Sunday, January 17, 2010


Three egrets fly in formation past my window, followed by a flight of crows. They must be going home to roost. It’s barely half past three and already dark as a December dawn in Delhi. Earlier, I could just make out the hills ringing the valley, shadows in the winter fog. Now they have vanished in the haze. Darkness flows in from the horizon and laps against my window. Guwahati. Is it just coincidence that it has the same first syllable as Guantanamo? Maybe. After three hours in this hotel room, Guantanamo seems like Ibiza.

If anybody from Guwahati is reading this, my apologies. I was here last year and stayed at an old hotel with 70mm views of the Brahmaputra on one side and on the other, windows that framed a picture-perfect green hillside punctuated with amazing bursts of flowers, the kind of hillside that is supposed to exist only in the paintings of Gauguin and Matisse. I loved it. Even though the only reason I stayed over was a bandh that resulted in my flight home being cancelled, I loved it. It was a two-day idyll out of some Pacific island time-warp.

THIS time, I’m at a squeaky new budget hotel that’s some distance from the city itself. Some distance? The Brahmaputra may not even be in the same time zone! From the window I can see (a) what-might-be-hills-if-they’d-quit-hiding, about half a dozen (b) building under construction, one (c) building completed but still utterly hideous, one (d) water tank, spidery, one (e) dog lying in dust and apparently making a snack of a certain-part-of-itself, one (f) man with his back to me but evidently inspired by aforesaid dog, also one (g) fields full of stubble and miscellaneous weeds like a cheap salad, about 537. Diverse? Perhaps. Inspiring? Like a Mariah Carey video. Why the hell am I here?!

(This is a thought that has come to me rather too often. In a heaving sweaty college auditorium strewn with a few hundredweight of ballot papers, in a little green-painted room by the light of a sputtering candle listening to the creak-clang of a tube-well where there wasn’t one, standing in the sun outside a mill looking at a crowd-turning-into-mob, being practically force-fed parathas with sincere Punjab hospitality while waiting for a judge to turn up in court. The answer, regardless of the occasion, is “Because you signed up for it, sucker”. But those are other stories.)

So here I stand, cup in hand, Room Service won’t take my call. The coffee’s gone, I can’t go on, I curl up in a ball … I have a caffeine addiction. Once I get into a hotel room, I have to, have to have HAVE to, have a coffee. It’s a ritual. Even if the only thing available is that execration from the armpits of the devil, Nescafe sachets. But … the coffee-maker won’t work. Agh. So I sit by the window and I watch the clouds roll by. No I didn’t. I went downstairs and got a coffee from the kitchen. These are nice guys. I mean, what would YOU do if some bald plugugly (dressed in black, yet) strolled through your swing doors and said he was just following his nose? They didn’t throw me out, they didn’t call security. Instead, they smiled, assured me they’d get me some coffee and tut-tutted sympathetically about the broken coffee-maker. (THEN they shooed me out. Politely.)

Then the vending machine ate my money. It just sat there smugly and blinked at me. “Change not available”. Yeah OK, so give me back my money. More smugness. Blink blink. “Change not available”. I took a deep breath and walked away from the machine before I gave in to temptation and broke the bloody glass front.

* * * * * *

Seven in the morning now and the work-day beckons. I can’t say I’m allured, but what the hell, if I have to spend my Sunday earning my pay, I might as well do it properly. Yesterday evening it was tap-tap on the laptop correcting, summarizing, clarifying even though not more than 3 of the 50 people in that hall today will even bother to read the hand-outs. It was not pleasant. Until our local organizer, bless him, chivvied me into the next room where he plied 3 colleagues and myself with Islay’s best and finest. And then led us through the foggy chill to a restaurant where we were served steaming fragrant rice heaped in a shaped mound on a bell-metal plate, with bowls of daal and torkari arrayed around it like petals in a child’s drawing of a flower. Followed by course after course of fish done just right i.e, not messed about too much in sauces and spices. Highlights - mutton lightly curried in ginger, and succulent pieces of the biggest damn aarh (estuarine catfish) that I have ever had. Oh yes. Before the meal we were served a lovely palate-cleansing clear soup with spices, rather like a Thai soup but blessedly free of lemon grass. I asked if it’s a traditional Ahomiya preparation but was told it has no name. Can anyone enlighten me? And for those of you who may visit Guwahati (I’m looking at you, Thin Man), check out “Delicacy”. Well worth a visit.

Heigh-ho, off to work we go. Snow White, wherever you are, prepare to do without Grumpy, Dopey and Sneezy. I’m the avatar for all three of them today.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

If I were braver

This is what I want to do. But as Bernard Shaw said, blame it on the lack of courage and opportunity. (Hat-tip - Neha)