morning walks in bangalore

Citizens of Bangalore have been asking the government where the 20,000 crore rupees allocated for road improvement have gone.

Most have concluded that the money is being spent only on roads in the CBD, repairing and beautifying the same stretches over and over.

True.

Every morning, I walk down one of the beautiful sidewalks that stretch out in every direction from my lane, feeling selfishly grateful for the Smart City Project.

Coupled with our famed weather, mornings are wonderful, and walking 5-6 km is a cinch!

As the newspaper article only quotes disgruntled people I feel obliged to add my voice. As a satisfied citizen. I have waited for sidewalks for decades! Walking in other cities, from Los Angeles to Paris to Kuwait City to Ulsan, I have envied residents their pavements. Finally, now, it’s my turn to enjoy them!

These photos are going to be a record of this time, a time when beauty briefly returned to my part of the city, the short honeymoon phase before the BBMP, BWSSB and BESCOM will dig up these roads and sidewalks and leave their usual debris of jumbled cables, unused pipes, broken tiles and heaps of sand, cement and jelly stones interspersed with discarded paper cups and plastic water bottles left by workers.

The second picture, the one in the centre below, is of Primrose Road. This narrow lane was part of my route to work, but I always drove – even though it was less than 2 km – as there was no place to walk.

A lot of work still needs to be done. But each day brings some improvement, so I’m hopeful things will only get better.

of unicorns and other myths

How do archeologists pick up one piece of pottery, sculpture, bone or metal and build such a complicated backstory? I concede there is added input from genetics and linguistics now. Nevertheless, I’m skeptical of some of their conclusions. I’m reading Early Indians by Tony Joseph right now. Though it is an interesting and informative book, there are instances where I simply can’t accept his explanations.

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Why is this a unicorn and not the left profile of a bull or auroch with his horns perfectly aligned? The thing in front of him has to be a sort of feedbag or trough with food in it. Why on earth would anyone place a scorching hot brazier near his delicate dewlap! And if this is supposed to be a unicorn as he says, it makes even less sense. Unicorns in mythology were shy and bolted from humans; they were never domesticated or kept in mangers; they had a single long, ramrod-straight, horn that was twisted like liquorice candy. Maybe a species of Oryx – whose horns were aligned and appeared like a single horn – was mistaken for a rare animal and given a new name.

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(Photo by Sandeep Vatsa)

Below is a seal from Mohenjo-daro. They say it depicts a horned deity under a peepul tree, a worshipper kneeling before her, a ram behind the worshipper, a fish behind the ram, and seven figures standing in a line below all of them. Maybe this frieze is not about a deity at all, maybe this is just art made by the Michelangelo of that place and time.

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What if the images represent constellations? There’s Taurus (the Bull, figure with horns), Aries (the Ram) and Pisces (the Fish) lined up exactly in the order in which they appear in the night sky. The seven figures below are the seven big stars of Orion. I thought they might be Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, but the position is wrong. Besides, the seven demure damsels wouldn’t be chiseled out to look like tough men standing stiffly in a straight line.

The ‘worshipper’ could be Aldebaran, which literally means ‘the follower’ and is in the constellation of Taurus, but that would be carrying my yarn too far.

If I had to name the tapir-like squiggle below the Fish, I might say it’s Cetus, the sea-monster slain by Perseus in Greek mythology, judging by its position.

Seals with this design could be replicas of a record made by an amateur astronomer from his observation of the night sky. In which case, it is Science, not Art or Religion.

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Anyway, why are we so certain that the Indus Valley people were steeped in Religion? Weren’t they busy farming, cooking, cleaning, weaving and stitching together garments out of grass or cotton or whatever, raising kids and commuting to work and back from their fields, just as we are? What we think is their religion might’ve been their literature (their script not having been deciphered yet) or their social life, the temple serving primarily as a community centre, with pooja a small part of it, the way saying grace – which is an extant but unobserved ritual in most religions now – is only one small part of a family’s meal.

The Indus Valley people sent up prayers, for example, to the rain god to bless their crops. How is that different from the various petitions people of all faiths today send up to god on a daily basis? When we say, “God bless you” when someone sneezes it isn’t a religious thing. It’s just an utterance, to be understood in terms of social pragmatics.

Why do we patronise our ancestors like they were intellectual cretins?

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Here’s a picture of columns found at the Harappan site at Dholavira in Gujarat, India. The archeologist’s conclusion is given below the picture.

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This is a picture I took on Residency road, just outside the gates of Bangalore Club, yesterday.

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From this picture we could conclude that the BBMP, which maintains Bangalore’s infrastructure, is a Shiva-worshipping organisation that has put up these phallic symbols across the sidewalk, and while we are at it, wonder why Bangalore Club is the repository of so many animal skulls and a stuffed leopard, and what’s the connection between the phallic structures on the pavement and the skulls in the club’s foyer. Come on! These short columns – that look to me like dock pilings for tying boats to – have apparently been put there to prevent people from driving on sidewalks. So there’s a civic explanation for the columns and the ‘symbols’ have nothing to do with religion!

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paradise lost

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I’ve been here for nearly six weeks now and it’s starting to feel like home. Actually, Kuwait City is a lot like how Bangalore used to be. Bangalore of the seventies, the city where I wish I could live more than anywhere else in the world. Paradise lost, to borrow a phrase from Milton.

Present-day Bangalore is constantly worrying about water from the Cauvery river running out, and of having to share it with Tamil Nadu. There’s plenty of water here in Kuwait City.

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There are fountains dotting the city like in the Bangalore of my childhood. Not a single river flows through this desert land, but the government has set up desalination plants for citizens to get a plentiful supply.

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There’s plenty of space to drive on city roads. No potholes. No jams. People don’t dare run a red light. And the best part is that there’s ample free parking everywhere, the way it used to be in Bangalore.

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My husband and I go for long drives out of the city after dinner and on weekends. Going for a drive after dinner was very much a Bangalore thing to do in the seventies and eighties. The drives here have a magical quality for me, mixed as they are with nostalgia for a way of life that has been gradually stolen from me by Bangalore’s transformation into what is called an IT hub. Those days, no matter which route you took out of town to the open spaces on the outskirts of Bangalore, traffic flowed smoothly and the air smelt fresh.

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We walk a lot because it’s something we love to do, but can’t do in Bangalore any more. The sidewalks are wide, with no missing slabs or uneven bits to trip you up. And well-lit too, if you want to continue walking after dark.

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And no jostling crowds. Again, reminds me of home in the seventies, when I walked to friends’ houses, hobby classes, movie halls — just about everywhere.

I feel bad to say this, but I can’t help thinking of all that I encounter on a morning walk in Bangalore now: construction debris, thick black wires (snaking across the sidewalk, wrapped around trees and lampposts as ugly eyesores, or dangling from trees), packs of snarling stray dogs, garbage heaps, missing slabs, transformer enclosures. . . During peak hours people ride motorcycles on sidewalks to get past jams, so there is an added risk. Walking through a city should not be a dangerous obstacle course.

I don’t smell air pollution while walking here in the city. Undoubtedly, there is some from vehicular exhaust, but it doesn’t envelop and assault me like a living thing, the way it does in Bangalore. There is no smog, and visibility is therefore great.

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I understand that there are no polluting industries here as everything is imported, and the population is a fraction of Bangalore’s, but that doesn’t justify the kind of pollution we are exposed to in Bangalore. And there is practically no noise pollution here as people don’t toot their horns unnecessarily.

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Visual pollution by way of hoardings, and wires crisscrossing the sky giving Bangalore the appearance of a giant spider web (pic below), are both absent here. The street lamps therefore look beautiful (pic above), untethered to masses of black wire as they are back home (pic below).

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There’s no dearth of electricity here. Streets and buildings are well-illuminated.

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Cultural Center in Kuwait City

I am aware that a lot of fossil fuel is being burned to generate all this electricity, going by the armies of pylons and unending lines of electric cables I’ve seen on the outskirts and along highways.

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This troubles me as an earth citizen and I do wish they would think of ways to minimize wastage of electricity and fuel. But the point to note here is that the government spends its petro-dinars to give citizens basic comforts like bijli-sadak-paani (electricity-roads-water), as we say in India, and clean, safe public spaces with well-kept lawns and walkways.

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Sunset behind an army of pylons on the road to Bubiyan island

There is one thing about Kuwait that I wish would change: overuse of plastic. It happens in Bangalore too, but here it is much worse. Every vegetable you buy is bagged in one thin plastic bag, then all your items are put into big, thicker plastic bags at the checkout counter. Yesterday, the bill for my grocery shopping was only 14 KD, but I came home with eight big, thick plastic bags and eleven thin ones! One big bag held just one bottle of cooking oil and another only a bottle of salad dressing and a small can of baked beans! The clerks at the checkout counter look surprised when I try to fit my shopping into fewer bags and I have to go along with them because of the language barrier.

In restaurants, layers of thin plastic sheets are spread on the table. When the table is cleared after a meal leftovers are dumped on the topmost sheet and it is rolled into a bundle and tossed into a bin. So it’s mixed waste. In some restaurants I do see waiters separate food waste from plastic, though. There is a garbage disposal problem here, too, just like in Bangalore, but it is not as visible as it is in Bangalore.

Some people are aware of this, going by an exhibit I saw at the museum at Al Shaheed park, though  the message hasn’t percolated down to the man on the street yet.

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As I said in an earlier post, nothing grows here without effort except date palms. Petunias were planted timed to bloom during Liberation Day weekend, and they did. All over the city.

Geraniums and Oleanders are in bloom now, all carefully irrigated.

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At Al Shaheed park there is such an effort to coax Bauhinia trees to produce flowers (pic below), whereas we in Bangalore can drop a seed anywhere on our fertile soil and have it sprout a healthy little shoot and grow into a tree in no time, with practically no tending.

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But what do we do? We chop off fully grown trees to make way for flyovers of highly doubtful utility.

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Tabebuias in Cubbon Park, Bangalore

There’s one important principle that I feel the Kuwaitis have understood and adopted: maintenance. Erecting buildings, putting up fancy lights and water features is all very well, but what a wasted effort if most of the light bulbs don’t work and the paint job develops patches after one monsoon, and the water feature becomes a cesspool for mosquitoes to breed. This is what happens in Bangalore. Nothing appears neglected here, at least in the downtown area where I stay.

However, there’s one thing Bangalore and Kuwait City have in common at present: a dedicated band of Harley-Davidson worshippers!

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I hope Kuwait City continues to stay this way and I can keep coming here for a break whenever Bangalore feels too claustrophobic. This city doesn’t seem in danger of being turned into an IT hub, so it’s safe from the sort of ruinous growth that the government in Bangalore considers progress and development.

google

Somehow I’ve always imagined google as a supercilious, snickering Peter Pan-like young person sitting cross-legged in there, in the box-shaped computer I had twenty years back, rolling his eyes at my ignorance. From the beginning, this unconscious conceptualization of google automatically restricted what I typed in the search bar. Asking the internet to connect me to a site felt a lot like asking the operator of a landline phone to connect me to another landline number in the old days; the operator could listen in if she wanted to.

There is one more thing: I have had young  patients proudly tell me that they are hackers, and good at it too! And I have no reason to doubt them as they are smart graduates from the IITs. The first time someone told me this was some fifteen years ago. It destroyed my faith in passwords and encryption for good. Decoding these security measures is obviously child’s play to some.

If I need to look up a word I use a dictionary out of sheer habit, though I’ve started using google more without realizing it. I think that’s how google creeps into people’s lives and makes itself indispensable. Speaking of words, I’m fascinated by cognates, and finding them is a zigzagging path. Does chasing after me through this help google? I still rely entirely on google for things like how to pronounce  Czicksentmihalee, though, and I’m willing to do that. But if google wants to know why I need this, well, it’s just curiosity, nothing more.

I often use google to look up random factoids that have puzzled me through the day, things I’ve come across in conversations or on TV. So the things I investigate using google are completely irrelevant to my life, and can’t be the basis for ads. And most of the things I look up are from a check-list of unrelated topics. I am just browsing, not doing serious research. Like browsing in a mall. Incidentally, why do mall-owners count footfalls to gauge how the businesses that operate from them are doing? What exactly does it tell them? That people browsed, or people shopped? Or do they subtract browsers from the total and decide that these are prospective buyers that they can lie in wait for and eventually entrap into buying? In how many ways are we being watched?!

Back to google. I often look up the same article many times on different days because I might need to confirm only one particular bit of information from it. When I’ve gone into ‘show full history’ to trace some lost thread of thought I’ve seen how ridiculous it looks that I’ve opened the same page a million times. What does google make of it? And if I’ve been using google on my touchscreen cellphone, don’t even ask! Every clumsy finger movement opens a site that means nothing to me, but might mean something to google if it is snooping. I also wonder, does the time lapse mean anything to google if I leave a page open for a long time while I go into the kitchen to make some coffee?

I read a lot about religion because I can’t get over how much violence it has unleashed over the millennia, when it is actually supposed to bring peace. So I’m not religious, but google might think I am.

I am a news junkie and follow politics, especially Indian politics, but I’m not interested in raising a ruckus about anything. I already know that I don’t count and what I think doesn’t make a whit of difference to the political scene. I don’t think much of politicians (except Shashi Tharoor’s speeches on Indian history), but I read about their antics anyway. So what does google think is my political affiliation? A friend of mine talks about politicians referencing the astrology site carta natal es, so I’ve been visiting that site, but that doesn’t mean an astro-reading ad will grab my eyeballs. I might search for information about weapons in relation to a novel I’m reading, and google might misunderstand my intentions. So too with suicide, a topic that I need to visit now and then for professional reasons.

So, I have no idea how the data generated by my haphazard browsing helps google.

Apparently google needs to know me well so that it can pitch appropriate ads to me. I live in Bangalore, a city whose skyline is made up entirely of ads, monstrously large billboards that I never look at, or even notice anymore. So advertisements are wasted on me. I just peep around them or scroll down reflexly and never really see them. If an ad stubbornly refuses to disappear I close the page and find the information elsewhere. I’ve also become adept at clicking on the X mark using peripheral vision to close any nonsense that pops up.

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Billboards cluttering Bangalore’s skyline

I don’t use google to look for things to buy, places to eat at, places to visit, books to read, or movies to watch. I get these from newspapers and friends. I prefer to ask friends about these things over a cup of coffee at Hatti Kaapi or A2B in Bangalore, rather than turn to google for everything. It’s much nicer. Same way, I shop at small stores because they’re more interesting, plus the idea of these hardworking, cheerful people losing their livelihood to Amazon and BigBasket makes me feel bad. Variety, rather than the sameness of chain stores, is what I’d like to preserve. A little searching and serendipitous discovery is more fun, like finding a wonderful book while browsing in a bookshop. Google and the rest are taking this away.

On top of all this, I now have the troubling knowledge that my browsing patterns are being parsed by google to understand my thought processes and influence me through its advertisements to generate revenue for itself.

Google assures us of security:

‘Encryption brings a higher level of security and privacy to our services. When you do things like send an email, share a video, visit a website, or store your photos, the data you create moves between your device, Google services, and our data centers. We protect this data with multiple layers of security, including leading encryption technology like HTTPS and Transport Layer Security.’

That’s why it feels like a case of the fence eating the crop, or my own security guard robbing my house. That’s why it feels like a betrayal, though google openly admits that it uses the advertising model for revenue. To me that translates into “Okay, so some ads will appear when I’m reading something? Cool.” It doesn’t convey that I’ll be watched so closely, like a hunter following his prey.

lonely in an empty nest

Years ago, when I first heard about Bhutan being more concerned about the Gross National Happiness Index than about the GDP, unlike the rest of the countries in the world, I thought how idealistic and lovely that was. The king of Bhutan seemed to have his heart in the right place.

The initiative by Teresa May to appoint a Minister of Loneliness feels somewhat like that, though I also get that there is a practical necessity to take care of the more than ten million people aged over sixty-five living in the UK, many of them staying alone. This is a great idea if it can be implemented effectively.

As a psychiatrist I often see people who are desperately lonely. In recent years there’s been a spurt in the number of one group of people from tier-2 cities and small towns coming for a consultation. They are parents of techies working here in Bangalore, visiting their children. They usually have one or two more children that have settled down permanently in the US, so all of their children are physically distant.

This is roughly how the story goes. In phone conversations one parent, say the mother, tells her children that she feels sad a lot of the time. So the son/daughter that lives in India invites both parents to come and stay with them for a change of scene – spend time with grandchildren, go on a short holiday, etc. While here in Bangalore, they decide that she should have a psychiatric consultation to treat the ‘depression’ so that she can go back home in a happier frame of mind.

This group is a new demographic in India: parents of people who have moved permanently to the US or elsewhere. These people’s problem is a catch-22 situation. They have worked hard to ensure their kids’ success, including a farewell to India, and are now left alone and lonely precisely because they have succeeded in sending their kids to greener pastures far from home. If the kids hadn’t been so very successful, they would have been living near them, but perish the thought.

Typically, the father might be a retired bank manager, or something similar, his only goal throughout life having been to earn and save, so his kids would have a better life. The mother might be a homemaker whose life revolved around her children and home. Of course, they are genuinely happy and proud that their children are successful, but this wasn’t exactly how their own lives were meant to pan out, was it? How did life as a happy family end so fast? That’s the unspoken question in their eyes.

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Their kids’ successful lives are now being played out in a faraway country. They miss seeing their grandchildren grow, they miss being part of their children’s lives. They see them in pictures on whatsapp, talk to them on facetime, go stay with them and experience a small slice of their lives, and return to India to their silent, empty homes. Some get green cards and emigrate, but I’m not sure that can work for everyone.

Separation. Sadness. Loneliness. It is the zeitgeist. The days of three-generational families are long gone. In the bigger Indian cities there are apparently NRI Parents Organisations to help meet the social needs of people whose children have settled abroad, but not in smaller cities and towns.

There’s only a little bit I can do for them, like listen, give a couple of practical suggestions, and draw their attention to the good things in their lives here.

There is so much written about how social connections and volunteering are the most effective protection against loneliness, but this is easier said than done for many of the people I see. They already have plenty of relatives, neighbours and friends for company. But the hole in their hearts can only be filled by the children whose faces they long to see, and whose stomachs they long to fill with good home-cooked food. When their children visit with their families, they find themselves unable to connect with their grandchildren because there is nothing Indian and relatable about them after they cross the toddler stage, and there is often a language barrier as well.

What usually happens at the end of a consultation is that they ask if they can meet me again, because talking has made them feel better. I say of course they can, and they look relieved. They come back a couple of times more before they have to leave Bangalore. They talk, they just pour out their feelings. Existential despair is not far beneath the surface, and I see that what keeps them from being overwhelmed is the firm belief that they did the right thing by their kids. I guess I tacitly reinforce this one strength they have, and I guess that helps. I don’t know for how long, but I hope it endures until they find something to get involved in when they get back home. Angst is part of the human condition and everyone goes through bouts of it in some form, some time. There is no diagnostic category for loneliness in DSM-5 because it is not a mental disorder, and loneliness is not the same as clinical depression, though it can lead to it over time.

So, well, I think having a minister in charge of garnering information on loneliness – and what to do about it – is an idea whose time has come. It is a public mental health problem, not a psychiatric one, so the approach taken by Teresa May to gather input from various sources is sound. In terms of how this idea applies to India, I don’t know. It is likely to be low on our government’s list of priorities because of two reasons: one, there are much bigger issues like farmer suicides, and two, there are far fewer people living alone and lonely in this country than in the UK.

Two months ago my friend Ruby and I met a 79-year-old British woman, Marion, who was on a visit to Bangalore. We spent a a little time chatting in a coffee-shop near by. The next morning she came with me to the lake when I went for my daily walk, a camera slung around her neck. She busily took pictures, her new pastime. I came to know she lives alone with her cat, Daisy, near London. She has a group of friends around her age who meet in a hobby circle every week, and since longevity runs in her family, she’s got relatives who are really old too… When I e-mailed her to wish her at Christmas she told me she was going to Southampton to spend the holiday with her brother who is in his eighties. So I quite understand how this could work in the UK, for everyone nearing eighty may not be as spry and self-sufficient as my new friend.

 

unsafe in the city

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In the ­­­last post I wrote, I had inadvertently put myself in harm’s way. I was in a foreign country, I didn’t know the language and I was walking alone on a deserted road with the sun sliding rapidly towards the horizon.

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The walk would have been wonderful if I had felt safe. There was no traffic noise. The pavement was wide and even. The cool breeze and the mellow light of the setting sun added to the sense of comfort and peace that the nuns had instilled in me. It was a perfect evening. But for the silly man prattling away behind me and giving me the jitters, it would have been a perfect walk. He completely ruined the experience for me, and caused me to have nightmares for days thereafter.

Newspapers often carry stories of women being accosted or molested or having their outings and peace of mind ruined by men whose attentions they don’t want.

In my city, Bangalore, I have encountered men who stared, or violated my personal space, sometimes even completely obliterating it, by passing too close on the sidewalk for example. Last month, at the Metro station, I noticed a man standing hardly fifteen feet away, staring at me. And there was nothing wrong with my clothes either, just straight cut jeans and a long, loose, full-sleeved printed cotton shirt.

These men are known as miscreants to police, perpetrators to crime investigators, perverts to the general public, creeps to girls, and frustrated losers to married women who expect to be left alone by virtue of their mangalsutras or wedding rings. To psychiatrists they are known as people with paraphilic disorders. Some of them could be diagnosed as personality disorders, impulse-control disorders or compulsives of a sort. But the issue is not tidily sorted. Controversies exist in the mental health field about classifying and managing them.

These are men who will never understand #i will wear what I want. They will see it as a challenge. They may crack risqué jokes about it. To them, every female is fair game. Some of the worst abuses in Hindi and English probably reflect the existence of such people.

I’m aware that there are deviant, depraved and even frankly deranged people around. Just as people with anti-social personality disorder – more commonly known as psychopaths – exist and should be avoided, I believe deviants should be avoided too. They are an ineradicable section of human society regardless of country and form of government. Personally, rather than make myself vulnerable, I try to avoid places where they are likely to operate. Of course, they often strike in the most unexpected places as any Bangalore girl will tell you. I used to think there was safety in groups, but I realised later on that when a mob runs amok, groups get broken up and stampedes and free-for-alls can follow. So I don’t go to crowded places at all. Nor to deserted places. This works for me as it suits my lifestyle. But I know this cannot be a solution for everyone.

I think there is a limit to what the police can do because a large amount of security would be needed to protect vulnerable individuals in a crowd. As paraphilics show no outer signs of their intentions, and commit crimes with their bare hands, what sort of security measures are possible? The US Department of Homeland Security is apparently working on something called Project Hostile Intent to improve airport security. Maybe we need something like that.

Even when a complaint is filed, the victim is often unable to convey information clearly or identify the perpetrator; prima facie evidence is not always sufficient to implicate a perpetrator; cctv footage, when available, is not always clear; forensic evidence may be unavailable, depending on the type of paraphilic behaviour indulged in by the miscreant. And the police have to be fair to the accused and cannot assume he is guilty.

Women are trying to address this problem through various campaigns. Protest marches help raise awareness in an evolving society. They draw attention to the lack of safety in public spaces and the consequent distress women go through. Men are supporting these campaigns too. But everybody has to agree that wanting to feel safe in a city is a normal expectation, and that culture and tradition will not be eroded if women feel safe and free to go out at night. That includes ministers, cops and people who don’t see the need for the sort of freedom being sought by the campaigning groups. Maybe therein lies the rub.

Hopefully, laws will be laid down – and implemented – to check miscreants, and society will gradually change. Or rather, soon change. One day, hopefully, people will learn to live and let live, and not make value judgments about others.

(Photo by Chandrika Rao)

friends you haven’t met yet

“There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.” So said William Butler Yeats.

We were at the wedding of the daughter of our friends, Tushar and Sunetra, both astrophysicists. A couple and their tween son sat close to the havankund watching the ceremony very attentively. The man and boy were dressed in kurta-pajama, the woman in a blue sari. They seemed to be North Indians.

At lunch my husband and I were seated beside them. We introduced ourselves. They were from Mexico! Armando, Patti and Emilio. Armando is an astrophysicist and has collaborated with Sunetra on several projects – that’s how they knew each other. We chatted about our kids, professions, had they been to Bangalore before, places we had visited in Latin America, things like that. I told Patti about a singer I used to like and before we knew it we were softly singing old Spanish songs together!

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It was 1994. My husband, I and our little son were in a taxi driving along the bridge across Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. There was music playing in the taxi. I don’t have an ear for music at all, so I was surprised to find myself enjoying these songs – lyrics, guitar, the voice. I asked the driver who the singer was. It was Leo Dan. I bought a couple of cassettes in Maracaibo and listened to them so often that I learnt to sing many of them completely. A few years ago I used the internet to get the lyrics right.

Those were the songs Patti and I sang that day. We had fun doing that, thanks to an Argentinian singer that nobody in India has heard of. ¡Qué raro!

My husband and I had lunch with them the next day and met for coffee another time. It’s strange how you sometimes really hit it off with strangers. The interaction is light and easy as there’s no history, I guess.

We now have an invitation to visit them in Mexico City for a holiday. Maybe we will. Someday. I’ve always had this notion that I’ve spent an earlier lifetime on Earth as a Latina, which explains why I took a fancy to Español although I’m not good at picking up languages, and responded with pleasure to Spanish music despite being tone-deaf!

a boy on a motorcycle

This happened in the eighties.

My moped unexpectedly broke down on a busy road when I was returning home from work. It was late afternoon, about 4 o’ clock. I wheeled it into the yard of a vacant wedding hall, parked it and stood there wondering what to do. Two boys of around my age made a sudden noisy appearance from behind the wedding hall on a motorbike. One of them asked, “You need help?”

All that black leather and menace scared me a bit. Maintaining a neutral expression I said, “My bike came back from servicing only yesterday, so I don’t think the spark-plug or carburettor could be a problem. And I filled petrol today so the tank’s full…”

He said, “I know a mechanic across this road. Let’s go there.” While his silent friend took their bike, the boy who did the talking released my bike from its stand and began wheeling it. We introduced ourselves as we walked. His name was Vinay. From his surname we found out he was related to my maternal cousin on her father’s side!

We reached the garage. He handed my bike over to the mechanic while I leaned against the gate of the house next door. I had started to feel giddy. Being an intern in the Paediatrics department of a busy hospital often meant missed lunches on crowded OPD days. This had been one of those days. A woman came out of the house and asked me what was wrong, as I had started swaying. I asked for a glass of water with a spoon of sugar. She asked me in and insisted on making dosas for me. I complied. I was too hypoglycaemic and close to fainting to resist.

I felt much better after that meal of three dosas and a tumbler of coffee! I thanked her from the bottom of my heart – I mean who does such things? On second thought, my mother might have done the same. Maybe others would have too then, when Bangalore used to be a nice city.

When I came out into the street Vinay and his friend were astride their bike, about to leave. “It’s fixed!” he called out with a big grin and a thumbs-up. I said, “Thanks. How much do I owe him?” With a dismissive wave of his hand and mischief in his green eyes, he said, “What’s ten bucks between friends?!” Still smiling, he took off with a screech of tyres and that awful noise that bikes without a silencer make.

***************

I bumped into Vinay a couple of times after that. We would just smile and say “Hi, how are you?” and walk on.

I left Bangalore a couple of years later. I had told my cousin about the bike incident so she kind of kept an ear open when his name was mentioned at their family gatherings. In those days of snail-mail my cousin and I didn’t keep in regular touch, only met when I came to Bangalore. On one such visit I asked her about Vinay. She said, “He died!” I was shocked. Apparently he had belonged to a ‘drug gang’ and he and his bike had been set ablaze by a rival gang. I couldn’t reconcile the two: the memory of that smiling, carefree boy and this image of a helpless, terrified boy screaming in pain, battling flames…

Eventually I asked, “So what happened? Police and all?”

She replied, “Oh, nothing. Cops don’t care when such people are murdered.”

Such people…

She realised what I was thinking. “Yeah, I know… You only met his good side…”

I was numb. The whole sequence of events – from the moment my moped broke down to when he cheerfully waved goodbye from his noisy bike – unspooled like a film in my mind. I felt a terrible sadness wash over me.

It fleetingly does so even now when a youngster on a noisy motorcycle passes my car at a reckless speed. Or when I come across news snippets of drug-related murders involving teenagers. And then I catch myself indulging in magical thinking, wishing away the whole supply of street drugs into space, to go orbit in a new ring around Saturn.