Car Talk

Cut to a few years back. Lavanya and I enter a car dealership, excited, dreaming shiny new cars – after all, first cars are bought just once. A salesman greets us at the door – a younger, taller Dennis Farina .

“Hi, welcome to our dealership. I am John. (or Jacob, or some such name).”

He then offers his hand to Lavanya.

“Hi John. I am Lavanya.”

” ‘cuse me?”

“Laa-van-yaa”

“Oh, ok.” Turns to me. And duly shakes my hand, almost squishing it. Wincing, I mouth, “Karthik.”

“Sorry?”

“Car – thick, like a car that is fat.”

A little pondering. “Ummm… Can I call you Bob?”

We left.

__________

Later, much later, we head back to our car one evening, and it wouldn’t start because we had left the lights on. We wait outside the car trying to flag down someone for a jump start. Cue the arrival of a knight in shining armor. An Indian knight to boot. Shining Armor being a gleaming, black BMW. Knight gets down, and asks us, “Can I help you guys?”

“Yeah, can you give us a jumpstart? I have the cables right here.”

“Sure,” he says and opens the gleaming, new black hood. Inside, all the paraphernalia seem to be hidden under a plastic canopy, meant to reduce engine noise. A 50 grand car better have something extra. He lifts the edge of the sheath, and peers underneath. He then proceeds to walk over to the other side of the car, and does another lift and peer.

“Hmm…”

After this pretty cryptic explanation, he mutters someting about trunks, and goes on to open the trunk. There are a couple of tennis racquets and a few balls in there. He moves the racquets away, and after a couple of minutes spent with his head inisde the trunk, he emerges with a quizzical look.

“Umm…”

“Is there a problem?” I ask.

“Well, um, not really. But I can’t seem to find the battery in my car.”

“Oh!” With suppressed grins, we see the knight off, and start waiting for another one in armor less shiny.

Lost In Translation

Was Digby sex crazy? And is there more to The Abyss than meets the eye? The fine art of marketing movies involves not calling a spade a spade.

Once upon a time, before iPods had been invented, there was not much a teenager taking a bus to school for an hour every day could do to entertain himself.

Except to listen. To the conductor screaming at college students traveling on the “footboard”; and boys that got into the girls section of the bus. Listening also to the pretty girl from Nirmala College talking to her friend, and to the old man sitting next to me yelling at precariously placed people holding on to his seat, to take their underarms out of the way. And smiling, as he turned to you and complained that no one takes showers anymore. Listening to whatever song caught the driver’s fancy as he played the same tape over and over again.

Idhu Enna Mudhal Irava, Ammadi Illamaikku Pudhu Varava

(This is our first night together, Wow! we are new arrivals at the altar of love)

And to look. At the convent girls that pretended to not notice. And college girls that really didn’t notice. And at the city through windows with red metal bars going across their length, and black accordion blinds on top held together with flimsy shoelaces that always looked like giving away but never did.

Coimbatore was an industrial town. Everywhere along my route, there were cotton mills and foundries; button factories and pumpset manufacturing houses. Sprawling campuses, cordoned off by compound walls with broken glass pieces on top to prevent intruders, and stern sounding warnings asking people to “Stick No Bills”. Warnings notwithstanding, the walls existed for posters – large, colorful banners glued to them with starch. Most of the posters advertised movies, although there was the odd one about the upcoming visit of a politician or the impending arrival of Jesus Christ. Every Friday morning, the posters would change, and from the longevity of a poster or a billboard you knew if a movie was a hit or a flop. With no Yahoo! to tell you which movie was playing where, the posters were often the only source of cinema information.

Every movie theater played four shows a day, and in the suburbs the morning show was reserved for skin-flicks – mostly Malayalam movies that promised more skin than they delivered. The posters for these movies were designed by marketing geniuses – mostly just the name of the movie and the picture of a scantily clad girl – with a giant “A”covering the key parts. Coming to think of it, the girl in the poster could have been fully clothed: all that you could see through the A was her face. The A meant that the movie was for “Adults Only”, although a few kids in school uniforms that looked suspiciously like mine would sneak in once in a while. To eliminate any confusion, these posters also had a translated version of the title in Tamil, usually enclosed in parantheses. Translated it would seem, by the same team of marketing geniuses.

Thus an innocent sounding name like Mazhu(ax in Malayalam) became “A Father-In-Law’s lust” in Tamil. Next Friday, a new set of posters clarified: “A Father-In-Law’s justified lust”. That set my heart at rest.

The atrocious Endless Love did brisk business for weeks, advertised as the “Secrets of love, sex and childbirth.” A movie called Amazon Women (I think) was promptly renamed to a more appropriate sounding ” Naked beauties in the King’s court.” (Raajavin Kottayil Nirvana Azhakigal).

Sometimes the theaters would play a home brewn soft porn clip in the middle of a movie – in such cases, the original movie didn’t matter much. “Digby , the biggest dog in the world” was a movie my dad had taken me to when I was young. Imagine my surprise then when they screened it at a theater next to my house a few years later, with posters that screamed (in paranthethized Tamil) – “Sex Crazed Big Dog” (Adangatha Kaama Veri Piditha Ratchatha Naai). I hastily tried to recollect the movie, and concluded that I must’ve been too young to understand the lust part of it when I had watched the movie with my dad.

Conditioned thus, most people equated English movies with skin flicks. Midway during The Abyss, a guy got up and screamed: “Show us some Skin”. A few minutes later, he stomped out of the theater in anger. Later, when watching Legends of the Fall in Chennai, someone leaned across and whispered in a conspiratorial tone: “Does this movie have any scenes bro?” I could only offer him an understanding grin.

PS: Navin’s post about the Tamil title of a comic book, set off the train of thought leading to this post. And yes, we’ve both outgrown our school uniforms.

Juggling

When I am halfway through this, and about a hundred pages into this and a few chapters into this, why would I want to go back and read The Diamond Age again last weekend?

Because it is so cool. It is (Uber, Meta and other punky adjectives that cool gets these days) cool.

By the way, Stephenson’s books will only get longer according to Wikipedia, which calls his style reflective of Baroque Literature. Scrumptious. After the slightly disappointing (keyword: slight), Baroque Cycle, wonder what he is working on next.

What’s in a name?

Salem was the wrong town to be a bibliophile. The sole source of books was a lending library whose name I don’t remember, at Shantam Complex about ten kilometers from my hostel. Or about a half hour on an Anna Transport Corporation bus, if you don’t count the walk from Four Roads. The library was manned by a couple of women – one of them older and obviously in charge. In addition to maintaining a database of books in her head, she was on first name terms with most writers – “Have you read Sidney’s latest?” and “Robert’s new book is coming out next week.”

The younger girl’s job description seemed limited to buying tea for the lady-in-charge, and repeatedly drawing her already drawn dupatta over herself whenever engineers entered the library. Not that we cared.

It was here that Sanjay introduced me to John Le Carre. From Sheldon and Ludlum to Le Carre was a heady leap, a leap that would later lead to Rushdie and Proulx, Atwood and Arundhati Roy, Stephenson and Gibson. On that day though, I’d just finished reading Naïve and Sentimental Lover and wanted to get back to reading something more, um, familiar. Late that evening, I entered the library and young girl promptly adjusted her dhavani. I ignored her and spoke to the lady-in-charge, who was a little unhappy with me:

“This book is late.”

“Sorry, it is a little dense. Took me a while to read it.”

All this while I was scouring the Le Carre shelf for a book I wanted. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the book that brought him instant fame. Unable to find it, I asked her

“Do you have The Spy Who Came in From the Cold?”

“Who is the author?”

“John Le Carre.”

“Oh, John?”

“Yes, John. Do you have it?”

“I think we do, my boss just finished reading it, and it will be available tomorrow.”

“Will you remember? Maybe I’ll ask a friend to pick it up for me tomorrow.”

She took a sheet of paper, and folded it into half. Then another fold, and then another. Then she carefully licked along the folds. And equally carefully, she tore the paper along the folds, fashioning a post-it note of sorts. She asked me for the title again, and I repeated it. And she scribbled something in the note, and left it on her desk. “Now, I’ll remember.”

The next day, I looked frantically for someone that was going into town. I could only land a guy I barely knew, but I asked him anyway. “Can you go to the library in Shantam and pick up a book for me? Just go ask the lady in the library, mention my name, and she’ll give you the book.” After some hesitation, he agreed.

Later that night, I went to his room. “Did she give you the book?” I asked. “Yes,” he said handing me the book and added, “But what is Garp?”

“Garp?”

“Yeah,” he said pointing to the title. It was ‘The World According to Garp’ by some guy called John Irving. Some type of giant mix-up had occurred.

I had a whole weekend to burn, all my friends were out, and I hated the TV room. Now, no book. Disappointed, I walked back to my room and contemplated my options. There weren’t any, so after uttering a few choice expletives, I reluctantly decided to read the first few pages and then go back Monday and give her a piece of my mind.

Early the next morning, I was done with the book, having read it in one sitting. It was the most satisfying book I had read. Sleepy but content, I turned to the next page to read the author bio. Pasted to the page was the library call notice. Stuck to the notice with cellophane tape was the make shift post-it note. It said, in Tamil:

Karthik
John
Book with a long name

Yum

Yum is a cup of tea from the Nescafe automatic vending machines in India. In Cardamom and Ginger flavors. Especially the one inside a decrepit plaza on Cathedral road. Tired from following Lavanya around as she shopped for clothes, the yelakka tea that the young boy filled into a plastic cup, turning the tap off with a stylish flourish was, well, yum.

Yum is Haagen Dazs Mango. Surely, a product from paradise. Cold Stone Creamery, you pale in comparison. But don’t worry, not too pale.

Yum is the Sambar from Annapurna in Coimbatore. Matchless. Sorry Mom.

Yum is the Bhaingan Bhartha that Lavanya makes. Incomparable. Transcendent. And all this.

Yum is a Rahul Dravid on drive. Yummier was a wristy Azharuddin shot. But the match fixing left a bad taste in your mouth. Yummiest is a Sachin Tendulkar straight drive. And he knows it – watching him hold a pose after is a delight.

Yum is Mysore Pak by Mom. Krishna sweets can try all they want. Yum is also how she pronounces the letter M. I used to pronounce it Yum too, till Mrs. D’Souza told me otherwise in second grade. It was my mom’s money that sent me to that school so that I could be snooty and correct her.

Of Romance and Sharing

Dairy Milk turned hundred this year. Apparently,

Throughout history chocolate has been associated with romance and sharing.

Hmm.

Before Playstations and iPods, chocolates were rewards. When I interviewed for my first grade – reciting Ding Dong Bell, (stopping at Tommy Stout) identifying colors counting pens and trying hard not to cry at the sight of the rude man who wore a gown – I got to choose a reward, and picked a Five Star and a Dairy Milk with no fruits or nuts, and even convinced my poor dad that I could eat them all by myself. I liked the Five Star better, maybe because I was a boy. Or just because unlike Dairy Milk it wasn’t partitioned into square blocks that somehow made it acceptable for people to ask for a piece or three. Screw that! So much for sharing.

Later in life, chocolates were romantic overtures. Especially Five Star, because all the ads had pretty girls and boys getting together over one. Love letters without chocolate didn’t mean much. The ones with chocolate didn’t mean much either, but they definitely tasted better. I gave Lavanya a bar of white chocolate from Lindt, once and got informed that it tasted like Horlicks. So much for romance.

Engineering Conversations

Being married to a fellow electrical engineer has its advantages. Tell me, how many couples you know could’ve had a conversation like this?

“Why do you care now? You didn’t seem to in the afternoon.”

“Umm.. well…”

“Your concern goes up and down like a sine wave. I hate that!”

“Oh, come on! What do you want me to be?”

“Constant. Like the Fourier Transform of an impulse.”

Anamika, there is at least one soul that understands you when you say “I want to collapse my wave function into you.” Sorry, but Lavanya thinks that’s inane.

Fond Farewells and Wishing Angels

Ten more days. Next Monday, dad and mom are leaving for India. After nearly a year, making tea twice a day (with ginger and cardamom); fretting endlessly over how much we work; worrying constantly about why I sleep so late and converting each dollar spent into rupees, they’ll be gone. Farewells are hard. Farewells are hard, but this is the hardest of them all. Because my dad is seventy and mom is not much younger than that, and when people are that old…

Lavanya tells me there are angels in the sky that say ‘Tha-Dhas-Thu’ at random intervals. If you say something out loud , and it happens to coincide with a thadasthu, it will come true. So, she says, think good thoughts. I will. Maybe the angels will hear me now when I say I want our parents to come back here and spend a long time with us, make me more teas, call me lazy and play monopoly with us as we wait for hurricanes to pass. And that they get to play with their grandkids.

On (bad) Language

Every kid that went to an “English Medium convent” school in India will have at least one to tell. Most of them are apocryphal. Some are classics that everyone wants to claim as their own. Y’all must’ve heard at least one. If not, you will after you’re done reading:

The bad English incident.

The tales all involve a teacher with a less than perfect command of English, forced to talk to students in English. Why? Because it is an English medium school, dummy.

Like the teacher that warned his mischievous class about the impending arrival of the principal thus. “Be careful, the principal is rotating the school”. Or the guy that asked someone on a particularly sultry afternoon to “go open the window, and let the atmosphere come in.”

When I was in college, a favorite story that did the rounds was that of a professor who went to a movie with his wife. He ran into a student at the cinema. So the next day, he tells the bemused student, “I saw you with my wife at the theater.” Lavanya’s teacher was known to tell everyone that “their education was surrendered under the inside of his shoes.”

What I am going to narrate really happened. I heard it with my own two ears. And to make sure I heard it, the guy repeated it at least thirty times a year for ten years. We had strict hair-length requirements, and Monday when we gathered together for the school assembly was when we were checked.

Mr. L in particular enjoyed this chore. He would stand in front of a student, run his fingers through his hair, let it linger for some time and pull it out. And then, he’d advise him: “You should cut your hair cut.” He would then pull back, look at all of us in the line, and loudly bark, “Look your own eye”. Yes, that’s exactly what he said, and no, I don’t think any of us knew what it meant. We all kept mum though because he had a long cane, and when he beat us with it he would keep asking us to “Take up front”. I think that meant he wanted us to stop covering our asses with our hands, which by the way is bad career advise.

Link: The bad English league. Or this.