Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Commodore 64 was the first computer my father owned. He bought it a couple of years before I was born and loved it dearly. It looked nothing like the computers we know today. There was no hard disk; instead it had to be booted using a large floppy disk. There was no monitor either; the setup had to be plugged into the TV. The operating system was neither Windows, nor Linux. It wasn’t even DOS. It ran on BASIC. But most of all, I loved the keyboard. It was solid piece, as thick as a briefcase with chocolate brown keys encased in a light brown body. It was an imposing piece of equipment, typing on it made one look very important.

Everything looked mysterious and exciting. The large and dusty floppy disks in brown semi transparent boxes, the thick user manuals, the miles of interconnecting cables, the flashing red and green LED’s on the floppy drive, the eerie blue screen on the television; it all looked so advanced. My father looked like a Geek God when he was using the computer. I would watch in awe from a distance.

When my father wasn’t around, I would take the brown keyboard to the loo and then surrender to my wild Sci-fi fantasies. I was the pilot of a spaceship, the bathroom -my cockpit. Furiously typing commands on the keyboard, I ascertained enemy ship locations, warned sister ships, launched missiles, dodged enemy fire and escaped into hyperspace. Little did the makers of the Commodore 64 suspect that their product was being used on the potty to conduct nuclear warfare.

Within a short period of time the keyboard stopped working. My father never accused me but I think he felt I was somehow responsible. I didn’t breathe a word. The Commodore 64 was buried at the bottom of the cupboard never to be seen again.

When I turned 16 my father bought a Zenith PC that came with a dial up internet connection. My father and I listened with interest as the modem hemmed and hawed, squawked and screeched until a connection was established. After that we didn’t know what to do. We spent several minutes just waiting for something to happen, for a window to miraculously open and connect us to the only website we knew: It wasn’t until a knowledgeable friend dropped by that we double clicked on the internet explorer icon. From then on I was hooked.

The very next day, I came racing back from school knowing that no one would be at home. In a feverish state of excitement I switched on the computer and the modem, waited impatiently for the connection to be established. I opened Yahoo search and breathlessly typed “Pamela Anderson, NAKED”. It was my first brush with the infinite possibilities the internet offered. Until my mother came home an hour later, I gazed wide eyed at the screen as compromising pictures of the busty beauty flooded my senses.

If it was my first brush with cyber nudity, it was also my first lesson in the need for careful concealment of my dubious activities. Within minutes an email from VSNL arrived in the inbox warning me of the criminal nature of my pursuits and the punishment that was likely. I had no idea the email had come until my dad opened the inbox later that night.

What followed was a period of intense embarrassment. When my parents demanded to know what the devil was happening, I hurriedly came up with a cock and bull story of how possibly some one had hacked into our VSNL account and misused the same. My mother, a seasoned school teacher didn’t believe a word of it. My father however readily believed me and assured her that these things happen quite frequently, that cyber theft was a common occurrence. I felt couldn’t believe that he’d fallen for my story. Now when I look back I realize that my dad was just trying to save my skin.

With time I learnt to clear the history and remove the temporary internet files. I deleted cookies and used proxy websites. I was as careful as I could be. I always felt guilty though. My father used the computer to run mathematical software called MATLAB for abstract modeling. My own models were stark naked.

While my father and I frequently used the computer, my mother kept her distance. To me the computer was device to be used, misused and abused. She on the other hand would never turn it on but instead reverentially clean its surface everyday and warn me that if I didn’t dust the computer, viruses would enter and cause it to crash. I found her naivety painful and tried hard to ward off her superstitions. I never succeeded.

When she found other teachers at the school were beginning to use the computer to surf the internet, send email and make power point presentations, my mother too began to get interested. With me by her side, she hesitantly turned the computer on and began to explore its features. She never quite mastered it. She would open internet explorer before connecting to the internet, she could never remember where she’d saved her documents and when Microsoft Word formatted her text in ways she never asked for, she would have a nervous breakdown. She was always quite timid around the computer, afraid that any sudden movement would cause the computer to crash. If she hadn’t used the computer for a couple of weeks, she would forget the sequence in which it had to be turned on. The computer was always bigger than her.

But there were moments when the computer behaved and everything operated the way she wanted it to. During these moments, she would relax and grin, happy that she too knew how to use the computer. Having attended typing classes as a teenager, she would sit straight and primly type on the keyboard. I would watch from a distance and smile.

My grandfather was always curious to know what this internet thing was and asked me several times to explain it to him. I’d seat him next to me in front of the computer and enthusiastically launch into a detailed explanation of networks, servers, modems and websites. Within minutes he would be snoring gently.

I now use a HP pavilion laptop and it has been my friend, philosopher and guide for the last two years. In college I used it to make presentations, study, download music, watch movies and chat online into the early hours of the morning. When the hard disk crashed and had to be replaced, I suffered intense pangs of loneliness until it was fixed. Without a laptop, I had no identity, no place in the universe and no meaning in life. Friends would avoid me, knowing that I wanted their laptop. I was loath to join the other nomads who pathetically used the computer lab.

The Zenith PC now lies gathering dust in my house. Like the Commodore 64 it is a relic, no longer fit to be used in today’s fast paced world. It saddens me that’s it importance in my life was transient. For years it patiently bore the onslaught of my impatient fingers and took me to places far far away. I will probably never use it again but I can never throw it away. Perhaps one day in the future I wouldn’t mind if my son took it with him to the loo.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

'Watch Out! We are MBA!'

The title caught my eye the moment I entered the Crossword bookshop on Elgin Road. 'Caught my eye' is putting it rather mildly. Instead it scratched, bit and pummeled its way into my consciousness. Its title left nothing to doubt. One glimpse and I knew everything I had to know. Just another wannabe Indian author baiting clueless readers with the MBA tag.

Of course it could be plain jealousy. Another young Indian author with his book published while I drift along with hazy dreams of being a celebrated writer and no concrete evidence of getting there.

But then this is just another one in the whole slew of IIT-IIM books that have wormed their way into bookstores. Books include “Joker in the pack”, “IIM --> Ganjundwara", “Anything for you Maa’m”, “Above Average” and so on and so forth. The blame of course is to fall squarely on those who thought that they could get away with cloning “Five Point Someone”. While Chetan Bhagat’s first novel is good for a few hours of time pass (after which you must lend it to a friend and ask him not to return it), it irks me because without the IIT tag, it would have tanked. It works because we are normal people with average intelligence and we like to be assured that those who make it to the IIT’s and IIM’s are not demidgods but have problems just like you and me. Period. If the book instead had been based on an incident in just another ordinary engineering college we wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. It is by no means memorable. At some level all these books are Indian versions of "Snapshots from Hell", a nicely written account of life at Stanford. "Snapshots" was a lovely read. These Indian versions though are just sad.

I don’t think any of these books will be remembered a few years from now. It’s just a horde of wannabe writers with MBA degrees cashing in on the IIT, MBA craze. After all, don’t we all want to know what life is really like at IIM A?

The sight of 'Watch Out! We are MBA!' affected me powerfully. I felt like time was running out. With so many books coming out how was I possibly going to differentiate myself? What was I writing anyway? Did it not sound suspiciously similar to the very same material I had ridiculed?

I’d like to think that I will write something more enduring.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The week sees me perspiring in Calcutta. I'm here for my cousin Prashant's wedding and I'm trying hard to get used to the feeling of the shirt sticking to my back. After experiencing a frigid Delhi winter, playing in the snow at Manali and then finally lazing around in Bangalore's mild weather, Calcutta's humidity makes me gasp.

I'm also gasping because I cant believe Prashant is getting married. Yes, he's four years elder to me but we've always shared a great wavelength. I've never really consciously acknowledged the fact that he's almost thirty. In my mind its still child marriage. His partner in crime is Bengali and that makes the wedding and my extended family very interesting. I've never eaten so many sweets in one sitting. I'm still slightly pop eyed after consuming vast quantities of Sandesh and Mishti Dhoi.

It feels really nice to see the entire family again. The house is buzzing with laughter and noise. Its quite chaotic actually. Its great to wake up early in the morning and have coffee with everyone.

This also marks the beginning of my travel plans. I shall be shuttling between Calcutta, Bangalore and Chennai over the next few weeks. Also planned is a trip to Sikkim with a friend from IMT and then finally a weekend visit to Mumbai to see all my classmates once before we begin to work for a living. I need to move around, it keeps me chirpy. For the last month I have been sitting in Bangalore quietly going out of my mind.

Here's to a chaotic and happy wedding :-)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I’m sitting in a Café Coffee Day outlet sipping Irish coffee and watching the ice cream melt on a piece of apple pie that I’d ordered in a moment of weakness. Much to my disappointment the Irish coffee does not contain real whiskey as I’d hoped for, only a non-alcoholic variety. Having had only filter coffee or the foul tasting stuff found in Nescafe outlets all my life I’d always been eager to see how coffee would taste with booze in it. It looks like I’m going to have to wait a little longer.

I’m sitting here for what writer’s call ‘inspiration’, the kind of inspiration that comes from a change in setting. At least that’s what Natalie Goldberg says in her book ‘Writing down the bones”, a book that promises to help ‘Free the writer within’. My cousin very kindly lent me the book after I’d shyly confessed that I hoped to write a book soon. She shares my dreams of being a writer too.

To complete the setting I also have with me ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, a writing pad and a pen. The setting is perfect to write. I should riding the waves of inspiration that shall crash against the shores my notepad and recede, leaving behind lines of exquisite literature. My sister’s friend Anu even promised to help me get in touch with a publisher she knew after she read my blog.

“They publish anything!” she said confidently. “Actually they print a lot of Hindutva literature. Would you be interested?”

I mumbled something like “Let me write the damn thing first” and then smiled self consciously. It’s embarrassing to admit in public that you want to write a book. I can’t get myself to face all the raised eyebrows.

But I can’t get myself to write. I’m surrounded by college kids wearing expensive casuals and cooing couples who are pretty well dressed themselves. For some reason I get the feeling we are all a little self conscious, that all of us are trying a little extra hard to show that we belong in expensive surroundings. The college kids are slouching a little exaggeratedly in the cushions and their voices are louder than normal. Even the cooing couples take a break from each other now and then and look around to assure themselves that they fit in, that it is perfectly normal to sip iced cappuccinos that cost a bomb and make small talk. I think it’s the same way members of Indian Rock or Heavy Metal bands feel about their long hair, pierced ears, goatees and Black T Shirts with gothic Mettalica logos. They seem to be able to pull it of effortlessly but somewhere inside a voice niggles “Do I look like I belong?”

Of course I’m probably wrong. Nobody feels that way and my mind likes to poke fun at other people.

I know why I can’t write now, I feel too elitist! The Paulo Coelho makes me look so wannabe. I know I shouldn’t have picked up a book that has had a ‘life-enhancing impact on millions of people’. It’s such yuppie book to read in public. Where’s my originality? Who do I think I am anyway? A fancy writer who goes to café’s for ‘inspiration’? Get real!

When I was about nineteen, a Coffee Day outlet opened close to my home. I was going to meet a few friends there and I told my dad I’d be back late.

“Where are you going?” he asked

“The Coffee Day outlet, you know…the one on the main road?”

“That’s the place where a cup of coffee is forty rupees right?”

“Uhm…that the one”

It didn’t matter that the ambiance was nice, that I could chat for as long as I wanted with my friends and that the waiters wouldn’t bother us needlessly. A cup of coffee was forty bucks…and that said it all-about the place and about the kind of crowd that hung out there. It was a totally unjustified view he had held and now I realize it’s genetic. I have it too. I can’t believe I’ve paid a total of a hundred and twenty bucks just for a change in surroundings.

I eat my ice cream with apple pie morosely and then gulp down the Irish coffee. The pie is not bad but the coffee is awful. I tip ten bucks and leave.

God! The excuses my mind comes up with not to write!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

When I turned 18 and tried to think of all my athletic accomplishments I realized I had absolutely none. Skinny, weak and quite timid I was hardly what you might call a talented sportsman. Deeply touched by James Thurber’s article on his sporting failures I sat down and reviewed my own history with sport. This was what came out of it:

Throughout my junior school days, if there ever was anything that was cause for sorrow, it was the fact that there wasn’t a single sports activity I was good at. My class mates were mostly indifferent, but I was downright bad. Being small of stature and rather weak, I considered a game of carom to be an incredible work out (not that I was any good at it).

Football, I considered too rough and confusing. My classmates often took advantage of my helplessness as I ran back and forth piteously asking every player which team I belonged to and usually convinced me I was in the opposite team. No matter which side I was on, I was told I belonged to the other side. Hence I was always forgotten in glory or solely responsible for defeat.

When it came to cricket, I don’t recollect being anything other than a fielder (another job I failed miserably at).No matter where I stood, the ball would always come to me. The deep sense of affection the ball felt for me generally led to my downfall and once again was I was looked upon as the scum of the earth. I do recollect being a batsman once. The bowler took one step forward and gently tossed the ball. Anxious to prove my worth, I closed my eyes and took a mighty swat at it. An awed silence followed. I opened my eyes and the inert form of the PT sir lying flat on the ground; about thirty meters away greeted my eyes.

"Did the ball do that?" I whispered to a friend. "No" he whispered back "The bat did".

After that incident I gave up sports altogether and spent my time carving my initials on the bathroom door. As time passed I moved on to the walls but alas! They were filled with inscriptions of their own, so I decided to give the games period another shot. This time I tried volleyball. It took a great deal of persuasion, but I finally convinced a senior to teach me the rules. I went out there brimming with confidence and promptly sprained my left hand. My confidence drained, I returned to the senior." Hit it with both hands" he said. I went out there again and sprained my right hand.I haven’t played the game since.

Frustrated by my unsuccessful efforts, I signed up for swimming classes during the summer hols (a decision I regret even today).The coach was an enormous man, about six feet tall and six feet wide. "Swimming" he said” is instinctive." upon which he roughly grasped me and threw me into the deep end of the pool. I thrashed about wildly for few seconds before sinking. "KICK THE WATER!" yelled the coach." PULL ME OUT OF THE WATER AND I WILL!"I yelled back. Looking back, I don’t think I ever was his favorite pupil. He transferred me to the kiddy's section after that.

Though not a good swimmer, I always managed to stay calm in the shallow region, quite unlike a friend of mine. He firmly believed that if the water level was above his ankles, he would die a horrible death. I am ashamed to say, I felt quite superior to him when he would stand in water 2 feet deep and scream for help. As time progressed, my swimming abilities went from bad to worse. Finally a kid, my friend and I were the only ones who had successfully learnt nothing. In sheer desperation, the coach started teaching us all from scratch again. "Now look here" said the coach, clutching the side of the pool. "You kick out like this". He kicked out against the water. He demonstrated about 5 times and stopped.

"Ooh! Do it again! Do it again!" shrieked the kid, jumping up and down with excitement. Puzzled, the coach obliged him. "NO! Not that! I want to see those pretty bubbles again!" (Needless to say the coach didn't oblige him).

I don’t know how I survived the coaching camp, but I somehow did. Other than learning thirty different ways to drown, I never looked upon it as an enlightening experience.

I’m about 25 now. A quarter century on this planet and I can’t say I’ve progressed athletically since the time I wrote that article. IMT had a lovely football field, a couple of badminton courts, a basket ball court, a volleyball court and a perfect tennis court…and I didn’t play a damn thing until my final semester.

It’s not like I didn’t have the time. Somehow my physical activity was limited to either lifting weights at the gym or running around the field. I ran the Delhi half marathon but nothing else.

In the final semester I picked up a tennis racket for the first time in my life and I was immediately hooked. A small group of us would play from late in the night to early in the morning and I loved every moment of it. Granted we were pretty amateur but running swiftly across the court, pausing, stretching and finally whacking the ball across the net gave me a tremendous high. I loved the sweating and the grunting.

I’ve joined tennis classes now and I’m learning to play the game properly. Eleven year old kids make me look silly in comparison but I’m glad that I’ve finally taken a sport seriously. I’m not going to let go of an opportunity again.

This is essentially how I spent all my time in IMT

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Here's what I'm currently using to scare myself into writing everyday.
Attempting to write a book tests the nerves quite a bit. Unlike a blog entry which is written in a moments inspiration, consciously penning down the words of a story is like pushing an elephant through slushy mud. I’m crawling through the pages; my mind wanders all the time and I shudder when I read what I’ve written. It’s so awful, I have a grimace permanently etched on my face.

The scarcely filled notebook makes me feel guilty all the time. I know I’ll never get these three months of absolute freedom again. Yet having twenty four hours a day to myself has done little to inspire me.

I know that I do not want to turn thirty and realize that I’m single, pot bellied, grouchy, unhappy at the office and have done absolutely nothing with my life.

Okay, back to staring at the notebook again. Write you miserable SOB! Write!