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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Bank

There are few things more saddening than watching your loved ones grow old. Though I am truly lucky to still have all four of my grandparents around the thought and, worse still, the sight of them ageing is a cold, wrenching blade to my gut.


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We all have our comfort zones: the places or processes in the world that we can navigate without thinking. They are places that we have spent time in and know intimately. When we bring others into them, they know we are in a sacred domain. For me, airports are such places. I have spent so much of my life in them that I can put my earphones in and get from the taxi to my flight without really switching my brain on. I understand how things work and how newcomers will behave. For my grandfather, his comfort zone is the bank.


The city is hot and dusty and loud and really no place for an old man. But he walks the 50 yards down the hill, across the road and to the nearby State Bank of India branch. And when he enters the air conditioned foyer, he is in his domain. Suddenly there is a spring in his step, suddenly the heat and the clattering cars of the dry street are behind him. Where there was trembling caution with each stride, there is now confidence and dare I say, an air of authority. It is so wonderful to see. Having lead the way and held his hand all the way down the road, I now walk behind him and I do not have a choice in the matter.


I've noticed it with all old Indian men and I suppose it should come as no surprise. As the world has changed around them, they seek refuge in one of the few institutions that they've actively been a part of. They have seen these banks grow from tiny, backward rooms that disguised unemployment, to vast networks of pristine white walls where everything is part of a 'brand'. And as their salaries turned to pensions, they stood and watched. As Bombay turned to Mumbai, they stood and watched. These brightly lit bank branches cannot hide from the old men of the city who were around before they were.


When I go into a bank, I am always a little lost. I have to read each placard to decipher which box I have to drop a cheque into or which teller I have to stand in line to see. I am like the first time fliers I treat with such disdain at airports. But my grandfather is the Gold Club member here - he has the frequent flier miles and knows the pilots and the air hostesses and will get bumped up to Business Class while I'll be floundering at check-in. Old men love to be respected - they feel it is the least the world owes them and we do. In their local bank, they milk this respect and stride, chest-out, towards their favourite teller who will drop whatever he/she is doing to help them. They bring their tattered old briefcase and put on their reading glasses. They take out their notebook and let everyone in the room slow to their pace.


Today my grandfather wishes to change my status on my provident fund from a minor to a major. It is the most trivial, the most disproportionately time-consuming activity relative to its importance. But my grandfather has planned his day around our trip to the bank and he has put on his nice trousers and his freshly pressed shirt and I will not deny him his comfort zone. The Bank is his castle for 45 minutes every week. I can sense his sadness when we have to leave and face the heat and the humidity of the afternoon. I hold his hand as we climb the hill to our house. It wasn't always this way.


He used to be the one who walked briskly up and down Pali Hill. Every summer he would take me to the park to find sticks. They had to be fibrous, malleable sticks for the bow and sleek, strong ones for the arrows. He would teach me to shoot. After archery got boring, we would make lanterns from fallen branches. We would peel the bark off and shape them so they were taut and clean. He would use coloured paper to give them character. After they fell apart we would recycle each side and turn them into kites that we would fly from our giant window. They would scare the crows only until lunch time, when he would - to the utter exasperation of my grandmother - leave morsels for them on the window sill.


But those days are gone. Now his hands shake with Parkinson's and his movements are slow. The sofa bed that I sleep on in the living room when we visit... he can no longer open on his own. It does not take any power at all but he leaves the task to me or my uncle. His speech is fine - he prays with the same rigour as he always used to, though now he sits quietly and listens to our conversations without joining in. Our journey to the bank was his day out.


Next week he will put on his ironed trousers, oil his hair and find another excuse to go.





Sunday, June 10, 2012

Chin Lung: The Worst Bar in Bangalore

The night hadn't gotten off to a very good start. Though I would later find out that it was called 'Chin Lung Bar' - supposedly a Chinese restaurant - I had been told over the phone to come to meet a couple of friends at "Chillum Bar". So as dusk fell, I walked up and down Brigade Road in Bangalore asking various people for "Chillum... Bar?". To my immense irritation at the time, most shop keepers and strangers waved me away with scowls of incredulity. Only now do I realise just how shady I must have sounded: going around asking strangers for a pipe and a drinking hole.


When I finally discovered that I had in fact been called to Chin Lung Bar, I almost wished I didn't. The outside of the 3 story bar and restaurant was shabby and tattered to say the least. The entrance was dark and dingy and filled with the sort of people you steer clear off down dark alleys. Waiters wiped dirty tables with dirty clothes - a restaurant manifestation of the ancient Indian art of dust-moving, that one sees on roads outside. The carpets on the landing of each floor were wet and the walls were stained and cracking. It was hell.


I got to the terrace and was heartened to see the friends I had come to visit. But they were with a larger group of people who I didn't really know. To my horror, we were the oldest among a group of kids from Bangalore International School  - known more for its drugs consumption than it's academics. You know, 'bad kids'. Suddenly 'Chillum Bar' didn't sound so far fetched. Curly haired 15 year olds smoked weed and hash that they pulled out from the pockets of their shorts. Here I was dressed for a night out. Pointy shoes and everything.


The booze was cheap and the food was bad. But at least the booze was cheap. The terrace wasn't well lit - pretty much the only light around was the neon that made it way across the smoky roads from buildings opposite. There were plastic white tables and chairs - now stained and broken from overuse - strewn haphazardly. It was cramped and waiters contorted into all sorts of shapes to get from one table to another. I settled down and started talking to someone. A cold Kingfisher Premium was a cold Kingfisher Premium no matter where you went.


All off a sudden, everyone on the table jolted out of their plastic white chairs and jumped back. Everyone except one guy who had his eyes closed and swayed uneasily in his seat. It was only when I saw the state of this guy that I too jumped back a few yards from the plastic white table. A single, long strand of saliva lowered itself from his half open mouth and dangled around in the breeze. You could just about make out the whites of his eyes - he was in a state between being conscious and passing out. The Rum and Coke twilight zone. I could smell his stupor from across the table. He was going to blow any second.


It happened almost in slow motion. The way in which none of his friends came to his aid and ushered him to the bathroom was remarkable. Is it every man for himself after 8pm? At first only a little came out. By now all the tables around us had also gotten to their feet and moved a few steps back. It was so sad: like walking away from a guy with a bomb strapped to his chest and leaving him to face the music. His unfocused eyes seemed to call for help but I was not going to be a hero. He gagged a bit and the noise made me almost throw up myself.


"Macha he's gone macha. Yuck." said a 'friend' of his with a certain amount of disdain. People were still watching him, cigarette in hand, as this all went on. As if he was some bizarre exhibit at a circus. I couldn't watch any longer. Seeing this made me wonder what else in this place had been puked upon and I went to the bathroom to wash my hands before leaving.


Let it be said that my tolerance for dirty bathrooms is high. I get on my tiptoes, take a deep breath and do my business. "Out of sight, out of mind", or 'smell' in this case. But this was different. It was like the bathroom in Trainspotting. The urinal stank like nothing I'd encountered before. It was as if hundreds of artists had left this mark on this canvas. Something didn't feel right. In the dingy red light you could barely see where you were aiming but I knew I was hitting the target. And then to my horror I realised why the drainage was, ahem, so efficient. There was no pipe connected to the bottom of the marble urinal. Just a hole and my shoes below it. For a second, I was pissing on my pointy shoes. And one cannot simply press pause in the midst of a good pee so I had to spread my feet as far apart as possible. And so for the remainder of my time in that nightmare, I took up the 'power stance' of a lead guitarist in an 80s rock band.


At least the people at the poorest local bars for daily wage earners are friendly. This place was an attack on every sense. The light was murky, the patrons were spiteful and the place was filthy. It was without a doubt the worst place I had ever been to. On the way home I wondered what a sitcom version of this place would be - you know, the Brigade Road version of 'Cheers'. Ted Danson would be played by Manju Srinivas KS.

"Where nobody knows your naaaame,
And you don't know why you caaaame".


So there you have it. The worst bar in Bangalore. No one should ever have a reason to go there. If you want to get puked on by 14 year old kids who are going to fail their GCSEs then maybe it's the place for you. It sums up the pathetic dinginess of Brigade Road actually. The fake cigarette vendors, the 9th grade kids, the plumes of exhaust fumes and the unceasing chaotic heat. Hell.









Tuesday, June 5, 2012

First Time Fliers


I am sitting in Doha Airport in Qatar. I am a passenger like all the others in transit. I am caught in limbo between a flight and a flight. What I see around me is a peculiar airport. What I see around me is the Middle East.


Airports are a sum of their people and profile of both passengers and staff here is interesting. Though all the announcements are in English followed by Arabic, there are very few Arabs here. Or least, you hear very little Arabic being spoken around you. The passengers are lower-end travellers from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia with a few Europeans dotted in between. A lot of Muslims but very few Arabs. And yet we are unmistakably in Arabia – one can see flat, yellow desert for miles in every direction through the ceiling to floor windows. One in a while the opaque horizon will be broken by the faint silhouette of a skyscraper. 


The staff are Philipino, Indian and East African. They speak English and a second language that they use more often than not. Their uniforms are respectable but the maroon colour scheme dampens their aura. The decor is impressive enough by Indian standards; it is clean and spacious but you need only look closely to see that the veneer of luxury that the Middle-East tries so desperately to maintain is slowly peeling away at the edges. The food court resembles an employees’ lounge and the images of food on the walls are nowhere near as enticing as they should be. You know when McDonalds take pictures of the food for their menus? And now think of your local burger joint and how much more budget those are. The free Wifi is a God-send but there are no plug-points from which to use a laptop for any sustained period of time. The few power sockets that are close enough to seating areas are all taken so you have this bizarre sight of middle aged Americans sitting on the floor using Skype.


All the characters are there but the show is not authentic yet. Not every country can pull off a Chang-hi or a Frankfurt but for all the wealth of the region, I was expecting something... shinier? This seems to me like what Indian airports will look like in 10 years time. An A for effort but a B- overall. At junctures where you expect the highest standards, you are met with the third-world psyche: we had to go through a security check as soon as we got off the plane and into the transit lounge just to make sure we hadn’t fashioned any explosives between our last baggage scan and now. It was surreal. But then the Middle East seems surreal to me. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote about America: from barbarianism to decadence without the civilisation in between. But this is on another level.


I have no doubt that by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around, this airport and its people will rival any that the developed world can offer but for now, I am surrounded by women in burkhas walking 2 feet behind men who don’t know where they are going.