Saturday, October 31, 2020

That Time I was Forced to Kiss an Old Man (I was 6)

Bet that title grabbed your attention, didn’t it? That’s why you’re here - astonished, disgusted, sympathetic and or just plain hungry for a bit of gossip. Well, now that I’ve got your attention, here’s the story with every sordid detail. 

I was six in a boarding school tucked away amongst the woods on a blue mountain. It was Halloween. For the seniors of the school, this was an exciting time. They got to arrange a spooky party, dress up (mostly as witches for some reason) and scare the living daylights out of their juniors who were forced to attend it. Although they went easier on the junior-most kids, most of whom were terrified and in tears the moment they stepped into the eerily decorated hall, they would make a beeline for the braver and feisty ones. It was good-natured bullying. And I, being somewhat sassy and precocious, was already a marked child. 

We’d heard the tales. Anything could happen during these parties. Things could get pretty wild. People had been locked in trunks. Almost every year, someone accidentally set their hair on fire. And one year, the police showed up because some smart arse decided to ring the school chapel bell at midnight. Hearing the bell tolling at midnight alarmed the gentle and caring townsfolk down the hill. Thinking there was trouble at the school and someone was ringing the bell for help, they summoned the police. Halloween parties were banned thereafter. 

As I stepped into the dimly lit smoky hall with the windows all blacked out, I took in the painstaking decorations – the hall had been transformed into a spooky woods of sorts. There were trees, rocks, candles, ‘burning embers’, creepers, artificial bats, cobwebs – the whole shebang really; you get my drift. And right in the midst of it all, was the pièce de résistance – a dingy little cave with a rickety chair placed in the middle. I knew it had my name on it.

A coven of witches descended upon me, cackling away, dangling rubber spiders and snakes in my face and demanding to know if I was scared already. I sniggered. A mistake. I was quickly dragged off to the dingy cave and unceremoniously pushed into the chair. 

“We’re not going to let you go!” they shrieked. I was a bit perturbed. Not out of fear but the dank and slightly musty smell – some of their costumes were out of the school’s drama costume cupboard which was rarely aired out. These witches, they smelt of mothballs and neglect. 

“We will not let you go until you kiss HIM!” they reiterated and pointed behind me. 
Surprised, for I thought I was alone in the cave, I spun around in my chair and noticed HIM for the first time. 

Sitting there quietly, his bony arms resting on an emaciated lap with a cigarette between his knobbly fingers, his spindly legs crossed, all his yellowing teeth displayed in a grimace and hollows of madness where his eyes should have been. There, in all his osseous glory, sat the skeleton from the Biology lab.

Now I was perturbed. This was not how I’d imagined my first kiss. This man – or what was left of him – was far too old for me or for anyone living, really. And yet, kissing him was my only way out of this cave with the shrieking teenagers blocking the exit. 

“Kiss him! Kiss him!” The witches were now chanting. I kept shaking my head, refusing with a growing sense of revulsion for my skeletal companion. Seeing as how we’d reached an impasse on the negotiations, one of the witches decided to end the stalemate.  

Reaching over, she plucked something from the languid skeleton. And then I had a bone shoved in my face. It could have been an ulna. Or a radius. I was in no mood for the finer details. The incessant shrieking and the rank odours abounding had assaulted my senses enough. 

I did it. Holding my breath, I kissed the bone. Triumphant screeching laughter rang out as I dashed out of the cave, not once looking back at the gaunt recipient of my affections who was, no doubt, having his bone reattached. 

And that, folks, is how I, as a young innocent child, was forced to kiss a fossil of a man. Or woman. I never checked.

For the next 10 years, I’d look into the glass cupboard in the Biology lab and know that we had a history – just me and that grinning skeleton. A secret from beyond the grave.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A Post For My Favourite Uncle: Of Banana Peels & Dog Poop

My Uncle A passed away recently. It wasn’t unexpected for we saw him deteriorating slowly over months – a losing battle with cancer that he’d fought valiantly well for a long time. But that doesn't make the loss any easier. With his demise, I felt the loss of a kindred spirit though I often joked that he had to be my favourite uncle only because he was my only uncle. Of everything else, the things we shared most in common was a penchant for good humour, a weakness for practical jokes and a fondness for beer.  

And so it was that several years ago, we decided to prank my Cousin U and his wife AP when we went to visit them at their house. Amongst Uncle A’s many talents was the ability to mould squished, blackened banana peels into the most remarkable likeness of dog turds. Before our visit, we sat at home, laboriously crafting these fruity ‘turds’ under his expert guidance. Once done, we left them to air dry and blacken nicely. 

AP, ever the hospitable hostess, fussed over us at their place. It was the first time she was meeting this uncle and she was determined to ensure everything went well. There was excellent food and drink and general bonhomie. Brandy, their delightful Golden Retriever, bounded excitedly around us. 

As the afternoon wore on, Uncle A discreetly placed the ‘turds’ on the floor, very close to where Brandy sat with his tail wagging furiously. He then sneakily veered the conversation towards Indian cities and pollution. Cousin U and AP agreed that our cities were dirty and pitiable. 

“Bangalore really stinks, doesn’t it?” said Uncle A. “In fact, I can smell something shitty right now.” 

I agreed and shot a disgusted look out the open windows even as I battled an awful feeling of laughter bubbling up inside me. 

Uncle A continued sniffing the air theatrically, a revolted expression on his face. Then he looked directly at the ‘turds’ and exclaimed, “Oh! Your dog has pooped here!”

Cousin U and AP were horrified. Brandy looked even more thrilled that everyone’s attention seemed to be directed at him and became more boisterous. Cousin U tried to reprimand him for his indiscipline, but Brandy just looked pleased as punch, showing no remorse for the crime he’d been accused of. 

AP looked stricken and prepared to clear up the mess, apologising profusely and insisting that this was very uncharacteristic of Brandy. “No, no, don’t worry about it,” said Uncle A reassuringly. As a harried AP approached to clean up the mess, he added “We really love dogs, don’t worry”. And then, without any further ado, he leaned over and picked up the ‘turds’ with his bare hands and proffered them to her. AP visibly blanched in sheer horror.

At this point, Cousin U had caught on and began to laugh, as did everyone else in the room. 

Uncle A, wherever you are now, I’d like to say “Rest in peace” but I know you’d find that terribly boring. Instead, I wish you well and hope you are surrounded by plenty of banana peels, dogs, and gullible people with intact funny bones. I’ll catch up to you when my time comes. It’ll be easy I think – I’ll just follow the trail of laughter and sheepish souls slapping their foreheads in realisation. Keep our cold beers ready like you always did, okay?

Monday, October 28, 2019

Excuse me, I'd like to order a snake

The last time I posted was last year? Eeks! I haven’t exactly abandoned this blog. In my defence, I have checked on it from time to time to see whether I put any new posts up. I haven’t, clearly. 


I was at the annual day celebration of a non-profit animal organisation last week. It was a series of speeches and videos covering the events of the past year. I sat up eagerly when a wildlife veterinarian strode up to speak. Wildlife vets have the best job in the world in my opinion. Not the easiest, for sure, but they have my admiration and respect – and a dash of envy. 

She regaled the audience with tales of rescues – birds, little rodents, tortoises and snakes all enmeshed in the tangles of our urban jungle. She went on to educate the audience about snakes, the need to avoid killing them on sight, and the usefulness of snakes like Rat Snakes that curb vermin. She ended by reminding us that wildlife must be respected – they’re not pets.

Soon after this, there was a buffet lunch. As I made my way across to the lunch area, I stumbled across a lady that lives in my neighbourhood. We exchanged pleasantries before she said, “You know, I’m waiting to speak to one of the people from the welfare group.”

“Oh,” I said, noticing that she looked quite antsy. “What about?”

“You know I have a huge garden, right?” she asked. I said yes, recalling she has a massive garden, teeming with trees and flowering creepers. 

“I want to ask them how I can introduce a Rat Snake into my garden.”


“There are so many rats in my garden. I was wondering how I can get a Rat Snake into my garden to control the rats. May be they could release a Rat Snake in my garden?”

I could feel little ripples of laughter gurgling up to the surface. “You should probably ask the wildlife vet,” I suggested, hoping I could be privy to that conversation when it happened. Seeing as how my words clearly seemed to fortify her notion that she’d had a brainwave, I added warmly, “You have a lovely garden. Any Rat Snake would be happy there.” 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t privy to the request for a Rat Snake, but I would give anything to find out how that went down. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Don’t Get Mad, Get Lost

Over a late Sunday lunch today, nibbling at comfort food, my friend KO and I got around to reminiscing about a trip we took to Thailand some years ago.

We had a couple of days to kill in Bangkok. So of course, KO being KO awoke one morning and declared, “I must see the River Kwai or I will die.” (I am prone to exaggeration so shush!)

And so we toddled over to our nearest tourist information centre and asked the lady there how to get to the River Kwai. Her eyes turned to saucers as she exclaimed, “Kwaiiiii?!”

“Yes,” said I, thinking that this trip would probably take a few hours by bus. We could hop on in Bangkok, hop off at the River Kwai, KO would stare solemnly at the water and declare her will to live and we could all go about our normal Bangkok business by the early evening.

As if!

My heart sank as the lady traced a long, meandering line across the map to indicate where we’d have to travel. It was absolutely miles away. No direct buses. This was going to take a while. She scrawled a name in Thai on a piece of paper and handed it to us, telling us to show that scrap to people on the first bus out who’d then help with further direction. This was before Google Maps and great internet connectivity became a thing, by the way.

To date I have no idea what was on that scrap of paper, just that I hung onto it with every fibre of my being. After a bit of bumbling around, we made our way onto a local bus and showed the conductress, a middle-aged loud-voiced lady, the paper. She gave us our tickets.

We stayed seated on that bus for a very long time, an ominous feeling gathering heavier about us as we got further and further out of the city. Finally, multiple stops later, I tugged at the conductress’ sleeve as she walked past and pointed to the scrap of paper. She went ballistic and gestured and wailed and pointed.

Yes, we had clearly overshot our stop by miles. We hopped off the bus with the conductress’ voice ringing in our ears and flagged a cab back to a bus/van station we’d seen a little way behind. Wandering into the van station, we realised to our horror that nobody spoke any English. All we had was our scrap of paper and a lot of gesturing.

The details get fuzzy at this point as it has been quite a few years since this happened. There were a lot of people gathered around us – cabbies, some van personnel and some curious bystanders. There was a lot of gesturing and shouting – for some reason people thought that the louder they shouted in Thai, the higher the probability that we’d understand. Some paper drawings and dumb charades later, we had a vague idea of what the recommended plan of action was.

And then we were on our way in a van with a bunch of strangers. We had no clue where we were headed or how we’d make it back to Bangkok. I think we switched vans or hopped into another cab somewhere. We relentlessly pressed on, determined to get to Kwai come what may.

Finally, we made it to a busy bazaar of sorts. There were rows of stalls selling trinkets and junk jewellery, enthusiastic hawkers and even more enthusiastic cycle rickshaw guys. With some relief, we realised we were closer to a touristic area and people here spoke and understood a smidge of English.

Jostling through a crowd of excited vendors and curious people – half a dozen of whom called out to KO as “Indian” and me as “Pakistani” – we found a cycle rickshaw who agreed to take us the remaining way to the banks of the River Kwai.

We wandered up to the Burma border, along the banks of the river, munched some lunch with views of the river and a gigantic Buddha statue, hopped along the toy train tracks and finally decided to head back. This entailed more cycle rickshaws, vans and a bus that dropped us in the middle of nowhere in the twilight, but close enough to flag down a passing cab and get back to Bangkok city without too much of a dent in our wallets.

In all, we’d hopped 11 modes of transport that day and put our trust in dozens of strangers - all this to see what is essentially a rotting old bridge. Would we do it again? Not likely. However, it makes for one of our most fun Thai memories. Getting lost and just going with it rather than getting mad and going ballistic. We were tired, hot and quite worried, but not once did we turn on each other, snapping the other’s head off for being an idiot. The shared exasperating experience cemented our friendship even stronger than before. I don’t remember too much about the River Kwai, our destination. But I do remember getting there. As Elli, old boy, said, “The journey, not the destination matters…” That, and your fellow travellers.

Here’s to 30+ years of knowing KO.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Onsen: Bathing Like The Japanese

Japan has been on my bucket list for absolutely ages now – well, at least since I’d watch incomprehensible episodes of "Takeshi’s Castle" on cable TV for a daily shot of amusement. More recently, Aziz Ansari’s "Modern Romance" piqued my curiosity about Japanese society in general. With ‘Sakura’ i.e. the cherry blossom season approaching, the time was ripe.

I’ll get around to describing the rest of my travels around Japan soon (hopefully), but the one activity that has evoked the most curiosity in people around me after I returned was my visit to an ‘onsen’ – a Japanese public bath (with natural hot spring water). So here’s that blow-by-blow account of how it went.

Nagano is hot-spring country if you’re on the island of Honshu. There are numerous hot-spring-fed ‘onsens’ in the area so it was the natural choice to, quite literally, take the plunge.

At the entrance to the onsen, I was greeted by a large sign saying, "Bathing of people with tattoo will be refuse" with something that looked like a truncheon next to it. Thankfully, I haven’t got over my cowardice enough to brave a tattoo, so all was good in the hood. Next up, a row of coin-operated lockers to deposit my shoes.

Padding over to the lobby area, I gaped at a ticketing machine with dozens of options and prices, all unhelpfully marked in Japanese. However, the staff was very helpful and a lady immediately came over to explain it all and help me get the right ticket. For a paltry 650 Yen, I could shower, steam and soak in all of their various temperature-controlled pools as well as the outdoor one. There were dozens of other options such as renting or buying towels and so on.

Heading over to the bath entrance area, there was a clear demarcation between the entrances for men and women. Luckily, this was boldly marked in English signage as well so I avoided that boo-boo I once made back in the hot springs of Kulu (India)…. But that’s a story for another day; suffice to say that there are some traumatised men in that region. If you’re one of them, sorry, I didn’t mean to point AND laugh; yes, at 15 degrees C, it was a ‘very (ahem) cold day’ and it’s understandable you chose to dive into the pool in panic.

Anyhow, back to my onsen….

I entered a large and brightly lit locker-room area. It had rows of coin-operated lockers for storage of all belongings and rows of mirrors and hair dryers for after. It also had a lot of naked women. I realised instantly that I was bringing the average age down in the area by at least 50 years.

Stripping off and depositing my clothes and belongings in a locker, I made my way towards a completely steamed-over sliding glass door. The door slid open just as I approached and a genial old lady stepped through. Smiling and bowing, she said, “konnichiwa” (hello) and I returned the greeting. Just like two people passing each other on the street. Only we’re starkers.

There were rows of hand showers and taps, each with a mirror, a small plastic basin lying on a tiny plastic stool and bottles of shampoo, soap, and conditioner. I was glad I’d read up about onsen etiquette because the Japanese are particular about it and I really didn’t want to screw up.

Showering is serious business in Japan. Doubly so at a public bath where it’s customary to make a huge show of really scrubbing yourself clean before getting into the pools to soak. Women were sitting on the tiny stools, dipping wash cloths into the plastic basins and scrubbing themselves sore. Not many used the hand shower, preferring instead to keep filling the basins from the tap and applying the old dip-and-scrub technique.

I tried to follow suit, but was no match for my neighbour who sat there scrubbing herself for what seemed like forever and showed no signs of finishing even when I decided I was done at least 20 minutes later. After rinsing off the stool and replacing the basin atop it as I’d read I should do, I plodded over to the pool area.

Now, etiquette tells you to gently lower yourself into the pool. No diving and splashing, no dipping your towel into the water, and no putting your head underwater. It’s considered inappropriate to drop your towel into the water or wring it out into the pool. The Japanese women usually fold their towels and place them on their heads while they soak. I felt silly doing that and was paranoid that I’d end up dropping it into the water in my attempt to balance the thing on my conical head. So I folded it up neatly and placed it on the side as some helpful travel guides had advised.

As I soaked in the first indoor pool, I quickly became aware that I was possibly the only one with long hair and it probably shouldn’t be left free, bobbing around in the water around me. Casting a discreet look around, I spotted just one lady with slightly longish hair and she’d clipped it up. Thankfully, nobody had reprimanded me yet and I’d had the good sense to bring a hair clip into the shower area along with my towel, so I quickly piled the unruly tresses up on my head and secured them with the clip.

Nobody paid me any attention as I climbed in and out of the half a dozen different pools of varying temperatures, chemical compositions, and jets, bubbles and other sensory delights. The onsen I’d chosen is a local hangout and there were at least 15 to 20 local residents. Mostly octogenarians who clearly all knew each other. People sat around in pairs or trios, chatting away happily. Some soaking, some paddling their legs in the water.

As I walked past others standing around with their baskets of toiletries engrossed in pleasant conversation, it felt so ordinary. Like the genial old residents of my area at home meeting each other at the local market on Sundays and having a chinwag. Only they’re all starkers. This must be what naked dreams feel like?

That’s when I noticed a woman crawling on all fours. Yes, starkers and on her hands and knees. She was slowly crawling toward the shower area. This placed me in a sort of dilemma. Was she in trouble? Ill or dizzy? I didn’t want to stare, more so because her bum cheeks and things were in my direct line of vision. Should I go over and try to help?

And then I realised that none of the other chattering patrons were paying her any attention. They continued to stand around yammering while she slowly crawled past them. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation hit me. I felt that awful laughter bubbling up inside me. My lips were flinching in an anguished attempt to not crack a smile. Time to extricate myself quickly and hurry out to that outdoor pool where I could face the hillside and snigger unnoticed.

Gingerly making my way around an old lady who was quite comatose in the outdoor pool, I sank into the deliciously warm water and took in the view of the surrounding hills and the steaming tiny waterfalls feeding the pool that created a comforting, steady rippling sound.

Bliss? Yes, this was it. I closed my eyes and soaked for the longest time here. The water was magical. My skin felt tingly and was turning the brightest shade of pink while my entire body felt light.

The water can feel uncomfortably hot after a bit. I could feel my ears burning from the steam and my heart starting to beat very quickly. I moved further out of the water to take in some of the cool air, hugging the smooth round stones on the side for support. I felt slightly intoxicated and figured that I must now closely resemble the hot-spring-bathing snow monkeys with their expressions of intense bliss and semi-consciousness.

My prior reading up about the onsen experience had told me that light-headedness, racing heartbeat and so on were warning signs. And so I knew my body had had enough. As I made my way back to the shower area, side-stepping the yakking ladies on my slightly wobbly legs, the spectacle of the crawling lady made sense.

After quickly showering, reclaiming my clothes and drying my hair, I was ready to face the world again.

Would I recommend this? Absolutely. If I lived in Japan, there’s no other way I’d rather bathe. I’d be right in the thick of action with the bantering ladies and their dangling toiletry baskets.

It feels completely normal, natural, and is incredibly relaxing. For the prudish and coy: take heart. Nobody bats an eyelid or looks at you even. As the sole foreigner there, I attracted negligible attention. With all that steam, hot-spring-induced borderline delirium, and possible geriatric short-sightedness, you’re well covered. Just ask butt-naked crawling lady.


Pointers for travellers in the area:
  • This onsen, Uruoikan, is run by a hotel but is open to the public from 10AM to 6PM
  • It’s convenient as it is only a 20-minute walk from the city centre (Nagano station)
  • Apparently, there are free shuttle buses from the city centre too
  • The water is fed by natural hot springs and not artificially created
  • No tattoos allowed
  • There’s a restaurant and well-priced bakery if you’re ravenous after
  • You can buy/rent towels and other things
  • The staff speaks decent English and will help you figure it all out, no worries
  • If your own nudity bothers you, you could wrap a towel around yourself while moving from shower to pool area, but you will definitely stick out like a sore thumb and attract more attention to yourself that way 
  • This is a good bet if you’re keen on onsen but haven’t the time to make it to places like Shibu Onsen (which don’t have many baths open to the public, only guests, in any case)