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May 2006 be all you want it to be. (Not just May of 2006...all the months, mind you.) Keep Smiling!

Tom, Dick and Harry...no..Harry, Harry and Harry!!!

The Potter mania did get to me two years ago when I was forced to read the fifth book that was gifted to me. Now, why would anyone send me such a gift? What sadistic pleasures does one get in seeing me run to the library and lug home the other four books to even comprehend my new gift? Luckily for me and my friend, I was not disappointed with the books. I even loved them. So I waited for the sixth book, not in bated breath; but in the breath of a person who has conquered patience (only regarding Harry Potter). So I didn’t pre-order the book thinking that it shouldn’t wholly matter to me even if I chanced upon a friend’s copy a whole year later as long as they don’t tell me who died. My pre-order amount would have made it to Rowling’s baby’s diapers. I’d be added to the statistics, rounded off to the nearest million and gloated about worldwide. All this I could do without.

On Friday night, there were gushing Potter parties in all the book stores. Fans walking with the books claiming that they had read the book in 4 hours till the wee hours of Saturday morning. Whether it was the radio, TV, newspaper, elevator, public bathrooms or even the blogworld, I wasn’t going to be spared from this frenzy. Before someone blurted out who died, I succumbed and bought a book on Sunday even though I had no time to read the traffic signs on the way to work let alone a 635(+/-) page book. On monday, a gift arrived wrapped in an Amazon box with large prints of Harry Potter all around. I hoped it was a ticket to Tanzania. On Tuesday, I got another gift box with the same credentials. A diamond set, at last, I thought.

So here I am, stuck with three ‘The Half Blood Prince’ (or One-and-a-Half Blood Prince) considering what a crazed fan I am. JKR got more than she bargained for from me alone. Three months supply of diapers.

The Weakest Link

It was some kind of whacko experiment a few retarded kids started in order to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records trying to involve clueless kids of the world. The dreaded chain mail. If you say you hadn’t received one of those, I’d say- please be regular on those prescription memory capsules from now on.

I distinctly remember getting it from a sadistic friend when I was in 5th grade. I don’t remember the exact words in the letter (note to self- increase memory capsule dosage), but I do remember promises of 7 colorful postcards and featuring in the GBWR if same mail is sent to seven other suckers. I had to send one postcard to this one person whose address was at the top. In my letter, I would have to knock off that kid’s address and insert mine below the six others. Those were the days of snail mail, postmen, the necessity to have a legible handwriting and loads of free time. I painstakingly wrote the same crap 7 times in my best handwriting possible.

I even sent a lovely postcard to the random guy in question (hardest part of all). It was a snap shot of the grave of Tipu Sultan’s relatives. Of all the postcards I had collected from my various trips, I was willing to part with that one.

In an ideal world, I should have got seven amazing postcards from around the world to add to my amazing collection. In the same perfect world, I should have got a thank-you postcard from the guy who now knows that Tipu Sultan and his relatives passed away. In the world I had envisioned, my name should have been in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Instead, what happened was this- I used up 25 sheets of paper (I had to trash many as I made eraser holes in some and went crooked in some others), Rs.4.25 worth of stamps, one postcard, much of my childhood time (when I could have fought with my brother, broken some china, scraped my knee) and my innocence turned into skepticism. I sat on the doorstep everyday after the cut off period of 3 months waiting for a single postcard, but all that arrived was another letter asking me to go through the torture once again. I tore the letter, stomped and spat on it before shedding tears.

After many years, people tried similar tricks with emails. They cursed me with amoebic dysentery and promised me that I would die with plague if I broke the chain. I did. I still stand in front of microwave while cooking, talk on cell phone till my eardrums get ruined in static, drink coke till my teeth rot, eat margarine and sleep on cotton sheets. I live on the edge and I am counting my days.

Lately I have been bombarded with polite emails asking me to answer personal intimate questions like favorite color and such. Such blatant infringement on my privacy has me checking out everyone else’s dumb answers, chuckling at the joblessness of it all, and completely ignoring to respond with trivia of my life. Now no one would know whether I like my popcorn buttered or not. Such an enigma I am.

These emails are actually harmless, obligation-free and don’t throw curses at you. But they come with disclaimers such as- Please forward this to 7 others. It is so much fun to know about your friends. In other words it means- Don’t be such an unenthusiastic snobish partypooper who can’t take out 45 minutes from project deadline schedule. If you don’t partake in this mind-blowing questionnaire, you will be bitched about and considered rude. Heck, I might even stop talking to you!

And now I can see a similar drama unfolding in the blogworld. Sadly, Patrix doesn’t ask me to send a book to some blogger or threaten to convert me into a silver fish if I don’t comply. I say ‘sadly’ coz, I now have no reason to crib. I can’t even feign ignorance as he emailed me to make sure I look at it. Darn! In spite of the traumatic experience in childhood, I’ll take a stab at this before stabbing myself. After all it’s about books and silly childlike behavior. Plus this rant has taken me more time than if I had just been nice and answered those nerdy questions in the first place.

Here goes-
Total books I own- What!? Excuse me!? Now you want me to count ALL the books I have? This is more sadistic than the popcorn question, especially when I don’t even have that many books to show-off.

Last book I bought- The Poisonwood Bible – by Barbara Kingsolver

Last book I read- The Highway Capacity Manual…have it open right now. Trying to be less of a smart aleck, I recently read the The Kite Runner- Khaled Hosseini

Books that mean a lot to me (five at least)- ermm…Jeez!
Other than all your check books that mean so much to me, I will try to name whatever comes to my mind for now.
1. Calvin and Hobbes – Bill Watterson
2. Freedom at Midnight - Larry Collins, Dominique Lapierre
3. Classic Hikes of the World- Peter Potterfield
4. Passage to India- EM Foster
5. Kane and Abel- Jeffrey Archer
6. Lovely Bones- Alice Seabold
7. Into Thin Air- Jon Krakauer
8. God of Small Things- Arundathi Roy
9. The Lost Horizon- James Hilton
10. Collected Short Stories- Roald Dahl
11. The Fountainhead- Ayn Rand
12. Amar Chitra Katha - ?
13. Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backpackin' Book- Allen and Mike
14. Man Eater of Malgudi- R.K. Narayan

There! That list comprises of all the books I have read in this life and in my previous life.

Books that should be thrown out-
1. An Obedient Father- by some Indian guy. One word to summarize the book- YIKES!
2. The Shipping News- Annie Proulx. I hate books that make the English language difficult to comprehend. Books that make you feel small.
3. Anything Oscar Wilde- Too much philosophy for simple me.
4. Any self help book, starting with - Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Gimme a break, I don’t even listen to my mom.
5. The complete Kamasutra- Alain Daniélou (not his fault; he just translated it). Puke! Elephant sweat?
6. A Suitable Boy- Vikram Seth (It takes up too much shelf space)

It goes to show how much time I waste on random books because they are on sale.

People I ought to tag as revenge-
Nah! I’m sure you all are much more well-read and will make my life miserable by naming books I haven’t even heard of. So I’ll hold off on giving you that pleasure. But I'd really like to know what books you plan to throw. Send them over to me... I desperately need more books to come up with a decent number to gloat over.

To paradise and back

Colors, shapes, texture, pattern, smell, sounds, views, breathtaking cliffs, overhangs that are still in the process of erosion, deep canyons, unparalleled greenery in a desert, lightening followed by thunder at the count of 5, yellow and black snakes, red sandstone and white calcium carbonate, winding river 4000 ft below, weeping rocks, weird rock formations, steep drop-offs, refreshing stream crossings, 31 miles on foot where no car can claim space, sun casting humungous shadows on the canyons, fiery houseflies that have been trained by mosquitoes to bite, scampering geckos that love to scamper, soaring falcons with high gorges in the backdrop, spooky trees charred by lightening, the first light at dawn after sunrise, scary ledges, mental and physical endurance, howling echos, awe-inspiring scenery, checkerboard mesas, hidden canyons, tempting freezing springs, shocking wildflowers, blooming prickly pear gardens, no other human in sight, undigested maggi noodles, zipped up in sleeping bags refusing to wake up, welcome solitude, eyes spoilt with all the beauty, no ceiling- just the sun and the stars, no AC- just the howling canyon winds, no Coke- just the sweet water from the virgin springs, no TV- just an IMAX view of the surrounding canyons, no seat belts- life was on a roll!

A complete understanding of geology, ecology, biology, geography, paleontology and whateverology is due. Till then, I’ll take it that there is indeed a God.

Joe Braun has explored this place sand particle to boulder and has some awesome photos of Zion. So I'm attaching his photos of all the hikes we did. As far as I can tell, photos hardly do justice. His were the best of the lot. I do need a better camera and maybe a photographer to tag along too. Hey Joe, how you doin?

We did the West Rim Trail (backpacking in the backcountry), Angel’s landing (one of a kind hike- I still can't get over it), Observation point, Emrald Pools.

Narrows was also in our agenda, but the park authorities closed the trail as the river got too deep due to snowmelt. Bummer! Next time for sure! So we eneded up hiking in the Bryce Canyon instead. We weren’t disappointed. The hoodoos are to be seen to be believed.

Weekly horoscope for Alpha

This week will be just like last week- busy. You will get no time to spend on frivolous activities such as blogging. People will think you are characterless and horrible. On the brighter side, you will find the apple that you had misplaced three months ago, rotting in the bottommost shelf. Now you know the cause of that smell. Travel includes getting marooned in a desert with snakes for a week starting Wednesday. The bright side of that being, you actually planned that trip and paid for it. There is some chance that you will make it back to civilization. The bright side of not making it back is that the people who called you characterless and horrible will be guilty all their lives.

Reaching Iyer Planes

Karthik Iyer is our friend living in the US. His parents in Chennai are looking for the perfect bride for him for the past five years. Karthik is open to the idea of an arranged marriage, he being the ideal son brought up with nice brahmin values. Basically he is left with no other option in front of him as the 30 age limit of do-or-die looms ominously ahead. Advertisements have been slapped in 73 publications worldwide; every single relative has been alerted.

His parents have 14 criteria- Caste, sub-caste, age, language, height, weight, education, family history, medical history, grandpa’s annual salary, gotram (ancestral lineage) , nakshatram (star), horoscope (chart with alignment of stars), general skills like cooking, hemming, making pickles.

He has one criterion- looks.

At least he admits there is nothing else to go by when you get to interact intimately with a photo. No delving into the inner beauty at that point. Ladies, you better look good in the photo, or any hopes of cooking and cleaning for our Karthik had better not enter that wishful brain of yours. Out of 100 applicants who sent their Statement of Intent along with photo, 95 are rejected by his parents. Of the final 5 he gets to check out, he claims they look like they spent a few years in Tihar and might feed him dead rats.

His exasperated parents scream in frustration, ‘Karthik, you are being unreasonable!’

‘But of course! 5 years ago, you rejected the only girl who wanted to marry me, that hot Irish blonde, and now you are calling me unreasonable.'

‘She was not from Iyerland as you claim and there was nothing Iyerish about her and that little chaddi-banian she wore in those photos. Chee tu!’

His parents try to reason with him, ‘When you visit India for 2 weeks, we’ll take you to 10 houses and you can pick the iyer girl you’ve always wanted.’

‘If I go to 10 houses and say ‘no’ to every woman, not girl... I’ll be banned from checking out any more ladies and the iyer community will be convinced that the Karthik family is only interested in eating ‘rawa kesari’.

After 2 years, Karthik remains single; parents go lax on three of the criteria- ‘Grandpa’s salary is not important no? So what if she is fat, she won’t have any problems in pregnancy..it’s a sign of impending prosperity. .. and height.. who cares? As long as she is sitting down and our Karthi is standing in family portraits or vice-versa.’

Precisely 4 years later, after tearing 1,460 leaves from the Murugan calendar dangling precariously from the kitchen window sill, Karthik’s parents are still aware of their son’s unmarried status; they go easy on three more criteria-

‘Dei Karthik, this girl is very nice.’

Karthik pulls his oiled hair, ‘But amma, even for Allagappan who sells spinach on the road-side, she’ll look like a villager handpicked from the remote tribal dwellings.’

‘So what da, she can cook and make babies. Her uncle is a doctor in Bangalore. What more do you want? Plus she will learn English once you take her to the US. How difficult is it? I didn’t know English when I married your father. Now I can read the names of places on the PTC buses.’

Karthik slinks away from the photo, ‘Look at the ad, it says here that her sister had a love marriage! What a wretched family. How can you let that happen to me?’

Mom smiles an all knowing smile, ‘Now now, don’t be so old-fashioned.’

‘And why are you circulating a photo that was taken during high-school?’ Karthik asks, slightly shocked.

‘Who will want to marry a bald guy, tell me? By the way, the astrologer is asking you to change your name for luck.’

‘How about sex change? That way at least I can live with a iyer woman who satisfies all your conditions.

After 6 years,

‘This one has AIDS and she belongs to the Taliban!’ screams Karthik hitting the roof and making a hole there.

‘At least she is good looking. We have finally decided to make you happy, kanna.’

After 10 years, Karthik’s mom is praying to Lord Muruga. ‘That nice negro boy, Shaquille O Neal, whom Karthik keeps talking about…I hope my son gets married to him.’

You can count on me

As a kid, I was very impatient and edgy (things haven’t changed much at all). While waiting for a bus, I had to keep myself occupied lest I poke someone in the bus-stop with a compass due to sheer boredom. So I took to counting cars…1, 2, 3, 4….and so on till the darn bus arrived. To make it more challenging, I counted Marutis and Ambassadors simultaneously and kept an accurate tally in my head. After 50 cars, if Marutis were higher than the Amassadors, I would allow myself to blink. If not, I’d sit around like a wide eyed zombie waiting for more Marutis while tears welled up. It was mind-boggling, fun and an enduring game that kept me entertained and my brain charged during the most dreadful part of the day.

How many of us are lucky enough to get paid to relive our childhood games? As a part of my job, I was requested to go to an intersection and count cars… for the whole afternoon and the next afternoon count planes take off from one particular runway. Imagine my glee. I took my picnic chair, propped it at the corner of the intersection, wore my orange vest, made myself comfortable with snacks and coke and started counting while keeping a tab of it in paper. 1, 2, 3, 4, slash… till I was brain dead by the end of the day. It’s a whole different story counting for the whole day versus counting till a bus arrives. ‘You! Stop staring and drive. Haven’t you ever seen a girl sitting on a chair in an isolated intersection?’ Counting sheep to sleep was never the same again. Left turning sheep, right turning sheep, dented sheep, sheep running amok through the signals showing finger at other sheep.

Traffic counts are usually done by other data collecting agencies that have sophisticated equipment just for this purpose; but very rarely, in case of emergencies we go to the field instead of waiting for the counts. It’s great when I get to go out in spring and summer, but in winter…it’s dreadful but still a welcome change to the cube. One such winter night I was counting cars sitting inside my own car with the heater turned on and the radio blasting. I had pulled over to the side in a ditch and parked right in front of a street light (almost touching it). To any passerby it would seem like an accident, but that was only vantage point to get all the action. Half a dozen cops stopped by to inquire based on calls from drivers on suspicious-brown-woman-inside-car-looking-extremely-suspicious. I assuaged their fears by flashing my ID and explaining who I work for. I hated those interruptions as I would have to start counting from scratch. Annoying snoopy cops. Then there was one good-samaritan couple that stopped their truck, pulled down their windows and hollered if I needed any help or if I needed to be pulled out of the ditch. Keeping one of my eyes on the cars, I yelled back impatiently, ‘I’m OK! Just counting cars.’

They looked at each other, shuddered in ambiguous horror and sped away real fast.

That same day, a red Toyota merged from the ramp smoking all the way. The car stopped, the driver got off and ran while the vehicle just blew up in flames 50 feet from where I was stationed. I wondered for a minute if I should include that car in my database or not. I decided to scoot from there before I got arrested for triggering a bomb.

No one believed my story at work when I told them I couldn’t complete the work and might have to go back another day.

Sometimes I work

Transportation Engineer- that’s what I am. I do not transport engineers to their work places. That’ll be called a cabbie. I do not really hold a stop sign and stand in the middle of an intersection with suicidal notions. That’ll be called an obsolete constable.

I simply design roads.

My mom would say,’ All that money we spent on your education and you end up putting tar on the roads? At least come and fix that annoying pot-hole near thatha’s house or do something to that signal in Annanagar circle.’

My thesis topic was even more glamorous- ‘Drainage through pavement’. Before you crinkle your delicate noses, drainage is the phenomenon where rain water (or any water) finds a way to go under. Oh well, someone’s got to make sure your cars don’t turn into submarines.

For those who wanted to know my activities at work in detail (not kidding, but some people did want to know), I basically sit in front of the computer designing and analyzing using various kinds of traffic software. Transportation projects including Roadways, Aviation, Ports are a big deal nowadays and provide us engineers with ample opportunities for growth. Current trends, future demand, comparing the future traffic with the current capacity, government funds etc drive the necessity for a project. The tasks I do include analyzing traffic data, signal timings, making sure the facility would work and that traffic would flow smoothly without much delays, designing local roads, freeways, ramps, bridges, checking for safe operations, calculating costs based on quantities, fighting with environmentalists, schmoozing with clients, sucking up to the boss and the hardest of all- waking up in the morning ...phew! I didn’t realize I do so much.. need a raise dammit!

Basically our Projects are split into
Phase I- Preliminary design.. laying out the plan from scratch roughly (my favorite)
Phase II- Final Design... catering to excruciating details and completion of design (my nightmare)
Phase III- Construction (when our plans are developed into roads for you to drive on)..I personally never take that route after completion unless I need to get my tooth chipped off.

Apart from the technical aspect, we get to meet people too. After the Phase I design, we hold a Public Meeting inviting all the residents and business owners around that ‘road’ to check out the plans and offer their gratitude. You’d think it must be such a warm fuzzy feeling to be interacting with the people who’ll use something you created. You’d even think people might bring you gifts and blessings to appreciate all the weekend efforts you’ve put to see this project through.

But then, you’d be completely delusional and mistaken. I learnt the hard way that people don’t like progress and upliftment of their community. Flaring angry residents shouting slogans armed with placards and mean petitions stormed into the hall.

‘So you are the freak who’s decided to build the road through my garden? You’ll rot in hell!!

‘Me? No..noo..Let me introduce you to my boss.. Hey Jaaaack…’

‘Do you have children?’ asked another peeved local.

Finally thinking we are bridging the gap talking about family and such, I beamed, ’No dear. How about you?’

‘That explains it, you heartless being! I have three kids..if even one of them gets run over by a truck playing on the road thinking it’s our yard, I’ll get you lady! You’ll never be able to sleep peacefully! Hissssssssss!’

When what how?!! Me a child murderer? And seriously, are her kids so messed up as to not tell the difference from a road and a yard? And why curse my sleep? As it is I get less of it thanks to Pi’s snoring!

While I was taking this all in, one nice chap came to me and told me in a matter-of-fact way that he would not hesitate to shoot any construction worker that tries to touch his willow tree. He was dressed in hunter’s clothes.

I pulled off my name tag from my jacket and mingled with the crowd shouting, “DOWN WITH RECONSTRUCTION!’

The clouds and us

When the clouds show no promise of a silver lining, there is grief and there are many ways of dealing with this sadness.

Some blame Him, He who is the eternal punching bag. The weight of their gunny bag hasn’t really reduced physically, but in their minds maybe they feel a little lighter. ‘He brought in these clouds, He better bring in the sunlight soon. Otherwise, there is no God.’

Some wallow in self-pity and do practically nothing but just whine at their misfortune- ‘Life is not fair. Why can’t these clouds hover above the neighbor’s house? Why me? I am helpless.’

Some are practical; they just look at the sky and say- ‘It’s cloudy today. It’ll rain and things will be messy. It’s beyond anyone’s capacity to stop the rain; no point wasting my time worrying about it. I’m going ahead and doing what I was doing.’

Very few are determined action seekers, doing what they can, leaving no stone in the world unturned knowing very well that it’s an impossible daunting task. Even at the most miserable and trying times, they have the capacity to smile and count their blessings while keeping the faith. They have a glimmering hope in spite of depleted resources and harrowing prognosis.

It’s a high time that silver lining made its presence felt.

Gifted memories

On the issue of recycling gifts (very earth friendly); I have a few more stories to share. Once this is off my chest, I’ll move on.

One of my wedding gifts was a silver tumbler with the groom and bride’s names etched on the sides. Very nice indeed, except that the names were not ours. There was a visiting card inside, but not that of our guest’s.

Dilemma: Do we just call the guy in the visiting card and thank him? Do we find Sheila and Mohan and hand over their tumbler?

One more, one more,

Our good friends from Philly visited us and we gave them something we love… board games. They looked at it, smiled politely and thanked us graciously. Few years later, went over to visit them and noticed the board games in their cupboard (don’t ask what I was doing in their cupboard). Should be happy that they didn’t give it away to their niece, right? But no, I was mortified! Shocked, coz the plastic wrap was still intact after so many years. I stormed out with the old gift in hand, demanded explanation and asked them if it was OK to take it back home as I wanted this badly anyway. They willingly obliged.

If I was showing off my most shameless side, I did a great job.

Last one, I promise.

I gifted Gabby a fancy belt.

“O wow! This is what I always wanted. I love it.”

‘Seriously Gabby, if you need to exchange it, go ahead. There is a gift receipt. I won’t feel bad.’ I sincerely offered.

“No way! You won’t believe this, I spent 10 minutes in the store the other day longing for it and then with a heavy heart moved away. Thank you so much.”

Totally pleased and accomplished. (You know you spend quite a while trying to pick the right gift and when you get a reaction like that, you feel so fulfilled... like in this day and age of picky people, you've actually figured out your friend.)

5 days later, tipsy Gabby confessed having exchanged it for the earrings she was wearing.

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