Does anyone ever get tired of the ocean?
It took me a few days of being in Hyderabad to parse the T in ‘TSRTC’ on local buses – it stands for Telangana. Six years ago, I would have been waiting for an APSRTC bus. But the hulking metal and glass blocks, regardless of political affiliation and State Road Transport Corporation, still make my heart lurch when they elbow their way past my rickshaw or bike.
The steamed dosa at Chutney’s is no longer called the Chiranjeevi dosa. When I looked for it on the menu, I realized that I could not remember if the name had ever actually existed officially or if it was just a bit of apocrypha we parroted to out-of-towners. (But no, apparently the Chiranjeevi dosa does exist, and the actor’s family plans to capitalize on the name and the recipe. The official story however makes mention of an unknown restaurant in Mysore from where Chiru-garu got his idea, while we were told that Chutney’s came first.)
There are more Chutney’s restaurants now; one in Jubilee Hills, which we once turned our nose up towards because it was not the “real” restaurant, and one in Inorbit Mall in Madhapur. There are probably more that I don’t know of.
On my last day in Hyderabad, I went to the original restaurant at Nagarjuna Circle, joined by a friend who continues to work at our original workplace – the office of which has now moved to within walking distance of the restaurant. He will complete 14 years with the same company in May; had I stayed on, I would have celebrated the anniversary two days after him. “I hardly come here, though”, he said, making me groan in disbelief. He then ordered the South Indian thali while I got the steamed dosa, and the moment the gigantic plate loaded with the small bowls came to the table, I knew I had made a mistake.
“The city has moved”, my friend Shahnawaz said. “We hardly go to Begumpet anymore. We don’t need to.” Indeed, Madhapur and Gachibowli, once areas confused about their identity in the city greater, have embraced the “hitech” appellation whole-heartedly. The area, especially on weekday evenings, buzzes with festive. Brightly-lit alleys have busy hawkers serving tea, jalebis and bhajjis to a crowd that is dressed in a combination of pajamas and business casual; mostly young, some holding hands, others sitting inside cars waiting for orders to be served. I did not remember neo-Hyderabad this way, my memories of the Madhapur area is that of buildings in construction, desolate rocky areas punctuated with promises of dwellings both residential and business; unfriendly landlords and long commute times.
The first time I go from that part of town towards the older part of the city, the auto-rickshaw driver sputters and winds his vehicle through streets and past buildings that make me question my existence. The Metro is coming up, a winding spinal cord of giant pillars that introduces more chaos into my mental map of the city. It feels like being in a dream-version of Hyderabad, where the only thing I am sure of is that of my presence in the city, but there is nothing I can grasp and call my own. It is only when we reach Jubilee Hills check post that my brain realigns itself; from then on, I can make out landmarks of yore. Familiar buildings house unfamiliar names, but at least I can anchor myself to the once-that-was. I passed by a building that housed a restaurant I had come for a third date; another that had had a beautiful garden once. I went past a lane that a friend from work had decided was where the actress Trisha lived, and he would rev his bike through it every now and then while returning from the office, hoping that the lady would show up, and ask him for a ride, and then they would live happily ever after.
We reach Somajiguda Circle and I realize that I should have given better directions to the driver, because the road is now blocked and we can no longer make our way towards Raj Bhavan Road unless the guy drives another kilometer and makes a U-turn. But then, the guy reminds me that we are indeed in Hyderabad – he cranks his engine, swerves to the right, and drives through oncoming traffic on the other side of the road; honking twice as much as the annoyed drivers who still make way for him, he reaches the other end of the circle and merges not-so-smoothly with the rest of the traffic. Then he hears me guffawing in the backseat, and grinning wide, throws me a high-five.
Later, he tries to run down a kid who has walked to the middle of the street to pick up an errant kite. We are apparently friends, and he decides that his rickshaw is now a shared vehicle, stopping in front of random people to ask them if they want to get in. When I get down at my destination, the guy insists that he can change lanes again to make sure I stop right in front of where I am headed. But I do not wish blood pressure surges upon the good people of Lakdi-ka-pul, and proceed to cross the road myself. The Hyderabadi way, of course, which is to casually saunter across and hope nobody’s brakes fail. I nearly die twice, but nothing untoward happens to anyone. Maybe some wonder at the manic grin on my face, but I don’t really think about it.
Richard had originally imagined London as a gray city, even a black city, from pictures he had seen, and he was surprised to find it filled with color. It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries. It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names—Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch—and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn, or, more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every color and manner and kind.
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
It’s April already, and I haven’t had the time to upload a playlist for March. I come armed with excuses, messieurs et madames. World Travel! Week Long Meetings! Whirlwind museum visits! Whoosh-hit-and-run nephew visits 1! Washing dirty laundry after said world travel! Woulda-coulda-shoulda! Whiplash from alliterative phrasing!
Long story short, a day after I am back from my month-long trip to India and the UK, I found out that I had to leave for Europe again – Amsterdam this time – for work. I know, I know – work and Amsterdam, scoff all you want, but here was the charmer: I had to get a Schengen visa. And that is always an adventure when there are deadlines involved. The other point to be noted was that like the British visa, this one also was not issued in Los Angeles, but in Washington DC, even though there was a consulate in Los Angeles, thankfully. So I was not holding my breath. The available appointment date that I got was for 3 days before the journey – and just before giving up, I tried two things: to apply separately to the Belgian consulate, which had open appointments the same week, and sending an email to the Netherlands consulate in LA explaining the situation.
Jumping ahead, there was this common theme of my travel this time. The fact that the Dutch are misunderstood by many – and yes, I am generalizing. They get flak for their unsophisticated cuisine, their failed attempts to take over the world in the eighteenth century and their lack of concern about unrestrained drug use and general immorality 2. Everybody fails to notice that – the Dutch are fun, friendly, helpful and very very helpful. I said that twice, just to emphasize my point. 3 The lady at the consulate looked at my application, looked at the ghosts of Schengen visas past, hmm-ed and clucked 4, and then gently wondered if it would probably be more beneficial – hem? – to have a visa until 2017? I gaped for a bit, and vigorously agreed. She asked me to add a note to the top of my application form, which I did. (“and maybe also write thank you, just to keep them happy, hem?”) My mind, already having been blown at this invigorating concept that someone actually read additional text on an application form and responded to polite gestures, tried to adjust to the fact that this lady wanted me to get a long-term visa. And I got one! I am now mobile in the USA, the UK and all of the Schengen area until 2017, and that makes me feel very, very powerful.
Also: later, when I realized that I had to change something on my rental car reservation, I called up the service desk from Los Angeles, dreading the whole European service experience that everybody talks about. The lady who picked it up heard me out for about a minute, and asked if she could call me back since she was busy. And she did, even though it was 11 PM for her, and did all that was to be done, and told me her name so that I could personally speak to her at the counter when I landed. I asked for her as I was picking up my car, and even as she was helping out someone else (and was on the phone at the same time), she looked at me and exclaimed “Los Angeles!”, and wished me a good trip. 5
Despite this being a work trip, it proved to be a lot of fun. I met everybody I was supposed to, and also someone I wasn’t, but was glad to meet after a four-year absence from each other’s lives. I managed to spend time playing a rabbit-and-carrot board game with my nephew (and at least one reader is smiling right now) where he tried to get me to RTFM before playing, except the FM was written in French, fergoshsakes. I made it in time for a birthday – making it two years in a row, and we will try to do it the third year too. I visited Gent finally, with a friend whose name sounds remarkably like the city, and he took me to a fascinating museum that was part of a psychiatric hospital, with exhibits on death, depression and melancholia that made me wish I had more than a few hours to spare. I had my fill of Dutch Indonesian food and fruit beer, and took my annual walk through the American Book Center, the bookshop that made me appreciate bookshops again.
- I did not just use the words “hit and run” and “nephew” together, did I? Oh dear. ↩
- Sarcasm. Thank you. ↩
- Ironically enough, this is a generalization too. After all, it was a Dutch guy that nearly pinched my phone at Schiphol airport three years ago. ↩
- The clucking was at the sight of the Belgian Schengen from last year, which was a single-entry visa lasting for 3 weeks, the exact time period of my travel. It was like the Belgian authorities refused to believe that anybody would stay three weeks in Belgium for any reason but nefarious. ↩
- She was from Sixt Cars, and they are really good. I tried EuropCar before, and they were good too, but I would definitely go with Sixt next time. Although if you are renting a car in Amsterdam, you are going about it wrong. I have an excuse – I had to drive to Brussels and back. ↩
Most people say that Los Angeles is a bad place to be in if you don’t have a car. That’s just people who do not live in this city. People who live here refuse to believe you when they learn you do not own one. There’s shocked silence, and a hesitant query about how you do your groceries, or go to the office. Much wonderment about your mental (and financial) state. By the time you have been here a few months, you realize that in terms of your social status, being without a car is just one step above being homeless.
But good lord, if you think not having a car causes shock and awe, you should look at reactions when I mention that I take the bus. “THE BUS!!” – people exclaim. “Aren’t they – like – unsafe?” Everyone thinks that buses are filled with weirdos and homeless people who are out to kill, rape or spray body fluids on you. I do not claim omniscience, but nearly 11 months of regular commute has made me realize that most of these assumptions are far-fetched. Most LA people who take the bus are normal. There is the occasional person that smells of pee or the religious nut that babbles about how Jesus will save all of us if we are nice. I even got an arguer this one time, a lady next to me who kept having an argument with herself, a very loud one. (She won at the end, I think. Well, one of her.)
The only problem with buses in Los Angeles is the time these lumbering, polite hulks take to travel. That, and their low frequency at non-rush-hour times, including weekends. Buses on most routes travel close to empty. I don’t have to worry about lack of seats or road rage when travelling, and I get enough read-time. There’s the occasional interesting person you meet, either at the bus-stop or in the bus. There were two different people reading The Hunger Games just a few weeks ago, and we had nice, albeit brief conversations about Peeta’s true intentions – I kept a straight face and did not reveal spoilers, for the record. I’ve also seen a lot of the parts of LA that are considered seedy and unsafe in the nights, thanks to bus transfers. Waiting for a bus at 2 AM in Downtown LA is a peculiar experience that one cannot describe in words. It felt adventurous, but was probably a little stupid. Those may have been gunshots. Or just cars backfiring, I can’t tell.
Taking the bus has also cultivated a few lifestyle tics in me. Like the need to carry a few dollar bills and quarters everywhere I go. My hand involuntarily goes inside my right pocket, when I am leaving the house – key, phone, dollar bills, change. Bus passes? Not really too helpful with the different services – Culver City Bus, Metro Transit, Santa Monica Big Blue. The iPad’s always at hand, and I attach 15 minutes to every journey. Which happens to be the time it takes to get from my apartment to the closest Metro bus stop.
“Yet”, I always remember to add. “I do not own a car yet.” “When are you getting one?”, people ask. “I should, I know,” I say. I don’t tell them that I am postponing this arcane real-life ritual as much as I can. I am not sure why. Probably I have never really been attracted to cars, or tried to figure them out. Until very recently, every car looked the same to me – the only variants my mind could decipher were ‘frog-like’ or ‘bat-mobile-like’. I owned a scooter for a few years in Hyderabad, which served the purpose of getting from point A to point B very well. Except when it rained, but everyone knows that when it rains, you are supposed to sit at home, make hot onion pakodas 1 and watch movies or read. Fact is, yes, the lack of obsession about buying a car was also because my money was always earmarked for Other Things 2. One could make do without a car, but not a Dringenberg Sandman page. It helped that I stayed a few minutes away from the office. The only problem with everyday life was negotiating with auto-rickshaw drivers, but I stayed in Bangalore for a year. That inured me to meter manipulation and made me ruthless with scathing remarks about time and distance.
All right, fine, I agree, I make too much light of this. Of course it would be awesome to own a car. I could then go attend concerts every day. Go to Meltdown Comics every Thursday for the Nerd Melt shows. Heck, attend every fucking event I want to go to, without having to negotiate bus routes in my head. Head over to Artesia whenever I want some biryani. Do stuff. Do more stuff than what I do at the moment, at the very least. I generally give up on plans on weekends just because I would have to plan bus routes and keep some time aside for the inevitable delays. (“Not true”, Inner Voice exclaims. “You’re just lazy.” You’re right, Inner Voice, now shut up and think of what will happen in Episode 3 of Sherlock. We still have the last part of the weekend to watch it, right? “Oh, all right. Now hurry up with this tiresome self-obsessed post of yours.” Hmm, ok. Shall we? “Let’s.”)
I should have tried this last conversation with myself in a bus.