Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Operation Sea Breeze or How to get a recharge in 24 hours

4 hours behind schedule! Our family is back in form, finally!! About time too! Breakfast at good old SLV (Raagi Gudda division) and we were off in three cars to Chilly Chennai.

The usual story of the tortoise and the hare, I tore off at breakneck speed, well ahead of the other two cars. A slight loss of concentration on my cousin’s and my part saw us take a miniscule detour into Krishnagiri. Well, it’s not really a detour. Apparently, a left turn is needed at the Krishnagiri junction under the flyover. We went over and into the bustling city center of Krishnagiri. A sudden realization dawned on the wife, a mute spectator until then and all hell broke loose. We were allegedly on the road to Salem and while this could have been brought to our attention BEFORE the damned turn in the highway, it was done when we were well past the town.

Anyway, no harm no foul and we sped back the ‘n’ km and regained our driving directions. Time loss numbers were being thrown around ranging from 15 minutes to 14 hours but for the record, we lost about 30 minutes though this will remain a bone of contention and fodder for healthy debate in the family for years to come.

Tamil Nadu road authorities or whoever posts the speed warning signs have an amazing sense of humor. ‘If you are married, divorce speed’ read one informative board. ‘Drive, don’t fly’ another helpful message proclaimed, to reduce our lead footedness (is that a word??). 'Know Safety, Know Injury, No safety, Know Injury' was yet one more example of a witty and diabolical play with words.

Our next pit-stop was the happening urban sprawl of Ranipet. While former residents claim that this is a township, it is no such thing. First of all, it’s about 73 degrees (C) in the shade and the place has a desperately desolate look about it. We were hard pressed to find a shop to buy water and short eats. However, our family stares challenge in the eyes and we did find a shack where we gobbled up cookies, chips and ice cream. As is normal for us, we created quite a ruckus and I’m sure the ‘township’ folk were glad to see us go.

Okay, I need to step back a bit here and talk about Operation Sea Breeze. The main reason for the third car on the trip was that 3 young men in our family were on a match-making mission for one of the young men and another cousin of mine (who had already arrived in Chennai). Actually, not the main reason; the only reason. The entire 5-6 hours of the journey witnessed frenetic planning and strategizing. This included mass SMS communications between cars. Planning continued at Chennai in my in-law’s home as we moved into attack/execution mode. Code words like ‘Ice Cream’, ‘Milk Shake’ and ‘Coffee’ were being bandied around in such a flurry that none of us actually remembered the decoded meanings.

Ah, and one more thing. We were all going to Chennai for my cousin’s wedding. And the fact that I’m remembering this nugget of information so late in the game shows clearly what our priorities were for the trip.

The wedding reception was the first event for us. Two of my nephews (early teens), not fully trained in the art of espionage and subterfuge, made a blatant display of looking for my cousin (the girl who was the latter half of the match-making mission whom we shall call ‘X’ from now on). And, even when I brought her to sit with us, the two apprentices plonked themselves right behind us intently watching every move. All that was missing was popcorn in their hands. We really need to do a better job in our training department.

After some confusion about a beach trip that night and a little bit of tension in the fold, we canned the plans and got back home for Sunday was going to be a long day. My elder cousin who does a great imitation of an earth mover with a missing exhaust pipe ensured we didn’t get too much sleep and we were all up and about by 5 a.m.

We actually got to see the entire wedding which was a great accomplishment. My cousin X also happened to be apple of another distant cousin’s eye and this brought her huge discomfort and unease. She really did not want the overt attention that was being lavished on her. Wheels within wheels, I tell you!!

Once breakfast was disposed off, we split up into two distinct groups. Aunties and other big girls went to the temple, the boys and X headed off towards the beach. Here I need to explain the sea breeze concept in Chennai.

Everywhere in the world, a lilting wind washes over from the water to the coast making it very pleasant for those dwelling near the sea. However, in Chennai, there is no breeze. Period! Locals claim that at 3 p.m. the fabled sea breeze begins to cool the land. While completely a figment of imagination, this belief is shared by all who belong. If you have never been to Chennai before and plan on making a visit there, make sure to bring up this topic. From the auto driver to the people you are visiting will give you a treatise about ‘sea breeze’ which cools Chennai incredibly warranting woolens and fur clothing apparel.

We picked up another cousin of mine from his house (to give us directions) and we spent a good portion of our time waiting outside his home and sitting in our cars with the AC running full throttle. We were also invited by an unknown person to come into my cousin’s house and his incessant requests could only be thwarted by my apprentice nephew who yelled ‘We have to go out of town’ and disappeared into the car, leaving the rest of us bemused and a little stunned by the turn of events.

Anyway, we were in Marina Beach, one of the more filthy coastal areas of Chennai at around 9 a.m. Brave as Chennai people are, they are not fool hardy and other than us, there was no one else near the water. We did make a fashion statement though, dressed in dhoti kurtha, pyjama kurtha, saree to name a few relevant beach-wear. The pyjamas that I was wearing is tight at the ankles requiring me to painstakingly wear the pyjamas like a woman’s stocking. Suffice it is to say that my pyjamas soon became flippers and was not very comfortable after that, especially when a big wave deposited some sand particles where the sun don’t shine. And, no, there was absolutely no sea breeze beyond the first 5 feet of the sea.

An interesting aspect of our beach visit was when I got my apprentice nephew to pick up a spring roll shaped piece of human crap that was traipsing merrily in the sand. I’m not too sure on the epoch when it had been deposited but I must say it was still shiny and looked fairly recent.

Once we were done with Marina beach, the cousin we picked up took us on a wild goose chase around the city of Chennai. We probably went over one particular bridge 7 times without knowing why. Post-mortem analysis showed that the hunt for a Badam milk joint was on. At one point, after clocking about 300 km in the city, the lead car pulled over next to a small Lassi stall. We all breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed our aching muscles. It was not to be! He just wanted to pick up a bottle of water! What’s with this state and water!!

More driving and we got to Grand Sweets & Snacks, the mother of all snack shops this side of the Vindhyas. The layout is very similar to a doctor’s office, with waiting areas and neatly arranged chairs. Once in a while, a complimentary snack would appear from the main door and a mad rush ensued to get a handful of whatever goody was being given away.

There was also the curious incident where my cousin spat out some Fanta on her Sari and my nephew turned an uncapped Fanta bottle to the side pouring more Fanta on my cousin’s sari. I cannot explain more here as I don’t know any more than what I’ve just narrated.

We got out of Grand Sweets & Snacks and then drove around aimlessly (with terrible coordination among the three cars) for another 282 km in Chennai and got to Sree Sweets or something. This was the magical oasis of Badam milk. Here we had 13 different types of chaats and one glass of Badam milk. Mind you, everyone wanted nothing more than Badam milk during entry.

Well now you know what’s next. Yes, you’re right. More driving! More passing the same places for the 17th time and again back to Grand Sweets & Snacks to pick up our sweets & snacks.

Our order was a wee bit over the top. My nephew brought out a small coffin sized carton which he could barely lift. The establishment was so pleased with us that they even gave us a free music CD.

Another highlight of our trip was my nephew’s constant urge to recharge his phone. From the moment he arrived in Chennai until about late afternoon the next day, his life’s ambition was to get his phone recharged. I’m sure there was some girl involved or else there is no way one youth could be so obsessed about recharging his phone.

All done with our shopping, eating, beaching and driving, we got home tired but not hungry. A few pleasant arguments about our departure time and then we were again off to Bangalore and this time we did not miss the turn at Krishnagiri, all thanks to my sharp eyesight, cat-like reflexes and uncanny driving abilities. Another successful and exciting trip in the books! Next trip – Kanchenjunga! NOT!!

Acknowledgments: A special thanks to Vasu, Eashwar and Abhiram for helping me recollect the signs of our times along the Bangalore - Chennai highway and also for filling in the juicy tit-bits in the story. Couldn't have done it without you guys!!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Poonal At Melkote

A bit delayed but never late than better as they say! After a huge uproar from the family frontlines on not getting to it and penning down the series of insignificant events that transpired during the significant occasion of the poonal, I have embarked on that slippery slope that is boat-full of trials & tribulations. Phew! 44 words in that sentence. Was actually trying to get to 50 but thought there should be a semblance of meaning to the diatribe so stopped when the going was good.

For those who are agog with curiosity and sitting at the edge of their seats wondering what the hell a poonal is, here goes – Poonal is the thread ceremony for adolescent boys in Brahmin families where they go through a day and half of frenetic pujas and rituals essentially transforming the unfortunate soul into manhood. A big event and as the boys’ side hardly do anything for their weddings (I mean the actual wedding ceremony before you all get your panties in a knot), the poonal takes on an all important significance as ‘THE’ event of the family!

Okay! Now, that the background is all there, allow me to indulge myself as I going into excruciating detail of everything that is not related to the actual poonal ceremony.

Departure from Bangalore, amidst much fanfare and hoopla was at 8:30 a.m. bang on schedule, a never before seen feat in our family. As is wont, breakneck speed from our car saw us reach Shivalli in an hour. Alright! We shall talk about Shivalli now!!

The wayside restaurant is roughly 60 km from Bangalore. The long cone frustum like idli (Kadabu idli) is the magnum opus here. An excellent place for South Indian vegetarian food, pretty much anything on the menus is delicious and the service is great. However, when a family pack of wolves descend on this august establishment, all hell breaks loose. Our tentative and refined ordering started with 25 masala dosas, 16 khara bhaats, a few Kesari Bhaats for thrown in for good measure and some other goodies that might feel bad for being left out. A look of terror flashed over the helpless waiter’s face but he was up to it and soon the Wolfgang Pack was digging in lustily. The first wave done, we were now ready to wash it down. Coffee and tea orders poured in thick and fast. And of course, there were customized orders too; no sugar, less sugar, less milk, more milk, I could go on.

Our feasting done in a new family record time (1 hr 17 mins flat), we set off once more towards our goal – Melkote. Enroute, I decided to have a futile race with a red Honda CRV and that battle was lost before it began. At Mandya, about 100 km from Bangalore, we took the deviation to Melkote. Here, we embarked on another speed racing adventure, this time with one of the family vehicles, a Tata Sumo. This match-up was to my liking and I drove like a maniac to ensure victory at the post (0 Km milestone in Melkote).

The temple town of Melkote is a huge sprawling metropolis of bars, pubs, discotheques and multi-storey office buildings. The suave and sophisticated citizens party all day and night and it’s a truly happening city.

Okay! Okay! I exaggerate a trifle. The road to this place actually ends in Melkote. Two temples, one on a rocky hill and one where the road terminates are all that this village has to offer. Chock full of Iyengars and priests, Melkote is a charming hamlet with scorching temperatures and nothing else.

As our retinue arrived, it was clear that this was the most happening event this town had witnessed since the temple was built in 1000 AD. Not the quietest of families, we soon made our presence felt in no uncertain terms.

The first ceremony in the evening saw the family attending in full force and other than the participants (my nephew, my cousin and his wife), no one really was into the intricate rituals that pervaded the big hall. We had other immediate concerns – you guessed it – FOOD! And how!! Starting from lunch, we pretty much stuffed our faces for 36 hours starting with the unbridled mayhem at Shivalli.

I know you’re all biting your teeth in excitement with the narrative thus far so am going to kick it up a notch now. Ready? No?? Well, I’m going with it anyway…

One of my nephews, a true Cassanova, was in his elements during this trip. The best part was that he didn’t even have to lift a finger. A distant relative ( a girl), whom for the sake of this public forum posting, I shall not name, was drawn to my nephew like bees to honey. Starting from the Saturday afternoon when my erudite nephew landed up, until the time we left on Sunday evening, she was Velcro to him. Every meal and every instance saw them together and she constantly went out of her way to ensure she was positioned next to him in any situation or family formation. While a source of immense mirth to the rest of us (not to mention a little insane jealousy by us guys that this fellow was eye candy in a temple town), it caused great discomfiture to my nephew. Heeheeheehee!!. At one point, when we were sitting for breakfast in the usual set-up i.e. my nephew and the girl next to each other, all I had to do was send a text message to another nephew in the adjacent hall to come check out the seating arrangement. Half a second later, he appears with a video camera to film the proceedings in an understated fashion. Our family is good! We also managed to provoke a Sivaji Ganesan like outburst from my nephew when confronted with some hard facts! I will not go into the entrails of this.

Sunday morning saw a few of us climb the rocky steps to the temple on the hill. Yoganarasimha is the god on top and ascending the 365 steeply inclined steps was hard work. Strangely, the deity himself resides on the side and not in the entrance and once inside, the place suddenly turns into a mass of sweating devotees pushing and shoving and making it very obvious as to why Yoganarasimha has a bewildered look on his pristine countenance.

That aspect of our religious duties done and having successfully but inadvertently eluded the core of the poonal ceremony, we returned to a sumptuous meal with the usual lunch-time seating regimen.

We finally departed from Melkote, stomachs sated, and content (of course my nephew was sated in other ways, dang it!!) in mind and body but never the worse for wear. A well spent weekend among gods and traditional brahmin rites, the extended time with the family was priceless and reinforces our decision to move back to India. Looking forward to the next big trip!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Balamurali: Man, Genius or God?

Every year, Bangalore hosts a month long music festival in April and May. It's done during the Ramanavami festival and held at Fort High School in Chamarajpet.

The grand finale this year, something I wouldn't have missed for the world, was the performance by Dr. Balamurali Krishna. For those unaware of this doyen of musicians, he is one who coughs and it sounds melodious.

The invocation Sakalaka Pari Purna in Aarabhi pretty much set the stage for the rest of the evening. A beautiful rendition of Raghuveera Ranadheera in Huseni followed. His exposition of Kamvardhini through Ramave Bhakti Yentho was to die for. Next was the evergreen Nanu Paalimpa (Mohana) and his control and variations were stupendous to hear.

Not satisfied with others' composition, the good doctor has 2000+ compositions to his name. He gave us a rare insight into Thanarupi (Melakartha Raaga #6) with his very own Sree Ramam Bhajeham and the devotion with which he sang was sure to bring the gods down from heaven to listen.

He then moved on to another Thygaraja's composition Sri Ramya Chithalanka in Jayamanohari. A short and sweet self composition in Sarasaangi Hanuma Anuma O Manama was then presented and the unique aspect of this song is that, the syllable 'ma' coincides every time with the swara 'Ma'. Amazing! True Genius!!

Timeless and soulful, Pibare Raama Rasam in Ahir Bhairavi was delivered so well that it brought tears to my eyes. Not to disappoint the Karnataka audience, we got to hear Alli Nodalu Raama (Kamas) which is a Purandara Daasa song.

The penultimate song was one composed by his grandfather Raama Raama Ena Raadha and though very small, was extremely melodious. No wonder! If his grand-dad composed this, it's obvious where the talent came from.

A Thyagaraja thillana in Behaag rounded off the best musical night of my life!

At 77, Dr. Balamuralikrishna has the depth, range, creativity and melody that I have not seen in any other singer, ever. An undoubted genius, he plays the violin, the veena, mridangam and the viola with equal competence. It was a privilege to listen to his singing in person and I fervently hope that I get to attend his concerts as many times and in as many places as possible.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Manasi and the Numbers Game

Manasi: Thaatha, how old you are?
My Dad: 71
Manasi: When I am 71, how old will you be?
My dad: 142
Manasi: When I am 142, how old will you be?
My dad: 210
Manasi: When I am 210, how old will you be?
My dad: 280
Manasi: You don't go to god

Manasi: How much fees for school pappa?
Me: 11,000
Manasi (with a gasp of surprise): That is more than 1299!!!!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Another Mysore trip

Whenever we have a long break and we can't think of anything to do, we make a trip to Mysore. Avid readers of my blog would have figured out by now that I love that place like it was my own. Well, actually, it is my own.

Due to the little uns with us ( 5 years or younger), we were obliged to do the zoo. Not the most exciting prospect for me as I have been to the Mysore zoo about 2 times in my 40 years. The last trip was in 1988 where a misguided bunch of us college students ended up with the animals no doubt pursuing game in the nature of the fairer sex.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that they've really cleaned up the place. It used to be a dump with the man eating Bengal Tigers resembling cows from drought stricken areas that are often shown on TV and educe a few dismayed clucks and head shakes from us before we change the channel to understand who Kareena Kapoor is doing now.

Ok, back to the zoo. Lots of private sponsors have transformed the animal pens into remarkably clean and healthy environments. True, it’s quite sad to see a full grown tiger in a cage but at least they have a lot of place to roam around during the wild-life office hours (8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.).

The kids of course had tons of fun and the one thing that struck the human adults (me included) was the enormity of the African Tusker indifferently munching branches the size of a Cessna.

I also got to see some snakes, an ever fascinating sight. All the animals, birds and reptiles looked in good physical form. The only drawback of the private sponsorships for the animals was that the names of the sponsors appeared in large bold type (Font Size: 450) and the actual inhabitant of the cell or cage had it’s name in an unassuming size 20 font. This resulted in us having to put our face about 6 inches from the sign to figure out if we were looking at a white tailed African Mongoose or Mr. & Mrs. Chellamulla Vandrapondi.

Due to a non-committal remark by my aunt to the kids that there was a water park in Mysore, we were pummeled into taking the brats to GRS Water Park, a behemoth of a park with all sorts of fun things to do in and outside water. The park is actually quite good and as usual the kids had a blast. Mysore being what it is, the water activity areas were resplendent with large, dark women fully clothed in saris and salwars frolicking mindlessly in the water. There were even ladies with dupattas in the water, not to forget all their jewelry which was probably a good thing since I doubt those trinkets had been washed since the weddings in 1954.

Always a nostalgic time in Mysore, we finally bid adieu on Sunday and got back to the pollution, noise and traffic that passes off as Bangalore City, or is it Bengaloory City-yu?

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...