Friday, June 29, 2007

The Bicycle Diaries - Part III

Somename* was very pleased with himself. He was returning to IMSc after attending to some work in Adyar. It was almost quarter to eight. He had promised his friend he will be back in IMSc in time for dinner. Somename was feeling very smug about keeping his promise.

He had traversed heavy traffic on mud-sloshed roads, weaving through honking buses and stuck cars. He particularly recalled, with a satisfied smile, how he had overtaken a Toyota Camry on his rather rickety MTB Hercules, borrowed from a PhD student.

As he neared the bicycle road, (which lies to one side of the very wide Old Mahabalipuram Road) he remembered that the bicycle road was submerged from the thundershower earlier that evening. Weighing his options between riding on the wrong side of the main road and taking the footpath, he chose the latter. His boisterous mood helping that decision. But there was a glitch.

He would have to get off the bike to lift it on to the slightly elevated footpath. That did not feel right. It would be condescending after the heroics on the road earlier. So his buoyant mind hatched a devious plan. He would lift the front wheel just when he nears the edge of the footpath, and get on it. Without even slowing down!

He prepared for the finale by rehearsing a few 'wheelies' of the front wheel. All this while he had not slowed down. Tension mounted as he neared the edge. Biting his lip, with bated breath, he prepared for the jump and prepared for the worst case scenario. "If I fall, there is no cause for embarrassment as the bicycle road is dark and deserted. There might be some minor scratches, but what the heck", he thought. With this positive frame of mind, he jumped.

And lo! The bicycle was over and safe. And gaining speed! Somename was over the moon.

Now, the footpath (which was very wide) had trees lined along its middle. Somename felt he should weave through the trees to celebrate this hazardous accomplishment. As he swung his bike towards the first one, he suddenly realized that the tree was in a pit larger than usual. To avoid it he braked and swerved. The bike slid on the slippery, wet surface and Somename went sprawling to one side of the tree and the bike to the other side.

Miraculously, he felt no broken bones or scratches. So, inspite of the 'high-speed' accident, he felt rather euphoric at the adventure he had experienced. Then there was a sinking feeling of a stinking smell.

Somename realized he was smeared with fresh faeces (commonly known as 'Shit' and sometimes 'Crap' among the Gentry and 'Poo' to commoners) all down one side. One can scarcely imagine the anguish and suffering of Somename. What a fall! From the euphoria and the jubilation...

In vain did he try to find a water tap to clean himself. Frantically he got the bike up and raced to IMSc guest house (the smell following him and making him retch all the time). How he wiped the sizable amount of excreta and washed himself clean will remain a story untold. Somename was too shaken to relive it.

* The identity of the Individual whose alleged involvement in the hypothetical occurrence that has been the subject of the above discussion, is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as the author may have led you to assume, but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom the author is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun.

The Bicycle Diaries - Part II

Debasish* was in a pensive mood (girl problems as usual). He was riding a bike he borrowed from a PhD student, returning from a refreshing bout of cycling. The bike, being a stylish MTB (Mountain Terrain Bike, for the uninitiated), had two sets of handlebars. Debasish was enjoying the fresh air with his hands on the upper ones.

As he neared the IMSc gate, he noticed that the narrow entrance was partly blocked by a group of fellow summer interns. But in his very deeply pensive mood, he neglected his noticing this very noticable obstruction.

So he carried on, unruffled. Meanwhile, the guy blocking the gate noticed the onrushing Debasish (with a very pensive expression on his face). He tried to move out of his way only to realize that Debasish, in trying to avoid him, moved in the same direction.

Now Debasish swerved away and reached for the brakes. To his immediate wonder and anguish, the upper handlebars did not have a set of brakes with them. Brakes were there only for the lower ones. He was headed towards the Drain.

For a split-second he agonised over the rationale of having brakes only for the lower handle bars. Then, realizing that he had more pressing issues at hand, he decided to let it pass. He had not quite recovered from the shock of absence of brakes and the paucity of time forced him into making a hurried decision. Instead of putting his feet on the ground to slow down or clutching for the brakes only an inch away, he decided to avoid the dreaded Drain by crashing into a tree right next to it.

Although he suffered just minor bruising on his forearm, he was distracted from whatever had clouded his mind for the past few days. Even if it was for a brief while.

The names have been retained as original to reaffirm identity ;)

The Bicycle Diaries - Part I

Chennai has turned out to be most difficult to travel in, especially for a non- Tamilian like me. The public transport system is not really bad. There are loads of buses, and quite frequent too. But sometimes the destinations are written only in the local language. And if you ask for bus routes, using as much sign language as you can manage, one gets a queer 'all buses go there' answer. The auto-rikshaw guys here have made quite a name for themselves for their knavish tendencies. As I was forewarned, I avoid taking an auto as far as possible. So, invariably I end up walking most of the time. But walking has its limits. So me and my friends from Delhi (we are all here for the summer) try to borrow a bicycle whenever possible. Our bicycle rides have been quite eventful.

Kanishk* was riding his bike late at night. It was past 1 am. He and his friends had just been to the Besant Nagar Beach. He had been dreading the ride back through the dark and desolate road from IMSc (where his friends were staying) to his hostel room in IIT-M.

He cursed his friends under his breath for getting him so late. He cursed Aditya* out loud.

But at least he had his bicycle. He had bought it for 400 bks, second hand. He could make it back to his room in 15 minutes or less, if he hurried. He pedalled hard, thinking about all the stupid Tamilians he had met during this short trip. Why the hell could they not speak Hindi? Its our National Language, after all...

(Kanishk by the way is highly racist and swears upon the superiorty of North Indians).

He cursed the Tamilians under his breath. He cursed the Madras auto drivers out loud.

Just a few minutes now, he thought. Swerving past a pothole, and cursing the Chennai roads and the municipal corporation, he caught sight of a pack of dogs eyeing him icily. Shivers ran up his spine. God they were right in the middle of this hell-hole. "Damn these madrasi dogs. I will just shoot past them" , he thought.

He pedalled harder. The dogs started to growl. (They smelled a racist coward) The growls grew louder and Kanishk's pedalling faster.

As soon as he crossed them and heaved a sigh of relief, the dogs charged as a whole, with frightfully loud barks. Kanishk panicked.

He cursed the madrasi bicycle for not being fast enough. The dogs were catching up. He started to scream. At the dogs. Hoping that it would frighten them away. It only made them wilder. He screamed harder. Looking over the shoulder all this while. Suddenly, he saw the dogs slowing down and dispersing. "Stupid cowardly madrasi dogs", he thought.

As he turned his head, he realized he was hurtling towards a Tata Sumo. It was too late. He crashed into it head on. His bike lay twisted and he lay battered on the bonnet. Before you get any ideas, I must assert here that the Sumo was stationary. There was no one in it. No one visible for miles, at that ungodly hour.

took time to collect his thoughts and senses and assess injuries. He saw that the bike was a mess, and he could not ride it anymore. Nor could he carry it as he had injured his leg sometime during that spectacular fall. And he half expected some madrasi robber to jump out of the darkness. At that moment, he lost it all and started cursing everyone he knew. Out loud.

Someone apparently had heard him. There was movement in the shadows. Kanishk was scared. Has his worst nightmare come true? A madrasi stepped out. He took the scene in with a glance. He said something in Tamil, with only the word 'auto' discernible. Kanishk (already on alert, what with 'auto' being mentioned) thinks how can I ever find an auto in this hell-hole so late at night. Meanwhile, the madrasi was making wild gesticulations and pointing to his house.

followed him, with some trepidation and some pain, and found that the madrasi owned an auto-rikshaw. The madrasi helped Kanishk put the bike in and dropped him to his hostel. Since Kanishk did not have change for the fare, the madrasi refused to take anything at all and left Kanishk mouthing no curses at all - for the first time that night.

Kanishk was last heard singing praises of all Tamilians and has developed a keen interest in learning their language. He paid the auto guy the next day.

* The names have been retained as original to reaffirm identity.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Undergraduates: A Guide to Casual Conversation

"Hey !! How's College??" Oh! The complete sense of ease that follows this remark is remarkable. You know perfectly the routes the conversation is going to take and are familiar with the by-lanes as well.

The reason that this very pick-up line is so widely in use among young undergraduates is that complete strangers can become near soul mates within just a few minutes of dialogue after using it.

What usually follows is a series of innovative adjectives - that get better with each successive retelling - describing the college, its campus, the crowd, its grandeur and resplendent glory. Hostlers can brag about their night-life while day-scholars rant about the enjoyable trips back and forth. For one practiced in this art, appropriate metaphors also flow with ease, captivating the listener.

Of course, well-timed "really!?", "hmmm..", "is that so?", "What about…", etc are all vital and show the level of enthusiasm of the listener and help increase the confidence of the speaker. Soon the roles are reversed and the exchange canters along.

The next stage is usually about grievances with your respective colleges. After being cautiously introduced in the conversation (since it is d and if some of the fallacies match, you've hit jackpot! The smiles just get broader.

After exhausting all the facts possible about each college, you get to the real interesting part: The Anecdotes. The excitement in each camp is palpable as both recount story after story of their respective college lives. Truth often takes a beating as the game of one-upmanship reaches a climax.

If the parties involved have some big egos, then the friendly game can turn into a no-holds-barred boasting match till invariably ending in one of them saying "wow, that's amazing! See ya later" Only it is sure to mean the later the better.

Of course, mostly it does not end this way and a general air of bonhomie is a common result.

If the level of understanding reaches extreme highs, or, if both are old partners in this game, one can broach the relatively sensitive issue of the opposite sex in the discussion. Of course, if its two boys together, then usually dialogue quickly comes round to exchanging notes on the sex ratio in class, quality standard, The Top Five and their vital statistics. Girls, I cannot comment on as I have not been fortunate enough of being invited as an observer to the discussion of their observations…

So, if you are feeling left out in a party or gathering, all you have to do is say: Hi! How's college? And you'll be on course to a nice evening.

Also from my journal, written right after one such conversation...

Factual Pulp: The Human Transgression

I like to call myself an intellectual. Modesty forces me to explain the context I use the word in. It sometimes happens that I go into deep reverie when thinking about something very simple and I will end up with a very strange idea. It’s a regular pastime for me. One such sequence of thoughts went like the following:

Everything in the natural world wants to survive. There are plenty of examples- leaves of the huge Amazon forests fight with each other for sunlight; the cacti in the Sahara protect themselves from thirsty animals through thorns; the bacteria deep in the ocean beds have mechanisms to withstand the high pressures and low temperatures; etc. All species seem to have an unwritten law that tells them survival is all-important. All of them have a 'survival instinct'. Now I asked myself, for what? There must be a purpose. Or is the very necessity of existence of purpose a purely human notion?

Anyway, assuming there was such a purpose, I set about looking for one. There were lots of actions every species indulged in - feeding, excreting, etc - but all of them were to help the individual live body to survive and not THE ultimate purpose I was looking for. Finally, I set my sights on reproduction. It seemed to fit the bill from every angle. All individual beings seemed to be living just to make sure they disseminate their genes widely. In fact there are some insects which actually die immediately after the act itself. And Lions are known to kill all the cubs in the pride so that the lioness comes into heat again. The point being that even death, the antithesis of life, is a mere stepping stone for life's pursuance of the ultimate objective. This, for me, confirmed my hypothesis.

Supposing I am on the right track till now, I will rattle forward with my little train of thought. If there is this supreme purpose in every being's life, of which it is subconsciously aware, or at least appears to be, then there is one glaring contradiction to this general statement. Homo Sapiens.

Its not that human beings do not want to reproduce. The “dissemination of the genes” certainly seems very high up the priority ladder for our species (and I mean Men, of course). On a more serious note, the Second World War was about the Nazi Party’s belief that their Aryan race was superior to every other on the planet. Similarly, such line of thinking can be seen in old British imperialism or even the neo American imperialism. One could go on drawing such parallels for all cultures of all times. But there is a difference for humans.

The problem is Choice” – as the Wachowski brothers have so pertinently suggested in The Matrix Trilogy. As a species, we seem to have scored over others with the gift of Choice - at least the mirage of having one. At any point of time even if Biology forces us to act one way, we can choose to do otherwise. Or even Society for that matter. Hell, even the Almighty himself!

You know what I am talking about. If a guy has to take a crap, it can wait if he has an important meeting to go to. No animal – dog for example – would worry about something like that. The real skewed part is about the “ultimate purpose” I talked about earlier. Birth Control. Suggestively, one of the many pills in the market is also called ‘Choice’. Ha! Direct contravention of Nature’s/Life’s/God’s ‘purpose’?

The Darwinian theory of Evolution tells us that Humans are right up the evolutionary ladder. Then why this deviation?

The above has been adapted from my journal entry dated 4-12-2006