Who am I?

My photo
I am not religious, but I don't mind calling myself spiritual. Religion, I believe, has, over the millennia, been used as a prop to perpetrate a lot of human suffering. Faith is what matters. I don't believe in the definition of God as a creator. According to me, my God resides within me. Some call it conscience, some call it the sub-conscious, some call it the soul. I don't mind calling it God. So by definition I am not an atheist or an agnostic, but by essence, I may as well be. My God does not reside in a temple, church, mosque or gurudwara. It is right here, within me.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Shit Happens!


Travel woes don’t seem to leave me alone. After all the mess with the UK visa getting denied to me because of a “damaged passport” followed by a passport re-application struggle at multiple stages, where I underwent all adventures possible while dealing with Indian bureaucracy like a rude and haughty passport officer who called my application a “ghanta” loudly enough for the 50 people crowded around in the office without a care in the world, and being asked to come back thrice for the Passport re-issue application, to a background verification police officer who asked for a bribe in a subtle manner, the worse thing being that I fail to notice the subtlety, followed by a delay in receiving the re-applied UK visa till the very last afternoon of the day I was to fly out. And at one point you think, what else can happen? I’m at my lowest point and nothing can be worse than this.


But then more shit happens. Your flight gets cancelled. Or at least you get an email from Makemytrip saying that Qatar Airways has cancelled your flight in light of the diplomatic row with its neighbours. There were options provided in the email to either explore other options with the same airlines (why would I do that in this case with Qatar Airways?) or get a full refund, and the steps I need to follow to claim cancellation because of “flight being non-operational” through their web site or app. So I follow the steps to claim cancellation because of the stated reason and apply for the refund. The next day – and here it gets really interesting – I come to the office thinking I have to book a new flight, but I get a new email from Makemytrip asking me to ignore the flight cancellation email from them the previous day and that it was sent out due to a “technical glitch”! But it failed to mention anything about the big coincidence staring us in the faces, that the cancellation message was for a Qatar Airways flight, an airlines which is cancelling flights right, left and centre these past few days because of the diplomatic crisis where some other gulf countries have cut economic ties with them. I called up Makemytrip on the “toll free number” provided on their website, and had to wait for over 10 minutes and yawn three times before a customer service operator came on the line. I explained to them my situation and asked them to make me understand the present scenario. After holding the line and hearing the stale “music” for some time, she came back and told me that the flight is operational and good to go.
I asked her that since I had initiated cancellation and a refund, the status is showing as “Cancellation in Progress” and that a cancellation ID has been generated and all. She said that’s just some “problem with the website” which I should ignore. Since this and the other coincidences were too coincident to ignore, I asked her to cancel the flight for me, and let me know what is the refund I’ll be getting since I had booked a “refundable” flight. After making me wait on the line for what seemed like an eternity, she came back on the line and said that the flight is non-refundable now. I asked her to explain what that meant. She said that till the time of Departure, if the cancellation was done, it was refundable, with some cancellation fees going into it, but since I am “Departured” (thankfully she did not say “Departed”), it fell under the category of non-refundable. I was flabbergasted and I asked her how can I be considered “Departured” for the flight was 3 days away. She said I am being considered “Departured” as I have already flown from Bengaluru to Manchester, and since it was booked under the same return ticket, it meant that if I cancel now, I would not get any refund, which did not make sense to me. I kept up my side of incredulity-laden argument with her and used words like “loyal customer”, “very poor customer service” and “pathetic support”. I also dropped in words like “raise this issue” and “higher ups”. At that moment, in the middle of all this, I also asked her name, which I had to ask her to repeat at least 4 times before I could understand it (it was not a common name, in my defence). She suddenly seemed to be holding the phone upside down, as I could hardly hear her uncharacteristically whisper her name over the phone. Although I was asking it because I had spent the past almost half an hour arguing with her, and if the phone line happened to get disconnected right now, I would have to start it all over with a new customer care executive and have the same set of arguments, which is a pain (trust me, that has happened before). But she probably took it in the light of a sort of escalation that I may have in mind as she was being unsupportive, which she was, but I did not have that in mind when I asked her name. But it seemed to do the job, nevertheless. She took down my phone number, and said she will explore other options and will get back to me. After about half an hour I received an email from her stating that they will reimburse less than a third of the total cost of the to and fro flight, which seemed fair enough to me and she said that since I had already initiated the cancellation (which she was earlier calling “a problem with the website”), I need not worry about anything else. She mentioned the amount they’ll be reimbursing in writing, so I could trust that.

So finally I was able to get a new flight booked through Oman Air, flying through Muscat, which I hear has suddenly become a hot hub for a lot of flights connecting Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia with Europe. But one last ball of shit was yet to drop on my head. I received a mobile usage message the next day, and it seems the “toll free” call had cost me Rs 8,000 since I was in an international territory! So much for the reimbursement saving which I had fought so hard for. Anyhow, since I am “net positive”, I’ll have to live with this. But shit happens and you can’t do much, can you?



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Scene at the Garden

I sit at a worn-out wooden bench, senile yet stately – the bench, not me - and absorb – I do, not the bench – the scene unwrapping itself in front of me. My claim does not extend to asserting that there is something exceptional in the scene that lay in front of me. In fact, it shines in its ordinariness. In front of me sprawls the Princes Street Gardens (since almost everything in Edinburgh, Scotland, has a regal significance to it). I’ve just come out of the Scottish National Gallery, alternatively called the Scottish Art Gallery (yes, a lot is in the name, something I realised in the morning when my overdependence on technology – read Google Maps – led me to Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which was quite offhandishly located in an isolated corner of Edinburgh, and contributed quite a lot to my step count of today). 

The girl rollicking around the park with her parents
In front of me, there is a family of three. The Mom and Dad are doing an On Your Marks, Get Set, Go to their daughter, seemingly 6, while they make a gateway of their hands for the girl to run screaming through and get enraptured. And by the time I have written this, I notice that now she rolls herself down the slope of the grassy meadow that forms the Princes Street Gardens.

Children two my right try to scare away this Oyestercatch
Two children on the bench to my right, again not more than 5, thought they were successfully able to scare away a white and grey Oyestercatch, when another one lands right in front of them, and seems even more hesitant in running away for her life than the previous one. A group of four girls, aged 8 to 12, sit in circle in the lush green grass, and seem to be playing a certain game which requires something to be scribbled by each one in turn, followed by mandatory giggles in which each one’s participation is expected. After a while they get up and climb the steep grassy slope towards my end of the garden, and one manages to get stuck while the others endeavour to pull her up. They pass me by, and the language seems quite incomprehensible to me.

The group of girls, far away from worldly
troubles, in their own cocoon called childhood
A solitary girl of not more than 14 sits beneath a sprawling tree, absorbed in the book she is cradling, smiling and frowning alternatively. The sound of the buses passing over the manhole covers is quite loud, and can be heard from across the Princes Street, the major arterial road adjoining this area. The weather’s quite cold today, and it’s strange how much the environment of this place has altered between yesterday and today. Yesterday, at the terrace in front of the Scottish National Gallery many songs a busker performed beautifully on his guitar, with a bass pedal attached to the Cajon and a musical percussion jingle to the other foot, alternatively tapping his feet to from a sort of a one-man band. Today it’s all silent, with less than a tenth of the people in these gardens, favouring yesterday’s sun over today’s cold and gloomy weather

The girl who sits peacefully underneath the tree,
absorbed in her book
A guy with his bicycle arrives, accompanied by his dog, and they descend the slope, the guy gingerly with his bike, and the dog excitedly, while a stranger who was walking behind them with a DSLR stops to capture their spectacle. In a while, the dog can be seen cavorting with a stick in its mouth, in one of dogs’ usually identifiable antics, where they grasp a stick in their jaws, shake their head from side to side, seemingly to dislodge the stick but maybe to get a better grip at it, and then roll over with the stick still lodged firmly between their jaws. The girl with the book watches the dog and smiles widely. The owner of the dog seems to emerge from a thicket and carries in his hand a large dry branch of a tree, breaks it into smaller pieces – which are actually much larger than the dog’s previous stick – and starts throwing it to the dog, who is exhilarated and runs around having the time of his life, like dogs always do in such moments. At this moment, the bitter frigid wind forces me to pack up and look for an indoor sanctuary. Such ordinariness, yet so much variety of hopes and lives, in this singular moment. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A walk through small town England

A group of sheep, fenced within a garden, bleating profusely
while running around excitedly

This is an excerpt from a longer piece I wrote in my journal:

After the beer at the bar, I went out. I had hesitated going out earlier because rain seemed imminent, but when this imminence seemed to be dissolving into permanence, my confidence grew. The foreboding dark grey did not seem as gloomy once I stepped out. I had spent some time on Google maps figuring out the area and trying to locate some good places to eat around, so I chose my direction and started walking. When I ended the walk, an hour and a half later, the weather was still exactly the same, I felt extremely alive, I had a take-away pack of Chicken Chowmein with me and it was nearing 8 pm, but still bright and beautiful.


The small-town streets and houses of Batley, a small town
near Cleckheaton, about 20 mins away from Leeds
The streets were lovely, with a sort of small-townish charm about the houses. I saw a girl walking her dog and also taking a brisk walk with that excuse, and a dad playing ball with her 5 year old daughter in their front yard. I saw a small dark and discouragingly gloomy exit from the main road, and through thick foliage and across a narrow wooden bridge I arrived unexpectedly upon a small pond. There sat an old man fishing at the pond, with endless patience and perseverance, now throwing his bait far into the water and now keeping the fishing rod to his side and waiting expectantly. After watching this charming spectacle for a while, I walked around the pond to take an exit to arrive upon a grassy upslope, which had caught my eye as soon as I had arrived at the pond. Across the road was a church, antediluvian and morosely stolid, hidden and silent, not expecting much from the world around it. As I walked on while the church bells clanged 7 times, the vista opened up in front of me and I saw hundreds of tombstones rearing their heads, some before the others, this one rounded and stout, that one tall and elegant, some with pointy tops, others more conservative and flatheaded. As I walked into the graveyard, reading the engravings on the tombstones, I realised there were stories abound.


The small pond upon which I stumbled where I found an old man
fishing calmly
A person, who had died at the age of 82 in 1889, was buried there. At the same place and explained on the same headstone was the fact that his wife, who died at 61, was also buried alongside him. At the same place lay their son who died at 18, and his wife who died at 74. Just this small sentence was, I felt, richly laden with stories. To start with, even at that age and time, the father had lived a long life and died at the ripe age of 82, at a time when  a lot of the communicable diseases did not allow us to live as long and carefree as we live today, something evident in their son passing away at 18 years of age. It’s interesting that only a son lay here. Did the couple have only one child? Or maybe they had only one son and the daughters chose to be buried wherever their husbands lay. Maybe they had another son who they had fallen out with, who had never stayed in touch with them after reaching adulthood. 

The old church which was right across the cemetery, silent
and phlegmatic
The wife also seemed to have lived to a respectable age of 61, but this also means that the husband probably spent the last two decades of his life a lonely man. Or did he? He could have been a decade younger than his wife, and that leaves him alone for a shorter span. Or maybe, at some charity event, he had come across an old lover who he had known before his marriage, who also was a widow. Maybe they had hit it off and had spent their last few years in each other’s company, but it would have been sacrilege for this female to not be buried where her own husband was, so maybe after she passed away, she went back to lie with her own husband, the love of the first 40 years outweighing those of the last 15. 


The graveyard which opened up suddenly in front of me while
walking across a grassy meadow
And what about the son? His early demise can be attributed to, let’s say, smallpox. But he was already married by the time he passed away at 18 years of age. His wife, facing a whole life before her, found herself at crossroads. The possibility that she remarried, yet chose to lay next to her first husband in the afterlife - the husband who had died 56 years ago at a tender age, even before she could get to know him well - seems unlikely. This leaves the possibility that she chose to not marry after her husband expired, and spent 56 prime years of her life alone and as a widow, choosing to be buried next to the memories of her husband from over half a century ago; by the time she was on her deathbed, she hardly remembered anything meaningful about him. Or maybe she lived a life of profligacy after her husband passed away, having lived with different partners in various parts of the world, but coming back to the family of her one and only husband and spending her last few years with them, finally lying in the ground next to all of them.


Or maybe, just maybe, truth is much stranger than this, way beyond our comprehension and estimate. Human lives are complex and despite so much commonality of experiences and education and world events that people end up living through, the end product that each one of us becomes is always unique, colouring our experiences with our own singular personalities. I could only extrapolate and imagine the lives of the people lying there, but the truth will always stay buried.



Friday, January 6, 2017

School Days

Today morning while walking up to the location of my carpool pick-up, I experienced something which swept me back to my school days in a strong current of nostalgia. At the first turning on the Botanical Garden Road, there is a school titled Jain Heritage School. I’ve been starting later than usual, at around 8:10 am, from my place these past couple of days, and the moment I passed by this school happened to coincide, in these past two days, with that time of the school which marked the start of the day amid the chatter and babble called morning assembly.

St. Edward's School, Shimla
I’ve studied up till 10th standard in St. Edward’s School, a convent school which was also among the best in Shimla. It was a vast campus sprawling over an area large enough to manage 20 simultaneous classrooms (2 sections each from 1 to 10th standard) and a few 10+1 and 10+2 classes that had started towards the end of my tenure. The school complex was nestled within the tall deodars on all sides and 2 playgrounds out in the front, one larger one the size of a football field, and the smaller one that of a hockey field, and the smaller field at a marked elevation from the bigger field of about 25 meters in a step-like structure. The mottled manner in which the sunlight managed to reach the school premises only in part ensured that there were areas and locations within the campus which were full of bright sunshine, warm and pleasant, while others which were shaded and drafty throughout the day, with an obvious drop in temperature at such places. There were nooks and corners on the campus, all of which I could visit right now if I close my eyes. 10 years spent at a place for 8 hours each day has created a mental map of the entire campus in my mind, so strong that I can walk the entire place and know it like the back of my hand. I realize that some of these memories may have been gradually distorted, for when I visit the campus again today, those very intimate places may appear quite different in reality. But the place in my imagination is sacred and personal to me, much like the characters we imagine after reading a classic novel. It is always a let-down when we watch the movie based on that book and it almost always falls short of the richness we imagined the characters to have.



Morning Assembly at St. Edward's School
The instructions by the PT teacher this morning through the microphone felt eerily similar to those I remember from my school morning assembly. It made me even wonder if the same PT teacher as we had may be working in this school in a corner of a faraway Hyderabad. I dismissed the notion as soon as it occurred to me for its improbability and craziness. “Atten-shun! Stenda-tees! Atten-shun! Stenda-tees!” was what the sounds started with. It was followed by “7th class, check your line. 7th class!”. This made me laugh loudly as even yesterday, 7th class was the one that was being chided for standing in a not-so-straight line. I mused that probably 6th and 7th standard were the classes where the students are the most unruly, speaking also from my experience in being the “Prefect” of Class 6th in my school when I myself was in Class 10th. Ashish, my best and childhood friend, was the one who, along with me, strove hard to manage the undisciplined monster that was Class 6th! We ended up making a lot of chiddi friends (the term that was popular for any junior in school), and quickly realized that standing aside and allowing the chiddis to vent out some of the bubbling energy, if not all, was the best way to keep the pressure cooker simmering, and thus preventing total mayhem.


A view of the school premises
While wondering about this, the voice announced “Okay! Now take one arm distance again, all of you. Yes, and keep the lines straight”. This announcement seemed straight out of our own school assembly, redolent of all the naughty laughs that formed what was morning assembly for us students. The Pledge, which was usually followed the Prayer, had a statement “ -- and all Indians are my brothers and sisters”, which was usually suffixed by “ – except one” in hushed and cackling tones, while trying to hide our giggle behind the head of the guy standing in front of us to prevent detection. With a lot of students in a queue trying to adjust their respective heads thus, one can safely imagine why the “lines” were always anything but “straight”. Once the assembly ended, the black shoes had to be shining and school belts were to be present around our waist, and non-compliance in this regard was penalized while on our way back to the classrooms. Black shoes used to be inevitably covered with a thin layer of dust while on our ground which lacked a grass cover (something that was heard to be made fun of during our school fete by girls from other top convent schools in Shimla) and it could easily be cleaned by rubbing each toe against the back of the dark grey trouser on the other leg. It was a simple ceremony which used to make us feel like geniuses. But there was no easy escape if the belt was forgotten, and one was sent off to take a couple of rounds of the football field as a punishment.


While I was thinking of all this, a loud honk ahead of me jolted me back from my pleasant reverie. School times are undoubtedly the best times, unsullied by emotions like anger, envy and desolation. There are no inhibitions, no self-doubts and no one to tell us we cannot do something. It’s a time of infinite possibilities, and the heartbreaks, the unqualified and unending chatter, the games and the simplicity of it all usually qualifies those times as the most memorable ones in each of our lives.