to actually get invited), or you’ve never heard of it. Only a privileged handful have ever actually been inside.

On the inside, though, I’m not sure that it’s really very different. It’s a school, it has classrooms, teachers, students. This school does not have the facilities that would make it rate as “best” by my definition. The main playground, for instance, is a public playground shared with another school and, in theory, open for strangers to walk in to.

All the same, I have no real complaints with their new school right now. I liked the interaction, as I mentioned earlier, and I vehemently disliked the interaction at another school which had the most impressive facilities. (For the record, no, the twins didn’t actually get in there. But, also for the record, I was railing against their admission process right at the time it happened, and we didn’t find out until much later that they hadn’t gotten in, so it wasn’t a matter of sour grapes.) I like the Montessori set up here, to whatever extent I’ve seen so far, and the kids’ teachers seem to be nice. I’ve watched the older kids at Assembly when I go to drop the kids in the morning, and I really like the way they do Assembly too. But, judging by the number of kids at Assembly, this really is a small school. So no – by my definition, this school would rate as decent, pretty good, but not in the “best” category. Probably not worth paying over-the-top fees for, nor commuting 40 minutes each way for. I’d want to keep those burdens for one of the more stereotypical convent schools in the heart of town, where acres of playground and a swimming pool are included in the school premises.

Not that I’d even dream of changing their school now that they’ve started. But what I’m really wondering about is, what differentiates ok, from good, from best? Is it one’s own priorities and expectations of a school, or is it just what everyone else says about a school? And is it worth the effort of huge fees and long distances just to get your kids into a school that is on other people’s “best” list?

So Long, Unicorn, And Thanks For All The Fun

June 12, 2009

The world consists of two kinds of people, as I’ve had occasion to note before: two-wheeler riders, and others. The others might be car drivers, auto drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, pushcart drivers, even pedestrians; but if they don’t have a passion for two-wheelers, they are ‘others’.

I’ve been a happy two-wheeler-ist since I was 18. My parents did me the favour of teaching me to drive a car, and then scraped together their savings and dipped in to my education fund to buy me the best automatic (I mean, gearless) two wheeler available in those days: a bright red Kinetic Honda. I practically taught myself to ride, and in a week, I was driving myself from Panchkula to college in Chandigarh, much to my delight. (Now that I think of it, my parents must have been incredibly brave to let me do this.) Back then, I remember, 3 litres of petrol cost Rs 50 and lasted me a week. The good ol’ days…

That Kinie came all the way to Bangalore with me after marriage and saw us through a few adventures here before I was forced to sell it. It broke my heart to see it go, but, back then, we were moving to the US, possibly for good (which, in those heady days, meant anything from one year to one generation or more).

When we returned from the US, I bought a Scooty. This trusty steed served me well for many years, and I finally sold it only in 2006, when I already had my new bike and didn’t need it any more. It wasn’t working too well by then, but the colleague I sold it to was so delighted to finally get her own set of wheels, she didn’t mind. Besides, I practically gave it to her.

The new bike, a Honda Unicorn,29052009019 was a motorcycle, something I’d been dying to ride ever since I went shopping for my first two-wheeler at the tender age of 18. So I was over 30 when I finally got it. So what? I loved it the more for having had to wait so long. (I’ve written lots about it already, so I’ll try to keep this short.)

While I was working, I rode the bike to office and back – about 20 km return every day. That was fantastic. Looking back, and looking at traffic the way it is now, I’d have to admit that it might not have been very safe (my ever-present helmet notwithstanding). But at the time I didn’t see anything risky about it.

When I stopped working, and after the kids came, opportunities to ride the bike were few and far-between. Too many times, I had to take it out just to take it out and keep it running. Then, maintenance became an issue: vehicles hate to be kept standing and deteriorate alarmingly quickly. I should have sold it months ago, before it entirely stopped working, but it’s difficult to listen to good sense when your heart isn’t in it.

And now I really don’t have a choice. Most of my driving will now revolve around the kids and Amit is adamant that they will not sit on a two-wheeler until they are 18 – at least. So the bike hardly ever gets to go out. Now the battery has died completely, which makes taking it out a real chore, having to kick-start it everywhere.

So I finally did what I should have done long ago: I put it up for sale. At the same time, I took it for servicing: it might as well be in working condition when it goes. Buyers are coming to look at it over the weekend. I still don’t want to part with it, but now I really, really should.

By Monday morning, I expect, it will be gone. And then, I will no-longer be a two-wheeler-ist – ever again; I’ll always be just one of the ‘others’.

Quest For The Holy Grail (Well, Almost)

June 3, 2009

It’s true I haven’t mentioned it here for a while, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten all about my quest for a khata. Over the past couple of weeks, I went and applied for – and got! – the Encumbrance Certificate. I can’t tell you what it actually certifies, because it’s in Kannada, but at least I have it. It wasn’t difficult at all to get. One day I went and filled out a form (nothing complicated compared to the Property Tax form) and paid some money (for which I got a receipt). That took all of 20 minutes. I went back on the appointed date a week later to pick up the certificate. It was ready and waiting. That took all of five minutes. No waiting, no pestering, no hidden charges. Fantastic.

I ordered the draft for payment of the Khata fees and worked on the Khata application form – also not too daunting to an experienced form-filler like I was by now. Then last week I went back to the Ward office to submit the application. On my first attempt, Mr M wasn’t there, and B told me to come back the next day. On my second attempt, Mr M was there; he took one look at my papers and told me it had to be submitted at the dreaded Mayo Hall. If you’ve already read about my recent experience at Mayo Hall, you’ll know I was not thrilled to get this news.

However, what cannot be cured must be endured; or, to put it another way, if rape is inevitable, better sigh and get to it. So off I went today, application, supporting documents, and bank draft in hand, prepared for another “from-pillar-to-post” ordeal at Mayo Hall. To my surprise, it wasn’t too bad. Or perhaps I’ve now managed to adjust my expectations to more realistic levels.

I reached just after 10.30. The office I’d been told to visit had one person already seated at his desk, meticulously drawing ruled lines on bits of paper and occasionally in a ledger or notebook. (By the way, ‘Khata’ literally translates to ledger or notebook, and also to the accounts kept in one – I think. In Karnataka, it is an all-important document which doesn’t actually prove ownership of a property, but which everyone treats as though it does.)

In a few minutes, a woman appeared. She was quite helpful and told me, in English, to wait for a certain other gentleman who had access to the stamp that was required. Meanwhile, she checked my papers and asked me to get them notarised. By this time, I’d been waiting for half an hour or so already, and the required gentleman was expected any minute now. So I went to the appropriate section of Mayo Hall at top speed, nodded at the first tout who approached me, and showed him my papers.

“Eleven pages,” he said.
“It’s three documents,” I replied indignantly. “How does number of pages matter?”
He nodded readily and said “Rs 300.”
“Rs 100,” I countered, firmly.
“Rs 200, special discount for you,” he said, without flinching.
“Look. There are hundreds of others who will notarise this for me. Rs 100.”‘
“Rs 150, last offer,” he said.
“Wait here,” he said, taking my papers and walking off.

Nothing doing! I followed him to his desk, where, in ten minutes the eleven pages were signed, sealed, and stamped.

“Do you have the originals?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said, nodding to my document case. I didn’t offer to show them to him and he didn’t ask.

I returned to the former office and waited another half hour. The lady took pity on me and offered to sign the receipt for me without stamping it. I hesitated, and the offer was quickly but graciously withdrawn. Damn. Maybe I should have taken her up on it.

After I’d completed about an hour waiting, one of the other officers came over to me and asked what I was waiting for. I told him. “Oh, I’m the case officer for that, I’ll do it,” he said promptly. And five minutes later, I was done.

Of course, I should have been pissed off that I was made to wait for some mythical person who apparently was not required for my work… but I was just happy that my futile waiting had been only about half an hour or so. If you can go to a government office, get your work done, and get out in an hour, I guess you should count yourself lucky.

The next step is to follow up with a name and a number written on the receipt. How long will it take to get the khata? I don’t know – I was only told that there was a backlog of files pending from February, due to work having been held up because of election duties. So I wasn’t given a date or anything – just a name and a mobile number.

If the kids hadn’t already done their utmost to teach me patience, I don’t think I could have made it this far.

This quest is something like a treasure hunt in the mist: you don’t know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, or what you’re going to find there, and you can see only one step ahead at each stage; but you believe there’s some treasure at the end of the road, whenever and wherever that might be.

Property Taxed

May 17, 2009

Friday was a busy day. I went to the BBMP office in the morning to follow up on the property tax saga. I had actually been once on Wednesday, when I was given the usual run-around: Go there to pay arrears, then go to the other room for the current year’s payment.” “Sorry, I can’t find your property in the system. Oh, you haven’t ever paid? Then you can’t pay here, go there.” Over there they said, “You’ll need Mr M. He hasn’t come today, try tomorrow.”

In other words, the usual run-around. This office looked smaller, cleaner and more efficient and helpful than Mayo Hall, though, so I was cautiously optimistic that if I hung around and did the rounds patiently enough, I might actually get somewhere.

On Friday morning I called Mr M’s young, helpful, English-speaking flunky, B. He said Mr M would be available around 12.30, so accordingly, I landed up there at 12.30. Mr M took one look at my document, heard my story, and told me to come back with a copy of the registered sale deed, encumbrance certificate and possession certificate. I went home and checked, found I didn’t have the EC and PC, and immediately called B again. He checked with Mr M, who said, just bring the sale deed. So, at 3.30 I left home and returned to the BBMP office, sale deed photocopy in hand. From 4 till 6 p.m., I sat there, and waited with bated breath. First, Mr M’s room was locked. This was annoying, because I had specifically checked with Mr M if 4 p.m. would be convenient, and he had said parvagilla (which, in this context means ok).

I called B, who said they had gone to Mayo Hall and were on their way back, could I wait 15 minutes or so?

I waited. It was hot, but there were some magnificent trees outside the office and it was a surprisingly peaceful area, tucked away in-between two crowded, noisy roads.

When Mr M & Co arrived, they streamed in on about half a dozen two-wheelers. The locked office was opened, and I followed them in. To his credit, Mr M got to work on my papers right away. He took a scrap of waste paper and scribbled two columns of figures. One, I guessed, was the tax unpaid, the other was the penalty. He totalled them, and it came to a shocking figure.

After that, I filled up the form and wrote out two cheques, one for arrears, the other for the current year. (I had to discard both the form and the cheque I had written on my previous attempt as they were already outdated.)

After that, I waited for almost an hour. There was no electricity, so my receipt could not be generated on the computer. Inside the room, with its corrugated iron sheet for a roof, it was terribly hot and stuffy. Mr M had ordered musambi juice for everyone, and I was surprised, pleased, and mildly embarassed when one glass came my way. It was completely welcome!

I had expected Mr M and others to leave punctually at 5, but they were still around at 5.40, when electricity finally came back. My receipt was promptly printed out, and Mr M verified his calculation of arrears and reduced the amount payable by a few thousand. It took another few minutes to get the receipt for the arrears, and then I was ready to leave. As a parting gift, Mr M gave me the form for the khata application. He had told me earlier that it was available at Mayo Hall, and I wasn’t looking forward to going there, so it was very nice of him to give it to me (at cost price, nothing extra).

Overall, it had been a smooth experience, though requiring a fair degree of patience. Most of the waiting was due to the power cut. Mr M, of course spoke to me almost entirely in Kannada, while I spoke to him entirely in English. We seemed to understand each other, though B was called in as interpreter a couple of times. I don’t know how much was lost in translation, but overall I have to say that a little Kannada goes a long way.

At the end of the day, I had the two receipts in my pocket, and had been shown the way towards obtaining the khata. Next week, I will embark on that promising-looking journey. Let’s see how that turns out.

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