My Uncle Damodaran

Trips back home are always a chance to catch up with the rest of the family, whether you like it or not. After a couple of months of hard work, there may be nothing you would want more on a visit home than to curl up in front of the TV, with a copy of Balabhoomi in your hands. However, mums find such opportunities irresistible. For them, such occasions are tailor made to go visit the relatives, if nothing else to show-off the latest version of their kids to the myriad uncles, aunties, nephews and grandmothers. Your wish to just de-stress at home has no impact on the outcome.

So it will be that you will often find yourself dressed up in your Sunday best, rushing from one relative to the other at break-neck speed to cover everyone. And it is vitally important to cover everyone. It’s just like spraying fertilizer on a field or getting a Brazilian wax. Once you commit to it, you need to go the full nine yards or else the results will be incomplete. There will be some patch left over, someone will complain, and you’ll have gone through a ton of pain for no real reason at all.

Most visits to relatives can be done on autopilot mode, smiling and nodding as little Unnikuttan or Mayamol is paraded before you and asked to recite the latest poem he learnt at school or the latest martial art move she studied after school. Make sure you mentally block out Unnikuttan’s flat rendering of Casablanca and physically protect your family jewels from Mayamol’s taekwondo, and you’re good.

Mostly.

There is a breed of relative that is far more difficult to manage. All of us will have one uncle who thinks he’s young enough to be our older brother. He will, invariably, ask the most uncomfortable questions or make the most cringing comments in his quest to be ‘with it’. Most will be direct assault salvos delivered in the presence of your mom, like ‘Appo mone, who is your girlfriend these days?’, or ‘ So, this new Fifty Shades of Grey movie seems to be quite an artistic exploration into the dynamics of human interaction under duress.’ You can avoid these by abruptly changing the subject by asking about his job, or lack thereof.

A few other lines of attack are less easy to manage. For instance:

  1. Knowledge of popular phrases – My uncle Damodaran, whom I call ‘Damu uncle’ when needed and not at all if I can help it, often throws in phrases used by millennials during our conversations. More often than not he doesn’t understand what they mean, which is often for the good. For instance, there was that occasion when he casually informed me that his daughter Savitri (my cousin) told him that she was going to her friend’s place to Netflix and chill that weekend. ‘It must be this new season of a series called House of Cards,’ he told me. ‘All her friends have been dying to see it.’ He seemed to understand it as a practice where a lot of friends get together over the weekend to binge watch Netflix shows. I smiled weakly and remarked that House of Cards was a great show worthy of chilling to.

 

  1. Archaic sense of overtime – Their grasp of work timings mostly date from the sarkar raj era where 10 am to 5pm were the nationally accepted work timings and any overtime suffered would be handsomely compensated, except if you drew the short straw for election duty. As such, they just cannot understand the virtue of any job which would demand work at 8.00 pm most nights when there was a major presentation due, without the carrot of overtime pay. Coming to think of it… neither can I. Closely tied to this issue is also the inability to grasp why anyone would want to quit a well paying job at one company to join another company. Most folks of their generation joined a company as one would a college, and left it only upon graduation (read retirement). To this day, Damu uncle refuses to believe I quit my first company of my own volition. He insists I must have been fired.

 

  1. Investing – To a man they all consider themselves experts on personal finance. Coming from an era where government jobs were the ultimate wet dream for any self-respecting graduate, their personal finance advice begins and ends with real estate. Compound that with mid-life, existential and a host of other Freudian crises, and they will often end up persuading you to buy apartments in Perumbavoor or potato farms in Coimbatore. Damu uncle’s investment pitch runs like this, ‘Do you know what investment means? Real estate, that’s what it means. All these funds and stocks are totally fraud. I invested some money ten years ago in Teak and Manjiyam plantations, and have not received a single rupee back. They are all fraud people, trying to sell you fraud things. You should only invest in land, I am telling you. Land will always be there for you. In fact, your Girija aunty’s son has just bought some potato farms in Coimbatore, why don’t you just take a look at something similar? He’s a smart boy, I am telling you.’

 

  1. Family planning – This is the worst of all. While one can understand the innate desire of these uncles to ensure the family name survives, it’s tough to understand their urgency. Increasingly stern reminders to quickly procreate punctuate each visit home. When gentle prodding fails, they resort to extolling the virtues of quick procreation. ‘Don’t delay these things, my boy. Have children as soon as you can. Otherwise you cannot enjoy being friends with them as they grow up. Look at me, if I hadn’t had Savitri as early as I did, I wouldn’t have been able to understand her when she tells me she’s going to Netflix and chill.’

There’s no easy way to dodge these bullets. If caught out in the field of fire, one option could be to replicate the tactic used to protect oneself against Mayamol’s taekwondo. Shield your jewels with your hands, and curl yourself up into a ball.

 

To suave or not to suave ?

Suave definition

I have an enormous amount of respect for folks who are naturally suave. You know the type – those who act as though they are to the manor born, while the rest of us muddle through life with all the sophistication of a lawn-mover. I have had the good fortune to meet a few of this species during my brief stint with this life. There were a couple in school, who managed to make beastly white shirts and navy blue trousers look cool, and who, although they could never solve a calculus problem nor remember why Prospero was angry with Ariel, nevertheless could be counted upon to shine during the dumb charades session come youth festival. These were the ones who were crowned Mr. Personality and Ms. Debonair.

Quick wit, repartee and confidence are all indicative of a certain command of language coupled with an active and quick intelligence. The former without the latter makes you look like Karna, who when push came to shove, could only stand in the mud and remonstrate Arjuna as he himself forgot how to fight. The latter without the former puts you in my league, where you can come up with sharp and biting replies to insults, though usually about 2 hours after the offending party has departed. Sometimes it takes up to 4 hours. But if you have both, you can really excel in your social life. Two examples that come to mind are Abraham Lincoln and a friend’s uncle. Lincoln gave a brilliant riposte to an inquisitive diplomat who walked into the president’s office and saw the great man shining his own shoes. The diplomat asked, “Mr President, you black your own boots?” “Yes,” said Lincoln. “Whose boots do you black?”. My friend’s uncle was a lawyer, not unlike Lincoln. Once directed by the judge to cross examine the witness, he rose, adjusted his gown and remarked, ‘I’ll examine the witness, your honour, but let me assure the court, I’m not at all cross.’

An excellent sense of sartorial style is another requirement. It’s what contributes to your polish and poise. You don’t need to wear expensive things, contrary to what Rohit Bal would have you believe. But you need to wear what you have with confidence. Me? I look like I’ve just stolen whatever I wear. I envy those folks who seem to be able to wear anything at all with elegance. And not just the thin, metabolically gifted models either. Even huge guys like Hafthor Bjornsson.

Thor_suave.jpg
Who’s your tailor now ?

Is being suave the only way to move ahead in life? Absolutely not. Donald Trump is now the most powerful man in the world. That ought to put paid to any such misconceptions. However, suavity is definitely a plus in being successful in life. Let’s do a thought exercise. Think of the three most successful people you know personally. Did you think of Thomas Kurien, Harish Kumar and Sreejith Menon? If you did, that’s because you are my mother. Else, I can bet you dollars to unniappams that at least two of whomever you thought of always manage to remain cool and collected under any circumstance, regardless of the severity. And that is a quality worth striving for. Me? I have a long way to go before I reach that state. Once, a particularly beautiful lady asked me directions to the nearest chemist, and in my panic, I told her how to get to my house. Although coming to think of it now….

 

ReaganvTrump
Spot the suave one out

Anyhow, chivalry and gallantry may be the only things I manage to pull off on a fairly regular basis. My level of chivalry though is limited to giving up my seat for kids and women in metro. But hey, what’s good enough for Keanu Reeves is good enough for me.

NB : For those who are still wondering why Prospero was angry with Ariel, here’s why.

Ariel had been a servant of Sycorax, a witch banished from Algiers (Algeria) and sent to a deserted island a long time ago. Ariel was too delicate a spirit to perform her horrible commands, so she imprisoned him in a “cloven pine”. Prospero released Ariel from that torment, and he was the only magician who could do so. He then proceeded to hold Ariel to that debt, forcing him to do his bidding. When Ariel complained that Prospero had promised him freedom, he proceeded to lose his shit and threw a tantrum, accusing Ariel of forgetting all that he had done for him. So, typical emotional blackmailing.

Why a career in clandestine services is not for me.

This post is rather special. I’m going to give a shout out here (the first one I’ve done, very exciting…) to a talented and upcoming artist Krishnan Venugopal. Like most talented and upcoming artists, he is fending off starvation currently by working at a cushy 9-5 job while spending an hour every night post dinner dreaming about owning his own design agency. When he is not doing either of those things, he keeps himself busy by putting together a portfolio of his work. You can see it by clicking on this link –  Krishnan Venugopal

He is the one to be credited with designing the images you see in this post, as well as the beautiful logo of this blog. Quite a talented chap. I also bear the distinctive honour of being his brother in law. Who says only Trump can do nepotism ?

Now, on to the post.

At the age of 10, like thousands of boys before me, and likely thousands more after me, I wanted to be James Bond. The glitz, glamour and sheer thrill of danger were too good to be missed out on. I couldn’t wait to grow up, finish my ICSE board exam and go join James Bond College. Over time, maturity sank in and I started to understand the truths of life. For instance, my dad told me that James Bond College took in only about 100 applicants every year, and selection exams were very tough. He convinced me that I had a better chance of getting into College of Engineering, Trivandrum.

Other than the sheer competition, there are, unfortunately, some  practical limitations that prevent me from becoming the next Bond. Please find attached below.

Direction impairment – I once drove round and round a butterfly flyover in Koramangala for half an hour trying to find an exit. I need a good view of the sun’s position and ten minutes of mental calculation to understand the cardinal directions. Imagine an emergency situation where a building is on fire and someone yells at me to “proceed out the east exit and then go half a block south “. I am far more likely to sit down where I am to try to get my head around things than to obey those instructions. Contrast this with spy films in which the hero, often wounded and carrying a civilian, speed reads an entire city map within seconds and then manages to find the right shortcuts, all the while negotiating rush hour traffic. Unbelievable.

Directional_2

Inability to withstand torture – I find this the most disturbing of super spy requirements. Any 12 year old worth his salt (read, who has seen all episodes of ‘24’) knows that eventually, everyone breaks. So what’s the use of withstanding all the pain and embarrassment in the first place? If captured and questioned, I can be relied upon to volunteer any and all information, including the low down on the Kennedy assassination.

Torture.jpg

Codes? What codes? – Studying and memorizing disjointed pieces of information to recall and connect them in future has always been utterly confusing for me. I can never for the life of me understand how trained agents do it on the fly. Memorizing phone numbers, license plates, PNR numbers and phonetic codes are basic job requirements for trainee agents. Such skills save lives. Me? I learnt the English alphabet with great difficulty.  The last time a travel agent asked me to tell him my PNR number, I had to put him on hold for 5 minutes while I hunted down the e-ticket. Then, with all the confidence born of ignorance, I proceeded to describe the PNR number EBP DUJ in NATO code. “Echo, Bravo……Erm… Police, Delhi…. Unnikkuttan…. Jellikattu”.

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Blind trust in beautiful women – I mean, in the lost unlikely scenario that a good-looking dame who is in the honey trapping business takes it upon herself to recruit me in order to pick my brains, who am I to disabuse her of her illusion that I have any? Brains, that is. If she asks me to proceed out the east exit, I might actually go to the trouble of asking someone else for directions, so as to impress her. If that doesn’t tell her the amount of brains I have to be picked, she deserves what’s coming her way.

Zero knowledge in poker, rummy or baccarat – Self-explanatory. All spies, irrespective of age, race or gender, play poker and win every hand. On the other hand (pun intended), I can’t differentiate between a straight flush and a manually operated one.

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Until I can figure all these things out, I am one step further away from being captured and tortured.

 

 

The curious relationship between Indians and personal space

‘All generalizations are false, including this one’ – probably Mark Twain.

Indians have a curious relationship with personal space. We believe it’s negotiable. It’s not a reflection on our lack of etiquette or decorum, but simply an evolutionary necessity. When 1.3 bn people try to cram into a shared auto to go from Rajendranagar to Gachibowli or queue up to withdraw money from Chennai airport ATM, respect for personal space becomes a tradition more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Personal space violators come in many forms. A few samples include

  1. Grocery Ganesan – you see him once a week at the grocery till. He will lurk behind you at the till, pushing through with his cart of Baggry’s oats, milk and brinjal at the exact moment you start unloading your cart onto the cashier’s counter. You may end up paying for his items too, by mistake. But it’s ok. He’s a gentleman and won’t complain.
  2. Ticket Thomas – He is the guy behind you in every queue in India. Except he’s not technically behind you, at least not in his view, since the concept of queuing is alien to his delicate sensibilities. You see, queuing requires maintaining an unhealthy distance from the person in front of you. A distance large enough to induce FOMO– the fear of missing out on a competition. So Ticket Thomas will stand as close as he can to you to maximize his chances of reaching the end of the queue quickly. And he won’t stand quietly. Like a good lover, he will spoon you from behind, the sides and sometimes, even above. I have had several instances where a third hand has miraculously evolved from the general area of my underarm and proceeded to pay the ticket collector at movie theatres. When I turn back in astonishment (I generally tend to get astonished upon noticing that I have sprouted an extra arm), Thomas usually smiles and nods his head in silent encouragement, as if to say, ‘It’s ok, carry on. I’ll just stand here quietly with my arm through yours. No big deal.’ It’s all the more worse when he gets the ticket before me.
  3. Escape Estheppan – He loves flying until the exact moment the plane lands on the tarmac and starts taxiing, at which instant he turns into an aviophobe. His sole purpose in life then becomes to exit the plane as fast as possible. The process of exiting a plane under normal circumstances is fairly simple, if elaborate. First, the pilot announces the temperature and wind condition outside the plane in case you had any plans of sailing out of the airport. Then he announces that you are supposed to keep your seatbelts on until the seatbelt sign goes off. That’s when Estheppan starts his disembarkation process. He unties his seatbelt and edges forward in his seat. When the taxiing plane comes to a halt he jumps up irrespective of whichever seat he happens to be in – window, middle or aisle. Once his head reaches the vertical vicinity of the overhead compartment, he proceeds to open it. After a few pieces of luggage showers onto the heads of his co-passengers, he manages to find his own cabin baggage, and clutches it to his chest. This is followed by a breathless wait for a chance to jump into the aisle, minutes filled with trembling excitement as he pushes against the inanimate body of Savitri ammal in the seat next to him, the said Ammal having been rendered unconscious by a shower of American Tourister bags on her head. Once he spies an opening, he rushes headlong to the exit, leaving the twitching bodies of Savitri ammal and a few miscellaneous children in his wake.
  4. Urinal Unni – Have you ever been to a men’s urinal in a movie theatre? Even if the entire urinal is free, Urinal Unni will insist on using the stall right next to you. There is a fine line between uncomfortable physical closeness and outright sexual harassment, and Urinal Unni draws and redraws that line constantly with a stream of urine. You get so engrossed in trying to ensure he isn’t sneaking a peek that you often forget to zip up after finishing your business.

So, tourists in this beautiful land of ours, do not get put off by Ganesans and Estheppans. This is how we are. You will find Ganesans in most grocery stores, and Estheppans on most flights. Have you ever walked down the crowded alleyways of Mumbai, and felt a light push against your tushy from the anonymity of the crowd? Have you ever stood in a crowded metro train and felt a third hand spouting from between your armpits? Congratulations – you have been pick-pocketed. Call the police.

If your wallet is intact, chalk the experience down to Indians negotiating your personal space. In a world where people are moving further away from each other along ideological lines, where Kapil Sharma and Sunil Grover have split up, where Karan Johar is refusing to speak to Kajol, a little benign invasion of personal space might be a good thing. Except with Trump and Korea. Or Trump and Mexico. Or Trump and Ivanka. Or Trump and human beings in general.

PS: Mrs. Domesticated Kid reminds me that I forget to zip up even if Urinal Unnis are absent from the scene. I must see someone about that. And make sure no one sees me in the meantime.

Nair on the highway – driving with confidence in Britain

I acquired my first driving license in India at the age of 18. Like every other teenager my age, it required teaming up with a driving school instructor who may or may not have had some nefarious dealings with the RTO officer. Sure, I drove the car in straight lines, curved lines, reversed it, parked it and changed a few gears, but none of those manoeuvres were executed under the pressure of real life consequences. I mostly drove around in a pristine dust field ringed by coconut trees, where the maximum damage you could do was to run the car into a mud bank. This suited the RTO driving inspector very well, since his primary concern was his own well-being, and mud banks are infinitely more pleasant obstacles to run into than other vehicles.

After they granted me the laminated 2×4 inch keycard to automotive freedom, I promptly forgot all about driving. Not out of a lack of interest, you see, but out of lack of opportunity. I never got a chance to drive a car for the next 10 years while I wandered all over India and Asia for study and work.

And then I came to the UK. The land where left side driving originated. Here’s a funny fact for you. When the erstwhile British empire started colonizing large parts of the subcontinent, they decided to teach the natives how to drive. It was more out of necessity than altruism; they could not afford to have their brand new Morris Minors crashing into bullock carts all the time. Lloyd’s insurance didn’t cover that. So they decided to teach all the Indians to drive on the left side of the road. Which worked well, until they realised that in order to complete the job, they would have to teach the bullocks as well. At which point they gave up, packed up and went home, leaving the Indians free to drive on whichever side of the road they fancied.

Contrary to popular belief, these guys won India her independence

Anyway, back to yours truly. After landing in the UK I realized that a car was an indispensable necessity in this country where trains can stop running on any given day without so much as a by your leave.  But after 10 years, I was quite sure I was rusty at driving. That put me in a rather uncomfortable position where the only way to meet the challenge was to dive headlong into it. Perhaps not the most apt analogy for re-learning driving, but you get the point.

I called up a driving instructor and asked him to help me out. After about 3 hours under his supervision, my latent driving skills surfaced and my confidence on the roads surged. I effortlessly increased my top speed from 10 mph to 20 mph. The instructor was not very impressed however, and gently pointed out that I was holding up an entire string of cars behind me. I refused to let it dampen my enthusiasm, letting him know in turn that a 100% improvement on anything is a stupendous performance.

After about 10 hours of training, my instructor felt confident enough to take his foot off the training brakes occasionally. By then I had cottoned onto the differences between driving in India and driving in the UK.

A comparative analysis (sort of) of the differences between driving in the UK and India

Karma rules

Indian driving relies less on proper signalling and car control and more on the basic principles of karma. You do the best you can, and never worry about the results. If for instance, you started out in the morning from Bannerghatta bound for your office in Whitefield, do not be appalled if you find yourself in Hebbal at the end of your drive. You were meant to be in Hebbal. Call in sick.

Karmic rules apply at all levels of driving. If you treated your dog well yesterday, that lorry driver will spare your life tomorrow. If you tipped the waiter 2 weeks ago, that cow will get up off the road and wander off, leaving you free to move forward. Just point the car in the right direction, start the engine, and pray. There are no atheists on Indian roads.

Trust your karma

Treatment of Traffic lights

Traffic lights demand unquestioned obedience in the UK, whereas in India, they are more like gentle suggestions. All UK drivers approach traffic lights gingerly. Violations add to your points and eventually, can result in your license being suspended. On the other hand, Indian drivers find the idea of traffic lights amusing at best. Unless they are accompanied by a traffic cop, they are treated as mere suggestions of vehicular propriety, to be observed only if your mother in law happens to be in the same car as you.

But beware if he happens to be on duty that day

Slowing down when approaching by-lanes

I used to slow down for every by-lane in my path, until my driving instructor told me it would be seen as a minor infraction in the UK. Apparently you are supposed to believe that any driver wishing to join the road would be equally aware of the rules, and would concede right of way to oncoming traffic. Hence, if you have right of way and still slow down, you are essentially impeding the traffic behind you. Fancy that. I, on the other hand, was all too aware that back in India, any by-lane was just an ambush point where anything from a hand cart piled high with vegetables to an errant football followed by a distracted child could jump out at you. Slowing down is not just a prudent precaution, it is an absolute necessity.

On tooting horns

Horns are considered to be bad taste and to be used only in an emergency in the UK. In fact, there is a section in the driving theory test booklet in the UK (oh yes, they have those) where the powers that be talk about the conditions under which a horn can be used. And that’s pretty much under no circumstances, except in an emergency to let someone know of your presence. The operative word here is ‘emergency’. In India too, the horn is used to let others know of your presence. But the word ‘emergency’ is glossed over. Creative uses of the horn can convey any message from ‘Look where you are going, you nincompoop,’ to ‘Hey Matthaikutty, I’m over here!! Fancy us pulling up at the same red light at the same time! What are the odds of that! Did your eldest son Sunnykutty get married?’. Other acceptable uses of the horn in India are as below, shown by context and intent:

Context

Intent

When you want to pass someone

Here I am. This is me. I will pass you now. Thanks.

When someone passes you

I see you. You little jerk. How dare you pass me?

When you think someone might be thinking of passing you

I know what you are thinking. You little jerk. How dare you think of passing me?

When you want the car in front of you to go faster

Hey, you there. You do realize Volvo saw fit to give you an accelerator pedal for a reason, right? Use it.

When a pedestrian tries to cross the road in front of you

‘Ghar pe batake aaye ho na?’ Loosely translated, it means, ‘may you become a toad in your next life. I can help accelerate the transition if you want’

When you feel sleepy while driving at 60 mph down the highway into oncoming traffic

Oh shit.

Lane (in)discipline

Lane discipline means a lot to the drivers in the UK, and errant drivers are immediately brought to censure by fellow drivers. Changing lanes is a complex process involving looking all round your car including up through the sun roof to ensure there is no one nearby, putting on the right indicators at the right time without surprising anyone, and then gently sliding across the lane apologetically. It’s a dance, to be executed with grace, precision and a touch of piousness. Whereas in India, anyone who insists on following all these rules to change lanes to catch an exit would be forced to drive in more or less a straight line from Kanyakumari to Kashmir without success.

Lane discipline in India. The key is to avoid eye contact.

Tough conditions foster greater skills

The only redeeming feature of Indian system of driving is that the controlled chaos that exists on most roads ensure that most of the drivers who graduate from this school of driving are much more trained and skilled than your average British driver, who has grown soft due to complacency. For instance, my driving instructor candidly admitted to me that he could never drive on Indian roads. I felt a strong surge of patriotism as I heard those words. For all its faults, Indian traffic teaches drivers defensive driving skills normally reserved for Special Forces training in most other parts of the world.

All this knowledge did not, however, help me much with improving my skills beyond a point. I seemed destined to be one of those drivers who see a car as simply a mechanical instrument to transport you from point A to point B, with perhaps, an occasional breakdown near midway point C. Complex technical manoeuvres did not come easily to me. Neither did simple ones, for that matter. My instructor was a nervous wreck by the time he presented me to the driving inspector on the day of my test.  To cut a long story short, I did manage to pass the test and earn a UK driving license. It was a long and arduous 45 minutes of test driving, by the end of which all the three parties involved – my instructor, the driving inspector and I were all thoroughly exhausted. My driving inspector told me that he was taking the rest of the day off to recover. My instructor started sobbing silently and rocked gently back and forth in the passenger seat. They seemed to have used up all their stored good karma.

Anyway, I am now the proud holder of dual driving licenses. All I need to do now is obey the traffic lights, and buy a good horn.

Run for your life. Or why I am better than Aamir Khan.

Ideally once you decide to lose weight, learn a new skill and stop pronouncing Warner brothers without the quintessential Mallu accent with its emphasis on Waa instead of Whoa ( as my wife constantly reminds me whenever we go to see a movie ) the Universe should conspire to make it happen. However in my case the Universe has other plans. Namely, do the opposite of whatever shit the domesticated kid plans. I hadn’t learned any significant new skills for the past 3 years, despite whatever creative half-truths I jot down under ‘Personal Development’ section every year during my appraisals at work. When startled, I still refer to WB as ‘Waarner Bretherz’. I have documented my ongoing battle with weight elsewhere on this blog. On the BMI scale, I’m the outlier that always makes it hard for the doctors to clearly define the boundary between normal weight and overweight. For years bitter debates have raged in medical circles in Nagpur and Singapore on whether I’m slightly above normal or slightly below overweight. I’ve constantly lived on the edge.

And then came the news on the telly that Aamir Khan had piled on pounds of flesh to balloon upto 95 kg for the upcoming movie Dangal. He has difficulty breathing now, which I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND. But here comes the rub. The old wily actor fellow is going to lose it all for the same movie. Is he crazy or what? Doesn’t he realise that you can simultaneously act as an 80 year old paunched father and a 35 year old paunched superhero in the same movie? At the same time? Didn’t Mohanlal teach you anything? For shame.


Heavyweight actor
Bloody fellow 

Now, we need to call a spade a spade and a porotta a porotta. This is just Aamir Khan showing off he can gain and lose weight at will. The bastard. I, on the other hand, have the first part down pat. The second always trips me up. And not for lack of trying. Quite recently, some genius at my office decided it would be a great idea to issue us all with Fitbits, divide us into teams and pitch us against one another to see which team could burn the most calories, in a bizarre corporate version of biggest loser. A colleague from IIM Ahmedabad proposed my name for his group, quite possibly to derive sadistic pleasure from reading the next day’s Guardian by-line on page 3

“IIM Bangalore alumni collapses tragically on pavement during training run. Subsequently run over by 10 IIM Ahmedabad London Alumni runners”

The horror. 

[Domesticated Kid’s side note: Now listen to me very carefully. The first step in any fitness program is to consult an expert, to make sure you don’t hurt yourself. Go do it now.

Done? Are you now equipped with all the latest information on forecasted income statement, cash flow analysis and Price/Earnings ratio? Excellent. That’s because you consulted a chartered accountant by mistake. Do it again, correctly this time please] 

But I pulled together whatever reserves of courage I possessed and decided to go through with the ordeal. A masochistic streak runs through the Thayyil Nair family. My father had decided, after retirement, that he would grow vanilla for money. My mother recently decided she would switch her allegiance from Mammootty to Dulquer. 

I signed up.


I went to a total fitness program at a nearby gym where an impossibly fit lady told me I needed to buy customised jogging shoes, branded t shirts, protein powder, wrist GPS and a heart rate monitor watch. I asked her if all the new-fangled tech would help me win the competition. ‘No, she said’. ‘But I would get a commission on all your purchases.’ She seemed honestly convinced that I was what is commonly referred to in the fitness industry as an easy mark .But I burst her bubble and told her I was wise to all her wily ways. Upon which she broke down and admitted that she was in it purely for the money. Just like Aamir Khan. That’s when inspiration struck me. For half the price of the gear, she taught me how to hack the Fitbit so I could manipulate the count without having to pull a hamstring or curl up on the pavement.

I aced the contest at work and happily bought porottas with the prize money I earned. The only difference between me and Aamir Khan now is that while we both did it for the money, he had to eat broccoli and drink water instead of porottas and coke. To top it all, I learnt a new skill into the bargain – how to hack fitbit trackers. Now if only I can pronounce Warner Brothers correctly. 

A rebel by any other name

You have seen him before. A lost soul wandering the aisles of the last wedding reception you attended, searching desperately for a kindred spirit or the entrance to the sadya hall, whichever he finds first. Dollars to doughnuts (or Rupees to parippuvada) he will be attired in a monochromatic t shirt that reaches down to just above his knees & a pair of black jeans that’s torn at exactly the same anatomical location. He will have long hair that’s been highlighted in random places, and a beard, the shape and fullness of which depends on which side of puberty he is. He will speak to you only in monosyllables, unless the topic of conversation happens to be Marvel comics or neo liberal feminism. He is usually scornful of Mohanlal, rating him at best an average actor who was once passably good, and is very distrustful of any movie that was rated U/A by Indian Censor Board.

He is the guy whom his mom introduces with a definite sense of trepidation to Girija aunty – for she has to juggle the complex tasks of remembering if her son is currently ‘taking a break from work’ or ‘exploring his options’ and figuring out how to respond when Girija aunty waxes eloquently about how her son recently got promoted to project lead at Infosys. He is also the guy who regularly gets into trouble with his dad for the ‘Ganapathy on a Harley’ poster he has on his laptop cover.

Rebels or ‘Freakkans’ are however, not a new phenomenon. They have always been around; a few in every generation. Back in the 70’s in Kerala they were the hippies, those generation of long haired semi starved youths who wore dog ear collars and bell bottom pants. Their parents presumably found it hard to introduce them at wedding receptions too. In fact an entire generation of parents disapproved of them, leading that indomitable cartoonist Toms to create the loving rascal ‘Appi Hippi’. Appi Hippi was created to channel the frustration and embarrassment of all those parents into a single stereotypical hippy. He was the embodiment of irresponsibility and incompetence, a serial ‘no –gooder’ who would never, in the considered opinion of his elders and betters, amount to anything.

But no one focused on his abilities and talents – his passable guitar skills, his innate innocence and the charming and friendly character that would give the shirt off his back to help his friends. Appi Hippi was never a one dimensional character, but hardly anyone ever appreciated him fully. Except for Toms himself, and that’s probably why he always kept him around. Appi Hippi never grew old, never lost his hair, never grew fat, never settled into a decent government job and never lost his guitar.

And in the 21st century, he was born again as Russel Brand

But I suspect a lot of real life Appi’s grew up to do exactly that, and in that process lost all connection with a sense of who they used to be. Taking on the generational mantle of behaviour police, they started judging the new generation Appi’s, those who replaced bell bottomed pants with loose and torn jeans, those who replaced hand held transistors with iPods and those who replaced Beatles t-shirts with Limp Bizkit. The fierce urge to cling onto old ideals and deny anything that smells like change is troubling in older generation.

So what if his hair is long? I would kill to be able to grow long hair. Mine always frizzles out after 2 inches, So what if he has a Ganapathy on a Harley poster? I think that makes Ganapathy look really bad ass.
 

As if he wasn’t bad ass already

So what if he has taken some time off to consider his next move? If he isn’t living off of his parents’ money, I say all the power to him. We all need to stop and take a break from living too fast once in a while.


So what if he thinks Mohanlal is passé? Oh wait, sorry, that’s unforgiveable. No long haired scraggly bearded wet behind the ears loser is going to diss Mohanlal. Not on my watch. 

Security in the UK – or why hiring Brad Pitt is important

I haven’t posted anything new for quite a while now – a minor but tragic consequence of the fact that I basically uprooted my life and transplanted it in a different continent over the course of the last 6 months. A new job, new address, new time zones, new friends – they all tend to have a cumulative effect on the psyche which, when combined with the mental exhaustion of having to figure out which set of trains are late, cancelled or simply running on its own without a driver, can be overwhelming.
That and the fact that I was involved in a minor dust up of the rolled up sleeves and screwed up biceps variety.
I had a conflicting image of life in UK before I landed on the shores of the erstwhile Empire nearly 6 months ago. You see, on the one hand, I had this image of a prim & proper Victorian era England – that of the Sherlock Holmes and Dickens variety and on the other hand, a dark, hopeless underbelly in the form of Guy Ritchie’s movies and Simon Cowell’s smug grin. To me it seemed a contradiction that the same culture that gave rise to Shakespeare could also give birth to Gordon Ramsay. But then, c’est la vie, as Vinnie Jones might say.
The Good, The Badass and the Ugly. In that order
Anyway, I digress. The brawl. Upon afterthought, it was your normal garden variety knuckle dustup, in the sense that it did indeed occur in a garden. At the time of the incident I was sharing a flat in Burnham with a few guys and a girl. She was a beautiful French lady, and was currently single. Of course there was a fair amount of jostling amongst the other single guys in the pack for her attention. I tried to stay out of the rat race, not wishing to pile on to the confusion. However, a rather red blooded Irishman who was her neighbour in the flat and who considered himself the worthiest of the lot vying for her attention purely due to his proximity to her, somehow got it into his head that I was employing reverse psychology to differentiate myself from the others (by not paying the girl enough attention) so she would notice. The good Lord had seen fit, for reasons best known to Him, to supply this enterprising guy with more brawns than brain, and before you could say hors-d’oeuvre, things came to a head one fine December night.
It all happened in a single Act, spanning 3 scenes. I was due to fly out the next day back to Singapore, and was in the process of enjoying a quick meal in the small garden that was attached to the flat, when the curtains rose
Act 1 – Scene 1
Dramatis Personae
1. Yours truly, entering the garden front center, balancing a plate of pasta in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.
2. Aforementioned Irish man, seen already in the garden, head lolling to one side, gently muttering to himself. It was only much later into the proceeding that I learned this was not a common behavior amongst Irishmen, being confined to only those who are high on weed
3. Frenchwoman , entering garden far left, for a quick smoke before turning in
Yours truly – Pretty clear night huh?
Frenchwoman – Oui. You can see the moon very clearly. It’s beautiful.
Irishman – Two more pints for me, Andrew. (We never learned who Andrew was supposed to be)
Frenchwoman – What’s that?
Me – No clue. Why’s he looking at you queerly?
FW – It’s not me he’s looking at. It’s you.
Me – Ahh, so he is  (You see, due to the peculiar angle at which his head was set on his shoulders, it seemed to me that he was actually goggling at her, whereas in reality he was just staring at me)
IM – Two chickens for you eh? What do you think you are doing with her? (Here he definitely pointed his head at the Frenchwoman)
Me – Chicken? No this is just a veggie pasta
Frenchwoman – What do you mean by that? Are we going to start again? (Apparently, they had a small tiff the previous evening, but I had no way of knowing that then)
Me – Ahh, not the pasta then. Should I leave you two to it?
FW – No dear, that’s not needed at all. You enjoy your dinner. I don’t like it here anymore.
Exit FW, far left. Yours truly sets the pasta down for a quick chow. Irishman drools a little spitball down his chin. Scene 1 ends.
Act 1 – Scene 2
Yours truly – Seated garden centre, making short work of the pasta
IM – Seen walking in the general direction of the pasta
IM – Good pasta, eh?
Me – Mmph. Ishgood.
IM- I know what you are doing.
Me – ‘course you do. You are looking at it.
IM – You can’t have her.
Me – It doesn’t have a gender. Its tasty, but gender neutral.
IM – I’ll fucking break your arm.
Me – Ehh ?
IM – I said, I’ll fucking break your arm if you go near ‘er.
Me – Near who?
IM – I know what you are doing.
That didn’t look like it was going anywhere fruitful, and given the fact that he was once again giving me the head to the side baleful stare, I thought it better to vacate the premises. I rose and started walking back to the door. That was when things started to heat up properly. Just as I was reaching for the door-handle, the Irishman rolled up and placed a threatening hand on it.
IM – You’re not going anywhere.
Scene 2 ends
Act 1 Scene 3
Me – Found garden front center near door, frozen in place with a half empty plate of pasta in one hand
Irishman – Found same place, with malevolent intent
The IM took off his shirt for some strange reason. The charitable explanation was that he didn’t want his range of motion being limited, but it was hard to tell.
IM – You tell Andrew he can’t have his chicken.
Me – Of course, will that be all?
IM – I’ll break your hand
Me – Let’s table that discussion for another day
IM – You are a pussy
Me – Not a chicken?
IM – No. A pussy. Here, take that.
With that, he lunged towards me, with the vague intention of clapping me in a bear hug. I stepped out of the way. Not with any tactical plan of action in mind, but merely being a gentleman, I was anxious not to be an impediment in his path. In his fury, he lunged out with his hands as well as his body, reaching for and latching onto the pasta plate in his motion.
After his forward momentum wore off, he came to a halt about 2 meters in front of me , turned around, and was surprised to find an empty pasta plate in his hand, the remaining contents strewn liberally about the floor separating him from me.
IM – Why did you give me this?
Me – Errm, because it was good pasta?
IM – You tricked me. And her. Andrew said you would, you bastard.
Me – That pains me. Why did he say such a thing?
IM – Who?
Me – Andrew. Why would he say such a thing about me?
IM – Who’s Andrew?
Me – Ahh. Never mind.
IM (thinking about this for a minute, and coming to a conclusion) – I know what to do. I’ll break your arm.
With that, he lunged again, thrusting the plate in front of him. However, in his return flight, he neglected to sidestep a small knot of pasta which had spilled down during the forward leg of his journey, and went down face first, still holding the plate out in front of him. I reached out without thinking, and in a beautifully choreographed ballet of violence, he handed me the plate, avoided my outstretched arm, and crashed face first into the patio.
End of play

I was never much interested in taking security seriously, but now I’m thinking about it. The idiot was too high that night to tell his face apart from the patio floor, but I may yet run into another such character during my stay here, and the next time I don’t want to rely on my dietary choices to save me. If there is anything Guy Ritchie has taught me, it’s to cover my bases and hire a gypsy bodyguard.
I bet ya can box a little, can’t ya sir? Aye, you look like a boxer. 

Mallu sex education – or why an engineering degree is important

I have had occasion to mention elsewhere on this blog that in Kerala, marriages are often seen as a social contract granting permission to young couples to have sex. Much hoo-ha is made over couples of legal age having pre marital sex, which is a topic we won’t delve into right now. This is after all, meant to be a satirical blog – if I have aspirations of being taken seriously or involving myself in an adult discussion, I shall keep them to myself, thank you very much.
No, this post is actually a continuation of something I had written earlier, titled “Sex education in Kerala or: Reasons why Josukuttan had to marry Anumol in a hurry”. Unlike the previous one, this post does not seek to call out the hypocritical nature of mallu society, which expects its children to grow up sheltered from reality and then suddenly demand sexual awakening and responsibility to be acquired overnight post a ceremony and a sadya (insert beef fry/mutton biriyani based on religious tastes and personal preferences). More often than not, the rigidity of such cultural false expectations give rise to all sorts of sick things ranging from marital rape to false headaches (of the “ not now, I’ve got a headache” notoriety), not to mention desperate visits to the clinic to figure out which part/s of the human anatomy goes where in a normal intercourse.
Instead of tackling such complex and layered topics, each of which merits its own 2000 word article, this post simply seeks to chronicle three separate incidents from my life, which will hopefully shed some light on why I had to learn whatever I know about sex from my engineering college DC++ network. By extension, the logic will apply to most mallu families, for if my family prides itself on one thing, it is its tendency to regress to the mean.
Year 1995 – age 10
My dad picked out the Terminator from the local VHS library (remember those black tapes which used to collect fungus?) and brought it home triumphantly so he and I could watch it together. It was meant to be a father son bonding moment over visuals of humans being hunted mercilessly by a sentient robot from the future. It was also my first foreign language film. However, the proceedings quickly ground to a halt at the scene where Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese have mutually consensual intercourse, a critical and momentous plot twist that leads directly to the birth of the savior of all mankind, John Connor. At the first sight of Linda Hamilton’s nipples, my dad sprang into action, switching off the TV and announcing that this movie was not fit for kids and he would show me a cooler movie the next day. I was left a bit confused. I had never seen my dad move so fast before in my life. And I hadn’t exactly understood what was going on in the movie too.

This scene is where my dad went all Ninja

Year 2000 – age 15
My dad had come to pick me up from class and we were en route home when suddenly he stopped the Bajaj Chetak at a secluded ground about 200m behind our house. He asked me to get off and then kicked the scooter into stand. I momentarily suspended my thoughts about getting home quickly, taking a shower and curling up with a good book, and transferred all my attention to my dad. In a grave voice, he announced that he needed to tell me something. In a sudden, breathtaking moment of panic attack, I feared something had happened to my mom. I remember a sudden constriction inside my chest, which made it difficult for me to draw breath. 

“ I opened your table drawer today to fetch the dictionary” he began. I was confused. Did the dictionary fall on my mom? Webster’s encyclopedic dictionary is not the lightest of books to have fall on you out of nowhere. My dad saw the look of horror on my face, and mistaking it for guilt, soldiered on. “ And I saw the book you had kept hidden behind the dictionary”. Suddenly, things became clearer. A couple of days ago, a deviant friend had loaned me a slim volume, something that was known in our circles as the “little book”. Basically, it was a cheap edition of a porn booklet, with grainy images of actors doing the doo-doo in a variety of locations. I had hidden it temporarily in a place where I thought it would be safe – behind a humongous volume of Webster’s Encyclopedic dictionary. This was meant to be our master dictionary, to be turned to only when a family member was stumped by a word, which could not be resolved by smaller volumes of Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries, both of which were available in the house. Given the rarity with which it was ever touched, I assumed my slim book would be relatively safe behind it.  Only, I hadn’t accounted for the fact that my dad might suddenly get the urge to expand his vocabulary and go dig up the dictionary. So of course, in short order, he got the urge, reached into the recesses of my drawer, and picked out the bulky volume. And lo, out tumbled the evidence of my straying from the straight and narrow path.

It’s big. Very much so.
Ordinarily, a discovery like this would have mortified me beyond belief, but it came as such a welcome news compared to the more horrific scenario that my mind had conjured up that the accusation of being caught red handed handling sensitive material came instead as a relief. I even smiled a bit. This puzzled my father, who was expecting remorse and apology. “ You see, I can understand. I have been through your age too. I know there are…urges.” He took his time with the word urges, rolling it around in his mouth as if tasting it before pronouncing it bitter and gracefully spitting it out. “ But this is the time for you to focus on your studies. Return this book to whoever gave it to you, and we will speak no more about it. I haven’t told your mom about this”. With that, he clipped his helmet back on, and got on the scooter. I contritely rode pillion with him, realizing that I had just been given the talk, but was no more the wiser for having received it. Several questions floated around in my head. For instance, if he had had the urges back when he was my age, what had he done about them? On second thought, I decided I didn’t want to know the answer to that. Also, what did the reference to mom mean… was that a veiled threat? And most importantly, what was this dangerous word he was trying to look up in the holy grail of dictionaries?
Year 2013 – age 28
Fast forward to more than a decade later to the eve of another momentous day in my life; the day before my marriage. I was at home, chatting with my relatives who had all convened to render their best wishes and express their shocked surprise that the little toddler who used to walk around with snot all across his mouth had grown up suddenly and was getting married now. They agreed that they saw this sort of thing occurring all around them all the time, and most even admitted that it had happened to them once as well, but it still came as a surprise nevertheless.  
Anyhow, in the midst of all this surprised confusion, my dad called me into the garden. I followed him out of the house, and we walked silently some little distance. Once we were out of earshot, he assumed a grave expression and gazing far into the distance, cleared his throat and started to speak. “ Errm, mone (son)… appo, bhaviye kurichu alochichittundo  ? Alla achanariyam monu ithokke ariyamennu, ennalum onnu veruthe chodichatha”. I replied, “ Ariyam acha”. “ Ok, athu mathi”, he let out an audible sigh of relief. And then leaving me alone in the garden, marched back in double time.
For those who missed the nuanced father son exchange that just happened, here is the translation, and some additional notes supplied by Captain Subtext for easier understanding.
Errm, mone (son)… appo, bhaviye kurichu alochittundo  ?” – “ Have you thought about the future?”
C. Subtext – This is a catch-all question, intentionally vaguely designed to cover a range of subjects including career guidance, emotional maturity (or lack thereof) to maintain a family, savings, residential security, sex, family planning, where to send the grandkids to school etc. We need to see the context in order to refine the options further. Sandeep’s dad chose the very last day of his bachelorhood to ask him this question and therefore it could only mean that he was enquiring about the extent of his sexual education. Given that he knew that Sandeep knew that he knew that there was never much in the way of sexual education Sandeep could have gotten through any family approved sources , this question is tantalizingly nuanced and rich in its irony.
“Alla achanariyam monu ithokke ariyamennu, ennalum onnu veruthe chodichatha”. – “ I know that you are on top of these things, but still I felt the need to confirm that you are good to go.
C. Subtext – This seemingly innocuous statement is anything but. In a stroke of masterful genius, it not only absolves the dad of any parental sins of omission but also gently reinforces the memory of that book all those years ago, reminding Sandeep that he had had a chance to learn stuff the western way and there should literally be nothing more he, the dad, need teach him, the son. The question makes the big assumption that Sandeep would not ask any stupid/involved doubts at this eleventh hour.
“Ariyam acha” – “ I am fine dad”
C. Subtext – Sandeep meant to say, “ please, for the love of God, let us stop this awkward conversation right now. I mean, you can’t even look at me. You are talking to the banana leaf.”
“Athu mathi”, followed by audible sigh of relief – self explanatory.

This was the extent of my sex education. If it were not for DC++ I would have been one of those young guys queuing up in front of the clinic in a bid to understand what goes where. As is the case with most of my generation in Kerala, my engineering degree saved my sex life.

Shopping for bras in Kerala

Reams have been written about the urgent and inescapable need for reinforcing gender equality in society, especially in Kerala. Feminists, male apologists, male chauvinists and female school teachers have all expounded without mercy on the subject. While the domesticated kid generally tries to stay away from intellectually stimulating discussions of all nature (primarily due to lack of pertinent knowledge), this is one where I felt the need to make an exception. Not so much because I felt particularly full of expert knowledge on the subject matter but because I felt the need to air a grievance on the topic.

It has to do with shopping. To be specific, shopping with members of the opposite sex. To be even more specific, shopping with members of the opposite sex for unmentionables. Very embarrassing situation for guys to begin with, this exercise is made even more unbearable by the fact that a sort of gender bias applies uniformly in these situations, to the disadvantage of the male species.

Have you ever accompanied a girl on a shopping trip for bras? No? Haha, score one over you. 
But seriously, it’s not that great an experience. For while it’s perfectly all right for a girl to stride over purposefully to the male changing area with the express intention of scrutinizing a guy’s clothes, woe betide the hapless idiot who wanders over to the female changing section even by mistake. He is immediately struck dead in his tracks by a cacophony of indignant hisses and condescending stares from a variety of aunties, stalwarts of an era where interaction between the sexes was strictly regulated and monitored, with lapses in judgment punishable severely.

The segregation starts early on in childhood, with boys and girls seated separately in classrooms and in school buses. While such forced measures never quite stemmed basic human curiosity (games of “I show you mine you show me yours” still happened occasionally) it certainly put a veneer of cultural dis-respectability on the otherwise beautiful woodwork of healthy interaction between sexes.

Leading to inappropriate expressions of repressed sexuality, as humorously caricatured in the clip below from the classic Malayalam movie In Harihar Nagar. The guys are desperately trying to stalk a lady. 


Of course, the veneer has worn thin over the years, especially with society opening up more and more, but one venue where it still clings on strongly is the changing room of apparel stores. This was brought home rather painfully the last time I visited a Marks and Spencer store in the company of my better half in Kerala. While she flitted innocently in and out of the changing area to cast disapproving glances over my choice of pants, I was all but physically accosted out of the female changing rooms when I went to return the favor. The moment I crossed over some invisible moral line separating the male hoi polloi from the rarified atmosphere of the changing section, the cacophony of indignant h. and condescending s. erupted, creating a palpable sonic barrier.

Matters were not made any easier by the presence of these three barely clad mannequins right in front of the changing area. In an attempt to impart a finishing touch to the realistic nature of these plastic goddesses, the manufacturers had also installed nipples on all of their breasts. Not just that- for reasons best known to them, they had ensured that the afore mentioned appendages protruded rather obviously from beneath the sample undergarments the shop had provided them with. 



None of which would have been an issue, had I not been standing immediately to the left of these inanimate beauties as the cacophony erupted. I had fully intended to go see my wife, but, societal disapproval personified by an especially fierce looking aunty roughly half my size was barring my way. She had the loudest h. and s., and seemed to have taken it upon herself to protect delicate sensibilities from being offended that day by yours truly’s bid to see his wife.  It was a potent moment of truth. I felt the pull of a sense of righteous equality dragging me to the changing rooms, while the equally strong push of indignant morality stayed my feet. My wife, blissfully unaware of this epic battle of wills being waged not more than 10 feet away from her, continued shopping. Beads of perspiration rolled down my eyebrows, while the 4 feet bundle of indignant womanliness stood less than a meter from me, daring me mutely to take a step forward or peek a glance into the doorway through which my wife had just disappeared.

I sensed things had come to an impasse. The lady would not let me forward, and my own sense of soon to be injured manliness would not let me back down. In a bid to break this deadlock, I took a contemplative step sideways and promptly crashed into the mannequins, going down in a tangle of arms, legs and protruding nipples, to the accompaniment of a tremendous scream. The aunty, presented with the unique opportunity of helping a fellow human being escape some embarassment, had decided upon a secondary course of action and had let out a magnificent scream ,perhaps in vocal support to the recently violated mute nipples.

Long story short, I am not allowed to shop at Marks and Spencer until July 2017. My wife has promised to stop needling me about it by August of the same year.