Sunday, April 26, 2009

I Can Poll Dance (hoo ya!)

So India has begun its dance of democracy. I watched with a great deal of skepticism the various gimmicks of the media and other concerned groups to get the indifferent urban middle class to vote. I (rightly) figured that this section of society in Bangalore would disappoint yet again. Of course, when it comes to complaining about our pathetic civic amenities, corruption and so forth, the loudest armchair gripers are from this section of society. If you are reading this AND you haven’t bothered to get out and vote: Yes, I AM referring to YOU, yes, shame on you, and yes, I AM judging you.

In case you ask, I have a perfect voting record, having diligently got that telltale black mark on my finger at every election there has been since I turned 18. In any case, this post isn’t about pointing my inked finger at blasé non-voters. It is about a certain “poll dancer” I encountered at the voting booth.

I tromped into my designated voting station, bleary-eyed at the wee hour of 7:30 am. “No! I don’t want that! I can’t have that on my finger” a voice protested. It belonged to an old (and by that I mean fossilized) Anglo-Indian lady in a trademark pink flowered frock and short gray hair. She was objecting to having her index finger inked. “No! Don’t put a big mark” she barked at the flustered election officer, “I have to attend a wedding today!”

Really, Granma, I hate to break it to you, but nobody is really going to notice you at that wedding, let alone your gnarled index finger. She, however, continued to make her displeasure known. “I won’t cheat. I have voted in so many elections. I know THREE freedom fighters.” (That was kinda my point, Granma.)

Granma Flower Power then made her way to the voting booth. Of course, she (having known THREE freedom fighters) must have been taken aback at the sight of three electronic voting machines. No ballot box and paper? She declined assistance from the still flustered election officer. “I know what to do! You don’t have to tell me. I have voted so many times!” barked our veteran voter before attempting to press one of the red lights on the EVM. The persistent election officer then informed her that that was a light and she ought to press a button.

“I know! Don’t worry! I won’t press it twice” she raged back. She then pressed a button (glory, glory, hallelujah!) and then stalked out yelling, “Why will I press it twice? Nobody is even worth it!” (They don’t make them like those THREE freedom fighters anymore, huh?)

Road Trip to Goa Part II - The Curse of Piles & Fistula

Just about 2-3 kms short of Belgaum city, I took a left toward Bellaghavi City, rather reluctantly leaving the superb expressway behind. Up to this point, our directions from a dear old colleague, a Goan local, had proved spot on. However, the general chaos and traffic and numerous intersections in the city proved confusing and we had to stop several times to ask for directions to the Amboli-Savantwaddi road. After a slight delay of around 10 minutes as we blundered around in search of the right turnoff, we finally found the right road and set off at a steady pace again, with Ducky at the wheel once more.

My holiday glee and general bonhomie was shaken as we overtook a bunch of rowdy college boys on bikes. One bike sped up and stayed slightly ahead as the pillion rider precariously tried to focus his camera-phone to snap a picture of me through the windshield. I instinctively slunk down in my seat, grateful for my super-dark tinted windows, while Ducky stepped on the gas and left the offenders behind in a haze of dust. However, I continued seething with rage and indignation, brooding over the harsh reality of eve-teasing in India. It is a menace that will never go away simply because the belief that women are nothing but sex objects, far inferior to men, is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of a vast majority of Indian men. I hope those boys contract severe piles and fistula.

Thankfully, the landscape along the Amboli-Savantwaddi road (state highway 121 in Maharashtra) restored my cheery spirits. We stopped briefly to take in the sight of strange fields of sunflowers. I had thus far believed and learned that sunflowers always faced the sun – however, this lot of sunflowers resolutely kept their bright faces turned in the opposite direction! I suppose they were afraid of getting tanned (another “horrific” calamity so deeply entrenched in the Indian quest for beauty and perfection)!

I curiously took in the sights of piles of cashew fruit being sold along the road and the Marathi style of tying a saree. I can’t imagine why India’s moral police is so up in arms over western clothes like jeans and t-shirts when women wearing the saree in this particular fashion flaunt so much of leg AND inner thigh! Hey, Muthalik, Maharashtra is your home state, isn’t it? Have you ever looked at women in your own backyard?

Once we passed Amboli, we began a climb through a ghat section toward Savantwaddi. The view was spectacular with lush greenery stretching for miles around us. Comical monkeys gazed with unabashed curiosity at our passing car – I gawked back equally shamelessly.

We stopped at Vithal Kamat for a spot of lunch. This restaurant was interesting in more ways than one. The “Malvani” thali was delicious, complete with a drink made of kokum and coconut called “Sol Kadi”. Of course, Ducky is famous for always wanting to order something completely incongruous to the place he is in and in trademark fashion, decided to order a Punjabi thali! I scowled and vetoed the idea immediately, so he settled for the Malvani thali as well and later (rather grudgingly) admitted it was good!

Vithal Kamat has the strangest restrooms! The entire place is built to be eco-friendly, but I thought the restrooms were taking things a tad too far. Each toilet has a door and two walls. That’s right, TWO walls. Where the third wall ought to have been, there is a thick green expanse of trees! I must confess it took me quite a while to convince my sphincter muscles to relax and “go”.

Vithal Kamat also had one of the most pleasant and genial watchmen I have seen. He greeted us with a wide welcoming grin, told us not to worry as he’d keep an eye on Slinky while we ate, and saw us off with a beaming smile and a wave as well. We handed him a generous tip, which he didn’t appear to be looking for in the first place, before setting off again.

From Savantwaddi, we crossed into Goa. A lone policeman at the border flagged us down and wanted to see the car documents. What Ducky showed him instead was his military I-Card and we were promptly flagged through. That military I-Card saved us a lot of time and money. Thanks to it we didn’t have to pay toll at any of the toll gates along the expressway, which saved us almost 500 bucks up and down.

After asking for directions to Mandrem, we finally arrived at Cuba Beach resort. This was one fun road trip, plenty of memories and plenty of people (hopefully) reeling from severe piles and fistula along the way. North Karnataka might just have a bountiful grape harvest this year (snigger).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Road Trip to Goa Part I - Slinky Goes Wheee!

Hurrah! Our road trip to Goa finally materialized after some rather pessimistic moments. We awoke bright and early and set off in our car (which shall hereon be referred to as ‘Slinky’, a name that will not be further explained) at 4:15 a.m. With thumping music and a good deal of glee, we raced out onto the dark and empty roads. Although I had a route map all chalked out, I had failed to find out exactly how to get out of Bangalore city via Yeshwantpur! This cost us about 15 minutes as we blundered around Yeshwantpur before being directed back onto the road to Tumkur (NH4) by a kind soul who had, for reasons best known to him, decided to walk the streets at that wee hour.

The road to Tumkur is awful, made worse by thick truck traffic even so early in the morning. The expressway is still under construction here so look out for diversions and non-existent stretches of road. We finally covered the 67-km rugged stretch to the outskirts of Tumkur and made it to the deceptive fork in the road at 6.15 am — fortunately, Ducky astutely realized that we needed to take the right fork to stay on NH4 and not the left one, which would have taken us into Tumkur city.

From hereon, the road is spectacular. This stretch of NH4 is a smooth 4-lane highway with pretty flowering plants on the median and rows of windmills in the distance. We sped along, flying past Sira and onward to Chitardurga. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the drive for I spotted a man hanging out of a car window, letting the wind whip through his hair. An even stranger sight was a man doing “Surya Namaskar” in the middle of the road on the turn-off to Chitardurga town! Luckily, not too many men or beasts venture onto the highway, which is fenced on both sides (although there are the suicidal few who do). I eyed the tender coconut vendors along the sides of the road, but it was far too early and we were making too good time to stop. We reached the turn-off to Chitardurga at 6.35 a.m and took the right fork along NH4 (the Pune highway), avoiding going into the town.

From Chitardurga and on to Devengere, the highway was nothing to write home about. As the designated navigator for this part of the journey, I found the going tough – there are absolutely no signboards along this stretch although there are rows and rows of poultry farms on the side. We decided to press forward since chickens probably wouldn’t be able to tell us if we were on the right road anyway.

We reached the turnoff to Devengere at 8.35 a.m. and were absolutely ravenous at this point. (No, the poor cooped up chickens had nothing to do with it). We decided not to take the right to Devengere town to look for a decent place to grab a bite and stuck to NH4. However, this stretch of the highway offered nothing to satisfy two starving wannabe beach bums. A couple of shady little joints where truckers took a break were the only semblance of hotels that we saw. At 9:10 a.m, my eyes lit up at the sight of a Reliance A1 Plaza. My hopes of food, fuel and clean toilets were cruelly shattered – none of the A1 plazas along NH4 are open or functional yet. Blast! The bandicoot in my stomach was here to stay.

We entered the bustling town of Rannebennur in Haveri district. No signs of a decent hotel still. I saw signboards for a black buck sanctuary here but the only animal life I spotted in the town was two pigs, one bullock, two buffaloes and three dogs.

As we exited the town, we spotted a Bharat Petroleum bunk with an eatery attached, called Ghar Dhaba. With a great sense of relief, Ducky, I and my screaming bandicoot alighted at Ghar Dhaba at 9.30 am. The women’s loo was passable at best. The door of my stall had a lewd drawing of a certain part of the male anatomy with some Kannada writing and a cell phone number. Being Kannada illiterate, I shall probably never know what it said. It shall have to remain of (my) life’s great unsolved mysteries! The idli-vada-sambar at Ghar Dhaba tasted delicious to our starving palates.

We decided to tank up, but the attendant seemed least interested in serving anybody until he had finished his breakfast. When he did finally arrive, other two wheelers decided that they had the right to break the queue and get fuel ahead of us. I fought to keep my temper in check but silently wished a severe attack of piles and fistula on all the queue breakers.

Having been delayed more than an hour thanks to the dawdling attendant and ill-mannered men on two wheelers, we set out once more on the road toward Hubli. A wonderful 6-lane expressway greeted me—I was pleased I had taken the wheel at this point and kept Slinky in overdrive for what is possibly the longest time in the last five years! We chortled as we whizzed past a signboard that pointed out a village called “Chakapura”.

The drive from Hubli to Belgaum was a breeze on the amazing 6-lane highway. The trucks are surprisingly disciplined here and stick to the left-most lane. They also give way and allow you to pass with no reluctance. Later, we realized that a severe penalty is imposed on trucks found flouting the left-lane and speed-limit rule. Kudos to the vigilant cops along the highway for that!

{To be continued}