Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Human Dynamo

A human dynamo!

I am a great admirer of women! Not only for their beauty and charm but for the enormous energy they pack in their often frail(!) bodies- to keep a house going! Most of the housewives, especially in India, are like bonded labourers. They work 24x7x365 days of the year. No breaks and no Sundays off for them. Invariably they are the first to get up and the last to go to bed. In between they do ‘ashtavadhanam’ to keep the house tidy and neat while pandering to the varying needs and demands of the family members.

For anything and everything it is the woman who is looked up to by the others, be it the husband, in-laws or the children. They also have tremendous pain bearing capacity – be it physical or mental. It is amazing!. I know of a woman who is in her early forties, who packs so many activities in her life, I wonder where she is getting her energy from?

Living in a distant suburb of Chennai, she is a thin and skinny woman, less than 5’ tall, living in a joint family with two kids and also employed in an office to supplement the meagre salary the husband brings home. Being the typical Indian housewife she gets up very early, goes through her morning rituals, including cooking breakfast and meals and packing them for the school going kids and office going husband, and leaving enough for the old in laws, who are too old and weak to offer her any help!!

She leaves home at 8.15 am, walks 10 minutes to a bus stop, to take a bus to the railway station where she catches a train to Park Station. Here she changes to another train which takes her to Mylapore station. From the station her office is about 10 to 12 minutes walk. By the time she reaches the office it is 10 am. Rain or shine she has to follow this process.

If the pressure of work at home was not bad enough, the pressure on her in the office is even more challenging.. Being a solo secretary and a wiz kid on the computer to boot, she is also adept at typing in three languages ( English, Tamil and Hindi), all at the same speed! Naturally, everyone in the office who wants to get anything done on the computer is hanging around her for his turn. This includes the big boss, his assistants and the assistants` assistant. With four fellows breathing down her neck, it can be a very intimidating situation. Not so, for the not so young lady! She obliges everybody.

In between if there is a break, because a couple of executives are on tour, you will find her busy typing something from a book or a manuscript- a freelance typing job she has taken up for a fee. To compensate for the 60 odd minutes she spends less in the office, she works thru the lunch time, taking just a five minutes break to gobble up whatever food she has brought from home to keep her going! On some days during lunch time she will vanish from the office for 30 to 40 minutes, ostensibly to go to her bank but my guess is that she has gone to meet some supplier of either sarees or artificial jewellery – a side business she runs to augment her family income, to manage the growing demands of her growing children. Many of the wives of the executives of the office are her regular customers.

At 5 pm sharp, her fingers will be off the computer- by that time she would have finished every job given to her that day! Even if somebody gives her something to type at 4.50 pm, the job will be done before 5pm. Her speed on the computer is incredible. At 5.05 she is ready to leave the office to catch a train at 5.20 from Mylapore station so that she can be home by 7 pm. Once she goes home, she has to continue her household chores, cleaning up the house, cooking dinner, looking after the special needs of the old members until she crashes in her bed around 11 pm. While going through all these, I have never heard her grumble or showing faces to express her displeasure. When the office hired an extra helping hand to provide some relief to her, every one still went to her because they found that the new person was no match to her in terms of understanding and speed. She told the management, not to worry, she can handle all the jobs herself! A human dynamo indeed!

I am aware that the world is full of such hardworking women who make tremendous sacrifices to keep a household going! That is why I admire women!

The Ubiquitous Velaikari (Maid Servant)

Maid Servant (Velaikari), the ubiquitous part time domestic help is unique to the Asian region, where the labour is cheap and almost every middle class house has some Muniamma or Chellamma, Thayee or a Bhayee to help the housewife. As per the unwritten agreement, she is expected to come early in the morning to purify(!) the portion in front of the main door / gate with water and draw a simple kolam using white rice powder and her dexterous fingers. She is then expected to clean the house, wash the utensils and also help in washing the clothes and dry them up. In many of the houses the maid servant is also expected to re-visit the house in the afternoon to have one more cleaning operation of the house with a broomstick to clear the dust collected during the day and also help in removing the dried clothes and neatly fold them up so that they can find their rightful places in the cupboard or the wardrobe! This Muniamma or Chellamma or whatever is her name is expected to help the housewife all the 365 days without break and without any paid annual holidays, breaking all labour laws in the country. It is almost like a bonded labour but with a difference!

While almost every domestic help starts with the good intention of following the agreement during the first month, the trouble starts in the very second month when the maid is delayed by half an hour one day. She comes at 6.30 am instead of 6.00 am. That is the beginning of the tension for the housewife.

Within a couple of days she first absents herself for a day and later for a couple of days at a stretch- the reasons for not coming are many – It could be the child is not well (most common excuse), husband / daughter / mother-in-law or any other distant relative staying with the maid has been admitted to the hospital. In some cases the maid admits that the husband came home drunk the previous night and beat her up so badly that she could not get up in the morning- bruises on the face and body are shown to justify the reason for not coming. Invariably, such sob stories are followed by requests for advance money. While the housewife is asked to deduct the hand loan from the next month’s salary – the next month the woman has more sob stories to tell and requests the madam not to deduct anything from that month`s salary but the next. And the next month for adjusting the advance never happens!

Result of all these is the mounting tension on the housewife, who in turn passes on her tension first to the husband and then to the children. When the children get married and go away the poor old husband has to bear the brunt of the wife`s tantrums! As a person who has suffered this syndrome for the last three decades, I can tell you that the domestic helps are the major cause for many marital problems in a typical middle and upper middle class household!

When I ask my wife ‘why you .don`t you sack the woman and get a new maid’, the answer is so typical ‘though she cheats on her work, at least she doesn’t cheat me otherwise. She is a very honest person(!)`.

Today in our house we have a maid servant who has been with us for the last 10 years. Over a period of time she has managed to get her salary tripled with progressively lesser and lesser work. But as a family, we continue to suffer her because my wife is afraid that she may not get another reliable (!) helping hand if this woman leaves us!

Recently, the maid servant used a brilliant strategy (I would call it a master stroke) to remain in the job, doing even much less work for the same salary! You see my wife had a fall and broke her left wrist, making it difficult for her to do all the chores requiring the use of both hands. The maid servant, who continued with her errant ways, making my wife more tense and miserable, one day told my wife, ‘Amma, I feel bad about absenting myself often because of my personal problems. Why don’t you find another maid servant! I will try and help you get one!’

I jumped with joy! I told my wife, `this is the best opportunity to get a new maid. Grab it`. The maid, true to her promise paraded a couple of potential candidates, most of whom were demanding a salary which was three times what my wife was paying the current maid. The explanation was that the Koreans and Japanese expats and even some people from Mumbai residing in the area were offering much higher salary for much less work.

My wife has now done a complete somersault. Instead of getting rid of the current maid, she has convinced her that if she continues with us, she does not have to do any work inside the house like dusting, washing clothes or the utensils, which necessitate the maid to come regularly at particular times. She told the maid ` I will do these jobs myself. You see these are not so difficult(she has been doing all these jobs for several days a month when the maid absents herself). You only clean the entire compound area and water the plant. You can come any time convenient to you to do the job. I will pay you the same salary!`

I was completely bowled by this!The maid is delighted. Because she is having the cake and eating it too! The positive aspect of the story is that I am not a victim of my wife`s tantrums in the mornings anymore!

Email id.:- Mob. 9840392082

Hero the Zero


‘Veliyiley Puli – Veettiley Eli’ – A tiger outside but a mouse at home. It is a famous Tamil proverb which is so true of many people I have known in life.

I was reminded about this proverb when Prabha & I were shopping along with a celebrity and his wife during our recent trip to Kathmandu. The gentleman was keen to buy a few items and started collecting them in his shopping basket. The moment the wife saw his basket, she literally pounced on him and reprimanded him for wasting money buying all unnecessary items.(though her own shopping bag was full of knick nacks she had picked up from the shop) She literally forced him to return most of the items, except one, to the shelves.

She would also not trust her husband’s computer(!) brain to calculate the amount to be paid, insisting that she will get the correct amount only from the shopkeeper which ofcourse was the same amount mentioned by the celebrity. Looking at us the celebrity just grinned sheepishly.

Very early in my advertising career I had a retired bureaucrat as my client. He was considered a terror to deal with by everyone! A great stickler for time, be brooked no nonsense from anybody nor could he tolerate inefficiency! Dealing with him was a nightmare. Somehow, I got on to his good books and he would invite me and my boss to his house for drinks once a year, as a thanks giving gesture. He would be very clear that the invitation was between 6.30 pm and 7.30 pm., time only for two drinks! During that one hour there will be ample demonstration of who the boss was in the house. The endearing way in which he would address his wife and gently request her for things from the kitchen. One big stare from her, he would realize that what he asked for was not available and so quickly change the request. Another big stare from her at 7.30 pm, he would get up and shake hands with us indicating that it was time for us to leave, whether we had finished our drinks or not! In front of his wife, he clearly looked helpless and powerless! Next morning at the office, however, he was terror personified once again.

Many famous heroes, political leaders, doyens in business whom the whole world reveres and respects have to forget their celebrity status once they enter their homes. Why look at outside for examples, many ordinary people like you and me do go through such experiences! The wives constantly nagging their husbands for their inadequacies and inefficiencies, is a common refrain!

“What a mess you make in the house? Can’t you keep the things in their right places?”

“Don’t sit there cross-legged and order me around! Go get what you want yourself”.

“You have no dress sense! What colour combination is this?”

“I only asked you to buy ‘x’ item. Why did you buy all these other items? Where is the place to store them in the refrigerator which is already bursting at the seams. Do you realize that it is me who maintains the home!”

The endless complaints and nagging that a man has to suffer at home, irrespective of his celebrity status outside, are sure to deflate his ego and make him realise that he may be a great hero to the outside world, but at home he is a zero!

A Tribute to Dr.V.Sunderrajan

Remarkable Journey of a Remarkable Person

Dr. Sundararajan – ‘Pichai’ to all of us is no more! When I got the news from Narasimhan, his brother-in-law, two days ago, I couldn’t believe it! Because he was with me just a couple of weeks ago, transiting through Chennai after business trip to Sudan

I first met Pichai when I visited Ayyampettai at the age of 14. He was three years younger to me and looked a typical village boy. Wearing a dhoti and a half slack with a small tuft on his head!

He was quite playful and I enjoyed the couple of hours I spent in his company. The years passed by. Against several odds he went on to complete his M.Sc Statistics from the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta and got a job with the Planning Commission in Delhi. While there, he met Mr. Rangarajan, the former governor of RBI and Andhra Pradesh. With Mr.Rangarajan’s mentorship and encouragement, Pichai applied to Harvard. He got admitted to Harvard with a fellowship, for a doctorate degree in Econometrics (a relatively new field then).

The next time I met him was in Bombay, from where he was flying to USA for further studies. His father, Venkata (periappa to us), had asked us to extend whatever help he wanted. I took him to my tailor in Bombay and got a mandatory suit stitched and got him some foreign exchange (which was a very rare commodity those days) for his out of pocket expenses until he reached his campus. I still have the photograph of Pichai with me and my father taken at the Santacruz airport where we had gone to see him off.

He successfully completed his Ph.D. and got a job with New York University as an Asst. Professor. I think it was during his stint at the University that he got married to Kalyani and set up a home in New York. Within a couple of years, encouraged by Kalyani, he responded to an advt. from International Monetary Fund (IMF) inviting applications for the post of Management Trainees. He was one of six people selected out of thousands of applications received from the world over. A remarkable feat for the young boy from Ayyampettai to reach the hallowed portals of not only Harvard (which is a dream for many bright youngsters in the world) but also the IMF, a world financial body which was not only advising but also controlling the fortunes of many countries of the world.

The rest, as they say is history.

He worked very hard. He traveled extensively almost 20 days a month as a part of a Mission or later as a leader of the Mission advising governments and Apex Banks of various countries regarding money management. He was hobnobbing with Presidents, Prime Ministers, Finance Ministers and Governors of the Apex Banks. It looked as if he was forever traveling or busy preparing reports based on his visits. He seemed to enjoy whatever he was doing and impressed his bosses so much that he was steadily progressing in the IMF eventually to reach the position of Deputy Director (one of only six posts) in charge of some countries. While he was in the IMF, the Government of India approached him with the offer of Deputy Governorship of RBI which he refused as he did not want to uproot his well settled family in the USA.

He took voluntary retirement from the IMF at the age of 58. Instead of using the opportunity to take a break from the hectic life he was leading, he decided to continue to challenge himself and float a consultancy firm along with a few friends to leverage his reputation, experience and knowledge as a specialist in Islamic Banking. A Tamil Brahmin, and a vegetarian to boot, hobnobbing with Sheiks and Sultans of the Arab World looked incongruous. But the fact is that they valued his expertise and were constantly seeking his consultation. The result was that his life became even more hectic. He was really pushing the limits of his physical endurance without taking adequate care of his failing health – resulting in his untimely death in Sudan, where he had gone to attend a series of meetings with Sudanese government officials. As I am writing this piece (14th April), his body is yet to arrive at Washington for the final rites and cremation. To think that his body is lying in the cool box in a strange country unattended, waiting for the system to transport him on his last journey, is quite disturbing.

While he was very busy building his career at the IMF, his wife Kalyani, a girl from Triplicane in Chennai, stood like a rock by his side looking after their home and bringing up his two wonderful kids Prashant and Kripa. The Pichais recently got the greatest promotion that any parent can aspire for - grandparenthood. Through Prashanth they were blessed with two grandchildren (twins- a boy and a girl). During his recent trip to Chennai Pichai was sorry that he was not spending enough time with his grandchildren and promised to rectify the situation when he gets back home! Alas! It was not to be!

I have always admired Kalyani’s tenacity and determination in ensuring that her children, born and brought up in USA, never forgot the Indian values. The couple`s frequent visits to India with their children was a part of the strategy to help the children keep connected to their family roots. Besides, like many NRI parents Kalyani was very busy, (in addition to a teaching job she had in a public school) escorting the children to all types of classes teaching Indian values. While Prashant became proficient in violin, Kripa learned to master Carnatic music. One must listen to Kripa performing a kutcheri in carnatic music – a girl who can’t speak Tamil without American accent, singing the beautiful compositions of the Masters with perfect pronunciations. Without Kalyani’s total support and commitment, Kripa could not have done what she did. Pichai was lucky to have a wife who managed the household beautifully during his long absences on official work.

I first visited Pichai in his modest home in Washington in 1980 on my way back from Stockholm where I had gone to attend a Woco Conference as a Round Tabler. Prashant was a very naughty 4 year old boy and Kripa was a little baby. The second visit was in 1988 along with Prabha. By then they had moved to their beautiful house in Bethesda, a very upscale area in suburban Washington where the City`s famous residents lived. He was kind enough to send a ticket for Prabha using the mileage points he had accumulated through his several international trips. Since then I must have visited the Pichais six or seven times, always enjoying the wonderful hospitality of the couple.

What was remarkable about Pichai was that he never lost touch with his roots in India. He bought a spacious house in Tambaram, where his parents spent their last days in total comfort. He helped his two younger brothers to go to the US for further studies. His help was always available not only to his family members but also the family of Kalyani. The amount of physical running around he would do in trying to help people whenever he was in Chennai, was mind boggling! The amount of money and time he spent on his ailing younger brother Rangu in recent months is a case in point. Yet he would never complain. He made it all look like a routine, just another part of his responsibility to his family. He was like a banyan tree providing shelter to all those who came under his canopy. And all these he did without any fuss, with total involvement and commitment.

It is also amazing that even after more than 35 years in the USA he had no trace of the typical American accent that the youngsters of today flaunt within a couple of months of staying there. He had a unique style of speaking while talking one on one which he had the ability to transform into a very effective speaking style behind the microphone. I had the privilege of listening to him on a couple of occasions. His talk on Islamic Banking at our Rotary meeting in Chennai, two years ago, was a resounding success, so much so, that a columnist present wrote a special feature article on the subject in Hindu Business Line using the material provided by Pichai.

For all the great things he achieved in his professional life, he was humility personified. He was so humble that one wondered whether he was deliberately underplaying his importance. He was the first member of the `Remalla` family to become financially successful at a young age, however, he never was ostentatious.

While globe trotting around the world he was closely following happenings at home. He was quite crazy about watching Tamil serials on Sun TV. Whenever he visited our home in Chennai, he would quiz Prabha about what happened to so and so character in ‘Kolangal’ or ‘Anandham’. He had a childish enthusiasm for a lot of things in life. He was fond of adventure sports. He would take his family on outings which involved river water rafting, or bungee jumping etc. He was very fond of good food and was not averse to the cup that cheers! He was a great conversationalist actively participating in discussions on any subject, impressing people with his general knowledge on a wide variety of subjects.

In all the years that I knew him, he never bad mouthed or complained about anyone. He was a perfect gentleman. I had great admiration for Pichai as a wonderful human being.

Pichai’s sudden death is bound to create a huge vacuum in the lives of his near and dear ones who had taken his presence and his benevolence for granted. I am certainly going to miss him as a good friend more than as a cousin. May his soul rest in peace!

morning walks

Morning Walks!

I must thank my friend Desi for introducing me to the morning walk habit. Yes, it has become a part of my life so much so that if I miss walking even for a day I feel miserable – as miserable as when I don’t get my morning coffee or I am unable to get rid of the garbage of the previous day from my stomach!

The morning walks are all the more pleasurable because I get to see the rising sun every morning and breath the fresh air from the sea as I take my daily walks on the beautiful Eliot Beach Road, which is just 10 minute walk from my house. And I go for a walk in my car ! Don’t mistake me, I take the car up to the beach road, park it on the allotted space and then go for a walk !

Another interesting aspect of the morning walks is the sight of people who walk on the beach road. They come in all sizes, shapes and age groups. There are single men and women taking a brisk walk, many of them listening to music from their ipods, while walking. Some of them carry their mobiles and shout as if from the roof tops so that the whole world can listen to their problems with their spouse, children, friends or business contacts. And a few of them walk talking to themselves – later you find that they are operating a hands free mobile, and are actually talking to someone else!

There are a few who believe that they must stop and not only say ‘hi’ to their friends whenever they meet every furlong, but also discuss the day’s politics or the weather ! Thus defeating the very purpose of having a brisk 30 minutes walk every day! I know of a friend who has learnt to tackle such unwanted intruders. If any one stops him on the way to say ‘hi’ he continues to jump or jog on the spot until the conversation is over and then continues with his walk.

During the walks you cannot miss the group of senior citizens both male and female sitting on the parapet walls of the road and having a heated discussion. The women are invariably talking about the problems with their daughters-in-law and men the politics.

What is very funny is the sight of some ladies in outlandish or mis-fitting dresses! Like the other day my wife and I came across an old lady – she must be over 80 wearing a loose fitting jeans and a T Shirt, but with a ‘red’ pottu on her forehead with her hair in plaits like a typical South Indian lady. Obviously she is the mother of some NRI who has got converted from the nine yards saree to jeans and T shirts. Equally funny is a fat old man walking with a quarter (not half) pant with a T Shirt of some U S University gifted to him by his NRI son, with a splash of ‘Vibhoothi’ on his forehead!

Another gentleman has the habit of walking with his left arm firmly in place on the side and the right arm swinging up and down during his really brisk walk.

But the beautiful thing about the morning walk is that nobody really bothers about your dress or your peculiar walking habits. Most of the people walk totally lost in their thoughts, like I do most of the time, that they don’t even notice friends passing by wishing them.

I do feel sorry for those fitness freaks from Adyar who are contented with having their morning walks on the tread mills located at homes or in the nearby club! They are really missing the fun & joy of walking on the Beach Road.

Life on Fingertips

Mobiles have literally taken over our lives. The latest information on telephony indicates that there are 500 million mobile telephones in the country.By 2012, it is expected to become 712 million. Nearly 75% of India’s population will have telephones in another three years! A mind boggling growth indeed!

Today every one has a mobile. Drivers, maid servants, watchmen, vegetable vendors, carpenters, plumbers, masons and even beggars! I saw recently overheard a beggar exchanging notes with another beggar regarding the menu at different weddings – all on mobile. A recent ad film for Airtel shows a cute looking boy complaining to his father on his toy mobile requesting him to pull up his mother on the phone for scolding him- even children are not spared by the impact of mobiles.

Mobiles are not only popular in urban areas but are also sweeping the countryside. It is clear that this mobile revolution is going to change the way we are going to connect with the rural folks! Every one in rural India, from a poor farmer at the bottom of the pyramid, to skilled workers, traders, scavengers, gypsies and even goat herds have mobiles provided by their Ejamans (bosses) so that they can be reached easily. It reminds me of a scene from a recent Tamil film. A boy, an uneducated goatherd in a village is chasing a man driving a bullock cart who is talking on his mobile. The goatherd requests the driver to lend his mobile for a minute, as he wants to make an urgent call. While the man is dithering, the boy literally snatches the mobile and runs into the filed pressing some number. Suddenly he hears a mobile ringing behind him. He turns and searches through the field and locates a mobile – he has found his mobile which he had lost while driving the herd of goats through the field. He returns the bullock cart driver his mobile and orders him to get out of his way as he is obstructing the signal coming from the tower! I thought it to be a brilliant portrayal of how mobiles are impacting the lives in rural India. Though lacking in literacy, mobiles are helping the rural people to become more informed because information is now available to them on their finger tips! I believe this facility is going to wipe off the middlemen who have been exploiting the rural folks for generations.

A friend of mine recently had an interesting experience traveling by train. Normally as a train is approaching many big cities it is a common sight to see both men and women from nearby slums, squatting on either side of the railway track and defacating. As the train passes them, they will quickly cover their faces. But this time my friend found many of them busy talking on their mobiles, oblivious of the passing train.

While mobiles are undoubtedly a great boon, they are also becoming killers, breakers of relationships, creators of social upheavals resulting from the spread of rumors through SMSs.In day to day life, mobiles have become the biggest intruders of privacy and conversations. It is so irritating when you find that a serious discussion with a colleague / customer/ a family member being repeatedly interrupted by calls on mobiles.

But mobiles have come to stay. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, as I found out recently. Thanks to the mobile I could reach the site of an auto accident involving my daughter, within 10 minutes, because lying on the road she could reach me on my mobile with the help of her mobile.

Everyday, so many new features and value added services( like the net on mobile) are being introduced by the mobile manufacturers that it is now possible for people to run their offices using the mobiles. Housewives , especially the office going moms can closely monitor the happenings at home . The old saying “your life is in your hands” will soon have to be changed to “your life is now on your fingertips”.

Exam Fever

It is exam time. Not only for the kids but also for the parents. Whether the child is in pre-kg or studying for the crucial 10th standard or plus two exam, the parents these days are more tensed up than the kids. Any invitation for any function, the response from the parents, especially the mother is, ‘I am sorry, I can’t come yaar, because my son is having Maths paper tomorrow. I have to sit with him. Otherwise he will not study yaar!’

The parents, the mothers particularly get so tensed up that one feels sorry for them. The more educated the mother, the more tensed up she is!

Mind goes back to the times when my children were growing up! Neither my wife nor I experienced the tensions that the modern day parents display during their children’s exam time. May be because both of us were not capable of teaching our children any subject. I had happily forgotten everything I learnt in the school the day I stepped out of the school. Neither did my wife display any talent nor patience to sit and teach our children.

All that I used to tell my children was, ‘If you study well and get good marks you will do well in life. It is up to you to study or not’.

If they needed special coaching in specific subjects, I sent them to special tuition classes. All my three kids did fairly well in their plus two exams, getting 80 plus percentage marks and pursuing the courses they wanted to study. My two daughters are well settled in life with school going kids and sure enough, as modern mothers exam times are tension times for them too!

I think my generation of parents could handle the exam fever better because our children had far less distractions compared to the modern day kids. While TV was the only possible distraction those days, today the kids have not only TV and the variety of children channels it offers, but also the PC with its internet opportunities, palmtop video games, and of course the ubiquitous Mobile which is turning out to be the biggest culprit. ‘SMSing’ friends 24 hours a day has become a habit with the modern day kids. Even the school going kids are not spared!

I wish the modern day parents did not indulge their children so much. Instead if they teach them to think on their own and make them responsible for their actions, not only the child will develop as a better and confident individual but also relieve the parents of unnecessary tensions caused by the lack of faith in the children.




It was a trip that I was dreading! Because it involved a test of endurance and a test of faith. Test of my capacity to endure trekking with a walking stick, on a very rough, pebbles and stone ridden forest path, with lots of ups and downs but breathtakingly beautiful! And then walking up 450 steps to see the temple of Lord Narasimha in Jwala the place on top of a hill, where Mahavishnu taking the avatar of Narasimha, killed the demon king Hiranya Kasibu as an answer to the prayers of his young devotee Prahalada. Here you can see the tall pillar from which Narasimha is supposed to have appeared to take on Hiranya Kasibu.

Another temple located in Pavana on top of another hill involves climbing 1000 steps and then walking almost 6 kms through thick forest area, full of bears, foxes and snakes. In the earlier days, it seems even tigers used to live in this jungle but thanks to increased human activity, some of these dreaded animals are not there anymore. Fortunately a jeep is available which takes you to the very entrance of the Narasimha temple located in Pavana.

This temple where the local tribals frequently visit to sacrifice goats as a part of their special prayers, is again an awe inspiring place. Even the 90 minutes ride on the so called jeep, a badly maintained old contraption with loose parts is in itself an endurance test. The vehicle travels through a very rough jungle path full of rocks and pits, with sudden climbs and drops, that your heart is in your mouth throughout the journey. Like the trip up to the Jwala temple, here also your faith in Lord Narasimha is tested. During both the trips you can hear devotees repeatedly screaming ‘Jai Narasimha’. This ferocious avatar of Mahavishnu is a popular deity in Andhra Pradesh and now quite popular even in Tamilnadu, thanks to the Ahobila Mutt run by a Trust headed by a Jeeyer.

Thanks to the efforts of this Mutt and its ardent devotees located all over the world, a lot of facilities have been introduced in Ahobilam. This temple city which is located on the foothills of Garudachala Mountains is about 100 kms from Cuddappah in Andhra Pradesh, on the Chennai – Mumbai Rail line.

Ahobilam boasts of 9 temples for Lord Narasimha (Jwala, Pavana, Varaha, Malola, Chatravada, Karanjika, Yoga, Ahobila and Kroda) While the temples (Jwala and Pavana) are located up the hill, the other seven are located in and around the Ahobilam village. Prabha and I were visiting these temples as a part of our visits covering 108 Tirupathi called Divya Desams. Out of the 108, you can visit only 106 on the earth. For the balance two viz. Thiruparkadal and Vaikundam, the abode of Lord Vishnu, you have to wait till the Lord decides to take you away from this world!

There is another 2000 year old big temple for Laxmi Narasimha located very near the Ahobila Mutt headquarters and run by the Trustees of the Mutt. This huge temple with its serene atmosphere inspires peace and tranquilty in you. I spent two evenings in this temple, sitting on the steps of one of the Praharams, totally lost in meditation. It was a truly great feeling!

We made this trip, thanks to the invitation of my good friend Parthasarathy of Kripa, whose younger brother works in the Mutt. He and another friend Neelamegham had made all arrangements for our comfortable stay in the guest house of the Mutt with a guide to help us in visiting the different temples. What should have taken us minimum two days, we were able to complete in less than 24 hours, thanks to the advice of this guide. Even the weather god was very kind, as a cloudy sky kept the weather very pleasant throughout our stay in Ahobilam.

It was as if Lord Narasimha, was taking special care of us. It only reconfirmed my unconditional faith in God. What else can you call it, considering that a person who finds it tough walking up the two floors of his office could endure and survive the arduous and risky trip up the hills in Ahobila.

I am now awaiting with bated breathe the visit to the Narasimha Temple at Sholingur near Vellore where you have to walk 1000 steps to reach the sanctum sanctorum. I am sure Lord Narasimha will be behind me to see me through this journey as well!

Hutong Days

In my autobiography there is a vivid description of the Bombay chawl life and the trauma that inhabitants faced every morning waiting in the queue to use the two pubic toilets, which served over 50 residents staying in one floor. While the reference to the toilets in my story provided an opportunity for the chief guest to crack a joke at the function to launch the book, it has also provoked other readers to comment on the subject.

Recently I was reading a book on China by Pallavi Aiyer ( Smoke and Mirrors- My China Experience) based on her experience working in China for five years. She has devoted half a chapter under the heading ‘Hutong Days’ to the community toilets used by the residents, mostly consisting of elderly and retired people and how the public toilets provided great opportunity for Socialising by the locals.

This article is an effort to draw your attention to that portion in the book which according to me makes for interesting reading. What follows is mostly excerpts from the book

“The hutong in many ways was the last bastion of the collective culture of communism
hutongs located in different suburbs of the city with a total population of about 5,00,000 became national target of the governements, in their modernization programme to make the city Olympic worthy.

Elsewhere in Beijing this was being achieved through building snazzily designed opera houses or sporting stadia, but in the hutongs the municipal authorities had wisely zeroed in on the public toilets.

Hutong loos had long transcended the functionality of mere toilets. They were public spaces where residents gathered to share gossip and chattily exchange news of the latest developments in their bowel movements. What coffee shops were to Paris, W.C.s where to hutongs.

But despite their social significance, the majority of hutong toilets consisted of a series of un-partitioned pits in the floor with no flushes or running water. The mess of numerous users would then pile up until the evening, when a pump truck made the rounds of the alleyways, sucking up everything from the pits and carrying it away.

In the winter of 2004, Beijing hosted a meeting of the WTO. Unlike the more well known World Trade Organization with which it shared an acronym, the World Toilet Organization focused on toilets rather than tarrifs. For three whole days more than 150 washroom heavyweights from nineteen countries, including academics, sanitation experts and toilet designers, thronged Beijing’s loos, examining, discussing and suggesting ways of transforming them from the fetid to the fragrant.

In the summit’s aftermath the city government announced that it would spend $10 million a year until 2008 on rebuilding and upgrading hutong bathrooms into what the local media dubbed luxurious lavatories, suitable for use by even the sniffiest of foreign athletes.

A star rating system was devised for public loos, ranging from one to four stars, depending on the facilities made available. The loo bang opposite our Siheyuan ( House where Pallavi lived) underwent its makeover only a few weeks before we moved in. To the disappointment of our neighbours it had only warranted a one-star construction, tucked away as it was in a cul-de-sac, few foreign visitors were likely to chance upon it during the Games. The chief improvement in the new one-star toilet, I ascertained was the introduction of foot-operated flushes.

‘Oh, it’s much better than before,’ said the mild-mannered and balding Mr. Zhou, one of the fifteen-odd inhabitants of the plot to the right of our courtyard. ‘At least the smell has gone.’

Stricken by thoughts of the smell the unrenovated, flushless loo would have sent wafting over into our courtyard on a hot summer’s day, I sent up a silent thanks to the Olympic god. It used to stink of rotten eggs, Mr. Zhou continued with scatological glee, but then his expression darkened. But ours is nothing much compared to some of the other new ones.

Indeed, only a few minutes away at the head of neighbouring Ju’er or Chrysanthemum hutong a full-on-four-star luxurious lavatory had been constructed as far back as 2002, predating the WTO summit. This loo had been built soon after Beijing won the bid to host the Games and it was to become the prototype for other post WTO summit toilets in the area; the kind that Yu Bao Ping and Lou Ya would eventually work in.

Infrared-automated flush commodes, electric hand driers and signs in English, Chinese and Braille decorated the building. As the first four-star toilet in the area, the Ju’er lavatory had quickly become a major attraction, drawing in customers from as far as four hutongs away. Mr. Yang, the local bicycle repairman, set up shop outside the loo to capitalize on the crowds. On most nights impromptu barbeque parties took place at the toilet’s doorstep organized by the entrepreneurial old Wang, who owned the cigarette and beer shop opposite.

A few stained couches, their insides spilling out, were set up. Others brought folding chairs. Mahjong sets and chess boards made an appearance. Soon a motley crew of regulars at the toilet entrance emerged and the locals jokingly began to call them W C Julebu or the WC Club.

For the WC Julebu, as for many other communities in the city, the Olympic games had proved to be a double-edged sword. Improved toilets built in the name of the games certainly represented a major improvement in the quality of hutong life but between a third and half of all the hutongs that once crisscrossed their way across the capital had been demolished to pave the way for the New Beijing, Olympic Beijing that the red banners promulgated.”

Gaya ...Gaya...Gaya...

My recent trip to Gaya turned out to be a two-in-one trip. Though the main purpose of the visit was to perform the ultimate ‘shrardham’ for my ancestors, it also turns out that by visiting Gaya which is located in Bihar, I can now claim to have visited most of the big States in India. (I am yet to visit only J&K and three of the `seven sisters` of the North East)

Gaya – about which I had imagined the worst turned out to be mostly true. A holy city for the Hindus, it is a dusty, dirty and overcrowded place where the rule of law is mostly non-existent, like in most places in Bihar. Traffic is haphazard, traffic constables cons picous by their absence, begging rampant and almost everybody is out to fleece the hapless tourists, most of whom are not necessarily flush with money.

Power and water are in acute short supply. In fact, while we were in Gaya , one day there was a big morcha in a big colony for regular water and power supply and another day the autorickshaws were on strike protesting against the local mafia who were forever demanding a share of their earnings as protection money, leaving the poor rickshawallas struggling for survival.

The supply of power was most erratic. Though, ‘Karnataka Bhavan’ where we were staying, had a genset, it could not be operated all the time, with the result we suffered two powerless, sleepless, sweaty nights in Gaya. We got a taste of what millions of poor people go through in their lives right through the year!
Contrary to my expectation, the Gaya station was a big junction, teeming with people even at 4.30 am. Though there was general lighting in the station, thanks to a big dedicated generator, all the shops in the station, depending on the ‘line’ supply had no power. The tea shopkeeper gave the lack of power in his shop as an excuse for his inability to supply us the morning cup of tea which we were eagerly looking forward to, while waiting for the train to Kanpur.
On the positive side, I must admit that I was quite impressed with the meticulousness with which our priest conducted the shrardh ceremony, which began at 8.00 am on the banks of waterless Falguni river and the nearby Vishnupada temple and ended at the Karnataka Bhavan at 3.30 pm. We could have our meals only at 4.00 pm. Contrary to the annual ritual conducted in Madras at jet speed by local priests, the priest at Gaya took time to explain to us the significance of what we were doing – especially the explanation given for offering 16 pindams (rice offerings) out of 64 to one’s mother , highlighting the important role a mother plays in ones life. It was really a moving experience.
Watching thousands of people performing the shrardh on the banks of Falguni river that morning, I realized that it is a big business in Gaya involving hundreds of priests and local Brahmins who make substantial income by participating in the rituals. Many other suppliers of materials needed for the ceremonies were also thriving.
For most believers among Brahmins, performing the shrardh at Gaya is a very important event, conducted to please the souls of near and dear ones including friends and pets like dogs, cats, etc.

On the whole the visit to Gaya was an interesting experience, though physically very taxing!.

Moscow Experience!

In June this year I had the opportunity to visit Moscow to attend the Annual Conference of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN). While I was excited about visiting a new city and a new country, I was worried because I had heard horror stories about what can happen to strangers in that city, especially after the liberalization process started 15 years ago.

Moscow is a sprawling and beautiful city retaining most of its heritage buildings and monuments. But I found the people most unfriendly and very often hostile. Let me elaborate…

My bad experience started at the Moscow airport, where I landed by an Aeroflot flight from New York minus my checked in baggage. Losing a baggage in an international flight may not be unique (thought it was my first experience in my 30 years of international travel), What I went through to find out the fate of my baggage and the efforts to get it back were not exactly a friendly introduction to a new country and a new city.

The lady at the ‘Lost Baggage’ counter literally was barking at me with her answers for every question I asked. Language problem added to my woes!

I was given a form printed in Russian to register my claim. To get the lady to help me fill the form took almost 90 minutes. I was promised that the bag will be delivered at my hotel within 24 hours. It took more than 48 hours and I was roaming around wearing the same suit attending both formal meetings and evening get togethers. Fortunately I had carried an extra set of undergarments in my hand baggage, which ensured that I was not stinking. Besides the climate at 15 degree C was quite pleasant, though in Chennai I would have said it is very cold.

The day after I checked into the hotel I went for the free buffet breakfast which most hotels the world over offer these days. I picked up a few items, mostly bread and fruits (my favourite eggs were not on display) and occupied the table assigned to me. I realized that I had forgotten to pick up the tomato ketchup. When I requested one of the floating bearers to help me, the girl literally scowled at me asking me to go fetch it myself in her broken English. I was shocked! Obviously customer service has not yet caught on in the new liberalized Russia. A similar experience followed at the formal sit down lunch which I was attending the same day.

Normally vegetarians have a raw deal in most of the international conferences. But we get away eating the bread and butter which is always there and hopefully some vegetable salads and occasionally a vegetarian soup. That afternoon there was nothing, literally nothing, but for a basket of very hard buns. I found no butter on the table. My request to get some butter to help me manage to down the buns, resulted in a procession of bearers coming and asking me what do I want and then vanishing without bringing the butter. What was appalling was the unfriendly attitude!

Fortunately the organizers of WAN conference which was a glittering affair, with over 1500 delegates from 100 countries, had ensured that the delegates were kept busy from morning to night with interesting programmes. There was hardly any time left for sight seeing and shopping – of course it would be foolish to shop in Moscow. I learnt from an Indian friend working there that everything is very expensive in Moscow. He took us to an ordinary Indian restaurant one evening, where a meal for 3 people without the spirits cost us US $ 160 which was very expensive even byuropean standards. (At this point I must give a useful tip regarding Indian restaurants in Europe – most of them offer a plate of white rice free when you order for any accompanying curry dish)

All that I could see of Moscow (apart from rows to rows of beautiful and not so beautiful old buildings on the way to the conference venue from the hotel) was the sprawling Kremlin and the Lenin tomb located inside Kremlin where the body of Lenin is lying embalmed.

We also visited the Victoria Park on our way back to Moscow airport, thanks to the car and the driver provided by my friend. We were warned by my Indian friend not to venture alone anywhere as possibilities of being mugged or even killed by the local jobless and often frustrated people, were bright. Because of this there’s always a palpable tension in the atmosphere when you are moving around the city.

On return to Chennai, at the installation function of our Rotary Club, I learnt from the incoming President’s wife that her uncle, who was a junior diplomat working in Moscow 10 years ago, was stabbed to death as he was coming out of an Indian restaurant after dinner one night.

After hearing the story I was happy that I am back in India, alive and kicking with only some bad experiences in Moscow!