Island express

I was trying to rent a house in Bangalore (this is a story from the mid 80’s), there were no apartments those days, only houses and my search was not so ably assisted by the few regular estate agents (brokers – that’s what they were called then) around as I was a bachelor (Persona Non Grata of course). Assurances that I was engaged and mostly vegetarian fell on deaf ears until I met Mr Swamy at Mt Ganesh Coffee works in Malleswaram. What a broker was doing in a coffee grinding mill beats me, but I concluded that it was not a very profitable investment and our man was trying his hand at a benifit mankind enterprise to appease the gods…

We conversed mostly in English and Tamil (advantages of hailing from Palakkad) and after a few meetings and home visits found a decent pad around Mahalakshmi layout. I was very thankful to Mr Swamy and the contract signing was duly completed over a cup of filter coffee which Swamy provided using freshly ground coffee from his mill that produced it every blue moon day(I am stretching it now, the coffee must have come from the Krishna cafe next door).

Swamy tells me with all the R’s rolling, “you see, Bangalore was a calm and quiet place, We had no crowds, housing shortages or water problems till they started this train called Island express, It is this one way train from Cochin to Bangalore, you see (Notice the loving use of ‘You see’ often) these Malayalees, I have nothing against them – not trouble creators, nice people really, problem is they all come but never do they pack their bags and go back”. Our man of course was under the assumption that I was a Tamilian.

My rental contract was signed, so what did I have to lose? I could not resist dropping the bombshell on Mr Swamy, “I came to Banaglore on the Island express too”.

The expression on his face was priceless.

P.S – My friend Ganesan tells me that I am probably wrong, he says that had Swamy known I was a Malayali from the beginning, he would have changed the train to Madras mail and the problem to Tamilians coming on it.

Turtles can fly

If you have not seen this movie, try and get hold of a copy and spend a couple of hours watching a heart wrenching beautiful movie. A movie with a cast almost entirely made up of children 2-13 years old, you wonder how the Iranian Kurd director Ghobadi managed to get out such performances from them and you marvel at the story line…Not one of the kids is a pro actor, every one was apparently a refugee kid!!! And each one deserves an Oscar…

Picture courtsey

This is a simple but poignant story of a group of kids in the war torn Iraqi - Turkish border, at a refugee camp, about a group of orphan kids who collect and sell unexploded land mines for a living, led by the fantastic ‘Mr Satellite’. Satellite is the group’s negotiator; he gets them the best deal. So why is he called Satellite? Because he excels at putting up Sat dishes as well!! The opening scene when de does such an installation is so good…Listen to how he explains & translates the channel content. Life goes on with this group and war is looming close, when a group of three kids land up, an armless one, a forlorn girl and a small 3-year-old child. Wow, watch the child on camera and you wonder, what acting, or is it acting, is it for real??

But all said and done, it is a sad movie; showing realities of war, the hope is in the title, that even Turtles can fly…

Highway of death

The soldiers were huddled in the TATA bus taking them back to Baghdad; they had enough of Saddam’s misadventure into Kuwait. Many of them had been involved in the torture and subjugation of the rich Kuwait and her subjects, but after months of that, they were happy to head for home. Bags of clothes, toys and the such, looted during their stay in Kuwait, had been hurriedly shoved under the seats. The officers carted bigger riches in their cars. The orders for retreat had come from Baghdad on 25th Feb.

The convoy started the slow drive back on the Abdali highway 80 from Jahra to Basra. Consisting of tanks, armoured vehicles, buses and assorted vehicles like cars, jeeps and trailers; they laboured up the Abdali pass. As they climbed the low hill, the fighter jets appeared on the skyline, flying towards them.

The first signs of the terror to follow started when the fighter jets strafed the front and back of the approximate 1500-2000 vehicle convoy. Then came the bombers. What followed was mayhem, ‘depleted uranium’ tipped shells, fuel air bombs, the bombs that first sucked out all oxygen from the air, bombarded the convoy to utter destruction. The convoy and much of life in those vehicles had no chance. They died a merciless death. This is how many subsequent reports summarised the event…

The horror of this could only be felt if you were there. I was there a few days after it happened. We went to see this while we were on the power network damage assessment trip to Kuwait following the land attacks. You could smell the cordite, you could smell burnt everything; you could see some burnt out skeletons. Most of the debris had been bulldozed to the side of the road.

My hands shook as I took these photographs.

This is the war you don’t normally see on your television or newspapers. Right or wrong, good or bad, I don’t know.

This is the infamous ‘Highway of death’, of the 91 Gulf war.

Fire Walking

I still remember the Mariamman temple in our village in Palakkad, Mariamman is the mother god who controls all kinds of Poxes, fertility and so on!!. Being close to the Tamilnadu border meant that a lot of the culture blends in those regions, we had a number of Tamil customs, a lot of the farm labour came from Tamil villages. As a child, I used to watch in awe the people who walked across burning coal embers. I used to be terrified of the head priest or Velichhapadu who used to split his head (or so I thought) and dance around with blood streaming down his face.

I asked the elders how one walked on fire. Nobody gave me a proper answer, and then I started hearing from people that all you needed was will power, that sounded very vague as well.

I started to check around a bit, I found that there was a fire walking institute, many a fire walking training centres for organisations, fire walking seminars for personal empowerment & motivation. Phew…they said by walking on fire, you conquered your fears. Could be right. As many of you know, fire is man's earliest known fear (probably second to wild animals??)

I read about the Leidenfrost effect where they explained that the moisture on the foot could be the vapour barrier preventing burning. Anyway the physicist Walker who tried to find out if it was true burnt himself and that debunked the theory. The other theory was the conductivity theory, that coal is a poor conductor of heat and hence you don’t get burnt (put your hand into an oven, you don’t burn yourself since air is a poor conductor. Touch the metal in the over, you burn yourself since metal is a good conductor). Added to that the ash on top of coals (seen only when done in day time – at night you see only the coal glow red)is a proper insulator.

Anyway to cut to the chase, I read that all these theories do not apply to the human body and that the body actually counteracts the situation eminently. Apparently it is similar to keeping a paper cup with water over a flame. The water boils at 100 deg C (you can try this at home at your risk), but the paper cup does not!!! In the same way the blood and fluids that flow over the feet tissue cool the surface to the right levels!!

So what has mind got to do with this? Your mind is what is going to control the flow of blood and has to decide to let you do it. Your mind has to tell you to take the plunge, if it tells you not to, ‘DO NOT’ walk on coals!!! Simple, eh?

BTW over 3 + million people have, I read, participated in fire walking seminars, can you believe it?? and, one such guy who conducts a seminar is right in Stafford!!!

No baba, I have no intention of being motivated that way, I will find other ways.

Duck and Duct tape

It was again a story from my days in Florida, I was reading articles on sticky tape shortages after the Homeland security ‘Orange alert’ announcements and I wondered, ‘what a situation this is, are people really thinking these days or being paranoid’? I was in warm South Florida, and thinking of the events in 1991, of chemical attacks, missiles and tape. I remembered the time when packing & industrial tape sales were brisk in Riyadh and everybody sealed all home openings and windows with tape, to escape potential gas tipped missile attacks from Iraq, including yours faithfully…and then I remembered Abi’s college list…

Abishek had come home from college for his annual vacation; he had his usual list of things to take back. One of the items was Duck tape. I called him and ridiculed him for misspelling ‘Duct’ tape and explained that it was duct tape since it was originally used for taping AC ducts. He did not say anything, just humored the old man with a wry smile. At home depot, I was in for a surprise, the tapes were indeed called ‘Duck’ tapes.

I was flabbergasted and mystified, till my friend Ollie explained to me that the original ‘duck tape’ was made by J & J in 1927 during WW II to seal ammunition cases. Later on, I decided to check around a bit and found that what started as an olive green colored tape, morphed into the grey Duct tape after it became popular post WW II in the building business. Over the years, it has become so popular, there is even an active fans club and competitions on using it cleverly..

So why were they called duck tapes? Because they were as waterproof as a ducks back!
Do you know that Swedes (apparently) call them Jesus tape (as miraculous as..). It is also called 100, 200 and 1000-mile tapes. And even as missile tape (no! that is not the reason why the shuttle failed!!) Another story is that the original duck tape got its name from the Duck cotton used to make it…. whatever that was.

Amazingly it has many medical applications, like wart removal, temporary bandage, wrist support etc.. is a popular bust lifter at beauty pageants (believe me, I understand it was demonstrated in Oprah & I have seen pictures of models applying it before dressing!!) and a cheek separator as I read, during hemorrhoid operations. They had hundreds of ideas like this documented and illustrated in some of the duct tape clubs.

One guy Jim suggested…

Use Duck tape for belly removal - To remove that hideous middle-aged gut, simply apply a strip of duct tape over your mouth for six days to two months.

Sangada Mukku (Crying Corner)

As one drives along the Mathaar(airport) street to the old city centre Al Bathaa in Riyadh, typically on a Thursday evening, he starts to sense a different vibrancy from the rest of Riyadh. While you would hardly see a soul on a hot summer day on the streets of Riyadh, save some labourers toiling on the streets or building works, the sight as you near the Five building complex is very different…

I remember my very first visit to that place; it was during summer 1987, Riyadh was not the hyper modern city it is today. I was bored, lonely and decided to walk from the Marriot to Bathaa. I had been in Riyadh only a few days; my first assignment out of India and it did not at that time strike me odd to take a two-mile walk. Well, it turned out to be one hell of a walk, the road was burning hot, the temperature outside was dry & between 35deg-45deg C, both my nostrils burned and the feet started to hurt. I remember my feeling then, no problem trudge on…I was fed up, I wanted to see some countrymen and I was a bit homesick, wife and son back in India, new office, new lodgings, unfamiliar food and hotels…

Once you reached Batha, you saw a hustle and bustle slightly different from those one expects in a typical Arabic souk (market). You start to see large numbers of Indian and Filipino workers congregating. As you neared the five buildings (that is what it is still known as – the 5 building complex) you saw the shoppers…everybody was buying something to take home – The annual vacation has finally been approved…stuff expected by the rest of your family & friends. Soaps, perfumes, clothes, jeans, electronics, cassettes and what not. These were all available at the best prices in these buildings and some haggling was permitted. The latest technology was available in the electronic & camera shops.

As you crossed the five buildings, you came to a big car park and saw thereabout a big mass of humanity. The decibel level was much higher, you smelt curry and big animated groups of Malayalis, Pakistanis and Filipinos (mind you, only men) were busy chatting. Very few women in Batha those days, small groups of Filipina nurses or an odd Asian or European family. The people around devoured the odd woman who went by, with their eyes - I can understand why, after long absences from their families!!!

The Malayali’s called the place Sangada mukku – and that was precisely what it was. It was a hub of activity, an accessible meeting point. This was where they met at week ends to share news, Kerala politics, personal sorrows, Kafil news – sponsors (employers), woes about air tickets, embassy, checking around for labour visas for their friends and family…and what not. Here was where they purchased currency or sent money back home via hawala routes. Keep in mind that there was no Internet or personal computers and all communication then was via phones, letters and believe it or not, cassettes. These tapes had ‘Kathu’ letter songs – with a droning tonal quality not dissimilar to modern day rap (It can sound as bad to the uninterested listener), which were mailed or sent through friends travelling back home.

The Malayali normally trooped first to ‘Mumtaz video’ where one could pick up a Malayalam or Hindi movie cassette or the latest WWF episode. I had no idea what WWF was till I saw King Kong bundy and Hulk Hogan at a friend’s house, but that is another story. They would troop in and ask, “has ‘336’ come?” It took me a while to figure out that these were WWF episode numbers. I could imagine why they were so popular, probably it helped get out the pent up anger at their Kafil.

I was really amazed, what a place! People looked happy, they met their friends even strangers or countrymen with an eagerness you do not see elsewhere, they abused the Kafils with gusto and finally rounded it off with a meal of Porotta and chops before they sadly waited for their mini buses (coaster’s) back to where they worked and lived.

I visited S-Mukku virtually every week for a few years after that visit to pick up rental movies and it was only here that you felt that physical Malayali connection in Riyadh.

It is sometimes said – If you don’t know Batha, you do not know Riyadh, If you have not been to Sangadamukku, you won’t understand a gulfi…

I walked back armed with a newly rented cassette, well fed on porottas and curry and a happy mind, but alas! by the time I reached back, my new Bata North Star’s heel had split open. I guess they were never made for walking in Riyadh. For that matter I don’t think any walking shoe is!!!

It has been ages since I left Riyadh for other lands, I wonder if Sangadamukku still exists? For sure in the minds & hearts of thousands of Malayalis who lived in Riyadh..

Michale Goldfarb a WBUR reporter said this in his ‘Shifting sands’ report- So beautifully!!

Batha is a forlorn place at night, a place where you can feel time slowly being butchered. It's streets are lined with men shuffling along at loose ends, separated from their families for months and even years at a time. They work in Saudi Arabia to earn salaries that are tiny by American standards, but huge by the standards of the villages they come from in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia or the Philippines. But, they never fully integrate into Saudi society, and the locals ignore them. The nice thing about Batha for a visitor to Riyadh is that it is the one place where men and women can speak to each other, if there are no Muttawa around, and talk about their lives.

The Ahmedpur train story

Many years ago, I read this story in a magazine called Imprint...

The magazine is not in print these days...

But I found it on the net ...

Another reference to this story is the article linked.

It has more examples on the use and misuse of English

A Turkish bath

Have you have experienced a Turkish bath? I can assure you, it is an unforgettable and pleasant experience. Mine was, of course an original, in Turkey. Hammam is Turkish for public baths (remember the soap we had in India?).

Venkat and I were spending a hot summer’s day loitering around along the Sultanahmet area in Istanbul. The family was away in India for the summer, so time was a plenty…passing the Blue mosque, I recall it was Venkat’s brainwave to try out a Turkish bath. The first thought that came to my mind then was a hairy sweaty pot bellied masseur breaking my bones and pulling out all the body appendages from their respective joints…

I was a bit apprehensive, neither of us had any idea as to what it could turn out to be, but we charged ahead and found the original Cagaloglu hamam in Cemberlitas which is centuries old. I would assume that it has changed a bit since the ages, become a bit modern, more hygienic and all that .

We were led upstairs where there are changing/locker rooms and instructed to remove our clothes and wear just the reddish towel they gave us (much like the ‘thorthu’ in Kerala) and come down to the main hall. I think by now we were both quite shaky, but we put on a brave face and trundled downstairs…

The hall that opened out in front of us was really huge and all marble. It was a fantastic sight really, the sun streaming in from the small windows and though the steam put up a real ancient picture…mercifully no smoke. Two islands (Gobek tas) of marble and lots of naked guys lying on them, some washing up near the walls… We were instructed to lie down on one of these slabs.. Man, was the marble hot heated from the bottom). I looked around, there were some masseurs pummelling some guys on a second island, nothing much amiss, no women – they were in another hall…now, that was sad. After some 15 minutes on the marble, and sweat pouring off you, I started to feel a bit sleepy actually and nodded off.. Dreaming of eating vadas at the Saravanabhava when I was jerked out of the pleasant reverie by yes, a hairy sweaty pot bellied masseur with bushy eyebrows, a swirling moustache and a fierce demeanour. I saw that Venkat was fast asleep, no help there.

Our friend, the WWF champion thundered in Turkish – if I was a Pakistani tourist. When I answered in my broken Turkish that I was neither, but a Hintli (Turkish for Indian) living in Istanbul, he actually smiled…Yabanci (foreigner) speaking some Turkish; I guess that was endearing to his nationalist pride.

I was to go and lie down on the next island and Mehmetbey (Mr Mehmet) the masseur started with the big loofa scrubber. He virtually took the first layer of skin off me. The feeling was so good that you start to tingle…then he brought a bucket of soapy water and a pillow case with which he raised a fine lather and continued the scrub - talking all the while, of the political situation, economy, the quality of the tourist season that year etc. You will not believe how much dirt comes off you when this guy really gets to work, but then you start to see the same thing with all the others around. This went on for some 15 mts – and then I was told to go and bathe myself. All this while you could smell eucalyptus that some regulars had put into their baths…

Your body is by then burning hot and when you sit on the cool marble floor at the stalls on the side of the room and pour cold water over yourself, you remember the times back home when you drew cool water from the well and poured over yourself…Oh! It was bliss….

Where is Venkat? Aha I see him, he is still supine, lather covered and having a serious conversation on the textile business and its vagaries with his masseur, Venkat is fluent in Turkish, an ‘Ustad’.

Back to the floor after 5 minutes and Mehmetbey is ready for the massage. I am a bit scared now, what the hell is he planning to do? He asks me to lie face down and bends my legs back, one after other till they touch your neck. Then the arms are twisted & turned…oh! You won’t believe the agony in some of those pulls & twists, but afterwards it felt good, unbelievably good!!!

Finishing off, you go back and wash yourself, cool off, go to the bar or your locker room and have a nice tall fruit juice…heavenly.

Maybe I should get a time machine and find my way back to those Roman ages where Mediterranean people just bathed, slept, listened to music, screwed around and ate grapes fed by buxom women….

Midnight express

Who has seen the movie Midnight express with Brad Davis ?

(here is a review for those interested)

If you have, i must say two things

1- the movie is pretty good
2- the movie portrays Turks in the wrong light

having lived in Turkey for some 5 years and knowing the Turkish people, I must say the movie delivers a lopsided message. The problem is this one movie has slanted opinion about Turkey so much over the years since its release ..Remember how Charles Sobraj was incarcerated in Tihar??? What would you feel if a movie was made about Sobraj's bad opinion on Tihar?

In the case of 'Midnight express' the chap ( BTW it is based on a real story, I think the guy is still alive) apparently smuggled drugs, get caught and was put in a jail - u can imagine a scenario with sobraj in Tihar. The guy escapes and tells his story..which of course is done well..

but try asking a Turk, hell will break loose...
They are a very nationalistic bunch.