Monday, March 20, 2006

Annie Tharakan by Woody Allen

Annie Tharakan limped because her shoes were too tight. “Didn’t you try them on before you bought them,” her mother barked.
The truth was that Annie had not felt comfortable in the shoes but she could never bring herself to say no to a salesperson. “I want to be liked,” she admitted to Sushma-madam, the nerdy Maths teacher. “Once I gave all my pocket money away to someone who said she was collecting for the Deaf and Dumb Association. She sprinted away as soon as I put the money in a tin piggy bank which she held out to me, and I’ve never seen her again at the Solar System mall.”
Annie and her school-mates did spend a lot of time at the Solar System mall. They liked it because the escalators had shiny handrails and there were large signs that said SALE 50% discount on selected items, conditions apply. But also because it was air-conditioned and the toilets had a warm-air hand dryer which occasionally worked.
Sushma-madam was outwardly sympathetic but she would later mock Annie in the teachers’ common room. Annie’s mother, who taught Geography, happened to be there. She told the others about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for “no” in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, “I’ll get back to you.” She too appeared warm and understanding and inviting of confidences, but later hit Annie on the head with the blunt handle of her imported rubber spatula all the same. “Why did you buy them if they’re too small?” she asked Annie, unaware that she was articulating a quintessential human paradox.
The day Annie bought the shoes, she had actually gone looking for bras. A nice-looking but slim sales girl with a name tag that said Cynthia came up and said “Have a nice day”. Annie was desperate but felt shy to ask for help because there was a man watching her and she naturally didn’t want him to hear what she said when she confessed her bra size to Cynthia.
For some reason, Solar System had put this pimple-faced youth in charge of Nighties. Women would approach the counter but turn around quickly once they saw him. Naturally, nobody ever bought any nighties. He was quite a pleasant-looking fellow actually, as he leaned comfortably on his counter, resting his chin on his arm, and watched while Annie crept round trying to pick up bra boxes and check the size and design without him actually seeing what was written on them.
Finally she gave up and wandered towards some loud sounds near the entrance. It was the finals of a song and dance competition. Annie watched with envy as Pravina who sat next to her in class swayed and bent to the sounds with simple abandon. Even Rishi, the boy whose father ran the kirana shop just outside Annie’s building was swinging beautifully. No one could imagine that the Rishi who helped at the shop on weekends and made home deliveries on his bicycle outside school hours could have reached the semi-finals of this national show with footfalls as stylish as these! Annie sighed. She felt sad and depressed. Slowly, she walked towards the food and grocery section, and inched to the chocolate counter stealthily checking from the corner of her eyes that no one was watching. Near the dog food counter, a boy and girl called Rinku and Pinky were sailing a ball at each other, skipping around, and singing a very silly song. Annie did not even have a dog. She did not know the meaning of the expression GIMROI. But she did have enough money to buy some chocolates.
There was no Zippy-mate raisin-enriched fun-bar, the chocolate that gives you more raisins, more chocolate, more iron content, more energy, more calories, more everything per cubic metre than any other chocolate. Annie did try asking two sales girls where she could find some, but they were very engrossed in whispering secrets to each other and when they detached, they would only look at the other shoppers and tell them admiringly, “Good morning, madam!” and “How can I help you, sir!” with so much charm, sincerity and enthusiasm that Annie just did not feel like getting in the way and she bought Cheepy-mate instead since it was marked down to Rs. 5 from Rs. 13.50 and also 15 for the price of 3. Their lovely green-striped aprons reminded Annie of Cynthia from the Ladies’ Underwear Department and filled with a new resolve, she went back upstairs, determined to get what she had come for.
Cynthia was kind and when she understood the problem, asked the pimple-faced youth (Annie saw from his name-tag that his name was Viren) if he’d mind going on his lunch break now. He argued for a while, then before he moved off gave Annie a deeply reproachful look which Annie knew would haunt her forever. Later, she stood in line at the till with the 3 bra boxes concealed safely at the bottom of basket filled with dog food and Zippy-mate and the shoes which were too tight. But when her turn came, she was horrified to discover that there was no barcode sticker on them and the till assistant had to call out loudly to the supervisor, describing the product in great detail so it was heard by not only everyone in the store but also Viren, the pimple-faced youth, who happened to be passing by at that moment and he turned around and gave Annie a triumphant sneer.
Annie was sad but it was a lesson she would never forget as long as she lived and a few years later when she became sought after as a witty dinner companion she would hold long discourses on the subject and repeat often “Location,” – and here she would briefly before driving home the punch line – “Location” (she would repeat for effect) “is everything.”
First appeared in  Sunday Mid-day on 19 Mar 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

Monday, March 6, 2006

Bill Bryson's Bombay

I landed at the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport and stood at the entrance to Mumbai in that state of mild indecisiveness that comes with the sudden arrival in a strange country when you’re pounced upon by hundreds of swarthy young men clamouring to take you home. I breathed in the warm, humid air that carried whiffs of petroleum fumes, drying fish and the impact of water shortage on several million bodies, and bravely resisted twenty seven taxi drivers urgently tugging at me until I spotted with relief the hotel welcome board with my name on it.
The first time I came to Bombay was 25 years ago, with a high-school acquaintance named Steve Gatz, which I soon realised was a mistake. The best thing that could be said about travelling abroad with Gatz was that it spared the rest of America from having to spend the summer with him.
We stayed in a guesthouse near the Gateway, sharing a room with two Germans who knew where to get good dope and we would have featured in Shantaram if it’d been 2 decades later. One evening we decided to get some native colour and walked down to Churchgate Station to experience the death-defying sport of catching a commuter train into the suburbs. A filthily ragged woman in a headscarf squeezed into the carriage loudly orating the tale of her troubled life and asking for money. The baby on her hip was so startlingly ugly that it was all I could do to keep from putting hands to ears and screaming, “Baap re!” (for by now my Marathi was coming on a treat). I quickly gave her twenty rupees before Junior loosed a string of dribble onto me, but soon discovered that my wallet had been lifted. The woman of course was nowhere to be seen – she was probably at this moment sitting down to a feast of truffles and Armagnac with seventy-four relatives on a secluded railway siding near Dombivili with $1500 worth of traveller’s cheques, not bad for five seconds’ work.
But this was only memory, and the entire workforce of my hotel now glowed with joy at my arrival and the bellboy all but touched his forehead to the ground near my feet, a welcome change from last time when I would don my rucksack each morning, staggering around in the manner of one who has been hit on the head with a mallet.
The TV in my room showed a local soap, alive with beauty, agony, and malice, and I watched with appreciation. Here was progress: before, Indian television was only good for the sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience. About every fifth word was in English, but the strain of putting it together became wearying and I decided to go for a walk.
Mumbai is not a good city for walking. The humidity makes biscuits soggy, preying insects plentiful, people sweaty and exhausted. There’s also the constant danger that you will fall into open pits, and even when you stumble out limping, it’s all you can do to dodge the rush of dilapidated taxis and occasional Mercedes Benz that come sweeping down. It’s not that Mumbai drivers intentionally want to kill you as they do in Paris – they’re just too busy blaring horns, cutting off other vehicles, talking on cellphones, indulging their lap-held progeny with a chance at the wheel. You can’t help but admire the free spirit of this great democratic nation.
I wandered around, looking for The Ideal, which Gatz and I had frequented. I hate asking directions. I am always afraid that the person I approach will step back and say, “You want to go where? Mohammed Ali Road? Boy, are you lost. This is Andheri you dumb clot,” then stop other passers-by and say, “you wanna hear something classic? Buddy tell these people where you think you are.”
So I trudged on. Rats the size of young swine scuttled alongside. Lounging at intervals were some of the most astonishingly unattractive prostitutes I’d ever seen – fifty year old women with crooked lipstick and body parts reminiscent of flowing lava. They stood side by side in a seemingly endless row of doorways. I couldn’t believe that there could be that many people in Mumbai – that many people in the world – requiring this sort of assistance just to ejaculate. Whatever happened to personal initiative?
Just as I began thinking about phoning my wife and asking her to come find me, I turned the corner and there it was.
By now I was so hungry that I would have eaten anything, even a plate of my grandmother’s famous creamed ham and diced carrots, the only dish in history to have been inspired by vomit.
The Ideal used to be one of those places that had marble-topped tables, bentwood chairs, a surly owner, and a list of stern instructions regarding Outside Food and Hand Washing. They served chai in glasses but Gatz and I would be honoured with white china cups. It now had formica tables, muted lighting, and a menu that included paneer dosa, Manchurian pizza, and even Mexican and Lebanese food. I tried to think what my jaljeera put me in mind of and finally decided that it was a very large urine sample, possibly from a circus animal with hepatitis. The kheema pau at the Ideal (short, I now realised, for “Ideally you should stay home for dinner”) had been our staple for weeks but it was absent. The intriguingly named Vegetable 65 I now ordered was so bad that to say it was crappy would be to malign faeces. I returned to the hotel and retired with Philip Ziegler’s classic account of the Black Death, imaginatively entitled The Black Death – just the thing for lonely nights when travelling.
I walked down Marine Drive next morning, exhilarating in the beautiful sweep of bay and energetic morning walkers, but stayed clear of Chowpatty. I remember Gatz’s enthusiasm as we climbed down Walkeshwar after an early morning excursion to Ban Ganga, sighting the flock of exotic migratory birds that appeared to be roosting there – and his horror when we found it was just some squatters engaged in alfresco excretion.
When I was twenty I liked Bombay for its laid back attitude but it was oddly wearisome now. Indians have been congratulating themselves on their tolerance for centuries, and it’s now impossible for them not to be nobly accommodating to graffiti and queue jumpers and excrement and litter. I may be misreading the situation. They may like excrement and litter. I hope so, because they’ve certainly got a lot of it.
Later, I headed for Dharavi, pausing briefly to admire Mumbai’s gothic railway station that had once been named for Queen Victoria but now, like many other city spots, revered the mountain hero Shivaji who with his band of guerrilla warriors successfully stayed Moghul penetration to southern India.
Dharavi seemed agreeable enough in a thank-you-god-for-not-making-me-live-here kind of way. I walked through narrow lanes, stepping over gutters oozing slimy, ill-defined fluid, when two vaguely thuggish-looking men walked purposefully towards me. Uh-oh, I thought, causally sliding my hand into my pocket and fingering my Swiss Army Knife, but knowing that even in ideal circumstances it takes me twenty minutes to identify a blade and prise it out and I’d end up defending myself with a toothpick and tweezers. But all they wanted was a friendly chat to practice their Conversational English – where I was from, my wife’s maiden name, how much I made last year – that kind of thing.
Back at the hotel, I wandered the maze of shops selling pashmina, jewellery, carved elephants, silken garments and leatherware. Tourists from every continent beamed, dazed and laden with shopping bags. I heard an American trying to knock the price of a jade figurine below two hundred rupees, less than $5. There was no pharmacy here – strange for a city that has several on every stretch of road – more medical shops than litter bins. Gatz had once bought a bagful of dangerous and addictive medication at one of these without the word “prescription” mentioned once in the transaction. This must make it fun for people who live here. Still, if you wake up with a bubo on your groin, better see a doctor all the same.
First appeared in  Sunday Mid-day on 5 Mar 2005, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.