Friday, March 29, 2019

Life on the slow track - Chaya kada

No landscape of small town India is complete without a local tea shop where one can taste and smell the pulse of the local town and its happenings as well as feel the ripples of national events throbbing through its veins.

It has been more than an hour since Shaji’s tea boiler has been at work at his road side tea shop. A dimly lit tube light is at work since bright sunlight is still an hour away.  

Freshly rinsed glass tumblers have been laid out on the counter.  In some time, slowly but steadily a stream of local customers would arrive at his tea shop for their morning cuppa.

Copies of the local newspaper, fresh with yesterday’s regional news have just been delivered by the newspaper boy. 

The boiler is steaming with water and the smell of boiled tea leaves is wafting across the road.  On the transparent glass jar, Shaji fills out freshly baked banana cake that look hard from the outside but are soft and fresh when you bite into them.

A slightly unripe banana stalk threatening to ripen anytime during the day is hung on a coir rope right at the entrance of the tea shop, at a height just right for the customer to stretch and reach out his pick.

At the corner of the entrance to the shop is a coir rope hanging loose and at an arm’s length distance.  It has been set aflame with fire from the kerosene stove. When the flame has been doused, it burns slowly but steadily giving out a faint glow of fire and smoke like an incense stick sans the fragrance. As the day progresses, it would slowly burn away, but not before lighting up a hundred cigarettes for the customers.  

In Kerala the tea leaves brewed in the tea boiler pan are never boiled along with the milk. They are added separately.  As the tea leaves are set to boil in a boiler fired by a noisy kerosene stove, another huge stainless-steel vessel is keeping the boiled milk warm.  As the regular customer arrives, Shaji instinctively knows his preferences. Black tea with sugar for Unni chettan, tea without sugar but with milk for colonel uncle, and equal proportions of milk and tea mixed with generous spoonfuls of sugar for Rafiq bhai. 

The occasional passerby who stops at his shop would need to specify his preferences before Shaji can mix and match and dole out the hot steaming glass out for him or her.  When you do not specify your preferences, you get a cup of tea that has seventy percent strong boiled tea, twenty percent milk, half a teaspoon of sugar and about ten percent froth that has been deftly frothed up by pouring out the beverage from a height of two feet and above into another glass cup placed at the tea counter.  This action serves many purposes like ensuring the mixing of tea, milk and sugar, bringing the beverage to the right temperature for the customer to slowly and noisily sip the ten percent froth generated  on top of the glass cup and giving the tea boy his much needed exercise to build up his biceps and sometimes even a six pack.        

The regulars arrive one by one.  Initially there is an eerie silence around the shop. No one is talking. Perhaps because they are grumpy or perhaps because everyone is a regular and Shaji, like google knows their preferences based on previous tea drinking history.   

They help themselves to a banana from the stalk or a piece of the banana cake from the glass jar, pick up a cigarette and light it at the burning end of the coir rope before picking up the steaming hot cup of tea bubbling with froth that has been laid out for them.  

The morning cuppa is incomplete without that vital ingredient, the local newspaper. 

This morning the headlines is all about local member of parliament’s cheeky remarks on flood relief operation and the Chief minister retort on the MPs arm chair contribution while holidaying in a foreign country during the flood relief operations.  The other half of the newspaper headlines is about a shoddy rescue operation during the flood of a women’s hostel in the nearby town.

Opinions about who is right and who is wrong are divided along political affiliations. As the regular customers slowly gather and sip their cup of tea, the discussion gets louder and fierce.

A passerby, un-initiated into local ways of political analysis could get utterly bewildered by the happenings and would wonder if she should dial the police as the situation could potentially turn violent. But Shaji is unperturbed by the goings on. This is business as usual in his shop. The argumentative Malayali’s hold on to their opinion and stubbornly stick to their point of view. They take a dig at each other’s political parties, agree to disagree, finish their morning cup of tea and go about their daily business.

 Surprisingly a cup of tea in the tea shops in the land of spices is devoid of any freshly added spice like ginger, cinnamon or cardamom.  It is the local newspaper that adds all the spice. The otherwise strong cup of tea, is spiced up by politics and makes for an intellectually enriching, interesting and occasionally explosive conversation not just at the start of the day, but throughout.      

As the day light picks up, the traffic gets denser along the NH49.  Local buses, expensive cars, beastly motorbikes and creaky autorickshaws equally compete for space and speed on this two-lane national highway.  
To be continued - Appam and Stew aboard NH49 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Mobile Musings : the TTE - Travel ticket examiner

In the good old days when travelling by train was the norm and air travel was the privilege of the super rich, train travel was a thrilling adventure in itself. 

Before you boarded a train, clutching your reserved ticket it was only natural to check on who your co- passengers would be, in the railway chart put up at the entrance to the coach.

  Their name, surname, age and gender that would be printed on the chart, in English on one end of the coach and Hindi on the other, gave out pretty much a rough outline of your co-passenger’s lineage and other vital credentials. If there was any cause to worry, the Travel ticket examiner ,(TTE) always dressed in white shirt, black trousers and a jet black blazer unmindful of the weather conditions could always help you out. Sometimes for a little extra money.      

Travel ticket Examiner (TTE) always came across as a stern looking man who could make or break your train journey.  Macho men who otherwise had an authoritarian command over the wife and the children or sometimes a much larger brood, begged , bowed and talked in whispered tones and treated the TTE with utmost respect and reverence.

You were mentally conditioned to assume that like taxi drivers, auto drivers, bus drivers and conductors a TTE would always be a man.

Was pleasantly surprised seeing a woman TTE, aboard Kanyakumari express travelling from Trivandrum to Bangalore.  

A well dressed, young, fit and surprisingly friendly TTE at that. 

In the days when the railway charts and physical tickets have been done away with, all you need to do is to show your government issued id proof and your TTE legitimizes your travel. 
And that is exactly what I did.  I pulled up my Aadhar card and handed over. But I was still struggling to open the IRCTC app on my mobile phone to show my ticket, due to a weak signal. 

Meanwhile she politely returned my Aadhar card and nodded her head and marked me on her chart.  She checked my co-passengers one by one and then looked at me the second time. 

Are you travelling on Senior citizens concession’ she asked.
‘Of course not’, I replied as I once again pulled out my mobile phone to produce the evidence that  I had indeed paid the full fare .

She mildly dismissed my protest, but moved on nevertheless to the next carriage.             

It was a strange question.  

I was curious what triggered it off.  

Truth be told, I was slightly hurt and wondered if  I may have started looking like a 60 year old.

 Oh Well, a few strands of grey hair here and there does not make you sixty years old.

Nor does it entitle you to a senior citizen concession , does it ?

I could not dismiss the thought and her strange question for a long time. 

About 20 minutes later she re appeared and offered her explanation. 

When you book your tickets online on ‘irctc app’, if you are a female passenger you have a choice of indicating your berth preferences. ( Female travelers could be pregnant, could be menstruating at that time , could be travelling with young children or infants or even worse they may not have waxed their legs ). 

If you ask for it, the built -in algorithm then allocates you the lower berth as long as it is available.  The same algorithm is built in for senior citizens   irrespective of their gender.  ( No wonder passengers do not run around the all powerful TTE much these days to get their berth allotment changed)

The indication mark on the TTE’s computer generated chart for preferential berth allotment is the same for women travelers as well as senior citizens.  It was something the TTE aboard Kanyakumari express, figured out that day.

She was sweet enough to come and clarify it to me after she had finished examining all the tickets in the compartment.

It is a woman to woman thing you see….

Thank god for that magnanimous act of hers.  It restored my self esteem .  In those twenty minutes I almost relived the pangs of an induced mid life crisis.   I had almost made up my mind to go back and color my hair black if not brown or  a shade of  blonde. I also contemplated exiting the 'growing grey gracefully (GGG) group in facebook.  

Such is the fragile nature of the feminine kind.

Would a male TTE have bothered to come back, explain and clarify ?

Thank god for female TTE’s.  May their Tribe increase

P.S : Male TTE : Photo courtesy : Google free images

P.P.S : Female TTE : discreetly photographed by yours faithfully... 

P.P,P.S : Since I was not pregnant, was not responsible to care for any infants, was not  menstruating and had had my legs waxed recently, I offered my lower berth to a tall, dark and not exactly very handsome man in exchange of the side upper berth because he was struggling to fit in his tall frame in that ‘side upper berth’  which Indian railways specifically designed for the petite women who dare to climb berths.  More about the glory of side upper berths in another post.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Life on the slow track - Musings aboard the NH49

A resplendent morning with a slightly overcast sky is pregnant with numerous possibilities.  It could be a bright sunny day, but it could possibly be a rainy day too.       
It was the year when the memories were still fresh of the fury and torment of the south west monsoons that had wreaked havoc along the Malabar coast. Life was slowly limping back to normalcy. 

Aid agencies pumped up with donations from generous donors from the world over, volunteers wishing to serve on the ground and most importantly the proud people of Kerala, humbled by nature’s fury were putting their best efforts to return to near normalcy.  

It was that time when the surviving victims were putting the memories behind and picking up the threads to move on with their lives.  

The weathermen have now begun to be extra cautious with their forecasts because they know there are more eyeballs focused on them than on the prime-time television soap operas.  The monsoon season is not yet over and although they say lightning seldom strikes twice, nobody could afford to take chances.    A passing cloud could become a deluge and a high tide in the ocean could result in water logging in the plains.    

It is just a few weeks since the floods. The furious monsoons have abated. The air force, army and the and aid agencies that descended down for the rescue operations have wound up and returned back home. It is now the time for government and people to pick up the ropes and act.  The pot holed roads ravaged by the floods have been re-laid in a flash.  The trash that now contains, once functional refrigerators, television sets, furniture, mattresses and wardrobes are getting burnt or recycled.   

People cutting across political affiliations have gathered up to ensure the roadways and railways are cleared up and are in working condition.  They are the lifelines for connectivity across small towns that were crippled by the floods. Everyone knows that their collective effort in these times would restore normalcy in their lives. People realize that it is going to be a lot of back breaking work, however it must be done. 

Where there should have been greenery, it is all brown patches of dried up banana trees and colocasia shrubs that were submerged in the floods for longer than they could sustain themselves.  Landslides, uprooted trees, walls of mud huts with thatched roofs dissolved into the clay along the river banks and decomposed carcasses of dead cattle and livestock.  They have all altered the geographical and economic landscape that an entire generation had got accustomed to. 

Such is the course of nature, reminisced the wise and elderly.  ‘Mother nature’s patience level had been breached’ they cried hoarse. ‘They had seen more furious monsoons in their life time, but this one was a disaster waiting to happen’, they said. Rampant concrete constructions that came with development and defied local wisdom of rain water harvesting and blocked the natural path of rain water flow along the lake sides, on the ponds and river beds. They said that was the reason for the wreckage caused by what would otherwise have been a season that saw a slightly above average but manageable monsoon.  

‘It is the wrath of that celibate fellow from up the hills let loose on the menstruating women’, some said.

‘It is the El Nino’s southern oscillations and its unpredictability’, cried out the weather scientists. 

Callous Governments and corrupt town planners were nevertheless blamed. 

On the brighter side, the collective consciousness had risen and the lesson was learnt.  Once in a few decades, nature has its way of revising the fundamental lessons and remind the mortal humans of their limitations. This year was once such year.

No matter what, traumas heal, hope triumphs and life moves on.     
It is yet another dawn waiting to break along the NH49. The sun, oblivious to the happenings along the Malabar coast this season, is announcing its arrival of yet another day.  The sky is blushing pink in various hues and colors.  

The brain fever bird perched atop the Gulmohar tree is screeching as if it picked up a sore throat in the heavy rains.  The rooster is cooing announcing the arrival of the day.

The fitness freaks have set out on their morning walks, perhaps the first one after many weeks.
The mosque is blaring on the loudspeaker its morning call for the aazaan and beckoning the faithful.
Competing with the loud speakers from the mosque is the loud rhythm of the drum beats from the nearby temple.  Festivities although considerably subdued, are on the way. As the day progresses, the devotees would throng the temple to pray for better days and a brighter future.  Hope sustains human kind.  The worst is perhaps behind them and this is the time to rebuild and rejuvenate.

Driving along the freshly laid out road along the NH 49 is a pleasure.  It is a two-lane state highway that has been christened as the National highway 49. When travelling across Kerala, it feels like the town hardly ends to give way to the country side.  Equally marveling is that the resplendent greenery is always peppered along the towns and across those quaint houses and tree lined streets. 

Ostentatiously huge houses built from the money earned out of hard labour and loneliness and sent home from the oil rich countries in the gulf dot the National highway nestled amidst coconut groves and pepper plantations, lightly camouflaged by the girth of huge flowering trees. 

Occasionally there are empty plots of land where colocasia shrubs whose roots would have made a sumptuous meal after the monsoons, are struggling to sprout and come to life after being submerged in the devastating floods.  The lingering sunshine from the morning sun is perhaps giving the much-needed hope and energy for the few that have held on to life.  Amidst the dried-up brown and dry colocasia shrubs are a few green shoots sprouting from the roots.  

On a tender colocasia leaf is a rain drop dancing like a ball of mercury that has dropped from a broken thermometer.

...To be continued ... Musings Aboard the NH49 - Chaya kadai 

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