Share auto love stories

I’m riding peacefully at one in the afternoon, notwithstanding the unwilling pan that my city has turned under the heat, nope wrath of the Sun. The vehicles- beyond, before and behind seemed to going smooth. All of us were hitting steady pace, happy about each others engines and mileage, when the SUV before me came to a screeching halt, in acknowledgement of a share auto that had pulled over to drop a passenger. Caught midway in our trajectory,  we were back to cursing each other’s parents for consummating decades before and the State Government for letting the Sun go unregulated. It’s not the first instance of a share auto screwing up the rhythm of a busy road, you see. They’re omnipresent across roads, insignificant till the point of collusion reminds us of the influence they wield. They’re apostles of karma on road, that administer sweet caution and danger in uneven pockets, to spice up “just-another” days on road.

Better looking then a rickshaw and too ugly to be an auto, they’re cursed anomalies- love children of manufacturing defect and passenger commerce.

Thinking of share-autos, this line from an Amitabh starrer springs to my mind in which he says the line begins from where he stands. Share autos are like that. No respect to traffic conventions. No regards to the syntax of driving. While a bus commuter’s journey ends at stops, the share auto stops where the commuter’s journey ends.

To understand the turmoil of caged hens that are carried in trucks, one needs to step into a share auto, at peak time. You’ll know how gas chambers were and where to look for Hitler’s spirit the next time. Its’ the most egalitarian of places, with people of different social standing, faith, size and shapes fitted exactly in homogenous spaces. So there are people in seats, people in leg space and people perched in places meant for spare tyres.
The icing on the cake is the front, where the driver sits. There are two men strategically placed sidewards on either side of him, that their formation resembles the three lions in our coins emerging from the same set of buttocks. Before population can be controlled in the country, it needs to be in these vehicles.

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A four Kilometre life lesson on a sunny afternoon

What does three seconds mean? Probably  one twentieth of a minute, if not anything significant in particular. Well that is how much it meant for me as well, till today’s afternoon. I was zooming past at 72 kmph to work- when in a matter of few seconds,three to be precise -the speed went from that to zero. I had driven without petrol for the past few days. And my Pulsar- older than sum of all my functional relationships put together -diplomatically protests in these kind of non verbal ways. Especially in routes with no semblance of a fuel station for the next few kilometres from all four sides, to gently remind me to not take it for a ride.

So here I was with a bike with a vapid tank, weighing just the same at the Madhya Kailash to Tidel Park stretch. For the uninitiated non-Chennaites, this particular stretch is notorious for its stagnating traffic. If that opening scene from La La Land was to be recreated, this stretch would be a top contender, notwithstanding Bangalore and Mumbai. And did I mention it was in the afternoon? A humid, sweaty one. With the pores in my body over-timing to compensate for the lack of dampness in the air. And it really didn’t help that I was wearing a white translucent shirt.

And like that, the afternoon’s journey had passed from warm wind blowing against the face to trudging in search of the nearest fuel station. And to add salt to the wound, the Talaash songs were still playing on my earphones. Karma’s a bitch.

It was not until I was at the end of a two kilometres dead rubber walk, did I get my first rendezvous with humanity. There was this gentleman, in cheap clothes, on his bike who seemed to be stalking me from a few metres on his bike. I stopped. And he came from the side and offered to toe my bike to the nearest station; still a kilometre and a half away.
Wow! I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the gesture for a moment. To actually offer a ride to a sweaty stranger while he pulls his bike from the side is no mean thing. One, it’s inconvenient. Two, it makes you look silly. And three, I wasn’t even his friend for him to go through the inconvenience or silliness. Yet he did. I certainly wouldn’t have, not even to a friend had I seen him drag along on a Thursday afternoon. I profusely thanked him and continued to drag along.

By now, bathed in my own sweat, I was beginning to vicariously go through Christ’s last moments uphill; just that I was dragging a bike instead of a crucifix with absolute certainty of not turning God to a new faith. That’s when the second intervention happened. The station though not in the viewing perimeter was under a kilometre away, when an auto slowed on my side to offer to toe till the station. The driver was a dark man, with a stern but kind face. He had a passenger, yet he offered to chip in. I politely refused his generosity and thanked him. Not someone to take a “no”, he insisted again and I thanked and continued to drag. Disappointed he drove past. He must have thought of me to either be high handed or a masochist. Rightfully, so. To me, this was as moving as the former gesture. Actually, a little more considering the fact that he had a passenger and was still willing to do this. Guilt was eclipsing me as I thought of the number of times I’d condescended auto-drivers for the low lives they were on road.

I’ve fed pets, given money to homeless elders and sometimes even offered them a ride on my bike. I’ve always thought of myself to be a good person on the basis of these rudimentary acts. Yet there I was stranded, ego crushed, never having felt smaller. These men who stepped out of their comfort zone for an absolute stranger, were way better men than me. Maybe the rights and wrongs I was seeing from the high horse of my moral compass were ill founded from the vantage of my comfort zone. While I’ve frequently chipped in for someone from the warmth of my comfort, not once have I left it to lent a shoulder to someone outside of it. Maybe I needed to come down, introspect, learn and more importantly unlearn from better people like them.

Reality had dawned upon me before the fuel station could. Coming to think, the entire afternoon was after all not about getting petrol alone. Obviously, I’ll be more vigilant over the fuel meter. But that was just a ruse to a more pertinent internal journey. A reality check of sorts to become a better person. Baptism under the sun if I may.

Death by Ice cream

We were waiting for the check to come. The dinner was fabulous, like it always is at Ranjith. Don’t let the middle aged South Indian man’s name come in the middle of your judgement. It’s an oxymoron, in the sense that it continues to remain a relatively unexplored uptown restaurant in the heart of the city, despite creating such food.Victorian set up, cosy yellow lights, jazz music that trickles in the backdrop, tuxedo clad waiters with friendly candour- it’s almost right out of a Woody Allen movie. So, the evening was well spent till that point with tête-à-tête over some great food. Well, almost. My friend started making endearing facial gestures that resembled spasms, the meaning behind which I dreaded from the bottom of my heart. And you cant’t blame me for being disturbed, for he’s got a smile that resembles a hungry crocodile. It was that part of his weekend ritual where he starts to emotionally blackmail to accompany him to this dessert place, to achieve climax to the evening’s dinner.

Before going further, a little character sketch about him would help. He’s this kind of a person who likes to explore new places rather proudly. Good thing, right? Yeah, only till he starts becoming all Colombus about it. Then with the same self assigned authority goes on to sign off on the place’s authenticity. Next he starts recommending it to acquaintances as means to their salvation; not before condescending their existing tastes and preferences. When they check out these places, little do these poor souls realise that they’ve signed on to become unwilling guinea pigs to his social experimentation. At the end of which he would sign off on their tastes, based on their opinions about his. This dessert parlour called Amadora is one such pet laboratory of his. I’ve seen him judge people as unambitious and discourteous based on the fact that they didn’t quite take up to the chocolate mint ice cream, the way he would’ve liked them to.

In a nutshell, he judges more than he winks and opines more than he breathes.

So we both walk into this property located in a pristine locality; he with a pride of booking a Tesla and me with a reluctance reserved for a bad date. The guy at the counter recognises him excitedly, like a separated dog  and they go about ice creams on display like one acclaimed filmmaker to another for several minutes, before my friend starts to sample almost everything on the display than the fly on the glass.  How they do this with new found enthusiasm, week after week, with the flavours remaining constant is beyond my comprehension. And it’s not even like they’re in love.

My friend picks a pale white ice cream as an outcome of the quarter hour exchange with the shopkeeper. Then comes the worst part. He starts to remind me of the sucker I’m for chocolate with an anticipatory look, I’ve become familiar with by now; a cue for me to get something as well. I play the “miss my late grandma” card after playing the “I feel guilty about malnutrition in Somalia in these kind of places” card to little effect, but he just wouldn’t budge.

So I cave in.

I sample at least four different variants of chocolate before rejecting five. When almost on the verge of renouncing ice creams, my eyes fixate on an empty trey with a board that reads,”Nutella”. This can’t go wrong.
I ask for a sample of it and what I get in return instead from the over enthusiastic owner is a lecture on the unit economics behind the particular flavour, till I gently remind him about not intending to hold any stake in his gourmet boutique.
Offended by my curtness, my prodigal friend nudges me into picking a flavour compulsorily. With very little choice I pick what seemed to be the lesser devil among all, a Chocolate Sorbet that seemed bitter enough to be an imposition in school. Like this, between the two of us, we had ordered two scoops of underwhelming ice creams that only costed us a little less than our kidneys would’ve in an organ racket.

We perch on tall wooden stools that belonged in tacky bars, from where I resort to condescending patrons around the counter over death by sorbet. After all laughing at our misery was the best way to go about according to this thirteenth century Tamil poet with a knee long beard.It was fascinating to notice pretentious people discussing and deconstructing ice creams with a verve reserved to Michelangelo’s work; guessing the epiphanies which would’ve lead into creating these melting art forms. All this, while my friend was enjoying his five bean vanilla ice cream that tasted like cold horlicks- closed eyed like in a Beatles concert -from the other end of the table.

As I dared to venture a helping from my cup, I began to realise that these gelatin grenades were in fact the most military ones out there, for they almost never melted. What bends before their resilience is the spoon with which we try to excavate, as they remain intact on the tongue forever.

Finally, as we made our way out, my friend couldn’t stop drawing superlative parallels to the frozen malt beverage he had had, notwithstanding my face buried in the phone’s display. Noticing my lukewarm response to his desserted orgasm, the ritual of him condescending my gourmet preference ensued. I smiled to myself at the sight of a light at the end of the road, which was from a ice cream joint I quite liked. After all, like all good things, bad things come to an end as well.

Saturday, Shatabdi and stuff like that

It was ten to five as I woke up to the screech of my attention seeking alarm- late yet again- what with the rerun of Friends occupying hours of my sleep, night after night these days. So couldn’t do the things I was planning  to do, like a few hundred burpees or push ups to appear, stiffer and thinner in the right places to turn befitting to a white linen shirt I had bought. Screw you Chandler.
I had a train at six to catch and here I was dazed, far from ending my night’s stand with the bed. Mom and caffeine got me on my feet- barely so – as I reluctantly slid into the Uber summoned to take me to the railway station.

This particular cabbie had a twisted sense of humour if his playlist was anything to go by, which took me a while to figure out. He started with M.S.Subalakshmi going, ” Punarapi jananam, Punarapi maranam…“(One is born again, One dies again…) and I was overwhelmed by the serenity of the rendition.Well, who wouldn’t be at that time of the day.As I continued to linger a little longer in my reverie, it segued in the cryptic existentialism of the next song-“Ponna usuru vandhuruchi…“(Life that went, came back..). And the way he was manoeuvring with disdain through speed-breakers and sharp turns;  he seemed quite determined to visit the town southwards of life. And I was being dragged along like a rag doll, before I rained in his parade.
All it took was a choice few words about his lineage, a gentle reminder about the possibility of him having to face the firing end of his employment and voila, the song and the gear changed! The buildings and trees stopped appearing like blurry-fleeting images from the window. Well, nothing works like swear words in this part of the world. It’s not like he drove like he had the prime minister  behind, but at least I stopped being able to count the bumps on the road with my back till the station came.

As I stepped into the station, little did I know that there was still some ammunition left in the morning which had already expended the adrenaline of a bungee jump by then.

The friend who was travelling with me to Bangalore called up from the coach and cut the call with a wry instruction,”Come fast“.This reasonable person had booked the tickets, wouldn’t give me the coach number of the train and was reminding me to up the ante to a train with twenty other coaches.
Running in crowded places in Chennai can be quite a task at times -as daunting as running against a sliding sand dune. While the outgoing crowd doesn’t make space, the incoming one competes and hinders. Finally with a few minutes left, sanity prevailed over him as he texted the coach number.

As I wove my way to my seat, the next scheduled entertainment for the morning was staring at me. Apparently my friend couldn’t find seats together to book as it was a last minute plan. After a failed attempt at asking this person to exchange his seat, my friend had perched next to a fragile looking septuagenarian whose face had more wrinkles than the pashmina shawl around his neck. I was left high and dry with this person next to me, who had Dravid‘s first session determination plastered across his face with a tacky film magazine in hand. This hirsute wouldn’t relent to my request to switch seats as well, even if it meant depriving two friends of their company and me of some space in my own seat.Man, was he big. He held in him meat enough for an entire hamlet to feast upon.

Talking of feasts, I had a rendezvous with what Indian Railways’s idea of one was. It started with a trolley that waltzed its way into my coach, with infinite red trays arranged symmetrically. My mouth welled up with saliva at the sight of this elaborate red herring till I saw what the tray contained-A single Marie Biscuit packed to perfection!
Marie biscuit on a red tray is not hospitality, but hostility. This is one thing we’ve learnt to dodge consistently during tea times at home and have deployed as an effective weapon against out of town relatives who dropped in without prior notice. In short Marie is the Indian middle class’s silent “fuck-off”. And here it was deconstructed into as many headcounts and circulated like one of these compulsory ads on youtube, that one had to   encounter first before the video he really wanted to watch.

Before the “Marie”-scar could heal, the breakfast made its grand entrance.

If bad karma was edible, it would’ve pretty much looked like my meal that consisted of pongal that resembled idli spread across a  vaster geography, chutney that resembled sambar and sambar that resembled rasam. Little did I anticipate this when I hopefully answered,”Vegetarian” in binary to a question about my meal preference.
But there were people who dealt differently with their meal like the cute kid opposite me, who without a clue was putting to practise principles of mergers and acquisitions, albeit on a smaller scale as she combined the isolated omelette with the vacant bread that tasted like feet, when everyone around were going for jam. Smart girl steered clear from the evil trinity of pongal, chutney and sambar.

Relief came much later after the tables were cleared,  in the form of packaged juice which seemed to obviously have escaped the chef’s intervention.

Whatever sensory satisfaction couldn’t possibly be achieved through my mouth, I was attempting with the eyes. After all the Chennai-Bangalore route is quite the picturesque stretch. But how was fate going to let my redemption be such a low hanging fruit if the turn of events since daybreak were anything to go by. I was gorging on the green strokes of the creator’s artistry as the morning’s culinary fiasco was starting to dissolve from my memory,till a fateful forearm came in my viewing perimeter. The density of the forest outside the window became a redundant sight before its miniature manifestation in the  hairy hands of the person next to me. He had all of Anil Kapoor‘s body hair in his forearms alone. So long to the audacity to sight see.

My train called itself a “Super Fast Express“. Yeah, it continued to do so with another hundred kilometres to cover, twenty minutes past the scheduled time of arrival. It was like going through one of my worst nightmare in exaggerated slow motion, without being able to wake up. Rahman came to my rescue briefly, when the Railways didn’t. I thankfully had made a playlist full of his songs which helped me slip into a blissful sleep. I was musing on a million things -internal and external, like my defeated taste buds on the tired tongue, the limbs that had forgotten to stretch; courtesy of the encroachment from the seat nearby, the promises the trip held ahead, the pretty woman who was wearing a sari relevant from her grandmother’s era and whether I would go on live till seventy five.

I woke up to the sonorous screech of the train. Never had anything been more music to the ears. The train had finally arrived at Bangalore. People were bursting out in all directions like stock characters in monster movies. But I was in no particular hurry, for I wanted to take a moment to ensconce in the full expanse of my seat for once, without having to contend for a piece of the arm rest with an entire village next to me. That epiphany, I got a slight inkling of how the first few minutes of the fifteenth night of August must have felt like in 1947.