Tuesday, March 31, 2009

To Lavasa and back for a cause

The alarm clock going off at 5 am on a Sunday morning was not a mistake. It was all for a cause. It was Sunday, March 29th 2009, the day slated for the The Lavasa Women’s Car Drive, as it was titled, a car rally, exclusively for women, to raise awareness for Breast Cancer.
They came in droves. (Okay, bad pun, but it was irresistible!) 250 cars. More than 500 women. 2, 3, 4 per car. All shapes, sizes and ages, in white T shirts and caps. All sizes of cars! From Innovas to Wagon Rs. Some decorated (with even coordinated outfits!). Nothing was stopping these women from getting behind the wheel on a Sunday.
We were part of it. I was a designated co-passenger – happy to be that since this was the first time I was participating in a rally like this. With an efficient driver and an experienced navigator, we were confident, excited and …set!
The organising committee had done, to my mind, a fairly well-thought out job. While a Tetley promotion offered hot tea in the early morning to women who had just flung together their things and come in at 6:30 am (like us), what was the logical next step was also provided for! Portable loos! I am sure some women were part of this kind of thinking.
Ajay Devgan and other celebs waved off some cars. Missed ours by 2. Their loss, we believe.
Each car was well numbered and stickered and waved off pretty much on time. We were flagged off, armed with what was called a Tulip chart. Honestly, I believe the organisers were very brave. Alternatively, they were very smart. But I’ll come to that later. Let me talk about bravery first.
Imagine unleashing 250 women drivers into the so-called wilderness of Mumbai and Pune without a map – only a chart with navigation symbols and speed limits! Requires an act of courage. Then again, they were smart. Look at it this way, no woman is afraid of getting lost, and having got lost, stopping and asking for directions. If they had given us a map, it would have probably not been even the slight challenge it was!
The drive was largely a test of navigational skills and disciplined driving. At some points, impatient as we are, going at 60 kmph was really really slow. Climbing at 20 was even more frustrating. And going on an open road at 40 must have caused quite some hair pulling with other women, besides us. But the beauty of it was, that it was an unhurried drive and I think that accounted for the lack of mishaps on the way up.
The entire route was well manned by Safety Marshalls. We stopped at each of these and got clocked in from point to point. For the steep climb nearing Lavasa, there were even more yellow flagbearers egging us on and watching out for us.
We reached Lavasa in about 5 and a half hours with a timed 20 minute break in between. While Lavasa is beautiful, it was way too hot and someone thoughtful had organised a ‘golawala’! Crushed ice with kala khatta… that was a brilliant way to cool off in the 2 pm sun! Lunch was well organised too and with adequate facilities to accommodate the numbers.
A quick lunch, a quick look around without suffering the heat, and we decided we would wend our way back to Mumbai in good time. I took the wheel this time (there were no speed limits now!) and drove all the way back to Mumbai in about four and a half hours (accounting for Mumbai traffic on a Sunday evening).
On the way down, we were still meeting cars going up, the drivers cheerfully waving to us. We, on our part, waved back, wished them luck and prayed for their safety.
What was beautiful in all this was the spirit in which the whole event was conducted and the way in which it was taken. There was general goodwill around from the start to well after the finish. The spirit was one of camaraderie rather than competitiveness, which was so nice. Our number was 39. As we slid into a parking slot when we reached Lavasa, Car No. 12 (which technically should have been way before us) cheerfully welcomes us and says “Thank you for keeping us company throughout the way!”
This was an event for a cause. And the best part is all the participants got it. The winners are still to be announced. But for those who were there that day, participation and the spirit in which it took place was a victory in itself.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reverse Psychology

The drive has been pretty uneventful to the office and as I slide into the basement parking, I deftly manoeuvre the car into a parking slot closest to the elevator exit. I get off, lock the car with a flourish and smile with satisfaction. The car, once again, has not been parked straight. It’s at an angle… after all, I cannot for the life of me reverse straight into a parking slot.
I learnt driving over 20 years ago. In the lunch break. That allowed you 45 minutes of driving, in peak hour traffic in South Bombay. 20 days and you got your licence. I did get my licence because during my driving test all I had to do was drive forward. Easy. And there I was, no mean thing on the road, because I drove well, I drove fast and drove adeptly, what if it was only forwards.
Several books and authors will tell you, women were not born to reverse cars. (Reverse fortunes, maybe, cars, no). I do have close friends and sisters who could reverse with their eyes closed (a bit of an exaggeration there, but then what are sisters for!). But me? No way. I just cannot reverse straight.
I have tried everything, while parking. Making that perfect Y turn to get into a pint-sized parking slot. By the time I go back and forth with the car, I have finished making an N, an M and maybe an X or evenan S! But I will not have succeeded making a perfect Y and parking the car straight into the slot.
See a woman struggling with parking and most men, like knights in shining armour, come to the rescue. By the time I have reversed into a parking slot, I have everybody’s driver and his uncle, helping me with, “Madam, aise ghumao, phir fullll turn maro, phir left, ab thoda seedha, ab pooora ghumao”. At the end of this the only thing ghumoing is my head. It’s spinning and after all this when I come out of the car, I see dejected faces accepting their failure, I smile and look. My car is still at an angle after so much of Chandu Deriver Coaching Kilass.
There was a time when reversing was not so much of a problem: the time when I had a driver. But once in a way even a driver needs a day off and on those days, reversing into my parking place when I came home in the evening was solely my job. After one such day off, my driver came up fuming the next morning when he saw the car. As possessive about the car, as if it was his, he told me in an unmistakably accusatory tone: the car has been scratched. And it was obvious to his keen driver eye that that had happened on a pillar in the building. Bad reversing, he must have thought. Almost feeling guilty about not taking care of his car while he was off duty, I promptly denied the charge and said I had nothing to do with it. But through the day the scratch weighed on my mind.
I tried to think of the day before. I knew for a fact that the car had been parked on the road outside the office. It could have been an errant vehicle. But then it should have been a dent, I reasoned. This was clearly the scratch mark scraping a pillar would give you. And with two pillars to manoeuvre through while getting in to my building, that would have been the perfect explanation. Only it had not happened when I was driving the car because that was forward driving and I could do it with relative ease with just an inch to spare on either side.

And yet the car was scratched. Till it struck me! And I smiled. I asked the driver only one question. And when he replied, I told him what had happened. He nodded in complete agreement. When I reached home, I asked my son if he had secretly taken the car for a spin at night. He blushed. “Yes,” he hesitated, “I meant to tell you about that scratch on the pillar, I couldn’t get it quite right.” Then it struck him. “But wait… how did you guess it was me?”
I smiled. I didn’t tell him how. That was a mother’s secret.
The car had been reversed into the parking space, perfectly straight.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Breed Apart : The Parsis

I wrote this four years ago. But seems that it holds true for an eternity. I know I promised a series... time to write Part Two... but till then here's my post on the Parsis.


My first contact with the Parsi community was in fact not really a contact at all. It was with Adi Marzban, his plays with his troupe of extremely talented actors. As a family who laughed together, my parents always made it a point to take us for Adi Marzban’s hilarious comedies in Parsi Gujarati. As children, my siblings and I looked forward to these shows. It meant an evening of endless laughter. But we knew that when we came home it would be even more fun as we imitated some of the punch lines and collapsed laughing. I think the term ROTFL in the internet parlance must have struck someone who had just witnessed an Adi Marzban play. The humour was priceless, the actors meticulous in their timing, the plots as interwoven as a Shakespeare’s comedy of errors.

Over time, my contact with the community grew with history and historical figures.
In school one of my favourite teachers in English was a Parsi. My love and respect for the language grew with my love and respect for her. Thanks Mrs. Ginwalla.

In college, studying literature in my final year, Shakespeare’s plays went on to quite another level, thanks again to Ms. Patel, our professor of English. She was as English as… as the Queen, as I was to later discover. She believed one assimilated literature at its best in the midst of nature. So off we would go to the lawns for the 8 am class, sit in the dewy grass in the gentle early morning sun. When I looked around there was one student for her class besides me, but that did not seem to deter Ms. Patel. She taught with as much fervor and passion as if she had an entire audience of a concert hall. With her teaching, everything came alive. Spenser and Chaucer even with their antiquated English became less mysterious, and Shakespeare grew in stature not just as a playwright but as someone whose wisdom would last us a lifetime. (So far it has lasted me!)

As we neared our graduation, we were invited for English High Tea at Ms. Patel’s house, an annual ritual for her graduating students. It was wonderful to see her without her book in hand as we gaped in awe in her typical Parsi home. The High Tea was as English as you got, bite-sized cucumber sandwiches and mild English service tea served in the finest of china. But what took the cake (literally) was a beautifully framed photograph of the Queen on her mantelpiece. I looked closer, and gasped. It was Ms. Patel herself, replete with crown and bejeweled collar and an expression no less royal than the Queen’s!

Ms. Patel took on a regal stature for all of us that day. To this day, if I do see a Shakespeare performance, I silently thank Ms. Patel for inculcating that love for fine literature in me with her unmatched passion for the English and their literature. Once again, Ms. Patel, thank you!

Then I entered my first job and, (you guessed it,) my boss was a Parsi. To this date, I attribute my not having ulcers, in spite of being so long in the advertising industry, to him. Thanks, Bahadur. Bahadur was your quintessential Parsi. Fun, fun-loving, but righteous, creative but rooted to the ground, a boss and a wonderful friend at the same time. Every time you were tense, he had something light hearted to say to ease the tension. And when the servicing team came attacking, he had something funny to say to defuse the tension. One group laugh later, everything was in its place. Bahadur regaled us with stories of his mother, his family and his quintessential Parsi-ness! He started every explanation with, “See, we Parsis….”

His positive attitude to life, took a lighthearted look at pain, even at death. Once he was hospitalized for a barium enema test. Very painful would have been anyone else’s verdict. But Bahadur came back with an unmistakably graphic version, “Basket!” (that was Bahadur’s version of Bas_ _ _ _ !) “The pain was so much, I could see the vultures circling above!”

As time wore on and I went on to meet more and more Parsis, I grew to appreciate some characteristics that they were born with. Righteousness was one. If you see a street fight, and a Parsi involved, you can take it with your eyes closed that he is not part of the warring faction but is justly on the side of the right, no matter who that is.

Parsis have a fierce sense of fairness, and coupled with their outspoken attitude it almost seems rude to a point. But to date, I still have to find a rude Parsi! Chances are you’ve not met one either.
Then there’s the Parsi love for food. It’s almost infectious, so much so that, even as a vegetarian, you start appreciating patra ni machchi and marghi na farcha! Time permitting, a Parsi will go to any lengths for good food, like from Goregaon to Britannia (Ballard Estate) for the famous Berry Pulao!
And bringing all these and more qualities together was a colleague and art partner who I worked extensively with. Thank you, Nilufer. Nilufer was so lovably Parsi, in her passionate love for her work, her fierce attention to detail, her innate sense of right and wrong, her fair sense of justice, and her soft heartedness for anyone or any creature who was suffering. But combine all these qualities, and she got on to the wrong side of someone or the other in a working day. Either it was the studio operator who had to redo a paragraph about 13 times because it was not up to the mark. (No chalta hai for Nilufer). Or it was the production person who had not managed the right shade of colour. (Nai Nai Kulkarni, yeh unnis bees nahin chalega) But no one could argue with her. Mainly because she was right.

So it would all come to me, being her copy partner. “Why don’t you explain to her?” they would plead with me urgently. And for that I had a ready answer, which no one ever debated. I’d simply shake my head, smile angelically and say, “I can’t. You see, she’s a Parsi.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Déjà vu. Have you been there before?

No I had not seen it before. (But I could have had.)
I watched the film Déjà vu last night and it kind of blew me away.
The plot synopsis goes like this. A ferry taking soldiers of USS Nimitz and their families blows up just a little after it sets sail. Investigations reveal it was a terror attack. And while it is great to be wiser after the event, ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) thinks better. With the help of the FBI and what is known as spacefolding technology, they go back in time to reconstruct the event. Till Doug realizes that they could use the same technology to send him back in time to change the course of events.
Simple enough in principle.
We’ve always talked about time changing the course of history. Here’s history changing the course of time. Imagine now going back in time (into a parallel universe) after an event has occurred and changing it to a better or at least a less horrific one.
The whole concept of time being perceived as linear, but not necessarily being so, was not really alien to me. But the way it was portrayed in the film was an absolute stunner.
The beginning is just a collage of shots of the people getting on to the ferry. As you watch it you feel the treatment is to give you an idea of what is happening in and around the ship. But when time comes back a full circle, with Doug Carlin having time-travelled back, the very same collage flashes before your eyes. Déjà vu? Well yes, big time and eerily now you are part of it.
The film moves at a rapid pace between past, recent past and present. Somewhere the present is the future and somewhere it is the past and you get caught in the time warp as much as the characters in the film are till the edge-of-the-seat experience ends with once again an explosion. As a sort of anti-climax there is another déjà vu shot of anxious relatives at the pier. The aged mother. A pair of white knuckles clutching the railing. Weeping relatives. You’ve been there before you think, and sure enough you have.
Denzel Washington is his understated best. Though I can say (and my women friends will agree) that the understatement in the film is when his colleague is asked by Claire to describe him and he says: 6’3. Black. Not bad-looking!
Paula Patton as Claire Kutchever puts in a convincing performance. Wonder why we haven’t seen her too often after this film. The rest of the cast is also convincing.
On a lazy Sunday, I’d like to see the film again. But I am wondering...
Would that give me a feeling of Déjà vu?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Music for the mind

A familiar song plays in the distance and instead of the words coming to my mind, what hovers large is the memory of a friend. And it’s not as if it’s a song that the friend and I have shared. It’s some random association with the friend. Sometimes it’s a word. A sentence. A tune. Sometimes even an accent.

For instance, for that friend in the UK, it’s a song that has a nasal twang. It’s not as if the song or the words have any significance. But every time I hear that song I think of this particular friend.

Then there’s a CD I bought on one of my memorable holidays. As soon the first notes of the first song play I am transported there… my mind is on a holiday… Happy days!

And of course who does not associate at least one Hindi movie song with a friend. Years ago in school, my friend and I were given a task by her mother: to take her younger brother for a popular Hindi movie running full houses at that time. Pseudo-intellectuals that we were at that time, we decided that since we did not want to watch the movie but it was mandatory, we’d have our fun by singing the chorus in the songs aloud. That we embarrassed little brother was one thing, but somehow the song stuck in my head and being one of those eternally hit songs of the Hindi filmdom, every time I hear the strains of that song being played I think of my friend and her brother.

Then there is this song which reminds me of my son. Funny story there. I heard it on a cd he had recorded for himself and played in the car while I was driving. I asked him to record it for me too. He stubbornly refused. Why? I asked. The reason was somewhat logical in its eccentricity. He said that he and I were not supposed to like the same music, because then where was the generation gap! Well, really! (I now call it the Generation Gap song!)

I once wrote about a song that I heard similarly on my car CD player. My daughter was so proud I actually wrote about an alternative rock song that it gave her bragging rights in her peer group. Her friends looked at me with renewed interest and greater respect and bemoaned the fact that their mothers would not even think of hearing that song. I smiled. That song, you are right, is now inextricably linked to my daughter.

And so it goes on. One never knows when a new association will crop up. And then, song, note, tune, language, accent, meaning… all get inextricably entwined with memories, feelings, people – still around and long gone. And even when the last note of the song dies down and I can’t hear it anymore, that music continues playing on the chords of my mind.
Isn’t music as much for the heart as it is for the mind?