Saturday, February 17, 2007

Adventures in RPO

In India, any trip to a government establishment is guaranteed to be an unique experience. Yesterday, I had the good fortune to enter the hallowed halls of the Regional Passport Office in Bangalore.

The office opens at 9:30 a.m, but as I'd heard about the popularity of this place, I decided to be there by 7:45 a.m. A few straggling touts at the entrance offered me random forms I didn't need. Inside, expecting a huge mass of fellow citizens, I was surprised to see only a few dozen people ahead of me. Temporary notices on the walls explained that fresh passport applicants need to go to Counter #1 and Miscellenaous Services to Counter #2.

There's really no activity in the decrepit interiors and one wonders if they will ever open. Finally, around 9:27 a.m, a car drives into the gates and a sour looking man and woman, both well into middle age, get off with barely concealed disdain for the long queue of hopeful passport service customers.

At 9:31 a.m, the metal gates to the inner abode open. People are let in two at a time. Suddenly, another notice catches my eye. It says in block capitals that all photographs should have only light colored backgrounds and should absolutely not be red or blue. As luck would have it, my photograph has a vivid red background. With much trepidation, I approach the security guard to await my partner for entry. There's a small counter inside where a guy looks over the documents you have and puts a sticker with a token number on your application. He then vaguely points to his right. Afraid to ask more questions than essential, I walk straight according to the hand pointing. I end up in a small room with a name "Tatkal". I ask another bewildered looking fellow customer if this is the right place to be in to get an additional booklet. He replies to me succintly "Tatkal". I return to the token gentleman and ask him if I need to go upstairs. "Yes", he says like it was obvious all along.

Upstairs, things look to be more organized. A digital display shows the token number being serviced along with the counter number. A Orwellian voice calls out each number by digits only. Again, the counter numbers being called have no bearing on the outside notice which talks specifically about Counter #1 and Counter #2.

Surprisingly, the numbers are moving quickly and soon #31 is summoned. I get to counter #2 and the guy says that he stopped calling at #24. Befuddled, I approach counter #6 where six hands are trying to squeeze into a small opening that a cat might fit in. A guy is shouting "I am #33 and #34 and they were each called at a different counter!" #17 is glowering at him and brief hand match occurs in the small animal opening. The passport officially studiously ignores all the goings on and sips his tea with much relish.

I finally get my hand in. The official (resembled Illayaraja to some extent), returns my forms with alacrity saying I need to get the documents verified by some other guy sitting in a corner of the waiting area. I rush back to this hitertho unseen person. A long queue is already parked in front of him. Good natured ribaldry and wise-cracks ensue from the waiting customers as I proceed to the verifier. I give him my forms. He looks over all the documents and asks the one thing I don't have-passport copies. The instructions online very clearly say that passport copies are not required. I should have known better.

I now run back downstairs and outside to get copies of my passport. I dash back in and ask the verifier if I need to stand in the lengthening queue again. Since I speak in Kannada, I am shown some bias and he bids me to give him the papers. This time, luckily, everything is in order and there is no comment on the red background of my photograph.

I go back to counter #6. Mysteriously, the crowd has disappeared except for one guy. He is told that he needs to wait for 2 hours right there. The guy protests saying that he hadn't informed his office that he would be taking off on a mission of this nature. The passport officer grimly reprimands him "You should not take off from work without informing. It is very bad! You should always tell your boss". As this doesn't solve the immediate problem, the truant office worker resignedly stands by.

A lady beside me is asked to fill out a PP form. As this is mumbled with some speed, she has no idea what the officer just said. He finally clarifies and tells her the verifier will have this form. The verifier sends her back to the counter and she complains, and rightly so, that she is being given the run-around. The counter official, probably taking pity on her, produces the PP form from a stack of other PP forms lying a few feet from his reach.

I finally submit all my paper work and he has no objections. He tells me everything is fine and I will get my additional booklet soon. I try to probe on what 'soon' would be in terms of days but he just smiles sweetly and stretches his hand out to take the papers from the next customer.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Family Secret

Parapu pudi! The name does roll off the tongue! A spine tingling, mouth watering family recipe passed down from generations, this seductive powder is a mandatory kitchen item in every household of every relative I know.

Dissecting the name, Parapu is dhal or a lentil, Pudi is powder. So, as the name suggests, it loosely translates as Dhal/Lentil Powder. But what a disservice we would do to this grandiose offering to the palate with a mere translation to the English Language. This is one food item that is more than the sum of the parts.

I don’t want to go into the making of this flamboyant symphony of dhal, chillies, horse gram and salt. Doing so, would demean the word of mouth tradition of passing this recipe. What I do want to do is talk about how to eat it, which is indeed the culmination of all things that are good in life.

So, how do you eat it, you might as well ask. Well, I am going to tell you!

We’ll start by looking at the various schools of consumption of this ‘powder’-ous nectar of the gods.

You can go the ghee way or the oil way. This is completely in your hands as there are equally strong proponents of both and there is no wrong choice. After due trial and error, you have now picked one lubricant.

Next, you need rice that is not prepared fresh as that tends to be a tad sticky. Basmati rice is a strict no-no, by the way. The ideal rice is one that has been made at least 5 hours earlier. The closer towards the 8 hour mark, the better.

Slowly put a few drops of ghee (or oil) on the rice. Mix the rice thoroughly so it takes on a slightly oily feel. Not too much mind you. Your fingers should have a subtle sheen to them, that’s all. Then, add a small teaspoon of the holy grail of powders. You need to see the whiteness of the rice, yet the brown-ness of the pudi should be all pervading. Don’t worry, this takes some practice, but in time, you will be a Jedi Master. The pudi is best if made slightly coarse and not too smooth so as you mix the rice gently, you can feel the roughness of the powder in your fingers. The aromas at this point is over-powering and if you haven’t already created a drool pool around where you are standing, get your nasal passages checked.

Now, very gingerly, make a small ball with the rice. Again, there is an optimal dimension for this but typically it’s about the size of a small egg. If you have the abyss portion of the dhaal from rasam, that is an unbeatable combination for you to dip the ball of rice ever so slightly in the rasam dhaal before putting it in your mouth. If not, don’t worry. You still are way up in food heaven already. The success indicator of your work so far is when no rice sticks to your hand when the first ball of the volcanic mix has entered your mouth. Savor the richness of the powder as it brings out the evocative and heady mix of spices in your tongue, your mouth, until it finally disappears down your throat leaving a lingering after-taste and an addiction for life. Short of swooning, you will now experience every possible pleasure combined with the anticipation of the next ball of supernova.

If you would ever like a demo of the consumption process, I will be more than happy to oblige.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Chronicles of Chang: Auto Merchant

Some things happen to some people, some things happen to all people but all things happen only to Chang. We continue to follow our hero of yore as this time, he embarks on an epic adventure of car selling.

A little background is in order as we go back a few years to chronicle the first entrance of our protagonist into this intricate art. Circa 2002, Chang was of the frame of mind to sell his 4-door car. He gets this itch every few years or so where he sells a perfectly good automobile and then will drive to Los Angeles to buy an identical vehicle. The whole cycle then re-starts. Let us not delve into the inner workings of the complex mind of Chang but limit ourselves to the exploits in question.

Anyway, first, a senior citizen called him to visit her place so she could see the car. She mentioned that she was not able to get around much so could he come by and show the car? As we all know by now, Chang’s heart of gold melted and he promptly drove 40 miles or so to demonstrate the proficiency of the car. The lady went over the car with a fine tooth comb and essentially trashed every aspect of the said vehicle in no uncertain terms making Chang feel like a school-boy being reprimanded by the headmistress.

Suitably chastised but with an ever indomitable spirit, Chang journeyed back to his home. In a couple of hours, the phone rang. The voice on the other line said something about trying out a new system and Chang, not the most attentive of listeners, said fine, I’ll try it out. The voice continued saying that, a person on the other line would type something, the voice’s owner would speak it to Chang, who would have to reply to the voice, which would type it back to the person. For someone who is easily confused justifying the drinking of Diet Pepsi, you can imagine the chaos all this must have created in Chang’s mind.

The voice on the phone continued “The person would like to know how much you are selling your car for”. Chang gave his reply. A momentary pause; the voice came back “The person says it’s too much. Can you go lower?” Chang, in most instances, a man of infinite patience was slowly starting to lose his iron control, especially with the drubbing from the senior citizen fresh in his mind. In a barely controlled voice he said “Why doesn’t the person talk to me directly?” A second’s delay. The voice replied “The person on the other line is deaf sir” Now, Chang felt more miserable as he realized what the system was all about.

There are a few more stories that we won’t delve into for the sake of people who want the latest story. The stories are a bit hazy but there was one buyer who seemed to be a gangster or a drug lord and wanted to take the car off Chang for a steal..literally… To make a long story short, the car did get sold finally but that is another tale.

Let us now move to present day. The itch was back and Chang was afire with the desire to once more sell his 4-door automobile. This time his adversary was an Indian. Chang, the admirer of India and Indians, looked upon this person favorably as a potential buyer. A small obstacle here was that the Indian would leave messages on Chang’s phone saying that if Chang called back, the phone would not be answered as there may not be a signal. 174 missed calls and voice mails later, Chang struck upon a brilliant plan. He would go to the mountain himself! With strong past practice in driving his car to show prospective customers, he decided to do it again. Not finding a common place to meet, flexible Chang said he would take the car to the Indian’s work-place.

It was déjà-vu all over again! This time, the Indian went over the car with a microscope. He found paint peeled off an unseen part of the front door and made a big deal of it. I have seen this purported damage. You need to look at the door with a 1500X magnification to find this peeled off paint. Next, the Indian, with Chang perched on the passenger side, took the auto for a spin. Indian guy asked if Chang could hear some noise when the brakes were applied. Chang couldn’t hear a thing and not for the lack of trying. After this, the Indian claimed that the alignment was off as the car moved off a straight line about 0.00085 degrees for every 20 miles. He enquired politely of Chang if the car had ever been in an accident as his friend once saw a car which had an issue with the axle as it had been in an accident. Chang retorted with barely concealed rage that if his car had been in an accident it would be in the records. Finally, Chang’s disciplined power over his emotions gave way and he let the Indian have a piece of his mind and came away with a dismal view of the re-seller trade.

To date, the car has not been sold, but we shall follow the progress of our hero as he goes through his trials and tribulations, for we all know in our hearts, that when Chang tries, Chang succeeds. Maybe there’s a lesson in it for all us somewhere, but for the life of me, I don’t know what it is.

A wedding in Chennai

It's been a while since we had a massive wedding on the wife's side of the family. This one was especially important as it was the...