Sunday, 2 November 2008


The closest I will ever get to meeting my female alter ego! Seven pencils! Insane....

Monday, 6 October 2008

A day ruined?

The driver took his foot off the accelerator and gently braked. The vehicle slowed as it crossed a narrow bridge. I was looking out of the side window, everything was

looking 'out of the world' beautiful. The water was sparkling, dotted by small islets covered completely in tall grass dancing in the wind. Trees entwined by symbiotic vines looked like nothing I had seen before. As my vehicle slowly inched forward, two fishermen came to view, working under the parallel railway bridge, hooking their net onto it, cleverly innovating. A little further, under the same bridge, an army patrol - the soldiers looking dapper in their fatigues moved stealthily.

Some of you who know me must have guessed it already - I was having one of those moments. When everything seems incredibly beautiful. It usually happens when I wake up from a good dream. Or when I have had some good beer. Today it was a combination of both. I had spent the day exploring the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka. The experience had been nothing less than a dream. And I had celebrated later with a couple of Lion Lagers! I was on my way back now - having one of those moments!

Just a little while back, I had been sitting on the terrace of the Polonnaruwa Rest house, sipping my beer. The terrace overlooks the magnificent Parakram Samundra which shimmered in the late afternoon sun. There is something about the beer that you have after a hard day of sight-seeing in a new place. Almost as good as the shared cigarette after making love. Weird analogy for me to be making though, since I have been celibate for almost as long as I have quit smoking. Or is it the other way around?

The rest house is the perfect place to finish your days sightseeing in Polo. It is close to theArchaeological Museum which must be visited after you have done all the ruins - you can then actually admire the reconstructed models and put things in perspective. Most likely you will also be starting here. That's what I did. I had started early from my team site and was at the museum shortly before eight in the morning. The tickets for the ruins have to be bought here. The timings on the gate said 7 AM to 6 PM - but the ticket office was closed. It would open only at 9 I learnt from a person hanging around there. He wanted to know what I thought of the entry fees of US$27 and agreed whole heartedly when I said it felt like robbery. He offered to take me around for two dollars less on his tuk-tuk, the onomatopoetic name for what we so staidly call the auto-rickshaw back home.

I politely declined and told him that I looked forward to do that by myself on a bike. He immediately offered to give me the best bike in town for only LKR 500. I am usually not good at bargaining but I blurted out that someone had offered me one for LKR200. He seemed to buy that and brought his price to LKR 350 - I felt I could have gone in for the kill then, but gave up and agreed. Bandula, my newly appointed friend, said that he would take me to the place where he kept the bike on the tuk-tuk and seeing me hesitate added, "At no extra charge!" I jumped in! His place was to the south of town and was the ideal place for me to start before the museum opened as it had two sites that did not require a ticket to enter. ThePotgul Vihara and the statue of King Parakramabahu the Great. I got a good geared bike - a must as at the end of the day you are really thankful for the gears when negotiating some of the climbs.

Polonnaruwa has quite a linear layout. It is best to start from the south as I did and move up north. After seeing the statue of the solemn king holding a papaya (the serious sounding sign there had said he is holding a book or a yoke symbolising sovereignty, but I liked the papaya explanation that I had read online) I biked up to the museum. The path goes along the lake built by the 'manically obsessed with irrigation' king, Parakramabahu. I reached the museum soon after it opened and a busload of Indian package tourists were filing in. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all Asians have a 50% discount on the tickets and I only had to shell out LKR 1350. I had picked up a detailed guide book written by Jayasinghe Balasooriya earlier for LKR 250 from a vendor near the statue. I was now fully equipped to hit the main archaeological sites. The entrance to it is just a little distance away on the Habrana road.

The ruins of the medieval city of Polonnaruwa dates back to the 11th century AD, around the time when the Cholas were ruling in South India. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is extremely well maintained. The entire ruins are spread over a large area and a bike is essential to get around. It can also be done if you have a car but it will not be as much fun. Biking through the tree lined gravel tracks is a whole lot of fun and it actually is a great way to beat the heat too. The vast spread of the ruins ensures that you don't feel the crowds at all - and can enjoy the spectacle of magnificent ruins set amidst verdant forests. As you bike around you can actually feel the thrill of the explorer who had first discovered these ruins. You can spend hours taking in Dagabas (Stupas), palaces and temples, trying to recreate the life that was. That is exactly what I did. A magical day amongst the ruins.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Run Interrupted

My run was kind of doomed today. First on the way out, I was interrupted by a call. A very special friend wanted my opinion on a blues concert. Felt like a connoisseur! And well, connoisseurs don’t go about sweating like a pig on some beach track, do they? Forced myself to continue. Reached the ocean. She looked really angry today. A part of the beach had been cut off by the waves. I decided to skip the swim and continued running.  On the way back I saw a militia man, his AK – 47 slung carelessly on his shoulder, talking to an old man by the rail track. As I neared them, the old man pointed at me. The rifle slowly dropped into a more menacing position as I crossed them. Our eyes met, they were the same vacant eyes of a child soldier. He was no more than sixteen. I raised my hands to wave, but something in his eyes took the wind out of my gesture. Suddenly my brain was working in overdrive. Something was not right. I heard, rather than saw, the kid slip the safety of his weapon off. I came to a halt, my hands open, to my side, trying to present as inoffensive a stance as possible. The kid shouted something in Tamil. He sounded surprisingly angry. I realized that the old man had slowly slunk away. We were all alone on the track now. For some silly reason I remembered the drunk man who had warned me against going for my run on this track. I had just started to explain in my broken Tamil when the kid moved up and shoved me. I staggered back, angry and bewildered. Without realizing I raised my voice and said something, I forget what. He continued to shout at me and then gestured dismissively. I thought he was telling me to go away. So I turned and started running along the railway track. I used this route as it was covered with sand and was really good exercise. I had barely gone a few yards when I heard him shout. I stopped and turned around. He laughed. It was almost triumphant. Something inside me snapped. I turned back and started running again. I heard him shout again. I looked back, still running, and saw that he had started chasing me. Something told me that I could out run him on the sand. I increased my pace. A little later I looked to confirm that I was gaining on him. Suddenly I heard a shot. It made me involuntarily increase my speed. I looked back and realized that the kid was actually shooting at me. This was getting bizarre. He fired again – this time a burst. I saw the sand about fifty yards ahead of me go up like four Diwali anaars in tandem. “You can’t outrun a bullet” the words of my instructor in military academy suddenly rang in my ears. I could see his face as he paused after he had said these words of wisdom and he waited for our response. I saw the satisfied look on his face as some of us obliged him with knowing laughs. And I realized suddenly that his advice should be taken immediately. I swerved like a wild horse and ran into the bushes that grow on both sides of the railway track. It provided thick cover and it had enough space in between to run through without losing too much speed. The kid let off another burst as he saw me disappear.  

Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.

Instinctively, I counted the number of bullets he was expending. I remembered that he was just carrying his rifle – no spare ammunition. I was crashing wildly through the bushes now. Branches and thorns were cutting through my skin.

Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.

He could see the bushes move and was aiming wildly at that. I could hear the bullets pass uncomfortably close. It’s surprising how fast you can get out of the habit of having bullets fly overhead. I was heading towards a sparse patch. Shit!

Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen.

Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty One. Twenty Two. Twenty Three.

Our kid was getting impatient. And very angry. I swerved wildly again. Seeking taller bushes. The kid read what I was planning. He changed course to cut me off.

Twenty Four. Twenty Five. Twenty Six. Twenty Seven. Twenty Eight.

I could actually see the last burst as it clipped some branches just ahead of me. I stopped short. And dropped down and started crawling. The kid was rushing ahead, suddenly surprised by my lack of motion. I could hear his footfall just ahead of me. I waited for him to cross me. He was slowing down. I could now see his legs. Moving tentatively. He crossed me. I don’t know why I did what I did. In retrospect, there were a lot of other options. But at that moment everything in my system screamed for me to rise and rush him from behind. I heard a blood curdling scream. I realized that it was me. The kid turned, startled and pressed the trigger.

 Twenty Nine. Thirty. Click.

I was on him now. For a moment the vacant eyes registered surprise. Then we were crashing down together. I had his neck. And I fell on it. I heard a snap. I looked into his eyes. That’s when I realized, nothing is more vacant than death. 

When I interrupt my run, this is what happens. My imagination runs wild.


Maybe I need a shrink.


Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Johnny 99

My work site is about 20 km from where I stay and the drive to work is one part of the day that I really look forward to. It takes me into the heart of what was, not too long ago, rebel country. Now it is heavily patrolled by the army as they are bracing up for what is still the initial stages of an insurgency. Soon as we leave the main road we cross a military check post that screens all civilians being allowed into the area. Just after that is a causeway across a lagoon. Come monsoons, in another months time, and this becomes virtually uncrossable. I have been told it is a trecherous crossing as the direction of water flow changes with the tide. As we drive along, the driver sometimes flicks on the radio. It is not rare to hear the newreader announcing some successful air raid or offensive up north. We cross the location of some minefields recently cleared by us and other NGOs working here. No signs of people returning to the area yet. 
The terrain is generally flat, lots of wooded patches, hills in the distance. We drive past a lot of soldiers, some of them wave, we wave back. Then we cross a militia outpost. They were the tigers, untill they broke away and alligned with the government. A young boy, barely in his teens, stands with an AK held convincingly. I look into his eyes, they are vacant. We drive on. Past a village with houses without roofs, doors or windows. Just a stencilled message on the walls saying 'Cleared by FSD'. The Swiss Foundation for Demining. Forlorn structures, waiting to be inhabited again. We go beyond a dirt track that leads into the forest, to the erstwhile tigers battalion head quarters. I have been there. Destroyed buidings, craters from air attacks and a monument with the desecrated but distinctive tigers emblem. The place to take oath. We drive on. Across the site of a recent claymore attack on an army vehicle by unknown people. Almost there now.
But today I am not seeing any of these. My mind is on a call I have just received. My team has encountered three Johnny 99s at the site. I am rushing to see that. We weren't expecting Mr. Johnny to be there. 
Landmines are a barbaric weapon of war. I come from a country that has not signed the treaty to ban them. I can even understand their stance. But the fact remains, landmines have the potential to cause a dispropotionate amount of physical and psychological harm to an unintended target, and mostly they do.  Johnny 99, a creation of the tigers, is an extremely lethal mine. Packed with nearly five times the explosive in other anti personal mines, it is designed not just to incapacitate but to strike terror.
I am glad three of them are off this beautiful land. But there are so many more...

Friday, 5 September 2008

Run to Indie

I get a feeling that the villagers actually look forward to that time in the evening when the crazy Indian, knapsack on his back, goes running past. It is quite a spectacle. I wave out indiscriminately to all that cross my path. Initially it startled quite a few. Now they anticipate it and encourage me on, in Tamil! A father urgently points to the other side of the street as I wave to him. I turn and look, and see his son sitting on his haunches, eyeing me shyly. I manage a wave to him too as I run past. That’s the only encouragement he needs. Soon I have a competitor. I am no match. Soon he tires of my lack of competitive spirit and turns into a lane. I run past a group of young teenaged boys, I hear a comment and all of them break into guffaws. I grin at them and keep going. I can hear a cycle just behind me. And stifled giggles. It trails me for some time and then decides to overtake. Two girls on a bike breeze past me. They can’t stifle their giggles any longer. I say a big hello! And they quickly turn onto a house, laughing. I turn into a lane where a young girl is trying to help her kid sister onto her bike. The kid spots a strange looking man running purposefully towards her and she loses it. She starts screaming and runs around like a headless chicken. (Unfortunate choice of phrase, I know. But ever since a friend used it earlier today in an email it has been running around in my head like a…argh! See what I mean?) Her mother comes running out and gives me a bemused look. I move on. Only to be followed by the little kid’s sister, on her bike, with a friend. They challenge me to a race. This time I decide to show a little more spirit. I give them a stiff challenge. Suddenly they pull over. I realise I am crossing out of the village onto a track that goes through a cashew orchard. I wave to them, grinning at a barrage of questions in Tamil. Maybe they want to set up a race tomorrow.

I love this part of my run. Soft topped track. No risks of impact injuries. Clean air. Dozens of cashew trees on both sides; the ground covered by white sand. Total running bliss. This is the time of the run where I do my thinking. Soon I spy a frail old man on a bike approaching. He dons just a straw hat and a lungi. In one hand he has the catch of the day, a decent sized fish. He is deep in thought as he nears me. I raise my hand and yell, “Vannakam!” He is startled. He instinctively raises his hand to wave back, realises that none of his hands are now holding the bike handle, and fumbles. For a second I think that I have messed things up – but he stabilises, and we cross each other.

Soon I cross the railway track. Now I am on the beach track. Just one more kilometre to go. Another old man; this one is staring at me. I wave. No reply. He looks grumpy. As I cross him he starts running with me. He has an animated gait. He holds a bottle in his hand. He keeps up with me for a few strides. Then he realises that he left one slipper behind. I lose my running mate. I take a turn. I can see the ocean now. This stretch always seems the longest. There is no one here now. The fishermen have all left a little while back. When I reach the beach it is left just for me. I face the lovely ocean. Behind me the sun sets slowly, bathing the world in startling colours. As I step into the water I say,”Indie, I’m here!”

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

10 Things I Don’t Like About My New Life

(Read the post titled ‘10 Things I Like About My New Life’ first)

1. You are so far away from me. :(
2. Huh? Am thinking! Am thinking!
3. Still thinking…
4. hmmm
5. well, the weather might change for the worse…
6. there might be mosquitoes later in the year…
7. I might get fired!
8. hmmm
9. So far I just can't see..
10. I hate making stupid lists.

10 Things I Like About My New Life

1. I love my job. I have a vehicle, map and a GPS – I get to use them like crazy. I am actually doing stuff related to my masters!
2. I am in a country that is remarkable – like someone I know mentioned, it is a lot of things that India should be. The terrain is breathtaking and the people and the weather (so far) have been awesome.
3. I have the time to write.
4. I have the time to read.
5. I wake up early.
6. I sleep early.
7. I eat regularly and well.
8. I run. To the ocean. I have the beach completely to myself. I skinny dip! And I run back.
9. I don’t feel like smoking here.
10. Lion Stout. It is an amazing beer – comparable to some of the best that I tasted in Europe.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Of Travel Companions

For a moment I did not know where I was. It was partly the Scandinavian sun, and the fact that I had changed my room just this morning, that I found myself in a groggy, confused state as I awoke from a short, delirious nap. I gradually started regaining consciousness of my surroundings. I was back in the hostel after another long day walking the streets of Copenhagen. The sun and the beer had made me sleep instantaneously. I still had my shoes on. And there was a gorgeous woman bent inches away from me, whistling to herself as she rummaged through her rucksack. “Hi there” I said, pretending to be wide awake. I have seen people get startled, but only when I am totally awake. This performance, witnessed in my state of half sleep, was truly phenomenal. She jumped out of her skin by a mile! Apparently I am a silent sleeper. (Thank God! I hate snorers.) She had no clue that I was there in the room. At least that is what she seemed to be explaining in between huge gasps for air. To complicate matters she had the most amazing French accent. If you have watched ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, where Jamie Lee Curtis has this foreign language fetish, you will realise what afflicts me. Finally, I was waking up. At least a part of me!

Li’ll Blackbird, as I shall call her, based on her email id, became my first impromptu travel companion. She had just landed in the Danish capital on her annual ten day visit to a chosen place. I was halfway through my three day stopover there. We decided to do my last day in Copenhagen together. I travel without a camera (sigh! No longer – I have a phone that has one now. :-( ) She travelled with a camera that used photographic film. Couldn’t get more archaic than that! We had a great time. We were together till I nearly missed my bus. She told me I was not her types; I had not even hit on her. Just when we were nearing the time to part – that time of the day/night when time seems to drag/race depending on your relationship – I learnt about a brewpub that had the Westvleteren beer. I had been a beer tourist for the second half of my year in Europe – and for me it was like getting a clue to the Holy Grail. I dropped my mug of beer, paid up, and dragged her across the city centre to reach the place. They had it. I bought it. She saw my passion and refused my offer to share it with her, but she agreed to have the first sip. “It’s like songbirds singing in your mouth,” she exclaimed as soon as she had sipped it. I enjoyed the best beer in the world, totally satisfied that I had the best way to describe it later – thanks to my fabulous travel companion.
That’s how I nearly missed my bus!

Driving through some awesome landscape in Sri Lanka can be an excruciating experience if you have the wrong travel companion. I started realising this when I did the same today with the most militantly mediocre person I have been with in the last few years. To negate my extremely violent thoughts, I started thinking of the amazing companionship that I have shared during the course of my travels. The preceding piece was conceived when I was actively filtering out the incessant babble of my vehiclemate. I am glad I could do it – the countryside looked so much more beautiful.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

First Day at Work

The first day at work, we were handing over a mine field that had just been cleared. I couldn’t help thinking that I would be learning my job backwards! Lots of time for that, I was told as we were starting work on a new mine field in just a couple of days. I walked through the entire area that the team I was joining had painstakingly cleared, inch by inch, in the past few months. The ground looked so innocuous. So inviting. I saw a forlorn school building in the middle of the mine field. Twenty mines were recovered from around it, the team leader informed me. Finally the area was clear. The war in this area had gotten over sometime back. But these silent killers had ensured that peace was held at bay. It was set to change now. The school would be used to house students once again. The ground will be used to play football.


The Drive East

Sometime next afternoon I started the drive east to head for my team location, near Batticaloa. The route would take me right across the country. A good way to start seeing a new country, I felt. The roads were not the broadest, but they were in good condition. In India anything painted on the road is usually graffiti or someone’s unfortunate pet dog. In Sri Lanka road markings actually tell drivers what to do. Like don’t cross this line, don’t halt here etc. And if the drivers don’t listen, the police actually think it worth their while to stop them and impose a hefty fine. As a result the roads didn’t seem as narrow as they would have back home.
At first sight the country reminds you of Kerala. The resemblance is striking. Then you drive through some amazing open spaces – vast plains, totally uninhabited and the resemblance ends. My route took me through some important historic towns, namely, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa. We took a short detour to go past the Sigiriya monolith, a UNESCO world heritage site. I will write more about these places when I actually have the time to visit them, in stead of just driving through! As we reached nearer to base, we crossed an elephant reserve, and actually saw wild elephants in the wild!


The guy at immigration check in Trichy airport wasn’t very impressed with my answers. I didn’t blame him. It did look a little fishy. To fly from Pune to Chennai, and then take the night train to Trichy, get off at an ungodly hour (1-30 AM!) and then catch the early morning flight out to Colombo. Did seem a bit like I was trying to sneak out of the country! To make matters worse I had my guilty look on. I don’t know why I do that sometimes when faced with an authority figure. So I wasn’t too surprised when I was ushered to an inner office and presented to the Immigration officer, the big man I was told. I went through the spiel of how my NGO was trying to save on costs by buying the cheapest tickets and how all tickets from other airports were sold out and how I just had to be in Colombo today for an important meeting. By now I had donned my own interpretation of an ‘authority figure avatar’ and he seemed to buy it. I was deemed legit. I was off to Sri Lanka!

It doesn’t take you very long in Colombo to realise what a dumbwit you are. A country is at war in your backyard and you realise it only after you have landed there. Till then it was a vague memory of some news clipping. Then as you go through check post after check post, manned by soldiers who seem to know what they are doing, you realise that there is something afoot. The front line is too far for you to hear any battle noises. However, the demeanour of the security agencies suggests that they are not fooled by the distance. Colombo takes the threat seriously. (That didn’t stop a parcel bomb going off near the heart of the city a couple of days later, injuring more than 40 people.)

I was ushered into a room that had jaw marks all over the carpet. I added to it, as mine dropped down too at the awesome sight, my first, of the amazing Indian Ocean! I realised later that the management uses the view to good effect. I never once complained about the musty smell, the lack of drinking water, the mosquitoes or the door lock that never worked! I thought that the hotel was right on the beach when I was startled by a strange noise that didn’t quite belong here. I peered around and realised that the terrace just below me was concealing a railway track that runs right on the edge of the ocean – it was time for the 12-30 local! Now this was one train journey I had to take.

You can be excited about a long meeting in the Ministry for Nation Building only if you have been bumming around for a year. I had been. I enjoyed the meeting. And a few others that were thrown in. In between and later, I stole long walks to explore Colombo. Twice I was gestured off the road and made to wait with fellow pedestrians as some important cavalcade passed by. I was impressed by the soldier’s watchful eyes, looking out for whatever a potential suicide bomber is likely to do, as he held on to his M-16 purposefully. I passed an English pub and remembered my vow. Then I passed a Bavarian pub and nearly forgot my vow. I had visions of a drunk and disorderly me arguing with one of those purposeful soldiers. I bought myself a root beer and went back to my room to call it an early day.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Antic Pond

Furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

-- Matsuo Basho

Antic pond--

frantic frog jumps in--
gigantic sound.

Translated by Bernard Lionel Einbond

Saturday, 22 March 2008

The Train Journey

The following is a true account. I know because I was there.

The Indian Railways is a web of life. I have travelled by train in other countries. I have loved most of the journeys. They transported me to another world. When you step into a train in India, you enter another world. It is a parallel universe, a journey within a journey. This is an account of one such journey.

I don’t remember if this is true, but the first time he entered my office I must have said to myself– Trouble. I more or less instantly warmed up to him. For a laid back person like me who can never be blamed of being a go-getter, life can tend to be pretty boring. However that has been far from the case. As I acknowledged his languid salute and asked him to take a seat, I must have got a vague feeling that my boring moments were numbered. Not very often, but every now and then you meet a person who is like minded. You enjoy the moment and say life is good. This was not such a moment. Once in a few billion human interactions, two people meet and realise that they have a nearly identical track record of creating mess ups. At this moment you pause and say to yourself –trouble! This was such a moment. This is an account of one such journey with one such person.

It was a journey of small miracles. The first miracle was that we reached Pune railway station to catch the train. Let me tell you how the journey was hatched. For me, it was the year of living irresponsibly, which I took too seriously and so it had stretched to now being almost two years. I was having the time of my life. And for a change it involved me staying right where I was. No wanderlust. I really didn’t want to go to Delhi. Trouble was I still had Trouble in my life. Over copious amounts of Old Monk we discussed ideas and got excited. New ventures that would lead us to a new life. I loved it. But he wanted to make it work. You know that part where you actually get off your ass and start doing the million mundane things that so completely ruin the joys of a great idea. The trip to Delhi was supposed to be a business trip. How boring.

Reluctantly I started for the train station; leaving home just in time. Not accounting for the delays that can be caused by traffic snarls, accidents, break downs, marriage processions, funerals, strikes, political rallies etc for which every Indian naturally accounts for and leaves home hours in advance. I made it.

Trouble was visibly glad to see me. He was there with another friend who was travelling to Delhi too. We didn’t have confirmed seats for a journey that was to last more than twenty four hours. I wasn’t really looking forward to the prospect, but he assured me that he had it under control. He patted the bottle of Old Monk that made a familiar bulge in his bag. I relaxed a bit.

We got in the train and were happy to see that we had one seat between the three of us. Not bad. In Indian Railways that’s all you need. He was already pouring the drinks when the train pulled out of the station. “Not for me,” the other guy said, “I don’t drink Rum.” The two of us gave him the look that is reserved for people who drink alcohol but don’t drink Old Monk. We shrugged and sipped our drinks. It was a pity though, because it was that guy’s bottle. “Why didn’t you just get some alcohol that you drink?” “I know how much you both like Old Monk,” our friend smiled. He was a nice bloke. I felt the nice warmth that comes from a combination of rum and good friends.

Ahmadnagar is a nondescript town a couple of hours from Pune. The only reason that I acknowledge the town was because a good friend had recently moved there. In fact I had driven him down from Pune when he had moved. As usual I had failed to stay in touch soon after that. As our train approached Nagar, I was thinking a lot of him. Because just a few minutes back I had given him a frantic call. He is a doctor and I presumed that he would be used to frantic calls at odd hours. Apparently not. My call had seemed to unsettle him a bit. To his credit, only a bit. He had recovered and had swung into action. I had called him precisely twenty five minutes before the scheduled arrival of my train in Nagar. I had asked him to rush to the station with a bottle of whiskey. Two reasons for that. First, our friend didn’t drink rum. Second, the rum was getting over. The doctor, who was in a party when he took my call, grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the bar and then mounted his 1991 vintage Kinetic Honda scooter and raced to the station that was at least twenty minutes away. When we pulled into the sleepy Nagar train station there was still no sign of the doc. It was a five minute halt. Desperate moments require desperate measures. A desperate plan was hatched. I was to wait outside the station for the Doc. Trouble sent me off with a reassuring pat, “Don’t worry – I won’t let the train leave without you!” As I stepped outside I saw the train beginning to pull out. At the same moment I saw a visibly flustered Doc running towards me. I rushed to him, grabbed the bottle and rushed away. No time for small talk. The doc understood. The train which had reached the end of the platform suddenly came to a halt. I ran to my coach and got in. I walked to my seat, trying unsuccessfully to conceal the whiskey.
There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence as a railway police patrol walked through our coach, slowly looking around. I could feel the eyes of the other passengers on us. The patrol passed on to the next coach and we let out our breath. And poured out the whiskey! By now we were becoming popular and a few others feeling up to a drink had joined us.

The trouble with Indian rail journeys is that they invariably outlast the booze available. We hadn’t yet reached Manmad, a mere 300 odd kilometres away and we were running dry for the second time that evening. Another desperate plan was hatched. Trouble and I were to jump out at Manmad Station with our knapsacks and venture out to look for alcohol. It is not too improbable to find some shady place that sells, even at that time of the night, around most Indian train stations. If we missed the train we would catch a later train and our friend could travel comfortably on the only berth we had. A noble plan, we congratulated ourselves. We were foot-boarding, when the train stopped in the pitch darkness, a little outside Manmad Station. This can happen only in India – but out of nowhere there appeared an urchin, selling bottled ‘mineral’ water. Trouble got chatting with him and he proudly confessed that he bottled the water himself from the railway tap! One thing lead to other and suddenly a deal was struck. The urchin disappeared for a while and was back soon with four chilled bottles of some strong vile local beer! Just what we needed!

Bhopal. Distance covered 895km. Alcohol consumed – Rum, Whiskey and vile Beer in varying amounts. My eyes refused to open. But Trouble was excited about something. It was a bag with a lot of food and a dozen bottles of frozen kingfisher beer! I groaned inwardly and tried to go back to sleep. Vague memories of last night played havoc in my head. The bejewelled gay cut-surd hotel owner from Switzerland was saying something in his funny accent. The ex assistant Adjutant of the Indian Military Academy was there too. I was doing bottoms up with that vile beer. Gosh! My head was throbbing. I decided that I could not possibly go back to sleep now. So I joined the guys who were already tucking into the food with a gusto that I could only envy. I ate and felt marginally better. It was only after we popped open a perfectly chilled Kingfisher a couple of hours later that I came back to life.

Mathura. Distance covered 1455km. Alcohol consumed – Rum, Whiskey, four bottles of vile local beer, and dozen bottles of Kingfishers. Gloom was descending fast on my now large group of friends. Trouble and I exchanged glances, even we seemed to be out of ideas. Two dignified looking Sikh gentlemen were sitting across us and solemnly playing cards. They seemed to sense our gloom. They had been observing our antics for a long time now. One of them turned to us and said, “I have some Colonel’s Special. Would you like to share?!”

We had the last sip of the Colonel’s Special as the train pulled into Hazrat Nizamuddin. We had done it. The journey could not out last the booze this time. We bid adieu to our friends and stepped out. We grabbed a taxi and went straight to a nightclub. Such journeys need to be celebrated!

Thursday, 13 March 2008


Don't drive after this, the voice said. I took a look at my drink. The bartender was just pouring it. It looked flat and lifeless. Incapable of doing a thing. But those words made me want it more. I turned to the source of the voice as I felt the drink stir behind me. I had asked for some Limca with it. I struck up a conversation with him, afterall I was a hitchhiker and I needed to get to the end of the night. I needed this ride. And even though I had fallen in love with the drink stirring gently behind me, I knew it was this guy who would be driving me. At least initially. So I listened politely as he told me the crazy things this drink could do. I grew impatient, as he grew graphic. I just wanted him to shut up and spend some time with my drink. "....fenny!" he finished, and I looked back in time to see the bartender handing me my drink. Suddenly the music changed, the drums rolled. And the musician playing on the stage beckoned to me. He was playing the number I had requested earlier, much earlier. I just wanted him to shut up too, and spend some time with my drink. It wasn't to be. I was yanked unceremoniously to the dance floor and I politely made as if I was enjoying the number. You can never be sure when people think you are doing a great job. Immaterial if you are wanting to or not. This was one such night. That was the last number and the local rocker who was crooning the song decided that I was his friend for life. Which meant that I was to partake in his consumption of the 'hash thrust into his palms by a hysterical fan.' I didn't quite know which part of the statement to disbelieve. So I started at the beginning, and it was hash all right. I decided it was safe to disbelieve the rest now. But by then I wasn't really bothered about the truth either. That is how I briefly met Fenny and fell in love with her for no reason. At least the reason wasn't evident to me yet. That night ended without me seeing her again. But yes, I did see her again later. And again. And the good thing? She liked being called Fenny! I guess Goa does that to you.