Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Laurel and Hardy Part 2

(contd. from part 1)
Once we had reached the room, the Laurel and Hardy act went into overdrive. Now our room had already been fitted with an AC by the previous resident. Unfortunately, he took it with him when he left, but kindly left the fittings as they were. So I assumed fitting in the AC in the hole already available would be a piece of cake. I was sadly mistaken. The first problem was that the 'new' AC, as befitted its vintage was way too large for the hole that already existed. This was quite obvious, I thought, but obviously I was wrong. Hardy got up on a table that I had placed just below the hole and ordered Laurel and me to hand him the frame of the AC. Of course, this was easier said than done and finally involved both of us squeezing in on the table along with him in a jumble of sweaty limbs and then attempting to push the thing into the hole. As anyone could have seen from the beginning, this was a futile endeavour and we soon had to give up and get down, followed by the hearty curses of Hardy who could not for the life of him imagine how we could be so stupid as to not see that the dashed thing was just too big!!

Now that he was up on the table, (which feat had been accomplished with much huffing and panting!), he was loathe to come down! He put his hands in his pockets and began to consider the next line of action. Suddenly, he pulled out a measuring tape with a light of discovery in his eyes and cursed Laurel for not having reminded him that he possessed one! The next 20 minutes were as comical as they come. Hardy proceeded to measure the frame of the AC and then the hole in the wall at least some 5 times over in rapid succession. Each time he would make some marks with a pencil he had produced on the wood and each time the position of the marks would change. And since each measurement involved dismounting the table and then getting back on again, there was much sweating and cursing involved. Finally when there were so many marks that further measurement was obviously futile, he asked for the frame again. Further confusion and stress ensued. It turned out that he meant to place the frame against the wood and then draw all around it. Easier said than done! Just as we had got the thing into position, he placed the pencil on the wood and then, promptly dropped it! In the precarious position that we three were in, recovery of the pencil was only achieved by all of us climbing down and starting from scratch again. Just as we were maneuvering the frame into position, Hardy suddenly exclaimed that we were quite useless and said he would do it by himself. Wondering what was up, we climbed down and realised that the plywood surrounding the hole would come off completely if pulled! Once it was off, it was a small matter to get the right measurement! I thought the worst was over and we were now home and dry. Of course, I was wrong again!

It turned out after all the measuring that the wood was just too small for the monstrosity we had brought along and Hardy said we needed to get a new one. So off he went, Laurel in tow and did not reappear for 2 hours, probably after a good lunch and restful afternoon siesta! When they came back and we were all set for round 2 of the battle, he could not find the measuring tape!! This led to a frenzied search by Laurel and me with Hardy standing on the table bellowing instructions and gaalis of  increasing frequency and pitch! Finally, he got down from the table and joined the search. Just when things were beginning to get a little ugly, he found it in his pocket! That was the only time in the whole afternoon that I saw a look approaching reproach from the long-suffering Laurel!

I will spare you further details of that long and highly entertaining afternoon for fear that you will not believe me. But I strongly stand by my veracity on the matter. It seemed unbelievable at the time and it still does, but the fact of the matter is that the afternoon meandered from one blunder to the next in unbelievably predictable fashion! Of course, the expected mistake of cutting the hole too large was committed. (We have remedied the problem with a large amount of sticky tape.) Then I watched in amazement as the two of them attempted to hammer the nails into the wood to attach the frame in place. I have hammered a few nails (and a few of my fingers!) in my time and I really belive I would have done a better job than them. It must have been strong wood, for I cannot believe that anyone's technique can be as bad as those two! For every nail that went in all crooked and loose, there were at least 3 that had to be discarded after they had taken such convolutions that there was just no hope of straightening them ever again. About halfway through the afternoon, they remembered their power drill and then proceeded to drill away with gay abandon, making many more holes than they had nails. Here too the technique was questionable and there were quite a few times when the drill slipped and passed dangerously close to hands that were holding the wood in place.

Suffice to say that at the end of the afternoon, the AC was up - all crooked and loose, but up all the same. And then came the most unbelievable part of the afternoon. They turned it on and would you believe it, it didn't work!! These guys had not checked the thing before they started!! At this point, my temper began to wear a little thin, I must admit! For I saw the whole process being repeated for another AC and that was something I was just not looking forward to! Hardy too had reached the end of his tether by now. He got down and called someone on the cell phone and they talked for sometime. Finally, he got back up and began dismantling the thing from the front. I am still grateful that after about 20 minutes of pottering around, he managed to get it to work. I could not imagine another afternoon like that in the near future!!

But after all the sweat and blood that had been expended it was a happy duo who finally surveyed their achievement. I guess it was just all in a days work for them, but for me it had been quite an afternoon! Had it not been for the element of humour that pervaded all the proceedings and the good-nature of our parting, it is unlikely that this chronicle would have taken the light-hearted vein that it has! But then, what's the fun of life if we can't laugh at the funny things that happen to us! And after all, an afternoon with Laurel and Hardy is not something that many people can boast of!!

Monday, June 27, 2011

My own Laurel and Hardy experience (with respect to Uncle Podger and Jerome K Jerome!)

One of my favourite stories from my schooldays was 'Uncle Podger hangs a picture' from the 19th century classic 'Three Men in a Boat' by Jerome K. Jerome, one of my all-time favourites. And as circumstances turned out, I found myself in the midst of a very similar situation soon after we landed up in Ludhiana. Our room is the corner room on the top floor of the hospital facing west and hence is exposed directly to the sun for the greater part of the day. And coming from the cool climes of beautiful Meghalaya is not the best preparation for the searing heat of Ludhiana especially when your room has been baked solid for the whole afternoon. So, after much deliberation and consideration (and some gentle encouragement from Amy!), I abandoned my socialistic ideals and succumbed to the temptation of getting an air-conditioner. Fortunately, Ludhiana seems to be filled with many hot people who are also too poor to buy and AC and we found out that it was possible to hire an old AC at a very small cost. And so, after braving the heat for as long as we could, we hired ourselves a second-hand air-conditioner. And that was where our troubles began....

The first issue was the process of transporting the monstrosity that arrived, calling itself an AC up 5 floors and then to the end of the corridor. You see, by trying to save some (actually a lot!!) of money by hiring instead of buying an AC, we found ourselves saddled with a machine that looked like it had survived the Second World War! On the frontlines!! It's vintage was proven by the thick layer of rust that covered all its internal organs and also just by the freakish size of the thing. Everything has become smaller these days and as I type this on my laptop, it's easy to forget that the first generation computers were the size of a large room and had a memory of 4Kb!! In this case I hoped the same principle did not apply and the grotesque size of the thing would have a positive impact on its cooling effect. But I was not too sure about this!

As I inspected the thing as it sat precariously on the cycle-rickshaw that had transported it from the shop, I really wondered if I should just send it right back. But the drops of sweat dripping from my brow (as well as the extremely light purse in my pocket!) made my decision rather easy and I applied myself to the problem of transporting it up to the room. Now at this time I need to describe the gentlemen who accompanied this behemoth and were entrusted with setting it up in my room. Without being disrespectful to either pair, I must say that a closer real-life representation of Laurel and Hardy, I have hardly ever seen! On the one hand was the burly, blustering Sardar whose lumbering bulk and huge potbelly only added to the effect that his turban and thick black beard created. And on the other was the thin, quiet-as-a-mouse sidekick with an uneasy giggle, who jumped every time Mr Hardy said a word, or for that matter, even moved! (For ease of telling the story, I guess I'll just call them by the names of their more famous doppelgängers).

As we surveyed the scene together, Mr. Hardy took charge. Putting his hand on one end of the AC he instructed each of us where exactly to hold. When he realised there were only 3 of us, he ordered the reluctant rickshaw-walla to join us. Poor guy - he was already tired from carting the thing, but the scary bulk of Mr. Hardy brooked no disobedience! And then, it was 'One, two, three, LIFT!' Though unfortunately, Mr. Hardy did more work with his mouth than with his hands and the corner he was supposed to lift did not leave its resting place. On the other hand, Laurel, with strength that belied his thin frame had lifted his end high into the air and the AC began sliding off the rickshaw! Quick as a flash, the rickshaw-walla moved over and saved the situation while Hardy took a step back and began to belabour the hapless Laurel with full pomp and gusto. And this became the pattern for the rest of the morning.

With just 3 of us now carrying the leviathan, it was no longer such an easy task. Of course we received great help from Hardy who bounded around us calling out directions and generally getting in our way and tripping us up, nearly causing us to drop the dashed thing! When we finally reached the lift, I was painfully aware that my arm and back muscles were totally unused to this sort of thing and I would surely feel the repercussions over the next day or two. Fortunately, the lift was working. Had the electricity been off, I think I would have surely decided that sleeping in the heat was a much better alternative than torture of this kind!! After much advice and some abuse from Hardy, we manouvred the mammoth into the lift and managed to get it to the room without too much more trouble (except for some further insult to my already over-exerted muscles!).

(This got just too long, so I will continue tomorrow. Stay tuned!!)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

How to recover a lost or stolen cell phone

This post is in 2 parts. The first part is for the impatient ones who just want the data. The second part is the (hopefully!) interesting story of how this knowledge was gained.

Part 1 - steps to recover a lost cell phone (in brief)

  1. Find the box of your lost/stolen phone. If you are thinking ahead and still have your phone with you, open it up and pull out the battery. Note the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number that is printed on the box or below the battery in the phone. On some phones you can get this by dialling '#06#'.  If you've already lost your phone and can't find the box, then your sorta sunk, sorry!!
  2. Take the IMEI number to the local cyber crime cell. There you have to fill up a form and attach your proof of residence as well as the bill of the phone (if you've lost this, then you need an extra dose of charm!!)
  3. Then wait and if and when the friendly neighbourhood cell phone thief puts in a new SIM card, the police will track it and you will get your phone back.
  4. If you have phone tracking software like WaveSecure, then as soon as a new SIM goes into your phone, the person you specify will receive a message with the new SIM number. Take that to the police and you will have your phone in a day!

Part 2 - the story

Losing a cellular phone in today's world is a severe strain. Unless you are the careful type of person who has all the data stored on a computer or (and I doubt there are very many of these) as a hard copy, it is a major inconvenience to have to start making contacts all over again. And of course, if the phone is expensive, it adds to the stress. Well, Amy had her phone stolen 3 weeks back. And now she has it back. And this is the story of how it happened.

Obviously in Ludhiana, cell phone theft is a big racket and I have a sinking suspicion that the police are involved (more on that later). In the last 3 weeks, I know of 3 people who have had their cell phones stolen. In Shillong, I heard of one such incident in 2 and a half years!! The evening I arrived in Ludhiana with my brother, having carted most of our earthly possessions all the way from Shillong by train, Amy decided to show her 2 country bumpkins (my brother is based in the interior hinterlands of Orissa) the wonders of a big city and we all trooped off to a mall. Unfortunately it did not turn out to be such a pleasant experience as 2 minutes after we entered, Amy discovered she had lost her phone. She had had it in the taxi on the way and so it had obviously been lost in the 5 minutes between the taxi and the mall. We called the phone pronto, but it had already been switched off. Which obviously meant it had been stolen. The two prime suspects were the taxi driver and the security guard who had checked her purse in the mall. We accosted both these individuals and also retraced our steps for the next half hour or so, to no avail. And that, as I thought, was the end of that....

Fortunately, my wife is made of sterner stuff. Her moral obligations as a citizen made her believe that she needed to report this to at least attempt to make a difference. And her 'encouragement' was strong enough to rouse me from my general laziness! So we trooped along to the local police station to begin our attempt to recover the phone. I thought it was a wild goose chase, but as it turned out, for once, I was wrong!

But the process was convoluted. We went first to the local police station, then to the cyber crimes cell, then to the community police cell (where we submitted the forms) and then back to the cyber crimes cell with the duly completed and stamped forms. Since all these stations and cells were in different parts of Ludhiana, it took us the better part of the morning! Fortunately, Amy had WaveSecure installed on her phone when we bought it. This is a programme which sends an SMS to a 'buddy' phone whenever a new SIM is inserted. So when the message with the new number came to my phone, we promptly gave it in to the police. And the next day, Amy had her phone back!

Now here is the interesting part. When Amy asked the police who had stolen the phone, they were extremely cagey about it. After much questioning, they finally gave some vague answers and told her that she should be happy to have got her phone back and not to worry about anything else. The next day, she realised the memory card of the phone was missing. She called the police and informed them and sure enough, the next day, they had it and were even more cagey about how they had achieved this level of excellence! It seemed all was not right, but then, we had got the phone back after all, and I was not around to pick up a fight, having already left for the next leg of my travels!!

So that is the story of how we got Amy's phone back. So if you do have the misfortune of losing your phone, take heart. There is a good chance that you will get it back. So long as you have the IMEI number! Or WaveSecure!!

P.S. This is an infographic from the WaveSecure blog. And no, I am not receiving any money for this advertisement!! Click on the picture to enlarge.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The hard truth for all of us sports fans

We are just about recovering from all the hoopla surrounding the World Cup and India's victory. And yes, I truly savoured that moment - it was a long time coming and well worth the wait. I was actually supposed to be travelling (what's new!!) but postponed a ticket so I could watch it. That was worth it too!! I think my cricket fever has been completely sated for some time thanks to that win. I hardly followed the IPL, though my favourite team did win. And as for the tour of the West Indies - the last I heard we were 3-1 up in the one-dayers! Sorry! (This is also my longest time without a newspaper! Will check it out online right now!). Well anyway, I have always wondered about our fascination with sports. What makes me feel so good when some millionaires whom I don't know from Adam run around a field with a bat and a ball? I will venture no further into this dangerous territory, but will direct you to an interesting video that I saw talking to LeBron James, the NBA superstar about his reaction to his detractors when his team, the Miami Heat lost the NBA finals. A quote - if you keep reminding us that sports doesn't matter so much, bad things could happen. You might accidently convince sports fans to read books more or start hanging out with their kids.....vounteer in the community, get involved in local politics or something like that. Do you actually want us to turn off the TV and actually start focussing on our problems and try to fix them? 'Coz that would be HORRIBLE!! We want to avoid our problems. We want to pay you millions of dollars to distract us from our problems!!

There's a lot more hilarious and yet somewhat true stuff in there. Enjoy - it's really something to think about!!(HT: Challies)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Roadtrip chronicles - 9 states, 3023 kms

Since I am travelling again, my internet time has decreased and with it my blogging time. As Amy says, for someone who dislikes travelling as much as I do, it is indeed amazing the amount of it that I end up doing!! Well, back to our adventure from Shillong to Ludhiana. After we reached Asansol, and hit the Golden Quadrilateral, our journey changed complexion completely. First of all, the roads were excellent. It was a four-laned highway for the most part and though there were the occassional craters and other confounders, they were few and far between. Then the Old Reliable, which until this point (as The Black Mamba noted in a comment) had been behaving more like an Old Unreliable, finally got used to the idea that however much she protested, the journey was going to go on. And once she accepted this fact, she behaved beautifully and except for the battlefield masquerading as her bumper, may have passed for a new car! And the best part was that after all the excitement of the initial part of the journey, Amy and me had some uninterrupted time to spend together without worrying about the car or the road, which of course had been the main purpose of the journey. That was oh-so-sweet... 

I have bored you enough with these seemingly never-ending chronicles and so, this one will be short. Travelling through Jharkhand was bittersweet for me - all the wonderful memories of my 2 odd years there came rushing back. We stopped for chai and I heard once again the lilting, singsong Bhojpuri that is so very different from most of the other, harsher, North Indian dialects of Hindi. We talked about the many people I had encountered during the time at Satbarwa and prayed specially for many of them. Some still remain at Nav Jiwan Hospital, Tumbagara, serving God in one of the poorest areas of our country (Palamu district was one of the 20 poorest districts when I worked there and I doubt much has changed!). Others have moved far and wide to various corners of our country and the world. Our paths crossed for a short time, but the influence and friendship will last a lifetime and beyond.

The landscape of Bihar and Jharkhand was obviously different from the green of Assam and Bengal - the base colour here was brown, with green trees interspersed between. But recently, there has been some rain in Satbarwa we hear - and thank God with all the poor farmers.

Then we were in the great state of Uttar Pradesh, where we stopped in the temple town of Varanasi at a picturesque roadside motel for lunch.

A picture of a solar powered traffic-signal that we saw in UP - to go with the earlier pictures of pollution!
Since we had thrown in our front room cushions at the last minute, I used them to make myself comfortable! And on the good roads it really felt like I was in a throne!!

By evening we had reached Fatehpur, home of our dear friends Drs. Sujith and Sunitha. Though they were not at home, they had offered to let us stay there and there were even some patients to be seen that night!! Then it was on to Ludhiana, with a stop-over at Delhi with the Abrahams, whose house is now becoming something of a second-home considering the number of times we have stayed there in the last 2 months! The loving hospitality and stimulating conversations make it difficult to leave and it was a really late start on the final day. But we made it at last, steaming in to Ludhiana 6 days, 9 states and 3023 kilometers after we had set out from Shillong. It was a wonderful adventure, one that we would not have missed for the world. We have some great memories and can testify again to God's faithfulness and protection on the long, long road! And sure, we would do it again, and that, as they say, will be another story!!

As Suneeta suggested, I have put in maps for all the posts. And this is the final story. 

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Use + and - to zoom in and out and the mouse to toggle. Thanks Google maps! And thanks Suneeta - these do make a difference!

P.S. For those who are planning this trip, it would be possible to do Fatehpur to Ludhiana in one day, but wanted to meet friends in Delhi and so took it easy. Also, Siliguri to Asansol is a one-day trip. Shillong to Siliguri is tough, but Guwahati-Siliguri is possible. So, if well planned with no unexpected adventures or car troubles, this could be a peaceful 4 day trip give or take half a day.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Roadtrip chronicles - through the eye of a storm

Not having learnt our lessons from our first day of the trip, every morning we would make ambitious plans to set out by 4 am or earlier and drive hard the whole day so as to reach a far-away destination by evening. What would actually happen would be that we would leave by half-past 6 or later, drive peacefully and stop many times whenever the Old Reliable needed some succour! This was no different on day 4 of our journey (that's including the extra day in Alipur). We started off from Raiganj at 6:30 am, and had driven for only about 50 kms, before I realised that the car was pulling to the left the moment I crossed 70 kmph. Something like that would have caused much consternation and stress in the past, but after 4 days of getting adjusted to the fact that the OR was going through middle-age with all its associated health problems, we had become rather blasé to these events! Arthritis, hypertension and diabetes were all in their initial stages and with the stress of the long drive, we were likely to identify many problems that till then we had not known existed.

And so we crawled along till we reached the next big town, Malda, where we realised that similar to Shillong, nothing opened till 10 am! And finding breakfast is never easy in a small town, unless you are willing to risk the tasty, yet suspicious offerings of roadside vendors! Deciding we had taken too many risks already(!!), we breakfasted on biscuits and chai. Fortunately, we found a Maruti service centre whose mechanic had arrived early for some reason and there the OR got her next assessment - the fifth by a mechanic in 5 days! This guy decided to take her apart completely and we watched as he quickly stripped the left side of her engine compartment bare. At the end of that, it was obvious that he had no clue what the problem was! Finally he looked at one of the washers of the suspension and said that it was a little too flat. Sounded extremely fishy to me. Looked like the washer was being accused just because this guy needed to find something wrong! But then, what did I know about all this. So we changed the washer and he put the OR back together. Just as we were leaving he said he would balance the wheels - something that had been unsuccessful on our last try. As he removed the right wheel, he suddenly looked up with a smile and announced that he had identified the problem. It was actually quite obvious. The treads on the inner surface of the wheel had worn away completely and even to my untrained eye it was obvious why that would cause the OR to pull to the left. Wonder why my mechanics in Shillong who had supposedly inspected her completely had missed that! This guy put in the spare tyre and then declared he was done. Sure enough, there was no more pulling to any side, though I wish the fellow had identified this at first before taking apart the car and unnecessarily changing the suspension (at no small cost to me, I may add!!).

After that, we had a peaceful journey till the evening apart from the various minor issues thrown up by our national highways. But just 50 kms away from our destination of Asansol, we had another adventure. We went right through a huge thunderstorm. We saw it from afar, with the lightning and the thunder and thought it was really exciting. But as the sky darkened and we entered the storm with the rain pelting down, trees and branches crashing to the ground and lightning striking all around us, it was no longer just exciting. There was an element of actual fear added too, as we witnessed the power and fury of nature. It was only 20 minutes before we crossed the cloud and emerged to the sunshine on the other side, but they were an intense 20 minutes! We even forgot to take any pictures, though I doubt they would have shown anything. But we had made another great memory. Another adventure, another memory.
The dark sky before the storm, the sun nearly completely hidden. Many tries at getting a picture of the lightning failed. But this video caught a few. This was much before the really scary part!

We finally reached Asansol, where, at last, we hit the Golden Quadrilateral. It took us more than an hour to find a decent hotel with parking and the one we finally found was not really worth recommending, so I will not do so! We had a restful night though, knowing the rest of the journey would be much more peaceful, now that the road was going to be so good. And sure enough it was...... But that, as they say, is another story!!

P.S. Only one more of these to go, in case you are getting bored!!

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Roadtrip chronicles - Oh these highways!

When we began our journey, we sat down with an Eicher Road Atlas and Dr Sandi Syiem (who had done the trip before) and planned out our journey. We decided not to do the shortest route which would have meant driving a vast variety of roads, but rather stick to the national highways. Moreover we decided that instead of going through Bihar on the national highways, we would rather drive down through Bengal and hit the Golden Quadrilateral near Asansol. This would be slightly longer, but we hoped the roads would be better. They certainly were and we are glad we made that decision for the national highways we encountered before Asansol left much to be desired. Thanks to the bone-shaking nature of the drive through the craters, there were very few pictures taken, but this is just one of the scenes we encountered on the national highway.

At least here, there seemed to be some attempt at repairing the road. In most other places it appeared that this was the norm and we were wrong to expect anything better! Of course, this was not always true and there were some stretches of excellent and beautiful road.

But that was not always a good thing. Especially once we hit the golden quad, which had a divider the whole way, we kept encountering certain worthies who did not seem to understand the concept of a median. It is rather unnerving to round a bend at 100 kms per hour and stare into the face of a driver on the wrong side of the road before making a swerve to get out of the way just in time! There were a few close shaves and I think at least one motorcyclist will not try this stunt again after the shock he received!!

And of course, wherever you go in India you will find the overloaded transport vehicle. They came in many shapes and sizes and were all a source of some concern as the driver, taking advantage of the good roads would be speeding along, seemingly unaware of the precarious perches of some of his passengers!
(You can spot the reflection of our Eicher road atlas in this picture)

Our national highways leave much to be desired but then, they are in a much better state than they were 10 years ago when I last made a long roadtrip. And we really can't complain - after all they carried us right across the country in less than a week! But wait, I am getting ahead of myself.... For that as they say, is another story!!

P.S. Apologies for the poor quality of the pictures - most of them were taken through a not-so-clean wind-shield!

Roadtrip chronicles - And then there was Bengal

The adventure in Alipur Duar cost us not just a day. It also put paid to our plan of visiting Sikkim, not just because of the time we had lost, but because we decided to protect the Old Reliable from the torture of the hill roads. So we set of to Siliguri on the third morning of our trip in fairly good spirits, though with a slight sense of apprehension about the condition of the OR. The road to Siliguri passes through 3 wildlife reserves and though we searched high and low for the tigers, rhinos and elephants that were advertised, we didn't see any. We did see some langurs, but only after we had left the reserve. Amy, reluctant photographer that she is, did not take any pictures of the forests, though they were certainly beautiful and inspiring. So you'll have to be content with the langurs!

At Siliguri we found ourselves in a quandary. Should we take the bypass and go on, or should we go into the town and see a 'proper' mechanic. We initially planned to go on, but later decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valour and turned back. The father of a friend had arranged for us to meet his mechanic and after giving the OR the once-over, he declared her in fine form and told us we were free to go. Though it took us 3 hours, I was happy we turned back since my mental equilibrium was helped no end by the second opinion!

The road through North Bengal was excellent which was a welcome change after the struggles on the roads in Assam, where some areas were literally just huge craters with just a hint of tar and gravel to confirm it as a National Highway! But about 100 kms into the drive, the OR began to show signs that age was finally catching up with her. The moment the speedometer would touch 70, she would begin to wobble. And wobble bad! Possessed of absolutely no clue about the workings of such a machine, the two of us ran through all the various possibilities and finally decided it must have something to do with the wheels. So we began to scour every town we passed through for a service centre that would check the alignment and balancing. Finally we found a Mahindra showroom in the town of Dalokha which, surprise, surprise had computerised alignment and balancing! It appeared that the computers had just arrived and about 20 mechanics gathered around to watch the proceedings, rather like what happens when a new surgical procedure is being attempted for the first time. All this was not very confidence-building and sure enough after much hemming and hawing, the head mechanic told me that they could not complete the job. But he exchanged the front and back tyres and said everything would be fine. Though I was not so sure, there was nothing else I could do and fortunately he was proved right!

The rest of the journey through North Bengal was just like driving through Shillong at rush hour. Being the road to Calcutta, traffic was really busy and the stagnation was not helped by the number of level crossing we passed. It seems that the road and railway lines run parallel and for some strange reason cross each other at multiple points on the highway! And in true Indian character, every time there was a jam, there would be a set of drivers-in-a-hurry who would overtake and form a second lane worsening an already bad situation! 
(I climbed on top of a truck to take this picture!!)

But of course, there was much beauty on display and scenes like these seemed to pop straight out of a travel brochure.

And of course, every water body we encountered would have a scene like this - women washing clothes and children playing.

What with the breaks for the mechanics and all the traffic we made very poor progress and were only half-way to our planned destination, Asansol, when we had to stop for the night at a small town called Raniganj. We found a good little hotel called Hotel Vinayaga after some search - the other two we checked out looked extremely seedy! So if you ever have to stay in Raiganj (though I doubt that will ever happen!) - check out Hotel Vinayaka! Good food and value for money!

I leave you with a slightly embarrassing picture that my wife clicked. Though she was generally a reluctant photographer for most of the trip, she took quite a long series of this event!! I guess she appreciated my goodwill gesture to the tree!!

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Horror in Sudan

Unspeakable things are going on in Sudan. I shudder to think of the unspeakable evil and cruelty that humanity has within itself. This article spoilt my day. Our prayers are with the little ones who have been scarred so terribly. Let me warn those of you who decide to click on it that it is truly an unspeakable horror - stay away if you are not too strong. (HT: Challies)

Shillong-Ludhiana Roadtrip - Accident!!

Day 1 of the great adventure had been a success and we had just reached the town we were planning to halt in - Alipur Duar. My brother had done some quick internet research on possible hotels and we were looking for one of them when our roadtrip nearly had a untimely end! The front of the Old Reliable got just a little too intimate with the back of an auto that was parked just in front of us...... ACCIDENT!! It was only a small bump and the auto suffered no damage except for a slightly bent silencer and tail light. The auto driver who was standing next to the auto slipped and fell and sustained a few bruises. But the poor OR was not build for friendly or not-so-friendly encounters with others of her species. Mild though the impact was, the bonnet unfortunately got caught on the undercarriage of the auto (it was one of the big ones and had no bumper) and crumpled up like a piece of paper. It was an unnerving moment.

As is the norm in our country whenever anything out-of-the-ordinary happens, a crowd gathered as if from nowhere and things began to heat up. Our first concern was for the driver and I was relieved to find his injuries were minor. But the crowd was raring for some action and things may have gotten ugly if the owner of the auto (who had so far been the most vociferous of those gathered) suddenly put the driver into the auto and told us to follow him to the local hospital. It was a relief to get away from the growing crowd whose only predictable character was unpredictability!

At the government hospital, we found a very senior medical officer catching forty winks in an extremely basic emergency room. After a perfunctory examination he advised the driver to get admitted. Fortunately, the driver decided to take his chances at home! And then, outside the hospital began the negotiations that accompany every such event. I thought the best thing would be to go to the police, but the owner of the auto was not too happy about that for some reason. He suggested I pay him 15,000 rupees and we would call it a deal! Well, that was a slight more than I had planned to spend for the entire trip! And it seemed a bit unfair, considering that the most of the damage done seemed to be to my vehicle! Anyway, we decided to sleep on it and meet the next morning to decide what to do.

As we checked into the hotel, I had a severe case of mixed feelings. On the one hand, I had had my first accident in 15 years of driving a car. Which was very difficult for my depressogenic nature to take. But on the other hand, we were all fine and the only real damage would be to my pocket. It could have been much worse. And after all, if we are encouraged to give thanks in all circumstances, I could certainly find many things to give thanks for in this one as well. Fortunately I have a wife for whom every circumstance is an adventure and tired as we were, we quickly drifted off into Noddy-land.

The next day was the longest of our trip. With the focus on giving thanks in all circumstances, I set out in the morning with the auto driver and the owner to find a Maruti workshop. The one we finally found was just a small hole in the wall with a big Maruti poster outside! The mechanic there took one look at the car and announced it would take him 3 days to do anything about it. Well, so much for that! The owner then took me to one of the mechanics whom he knew. This guy looked much more professional and when he had taken a test drive told me it would just take a short time, mainly to straighten out the bonnet and the crosspiece of the engine compartment which had taken some of the stress. And so I spent the next 5 hours in the workshop watching them work on the beloved OR. I will save you the details of my morbid and not-so-morbid thoughts during that time. Suffice to say, they were not too pretty!

Finally we were done. I took the car for a 25 km test run and it seemed just like new. Of course, the bonnet looked like a battlefield. The skills of the small-town mechanic obviously did not encompass the nuances of body work. And purportedly in order to straighten it out, he had burnt the thing in a number of different places. It looked like some weird design on the front of the OR! Ah well, beggars can't be choosers! At least the OR was running fine and the mechanic had promised she would reach Ludhiana in one piece if I desisted from any more insults to her kind nature!

As for the auto owner, he spent the whole time with me in the shop and by the time we left, we were fast friends! When I asked him how much it had cost him to mend his own auto (which had been dispatched to the workshop by another driver earlier), he refused to take any money and I had to literally force him to take 2000 rupees in retribution for my sins! It got even more interesting. Later that evening, he called me and asked me if I was free to meet. He sounded a little high-spirited, but I went down and found him with a few of his friends, in a very 'happy' frame of mind! He said I had to come with them and hit a few happening joints around the town! It was only with great difficulty that I managed to extricate myself from that situation! But it was an amazing turnaround and one I was really grateful for. His kindness was one of the best things that came out of this otherwise slightly unpleasant experience. We also enjoyed our stay in Hotel Sinchula - good food and value for money - highly recommended if you find yourself in Alipur Duar.

So that was the story of the adventure in Alipur Duar. I wish it had not happened but yet it was certainly not as bad as it could have been. And my intense and perfectionistic soul learnt a few lessons on letting go and meeting tough situations with a smile. Our cross-country roadtrip was nearly curtailed as we seriously considered options like putting the car in a truck or on a train, leaving it behind to be sent on later and so on since we were not sure of the extent of the damage or the ability of the mechanic. Fortunately, we stuck it out and it has proved to be well worth it. The rest of the journey more than made up for the disappointment of the accident. But that, as they say, is another story!!

Unfortunately I forget to take a picture before the tinkering, but imagine a crumpled piece of paper and you won't be very far off!!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Shillong-Ludhiana Roadtrip - The green fields of Assam

It's surprising how a day of driving can tire you out. After all, you're just sitting the whole day moving just a few muscles at irregular intervals. But at the end of each day of driving, I found myself just too tired to put down the days activities on the blog. I would open the 'new post' page and then promptly fall asleep. So my plan of 'live-blogging' our trip has changed slightly (like many other things on the trip!) and I start the story with a time lapse of 5 days. This has been a great adventure so far and I hope it stays that way!

We started off on the morning of the 7th from Shillong. The original plan was to leave at 4am. But as all ambitious plans go, this one underwent major modifications, thanks mainly to the many, many things that needed to be done in the one day we spent in Shillong. By the time we finished meeting people,  getting the  Old Reliable (my Maruti Alto) shipshape, winding up our phones, internet and other 'essential commodities', packing up the extraneous pieces of our life that were lying around the house and generally removing all other sundry traces of our existence there in Shillong, it was 3 am in the morning - not really conducive to a 4am start. We finally got up at 6, stuffed all our baggage into the OR and left by around 9. And when I say stuffed, that's literally what I mean. I was amazed at the amount of stuff that remained in each room of the house as we went through it. After all, I had spent a whole month or so 'packing' and sending things on to Ludhiana! Obviously I had not done a really good job!! By the time we finished, the OR looked like a true beast of burden and there was just about enough space to squeeze ourselves into the front seats and set off!

But that was soon forgotten as we drove down the mountain for possibly the last time. Saying goodbye to the familiar sights, the green pines, the lake, the small villages that line the way, the traffic, the crickets, the unrelenting rain and so many of the sights and sounds that we had grown to love so much over the last two and a half years was bittersweet. What a blessed time these years have been....

And then we were in Assam. And the beauty was still there, though of a different hue. Here we were treated to lush green fields, some plentiful with harvest, others with a riot of flowers and still others left fallow or already harvested that were covered with grass that was a deeper shade of green than I had ever seen. Inspiring...... 

 And of course, the tea plantations that Assam is famous for. Yet another shade of green. Deep,deep green.

And all along the way, we saw the people who toil hard in the life they have not chosen, but been handed down. It seemed sad that modern implements of farming and irrigation have not yet reached Assam, as far as we could see.

And what modernity we saw was not really encouraging. At regular intervals the beauty was marred by dirty factories spewing clouds of black smoke. The sad reality of the cost of development.

The road got progressively worse the farther we travelled from Guwahati. We crossed the Brahmaputra at Guwahati and many of its tributaries along the way. At each of them we kept a keen lookout for the river dolphin, India's national aquatic animal, but unfortunately, the endangered species remained unsighted. We had hoped to reach Siliguri by nightfall, but our late start and the terrible roads put paid to that plan and we stopped for the night in Alipur Duar, a town just on the edge of West Bengal. Just before we turned in, we had another adventure, but that, as they say, is another story!

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Remembering the children

We've had a great roadtrip so far. It's been full of adventure, most of it great and some not so good. But the details will have to wait for when I am a little more fresh to write them up. For now, I just wanted to post something which has been on my mind for the last 3 days. As we travel through this beautiful, beautiful country, we have seen many children in different stages of life, doing different things. And everytime I see a child, these an article that I read and a video I saw just before I left Shillong come back to me. The first is about the terrible sex trade that is rampant in our country. For the number of girls being sold into sexual slavery and abuse, there are far too many people attempting to make a difference. This article tells the story of one little girl, the danger she faces and those trying to help her. (HT: Z)
An excerpt 
M. is an ebullient girl, age 10, who ranks near the top of her fourth-grade class and dreams of being a doctor. Yet she, like all of India, is at a turning point, and it looks as if her family may instead sell her to a brothel.

Her mother is a prostitute here in Kolkata, the city better known to the world as Calcutta. Ruchira Gupta, who runs an organization called Apne Aap that fights human trafficking, estimates that 90 percent of the daughters of Indian prostitutes end up in the sex trade as well. And M. has the extra burden that she belongs to a subcaste whose girls are often expected to become prostitutes.
The conclusion:
...it is surreal that these scenes are unfolding in the 21st century. The peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was the 1780s, when just under 80,000 slaves a year were transported from Africa to the New World.

These days, Unicef estimates that 1.8 million children a year enter the commercial sex trade. Multiply M. by 1.8 million, and you understand the need for a new abolitionist movement.

And the video from my very own Meghalaya was shared by a friend on Facebook and it's scary. To think of doing what these young children are doing gives me the shivers. This may be all they do for the rest of their lives - till their health fails or they die in an accident. It's a terrible thing, especially when you realise that the illegal coal-mining industry has made some people so unbelievably wealthy at huge cost to so many others. Even the members of their own tribe or clan. Watch it and weep....

Monday, June 6, 2011

Real beauty

As she made her way through the crowded railway station, Maya tried not to notice the stares that surreptitiously followed her every move. She was used to these stares. And over the last 18 years, she had experimented with many different responses to them. Initially, she had wondered why people were staring. After all, they did not stare at her cousin Neha when the two of them played together. It was only after a few years that she began to understand that she was different. And her initial reaction was anger. She began to return each stare with contempt, enjoying the power she felt when the other person averted his or her eyes. But the innate gentleness of her nature did not allow this anger to embed itself in her soul. Over time she began to see the stares for what they were - merely expressions of the curiosity and pity that are humanity's common reactions to those we consider 'less fortunate'. And now, though the stares no longer troubled her as they had done in the past, she still could not ignore them. For each glance thrown over the many shoulders, each reminder of her ‘condition’ was like a thin but long needle that pierced right through to her soul. And though that soul had been armoured by many years of constant abuse, it was still delicate and fragile and she feared it would always remain so. For the boiling water she had spilled on herself in the kitchen that fateful day 18 years before had damaged much more than just her skin. Over time and after many operations, the external wounds had healed leaving in their place the unsightly scars that were the cause of all the stares. But the deep wounds to her spirit that medicine had been unable to cure were still open and bleeding and she despaired of ever escaping from the shackles they placed on her.

As the train pulled into the platform, a quiet sigh escaped her lips. She was not looking forward to the next few weeks. Most of her adult life had been spent escaping her home and the pressures that assailed her whenever she returned. From the time the accident had occurred, she knew he parents felt guilty that a 10-year-old girl had been allowed to play in the kitchen without supervision. And she also knew that every time they looked at her, the guilt resurfaced, colouring all their responses to her. Her childhood had been highly sheltered in their attempt to shield her from the unkind world around her. It had been against their express wishes that she had asserted her independence at 18 and left home to study in a college far away. And since then, she had been able to ration the time she spent with her parents, returning only when it was absolutely necessary and she had no more excuses to give. But few though those visits were, their awkwardness and embarrassment would remain with her for long after and it was thus with trepidation that she boarded the train that would take her all across the country over 3 days to her home.

She found her berth in the AC compartment and was just entering the coupe when she did a double-take. For sitting in the seat adjacent to hers was a young man, the likes of which this world is blessed with only rarely. Tall, handsome, fair, his presence caused her heart to miss a beat and then several more. In her recollection, she could not remember having met so fine a young man. In a moment, feelings she had suppressed for many years, knowing that love and marriage in a position like hers were all but impossible, resurfaced as she gazed upon the fine specimen of humanity who sat there before her. Her reverie may have been much longer, had he not interrupted it to ask her where her berth was. Shaking her head as if to shake off her prior flight of fancy, she entered the coupe and made herself comfortable, hoping that her rapturous appraisal of the young man had not been noticed. In the round of introductions that followed, she found out that the young man and his parents (who spoke no English) were travelling to the same place she was going to. As she stowed away her luggage and made herself comfortable in the coupe, she noticed a strange thing. The young man was interacting with her as if he did not even notice her scars. He was looking at her when he talked and even when she looked back at him, he did not avert his gaze. It was something she was not used to and it puzzled her.

As the train meandered its way through the heart of the country, Maya spent some of the happiest moments she could ever remember. For the first time in her life, she found herself involved in a conversation that had no element of pity or sadness to it. For the first time, there was no mention of the horrible scars or the reason for their existence. For the first time, she found herself opening up to this complete stranger and sharing the wonderful journey her life had taken after she left home. Of her decision to train in social work so that she would be able to offer something, however small, to people for whom life was not always fair. Of the inspiration she received from Sunita Krishnan whose story of overcoming personal pain to help others had changed her life. Of her own faltering steps 3 years ago into the campaign against human trafficking and the amazing things that had happened since then. Of the many young girls she had rescued from terrible conditions of abuse and deprivation who were now on the path to a normal life. Of the many threats and verbal abuses she had received from the influential and wealthy people who ran the trafficking rackets. And of the awards and acclaim that had come to her as she stood up to those threats at great risk to her own life.

As she opened her life to the young man on the train, she found herself wondering why he seemed so interested. Never before had she held a conversation for very long without an uncomfortable silence breaking in. Never before had her accident not even come up after such a long time of conversation. Never before had her life been more important than her scars.

As the third day broke and it was obvious that their time left together was short, Maya began to feel pangs she had never felt before. How would she ever say goodbye to his young man who had stolen her heart in three short days. Was this just a fond memory she would live with forever – three days when she felt normal and her scars were nearly forgotten. Was the deep interest and obvious pleasure the young man was enjoying as he listened to her stories just another experience in the course of his life that he would file away and soon forget. But then, who could blame him. Fine specimen of humanity that he was, both outside and in, how would he ever consider someone as ugly as her more than just a casual acquaintance? It had been a wonderful 3 days, but she knew that it would shortly come to an end.

As the train pulled away from the final station before their destination, the young man suddenly turned towards her. He began to move his hand that was was resting on the seat towards her. Wondering what he was doing, and hardly daring to hope, she put her own hand in its path. As their fingers entwined together, she felt the waves of joy welling up from inside her. And then he spoke. ‘Maya, you are the most beautiful person I have ever met,’ he said. As his words registered, the feeling of confusion that she had been trying to suppress suddenly burst forth. ‘Why do you call me beautiful,’ she asked him as she withdrew her hand from his, ‘when both of us know how truly ugly I am?’ He sat silently for a while before his hand began to search for hers again. ‘Maya,’ he said. ‘For 3 days you have told me the story of your life. For 3 days I have been wondering how any person can give so much of themselves without asking for anything in return. The world may consider supermodels and actresses to be the epitomes of beauty. But for me, it is the inner beauty that is so much more important. And your life is suffused with this beauty which has touched me deeply in the last 3 days together. For yours is the real beauty that will never fade away. And that is so much more important than what we are on the outside which so often is just a façade. I meant what I said. You are truly the most beautiful person I have ever met.’

As she pondered his words, Maya had no idea what to think. He seemed so sincere, but then, was it possible to ever forget the ugly scars that had marked her face and changed her life? His hand found hers again and took it. ‘Maya,’ he said. ‘Look into my eyes. Have you not noticed something?’ Many years of averting her face had not prepared her well to do what he asked, but she complied. As she looked into the depths of the light brown eyes that looked back glassily at her, many things occurred to her all at once. How every movement of his was steady and measured, even slow. How he would always go to the bathroom with his father. How he always knew someone was passing by and would be looking at the door to their coupe well before she had seen or heard them. Her grip on his hand tightened just a little as realisation dawned upon her. ‘Maya,’ he said. ‘I have been given the special gift to see beauty that is more than just skin deep. For I was born blind.’

This story came from a reflection on what real beauty is all about. In terms of real beauty, the Mother Teresas of this world would score over any of the conventional portrayals of beautiful women who fill up the magazines and billboards. The challenge is ours, to see beyond the exterior to the real beauty that lies within. Especially for women like Maya.

This post was entered in the Yahoo Dove Real Beauty Contest hosted by Indiblogger. Unfortunately, it didn't win anything!! Click the link to check out the winning posts.