Friday, March 20, 2015

The Mysterious Sadhu

Image source (Nat Geo Traveller)

Authors Note:

One of my short stories was recently published in a National Geographic feature on “Travellers' Tales Of Ghosts, Ghouls And Things That Go Bump In The Night “.  The full feature can be seen here. I am reproducing my contribution for the convenience of my readers.

But wait. Why should you read this spooky account yet again - assuming you are one of my numerous friends and readers who have already sent me kudos message for my first byline in a major publication?

Because I am going to share the insider scoop. The story behind the screens. The things that did not make it into the 250 words that got published. 

I must pause here to reiterate to the readers that (almost) all this is indeed a true incident.  

Railway Station, Bilaspur, Madhya Pradesh
Sarnath Express was my third home. Shuttling between my engineering college in Varanasi and my hometown Bilaspur, I had spent a staggering amount of time in that particular train. 
This fact could be attributed to the temperament of the train more than to the frequency of my travel. The train, when at its best cheerful self, would merrily sprint between the two stations in little over twelve hours. But Sarnath express was not a cheerful train. It was mostly somberly depressed, revolting and lazy. Almost suicidal.
The train would pull up at the Bilaspur station, shy, reluctant and quite behind schedule. It would than start a leisurely stroll towards Varanasi, its destination. Occasionally breaking into a jog it would abruptly start walking to catch its breath before coming to a complete stop to let another train run by. The fourteen hours journey usually spread out to eighteen and sometime even twenty hours.
Today the train screeched into the station ten minutes before schedule. I was happily alarmed by the fact because this had happened first time the last three and half years I had been traveling on the train. I hopped into my compartment, and right as the clock stuck eight, the scheduled departure time of the train, the train jerked forward, accelerated rapidly and zoomed out of the station. 
The eternally depressed Sarnath express was on Prosaic today!

(The following piece was published in the Nat Geo feature)
En route Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
I was travelling to Benares. It was close to ten o’clock on a warm night and I was shuffling restlessly on the upper berth in a three-tier compartment of the Sarnath Express, which was due to reach the holy city the next morning. Sweaty and uncomfortable, I decided to get some fresh air.
Walking to the entrance of the compartment, I unlatched and swung the main door open. The train slowed down a bit. We were going through a dense forest; the smoky smell of sal trees poured into the compartment.
“Alakh Niranjan!” Startled by the salutation, I hurriedly looked back. A young ascetic stood behind me. He had long hair and intense, friendly eyes. Unlike the usual sadhus I've seen, he was clean-shaven and had long, neatly combed hair that fell on the shawl around his shoulders.
“Go and sleep,” he said, unblinking, “You want to see Ganga Maiya tomorrow, don’t you?”
I am not sure what overcame me, but I silently obeyed. Closing the door, I went back up my berth. In less than a minute, there was a loud screech, and amid screams of “Accident! Accident!” the train’s lights went off. Our compartment, already tilted at a very acute angle, rolled over on its side as it toppled down the track.
We were eventually rescued. The side of the compartment where I was standing just before the accident, was totally crushed. I searched for the sadhu but could not locate him among the alive or the dead.
–Prithvi Raj Banerjee

(Continuing with the behind the screen scoop)
On the railway tracks, somewhere near Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh

As our compartment toppled down the embankment of the elevated railway tracks, I was thinking about … well frankly nothing... because, I admit, I was shit scared to even think.

Though I did have a confirmation of my theory about the ‘depressed train’. Today the train had finaly snapped. Sarnath Express had attempted suicide.

I screamed along with the other passengers as finally the coach stopped tumbling, lying on its side, tilted up at a steep angle. Miraculously no one was seriously hurt and eventually (which seemed like an eternity in that chaos), I was able to scale up the aisle and carefully pop out of the main door above me. The space under the door had been packed with the luggage of the passengers who had exited before, providing a secure foothold.

As I dropped down the tracks, I saw several compartments lying toppled along the tracks towards the rear end of the train. Towards the front of the train – or rather where the front was supposed to be – there was nothing! The tracks stretched out and disappeared around a bend in the moonlight night.

The passengers had trickled out of their respective compartments and had started small bonfires along the track, which made the spooky setting even more eerie. I walked down the tracks and was relieved that there were no fatalities. The passengers, huddled around the flickering light of the bonfires, were tending their injured kin.

It was a moonlight night so we were able to see fairly clearly even in the middle of the night. Two tracks separated by a moat stretched around a bend. Sal forests started about hundred yards on the right side of the tracks. On the left were paddy fields, very sparsely dotted with settlements, which appeared as faint flickering lights close to the horizon.

I searched for the mysterious sadhu but could not locate him.

The Comic Tragedy

Some adrenaline pumped passengers, mostly those like myself who did not have any injured to tend to, decided to march up the tracks to find the first half of the train that was apparently missing.

Sala  driver”, puffed a hefty man in his mid-forties as we walked briskly up the tracks, “ he has been speeding since we left the first station “

“As if his rear was on fire”, quipped another “ now look we are screwed...”

I was trying hard not to imagine the driver with flames coming out of his rear end with his hands on the speed throttle of the engine, giving out a maniacal laugh even as one of the compartments swung dangerously around a bend and toppled over, pulling all the ones behind it as a stack of dominos.

The driver gave another maniacal laugh, just like the famed demons of Indian mythology, as the coupling link between the rear section of the train broke from the front section with a loud clang. He paused to give out a long toot of the engine horn before laughing again and sending out a big bellow of fire out of his rear as the engine disappeared around the bend.

“I have already beaten up the Guard”, boasted another proudly, showing a silver flashlight that was apparently confiscated from the poor railway employee whose compartment had also toppled over along with the rest of us.

“Can you turn that on please ?” I requested respectfully pointing to the flashlight. The vigilante reluctantly turned it on no sooner he did, we saw specks of flashlights up ahead on the tracks.

The rescue party from the front section of the train arrived shortly. Unfortunately the train driver was part of the rescue party. I tried my best but could not rescue the driver.

“What do we do now?” the hefty man asked, looking at the unconscious train driver, lying beside the tracks.

“ He is the only person who can contact the railway authorities...” I had screamed trying to save the driver from the mindless onslaught. My plea fell on deaf ears as a misaimed punch, ironically landed on my ear.

The Sadhu

I was alone. I tried not to think about the mindless violence as I jogged in darkness towards the bend, nursing my bruised ear. The front of the train should not be far away.

Right around the bend I could see lights on the track ahead of me. It was the front section of the train! My heart skipped a beat as I started running towards the reassuring lights.

Just then, soft footsteps behind me made a chill shoot up my spine. Just behind me, with a smile on his face was the mysterious sadhu I had met just before the accident.

“Alakh Niranjan!” He said effortlessly, his intense, friendly eyes glowing in the moonlit night. “ You did not get to sleep after all … did you?” I smiled sheepishly.

“Follow me”, he said as he almost floated down the tracks with me scampering after him.  

Epilogue:  Two of my college friends had planned to receive me at the Varanasi railway station. Of course none of us knew that we would face this unplanned sequence of events. They knew that the train had met with an accident but did not know if I would make it with the surviving portion of the train or not.

It was 4 AM in the morning when the 16 hours late train finally reached Varanasi station. A very delighted accident survivor was greeted by two very brave friends. Two ladies who had their own share of adventure spending more than ten hours on the platform trying to track down a friend on board an accidental train.

This one is for you Anisha and Ina!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Notes from India: How about a raise ?


‘Storyteller ... tell us the story about your stay in India’

We had just come back to Boston after spending almost two years in India. The twenty two month long roller coaster ride flashed across my eyes. Family, friends, pets, fruit trees, absconding drivers, hilarious house helps, traveling from border to border – the forty plus places we visited, the crowded congregations, the peaceful ashrams ..  

But how could I fit in 22 months in one story? There were hundreds of stories. Several for each of the individuals who touched our lives. And even if I tell these stories, it won’t reflect even a fraction of the experience we really had.

But I had to try.

'Do you have time?’ I asked.


‘Tsssk’, ‘Tsssssk’, ‘Tsssssssssssssssk’ , the shrill notes got longer and longer as the sound became louder and louder

It happened every morning. Sharp at 5:30 AM. The sound of broom scrubbing the patio bricks.  ‘Tsssk’, ‘Tsssssk’, ‘Tsssssssssssssssk’.

There was an explosion of activity, anointed with abundant hissing and tssssking just outside the bedroom window. It sounded like a bunch of rattlesnakes dancing after taking a shot of redbull and vodka.

I opened my eyes and squinted. Got into my slippers to spare my feet from the touch of the cold granite floor. ‘ Oh no ! not again !’ , my wife was also awake now. I managed a nod – my eyes still trying to get a hang of the new surrounding in our relatively new habitat in India. I trudged across the hallway to the main door and then around the house to the patio adjacent to the bedroom.

There was the source of the rukkus. Kaniappa our gardener. He was furiously cleaning up the gulmohor leaves that had fallen on the patio with a noisy broom. Wearing khaki shorts, an old gray shirt and a surprisingly new denim jacket, he was chasing the small brown leaves into a neat pile with a fury that would put Bruce Lee to shame. His head was wrapped in a scarf – which probably explained why he was oblivious to the noise he was making.

My head went into a spin trying to prepare itself for the upcoming conversation. Kaniaappa knew two Indian languages and I could follow five– but unfortunately none of them were common between the two of us. So our usual mode of conversation was a homegrown sign language and a slew of Pictionary poses.

I thought I had mastered the gestures for ‘Water palms’ , ‘ Cut these shurbs’ , ‘ Clean the gulmohor leaves’, ‘cleanup the rotten mango fruits’ .. and such mundane gardening tips.

The conversation also included gestures for “Give me the salary” , “Give me a raise” , from Kaniappa that he had mastered quickly.

But these conversations were not that I was apprehensive about. The challenge was to convey to Kaniappa that he should NOT ‘broom’ the patio next to the bedroom window at 5:30 AM. I had tried to suggest him alternatives in my sign language that would translate (in my head) to something like this –

‘Kaniappa, I understand that you have to start the work at 5:30 AM but can you start with watering the palms in the back of the house and picking up the rotten fruits under the over fruiting mango tree there and THEN clean the patio next to the bedroom ..? please?, Hoping that it would give us another 30 minutes of comfortable snoozing so that we could get up at a respectable time of  6 AM.

Kaniappa would nod his head in vigorous agreement, smiling ear to ear, saying something enthusiastically that I could not comprehend. And would turn up promptly next day at 5:30 with his noisy broom – stirring ups imaginary rattlesnakes outside our bedroom window.

As I walked towards the noise of fighting snakes, Kaniappa broke away from his trance of chasing the gulmohor leaves and looked at me. His expression changed from furious concentration to feigned reverence. He flashed a smile.

I was impatient today. I must admit that it was not entirely because of the noise Kaniappa’s created. We had a wild Holi Party yesterday – which had ended with the merry partygoers – about 30 of them, throwing color at each other, dousing each other with water and eventually rolling each other in the muddy lawn.

The lawn and patio were reeling from shock of frenzied color fights. Beer and wine added to an already intoxicated festive fervor created a heady mix that had left me with a hangover. And in this merriment, I had lost my favorite camera. It was not the camera that I missed than much – but the treasures captured in it. I had spent more than an hour combing the house and lawn after the party but the camera was not found.

Before I could start my Pictionary poses, I realized that Kaniappa had cleaned up the premises from all traces of the party. Everything was spotlessly clean! Kaniappa’s eyes twinkled as he reached into the pockets of his kakhi shorts and pulled out my favorite automatic camera.

‘Found it the neighbor’s yard, must have fallen from the compound wall’, he signaled masterfully using sign language.

‘Lot of work’, he explained using vigorous gestures, ‘Give me a raise’, the sixty year old gardener signaled after a pause, his teeth gleaming in the morning sun.

As I turned back to get prepared for my morning yoga routine, I saw that my driver Mani had already reported for duty and was starting to clean up the car. 

Mani used to run the laundry shack in our gated community. A twenty year old young man with a perpetual smile was the first one to show up when I had put up a notice in the club house that I was looking to hire a driver. My old driver, my henchman, had started to ply an Airport taxi which was more lucrative than the $250/month salary of a full time driver.

‘How much experience do you have? ’, I had asked Mani.

‘I have a driving license, sir’, he had replied with a shy smile, ‘ I can do it , sir .. I don’t want to be a laundry guy throughout my life .. I want to be a driver’. At least he was truthful.

So Mani was hired. He wanted $150/ month –justifying for his lack of experience.  ‘Are you crazy to hire a driver without experience? ’ my friends finally had the confirmation of the fact that I had gone crazy. ‘First the scooter  ... now this driver  ...’, a dear friend had exclaimed.

The 10 mile ride to office that would be about one hour in Bangalore traffic , took about two hours for Mani. Mostly because of the 30km/hr speed – even without traffic. But also because of the number of times the car stopped after speed breakers due to the lack of diver’s skills to coordinate between the clutch and accelerator a low speeds.

“Grrr.. grrr . Thud” , the car would stop with a grunt followed by re-ignition and an excruciating sound of high revolution of the engine caused by simultaneous pressure on the clutch and accelerator. I tried to go in to a yogic trance not to think about the situation that would arise if Mani released the clutch abruptly.

‘There is no hurry’, I tried to coach him ‘Just don’t bang the car in front of you …'

And then one fine day Mani disappeared. Not for a day. Not for two days. But for whole two weeks.
I began to get worried when after about a week, his family members started to show up at our home trying to get tips about his whereabouts.

‘He left the house without warning .. sir .. do you know where he is .. he respects you ..’, they would talk to me with Kaniappa our gardener as the translator. Kaniappa was getting good at the Pictionary gestures.

‘Of course I don’t … he is not even picking up his phone  ...’ I had replied. Followed by a long steam of translatory jargon from Kaniappa. Mani’s sister had left with tears in her eyes.

Mani had shown up yesterday, with a sweet looking girl in tow. ‘I ran away from home for her … we got married sir ... can I start on my driver job again ?’

So Mani was reinstated in his job but only after a solid dosage of work ethics dumb charade. Mani kept on nodding his head throughout my discourse. Even his wife would join the nodding in interesting sections. They would nod individually, look at each other and nod again.

‘One more thing .. sir ...’ .Mani had added shyly after I had concluded, ‘ My expenses have gone up after marriage .. I will need a raise …’

The morning had burst into flurry of activity and it was time for my morning yoga practice, before I headed out to office.

I settled down on a yoga mat in a quiet corner of the terrace. This corner is shaded by the coconut tree growing in the backyard.  Beautiful, southern-California-style-sunny Bangalore morning.  Deep blue skies and a perfect 72 degree temperature.

‘Peaceful … ’ , I thought as I lay down on the mat looking up at the sky through the coconut leaves.
I suddenly heard a rustling sound behind me that makes me jump up. Precariously perched on the coconut tree was our cook, Kamal. He was trying to cut out a bunch of coconuts with his kitchen knife.

Mashima (a respectable address for my Mother) has asked me to use fresh coconuts in the curry’, he mumbled half apologetically.

‘So you made our cook climb up the coconut tree!’, I confronted my mother.

She looked up from the TV which was ecstatically wild with a stadium full of people doing kapaalbhati pranayam under the guidance of Swami Ramdev. Since the day we had arrived in India, my mother had taken up the serious responsibility of sparing her NRI child from the harsh reality of dealing with house help workforce.

Kamal was generally acclaimed as the best cook in the area. He also ran a catering company on the side. He had delighted hundreds of satisfied patrons with his culinary skills – including myself. But had unfortunately failed to impress my mother.

It started with her ‘fixing’ all the dishes that Kamal cooked. Dash of salt here, garnish of spice there. Then it graduated in detailed instructions that needed to be followed – right to the specification of the how small onions needed to be chopped or how large potatoes needed to be cubed.

‘Mom – we are lucky that we were able to hire this Cook, I mumbled under my breath ... if he quits .. ‘ , I would implore, putting up the best of my take pity on me face.

‘It is your home ... your life … ‘, she would say in a hurt tone,’ I will never EVER talk to that cook again ..’  But her resolve would last for exactly thirty microseconds.

Even before I could heave a sigh of relief, I heard my mother giving instructions to our cook Kamal about how small onions needed to be chopped and how large potatoes needed to be cubed. Kamal listened with feigned patience still panting from his exertion of climbing up the coconut tree.

As I was about to get out of the house for my office, Kamal came to me with a glass of watermelon juice. ‘Dada, your forgot to drink this …’

‘Also Dada, I won’t be able to handle this anymore  ...’, he mumbled.

I stared at him with alarm …

‘How about a raise ?' I mumbled.


When the expats think about life in India one of the first things that comes to mind is the luxury of house helps. In a modest budget of $350 a month, one could hire a driver, two house helps and one gardener in Bangalore!

But managing the home staff is a full time job in itself. Overenthusiastic gardeners, missing drivers and depressed cooks are just a small part of the fun in store.

The bigger challenge, especially for folks who have spent considerable time in the West, is the perception gap regarding dignity of labor. If you have a cup of coffee with Ed, your landscaper who mows your lawn in Chelmsford, it is just another day in life. If you do that with Kaniappa, your gardener in Kasavanahalli, Bangalore, you will be noticed.

Also, I feel that the way that we deal with house staff in India is not just dependent on individual idiosyncrasies. It is a social pattern.

As a contrast to my darling fiery perfectionist mother who featured in this story (and I am prepared for the thirty microseconds that she is not going to talk to me for this public disclosure), my other darling, soft spoken and gentle mother in law (who is also my Yoga guru) also disliked our cook.  And I think it was nothing to do with individual preference or the skills of the cook. It is societal conditioning.

I call it the “The Maali Syndrome”.

Maali or the gardener gets paid for maintaining the lawn. All the beautiful flowers, the lush green grass, the manicured hedges – he got paid for that, right?  So the credit goes to you for all the good stuff - the person who paid for it.

And if the Maali misses on something: a spot of mud on the patio, a crop of dead leaf, a splash of water on the window. It is his mistake and the Maali owns that mistake.

So Maali gets reprimanded everyday for the mistakes he makes. The blooming flowers are overlooked as being part of his contribution. The focus is on mistakes. And this pattern becomes so natural that it may also manifest itself in our professional life as we forget that creativity (and creation) comes at the expense of mistakes.

I need to conclude the blog now ... time to help the wife to fix up dinner!

Thanks for reading.

Miss you Kamal !!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Operation C.A.T

A sandy silver beach in Goa. 

I am sitting on a white wooden beach chair under a huge orange beach umbrella. A pint of chilled beer stands refreshingly on a shiny white plastic table next to me. John, from the beach shack approaches politely with a plate of grilled pomfret fish. I look up at him and smile.

“O MY GOD”, the words come out involuntarily from my mouth. John vanishes in thin air, along with the plate of pomfret. Poof!  The plastic table along with the chilled beer bottle goes next. Poof ! 

The beach chair, the beach all vanish. Poof!

“O MY GOD”, I was kneeling in front of the cupboard in my study.

“There she is”, my son exclaimed with ear to ear grin. In the lower most shelf of the cupboard lay his pet cat Cookie. Next to her, no thicker than her bushy tail, were three kittens. “You are a great grand dad!”, he says excitedly as I tried to  wipe the terrified expression from my face.

 “She is getting out of hand”, my mother had reported several months ago. “I saw her strolling with her boyfriend”. My mother had strict moral standards that stood firm even for pet cats. Cookie did not return that night. It was only after several weeks we realized that she was indeed goofing around with her ‘boyfriend’.

“She is going to have babies in a few weeks  ...”, the Vet had declared, feeling the tummy of the nervous cat. The omnipresent grin on Vet’s face had become even bigger. The doctor had a pet crèche where we wanted to leave our cat while we were out on a vacation. A much yearned vacation to Goa. Sandy silver beach, wooden beach chair, beach umbrella, beach shack …

“So we will drop her in the creche tomorrow morning ..?”

“No Problem”, if the grin on Vet’s face had become any bigger, it would spill out of his face, ”Good timing,  because we don’t take pets with small litters .. so you timed your vacation well’, the vet had declared.

Next morning, it was time to drop Cookie to her crèche. But she had, for some reason, disappeared!  It took about an hour of collective scouting before my son located her.

“She had three kittens!”, my son beamed as he looked affectionately at his pet who he had cared for since she was a one month old kitten , “ I am a grand dady !”

“We don’t take pets with small litters...’, the Vet’s voice rang out in my head.

“O MY GOD”, the Goa vacation was vanishing in front of my eyes.  

We had booked an old Portuguese villa right on Bagha beach in Goa. The owners, a Belgian couple, had insisted on us paying the entire rental in advance. “We won’t be able to refund in case of cancellations – you know it is peak season  ...”

There was only one option now. Sonia.


It was late in the evening when the maroon Honda City pulled in front of a seemingly deserted tree shaded house in the outskirts of Bangalore. 

A confirmed animal lover, Sonia had firsthand experience with a diverse range of pets including ducks, rabbits, birds, cats and dogs. We had left our cat with her during one of our earlier vacations.  

“You should not move the kittens today. It is not safe”, the expert had advised to the occupants of the deserted villa, “I will check on them every evening” The occupants had kissed her hands over the phone.

She opened the main door and glanced up the spiraling stairway leading to the upper floor.

“Lock all other rooms”, she had advised “Cats move their kittens several times after they are born – it will be difficult to locate them if they move to an obscured corner”. The villa occupants who were now in a sandy silver beach in Goa, sitting on a white wooden beach chair under a huge orange beach umbrella, had wiped the tears from their eyes impressed by the profound wisdom of their vacation savior.

Sonia tiptoed up to the study and peered in through the glass door. The frosted glass did not reveal anything about the occupants of the room. She gently opened the door and craned her neck in.

She was greeted with a blood curdling screech and a loud hiss. The freshly minted mother cat rushed towards her with her claws extended, puffed up fur and bottle brush tail. Clearly, in the ebb of her newfound maternal instincts, Cookie had forgotten the week she had spent at Sonia’s place. Sonia was summarily chased out of the house by the very angry mother cat.

“I need backup”, Sonia sat in her car outside the deserted villa. Her eyes were glued to the dimly lit study window – where the feline aggressor would be prowling around after the recent attack.

She was talking to Nina. The marathon running, working super mom did not have the word fear in her dictionary. Before Sonia could bat her eyelids, Nina’s car materialized next to her. Nina was briefed of the situation. “So we have an aggressive and potentially hostile feline that needs to be fed while their owners are having fun in Goa”. Sonia nodded.

The main door was opened, second time that day. The brave women tiptoed up the stairs. The Study door was opened again. This time it was time for two women to be surprised. There were no cats or kittens in the room!  Cookie had moved with her kittens to another place. That meant, danger could be lurking anywhere, ready to pounce unannounced on the hapless victims.

Sonia did a quick inspection of the room. The cat food and water bins were empty. She filled them up using the Whiskas bag left by the owners. Water was replenished from the bathroom faucet. Suddenly there was a sound from outside the study. 

“Shhhhh”, Nina put a finger on her lips signaling Sonia to be still. The commando tiptoed to the slightly ajar study door. I thin beam of light was spilling out of the dimly lit study, illuminating the granite floor outside. 

Suddenly there was a streak of stripes across the floor, followed by screeching and hissing sounds. Nina managed to shut the study door with a bang. Beads of perspiration formed around Sonia’s brow.

“She is out there … waiting!”

“We are trapped!!”

“Call Goa !!!”


Epilogue:  The vacationers in Goa did get a call. Thankfully and gratefully, the valiant ladies had successfully resolved the hostage situation. When the vacationers returned, they found the cat family snugly cuddled in a corner in the study, well fed and happy. Cheers to the courageous ladies of this (almost) true story!

Three cute kittens are now looking for homes in the Bangalore area. Interested families please drop me a note.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Notes from India : The Birthday

‘How do we get our Gross Margins up by five percent?”, the dimly lit study was filled up by my CEO’s voice.
It was a global management call and I could sense the rapt attention of all my colleagues, dialed in from all across the world as I prepared myself for the answer.

‘Can you get the ladoos now …’, I looked in horror at the smiling faces of my eight year old daughter and her best friend. ‘… lots and lots of them …‘

I struggled to mute my speakerphone.


It was Janmashtami and the kids had a day off from school. The birth date of Krishna was being celebrated across India with reverence and gayety. In our house in the suburbs of Bangalore, however, it was somber corporate quarter ending.

Both me and my wife work from home. We have our own home offices in our tree shaded villa in the outskirts of Bangalore. Her’s in a corner of the master bedroom suite, and mine, more isolated on the first floor.

‘I am bored’, my daughter had come up into my office earlier that day. Born and brought up in the US, she was beginning to build up an Indian accent.

‘Today is Krishna’s birthday’, I had winked at her, ’Why don’t you celebrate it?’, I suggested. A celebration with dolls would keep her out of my way since it was going to be a busy work day for me.

‘I will get you some sweets – you know- Krishna loved sweets’ I made a mental note to pick up some laddos on my way to getting the new ink cartridge for my printer.

Her eyes lit up. ‘But I will need Sammy's help for the party’, Sammy was her classmate, neighbor and best friend.

I had patted my back at the inspired idea as I imagined my eight year daughter staying busy, learning about Indian culture, and more importantly, staying out of my way.


‘Sorry..I am having some problem with the phone line - give me five minutes … ‘, I mumbled and muted the phone. The study had now filled up with the chatter of small girls. A LOT of small girls. There were at least twenty five of them standing outside my study

‘We are having a great time, uncle’, Sammy chirped, ‘ We put up Krishna pictures on the walls, sang Krishna songs, even had a Krishna quiz !’, she said pointing at her iPad.

‘I won !' a cute little girl with braids raised her hand.

‘Now we are going to have a dance for Krishna’, my daughter quipped in excitedly ..’ , It is on the song You belong with me by Talyor Swift …. we will be singing it for Krishna not for a boyfriend or anything'

'You have to come down Baba ..’, she added imploringly.

My lips curled into a smile as I glanced down the mezzanine floor into the living room. The room was filled up with more girls. My wife was sitting on the couch surrounded by an eager battalion of six to ten year olds from our neighborhood. She looked at me and rolled her eyes. I had to struggle not to laugh.

‘Give me a second’, I stepped back in the study and unmuted the speakerphone. ‘Guys I will have to dial out now – some unanticipated emergency at home ..’

‘Hope all is well ….’

‘Cannot be better’, I thought as I hung up the phone and ran downstairs with the chattering girls.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Henchman

‘Looks like there is no other option’, I declared somberly. 

The words had a magical effect on my audience. Some of them started to sway in delight, while others giggled in nervous anticipation.

Sound of silent laughter rang through the house. Laughter that only I could hear.


I was alone in the living room, surrounded by my collection of indoor plants – palms, crotons, cactus and ferns. Everyone except the cactus seemed terribly unhappy. The palms were the unhappiest of the lot. The one near the sofa, once beautifully framing the stand lamp and the madhubani painting on the adjacent wall, was wailing aloud.

‘Just look at this’, she extended her frayed branches ‘Look what that tormentor has done to me’. Once lush green branches now hung drooping – the leaves shriveled and dried up. The wailing stirred up the croton sitting on top of a terracotta planter, which rustled its tattered maroon leaves incomprehensibly. 

Then the big fern started sobbing from the mezzanine floor overlooking the living room, it’s dried up leaves raining down on the floor that was already strewn with collection of fresh leaves and branches from other plants across the house. It was mayhem!

Just then, a pair of shining eyes appeared across the hallway. The eyes cautiously examined the surroundings – the feline gray form of the owner crouched close to the floor lay camouflaged over the gray grains of the light green granite floor. Then there was a streak of stripes across the hallway as the scream of my indoor ficus was drowned in the collective wailing of all the other plants. 

The kitten jumped up and ripped off a perfectly healthy branch from the plant and before I could blink my eyes, it had dashed back across the hallway and into the kid’s room with its kill

The trouble started two weeks ago. My son had come back from his science tutor who lives in the same gated community as us, with a four week old kitten. ‘Her mother does not like her’, he had said taking the kitten out of his back pack ‘So I brought her with me’, he was trying to match the cute expression of the kitten he was holding. My daughter shrieked in delight as she wrestled with my son to hold the kitten. Both me and my wife shrieked in alarm.

We later found out from Mrs. Arora, the science tutor, that the mother cat would visit her house every year to lay her litters. She would host the cat in a corner of her backyard until the kittens were grown enough and the new tabby family dispersed. This year, surprisingly, there was one kitten that had apparently fallen from favor of the mother. The kitten was getting weaker – unfed and unattended. So when my son volunteered to look after the kitten, she gladly took up the offer.

I remained apprehensive as I saw the kitten winning over my family. They named her Cookie. My wife, a confirmed zoo phobic who would jump at the sight of any un caged animals (and sometimes even caged ones – to the amusement of onlookers in several zoos), would now sit working on her laptop with Cookie sprawled comfortably across her lap. The kids would return from school, rushing to feed the already overfed kitten who would be cuddled the rest of the day by the doting siblings.

And then it started. A nip on a leaf here. A tug on a branch there. And within a week it was complete mayhem! The feline was killing plants at a rate that would put any man-eating tiger of the yester years to shame.

‘Why don’t you move the plants to the backyard’, my wife had suggested. I had given her a scornful look.

Today my wife had taken the kids out for a birthday party so I was alone in the house. ‘Looks like there is no other option’, I declared somberly. The words had a magical effect on my audience. Some of them started to sway in delight, while others giggled in nervous anticipation. The sound of silent laughter rang through the house. Laughter that only I could hear.

The image of my kids flashed in my mind. ‘I will tell them that that the kitten ran away’, I assured myself. But I would need someone to catch the kitten as she would always dash away as soon as she saw me approaching. I needed a henchman to carry out the task.

Just than the doorbell rang.

Manjunath was a dark lanky man around thirty year old. He always wore impeccably washed and ironed dazzling white shirt and white pants that gave eyes a shock from the sheer contrast from his dark face. A crisp mustache cut across his face.  

He was my driver, and among his many talents, I would say his driving skills would stand as one of the lowest. His favorite hobby was to bump my car into moving and stationary objects. Bumps and dents would appear around the car at remarkably predictive intervals. ‘I pay to fix, Saar’, he would say apologetically and in the three months he had been employed, he had already raked up a tab that was close to his salary for that period.

But ask him to run an errand – he would complete it at a speed that would put speedy Gonzalvez to shame. Even as one would finish articulating the request, Manjunath’s eyes would squint menacingly. It took me a while to realize that the squinting was his way to assimilate information.

The task could be as simple as catching a six feet viper that had wandered into our compound from the nearby lake-marsh. Or as complex as catching hold of a five and a half feet lineman of the state run telephone company to get our broadband connection fixed.  “Done Saar”, he would say and disappear – only to reappear shortly – task completed. Errand done. “Done Saar” , he would say one again to seal the confirmation of a job well done.

Today I articulated my request, silently endorsed by the maimed indoor plants. His eyes squinted menacingly. “Done Saar”

Manjunath was running around the house in hot pursuit of the kitten when a draft of wind opened the front door and the kitten and his pursuer dashed out of the house. I could hear kitty hisses and meows from outside. After giving enough time for things to settle I peeped out of the front door.

Manjunath lay sprawled beside our car parked in the driveway, prodding under the car with a stick. The kitten had disappeared under the car comfortably, hidden in a secure nook behind the muffler. The henchman prodded, cajoled, screamed, meowed, purred for one full hour. The kitten would drop down from her nook every five minutes, wave her tail mockingly and climb back again. The henchman was finally tired. He stood up and took out the car keys out of his pocket. There was a wicked grin on his face as he opened the door and put the key in the ignition. I looked at him in horror.

‘Stop’, the words came out involuntarily as I yanked the keys from the ignition. There was a sudden rustle around my legs. The evasive kitty was rubbing herself on my feet looking at me with a cautiously alert gaze. I reached out and picked her up. She was surprisingly light. And small. And kind of cute.

‘How Cute!’, my thoughts were interrupted by the familiar voice of my son’s science tutor Mrs. Arora. ‘And look how much has she grown – the cute Kukkie!’. She was passing by our house, walking her todder son’s stroller. I pasted a grin on my face , my man Friday was standing behind me smiling even more innocently, his white teeth giving his not-anymore-white shirt run for its money.

‘She has become quite n-n-naughty’, I fumbled for words, ’How is the mother cat? I am sure she misses the kitten …’

‘Don’t you know!’, Mrs. Arora’s expression changed from bright and sunny to downright gloomy.

’Two stray dogs entered the colony yesterday – jumping over the fence near the lake’, she mumbled. They then jumped into my backyard’. I stared at her shocked as she described the mother cat’s futile attempt to defend her kittens … and herself.

We stood silently as Cookie lay cuddled in my arms purring softly unaware of the cruel fate she escaped. Twice.

 ‘We need to get the dogs out of the colony before they do any further damage … I spoke with the association members but they don’t think it is urgent … and the security men don’t know how to catch dogs it seems … ’, Mrs. Arora’s cold  voice cut through the silence.

‘Manjunath’, I looked at my henchman.

His eyes squinted menacingly. ‘Done Saar’



 ‘Who moved all the indoor plants out into the backyard!!’, my wife rushed into the study, ‘and where is Cookie?’, she asked suspiciously.

I typed in the final line of the story, looked up at her and smiled. Cookie gave a lazy gaze from my lap. Then she got up, stretched, yawned and jumped onto the key boarddddsqtdyaq`5qo zlk

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Notes from India: Man-Eating Tigers

Author’s note: Can any visit to India be complete without paying a tribute to the magnificent Tigers?

‘You mean to say … man-eaters still exist!’, I mumbled, as a chill shot up my spine. I could not believe my ears!  But then, there were a lot of unbelievable things going on tonight.

‘Yes, you heard it right, they do exist’, came the reply in a deep baritone voice. Just across from where we were, the silvery outline of Nanda Devi and Panchchuli peaks towered over the landscape in the cold moonlit night.


'The deadliest man eating tiger in India prowled around in this region’

We sat around the campfire that lit up the entrances of small wooden cottages lined up along a ledge overlooking the Himalayas.  The ledge sloped steeply behind the cottages giving way to several ranges of small Kumaoni hills, framing the majestic snow-clad peaks perfectly.

'The man-eater of Champawat. She killed 436 people', The resort manager lowered his voice, as the crackling fire lit up is face, casting an eerie shadow over the small stretch of lawn behind him. We sat glued to our chairs as we listen with rapt attention.

'She was killed by Jim Corbett - the very first man-eater he shot. My great grandfather was with Corbett Saab during the hunt', Anil's serious face betrayed him by flickering a slight smile before it was dead serious again. A distant clap of thunder rang across, illuminating the valley spread out under us.

'It is not a good sign', he continued in an ominous tone as we all stared at the dark clouds in the horizon that had now hid the silvery Himalayan ranges.

We had reached our resort just after dusk, braving a tiring eight hour journey across the mountains of Uttrakhand. The resort was tucked in a village perched on the top of a hill overlooking the majestic Nanda Devi.  Our Innova was stopped at a forest check post just outside the village as the forest guard shone his torch inside the car illuminating its occupants - four adults and three kids. ‘Tourists?’, he had asked curtly. I had nodded my head. The check post gate was raised to let us through.

My twelve year old son was thrilled with the rustic setting of the cottage.' It's too bad that they have iron grills on the windows ...", he had complained.

A serious looking man, who checked us into the resort, had approached us as we sat around the bonfire lit in front of the cottage. 'What will you have for dinner, sir?', he asked with politeness frozen in sombre seriousness.

' What do you have ready?'I had asked. 'We make everything fresh', he had replied maintaining an expression as if he was giving us some seriously bad news.

' Can you get us something real fast - the kids are hungry,' the wife chipped in.

'It will take one hour to cook the dinner, madam', again the serious expression.

'Can't you do something? please request the cook ...'

'I am the cook' , he had replied, a slight smile flashed across his face before he became dead serious again, 'And also the resort manager’, he had hastily added.


'My great grand father was a very brave man. He was one of the folks who hauled the dead tiger back into the village after Corbett Saab killed it. It was a very khatnaak tiger sir.. she used to come inside the village in broad daylight and run off with a kill’

'Are there any man eating tigers alive?' , my twelve year old son asked hesitantly, trying his best to sound fearless.

' No, no more man eaters in these hills anymore', Anil finally smiled. The rain clouds that were building up in horizon had almost reached our cottages. A sprinkle of rain dissipated the bonfire party as we all scuttled towards our respective cottages.

' Do man eaters still exist?' , my eight year old daughter asked as we ran into our cottage.

 I thought about my daughter’s question as I dozed off for the night.

It must be just before dawn when I heard a faint sound on the door. It sounded as if someone was scratching the door. The scratching sound got louder and louder as I got up from the bed and made my way to the cottage door.

‘Open the door, please’, the voice had a warm baritone ring to it. 

It had stopped raining. The rain clouds gave way to a bright full moon.  I cautiously opened the door and my jaws dropped when I saw the visitor.  

It was Sher Khan! The animated cartoon version from the Disney movie Jungle Book that I had first seen when I was a kid. The animated tiger had given me a quite a few sleepless nights in those days.

Here he was - standing in front of me, complete with stripes, mean eyes and the extended claws of his front left paw which he had used to scratch the door.

‘We need to talk’, Sher Khan purred softly, ’It will be better if you come out – I don’t want to wake up the kids ..’

For some reason, the cartoon tiger did not look as threatening and mean as it used to when I was a kid. I guess my perception of meanness had changed over the years -in fact Sher Khan looked kind of cute. I grabbed my slippers and followed him around a thicket. Sher Khan sprawled out on a rocky ledge. ‘Sit’ he said pointing at stone boulder.

‘So … you have some questions regarding man eating tigers?’

‘How did you know?’

‘Tigers have their own sources ...’, he said shrugging his striped shoulders ‘ Just because these days we run around the national parks, posing for wild life photographers does not mean we do not keep a track of what is going on in this world’, he said tilting his huge head and looking at me with slightly squinted eyes.

‘So your question was whether or not man eaters still exist?’ He stared at me. I nodded my head briskly.

‘Well, they do exist’, Sher Khan’s eyes became cold and distant. ‘But these man eaters are not tigers anymore. They are of your species’

‘And even the most ferocious tigers appear as harmless cartoon characters in comparison’, his lips curled into a smile, ‘When in reality - we are not …’, That is when Sher Khan gave out a deafening roar, flung open his sharp claws, and pounced at me.

I woke up with a start.  

Or did I?


Author's Note  : Flipping through any news channel one could get the gruesome update of the new person eating species that we have become. Blasts in Boston. Blasts in Bangalore, Girls being molested ... the fierce man eating tigers indeed look like cartoon characters in comparison !

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Notes from India: An Authentic Experience

‘How would you like them cut?’ , my hairdresser had asked politely when  I had gone for my first  haircut  in US many years ago.

I had stared at her uncomfortably because I had never been asked that question by my hairdressers in India.  

“Short” , I had mumbled, not knowing what else to say., My wife had squealed in horror after I had come back to our apartment with my commando cut.

“Please don’t make it too short”, I had answered the same question imploringly when I went for my next haircut several months later. Over the years the instructions got more and more refined ‘Clippers on the side – size five and a half please.  Scissors on the top. Not too short  - just take an inch off.  Leave the sideburns long. Shampoo. No gel please’, I would rattle out without having to think and get (almost) the same results whether I was in LA ,Washington DC  or Boston.

‘Have you considered trying gray blending’ , I heard this suggestion a few years ago.  Gray blending. The word had a nice mature ring to it. It did not have the urgency of hair dying. Or the pretentiousness of hair coloring.  My hair had started to gray with a vengeance in the past few years. Especially, after I had started my own business.  My mother had just a few strands of gray hair at near sixty. My grandfather had a good crop of black hair at eighty. I had more gray hair than both of them combined. I had somehow let my gene pool down. ‘ It is perhaps the stress’ , I would explain half apologetically.

‘We have a special going on ...’, she continued, blinking her false eyelashes ‘ Tea Tree Treatment  - Free shampoo & head massage  ..’ . The deal was made. Several degrees of ‘blending’ were tried. The color combination of the one that suited me best was then recorded in the database. I could now go to any Supercuts in US and just tell them my name – they would then pull up my record and blend my grays like nobody ‘s business.

And then we moved to Bangalore.


“New Paradise Men's Saloon”, the barber shop is located on the main road, about  half a kilometer from our house in Bangalore.  

‘Are you sure you don’t want to look for a bit more upscale place?’ , my wife had suggested looking at the crowd of the patrons sitting on wooden benches inside the shop.  But what did she know about the pleasure one would get from an authentic experience of getting a haircut from a roadside barber shop.

‘You and your authentic experiences’, she did not like my response apparently as I expertly maneuvered my scooter around a huge pothole. I had bought the scooter despite warnings and threats from my close friends. ‘Authentic experience my foot’ , one had said ‘ You know it takes  much longer to heal a broken bone once you are past forty ..’.  But I prevailed.  My Honda Activa was not only an authentic  experience; it was also my companion in looking for other authentic experiences.  Like a haircut from a roadside Barber shop.

I parked my scooter outside the shop, glad that I did not get the car which would have perhaps overwhelmed the patrons and owner of the shop. The proprietor – a man with neatly combed hair and smartly trimmed moustache serviced the customers diligently, as I waited for my turn. A television played a Kannada movie dubbed in Hindi – the out of sync dialogs were punctuated by the clicking of scissors. The shop was well furnished with hair products. On one side were different type of hair oils – Himgangay, Jabakusim, Parachute, Navratan . Hair colors were also displayed prominently – Godrej, Revlon, Garnier.

‘Your turn, Sir’ , the hairdresser addressed me politely.

I took a deep breath as I settled down in the wooded chair and got draped by a clean white cotton sheet that was neatly tucked along my neck. Authentic experience.

‘Do you have clippers’, I asked. The man stared at me puzzled. ‘ cut the hair ...’  Still no response. I took my right arm out and showed him how the clipper worked. His eyes shone.”Machine”, he pulled a manual clipper out of the drawer.

‘Clippers on the side – size five and a half please.  Scissors on the top. Not too short  - just take an inch off.  Leave the sideburns long. Shampoo. No gel please’ .. I rattled out. The man stared at me, puzzled.

‘You want haircut? ’, he asked after a long pause. I nodded.  

‘Please sit, sir – I do haircut ‘


I looked at my hair admiringly. The man knew his job.  This was perhaps the best haircut I had got in many years – and he did it without any instructions!  I was so pleased that I wanted to try out all the services he had to offer.

Gray blending ?  I looked at the hair color products in the shelf in front of me and decided to give it a shot.  My man Friday looked extremely pleased that his patron was interested in the most expensive service offered in the saloon.  Even the customers waiting on the benches seemed interested. Everyone in the shop watched as our hairdresser got a stepping stool, reached out and retrieved a box of Garnier hair color from the shelf in front of us, mixed it in a dirty plastic bowl and started to furiously applying it on my head with a brush.

I soaked the authentic experience as ceiling fan cooled my wet colored hair. The man worked expertly, wiping the dripping color from my face. I had never got my hair colored facing a mirror. I realized that it was messy. I had been spared of reviewing this mess in the past since there were no mirrors in the coloring booths in Supercuts. You would actually see the results after everything was done. The color washed, hair shampooed and patted dry and the hairdresser giving you well rehearsed compliment as she took you back to your chair. “You look like a new person !’

Today, I was looking at all the mess that I used to miss out in the past. Head smeared with color. Authentic experience.  And that is when my communication with my new hairdresser stopped abruptly. I was waiting for him to say or do something to get me cleaned up from the messy hair color. He was also waiting for me to say or do something – what? I was not sure of.

I then realized that something was wrong. Terribly wrong. There was not a single wash basin in the shop. Not a single faucet. No washing station. No towels. No shampoo.

‘Please go home and shampoo’, the guy’s voice boomed across the room. The movie in television echoed an extended gunfire.


That day I learnt several things.

That never wear light colored T shirt when you go for a haircut. You never know when you could be subjected to an authentic experience. 

That wife gets pretty mad if you ruin a polo T shirt with hair dye.

That people do notice when you drive a scooter with your head smeared with color. Sometimes enough to actually turn back and stare at you.  Or giggle.

That the stern security guards of our gated community do laugh once in a while.  When they see a new resident riding a scooter with color dripping from his sideburns.

And that authentic experiences come with authentic learnings !


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