Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I have my reasons…

After applying for a huge loan to fund my education, after taking a leave without pay for a year, I was standing in the HR room to see if I can get any money to support myself until I complete my education.

Loan from provident fund seemed to be a nice idea. I had more than two hundred thousand rupees in the account and I thought it would be enough to fund my living expenses for a year. Any other source for money was more expensive.

So, I waited for ten minutes in front of my HR cabin and when I got a chance to go in..

“Hi Santha, I need a loan.” I declared.

“I don’t have cash” she said, and laughed aloud. The entire HR cabin watched us for a minute.

“Oh!, but I am asking for a loan from my PF account”

“Ok..” She said and typed furiously for a few minutes.

“You need a valid reason to get a loan from PF account” she declared, still looking at the computer.

“I have a solid reason” I said

“And what is that?” she asked after looking up at me.

“I need money”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

License to think

Radio in the tea shop was roaring a semi old song, with a couple of mid sized very old speakers that are older than fifty percent of the population in India. Men were flocking around the counter to taste the watery sweety “national drink” in a sticky glass for a nominal rate. Bicycles were parked in front of the shop which made the rush hour traffic slow down. Cars were honking hard to get the pedestrians, parked vehicles and animals move. Driving a car in such streets is never an easy task. There were people all around; there were animals all around and there was women drivers to negotiate with as well. Motor bike drivers are mad as they tend to come in the way all of a sudden.

Even though, it is difficult to drive a car in India, many people aspire to drive one. That was exactly why I found myself in the middle of a chaotic street as early as ten in the morning. I had to be on time to apply for my learner’s license. The RTO of my area chose the most congested, chaotic place in town to setup his office.

I woke up at 9:45 for an appointment at 10. When I woke up, I had two options, either to go to the RTO straight from the bed or brush my teeth, have coffee and go there fifteen minutes late. I chose to be on time. So, I was standing there, with a rubber slipper, a naturally worn out shorts, an un-ironed dirty white T-shirt and with my hair flying all around. I was running all the way to just to be there on time. When I went there three minutes before time, I saw a big queue in front of the RTO building. The queue almost circled the 1500 square meter office once. I went inside and told the peon that I had an appointment to apply for a learner’s license. He pointed the back end of the queue and asked me to stand there.

“I have an appointment at ten” I said.

“Yes” he said. “I know that, all the others have one too”

“Gosh” I said to myself. This office was printing appointments like pamphlets and was giving it to everyone. Slowly, I walked past all the people in the queue to the end. I stood there for thirty minutes. Literally in the middle of the street, starving for a cup of coffee, looking for some shade, wanting to talk to someone. But, nothing happened. The queue moved eight inches in the first 30 minutes. That’s about one inch every four minutes.

After giving a 10 AM appointment for about a hundred people, the RTO checked into work by around 10:45 AM. Typical.

“These guys are ought to be sacked” the person in front of me in the queue remarked about the late arrival of the RTO.

“And shot” I said.

He turned back and looked at me head to toe. Twice. And then turned back.

I was getting bored with not doing anything for nearly an hour.

“Why are you applying for a license?” I asked the same person standing in front of me.

He turned back and said “Well… My manager has a car and is looking for a driver, and I think I will fit in for that post”

“Oh! That’s good then” I said.

“why are you applying for a license?” he asked.

“Well.. “ I started

“Are you planning to drive a travels’ vehicle?” he asked, without giving me time to answer the previous question.

“Travels vehicle??” I thought for a moment. This guy actually thinks that I was there standing in the queue for an hour so as to ultimately seek a job as a cab driver in a travels company.

“I think you should go for yellow board badge as well” He said.

“What is that?” I wanted to ask. But, he jumped in faster and said “ This will enable you to drive throughout India” he said with a serious tone.

“Oh my god! Will he ever let me talk?” I thought.

“Have you already found a job?” He asked

Before I could answer this question, he continued “My manager has another car. Can I ask him?”

I looked at myself. I was wearing a bathroom slipper, a good for nothing shorts and good for cleaning T-Shirt. “No wonder” I thought.

“Yes please. That will be of great help” I said.

“So, are you also applying for the national permit license” I asked.

“No. For that, one has to pass tenth standard” he said sounding as though tenth standard is something really big.

“Good” I thought. At least I look like a tenth standard pass for his eyes.

After two hours of crawling, I applied for my license. On my way back, I was thinking about my conversation with this unknown person. He knew nothing about me. He had no idea that I was working in the UK for more than three years with one of the best airlines in the world. He just looked at me like a normal human being and even offered me whatever help he can.

I felt that this is one of a very few occasions the almighty stepped in to remind me that whoever I am, or whatever I do, at the end of the day, I am just another human being in the planet. Superior to none and inferior to none.

The ultimate realization is that “I am not the best person around. At the same time, no one is better than me”

Monday, June 22, 2009

The ice man – Part 2

After my first ever flight, which was nearly life threatening; I found a house and got settled in Newcastle. After a few weeks, it was time for some adventure. We decided to go on a day trip to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. From Newcastle, Edinburgh is fairly close. It is just one and a half hour journey by train.

When I was a child, after watching a few movies shot in Europe, I was always obsessed with train journeys there. It was damn very cold, it was damn very dark, the streets were damn very deserted when we stepped out of our house at quarter to five in the morning. Taxis were as prompt as my hunger for food. In the early morning, it only took three minutes and five pounds for the taxi to reach the train station.

The train station had a big door with dimensions like our ancient temples. When I saw the door, I thought “Do they lock the railway station every night? Like us locking a house at night”. It looked so funny to me, but I learnt that I was actually right. They do lock the railway station at night.

We were early and we had nothing to do. So, I roamed around inside the railway station and checked out a few shops with five pounds in hand. I wanted to figure out what I can purchase with that. When I finished my window shopping exercise I found that five pounds can fetch a steam iron box, or a plate of vegetable biriyani or one cup of Costa coffee. I was even more perplexed. How can the value of a plate of biriyani and a steam iron be valued the same or one cup of coffee against one brand new Philips iron box? “What kind of a place is this? How can I effectively spend my five pounds?” At that time, I never had a clue.

Every single day in that city was an experience for me. Only the day before, in the streets of Newcastle, I couldn’t help but stare at a couple whose lips were locked for three minutes and their hands moving everywhere. I was starting at them for three minutes. At the end of the three minutes, the girl threw half full cup of hot coffee at me. Then I learnt that I shouldn’t stare at people whose lips were locked or at people whose hands were going places. As soon as I leant that lesson and turned back, I saw another couple who were in a deadly deadlock. But, this time both were men. I wanted to puke. But I controlled myself from a fifth pound fine for littering the streets of Newcastle.

As usual, I got lost into my thoughts ranging from A to Z. Those include “will I ever see two women in a deadlock on the streets or may be a group?” In case you are wondering what sort of a person I am, hey! I am Gopal, I am disgusting and I stare at men who lock their lips with other men around.

The train came to the platform on the dot. All my thoughts vanished into thin air. As soon as I entered the train, I felt elated. Wow! What a cabin? It was absolutely magnificent. The train only had four compartments, but it had a pantry and a seat-to-seat service. I couldn’t ask for more.

One and a half hours went by in a jiff. Edinburgh was as magnificent as Edinburgh should be. One of the guys in the Edinburgh station asked us “Where are you coming from?” and we said “Newcastle”. We spoke for a minute. In that minute, he was abusing English people 60 times. Yes, once every second. At the end of the sixty seconds, our vocabulary doubled.

“So, why do you hate English?” I asked.

“We hate English because they are English” was the reply.

“Fair enough” I said and left the station.

After a tiring day in Edinburgh, it was time for me to take the return train. As soon as I entered the train, I dozed off. Only when the examiner came over, I realized that I boarded the wrong train. Well, the train still was travelling to Newcastle, but I was booked in the next train. I had no clue what to do. I asked the examiner about my options. The only option was that I had to pay full fare ticket which was about 20 pounds.

“Twenty pounds is not too much of money” I thought and paid for the full fare ticket. As soon as the transaction was over I heard a huge voice from behind me.

“You can’t do this to them” a girl shouted at the ticket guy. I turned back and saw a furious middle aged woman. I was perplexed for a minute. I had no idea what was going on. The lady had a heated conversation with the ticket examiner and stormed towards me. I started getting scared as I had no idea what this leady was up to.

“Take this money” she said, handing over a twenty pound note.

“What for?” I asked.

“You have a ticket already, don’t you? He just can’t be so strict with you over this matter”

“But I boarded the wrong train, and I think I should pay for it” and tried to hand the money back to her.

“Are you from India?”

“Yes, from Madras in south India”

“You know what, I have stayed in Madras for two years and I was looked after quite well there. You are one of the best hosts I have ever seen. Now, you much take this money” She threatened.

I was dumbstruck for a while. I saw a furious lady who wanted to give me money because someone somewhere was nice to her. Should I accept the money? Or should I not? If I don’t, I was in a danger of being slapped by her. Would anyone in the world get slapped for not accepting money, ever? I don’t want to be the first person in the world and create a record. Solely for this reason, I accepted the money and thanked her.

“You are a very nice person” I said.

“Not as nice as you people are” she said and left the compartment in a fury.

I had to pinch myself several times to come to terms with reality. Only twenty four hours back, I was attacked with a half a cup of hot coffee and now someone furiously threatened me to help me out. “What kind of a place is this?” I stood there, in the middle of the compartment with a twenty pound note on my hand. Queen’s face up and smiling at me. I felt like the entire world was smiling at me. Then I placed the money in my pocket and sat back in my seat.

Another hour in the train. Then came Newcastle. We stepped out of the train really tired and sick and tired. We crossed the road and waited in the bus stop. As soon as the bus came, I went in first and asked for tickets from the driver using the same twenty pound note. The driver looked at it for a second and threw it back right on my face and shouted at me to get down.

“Well, what is happening around me?” I wondered. Only when I stepped down from the bus, we realized that the money was a Scottish pound and a few people in England who hate Scots, because they are Scots, don’t accept Scottish pounds.

“What a day? I couldn’t comprehend how much I have learnt in just one day”. Well, I didn’t learn anything. I was just confused more than anyone else in the world in a single day.

I started to walk towards my house. I knew it would take less than half an hour and so I felt like I could do it, leaving all others who were with me. From the train station, I barely walked a few meters when a limousine came and stopped very close to me for signal. The windows came down. Three girls from inside, who are too drunk to count two and two, were looking at me like an exhibit. They then looked at each other, gave a strange signal and suddenly removed their shirts. My eyes widened. My eyes widened because none of them was wearing anything underneath. Nothing whatsoever. I had a dilemma. Where should I look? Should I look at them or should I just ignore. If I ignore, will I be branded as a gay? I had no idea. I was thinking very hard. I had to do something. I had to do something really fast. All the time I was thinking, my eyes were fixed in one location. They were jumping inside the limousine and started abusing me. Then god saved me. The signal went off. The limousine moved. But my eyes were fixed in the same position for one more minute.

It was a big cultural shock for me. Does this happen frequently? If yes, what should I do in such circumstances? Should I ignore? Or should I pay them some money? Or whatever. I had no idea.

When I discussed this strange event with my client the next day, I was told that those girls were racially abusing me. “Is removing your shirt with nothing under a way to abuse?” “But, why were they degrading themselves to abuse me?”, but then I thought that was a nice way of showing things. Err... I mean, showing one’s displeasure towards something, rather than throwing half a cup of hot coffee.

If I call myself an ‘Ice man’ for surviving in a flight for a day, what should I call myself for surviving this particular day?

There was a girl, who threatened to help me and there was another who was sweet to abuse me.

But, again, at the end of the day, I was as solid as an ‘ice-man’.