Friday, August 5, 2011
Saturday, April 2, 2011
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Auburn was the first thing I googled. John Daniel’s was the second. Google took me to the right page even though I had used the wrong name. The next evening, at the age of 23, I bought my first bottle of Jack Daniel’s. It was the first time I liked the taste of a whisky. It was the first time I felt a sweet burn. It was smooth but not subtle. It would bite but also soothe. The taste stayed with me and I stayed with the whisky.
A little more than a year later, on another bitter winter night, I ran around my borrowed studio apartment like a man out of time. I stuffed my clothes into boxes and taped them up. I tried to clean up the room and the kitchen but didn’t make any real difference. My friend Yuki had come over to help me but I was too frazzled to actually direct him to do anything. After two hours of sorting, discarding and packing of the things I had called mine for the past year and a half, I was done. One week’s clothes in a backpack, some more clothes in a suitcase and everything else in boxes packed and taped. I poured the last Jack Daniel’s of my grad school days and sat talking to Yuki.
The next day, I flew to San Francisco. After spending two days there, I started my cross-country train journey. I took a train down to LA and then another on to Houston—the Sunset Limited. I was on that train for forty-two hours. I looked out the window, chatted with strangers and watched bad movies in the train lounge. I bought small one-hitter bottles of the old no 7 for the sweet black girl who chatted with me through half the trip, and for the Korean exchange student who was travelling the same route as I was. I argued with the guy who manned the café/bar on that train about Jack Daniel’s not being a bourbon.
“It is a bourbon,” he said, dismissing a man who pronounced it “Jeyck.” “My father grew up in Kentucky. I know bourbon.”
But it’s not even from Kentucky, I told him. After a while he decided to change the topic and gave me a bag of chips for free. The internet is full of websites explaining why Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon. Of course, that doesn’t matter to half the world who thinks that it is. Including British spies trying to appeal to American audiences: Judy Dench’s M makes the same mistake in “Golden Eye.”
A state later, around El Paso, I felt a sore throat coming on. I coughed all night. My throat felt like I had swallowed a cactus. I drank water in small sips and ran out. When the train stopped at El Paso I went to the vending machine to get some more water. A minute after getting back to my seat I heard a fellow traveler’s kid crying for water. His father asked me to look after him as he ran and got water. I gave them my bottle and ran back to the vending machine. Once there I realized my jacket, with my wallet, was back in the train. I had some quarters in my jeans but I needed a dollar more. The train was getting ready to go. I looked at the people around and found a woman who I had seen on the train. I asked her for a dollar. She looked at me. I said my wallet was on the train and the train was leaving. She kept looking and I said “For real.” She shrugged and gave me a dollar. I bought the water and ran as fast as I could, which is not very fast, but I did make it on the train.
I panted like a dog back at my seat and coughed as the train started crawling away. Water didn’t make any difference whether small sips or big. I took out my last one-hitter and sipped that instead. Whether it was that sweet burn that soothed me or the alcohol that put me to sleep, it got me through the night.
The sore throat worsened during my two days in Houston. The family I stayed with let me borrow some medicines and a bag of lozenges to take on the train to New Orleans and beyond.
My first night in New Orleans, I left my hotel to look for something to eat. It was to be just a night’s stay after which I was to board a train back to Baltimore. I walked around and saw a dimly lit bar in an alley corner. There were three other people in the bar—two older black ladies and the bartender, six feet something, dreadlocks.
I asked for a Jack.
“Straight up, I said, “I have a sore throat. I need something soothing.”
“Have it with a slice of lime, then. It helps,” a lady from the other corner said.
The bartender held up a piece of lime and looked at me for confirmation.
“I’ll try that,” I said.
I felt that whisky before I drank it: the sweet fermentation, the fresh bitter-sour of the lime, and the warmth. Then it made the soreness better, like paving a gravelly road with caramel. So, I stayed there for two more hours, had a few more and talked to the other three. They wanted to know about India, Baltimore and my life. We talked about the movie playing on a small TV in the bar corner—Boyz n the Hood— and about how young Ice Cube looked.
By the time movie ended, I was hungry. I asked the bartender if they served food by any chance. They didn’t but he gave me a big glass of pineapple juice and some crackers from a box that he had for himself—on the house. The ladies offered to drive me to the Quarter if I wanted to eat something substantial or to drive me to the hotel. I said no to both and walked back to the hotel. I didn’t take the train the next day; I spent two more days in New Orleans.
I have started a lot of friendships and strengthened more in bars. So, if you want friends, drink. If you don’t know what to drink, fall back on Jack Daniel’s. It won’t make you look banal or snobbish. It’s an American icon in the good sense of the word. The not-Bud light-Miller Light-Coors Light. I have had it in dive bars with broken toilets in New York, in an airport lounge in India with a bartender called Adolf, and overlooking the Himalayas, and it has always tasted good.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
[This is the second of two posts about stray dogs in my hometown of Mandvi-Kutch on the westernmost shore of India. The previous post can be seen here]
Say you are a doctor in rural India in the late 90s. One winter night, an hour or so after midnight, you hear someone knocking on your door. A young man from a shantytown nearby wants you to come and treat his mother. She has been suffering from fever for the last two days. Two days? You ask. Why in the world would you wait for two days and suddenly decide to wake me up? Sorry, he says. It’s real bad right now. Can you please come?
So you pack your visiting bag, like you have many times before, and leave with him. The house that the woman is living in does not have electricity. There is an open lamp, called a chimney in the local dialect, near her bed. You examine her. She is running a fever all right. But nothing else seems wrong. You decide to give her medicines for her fever. You instruct her daughter-in-law on what food to give her. She says, without coming out of the dark corner that she is standing in, that the old woman is not able to drink any water. What do you mean? You ask her. She repeats that her mother-in-law is not able to drink any water. You ask her to bring a glass of water. As she fetches the glass you try to tell the old woman, calmly, “Have some water, mother, you will feel better.”
The moment the water reaches her, you see her old body convulse violently and twisting away from the glass. The daughter-in-law steps back and looks at you. You are on your feet now. Did a dog bite her? You shout. Yes, the son says, about a week ago. The dog that hangs around the neighborhood, he says. We took her to Rukanshah pir and prayed for the bite to get better. She was OK until two days ago.
You know that it’s rabies and that it’s too late. You send her to a hospital. After a few days of semi-paralysis and delirium she dies in the hospital.
This story is true and it happened to my dad. This was one of three of his patients who have died of rabies. Another one, a farmer, was attacked by a rabid jackal while walking through a dried river bank. The jackal held on to the man’s hand so fiercely that the only way to get his hand back was to bang the animal against the ground and kill it. The man died in a week of encephalitis even though he was taking the rabies vaccine (the old-fashioned, fourteen-shots- in-your-belly regimen).
Then there was a woman who faked rabies after being bitten by a pet dog. She performed the whole drama—the convulsion, the hydrophobia, the salivating, everything. But the dog was healthy and showed no sign of rabies. While being taken to the hospital her family decided to stop by a temple to pray. The woman, who had staggered into the temple, came out smiling and cheerful as if nothing had ever happened to her.
There is a female dog that has lived, for the last six or so years, in the colony (our word for a cluster of bungalows) that I grew up in. About four years ago, when scavenging for food, she ate some sort of poison. The story goes that she ate some food from near a tree that had been sprayed with insecticide. She had a massive reaction and puked her guts out. People shooed her away and she somehow dragged herself into a yard of an abandoned house. She stayed there for about two months, hardly able to move. Some good Samaritans from the colony threw scraps of food at her. She ate some and threw most of it back up.
Months later she struggled outside that house and started going around the colony in the afternoons. Some people would throw leftovers from their lunches outside that she ate. One day during one of her post-scavenging siestas, a truck ran over her. Her hind legs were crushed. She yelped her misery and hate and somehow pulled herself into the abandoned yard. People still threw scraps at her even though most of them didn’t think she would make it this time. As the weeks went by she started healing. She started pulling her broken half-body and all her love for life behind her around the colony. She started bones around her broken joints. Slowly she could limp around. Then after a year or so she could walk. Nowadays, she walks with a strange gait where her stiff hind legs do little more than holding her body up.
Since the time that she started limping around, she has had puppies about six times. Many of the puppies are dead but some of them have made it and are chasing cars like the rest of their kind.
These days, she has a suitor. A Doberman, no less. The wimpiest damn Doberman you can ever imagine. He was raised on milk and bread and thinks he is a little Pomeranian or something. He has never barked in anger and never ran towards a human without his tail wagging. All day long he runs round her and tries to get lucky. She doesn’t seem to really be interested but the last time I was in Mandvi he was still trying.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
There are more dogs than people around here. People say that a lot in Mandvi. It isn’t true but more often than not it feels like it. One night last October my dad and I took a break from the day and sat near the seashore for a few minutes. After the seventh minute of the blessed calm, while we sat looking at Scorpius lying across the southern sky, a horde of wretched dogs invaded the beach. They howled and fought as they ran around, the males in heat. On that beach, that night, two humans, twenty dogs. Most streets feel that way in Mandvi apart from the main bazaar.
The dogs are mostly of three colors. Dark brown, light brown and a combination of both. Most are mangy and have their ears drooping. Many of them have limps acquired when running across the roads without looking both ways. There are some spots in town where you see them in dozens, camped out on the side of the road. During the daytime they mostly sleep, or look cars going by, their tongues sticking out. It’s after sundown when the party starts.
The first few hours of the night, the good people of the town go out for their walks. Many of them, mostly Jains, carry a big bag of toast with them. Whenever they pass by a dog they throw some pieces to it. All around the bridge that connects Mandvi to points east, there are people–couples, friends walking in groups, older men walking by themselves–tossing out toast to the dogs. This has been going on for so long that the many bakeries in town make two kinds of toast: those for people and those for dogs. It’s an act of kindness. A good deed, they say. To feed these hungry, meek, animals is a way to be close to God and be allowed in heaven. For some, it’s what they have been doing for generations. “Bread for dogs, grass for cows and birdseed for pigeons” has been a popular motto for good Samaritans. Of course, for many of them, this is the sole act of kindness they have done all day.
The dogs, of course, love this. They think that any person walking with something similar to a bag in their hand is out to feed them. The come after you, come right behind you and sometimes end up mistaking you for their toast. OK, not that often. But here is what happens very often: You are riding your motorbike or your scooter and you are about to make a turn around a blind corner. A big pack of dogs runs across the road to go from one man, bartering toast for a shot at heaven, to the other. Before you brake, you hit one of the dogs. Depending on its size, your vehicle either goes over it and slips, or slips with the dog being pushed ahead by your wheel. If you are lucky you get a nasty gash in your leg. If not, maybe a broken bone. That sturdy little mongrel walks away, limping and cursing you. What can also happen is that you were really alert and you braked and stopped at the corner. But the bus driver coming from the other side doesn’t see them in time and swerves toward you to save the dogs. There goes you and your bike. Both of the scenarios happen quite often and pretty much in the same areas
When they are not eating toast, or sleeping or trying to make, raise, or eat puppies, the dogs like to chase cars and bikes. They are territorial little bastards and god forbid your vehicle is faster than them. They will run after you as if this is the frozen Yukon River and they are a pack of wolves going after a moose (you). The advised thing to do in such cases is to slow down. The moment you do that, most of them go away. (The best thing to do is to carry a big stick, slow down, and smack the one closest to you.)
This all brings me to the cases of dog bites. My dad treats almost three cases every week. His is one of about 45 general practice clinics in town. So that makes how many dog bites a week? Until modern rabies vaccines became widely available you had to take about fourteen injections right in your belly. There were stories that these vaccines were made out of a sheep’s brain. Imagine, your choice was rabies or being poked fourteen times in your gut with sheep’s brain juices. I remember a classmate of mine in high school who didn’t tell his parents about a dog bite for days because he didn’t want to get those nasty injections (he didn’t get rabies, thankfully).
Many times poorer people prefer to take their chances with gods. There are two places to go in particular : the tomb of Rukanshah pir (a Muslim sage) about 15 kilometers from Mandvi, and the temple of Hadakmoi ma , a goddess in the outskirts of the town. The pir is more of a general-purpose deity but the goddess is prayed to specifically after dog bites. Her temple is a small structure by the highway and around a few areas where a lot of poor people have historically lived. Most of her devotees come from these shantytowns. Back in the day it was just one red statue on a small concrete platform between acacia bushes. Years later, thanks to a donation from a doctor and pooled money from the devotees, they made a roof over it. Ironic part was that stray dogs would hang out there all day and night, and piss on the tiles. The devotees got tired of constantly cleaning up and, last year, the people built a real, walled temple around it.
In the last decade, after Rabipur and other modern rabies vaccines being easily available, the pain and fear surrounding the treatment has significantly gone down. Less people depend on gods or at least solely on gods. The injections are expensive by Indian standards but not terribly so.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Damn it, Olympics! Aren’t you supposed to bring all of us together and shit? Thanks to you, when I go to England (whenever that happens), I am not going to be getting any hugs! Way to go. As if occasionally getting beaten up for being Indians wasn’t enough. Now even the hugs are gone.
VisitBritain, the national tourist agency of Britain, has released an etiquette guide for Londoners so they can learn more about other cultures and don’t end of offending tourists. I couldn’t find the guide itself but coverage is all over the web (Try Huffington Post or CNN). The idea of the guide, according to VisitBritain, is
"So giving our foreign visitors a friendly welcome is absolutely vital to our economy. With hundreds of thousands of people thinking of coming to Britain in the run-up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012, this new advice is just one of the ways that VisitBritain is helping the tourism industry care for their customers, wherever they come from."
Amongst the tips are things that you may know from your knowledge of stereotypes, such as:
“The French can be rude and picky about restaurants” or “Never call a Canadian an American. Some Canadians take offense at being mistaken for U.S. citizens.”
Then there are some things you probably didn’t know:
“Pouring wine backwards into a glass indicates hostility to an Argentinian. Also, don't be offended by Argentinian humor, which may mildly attack your clothing or weight.” Or “Do not be alarmed if South Africans say they were held up by robots, which is their term for traffic lights.” (Damn those robots. Bliksem!).
And then of course there are things that you should have known but you didn’t. Such as:
“When meeting Mexicans, it is best not to discuss poverty, illegal aliens, earthquakes, or their 1845-46 war with America.” (Really?!)
“Don’t be bossy with people from the Middle East.” Really? Just with people from the Middle East? The rest of the world is a slut for authority?
And my favorite: “Hold off from hugging an Indian.”
There is also a more about Indians. "Indians are in general, an impatient lot, and like to be quickly attended to. The more affluent they are, the more demanding and brusque they tend to be." And “avoid physical contact when first meeting someone from India. Being touched or approached too closely in initial meetings can be considered offensive, even if the intention is entirely innocent or friendly.”
Some of it is, of course, true. The treatment of service staff in India and the West is very different. Service is taken literally and you really order your food there. And, yes, rich Indians can be douchebags, but is that a race thing or a bank balance thing?
I understand that making fun of this guide while sitting in New York and never having been to England is as stupid as some of the things in the guide itself. And the guide is well meaning: the British sense of humor is sometimes too caustic for outsiders without meaning to be. I am sure that has been responsible for lot of unnecessarily hurt feelings and a lot of rich British comedians. But what the fuck is up with not hugging us?
Which Indians are we talking about? Indians who have lived in England for a few generations? A thing about Indians from my father’s generation (and older) is that they tend to become more Indian when they are living outside India. They keep a snapshot of India, captured from the time they left it, alive in themselves. Are we talking about those Indians? Yes, they can seem a bit unfriendly. Yes, their daughters may flirt with you but will not go out with you. But they are already there, amongst you, regardless of the Olympics. They may perennially be in respect-me-and-I-will-respect-you mode. But if anything, they need to be hugged a little tighter.
Or are we talking about the younger class of Indians who may come to visit England during the Olympics? Trust me, I grew up with some of them, they are not afraid of physical contact. Unless it’s your knuckles touching their jaws.
Ok, so leaving the complaints about not getting hugs aside, my problem with the guide is that it’s made for Londoners. Isn’t London one of the world’s greatest, most culturally diverse cities? Do they really need this awkward guide? Maybe the idea is the people of the city, even though they have been living with immigrants from all around the word, don’t really know that much about each other. And a guide like this will help?
Monday, February 15, 2010
The fruit vendor has a little stall made up of empty fruit boxes overturned to make tables, and a tarp roof tied up against the building fence and two long metal rods. That stall has been there for as long as I can remember. Now, of course, it's run by the son of the man who used to run it when we were younger.
"Where are the Apples from?" my cousin asks him.
"America!" the kid responds, pointing to the Washington apples sign.
"And the guavas?"
Apart from the tiny, "Elachi", bananas all the fruits on sale at that little stall have been imported from somewhere.
As we are leving my cousin points to the Tamarind. "that too"
"Bullshit.", I think, "There is no way India would be importing tamarind".
But on the box it says, in big red letters, Product of Thailand.
That evening we decide to have Shawarmas for dinner from a place my cousin really likes. It's a small butcher store that also doubles as a catering business. The man who runs it used to be a food inspector for an airlines and was stationed in Dubai for a long time. He picked up his taste for Shawarmas from there and decided to start selling them after retiring.
He is a pleasant man in his late 50s; an incarnation of the Christian uncle stereotype of 60s/70s Hindi movies : soft spoken, well dressed with his shirt tucked in, a slight bobble of head while talking and flawless english. His store sits on dusty nook in an area of Borivli called the IC (Indian Christian) colony. IC colony is right behind LIC colony (LIC stands for Life Insurance Corporation and just happens to rhyme with IC).
He starts the heat up the Shwarma chicken stack and start arranging the fixings for the sandwich as he talks to us about virtues of the sandwich. "It's value for money. It's healthy. I marinate my chicken with olive oil so no bad fat." He makes his sandwich in a thick chapati, with a little home made humus, a little cabage salad, pickles, a little yougurt sauce, a few french fries and pickled chile if you want more spice. It's quite flavorful even though the chicken is a tad dry. And there is no hot sauce. It's 50 Rs, which is not cheap by mumbai standards but not expensive either.
As I am leaving he asks me if I liked and if I have had a Shawarma before. I say it's a popular street food where I live. Do you live in Middle East, he asks. I say, no, I live in New York. Oh, yes, it's popular there too? Yup it is and they have hot sauce there!
Monday, October 12, 2009
So, seeing John Woo less than 100 feet away from me on the stage of Asia Society after the screening of his new movie, Red Cliff, was surreal. Not just because I had immensely enjoyed his movies, when I was younger, because he doesn't look like he made those movies. He is not very tall, almost completley bald and has a smile that makes him look like a Buddha impersonator. He said he doesn't drive, or know any martial arts or own any guns. He said he enjoys musicals and was a dancer in his childhood; not surprising knowing how choreographed his action sequences are.
Red Cliff, his first movie in China after 15 years of working in Hollywood, is very much a John Woo movie and good one. He made it as two separate movies (more than two hours each) for the Asian audience and cut it into a two and a half hour kovie for the English language release. The result is an ambitious, some time indulgent, sometime cloying movie with spectacular action scenes. I have not seen such beautifully stylized sword and spear war scenes, involving super-lithe but still normal human beings, since Gladiator.
He explained that he thought Asian audiences may be more intrested in the story and the characters than the western audiences who would go to the movie for the action. Probably right. When hard boiled came out the log line in the US was "One Cop, One Criminal, Ten Thousand Bullets."
An over-discussed topic in American media is John Woo's obsession with "brotherly love". This being the fancy-speak for tough dudes being kinda affectionate with each other without actually kissing. It's hard to digest for media here I guess. The closest it ever got was Miami Vice and hey, that was the 80s. He was asked that question at the screening and smilingly brushed it off. I wonder if Michale Mann gets to answer that question as often.
I wish Indian movie directors see this movie. This is what Jodha Akbar could have been (should have been given the potential of the story instead of the ameturish godawful mess that it was). There has not been a single good war movie made in India (no, Border was not a good war movie), or a single good period-movie since Mughal-e- azam.
Friday, November 28, 2008
I, and many of my countrymen, have always respected CNN for its fairness, efficiency and tenacity. Please don’t ruin it.Thanks,
Monday, May 5, 2008
This was the guy who cut the sleeves of his already ridiculously tight t-shirt to show off his new biceps as he walked around holding his forearms at a 45 degree angle. He was one of the few guys who could break the ice with any girl in college. But then he would keep on breaking the ice till he drowns in the water. He had so much potential – of unrequited love and heartbreaks. And he did achieve pretty much all of it.
One day, out of the blue, I received a copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” sent from him at my cousin’s place in Mumbai. That was the day I was leaving for Nepal and I took the book with me. I was stuck in the hotel most of the time due to the insurgency and cloudy weather. That book was a life saver.
Now he is getting married, with this beautiful girl that he met through their parents. He was the last person who I expected to get an arranged marriage and yet it’s not surprising at all that he did. I have had my friends getting engaged and married ever since I was 19. But, somehow this guy getting engaged makes me feel old. A very “Bell tolls for thee” feeling.