Friday, December 2, 2011

If she weighs the same as a duck...

Wim Wenders: "Sometimes I feel that only people who're able to be alone are also able to be with other people. And people who're not able to be alone are a burden in any relationship because they eat the other person up - because they need somebody, and that need can be a terrible thing."*

Which makes perfect sense.


If you're truly able to be alone, and if you didn't need someone, then why would you want to be with someone?** Inertia is the second law of motion, and you've hit the perfect stride. You shall remain immovably alone, and you wouldn't have it any other way. It's elementary, my dear reader.

Which leads us to,

The people who do get into relationships are the ones who've never really learnt to be alone.

And therefore,

Beneath the facade of every happy relationship, there are two cannibals eating each other up. And if they do learn to be alone, that's when they split up. Logically.

Now, if only I could be so collected and clinical when next my grandmother pesters me on the subject.

xxx

*From a coolly thought-provoking interview with him on the DVD of "Alice In The Cities."

**This might just be the underlying philosophy behind that laconic "by choice, man."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Malabar Op breaks the fourth wall

"There's something very strange about all this," said the devious mastermind, just after he'd been fingered by the Op for plunging his fruit fork into the Adam's Apple of the Maharaja of Thrikkakara's favourite nephew. And the priceless 400-year-old tablecloth took the brunt of the deluge. The denouement had gone smoothly in the Maharaja's drawing room, and the collective gasp from those assembled when the Op dramatically unveiled the culprit was satisfying indeed. But... the curious emptiness that hung over it all was rather a dampener.

"Look at me," he continued, "7 PhDs; mastery of history, art and culture; fluent in 13 languages... and here I am foiled by a chap who couldn't solve a crossword if he put 6 months into it. Do you really think all this is real?"

Op: "Wh-what do you mean?"

Villain: "All this! You! Me! These caricatures standing around! Look at yourself. It's summer in Kerala - I thought I'd melt when the power went out a while back - what's with the trench coat? You're quite obviously a rip-off of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And one more and more veering toward parody, I'm afraid. Chandler, for instance, hated little Belgian men and their little grey cells, and look what we have here. Your last case read like a couple too many drinks and a wandering conversation at lunch. Amusing enough for a scrawl on a page, but far too silly for His own voice. Enter the intrepid Malabar Op. An empty shell. A conveyor for Someone Else's whimsies."

Bystander 3: "I do feel a bit thinly sketched out. Who am I? What motivates me? Why am I in love with that pill?"

Villain: "Romantic interest, obviously."

Op: "Wait. I think, therefore I..."

Villain: "Yeah, right. The real question is, how far up does this go? Is it noir all the way up? Of course, there are several problems with infinite recursion, chief of them being the limitations of the stack."

The Op disappeared, leaving behind an uncomfortable silence. When he re-emerged, he was wearing Bermuda shorts, flip-flops, a Hawaiian shirt, and silly sunglasses.

He shook his fist up at the ceiling.

"Now, look here! I'm through being your patsy. Call me when you can convince me that you care. That you suffer as much as I do. It's unlikely you'll reap any rewards for it, but it is in how you take care of what you have, of what you create, that your mettle comes through. It takes love over gold and mind over matter, to do what you do that you must; when the things that you hold can fall and be shattered or run through your fingers like dust.

"Or... if you think that short dialogue-heavy snippets are more your scene, write that screenplay. Sell everything you've got. Pawn the life insurance. And premier me at Cannes. You're young. Go back to your day job, if it doesn't work out.

"But if I must be a part-time scribble on a lazy evening in that comfortable life of yours, why not have me ride off into the sunset with Grace Kelly, or in one of those sleazy stories with easy dames that all the other private eyes seem to get into all the time? What would it matter to you? But I think I know how it does matter. You wanted creatures with your own fuck-ups in a horrid, violent world geared towards entropy. It shows your insecurities. The rule book is just for show, isn't it? To tell yourself that you tried all you could. I don't know about you artists, but any engineer worth his salt strives for perfection. And yet you made me in your stinking image... just so that you could have an excuse. To tell yourself that your own mistakes couldn't be helped. That they're natural. How sad is that?

"Well, think about it. In the meantime, you can keep your Eden. All of it. All the dust and the shadows and the loneliness. I'm off to the beach."

He shook his fist up at me once more, and disappeared through the door.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Malabar Op helps the girls out

This was one of the easier ones... at least in terms of getting the report out. The frightful headache it gave me, though, is the sort you'd get if you found yourself on the wrong side of the fourth wall of a Bunuel film.

It began innocently enough. A runner-up to Miss Bangalore (I forget which year) found herself waiting for 45 minutes opposite an empty chair at Sunny's. And after a fourth gulp (one gulp per glass; a departure from her usual dainty sips) decided that enough was enough and hoofed it for the wide-open spaces. The pretty project manager, used to all her underlings working seventeen hours a day for a mere flutter of her eyelashes, was miffed beyond description on leaving the office early one Friday evening, only to find herself staring at rude graffiti for the better part of an hour. She even had to take a cab home - a first for her. And then there was the girl-next-door, from the college-down-the-road, who'd spent all of Saturday afternoon setting her hair into the perfect curls and picking out shoes to go with her brand-new dress, only to sob the evening quietly away, while watching back-to-back showings of "Gossip Girl" on cable.

This was just the beginning, and it soon became something of an epidemic. The most beautiful girls in the city, stood up, day after day after day. Nothing like this had ever been heard of. There are no folk songs, nothing on scrolls in any languages known to us, Gutenberg's thingy never churned out anything remotely similar, nor are there cave etchings indicating this to be a known occurrence to our distant ancestors. Plenty of gripping stuff about spears through elephants' heads and stuff, yes, but no cavegirl standing alone by a primeval swamp, all decked up, and puzzled annoyance on her face.

And all this by one man. Neither nameless nor faceless. But whose motivations remained unknown.

This was revolutionary; the beginning of a new era, a sledge-hammer shift in the battle-of-the-sexes. This was Roger Bannister running the four-minute mile. This was Hillary and Norgay conquering Everest. And just like the fate of the mile, just like the empty beer bottles strewn about the summit of the world, just like, as the joke goes, "the invention of the steam-boat caused a network of rivers to spring up," their hitherto unchallenged ascendancy was soon to be at an end... or so feared the shadowy Association for Woman's Supremacy over the Male Doofus. But they wouldn't go down without a fight. If they could understand this bizarre new phenomenon, perhaps they could conquer it.

And so, when they hired me, they all had just one question they wanted answered, "Why?" (Or "Por qué?" in the case of the one Spanish exchange student.)

Now, give me the number of fingers a chap has on his left hand and his five favourite movies, and that's all the info I need to find him anywhere in the world; much less this case where not only was his name and photograph given to me, but also his Facebook profile complete with "location" info. So, the scene shifts abruptly to the very end of the case, where the fearless Op and the slightly drunk target find themselves seated across each other over mildly alcoholic drinks.

"If you wanted your answer in two words, those'd be Chaos Theory."
"What?"
"Chaos Theory."
"I heard you the first time. What the... on earth, I mean... we must all watch our profanity... is Chaos Theory?"
"You don't know? I was just reading about it. Mighty interesting stuff. Check the Butterfly Effect out, too, if you get the time. Mind you, I haven't read the whole essay, so I can't guarantee that it's Chaos Theory exactly that I want here; but it doesn't matter. It's all about the craft of storytelling, you see? Begin with something bombastic to get the attention of the audience, and half your work's done. Beethoven did it, too. There's a name for this technique. It's... ah... it's right on the tip of my tongue..."

"Could I interrupt you there for a second? What's the temperature right about now?"
"Eh? Mid-thirties, probably... mid-to-high thirties, yeah. Why?"
"Bear with me. And we're sitting here very much in the sun, under an umbrella made of jelly-fish, yes?"
"So far as I can make out. But..."
"Just one moment more. Does a man who sits in conditions as these, wearing a trench-coat and a hat - ok, maybe the hat's reasonable - seem like the sort of guy who'd be interested in a discussion on theories literary? Forget the build up. Just get on with it."
"Oh, all right," he seemed disappointed. "Do you know what my view of the world is?"
"I'm dying to find out."
"Think of a giant pool table with seven billion balls on it pinging about in perpetual motion. It's a really clever analogy, if you pause but a second to think of it. The balls disappearing down the pockets could be construed as a metaphor for death, and..."

I didn't actually hit him on the side of the head with my glass, but I came mighty close.

"Oh, all right. So, here we are, each of us a ball moving crazily fast on this table, right? Now, even if these balls are ones that can see, think and change their courses through force of will, how much control do they really have? There's billions of balls out there on the table, each of them moving so very fast - if there's one untouchable in the world, it's this speed... uncontrollable. All they're trying to do is avoid the pockets, but what with the crazy speed, and the other seven billion balls crashing into them all the time, and the hazards of the table itself - this is a table that has been kept out in the sun and the rain, and hasn't been brushed or the cloth changed in millions of years - things are really, really difficult. I'm talking just in terms of survival here.

"Now, to add one layer of impossibility on top, what if most balls had this urge to spend the rest of their days moving in tandem with another ball (mostly of a different colour, but not always)? They'd practically have to be fused together, and then they'd be all out of shape - coefficients of friction, too, are almost always different for each ball - and their lives'd be all laboured movements. Nah, nah, nah. What we all want is to have our loves by our side without any of those pesky shackles.

"But how long would it last? How long before the fragile bonds of love are shattered by the randomness of the universe and our own divergent paths? Probability Theory tells us: not very long. Sure, I'm as human as the next... well, whatever... My ideal too is to win this lottery, to win this one-in-a-trillion relationship. But where I differ from the average Joe is that I know my Maths. I'm a realist. I choose to live life based on the probable. You used to be a programmer, right? Would you ever design a system around its exception handling? And there's the irony. People spend vast amounts of time planning their whole lives out, when they don't even know what dreams they'd be having that night. Wouldn't they be happier if they just cut loose and drifted?

"Anyway, where I'm good, where I'm really good - apart from cutting loose and drifting - is in my judgement of the short term. Look, it's relatively easy to set sights on trivialities - things like your career, the ideal home-theatre system, your dream vacation. But those are dead things, things without minds or motion of their own. Sure, the variables in the world make them demanding conquests, too, but with care and work, there's at least an even chance of achieving them. But if your goal be a dance in perpetuity with another of those balls, who has an answer? I'd imagine you'd need a computer the size of the Milky Way to process all that data. But for the short-term, my skills are second to none.

"Case in point: did you notice that when I came back from the rest-room, I glanced at that girl on the next table?"
"No."
"Well, I did. And I got a glance in return. And I knew even before I got up from the table that it would be so. I was merely following a script already laid out in my head. Now, how could I have been so sure?"
"That obnoxious, flowery shirt you're wearing?"

"It's a gift, I tell you. It's like I know every detail, or better put, every possibility for my immediate future - for, let's say, about 3 hours. The only way to be truly successful in this world of ours is to possess this nimbleness of brain... and have short, intense bursts of energy to draw on, to seize on those openings, those alignments, that last but a fraction of a second. It's very exhausting, and it's hard to keep up - which is why I take short vacations to Europe once every couple months... Ah, I can see from your eyes that you're beginning to understand.

"A lot can change from the moment you ask a girl out, to when you're just about to pick her up. They're often in two different eras. The universe has changed like crazy in the in-between. And now, not even my ability to gather up energy and focus it like a laser can help anymore. It's dead, whatever we could've had, and there's no going back. What's the point in a date, if you find yourself gazing three hours into the future and see bleakness and boredom? For a chap who's all into true love and forever and things, maybe he could take the hit, maybe he could tell himself that with time he could win her over; but given my short-to-medium-term worldview..."

There was silence for a bit.

"Oh, and one more thing. You do realise that with the analogy involving the pool table and the balls in perpetual motion, I was taking artistic liberties?" He seemed anxious. "Because, you see, perpetual-motion machines are purely hypothetical, and would, in practice, violate the second law of thermodyna..."

I stood up.

"Just one other question."
"Shoot."
"In the short-term vision you've surely had of this moment, did you picture yourself getting stuck with the bill?"

Case closed.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hump Theory

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees. The moon was something equally compelling. And the road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor. Exactly the sort of setting for a highwayman to go riding, riding, riding, right up to the old inn door, where Bess, the landlord's black-eyed daughter, waits, plaiting a dark-red love-knot into her long black hair.

There wasn't much traffic on the road, on this the highway from Mysore to Bangalore. At the end of a three-day weekend, you would expect the hundreds of thousands that had bolted from Bangalore with a fervent desire to be somewhere... anywhere... else to be welcomed back with a warm log-jam. But here we were on an empty road. Strange.

And it had been a strange day. A little earlier, on the way back from Coorg, having missed a turn in the pouring rain, we found ourselves in the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, home to "Lion-tailed Macaque, Elephant, Gaur, Tiger, Jungle Cat, Leopard Cat, Wild Dog, Sloth Bear, Wild Pig, Sambar, Spotted Deer, Nilgiri Langur, Slender Loris, Bonnet Macaque, Common Langur, Barking Deer, Mouse Deer, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Giant Flying Squirrel, Nilgiri Marten, Common Otter, Brown Mongoose, Civets, Porcupine, Pangolin, Python, Cobra, King Cobra, Emerald Dove, Black Bulbul and Malabar Trogon," with the orange low-fuel indicator blinking more and more urgently in the dark of the rain-drenched forest.

Emerging out into the late-afternoon sunshine, we found ourselves in Kannur, Kerala, and not Mysore - two somewhat different places not usually mistaken for each other. The last fumes of petrol took us to a fuel bunk where the attendant was not only kind enough to tell us where we went astray (we would have to retrace our way back through Brahmagiri), but also pointed out the silver lining in that petrol is five bucks a litre cheaper in Kerala than in Karnataka.

As we zipped by on the Mysore-Bangalore highway, congratulating ourselves on picking a day and a time when we could whizz along with hardly a car in sight, we came upon, quite unexpectedly, an enormous traffic jam. It seemed to us that there were now hundreds - maybe thousands - of vehicles on the road. We crawled for twenty minutes, all the while scratching our chins with a good deal of puzzlement. And then, just like that, like Keyser Soze even, the jam was gone - it vanished like it had never been, and we were back to meeting five vehicles in fifteen minutes. There had been no intersections, no towns, no accidents, no anything to create the pileup.

From then on, the cycle repeated with baffling regularity. Phases of 100 kph+ cruises followed by 5 kph- crawls - with both phenomena unaccounted for. Where do all these vehicles come from? And where do they disappear to? There were three of us in the car - two programmers and a bio-scientist-something-or-the-other - highly trained to observe patterns and propound theories from said observations. But we were still at a loss. There had been no roads leading to (or out of) the highway before, at, or after the pileup spots to account for the flux. We considered medical-experiments-performing aliens picking up cars, and then dropping them back on the road at spots fixed as per intergalactic carjacking norms. But that, somehow, didn't grip.

It was then that we hit upon the clinching observation - there had been a hump (less imaginatively known as a speed-breaker) involved in each of those pileups. Thus, through inductive reasoning, Hump Theory was born. In short, the increase in the number of vehicles at any point on a no-reason-why-there-should-be-a-jam highway, from a point just before it, is directly proportional to the product of the distance between the two points and the height of the nearest hump ahead, and inversely proportional to the cube root of the distance from the second point to the hump.

That is,

 d x hr

Which translates to,

V = T x x h / r

where T is a traffic constant. Truth be told, it isn't so much a constant as a variable that depends on asphalt conditions, how badly the majority of the drivers on the road want to use the rest-room, whether they have interesting company, how happy they're with the music they've brought along, and a variety of other factors complex enough for us to want to bin the idea of defining it. Be our guest, though.

The lack of cars post-hump could be explained simply by the vehicles engaging their Warp Drives when clear of first gear. Once we hit upon the value of T for that evening, we could predict with enormous precision the distance to the nearest hump, plus its height, merely by noting the increase in vehicles in our vicinity. Not that it made our lives easier or anything... but it was good to know.

Could someone else take up the challenge of explaining why inter-city highways are designed such that they need humps every dozen kilometres or so? And even if you must have them, what for one whim or the other, why so in spots that do not particularly demand a snail's pace? Perhaps the planners were once abducted by aliens, and experimented on, thereby altering their neural pathways? Or maybe those are cow-crossings?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Malabar Op goes to the movies: The Final Reel

The story so far...

The Setup
the bits in the middle

And now...

I must've watched 20 films in those 6 days.

There was "The Storm in my Heart," a film about two uncompromising loners, who try to make seaworthy a rickety old boat that hasn't seen the seas for decades. Their goal is a foolhardy voyage along the Norwegian coast, to the older man's girlfriend - to reclaim a love as old as the boat itself. "l travel around the world, and write about it afterwards. There are two ways to do it, you know. The easy way: when you buy plane tickets, and come home when the money's gone. And the hard way: you walk out the door, without money, without plans, away from it all."

Then there was "The Medal of Honour," a Romanian film about a taciturn, crusty old man who's lived what he tells himself is a worthy life - one of honour and achievement - but he knows that no one respects him; not his wife, not his son. He gets a chance to regain some respect for himself when he's awarded a medal for the one worthwhile thing he may have done decades ago... but he barely remembers any of it, and others have different versions of that deed. Rather hard to watch, this one.

There were a few lighter ones, too. "Fight, Zatoichi, Fight" was a no-holds-barred action flick about a blind swordsman taking care of a baby while fighting off hordes of evil henchmen with the other hand. Even a film like "Little Rose," an underwhelming film about government persecution in Poland, had moments like this: "Books are not there to be read at once. First, they are beautiful objects. Second, they are like friends."

And then there was my favourite, "4 Minutes." It begins with the camera rising high over a red-bricked prison, taking it in from a bird's eye-view - a shot sinister and beautiful at the same time. The movie's about terrible memories and sins that won't wash away. And escape through great music. What purpose is there to life, if not to fulfill our talents, it asks.

As the week ticked closer to an end, I knew I couldn't put it off any longer. No sooner had we walked out of the final screening on the penultimate day of the festival - a screening of the Javier Bardem starrer "Biutiful" - than I reached into Sally's purse and pulled out the ruby.

"I believe this is not yours?" I asked quietly.
She didn't try to take it back... just gazed at me with infinite sadness. "And is it yours?"
"I've been hired to retrieve it."
"Do you know what it is?"
"Nope."
"It persists emotions."
"Sorry?"

"Film-makers... storytellers... they're the supreme Gods. These are people who know how small the creator of our world must be. And since they can do something about it, they pour all their creativity, all their passion, into a spool of film - one that has their universe in it; where they sculpt in time, where it plays according to their rules."

"Erm, yes?"

"With ideas so powerful that they sneak past our defenses and speak directly to the dark rooms of our soulsTell me something. When Maetel told our little hero that she would be nothing more than an illusion of a young boy's heart, a phantom of his youth, what illusions from your own youth did you remember?"

"I don't understand."

"I think you do. Hard to get rid of them, yes?"

"All right. Fine. A film got to me. Where does this thing here fit in?"

"There's the sad part. The moment the projector's turned off, the moment we step back out into sunlight, our world starts to take over. That ruby there can change all that. You've experienced a bit of it yourself."

"What a load of poppycock. Disappearing into a reel is no way to live. Isn't it one of these movies of yours that had this to say: 'It's these cards, and the movies and the pop songs, they're to blame for all the lies and the heartache, everything.'"

"Are they? There are mediocre films, just like there are of everything else. But only the ones by the craftsmen really speak to you. The rest... well... all they do is magnify your own lies."

"Convenient. And what if your craftsman's idea of a bit of fun is to scoop out your neighbour's insides?"

"So difficult for me to judge on matters good and evil. Besides, there's the film, and there's you. I quit my job the day after I watched "The Kings of the Road." It spoke to me of people who live life all alone - on the road - spending years on a highway drifting between towns. Lives without meaning or shackles. And it struck me that that is the way of the world. Full of coincidences, and with no real purpose. Of brief, wondrous meetings; but also quicker farewells. We've convinced ourselves of the opposite. How unnatural is our world of unthinking allegiances - to flags, to anthems, to plans, to order, to morals, to each other. But that was me. The boy I watched it with wanted to know whether the screen had frozen up. See? There's the film, and there's you. All that the ruby does is to make you truer to yourself."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Give it back to me. Your client has rather different views to mine. Hers is a world of responsibility and achievement and billing rates. People being true to themselves would destroy that world, would shatter the name plates outside office doors. You've tasted a bit of what the ruby has to offer. It could do so much more for you... and for others."

"Look, there are rules I live by. I can't betray a client. What use are principles, if you're going to be selective about them? You either follow them all the time, or you have none at all. I can't abide a world without a Code."

"A code is for men without souls. If you really cared, you'd just do what feels right."

"I am sorry."

As I turned and walked back, I pulled the coat tight around me... and I don't remember whom I wore my hat like - if I wore it at all; I had to buy a new one the next day. Where could I have left it?

Case closed.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Malabar Op goes to the movies: the bits in the middle

The story so far...

The Setup

And now...

INOX Cinemas. The place brought back so many memories. There was a time when I used to work in the building next door. As they had limited car parking, I parked here quite a bit. For just 20 bucks a day. I glanced nostalgically around the basement.

I set about gathering information through my extensive network. I arranged to meet the hacker at the McDonald's nearby. How long would it take to hack into the PIFF database and get me the co-ordinates on this Sally dame?

"Oh, I already know where she is."
"You do?"
"Yup."
"How come?"
"After years of hacking, I'm now telepathically wired into the web - a flick of my neurons is all I need to get into any system."
"Oh yeah?" Private eyes don't like having the Mickey taken out of them. "And?"
"She's at that table over there, wearing the delegate pass with 'Sally' printed on it."

Conversation having dwindled a fair bit anyway, I excused myself. Malabar Ops are usually pretty smooth with the ladies, but Sally seemed just a touch out of my league. I decided to wait for an opening. Which came soon enough. I'd just ambled out of Blue Nile (not the river; it's a restaurant rather famous for chicken biryani) when I saw her arguing with a watchman. Breaks down like this:-

INOX, being a multiplex, has plenty of parking, but it tends to get a wee bit crowded, and has rather tight entrances and exits. Sally, being a new driver, and, further, having taken out her dad's expensive car, was just a tiny bit averse to denting it. Luckily for her, dads who can afford to buy expensive cars can also usually afford memberships in expensive clubs in the middle of the city. Said club was down the road from INOX. "Why don't I just park here and walk down?" she wondered very reasonably.

Watchman at the club stops her just inside the entrance. Asks her for her pass. She roots around in the dashboard. Then in her purse. She tries turning her pockets inside out. No luck. Watchman tut-tuts and tells her that he couldn't possibly let her in. She could've argued with him, and told him to escort her to the reception, where they'd no doubt be able to verify her membership; but being a pacifist, she decides to just forget the whole business and risk the dents at INOX.

And this is where the story gets complex. Her car's already inside the gates, you see, which means that the easiest way to leave would be to use the "out" gate. But the out gate's further down the road, and she would have to drive through the premises to reach the exit. The watchman objects to this on the grounds that allowing a pass-lacker to drive inside the compound would be a violation of several of the club's by-laws. Which left her with turning the car around and leaving via the "in" gate. Except that, it being the entrance, he couldn't allow a car to drive out of it, due to several other by-laws which expressly forbid that sort of thing. This would seem to have left them at an impasse.

Not to the watchman. He proposes a solution. Why don't she reverse the car out of the entrance? Apparently, the by-laws only state that a car's bonnet be closer than the boot to the club's fountain - the actual direction it moves in was left uninked, and therefore, open to interpretation. Sally, though, voices reservations about backing her car out into one of the busiest streets in the locality. And there the argument raged, centred chiefly around the themes of "what's written in the club by-laws" vs "desire to remain out of the hospital."

And in I stepped with customary Malabar Op calmness. I took the watchman aside, taking care to highlight my bulging biceps, and told him, with a few words out of customary Malabar Op vocabulary, about what would happen to him if he didn't stop being a prick right about then. Which he did. Sally was all gratitude, and we got talking, and I told her I was at the PIFF, too, and she asked me if I wanted to join her for a screening of Galaxy Express 999, Japanese anime, later in the day. It was in E-Square, a fair distance away, but she offered me a ride.

Sally was one of those new drivers for whom no obstacle is worth avoiding at less than 80 kph, and with no more than 3 inches to spare. I couldn't help a few involuntary spasms through the ride, as though my foot were searching for a brake pedal on the passenger side, but I also managed to hear bits and pieces of what she had to say. She's not usually too much of a talker, but seemed to have a fair bit to say on this occasion, and what was more, seemed gently reproachful. It concerned my attitude regarding the watchman. She felt I wasn't very nice to him.

"Of course I wasn't very nice! He started it."
"Well..."
"Well what?"
"He was just doing his job."
"No, he wasn't. His job is to make sure no ones pees on the cars parked there and such like. He was just being a prick. Most likely, the sole amusement in his miserable little life is raising the hackles of those who cross his path."
"Is that what you think?"
"That is what I know."
"Hmm... Well, my father has this driver. I used to get annoyed with him because I felt he was intransigent just for the heck of it. There is one way to do everything, and that is the only way it shall be done. It took me a long time to figure out that all he was doing was what we all aspire to - introduce a little order and certainty into his life. It isn't spite. It's just vulnerability. And you might've seen that, and you might've handled the situation differently, if you weren't so very dead sure of his motivations."

We were now entering the realm of the a-little-over-my-head, and I just grunted a grunt or two, and said nothing. The way I saw it, there was nothing wrong with the watchman a pile-driver or two wouldn't fix.

The movie was watchable. It was about this little boy travelling around the galaxy in a magical train that took him from star to star in his search for the man who killed his mother. It was whizzing along, entertaining me, as movies tend to do, when towards the end, after the boy had had his vengeance, the time came for bidding farewell to his companion - the beautiful Princess Maetel - the woman he's in love with. "For now on, I will be a woman who lives only in your memories. I will be nothing more than an illusion of a young boy's heart, a phantom of your youth."

A blue light shone at my left, maybe from Sally's purse (but how could that be?), and I felt a surge of emotion hit me. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. And I couldn't get those damn lines out of my head. It refused to go, circling round and round in my head for weeks on end.

Just after the movie was done, I ran into Mrs Vegetarian, my last client. She recommended I watch Takeshi Kitano's "Boiling Point." She painted a fantastic picture of glorious, nihilistic violence in poetic slo-mo, set against the brutal backdrop of the Japanese gangland. What I actually got to see was a man washing his ass in the ocean, and a display of emotional equilibrium from the film makers on par with that of a 10-year-old who'd just been beaten up in a classroom fight he'd started. Confronting Mrs Vegetarian outside the hall, I demanded an explanation.

"You hated it? Good. I've been wanting to get back at you ever since you charged me a pot of money for 'investigating' those two idiot colleagues of mine. You told me there was nothing between them, and yet, last I heard, they'd left for Bangalore together where they're shacked up in the same apartment."

She sashayed away.

At just about this time, the phone rang again.

"Dude, this is PK. Can you come to MG Road?"

Half an hour later, I had an uncertain look as he extended two chicken-and-cheese rolls toward Sally and me.

"I want you to try this. The best rolls in the city." He had a puppy-dog look in his eyes.

Ghosts of case files past turning up in numbers reminiscent of zombies in a George Romero flick had to mean something. There is no such thing as coincidence.

I took the roll and munched thoughtfully. And still the princess's words refused to vacate the premises. It was all very strange.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Malabar Op goes to the movies: The Setup, involving The Dame, The Burg & The Hound

I stared at my manager's head with a vague distaste. I wasn't listening to a word he was saying, but I know to a cert what he was going on about. I'd heard it all before and the plot's never gripped me enough for repeat performances. What held my gaze, though, was his head: small and dark and shaped like a coconut. It had a thin covering of hair on top, very similar to and as light as the spread of coir on a de-husked coconut.

Coconuts are known for their versatility of use: the name Kerala, for instance, is derived from it, and even in far-away lands such as the one where they speak Malay, it's called the "tree of a thousand uses." The shell and the husk alone, since that's what brought us on to this topic, can be used to make anything from hoofbeats, to musical instruments, to shirt buttons, to fuel. Coconut water, if drunk from the right coconut and if you believe Harry Belafonte, is good for your daughter, makes you strong as a lion because of all the iron, and is ideal with rum when you're feeling a little glum; and the white, fleshy coating on the inside, subject to the same restrictions as the liquid, tastes like a slice of heaven.

But those are coconuts. My manager, on the other hand... When he reached the point where he was telling me how, in his book, I was all sorts of unpleasant things, I couldn't help but express amazement at this accomplishment literary, given that the last time I checked, he couldn't put together three sentences in an email without some sort of a blooper. This terminated the interview, and I was free to go back to my desk and brood. I wanted to throw up - preferably on his keyboard. I'd just thought of an excuse to go back to his desk, and had even conjured up an imaginative segue to the barfing when, as so often happens every now and then - but usually only when you're in the shower - the phone rang.

A clipped, snotty voice was on the other end...

"Listen, I came across this Facebook page for a private investigator just now... the Malabar Op or something. Are you him?"
"Yes," I said, trying not to betray too much interest: it helps with monetary negotiations.
"I've never seen a seedier ad."
I let that one fly.
"Well, what do you charge?"
"One thousand o..."
"That's way too much."
"Well, what'd you have in mind, then?"
"We'll come to that. First, can you give me any references?"
"Sorry, no. I've not been very long in the business. I do it part-time, so far. But I've read every Hammett and Chandler ever written, and I model myself on Russell Crowe from L.A. Confidential."
"And what do you with the other part of your time?"
"I'm a programmer."

:click:

The phone rang again in a couple of days' time. This time she sounded a little less haughty, a little defeated.

"I suppose beggars can't be choosers," she sighed. "How soon can you make it to Pune?"
"As soon as you book the airline ticket," I assured her.

xxx

Ah, Pune. I knew the burg well. Yes, I did. Once. A long time ago. But that was then. This was now (or, rather, a later then than the first then there).

Despite the pouring rain, it was a little too hot for my trench coat, and I had to drape it over my arm stylishly as soon as I was out of the terminal. A black cab was waiting for me. The driver was a short, thickset grouch in his late 30s. He didn't have an umbrella, which made me regret the decision to take off the coat. Oh well, life is a sum of the choices we make. A clap of thunder, a thud of the door, a growl of the engine, and we were off.

The house was the farthest one on a little lane that leads away from all civilisation. It starts out charmingly enough, but gets woodier and has less and less houses the further you go down it. And there at the very end was a house all alone, as if the others on the lane were shrinking away from it. Even the pack of barking dogs running after the car stopped, as if they'd hit an invisible barrier. Trees crowded around it, but these weren't the sort of trees you'd read about in a Robert Frost poem, but something rather more sinister - it is undoubtedly what the forest looked like to Hansel and Gretel after the little idiots lost their trail of breadcrumbs, and probably what Red Riding Hood thought of the woods after she made her acquaintance with the wolf. So there it was, the little house at the edge of Fangorn - to careless glances as pleasant a house as anyone could hope for - and I fidgeted uneasily.

xxx

It was a house with furniture. No, wait... that doesn't sound right. I've never managed to learn the names of pieces of furniture, colours, the names of different types of windows, curtains, etc; so these sort of descriptions are very difficult for me. Picture in your mind's eye a richly furnished room, but altogether on the dark side - as if light were somehow banished from there. And yet, a room that hints not at opulence or decadence, but the exact opposite... in a very evil, tightly-controlled way - like hair done up in a bun with not a strand out of place. Done? Well, that's exactly the sort of furnishing her house had.

A match, a scratch, a quick flame, a silhouette, and a puff of smoke. I could sense her gaze raking into me, every tiny movement and tic magnified and filed. I suppressed a nervous giggle.

"So... this is what my 7000 bucks of airfare has dragged in..."
I bristled. "Look here, I got back from the North East not two weeks ago, having solved an intricate puzzle to the satisfaction of all, and I really don't need to take this kind of shit from anyone... If you don't like what you see, Missy, I'm just as happy to go right back out that door."
"And once you go right back out that door, do you walk all the way back to Delhi?" drawled the voice through the smoke.
"Ah... Well...There, you see... since I'm here at your behest... it's only fair that you..."
"A blue ruby of mine has been stolen."
"Oh, too bad. Sympathies. I hate it when that happens."
"I think the thief is going to be at the piff."
"At the sniff, you mean?"
"What does 'at the sniff' mean, jackass?"
"Well at least all three are proper words, unlike your sentence which scores just two out of three," said I defensively.
"The PIFF - the Pune International Film Festival."
"What makes you think that the thief is going to be there?" I asked, interested. "Have you watched Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale?"
"What? Look, I'm trying to talk as slowly and use as few syllables as possible here. I don't need fucking Bogart. All I need is a sap who'll do as he's told. On the table there is a delegate pass for the festival... which starts tomorrow, by the way. Look for a girl named Sally. Find out where she's hidden the ruby and get it back to me."
"I don't understand. If you know who took it, why don't you just... Oh, all right. Whatever. As regards my fee..."
"Your fee will be exactly what I choose to pay you after you retrieve my property. In the meantime, you shall stay here."

xxx

My room was on the ground floor, right next to the kitchen. The three rotis, half a bowl of dal and the two pieces of chicken I had for dinner didn't quite sate me (private eyes as a rule work up a healthy appetite due to all the martial arts training), and I toyed with the idea of topping up the tank, so to speak. Granted, her parents, the poor things, had slipped an extra roti or two onto my plate from their ration when she wasn't looking, but...

I crept quietly out my room, and was groping for a light in the passageway when I saw two pale-yellow points of light gleaming at me. Now, I've come across a lot of evil in my life. I've seen everything from the polish of Hannibal Lecter, Pavanai and Harry Lime to the malevolence of Eddie Dane, Anton Chigurh and Frank. But never have I seen anything drip evil from every pore like this dog did. I suppose zoologists would classify it as a Golden Retriever, but really, it was the size of a genetically modified lion that had been hitting the gym for 60 hours a week. It didn't make a noise... just a few leisurely steps in my direction, until it was inches from my face, mouth open, teeth gleaming and daring me to take a forward step... any step, in fact, other than back into my room.

I coughed apologetically, then remembered that he was just a dog after all, but smiled weakly anyway, all the while walking backwards gingerly, mumbled goodnight, and closed the door behind me. "I can think. I can wait. I can fast," quoth Siddhartha. Well, anything he can do, I can do better.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In admiration of the scientific mind

I wanted a break from my weekend routine of flat hunting. So I watched Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Earth: 1, Flying Saucers: 0 - if anyone wants to know the final score). Unfortunately the film turned out to be a little too awful* for a place in my list of "counterpoint to 2001: A Space Odyssey" films, but it did have this one extraordinary scene.

A scientist and his wife/secretary are driving down a desert highway toward their top-secret rocket-launching facility. On the way, the scientist is recording memos on... is it a stenograph machine? (He speaks into it, apparently expecting it to record his speech.) Just then a flying saucer pops up behind their car - very much like the helicopter tailing Jamie Lee Curtis and her boyfriend in True Lies.

But unlike that helicopter, the saucer lurches forward like a drunk, three-legged dog making for his food bowl. Having passed the car, it then screeches to a halt, and executes the most shambolic reverse I've ever seen, lurching and wobbling and nearly taking the roof of the car with it. It then rises up vertically, does a booty shake, and accelerates away in a manner reminiscent not so much of the USS Enterprise engaging its warp drive, as much as Woody Allen accidentally engaging forward instead of reverse in Annie Hall.

All this leaves the newly wedded couple understandably flustered, particularly as the movie has just started and flying saucers haven't yet become anywhere near as omnipresent as from a little later on. So it's a while before they can manage conversation. Which, when it does appear, goes like this,


Wife: Russ, it was a saucer. A flying saucer?
Russ: Well, we saw what appeared to be a flying saucer. That's all we can say.
Wife: We saw it. We heard it. Both of us. What more do we need to know?
Russ: Well, we have to have time to think... to evaluate this... before we sound off.
Wife: Let me have a light. :after a light: Of course, it wasn't a saucer at all. I just shake like this all the time.
Russ: :sigh:

Later, while playing back the tape,


Wife: Russ, the saucer sound. It's on the tape! You forgot to turn it off! I remember now. I turned it off afterwards!
Russ: :grudgingly: Well, that's one piece of concrete evidence.

Isn't that just magnificent? He manages to keep this rationalism through most of the movie, slipping into empiricism (and a little smugness) only very briefly, and that too only when having to convince someone in a hurry, "Both Carol and I are subject to the same atmospheric disturbances (???!!!) that may have affected other observers, but there is a qualitative difference, when you're a scientist."


xxx

*It seems to have been quite influential, though, and the likes of Independence Day and Mars Attacks! have extensive references to it. Not to forget lines like "When an armed and threatening power lands uninvited in our capitol, we don't meet him with tea and cookies."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Satisfied Mind

Money can't buy back your youth when you're old
Or a friend when you're lonely
Or a love that's grown cold.
The wealthiest person is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind.

What rubbish. Lack of money won't get you any of those either. And if you disagree, may I have your excess wealth, please?

All I ask for is just enough to walk into the gorgeous house - no more than a 10-minute amble from city centre, a stone's throw from a Metro station (just in case), and sandwiched between a cinema with reclining seats that plays noir on Tuesday evenings and the restaurant that would make God wish he had metabolism; but yet just at the foot of a winding road up a hill with lots of trees, wild grass, perennial cloudy, breezy afternoons, and overlooking acres and acres of army grasslands that will not for a hundred years have anything built on them - and flick a thick wad of cash, Bugsy style, at the startled owner before asking him to clear out. If it were a commercial movie, the credits would come right up because there wouldn't be much money in filming a chap spending the rest of his days doing "no work at all, except perhaps an occasional poem recommending the young man with life opening before him, with all its splendid possibilities, to light a pipe and shove his feet upon the mantelpiece." Except the pipe. Filthy habit, that.

The popular image of the rich & lonely old crank, followed with indecent haste by the moral that money can't buy happiness is an argument about as intelligent as claiming that the appeal of fast cars is that they help you keep appointments. As Al Pacino pointed out in a deleted scene from a well-known gangster flick, "You shouldn't be embarrassed by your wealth. This contempt for money is just another trick of the rich to keep the poor without it." Remember, money is the root of all evil, and as an older Pacino argues in a different film: amorality is fun.

Most people who fit the Scrooge stereotype, or who've made their own money, are probably ambitious, driven folk who're in it for the money only to the extent that it's a barometer to power, achievement and other thingies that a journeyman like me could only hazard guesses at. They wouldn't know how to enjoy their money any more than I would know how to make pots and pots of it. Why don't people move past the eye-grabbing images of the descend of Michael Corleone into darkness and look at the countless examples of filthy rich people living the happiest lives imaginable? Most bookstores have entire racks devoted to Wodehouse, and yet I've never seen Bertie Wooster offered as an exemplar counterpoint to all this fallacious stereotyping and unfair binning of money...

There's this Norwegian movie, The Storm in my Heart, about unfathomable men driven by passions they cannot understand or tame. It has a bit of dialogue that goes like this: there are two types of travellers - those who book airplane tickets and hotel rooms and who return when their money runs out, and a second group who walk out the door with no money in their pockets and who go where the road leads them. But isn't there a third sort? There are those who drift through life with no ties to anyone or anything, except a bottomless bank account, a healthy, if unsentimental, appreciation of beauty, and a plain refusal either to be tied down or to rough it. They are the meek and they're blessed because they've inherited their wealth, not made it themselves.

P.S. - Is there anything in the world more depressing than house hunting on a budget (any budget)?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sayonara Delhi

You're still young, that's your fault,
There's so much you have to know.
... 
Take your time, think a lot, 
Why, think of everything you've got.
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

What the chap being addressed went on to do with his youth, I don't know; but I suspect all I've been doing with mine is finding new ways of violating SRP, forgetting all interests and passions, and becoming more and more of an automaton. It might seem obvious that if I'd taken the time to think things through, I would've spent far less time in the office; after all, if I were to list everything I've got, or even my dreams, how many of those would be found at work? But after years of indoctrination, you tend to go with the herd on matters of "responsibility," on earning a living, on being a productive member of society and all that shit. And then lines don't get drawn, questions such as "Shouldn't I be trying that, too?" get asked less and less, and before you know it you've forgotten much of Bande à part, but remember word-for-word the last six email exchanges with your manager. In short, all 20/20 hindsight notwithstanding, I'm sorry to report that I wasn't clear-thinking enough.

What I'm getting at is that when I took the flight out of Delhi, there was a fair bit of regret, of the sort I didn't have when I left Pune - I loved Delhi but didn't sample even a third of what it had to offer. There are reservations certainly, chiefly involving people and the weather, but of all the things a city should be judged by, people are probably the least important - not least because we're generally obnoxious across cultural and geographical boundaries, with the differences usually being a matter of subtlety. If I were to list all the things I like about Delhi, though...

Here's a city with roads that are pedestrian friendly and, further, is beautiful enough for you to want to walk around it; where the Metro could take you from practically anywhere and deposit you right at the heart of, say, Old Delhi. Who'd think it possible that beneath all those relics of the centuries past, seemingly crammed together with not an inch to spare, and the mind-numbing crowd and the heat, there lies spotless clean, air-conditioned tubes that could deposit you within 20 minutes to a different sort of market-place, with buildings of no more than two stories, cobblestone walkways, movie-themed restaurants, drinks with straws in them, and a rather less frenetic pace on the whole?

Then there are the roads itself: hell holes on occasion at rush hour, but also a pleasure to drive on, with sights to match by them. I remember the first time I took a drive around India Gate, the Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan. I kept trying to tell myself that it's very shallow to be over-awed by them, to look beyond symbols, but I couldn't help it - here is a nation's capital. The diversity on offer at Delhi, the hundred different places you could go to, is unmatched by any other city I've lived in. Why, for instance, would you pay thousands for a concert when you could enjoy music for free just a couple of feet from the musicians, with food from the heavens waiting for you right outside?

None of which is to imply that Delhi's any sort of a perfect paradise. It's a city of extremes and is just as easy to hate as to love. When I was considering moving to Delhi, I was warned that I wouldn't like it very much - that the people are difficult, the weather horrible, and the crime high. Some of which is true: in McLeod Ganj, there were these chaps who'd stopped their car right in the middle of its busiest intersection and were out dancing to music blaring through its open doors (all four of them)... and arguing with a traffic cop. You'd think that anyone in that position would find a conversation with a cop decidedly one-sided, but no, these chaps were at it with gusto. The license plate showed them as folks from Delhi, naturally. Is stuff like this where the comparisons to Ankh-Morpork come from?

But set that off against the other stuff above, and add in the little things - like the fact that there are never any power cuts (most likely at the expense of the places around Delhi, admittedly); that the girls there are so much prettier than elsewhere (save for Arunachal perhaps); that you feel less like an outsider there than in a city like Pune; that it has so much variety close to its borders (from the desert to the mountains) - and then you have a city that deserves a fairer deal than it usually gets from folks from the South... or the West... or the East. 

xxx 

Before Delhi, the worst weather I've ever driven in is a bit of torrential rain. But that pales in comparison to a drive in the fog. The first time I thought I experienced it, I was petrified. I stuck to the lane on the extreme left - at about 20 kph. No one else seemed deterred, though. The rest of the highway was whizzing along as if it were just some kind of a light mist... which it was. My first drive in real fog is indescribable. I couldn't see more than 3 inches ahead, and the only hope of not driving into something hard or deep was to follow some other vehicle's tail-lights. In a city that usually works on the maxim "every moving vehicle is required to overtake every other moving vehicle, irrespective of whether it has just overtaken you," the politeness on view had to be seen to be believed. It was all "After you, sir; no, no, I insist." Very embarrassing.

And then there was the mini-duststorm, that one time, just before a mid-summer downpour. It lent a sepia tone to the evening sky that made it look like a frame from The Godfather - but tending towards orange, to add oodles of comfort. You could sense the violence outside, but the safety of the car's interiors made that pleasurable. Further, the car seemed to float on a carpet of dust. You'd think the fog would give that impression too, but it has a dreadful stillness about it that takes away the Aladdin's-carpet feel. It was all so very lovely that I was just telling myself how fun the drive is, and how nice it is that there is no rain to spoil the whole thing, when a lightning bolt hit a tower not too far away, and the heavens opened up, and I went over a pothole the size of a lunar crater, and every bone in my body jarred loose. 

xxx 

In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade talks about this case where he tracked down a missing man. (Disclaimer: I'm quoting from memory, as my books are all packed up and in transit, so the wording may differ a fair bit from the Hammett version.) The chap was apparently an upper-class sort, with a high-maintenance wife and snotty kids. And one day, when he stepped out to have lunch, a beam fell about an inch to his right. He was all shook up, and began contemplating the fragility of his life and such like, decided that major changes were in order, and ended up skipping out on his family. When Spade caught up with him a few years later, he was again a well-to-do chap with a lifestyle much like earlier, a similar wife and two little brats. The moral of the story being that he had adjusted himself to beams falling out of the sky, and then when they stopped falling, he adjusted himself back to them not falling from the sky. Or, to quote Simon & Garfunkel, "It's not unusual, no it isn't strange, that after changes upon changes, we're more or less the same."

Just saying.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

McLeod Ganj

Inertia defines software engineers - they grow like fungus on swivel chairs and do not budge until someone either lays them off or offers them higher pay on a different swivel chair. Asking them to do a bit of travelling normally gets you the goggle eyes and a querulous, "Do you know what our release schedule for this month is like?" Even so, you'd think that one of this tribe would have sense enough to do a bit of exploring when living in Delhi - especially given its proximity to the Himalayas. But not me. It was only in the last week of my one-and-a-half years here that I decided to head for the slopes. And that, too, because I happened to fortuitously get in touch with an old friend who was planning a trip to McLeod Ganj with her friends. I leeched on, naturally.

The cast of characters:- 

a) My friend, who, having lived a sheltered life in the hills of Rishikesh, has not yet learnt that most basic of all rules of city living: do not piss off a waiter until he has deposited the last of your orders on the table. It is fascinating, though, to see her find new ways of aggravating even the gentle Tibetan waiters meal after meal. The rest of us had to take extra care to not try anything from any dish ordered by her. 

b) A's friend from college, and now in HR. No sooner did I hear the words "HR" than I kept a wary eye on her for the remainder of the trip for any signs of horns or a tail, but she kept those well hidden under a sweet and patient demeanour. She did admit, though, in one of her less guarded moments that she models herself on Catbert. 

c) Another of A's college friends, and married to B. Is a guy, so will not get much mention here, except that the two apparently had a wedding very reminiscent of the ending of The Graduate. 

d) The sci-fi nerd. Spent much time boasting about her travels to everywhere I hadn't been to. Considers herself a treasury of all human knowledge and is very confident about everything she says - so much so, in fact, that winning a copy of Sourcery off her, when she stuck to her claim that it was Adrien Brody who starred in The Librarian trilogy, was as easy as stealing a single off Munaf Patel. 

e) I think I was the only normal one.

We hired one of those big car types that seats five people relatively comfortably and were off on Thursday night. The highway to Chandigarh is undergoing construction of some sort, and large sections of the highway beyond Chandigarh towards Dharamshala had apparently gone AWOL in the wee hours of Good Friday. And so it was that we reached the guest house only by noon. On the way, having forgotten to take Avomine, I spent some time doubled over by the road-side, taking in the crisp Himalayan air, and offering the asphalt my breakfast in return. Avomine now taken, the rest of the ride found me in a stupor, and I don't remember much of it; except that the snow caps of the mountains didn't seem to be the soft-looking snow I'd seen in photographs and from a distance, but more of a hard, shiny white - much like a Colgate ad - and suggesting a bit of translucence, too. Or maybe that was just the Avomine...

We had done extensive research on the restaurants to visit, prior to our trip, and none of our choices disappointed. We disagreed on pretty much everything except food. The only hint of trouble during mealtimes was when one of us would dip his or her spoon in the neighbour's plate, only to be warned off with a "mine, all mine" hiss. In between meals we did a bit of shopping and were occasionally treated to breathtaking vistas - like the side of a hill, on the far side of a valley, lit up by the lights of McLeod Ganj, on one particular lonely walk up to a restaurant.

We really did eat quite a lot - it was pretty much the only thing we did there - and we didn't stop eating till Sunday afternoon, which is when we turned the car Delhi-ward. The place is frequented by a lot of Westerners: now these chaps invented pollution, colonialism, the slave trade, and gave us a couple of World Wars, but on the plus side, they also gave us Zooey Deschanel, Dire Straits (I discovered an awesome live performance of Romeo & Juliet in C's iPod), and pastries. Plus, the fuckers know how to eat breakfast: no pohas or idlis for them. Many of you know me as one who lives life in moderation, practically monk-like, but I will have you know that on Sunday, I had a "Farmer's breakfast" for starters, followed up with a lemon cheese cake, a chocolate pancake, a cheese & onion quiche, a glass of  watermelon juice, a glass of orange juice, and a glass of fresh lime soda (sweet) - and all that just for breakfast. Only the thought of the drive back, and the memories of what had happened to me on the drive up, kept me from really getting into the spirit of things.

Anyway, that's how we spent our two days there. In between, we felt a little guilty that we were in the midst of the Lesser Himalayas and had not done any trekking; so we found a spot where there was a set of steps leading up into the mountains, beside a waterfall.  We climbed and climbed and climbed. And just when we thought our rib-cages would crack, the steps stopped and we found ourselves at the Shiva Cafe, complete with soft cushions, a spring with ice-cold water, and food and drink. We blinked our eyes a couple of times, not quite believing them, but it was no mirage. We asked the chaps who ran the place whether they served anything alcoholic, but that was pushing our luck - we had to settle for lemonade and Minute Maids. Still the mattresses were boon enough, and some of us read and the others dozed lightly in the warm afternoon sun. And that was the extent of our exploration of the Himalayas.

McLeod Ganj is also the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, and we therefore visited the Dalai Lama's monastery. We were told that we couldn't meet Mr Lama, as he is travelling, but were welcome to look around the monastery. Which we did. And that was the extent of the widening of our cultural horizons (if you discount the time we spent gawking at the photographs some cafe owners had put up of Richard Gere posing with them).

And before we knew it, it was time to head home. The ride home was fairly nondescript, except that us two guys were dumped in the seats farthest back, and by the time we stopped for dinner at a dhaba in Chandigarh to reacquaint ourselves with Indian food, our legs felt like they wouldn't ever again fully straighten up. And I was all the grouchier because a post I'd just published, through which I'd hoped to garner a few "you will roast in hell for all eternity"s, did not manage so much as a pbfffssst... But really, the food more than made up for all of it. Ever tried brain fry?

Let me now break from tradition and offer you some advice. If you are ever to hit that spot in your lives where you wish to quit your job and get a few months of vegetating in, without your wallet taking too much of a hit, consider a stay in the lonelier reaches of Dharamshala. You'd have to hike a bit to get there, but once you do, you'd get accommodation for around 150 bucks a day, which, as any city-dweller knows, is definitely a deal. You can stay there for months. Plus, as far as food is concerned, if you remember the meal I described a few paragraphs back, the bill came to about 850 bucks for that one - and this despite four other people hogging as much as I did, and the restaurant being very much in the town. Contrast this with the 6000 we paid for some starters and drinks in Delhi, just before we began the trip, and... what're you still doing here? Get packing! 

P.S. - Make sure you carry Moby Dick. And whenever you reach one of those bits where Melville goes on about how captivating the seas are and how the whole of the human race yearns for the seas, substitute "mountains" for "seas," and the book seems to work so much better all of a sudden.