Monday, November 24, 1997

Really? Really?

Once, some years ago, I wrote a poem about committing suicide. Despite the morbid theme, it aspired to be funny.
Sitting in a Bombay local train, a Local, I gazed blankly into space. It was off hours, so there was space to gaze blankly into. The train halted at a station, and my blank gaze fell onto the shine of steel rail under the window. It was a deep moment of truth, and the poem was conceived. There was a juxtaposition of two major themes. One was the history of blood and violence to which I had borne witness on more occasions than I like to remember. I had seen young men caught unawares as they jumped across the tracks in a hurry to get to the ‘Fast’ on the others side – and were hurled straight to that great Dombivali up in the sky instead. I had heard the awful wailing from the hutments that lined the other side of the tracks when yet another member of the tribe met his fate under the wheels of yet another speeding brown-and-yellow monster.
If the Locals were a powerful tool of death, why couldn’t they be manipulated for one’s personal convenience too?
The second was my own preoccupation with suicide, a preoccupation which sometimes worries me, but on other occasions (for example a few years ago when a book which listed practical methods of committing suicide stormed into the market and sold more copies worldwide than any other book in history, next only to the Bible) – I find reassuringly human and normal.
After all, isn’t suicide the ultimate weapon of control over one’s destiny, the only foolproof way of, to coin a phrase, saving one’s life permanently?
Although this poem was written several years ago, I only worked up the courage to have it published very recently. But back then, I gave it to Mukul Sharma to read. Mukul was at that time the editor of the erstwhile Science Today and I considered him a great benefactor, having published one of the very first pieces I ever wrote, along with my photograph. Although it was routine practice for Science Today to publish photographs of its contributors, at that time in my scheme of things, this was tantamount to having won the Booker Prize.
Mukul called me next day and returned it without saying anything. He reserved his comment for about six years, when I met him in Bangalore where he then lived. It was late at night and I had dropped in to say hello on my way to the airport.
“Do you remember that poem you once gave me to read,” he asked, “the one in which you tried to commit suicide? Did all that really happen?”
“No, of course not!” I guffawed.
“You had me worried there,” he went on.
I couldn’t understand how he could have imagined an autobiographical element in that poem, and told him so. He knew very well that I was particularly happy with life in those days, smugly considering myself successful and prosperous beyond belief.
“Well,” he justified his assumption, “look at Syliva Plath! She led a tortured life, and when she was happy and peaceful at last – that’s when she went and committed suicide.”
“Hmm,” I said, looking at my watch, “guess I’d better go and do it now.” We laughed, and I carried on to the airport, and have been taking it a day at a time since then. As you can see – it hasn’t happened yet.
first appeared as ‘Sweet side of suicide’ in Maharashtra Herald on 23 Nov 1997

Monday, November 10, 1997

Miracle in Florence

In 1982, Amita and I adopted the proven method of seeing the world by means of accommodating ourselves with friends-of-friends, their cousins, and so on. In Copenhagen, we stayed with my dentist’s neighbour’s daughter and her family – I promise I am not making this up.
In Germany, in a small town called Ludwigsburg, we found ourselves being graciously hosted by a family who had lived in south India for several years. Our first meal with them consisted, quite amazingly in those days, of dal, rice, mutton curry, pickles (as opposed to achar which is of north Indian denomination) and good old madrasi pappadams.
One evening they had a barbecue party for us but what was the use. None of their friends spoke English; between the two of us the only German words we had were weiner schnitzel, dummkopf, Lufthansa, blitz krieg and heil Hitler – which, for various reasons, we were unable to work into the conversation. Further we were social outcasts since we drank no wine for fear of what might happen next. Gabi, fiancĂ©e of the son of the family, made sincere attempts to chat with me. However, though she spoke in English, I could understand little of what she said. This was because she was hoping to discuss with me the works of J Krishnamurthy which she had studied in detail. Amita and I found ourselves in the kitchen, doing the washing up while the party carried on without us in the living room, where it had been shifted when it started raining.
From here we travelled north to Berlin and then Denmark (where my dentist’s neighbour’s daughter and her family looked after us very well indeed), and then south through Holland and Switzerland to Italy. After getting lost in Venice, losing money in Naples, and fending off some Romeos in Rome who sat on a broken wall outside the Forum, familiar to us from the Asterix comics, whistled at us and shouted, “Tum bahut sundar hai!” we arrived in Florence where we had several fascinating experiences.
The evening we arrived we hopped into a bus and confidently waited for the last stop, where we had been told the Youth Hostel was situated. Unfortunately, we had boarded the wrong bus. At the last stop, we asked the driver, by means of fantastic mime and gesture, the way to the Ostello. It soon dawned on him that he had on his hands a pair of pathetically stupid, if earnest, young foreign tourists. Heaving a longsuffering sigh, he turned off the lights in the bus, and drove us to the right spot.
For the two of us, habituated to the surly BEST drivers and their attempts to jiggle passengers violently back and forth and if possible actually hurl them onto the road by means of bucking and rearing the vehicle under their control, this was the most astonishing behaviour we could imagine.
Next day, Amita and I got into one of our frequent bitter fights and decided to spend the day separately – to my subsequent regret.
I had my eyes firmly fixed in the guide book wherever I went. She, on the other hand, had been looking around and, wonder of wonders, bumped into the one person in all of Florence we had any acquaintance with whatever – Gabi, who was spending a few months there workings as an au pair. And yes, Gabi even treated us to dinner; we had spaghetti (but no wine) in a little Italian bistro with red checked table cloths, and we all agreed that the world was a very small place indeed, and hoped that we would bump into each other many more times in the future.
Both of us found Gabi a lovely person, and secretly agreed that she looked a lot like Princess Diana. In those days, all the fashionable young women were trying their best to look as beautiful and spectacular as the unfortunate princess, so of course it was beneath our dignity to say that we also found her extremely appealing and wished the very best of life to her. In fact, Amita and I had a special bond with Princess Diana, because we had all three been born in the same year. This was a bond I took seriously and even until very recently, when my children said to me, “That’s not fair!” I would tell them, “Yes, you’re right! Life is simply not fair! I was born in the same year as Princess Diana, she got the crown jewels and look at me, all I got was you.”
Now, for various reasons, that is a line I no longer use.
first appeared as Come on Gabi, let’s go party in Maharashtra Herald on 9 Nov 1997 

Sunday, October 5, 1997

Honk, who’s there?

All of a sudden, overnight as it were, there was courtesy in his every move. At the red light, he no longer pressed ahead, straining to get past at the exact fraction-of-a-second when the signal changed. There would be a great blaring and honking, and feelings of aggression and agitation would rise in a swarm all around us, but he would be impervious to it all. When the furore died down, he would proceed along the road with great calmness. The change was so pleasant and wonderful. After all, how did it matter if we missed a few seconds getting to our destination – wasn’t the quality of life in the interim so much more important?
Now we slowed down to let others pass, and never once got angry while trying to overtake. At intersections, we would ‘give side’ ungrudgingly and these occasions in particular would fill me with a sense of the beatific wonder of human existence! How vastly improved civilization could be, with but the infusion of a little civilized behaviour! I was amazed, and pleased, at the transformation in him. This was my soothing influence at work, I convinced myself with great smugness.
I further noticed in him a growing alertness. An awareness of the environment, to the needs of others on the road – an easy willingness to please, graciously allowing other motorists the first move and giving pedestrians right of way: always anticipating, open to changes of mind, generously permitting every individual response. For this I knew I could not take the credit, and I wondered more. Surely this was that evolution of the species, the emergence of the New Man, the spiritual awakening and leaning to cosmic consciousness which everyone seemed to be talking about these days!
But when I saw him slow down politely to avoid a gaggle of giggling girls walking unconcernedly abreast on the road, with not the least trace of irritation at their uncivic behaviour, I began to worry a little. We would be driving along and suddenly find that the car was surrounded by placid, ponderous, plodding buffaloes, swaying and treading their imperturbable way to pasture. He would merely slow down and await an opening. He remained similarly unmoved by the villainous Pune Municipal Transport buses, swerving dangerously, dashing desperately the wrong way down one-way streets. He would not so much as mumble in complaint when the blanket-coddled racehorses crossed the thoroughfare skittishly, causing traffic to be halted at a safe distance. Not even when the fragile hose pipes were laid across the road to water the mess lawn, and the subedars waved vehicles to an imperious standstill before grudgingly allowing them to proceed over the lumpy barrier.
The uncharacteristic forbearance began to upset me. Was this, then, the onset of Age? Absentmindedness? How would this deep personality change affect his work, our lives? I needn’t have worried.
All of a sudden, overnight as it were, things were back to the way they had always been. We got the horn fixed.
first appeared in Times of India as a Middle on 4 Oct 1997

Monday, September 29, 1997

It happened on a beach

In those days, Gorai was, to us overcrowded, mass-produced Mumbaikers (rhymes with ‘New Yorkers’), the closest we could get to the sunny Caribbean. You caught a train to Malad and a bus took you to the ferry which crossed you over. Then you haggled with a tonga-wallah, and twenty-odd rupees got you to a small patch of paradise. It’s been several years since I actually did the journey, but something tells me that the route hasn’t changed much. Other things have, though – the crowds and litter there, to name two.
It was April 1990, and I was there with a certain precious three-year-old who was having the time of her life; Frouk, who is Dutch, full of fun, loves to cook, eat and feed her friends; and another friend who Frouk was staying with. We proceeded to roast ourselves to unpleasant complexions, collect drifts of fine sand in the hems of our clothes even though we knew that hundreds of washes wouldn’t stop it from pouring incessantly out for years to come, and get bitten by assorted creatures of the salty, oily body of water that undulated graciously before us.
The expanse of sand stretched out seemingly to infinity on both sides, with water doing the same in front. Not very long ago, we had stood on another faraway beach with Frouk – where the wind and velocity and near-zero temperature compelled us to shiver as we pulled our overcoats tighter shut. Remembering that moment, we sunned ourselves and laughed gloatingly.
A group of urchins danced and played on some jagged-looking rocks in the distance and a couple of mongrels lurked in the background, hopeful of sharing our picnic lunch. Two girls – one white, one brown, strolled into view. They settled at a small distance from us and at some point during the day, introductions were made. As the lazy afternoon stretched before us, we began to chat. They were, as it happened, young New Yorkers – imagine, we rhymed! – on holiday. One, who we would have mistaken for an Indian, told us her romantic story. She was indeed an Indian by birth. When she was just two weeks old or perhaps even younger, she had been left on the doorstep of an orphanage in Pune. From there, she had been shifted to an adoption agency in Delhi, where an upmarket New York couple – her father was a professor of Mathematics at Harvard; her mother had been a poet and part of the exclusive New York art scene – with four sons, had adopted her. She had a wonderful childhood, full of love and material comforts. When she was sixteen, her fairytale mother died suddenly. The girl, let’s call her Sunita for the time being, went into depression which only worsened when her father, lonely and unhappy, remarried. And, like many other young people in her position might – she had run off to India to try and find her roots.
Sunita travelled to Pune to try and find the man and woman who had deserted her at birth. What, on this sad and depraved earth could have compelled them to do such a thing? She knew very well that there wasn’t a pretty story behind it, but she was equally determined to find out exactly what it was.
Fascinated, we listened as she went on. Her search had led her back to the Pune ashram. Twenty years had passed, everything had changed, including the entire staff.
Long and persistent enquiries led her to one old, old mali who, after a great deal of probing confessed that yes, he had been there when the orphanage had taken her in. Now he remembered! A rich man in a big car had driven up, dropped her off on the doorstep and driven back again.
Frouk and I exchanged quick glances infused with equal proportions of compassion, cynicism and amusement.
The talk turned to other matters, and I filed the story in my mind, knowing I would never forget it. The sun began to veer towards the horizon, and we suddenly realized that the tide was coming in in great whips and lashes. It was a choppy sea we would be leaving behind that evening, and we began to pack our things to leave.
Suddenly Sunita realized that her slippers were missing. She was very upset, because she had borrowed them from a friend to whom they were dear, on condition that she would take great care of them. She walked frantically up and down the beach, but they were nowhere to be seen. We said goodbye and headed for home.
Much later, the precious three-year-old indicated to us, when we bothered to ask, that she had indeed seen a pair of black slippers, bobbing up and down. “The sea was playing with them,” she giggled. But of course by then it was too late.
first appeared as ‘Tides tans tourists’ in Maharashtra Herald on 28 Sep 1997

Monday, August 4, 1997

Jai Hind

The first time I experienced strong patriotic feelings was in Geneva, a few days before I turned twenty-one. It was my first trip abroad and I was not young as much as immature and inexperienced. It was an incongruous response to what was only a mundane tourist situation – the curtains in one of the rooms of the United Nations building there which, the guide informed us, were a present from India.
I was overwhelmed as much by the rush of emotions as by the unexpectedness of the whole thing. It was a total immersion of ego into motherland which I had never experienced before.
I was born in the fifteenth year of India’s independence. We lived in a part of the country which had been a great stronghold of the Raj, and there were many who were Staying On. We ourselves were staying on, in the sense that we led a lifestyle inherited from the departing rulers, complete with butlers, ayahs, and afternoon tea. There was the Ooty Club, with a separate room for children so that they could be seen and not heard. The main dining hall displayed photographs of proud, straight-backed men and women on horses. A cousin visiting from Bombay had once disgraced us in this room, by allowing a leg of chicken to fly over his shoulder while struggling to apprehend it with knife and fork which he (uncultured bumpkin) was unfamiliar. No, there was not a great deal of scope for patriotic feelings here.
Then there was the fact that my mother’s family had fled their homeland forever, with nothing but a few trunks containing their clothes and my grandfather’s books, sailing from Karachi to Bombay in the nightmare that followed Partition, to settle in unfamiliar parts of the country.
They never once longed, none of them, even wistfully, to go back, knowing that it could never be. For them, their homeland no longer contained the home of their ancestors. As they assimilated, their culture was evaporating – and there were no roots to support us here.
As for my father’s family – they were not just Brahmins, but my grandfather had been in government service all his life. This was a new India, with different values to assimilate – with, if I may extrapolate, a little wariness.
My parents had met in college, and ignored the tradition of their times by being so bold as to fall in love and get married. From geographically and culturally different parts of the country, and consequently no exposure whatever to each other’s native languages, they spoke English to each other at home just as they had done at college.
Unfortunately, this meant that we grew up without any Indian language. This was compounded by the fact that in the state where we lived in the days when my brother and I were growing up, Hindi was frowned upon, so of course we seldom used it. Food was an eclectic combination of recipes from various sources, and I only learnt about the standard formula Indian meal, and turned to it by choice, as an adult.
At school, our motto was Never Give In – derived, irreverent rumour had it, from the last words of the founder, Sir Henry Lawrence, who had died valiantly on the battlefield crying as he fell, “Never Give In to these Indian dogs!” which the school had adopted, politely omitting the last part.
When I think about it now, all this makes an unlikely setting for that sudden seizure of intense, shuddering identification with the country of my birth at the UN building in Geneva so many years ago.
It was born partly, perhaps, from the experience of being a foreigner, and that too an exotic foreigner. One cannot have this experience in, for instance, the USA with its multiracial, multicultural population – or, for that matter, in Britain where if you are Indian, you are assumed to be a local, which can be annoying. But I remember, back then, people smiling at me and asking curiously about the bindi I was wearing; looking deep into my eyes and exclaiming, “You are so dark!” and not meaning it as an insult. In small towns in Germany and Denmark, people nudged each other and pointed at us with a lack of sophistication which we found rather astonishing, having grown up to equate foreignness with sophistication.
But of course it is not the feeling of being a foreigner that brings surreptitious tears to my eyes in mawkish scenes in patriotic Hindi films. Nor does it explain the feeling of exhilaration when the Indian cricket team performs well – or of personal disgrace and degradation every four years during the Olympics. It isn’t heredity; it isn’t environment. I don’t even think it arises from any charming subconscious predisposition to align myself with large groups. Maybe it is just the nature of patriotism itself.
first appeared as ‘From India with love and squalor’ in Sunday Times of India on 3 Aug 1997 

Friday, August 1, 1997

Aged parents

odd hour
phone rings
heart jumps

Are they okay?

first appeared in Brown Critique Aug 1997

Monday, July 14, 1997

Skipping to the loo

Sometimes people ask me how I can write about myself and my family, and events closely connected with daily happenings in our lives, with such equanimity. It’s just a job, I explain to them loftily, with a hint of sophisticated boredom underlying. Sometimes I confess that I am, basically, an exhibitionist. But this doesn’t stop more questions. Why, they want to know, am I always writing about the toilet?
The fact is, not many people use the toilet as their source of inspiration – unless you count those who get their brilliant ideas while sitting on the throne. Really, nobody writes about toilets. I remember as a child, wondering why Enid Blyton never mentioned one, whether houses in England had any at all? I mean, where on earth did all those biscuits, lemonade and cream teas ultimately get to and where, for god’s sake, in The Cave of Adventure did they GO?
Travelling is a great one for discovering new kinds of toilets, and finding old kinds in the oddest places. When I visited Malyasia in 1992, for instance, I was not surprised to find Indian Style proliferating in the countryside. But it amazed me to find one, in 1982, on the top of St Paul’s cathedral in Rome. And once, I sat in a jungle boat up the river to Chiang Rai which is in the north of Thailand, where the borders of Laos and Burma converge in a lush, scenic area known as the Golden Triangle. It was a fabulous journey, nature in the raw, but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it at all because my bladder was screaming for release. To make things worse, the canoe had a leak and the dozen or so people making the journey were sitting in two inches of water, with one person continuously bailing out. The only reason I didn’t go right there in my jeans was that I didn’t have another pair to change into once I got to Chiang Rai.
So there you have all the ingredients of a bestseller – action, drama and culture. Not romance, though – even I am not that exhibitionistic.
Some parts of this appeared in  Maharashtra Herald as ‘Loo behold!’ on 13 Jul 1997

Monday, May 19, 1997

Merchants of pain

My most favourite dentist is Dilip, and my most favourite anecdote is of the time a woman sidled up to him on the sofa at a party and began confiding her teeth troubles to him, opening her mouth very, very wide and pointing inside with a finger to illustrate. Dilip waited until she’d finished, said to her quietly, “Madam, thank goodness for both of us, and for everyone here, that I’m not a gynaecologist,” and got up and walked away.
Now one of the reasons Dilip is my most favourite dentist is that he is married to my dear friend Shashi, and the other is that I have never had occasion to be treated by him.
All of us in our family have dental problems: some with cavities (the ones who love chocolate and hate brushing their teeth), some with gum problems, and some with protruding teeth. I myself always boasted a singularly sturdy, though crooked and yellowish and therefore not particularly attractive lot. But one day, soon after I moved to Pune, I got a toothache.
Since we knew no dentist in town, we carried out our practiced scientific method of following the arrow on the most attractive-looking board which quoted a dentist’s name and address (um, Hippocrates, wasn’t there some promise you made them do?) and arrived at one which I have cause to remember all my living days.
Strapped in a high chair of the kind I had not experienced for thirty years, my fillings were fixed and it hurt, but not as much as when he wrote out the bill. As I crawled out, he suggested that I might want to get my wisdom teeth out. After all, what did I need wisdom for, hah?
Now my wisdom teeth had been a constantly erupting source of irritation for years. They would flare up and, just when I was beginning to panic, would subside and disappear. It was a bit like those glimpses of satori the meditators talk about – wisdom, you know?
“Hurt!” he exclaimed in answer to my question, as if he had never, ever heard anything quite so ridiculous before in his entire life. “Nah! These days, painkillers, you know? Twenty-four hours of discomfort, that’s ALL you’ll have, at the VERY most!”
I could live with twenty-four hours of discomfort, so I said Yes, and Thank You, and at the appointed hour turned up and allowed myself to be led in. Dentist number one had been joined by an oral surgeon and an anaesthetist, doubtless his wife since complementary occupations so conveniently attract each other as everyone knows. As the deed proceeded, I conjured thoughts to drown the blood-curdling sounds of teeth being sawed and what may or may not have been me screaming, and to prevent myself from being horrified when the oral surgeon had to wrench and wrench with all his might to dislodge them. These were mental pictures of the sequence in which I would cook my meal-for-eight when I got home. Pratibha, the dreadful wretch, had failed to arrive back from chutti as scheduled. But I had invited three old and lovable aunties-from-Mumbai who happened to be in town to lunch (the other five, of course, being family).
In an hour or so it was all over and no, the teeth were not diseased, they were perfectly healthy – even the oral surgeon was surprised to see this. He had after all, merely been contracted to come in, pull out teeth, collect fee, and leave.
I was presented my bill and it caused me to swoon as the sight of my blood in the basin next to me hadn’t. The oral surgeon now confided that he was recently retired from the army and was extremely skilled, or else how would he have performed this kind of operation so casually when in the USA they hospitalize you for eight days prior to it?
This was the first indication of the magnitude of what I had gone and done.
The team saw me to the door, advised me to apply packs of ice to my jowls, practice opening my mouth wide, and bade friendly goodbyes.
Here’s what happened next.
I managed to put together a successful lunch, and the aunties ate well so perhaps the ice condensing off my face, and the blood that dripped out of my mouth unexpectedly on occasion, didn’t repel them particularly.
Once the effect of anaesthesia wore off, pain dawned. Serious pain! I couldn’t eat any food and soon realized that I couldn’t open my mouth much anymore either.
The kids were deeply concerned as they realized that if I didn’t eat anything I might expire in course of time and then who would pack their dabbas and buy them nice-nice things on their birthday?
My cheeks began to swell in rage. Soon, I was all puffed up and, concern forgotten, Ekta gleefully suggested that I should go on the Zee Horror Show. It was funny but I didn’t laugh because it hurt too much when I tried.
I called the dentist to explain nicely but he wasn’t there. Someone said that he had just gone out to the bank or something like that.
It was twenty days before I could open my mouth to half of what I normally could before. Nearly seven months passed before the dull residual ache subsided.
The word “discomfort” became a sarcastic joke in our home, one to be used only as grossest hyperbole.
Wisdom was mine, too late.
first appeared in Maharashtra Herald on 18 May 1997

Monday, May 5, 1997

Boarding card

Ajay had strapped on his seat belt when a stranger came up, looked accusingly at him, and said, “My seat.”
It was the British Airways flight from Moscow to London, and Ajay was heading home on a roundabout route. In those days, it was easier to travel to the USSR via Europe; one method of avoiding the dread Aeroflot, which was by no means celebrated for its exceptional service. (I remember a flight once in which ample and sturdy stewardesses marched firmly up and down the aisle calling out sternly: “No bee-yer! No beeyer!” to the trapped and disappointed passengers on the hop from Delhi to Tashkent.)
The man flourished his boarding card, prompting Ajay to pull his out too. And both cards carried the same seat number. Ajay’s unease grew. Around them, seats were filling up fast. Surely the ground staff at Moscow airport weren’t expecting them to squeeze in together? Taking a closer look, he read, “A Aggarwal”, exactly what his own card said, and quite rightly too.
Alarm rising, he cleared his throat and leaned forward. “What’s your name?” he inquired politely.
“A-jay,” the man replied, with a curious foreign blurring of the j. Ajay turned pale, and the other man squinted at him, suddenly alert that something intriguing was in progress. With narrowing eyes, they stared at each other for a few moments. And then broke into laughter. Two people, booked on the same flight, and with the same name – not so surprising that the ground staff, referring to a hand-written passenger manifesto, had made this mistake.
Now you’ll say that there’s nothing so very unusual about this. After all, Air India on the Bombay-London sector routinely carries a score and more of Patels and it’s not at all uncommon to have half a dozen P Patels on board, with some, but not all, demanding Indian Vegetarian Meals at dinnertime.
The cabin crew now came to their rescue and settled the other gentleman in the seat next to Ajay so that the appellative doppelgangers could enjoy each other’s company for the rest of the journey. Whether or not all kinds of brotherly feelings, and an intense experience of the universality of all human beings arose, I cannot say. But the central curiosity of this episode is that the other Ajay Aggarwal lived in Paris. He was French. And he had not only never been to India, his range of acquaintances numbered a scanty few who could boast Indian descent. This man was totally astonished that his exotic, unpronounceable headache of a name had turned out to be so common in the country of his ancestors.

first appeared as What's in a Name? in Maharashtra Herald on 4 May 1997

Sunday, February 9, 1997


In Mumbai when the temperature drops below 25°C, people start shivering and pretending that they are about to catch a cold, in a transparent attempt to trot out the woollens they acquired on their last trip to Kodai or Simla or possibly even Zurich. We Pune people, being more worldly, experienced, and tolerant, to say nothing of modest, are a more hardy lot. This season the minimum temperature inched to the wee single digits before the newspapers started crying Cold Wave, and only then did we consider ourselves truly entitled to feel cold.
Still, I stopped short of getting out my thermals. I quieted the urge by reminding myself of the time I was sitting in an aeroplane, about to land at Amsterdam airport, and heard the pilot cheerfully announce that it was 2°C outside.
Now this was some years ago, in what I like to fondly remember as My Young Days. I had never experienced 2°C in the daytime before – wasn’t expecting to, in fact, and had arranged to protect myself from the elements only with the help of two sweaters which I had knitted myself. One was in my suitcase in the hold, and the other I was still working on. Overcoats, I had always assumed, had been created only for sissies and hypochondriacs. I began casting off in a panic.
It so happened that on that occasion I was travelling with my two-year-old daughter and I said a little prayer that the 2°C wouldn’t, well, cause her to catch a cold. As it happened, it didn’t, and we came back to Schiphol airport after a short stay in Holland, survivors, to catch the flight to London.
At the gate just before we boarded, my daughter announced to me an urgent desire to relieve her digestive system of its wastes. (“Mummy – kaka!” she explained briefly, with the kind of expression that brooks no argument).
Amsterdam airport in those days was the most splendid place you could imagine. Every gate had its own toilet and we promptly headed for the nearest one. Business hurried through, I looked about for the flush. And was horrified to find that there wasn’t one. I pulled every lever I could see, twisted and tugged and wrenched at every metallic projection in sight. Nothing worked. The other passengers had probably finished boarding by now, but I was hesitant to leave a dirty toilet behind and bring everlasting disgrace to my country as one of third class, third world people who don’t even know how to flush a toilet. Just when I was about to give up and leave the job – to an Asian toilet cleaner no doubt, because in those days airport-toilet-cleaning was an industry dominated by South Asians – I noticed a subtle outline depicting a hand on one of the tiles behind the commode. Some primal urge, some deep instinct of self preservation, made me place my own hand over it. Just place: no force, no pressure. That was it; I’d managed to crack the code. The flush gushed into operation. A tremendous feeling of lightness and elation flooded my being. We raced for the plane. Ah how much one learns when one travels! I knew I’d be dining out on this story, no matter that the subject was hardly one appropriate for the table, for years to come.
But wait, there’s more. We stopped again at Schiphol for our connection on the way home. Standing outside a locked door, I wondered impatiently why the person inside was stalking about like a caged tiger. A sheepish-looking Indian woman stepped out apologizing that she hadn’t been able to find the flush.
This was my moment! I stepped forward proudly with the accomplished air of a jetsetting international traveller. “Oh, the toilets at Amsterdam airport are extremely high-tech,” I gloated with great sophistication, and kindly showed her how to do it.

Some parts of this appeared in Maharashtra Herald as ‘Yuckity Yak’ on 9 Feb 1997

Monday, January 20, 1997

A night with Mani

It was difficult not to notice him. He strutted down the aisle of the bus, easy in his denim jacket and tight jeans, his swagger inviting admiration but perhaps evoking only resentment, or maybe even contempt. West Indian, I extrapolated, from a brief impression of his skin and hair; and probably not more than twenty years old.
It was not racial prejudice that caused me dismay when he peered at his ticket number once again and beamingly eased himself into the seat next to mine which, I had rather hoped, would remain empty. I had settled comfortably into the corner and looked forward to sleeping off the exertions of the earlier part of my travels on this overnight journey from Johar Baru to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Train tickets had not been available, which made me feel right at home. In fact, the atmosphere at the JB railway station, replete with slow-moving queues and potholes on the road outside was almost purposely designed to invoke nostalgia for Bandra Station.
“Dinner!” he grinned toothily at me, opening a packet of what I vaguely identified (with some surprise) as banana chips, and offered me some in a friendly fashion. “You from America?” he inquired after crunching and chomping for a while.
This, I had learnt, was a popular query and single women travelling alone anywhere in the world were much subjected to it: fresh in memory, for instance, are the juddering yelps and shudders of a Punjab State Road Transport Ambala-Nabha commuter in the early 1980s. A kindly pajama-ed porter helped me struggle on, asking, “Aap forum se aye ho kya?” This was before ‘global village’ had become a household expression and so flattered was I by the polite query that I flash it about even now with great pride.
“India,” I replied briefly, but he was overjoyed. “My ancestors from India!” he exclaimed. His name was Mani, but without the cultural bearing which would have had him introduce himself, “Myself Mani,” or perhaps even “My good self Mani”.
Now that a strong bond had established itself, I was obliged to help myself to some banana chips – a favourite food at the best of times.
Mani was on his way home from Singapore to visit his family in KL. I asked him casually if he was a student, more to remain cordial than because I really wanted to know. “No,” he replied proudly, “I am a policeman.” So I had fallen victim to stereotyping, just as he had.
Well, I mused, there are policemen and policemen, and perhaps this chap was travelling incognito. But he was so fresh and innocent under all that bravado, and so proud of himself, as would any little boy be who had suddenly grown up to find that yes, he had become a policeman after all, that I was touched.
Being Tamil, he spoke the language like a native. Having grown up in Malaysia, Malay came with the territory. As for English, I could see that he spoke it as well as anyone else. Surprisingly, Mani could do Chinese as well. His parents, labour on a rubber plantation, had sent him to a Chinese school: “My mother say Chinese very clever!” he beamed. It struck me that his mother was very clever too, for now, equipped with the formidable qualifications of all four of Singapore’s national languages, he had acquired a plum job at the airport as a security policeman.
And now, when there’s any talk of Ships That Pass in the Night, I remember Mani – with whom I did, after all, spend the night though only on an AC bus.
First appeared as ‘Some things remain constant’ in The Metropolis on Saturday on 18-19 Jan 1997