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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

VEG OR NON-VEG?





First draft composed 38,000 feet above sea-level.

Many passengers travelling on flights between India and the rest of the world are vegetarian. When meals are being served on-board, mid-flight, everyone is offered a 'veg' (i.e. vegetarian) meal or a 'non-veg' meal (i.e. one containing any of: meat/fish/egg).

I have nothing personal against vegetarians or vegetables, but I do prefer a meal to include meat, fish, or egg.

Many years ago, I flew from London to Bangalore (India) via Frankfurt on Lufthansa, the German airline. We were served two main meals between Frankfurt and Bangalore. The first of these were available as veg or non-veg. I chose the latter. When the second meal was served some hours later, there was no choice - I was presented with a veg meal. It was completely vegetarian and did not look at all appetising to me. I called the stewardess, and told her that I must have some meat or fish instead of the veg meal. 
She said to me in her good English with barely a hint of a German accent:
"In Germany, we believe that you should not eat meat more than once a day because it is not healthy."
I told her that my health was my business, and that I was extremely hungry and likely to become hypoglycaemic soon. She disappeared from the economy class cabin, where I was seated, for a few minutes, and then returned with a delicious selection of seafood. 
"I have brought you this from Business Class," she explained.
I thanked her, but could not help wondering why it was unhealthy to eat non-veg more than once a day in Economy Class, but not in Business Class.

Usually, we fly with British Airways on their non-stop flight between London and Bangalore. We always sit in the euphemistically called "World Traveller" cabin - 'Second Class' would be the best possible description of this mode of travel. The regular food served in this cabin has always been mediocre at its best. When I complained about this to one of my patients, who works as a British Airways cabin crew member, he suggested that we should pre-book 'seafood' meals. We followed his suggestion, and noted an improvement in what we were served on-board.

More recently, maybe three years ago, I was seated next to a devout Moslem couple on a British Airways flight from Bangalore. The woman wore head-coverings and her husband was dressed in a Pathan suit. They prayed frequently and ostentatiously during the flight. When their meals were served, I noticed that they were being served with non-veg dishes that looked positively mouthwatering in comparison to our seafood meals. They were eating fragrant biryanis and bits of kebab. Watching them, I suddenly realised the solution to the meal problem on British Airways.

From that time onwards, I have always pre-booked 'Moslem meals' on Brithish Airways. We have rarely been disapointed with the quality of these meals, which we have been served more than 7 miles above sea-level.  I have often wondered what the cabin crew think when having served us our Moslem meals, we then accompany it with a gin and tonic or a Bloody Mary.


Saturday, 25 August 2012

SEEING A BOY



I locked the door of my apartment, entered the elevator, and sleepily waited for it to take its time to reach the ground floor. I unlocked my mailbox, not really expecting to find anything, but looking just in case my parents had sent me a letter from our home in Pune. I always hoped to get news from them: they were beginning to get old, and a little bit frail. The air-letter, which I found in the box that spring morning in 1989, did not bear either of my parents' handwriting. I flipped it over, and found that the sender was Renuka Patel, the daughter of one of my parents' friends in Bombay. I tore it open quickly, wondering why on earth she should have written to me. We had met several times in India, and I had found her to be quite friendly, but not someone whom I counted amongst my closest of acquaintances.

Before beginning to read her brief letter, I looked up briefly and glanced the notice by the front door that announced that "Every Friday between 9.00 am and 11 am the exterminator will visit this apartment block." This sign always brought a smile to my face. I read Renuka's letter quickly before stepping out into the already warm early morning sunshine beating down on East 57th Street.

As I waited for a cab to take me to my office near Wall Street, I marveled at what Renuka had written. She said that her brother Vivek, who lived and worked in Boston, had been sent photographs of me, and was keen to meet me. I wondered who had sent him these. I was certain that it was not my parents. 

As my cab moved jerkily southwards along Fifth Avenue, it dawned on me that I was already twenty-eight, and that no one had ever proposed to me. This was not strictly true: my parents had received plenty of marriage proposals for me, but had never bothered to pass them on to me. 
They had had a 'love marriage', and had assured me that I would never have to consider having an 'arranged marriage' if I did not want to. Marriage was not top of my list of worries. Being a compliance officer in a merchant bank provided me with enough pressing concerns. Something, maybe it was curiosity, made me decide at one of the numerous red stop-lights that it might be fun to experience 'meeting a boy'.


A week or so later, I stepped of an aeroplane at Logan Airport, and took a cab to a hotel in downtown Boston. It was noon when I finished applying my eye-liner and mascara. I took a final look in the mirror on the oversized dressing table in my excessively large bedroom, and set off to meet Vivek for a lunch date, as previously arranged by 'phone from my office in New York.

Vivek lived alone in a luxurious block in Cambridge, not far from MIT. I stepped out of the elevator, and saw him standing at the door to his apartment. He looked older than me. A few strands of his greying hair had been brushed over the top of his head in a pathetic attempt to hide a bald patch. My heart sank, but I smiled, sweetly I hoped.

After exchanging pleasantries in his sitting room, he said: 
"I'll get us some snacks before we go out to lunch."
The bowl of snacks, which he fetched from his kitchenette, consisted of a pile of nacho crisps partially hidden by a glue-like skin of what must once have been molten cheese.
"Do you drink?" he asked. "Alcohol, I mean."
"Sure," I answered, thinking that anything would do to help wash the almost inedible corn crackers down my throat. 
He ambled back to the kitchenette, rummaged about in his large refrigerator, and returned empty-handed, saying,
"There's only beer."
"Never mind," I replied. "Maybe, we can drink something else at lunch."
"Hmmm," he mumbled.
Being quite hungry after my early departure from New York, I picked at the gooey mass on the low glass table that separated my chair from the sofa on which my host had stretched himself almost languidly. I looked at him. His shirt was not fastened completely. His tie was sloppily fastened. 

After I had eaten a few more nachos, and we we had discussed our professions and the relative merits of the colleges at which we had studied our MBAs, he became silent. Was he concerned, I wondered, that I, a woman and far younger than he, had a more senior position in my company than he had in his? Or, was he concerned that my MBA was only from Salford, whereas his was from Harvard? 

I was still hungry despite the few nachos, which I had managed to force down my throat without having seen any sign of a drink, even it it had been going to be 'only beer'. When he had assured me that he wished to marry an intelligent girl - someone with whom he could have serious discussions - he announced:
"As you've had something to eat already, and could do with losing some weight, let's not bother with lunch."
I was outraged - I knew that my figure was not stick-like: I wasn't a Twiggy - but, overweight I certainly was not.
Moreover, with his well-developed paunch, he was in no position to criticise my appearance. 

He stood up. I could sense that he wanted me to leave. I was not sorry: it was not a moment too soon.
"Let's meet for dinner. At eight this evening? Ok with you?"
I nodded. I had come to Boston especially to meet Vivek, knew no one else in the city, and had nothing else planned before my return flight the next day.
"Eat meat?" he asked whilst holding open his apartment door.
"I do."
"Well, we cook vegetarian at home. I'll expect to eat veg only when we're at home. You can cook our Gujarati food?"
I nodded, lost for words. However, had I been less well brought up I would have obliterated his supercilious smile with a sharp blow from one of my fists. To hell with non-violence!
"I'll see you at eight, but where?"
Vivek gave me the address of a restaurant in downtown Boston.

The candle-lit restaurant that Vivek had selected was vegetarian. It served mainly Middle-Eastern dishes. We sat awkwardly, reading the menu, but despite my suggestions, Vivek ordered what he wanted without any reference to me. This annoyed me.
"Would you be happy to have children," I asked him, guessing this is something one ought to ask when 'seeing a boy'.
He looked at me horrified, and asked:
"How can you suggest such a thing?"
I think that he must have noticed me raising my eyebrows.
"We're both in the twilight of our lives," he explained.
I was only twenty-eight, for heaven's sake, and he could not have been more than ten years older. 
"Kids? Oh no! They'd just get in our way. Spoil our lives. When we're married, we will work, and go on lovely vacations together. Kids - definitely not - there's no two ways about it."
I was dumbfounded even though I had already decided that Vivek was a lost cause.

Then, he looked at me and said:
"I've ordered us a special dish."
"Really?" I asked, trying to smile, rather than to begin laughing at him.
"Yes, you won't have come across it before," he said condescendingly. "It is made from thin pastry filled with cheese and spinach."
This was the moment I had been waiting for.
"Spanokoppitas," I said, smiling broadly. "I used to eat that frequently when I worked for KPMG in their Athens office."
Vivek's face assumed a sulky expression, which he was unable to shake off for the rest of the evening.

On my return to New York, I wrote to Renuka, thanking her for introducing me to Vivek. I told her tactfully that although I had spent a pleasant time with her brother in Boston, I thought it highly unlikely that anything marital would work out between us, because of our differing views on bringing children into our lives.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

DEVANAHALLI









I first set foot in Bangalore in January 1994 . We landed at the old Bangalore Airport, which was located at the HAL layout to the east of the centre of the city, not far from the Kids Kemp, a castle-shaped toy store. At that time, there were no air-bridges, so we just descended a gangplank and walked  across the tarmac to the terminal, where we collected  our luggage before being met my in-laws, who drove my wife and me, in their Maruti van, to their home in southern Bangalore.

A few years later, the 'old' airport was modernised. Air bridges were installed, and no longer did we have to walk across the tarmac in the open-air. The last time that I did walk across the tarmac from a jet-plane was when I visited Cape Town in August 2003. I had arrived from London where the temperature had been an unbelievable 37 degrees Celsius, and stepped out of the 'plane into the early morning air whose temperature was close to zero!

In the 1990s, I recall that the air inside Indian airports had a peculiar delicate fragrance, almost perfumed. This smell was so characteristic that even if I had been blindfolded, I would have known that I was in India.

The improved 'old' airport might have had its air-bridges and newly  installed escalators, but the first time that we landed there after these improvements had been made, there was something that made it a little different from arriving at any other airport that I had ever been to. Whilst queuing at passport control, wild dogs ('pie' dogs) wandered languidly among the waiting travelers. The only other place that I had encountered dogs in such circumstances was at New York's JFK Airport, back in 1992. The dogs there wore dinky little waistcoats and were on leashes, sniffing around for drugs!

Sometime after the year 2000, the 'new' Bengaluru International Airport was opened about 40 kilometres north of Bangalore, close to the village of Devanahalli. This splendid airport was flawed as soon as it was opened. Apart from being located in a part of Karnataka, which attracts the highest incidence of fog, often dense enough to prevent landings and take-offs, it was too small for the number of passengers that it was supposed to handle. Currently, and only a very few years after its inauguration, the airport is being enlarged. From what I could judge by eye, I would guess that the terminal building is being doubled in length.

Until yesterday (18 August, 2012), I associated the name Devanahalli with the word 'airport', and nothing else. Yesterday, my wife and I were returning from Hyderabad to Bangalore by road. As we crossed over from the state Andra Pradesh (in which Hyderabad is located) to the state Karnataka, we flashed past a sign-board listing touristic attractions in Karnataka. I was almost certain that I noticed the name 'Devanahalli' among these.

Several hours later when we were just north of Bengaluru International Airport, and could see its perimeter fence in the distance, I spotted some very sturdy looking brown coloured walls, without doubt the outer walls of a fortress. I asked our driver to slow down, and we left the dual carriageway on a small road leading towards the walls. The road led through a narrow, clearly ancient, archway in the castle walls into a bustling village, with many shops and a number of picturesque Hindu temples, surrounded by the old, well-preserved walls. We were in the precincts of the castle that was the birthplace of the great Tipu Sultan. According to the Wikipedia article about this fort (Click here to see it), there is a memorial commemorating his birth somewhere within the fort, but, sadly, we did not have time to search for it.




After retracing our steps, and driving out through the gateway through which we entered, we stopped outside the walls so that I could take some photographs. When I returned to our vehicle, two small boys approached me, carrying a tatty looking booklet of what I thought were raffle tickets. They asked me my name, and then wrote it on one of the pages of the booklet, and then tore out the page. I understood that they were collecting money for Ganesh - the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi  will be soon (in September). I gave them a small donation, and they thanked me, addressing me as 'uncle', as do most Indian children when addressing adults, who are not members of their family, and we continued our journey to Bangalore.




So, next time you arrive or depart from Bengaluru International Airport, don't forget that you are not far from the spot where one of the most famous warriors in the history of India was born. And if you have the time and/or energy, do pay this fortress a visit. It is a pleasant contrast to the modern uniformity of Bengaluru International Airport.

PS: Heathrow Airport is the only other airport, which I have visited that is almost as close to a historic castle (Windsor) as is Bangalore's




Wednesday, 8 August 2012

BROWSING IN BANGALORE PART 2


 Bookworm, looking outwards

This is a continuation of the article, which begins here .

There are two shops close to where Premier used to be, which help to make up for the loss of this great bookshop: Blossom Book House and Bookworm.



Blossom Book House is located on Church Street, and its entrance is reached by a short flight of steps. on the ground floor there are some new, and recently published volumes, and also a jumble of used books, mostly non-fiction.

A short staircase leads to the first floor, which is dedicated to fiction, mostly used (second-hand). Some of the books may have been in the rows of shelves for so long that they now look used. The corridors between the parallel bookshelves are so narrow, that browsing becomes quite an intimate affair. The majority of books are paperback editions, and the number of authors, both Indian and foreign, available is amazingly huge. The arrangement of the books defies my comprehension,  but the helpful assistants are usually able to direct you to approximately where the author you are seeking might be located. Sometimes, even they are defeated!

Whilst one misses the exceptional helpfulness and understanding of Premier's Mr Shanbag, Blossom certainly rates amongst my favourite bookshops, not only in Bangalore, but also worldwide.



Bookworm in Shrungar Complex


A short staircase located next to a cigarette seller leads from Church Street into Shrungar Complex, whose main entrance is on MG Road. The Shrungar shopping complex consist of a large circular building surrounded by a circular roadway that links by means of a small straight section to MG Road. Bookworm is located in the part of the central circular edifice that partially faces MG Road. Because of the circular nature of the building, the shelves in Bookworm radiate out from the back, interior, wall of the shop like the spokes of a wheel.

The entrance of the shop and its display window are dedicated to the display of recently published books and popular titles. One side of one of the spoke-like shelves contains a good selection of new copies literature, both Indian and otherwise, all in paperback. As with Blossom, all prices for new books are discounted in comparison with what you would have to pay in, for example, Gangarams or Higginbothams. 

The remainder of the shop stocks a wonderful selection of used books. If you are unable to find what you are seeking, the helpful owner and his assistants will ring through to their other branch in a lane off Brigade Road (the same lane in which Select Books, an antiquarian bookseller, which I do not like, can be found). If the book is there, you will be invited to wait for 'five minutes' whilst someone brings the book over to the Shrungar branch. 

In addition to finding a whole host of books that are not particularly rare, Bookworm has come up with trumps when I have sought several rare editions. For example, they sold me a copy of Fazlul Hasan's 1970 history of Bangalore, which is scarcely available in the second-hand market. In a recent search of the extremely comprehensive     www.bookfinder.com, I found no copies listed for sale. Also, to my amazement, they were able to find a copy of a book about Muslim architecture in Calicut (Kozhikode), which I had read about while visiting this fascinating city in Kerala.

So, between Blossom and Bookworm, the serious book-lover in Bangalore is well catered for. They are located close to each other, and to another one of my favourite haunts in the MG Road area, the relocated Indian Coffee House. Formerly in MG Road close to the entrance to the Shrungar Complex, it has now relocated to a building almost opposite Shrungar in Church Street. I cannot recommend this place for its watery coffee, but it is a remnant of old Bangalore. The waiters, dressed in turbans and outfits that don't seem to have been washed for years serve tiny cups of coffee for tiny amounts of money in a simple but evocative ambience. What could be better than quenching one's thirst after a tiring bout of book browsing?






Tuesday, 7 August 2012

BROWSING IN BANGALORE PART 1






Interior of Bookworm





I first visited Bangalore (in the south of India) early in 1994 in order to get married. Our marriage ceremony was held at my in-laws' home in Koramangala, a suburb about 8 Km south of the city centre. After the celebrations were over, we used to make occasional trips into town, often visiting the area around Mahatma Gandhi ('MG') Road. It was during these excursions that I first discovered the delights of Indian bookshops.

The attractions of these shops were two-fold. Firstly, they offered a greater variety of books (in English) than comparably sized bookshops in the UK. Secondly, books in India were, and still are, cheaper than in the UK. There are at least two reasons for this. One reason is that the prices of books published in India and Indian editions of books, which were originally published elsewhere, are lower than similar books in the UK. Another reason is the existence of what appears to be a literary rate of exchange for imported books. If, for example, the UK Pound is worth 80 Indian Rupees at the bank, it is valued , say for the sake of illustration, at 50 Rupees by Indian book distributors. So, the same book that sells for 20 Pounds in the UK will be sold for 1000 Rupees in India, thus reducing its cost to about 12 Pounds Sterling. This special 'literary' rate of exchange exists, I believe, to make imported titles more affordable to the vast number English readers in India.



The better known bookshops in Bangalore include: Higginbothams and Gangarams in MG ROad; Sapna in various locations around the city; Crossword in Residency Road; and various branches of chain stores in the some of the American-style shopping malls that are springing up in the city like fungi after a rainstorm. These stores, which are mostly well-stocked (especially Gangarams), are of less interest to me than the more individualistic establishments, which I am about to describe. 

A year or two after my first visit to Bangalore, a branch of the well-known Bombay bookshop, Strand Bookstall, was opened in the Manipal Centre, which stands at the eastern end of the military parade grounds that line the north side of MG Road. It is run by the daughter of the founder of the bookshop in Bombay, and offers a wide selection of new (as opposed to used) books at often ridiculously low prices. There are piles of books on the floor and on the shelves lining the walls of the low-ceilinged bookshop.  It is always worth visiting Strand, but you may not always find what you are looking for, but that could be said for any bookshop! Once a year, the shop closes for a few days in order to host an enormous sale in one of the city's larger exhibition halls.



Premier seen from its entrance


Premier, one of the most fantastic bookshops that has ever existed is no more. It closed one or two years ago when its owner, Mr Shanbag, retired. I felt almost as if I had suffered a bereavement when I arrived where the shop used to be located on the short stretch of Museum Road between MG Road and Church Street, and found that it was there no longer. Today, the shop and its neighbours have been rebuilt, and are no longer recognisable. 

From the outside, Premier could have been mistaken for being a newsagent. A rack of magazines stood next to, and  halfway through, the shop's entrance. As soon as you stepped through the doorway, you felt as if you had entered a book lover's Aladdin's  Cave.  Mr Shanbag, who is related to the founder of Strand Bookstall in Bombay, used to sit to the left of the entrance, his back to the shop's window and hidden behind the piles of books cluttering up his tiny desk. The long rectangular shop's side walls were lined with books stacked one upon each other. A central divider was similarly covered in books. Two narrow corridors ran along the length of the shop allowing customers and staff to penetrate the dingy depths of the establishment. Deep inside the shop there was a narrow, book-lined passage way connecting the two main corridors. This was so narrow that most adults, and obese children, needed to progress along this claustrophobic alley sideways. 

In most bookshops, customers are able to pick a book from a shelf, browse it, and then replace it if it sis not wanted. This was not the case at Premier.  Only the foolhardy, or a newcomer to the shop would attempt to take a book from Premier's bookshelves. I believe that the 19th century French composer Alkan was killed when he was crushed by books collapsing on him in his library. A similar fate awaited those who attempted to casually withdraw a book from Premier's shelves. The books were stacked upon each other in this shop extremely precariously. One careless move was all that was needed to initiate an avalanche of books on the unwary customer. This often happened. Mr Shanbag would  raise an eyebrow, and then he or one of his assistants would proceed to restore 'order' in the shelves

So, you may be excused for asking, how did customers ever manage to browse in Premier? It was simple. All that was necessary was to ask Mr Shanbag or one of his helpers to retrieve the book for you. If, as was often the case, you were unable to see the book that you desired in the overwhelming morass of volumes stacked in the shop, Mr Shanbag would be able to tell you instantly whether or not he had it in stock without resorting to a computer or any form of catalogue. He knew exactly what  he had in his shop, and more remarkably where a book was located if he had it in the shop. And when you had made your selection, he would prepare a bill, and then knocked 20% off the final total, especially if you were prepared to pay in cash.

The most remarkable thing about Mr Shanbag was his great understanding of his many regular customers' reading habits. He seemed to be able to remember what each customer had bought previously, even irregular customers like myself, who only visited his shop twice a year. He used his remarkable fund of knowledge to guide his regular customers in making their next purchases. Somehow, his brain kept a pattern of each of his customers' purchasing habits, and thus created their own personal reading 'profiles'. His suggestions for purchases, based on his understanding of his customers, were rarely far off the mark. Alas, this charming genius of a bookseller has retired, leaving a great gap in Bangalore's cultural landscape. 

THIS IS CONTINUED HERE! 











Sunday, 5 August 2012

 

SIM CITY

I am a British Subject, holding a British passport, but I needed an Indian 'sim' card so that I can make 'phone calls in India at a reasonable rate. My British 'phone provider assured me that if I were to use my British sim in India, I would be charged about 1.60 GBP per minute to make calls, and slightly less to receive them. With an Indian sim, the charges per minute are less that a British penny! So, with that in mind, I made my way by autorickshaw to Church Street in Bangalore, and took a ticket to wait in the queue at the Vodaphone shop.

I did not wait long to learn that I could buy a temporary sim card for less than 60 Rupees. All that I needed to do this was my passport and a passport photograph. I did not have the latter, but, I was assured, that would not be a problem. I was directed to a photography shop, EGK, opposite the Vodaphone office. After making my way past a dog lying asleep on the warm pavement, I descended the steps into the basement establishment, where I was greeted by an elderly gentleman, who had sold me a tripod many years ago, when his shop used to be on MG Road. Without delay, I was shown into a darkened studio furnished with photographic lights and an ancient looking padded stool. My picture was captured using a digital camera, and I was asked to return within 15 minutes.

To pass the time, and to satisfy one of my whims - browsing in bookshops, I made my way along Church Street to Blossom Book House. This magnificent establishment has three floors, all crammed to the gills with books. The first floor is my favourite. It is overflowing with novels. Some of the books are new, but many of them are second-hand, or just aged because they have been on the shelves for too many years. I was delighted to find a novel written by Carl Djerassi (the inventor of the oral contraceptive). I had seen a couple of plays written by this remarkable scientist, but did not know that he had written a novel. After choosing another 3 books, two of which were written by the recently deceased Gore Vidal, I returned to the photography shop to pick up my mugshots. The dog was still lying asleep on the pavement, but my pictures were ready.

Armed with my new photographs, I returned to Vodaphone. And that is where the 'fun' began. After filling in an application form that needed to know, amongst other things, my father's full name, I handed over my British passport in order that my details could be photocopied. Unfortunately, the photographs in recently issued British passports are covered by a patterned plastic film, which, it turns out, makes the photocopying of the photograph impossible! This caused no end of consternation amongst the young men working in the shop. They were able to photocopy the picture on my visa, but the best that they could manage was a fuzzy, almost recognisable, copy of my passport photo. When I asked whether this would matter, they answered that it was possible that the Ministry of the Interior, or whoever it is that deals with telephone security, might object to the indistinct nature of my fuzzy image, and then they might  possibly terminate my sim, rendering it useless. 


You my be wondering what all this fuss is about. Well, it is the prevention of terrorism. India has been subject to countless terrorist attacks, many of them having tragic consequences. The powers-that-be believe that by limiting/controlling foreigners' access to Indian mobile 'phone sim cards, they will be helping to reduce the risk of further terrorist outrages. Hence, the need for proper ID and good passport photographs when a visitor to India wishes to acquire an Indian sim card. 

This precaution is rendered completely pointless because there is no restriction/control over imported sim cards. Anyone can enter India with a functioning non-Indian sim card. Although most people would only use it, albeit at a cost greater than Indian 'phone rates, harmlessly, it could, in principle, be used malevolently. 

Now, I have a 'kosher' Indian sim card, albeit obtained with a poorly photocopied passport photograph, which may result in it being withdrawn and activated at any moment. So I hope that you will understand why I won't be letting you know my new number. I would not want you ringing me only to discover that, "the number that you are dialling is currently disconnected."

[Written in Bangalore, India]